Lessons Learned, Ideas Reaffirmed, Future Events
Happy New Year! As Skyward Flight Media enters 2024, I start the year by reviewing our recent community event on Digital Combat Simulator World. This event ran for three weekends in December 2023, totaling at least nine days of operations where players could jump in and jump out at anytime.
Something important to note is that for our December 2024 event, we used a modified version of the Pretense Dynamic Campaign by Dzsek. This mission editor is known for incorporating complex aspects to missions like logistics, supporting ground forces, capturing territory and holding territory. Their missions automatically save progress in short intervals, meaning they can be played, rotated out, then played again later without losing progress - a rarity in DCS multiplayer focused missions. Skyward and the Black Aces made edits to weapons carried by aircraft, added the A-4E, C-130, and UH-60L mods and expanded the number of player slots in certain locations. All other credit for the mission goes to the hard work of Dszek.
THE PILOT EXPERIENCE
We had over a dozen pilots active in the server multiple times throughout the event weekends. They hailed from Skyward Flight Media, the Black Aces VRC aviation group and anyone else that got the password from our public posts about it. Whether they were talking in Discord channels, SRS, or elsewhere, players eventually coordinated their efforts to take and hold objectives.
The scale of this mission was massive, taking up roughly 65% of the Caucasus map with over 40 locations to defend or capture. With progress being saved, running this mission for multiple three-day weekends was really the only way to have a chance at completing this mission in its entirety.
The magic of multiplayer missions that are a bit more of a sandbox experience is that they incorporate just about every fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in the DCS roster. Players can go from flying an advanced multirole fighter to a transport helicopter to a lightweight fighter, with each aircraft being viable in the scenario. It is somewhat hard to find such a balanced experience.
The average session included far off surface-to-air missile sites were suppressed by Hornets and Vipers, while attack helicopters thoroughly destroyed land forces holding key areas. While brave pilots took less technologically advanced aircraft like the F-5E and MB-339 to interdict enemy convoys, waves of enemy aircraft performed ground attack and fighter sweep missions across the entire frontline. It was genuinely fun working with other players to coordinate aircraft capabilities, agree to focus on certain objectives, and manage the chaos that ensued.
There was constantly so much going on across hundreds of nautical miles, it would have been difficult for BLUFOR players to react to each possible threat at once. This forced players to pick and choose where they would concentrate their efforts. Some players would dedicate themselves to specific roles, like suppression of enemy air defenses or combat air patrol, while patrolling the length of the always moving frontline or waiting at forward deployed air bases while monitoring the battle space. This was an interesting turn in player behavior, as it did take them some time and some serious air-to-air losses to adjust their overall strategy. More on this later.
Fortunately, BLUFOR AI units had their own missions in the air and on the ground to push into REDFOR territory. They did this without any planned player controlled assistance. This really gave the feeling of an armed conflict unfolding in which players were just a part of the event, rather than the "stars of the show", if you will. BLUFOR human players fought alongside their AI counterparts to achieve victory.
The Pretense mission design incorporates a genuine logistics economy that effects both BLUFOR and REDFOR. Though, it primarily affects the AI war effort. The AI manages these logistics across every controlled territory to create defenses, rebuild damaged combat units, send armored vehicle attacks at enemy positions, launch air missions into enemy territory and launch support aircraft like AWACS and aerial refuelers.
On the F10 Map, each BLUFOR location shows how many units of supplies it has available and if it is attempting to build something or launch a mission. As long as these areas had a sufficient amount of supplies, they were able to get these tasks done.
Something that was wholly unexpected is that REDFOR, thanks to the limited inclusion of human controlled REDFOR aircraft, was able to heavily deplete BLUFOR supplies. To the point that logistics hit a critical state at BLUFOR airfields. One REDFOR pilot in particular, "Riko", took advantage of the poor coordination between human BLUFOR players during the first weekend of the event.
He launched multiple interception missions deep into BLUFOR territory, destroying AWACS and tanker aircraft with little resistance. While this was an attempt on their part to blind BLUFOR aircraft, making them easier to attack on the frontline, this caused a massive drain on the supplies needed to replace these aircraft when destroyed. To the point that some of these airfields temporarily dipped into triple digit numbers, meaning they could almost no longer sustain air operations or even repair their own defenses.
This caused a second unexpected reaction. While Skyward did add the C-130 mod and UH-60L mod to this mission, we genuinely thought they would not be used extensively. With the AI managing logistics, there technically is not a need to assist them. But when supplies were depleted this badly, a handful of BLUFOR pilots did step up. Using helicopters and the C-130, they moved supplies from other areas back to the airfields. During that first weekend, two players, "Cbanz" and "Mozz", flew the C-130 mod extensively to undo the deficit.
As BLUFOR combat pilots learned a hard lesson that first weekend and changed strategy to prevent high value assets from being easily destroyed, "Cbanz" continued to fly the C-130. Even landing the hulking aircraft in narrow grass fields at frontline areas to move supplies where needed. This resulted in him becoming the top ranked player in the entire event by multiple ranks. To think that it would be a transport pilot who was at the top of the scoreboard...
EFFECTIVE ROTARY-WING OPS
This was briefly mentioned, but eventually there were multiple player controlled attack and transport helicopters