Interview: The Making of Ace Thunder Zero
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
War Thunder is a game well known for a lot of reasons. From its impressively extensive line-up of vehicles to the drama that happens from time to time in the community from unbalanced tiers or broken features that eventually get patched out, until the next patch where the cycle repeats.
But inside of the War Thunder community there is a smaller group that strives to use the game in other ways, to modify it and use its engine for their own community creations. The modders of War Thunder always try to push the boundaries of what is possible in this free-to-play game by creating everything from their own custom missions to more complex mods like custom aircraft and vehicles and sharing them for everyone to enjoy.
To date, the most complex mod of them all is Ace Thunder Zero. This mod is, in my opinion, the single most amazing piece of content that the War Thunder community has ever put out. Today we talk with its main developer and the person behind the vision that made this project possible, Avarik, to get a little more perspective as to how complex this mod really is and what it took to make it a reality.
Q: What made you get into modding War Thunder or just modding in general? Did you have any help or someone that helped you learn the ropes?
A: I've got into modding in War Thunder from my desire to create cinematics.
I first started to learn the ropes of the Mission Editor back when Gaijin Entertainment opened up user missions to online custom battles, I joined the group of mission creators who were the first beta testers of that functionality, from then I played around a lot with the mission editor and learnt to utilize actions and conditions more efficiently, and I have lightly touched at modifying existing units in War Thunder for some of my earlier cinematics.
But my first true experience with modding the game was when I was making Battle Thunder 1944, a recreation of Battlefield 1942's intro cinematic, it was my first attempt at exporting a model to War Thunder and my first true experience at modding the game, where I modified and created custom units so that I could create most of the scenes using both myself and the AI to make them as accurate as possible. It took me about 3 or so months to finish, but I learnt valuable information from it and from there I continued to develop my experience and knowledge of the War Thunder CDK and the Dagor engine in general.
I did have help to learn the ropes from another guy who I was working on the mod with, RideR2, but also other fellow people in the CDK community, Gallonmate in particular who taught me how to export 3d models into War Thunder, and when I couldn't find some answers I turned to datamining and reverse engineering existing configurations, which helped me develop my own methods for more serious modding.
Gaijin Entertainment themselves have also been fundamentally involved in helping me learn how to us their tools, when I didn't know how to do something that wasn't available on their wiki or I failed to datamine myself, I turned to them directly, their developers are amazing people who love to share their knowledge, I wouldn't have known half of what I know if not for them.
Q: This has got to be the most complex mod out there for War Thunder as of now,
congratulations on finally getting out there. But I have got to ask, with so many features, for
how long were you working on this mod? Did you ever think about giving up at some time?
A: It took me approximately 1.5 years on and off to create this mod, I work in the gaming industry myself and my job takes a considerable amount of my time so I spent most of my free time developing Ace Thunder Zero, it was a long ride but I feel it was worth the effort.
I didn't really think about giving up, but my original pitch was actually to just continue to create cinematics, but when I saw the overwhelming amount of people who wanted to play with the exported models I figured I might as well try to make an actual proper mod for War Thunder with a higher production value than most mods, RideR2 joined me in this endeavour after showing interest in creating an arcade-like game mode for War Thunder, and Ace Combat was clearly the best choice for this game mode.
It isn't a secret that I've invested both time and money into this, I didn't want to just create a visual mod or a simple one, I wanted to create a mod with a story-line and completely new game mechanics, that is what kept me forward from giving up.
Q: Where there any features that were particularly hard to implement or ones in which you had to take a creative approach in order to make it work?
A: The one thing that ended up being hard to make it work properly were the SAM, TLS and MPBM. Originally, ground and naval units in War Thunder could not fire rockets or missiles properly without some workarounds, and this is to an extent true to aircraft as well.
Me and RideR2 discovered that, if we bind the weapon group of the missile to that of a standard weapon, and make the AI also fire a dummy gun, it will make them fire a missile too, that is how we were able to get SAM units to work.
The TLS was mostly an easy implementation, but as more patches came out for War Thunder, the more broken it became, at some point the laser stopped doing damage and we were forced to add another invisible weapon to compensate for that, which worked out well in the end as we were able to more easily balance the damage the TLS did. It also currently only renders in cockpit view, yet it still functions normally in any other view and will damage enemies correctly.
The MPBM was mostly an easy implementation, but we ran into some issues with the blast radius until we figured out we can override the game's normal parameters by removing the explosive type the weapon would use, making it purely dependent on blast radius and explosive mass.
Q: As far as I understand there were other people involved in the making of this mod. Who are
they and what did they do?
A: Originally it was just me and RideR2, me being the 3D model/animation guy expert who created custom assets and also the one who used the CDK for asset utilization and the main mission creator, while RideR2 was the guy who did most of the configuration and template creations and made all units and weaponry behave the way they did, he also created The Gauntlet mission. I've also received major help from RythusOmega and Dantofu when it comes to handling models from Ace Combat 7, if not for them I wouldn't have started doing Ace Combat cinematics and later on the Ace Thunder mod.
Besides me and RideR2, there were a lot of other people who contributed the following:
Net-Zone: Broken Accord's OST
GaMetal: The Gauntlet's OST
Pandramodo: Trailer creation
njmksr: ADFX-02 skins
leroyonly: Dracul, MiG-21 & Potato skins
reyhael: Normal mapping
mobiusu14: Briefing Screen
mothman47: Briefing Narrator
Flipped StuG: AWWNB Pilot 1
Essi: Escudo 2
Ronan Yakowitz: AWACS
Sick2Day: Savage 1 & AI skins
The Iron Armenian aka G.I. Haigs: Savage 2
Michiganon: Osean Army Platoon
Optical Ilyushin: Halo 1
Yimie Yu: Halo 4 and Grau Team emblem artwork
Lt Rainbow Slash: Dracul 1 -
Ac3ofNight: Grau 3
Flaschengeist: Grau 2
Dane Ewell / SwissChicken: Grau 1
Eclipse: Grau 4
Q: I was genuinely surprised to see the opening cutscene having as much detail as it did. It felt like a genuine homage to Ace Combat Zero’s style with a lot of attention to detail. For how
long was this in the works and how hard was this to make?
A: In short: Very hard.
Before coming up with the idea of making a briefing cinematic for the mod, I wanted to make sure I get all the details correctly and not just make a simple briefing that shows what the player needs to do, there have been a lot of lore to cover to make sure no holes are made or mis-match with existing Ace Combat Zero canon, I wanted to stick to the original story but from a different point of view.
I've commissioned Mobiusu14 to create a briefing cutscene after I have seen his previous artwork of an Ace Combat 7 briefing styled in Ace Combat Zero. Mobiusu14 created all the 2d assets and 3d animation, while I animated and organized all the 2d assets and script for the narrator, Mothman47, who did a spectacular job being the briefing guy. Mobiusu14 is also an excellent artist and I hope we all get to work together again if more missions are made.The briefing itself took us about 3 or so months to finish, implementing it in the game wasn't as hard but certainly not easy either.
The cinematics rely on a feature that exists in War Thunder but has not been made open for custom assets and has only been utilized in tutorial missions, until Gaijin opened it up
for us - It's basically a configuration file that tells the game to render video and image files located in the game's folders.
Q: How are the “Destroyed” and the rest of UI elements handled? Are they static images over
imposed over the screen?
A: Correct, they are static images I created myself based on their Ace Combat Zero counterpart, they too use that configuration file I mentioned which renders external images and videos in the game.
Q: Story-wise the mod does fit very well with what we know happened in ACZ, taking some
liberties of course. Did you have any help with the writing of the dialogue and the setting?
Ace Thunder Zero trailer by Pandramodo.
A: For the most part the dialogue and settings was mostly my own research and knowledge of Ace Combat lore, but since I was working with other people who have played and know a lot about Ace Combat lore, they too have helped with that, especially Mobiusu14 while we were working on the briefing.
I have thought a lot ahead for when and if I create more missions, so I have the full storyline already in check and ready to be utilized for future missions implementation, all fitting within existing canon, I have no intention to change the storyline or the outcome of the original Ace Combat Zero ending, but I'm not gonna spoil how I plan to wrap things up.
Since I believe most people recognize the "Mercenary route" as the canon route in Ace Combat Zero, I am trying to follow A World With No Boundaries story and point of view with that in mind, and the lore actually goes much deeper with that - Try to decipher who each member of Grau Team is for example and then look how deep the rabbit holes goes. :)
Q: The enemy AI is very aggressive and maneuvers really well, for War Thunder that is. Did you make any tweaks to it?
A: Of course, the AI uses modified flight models and damage models, but other than that it uses standard AI behavior from existing configurations located in the game, we currently have no way to create true custom AI properties but perhaps this will be doable in the future, we do know how to customize them but the game has no way of reading custom properties at this time.
The standard AI is also not able to fire missiles normally, like with the ground units. RideR2 and me have discovered that AI aircraft can in fact fire rockets and missiles if they are fired from a turret, so the solution was to add static invisible turrets to them and this way they can fire missiles at enemy aircraft.
Q: It was a bit odd seeing heat seeker missiles track ground targets as I know that is not a
possibility inside vanilla WT. How is this handled in-game?
A: It wasn't a possibility back then which forced us to use a workaround - I created an invisible box model and designated it as an aircraft.
By planting that aircraft under ground units, I was able to make heat seeking missiles track and attack them, but nowadays this is a simple toggle feature in the missile's configuration file, you can simply tell the missile what kind of unit it can track, so if you want to make a heat seeker that can track both air and ground targets, you can very easily do just that
by changing a line of code.
Q: Last but certainly not least, do you have any future plans in regards with War Thunder
A: Hopefully, yes. Besides advancing the Ace Thunder mod further, I do wish to share my knowledge and help expand the modding community in War Thunder so that more people will give it a try and perhaps come up with things even greater than what I have done - War Thunder is a game with limitless modding potential, but the knowledge and desire to actually mod the game is very scarce in the community, I hope that can be changed for the better.
I would like to extend my thanks to Avarik for allowing me to have this interview with him, it was a pleasure to talk to him.
Please, if you have not already, do yourself a favor and try Ace Thunder Zero. I assure you that you will have a blast playing with the Morgan against hordes of aircraft and even aces!
About the interviewer
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy#9034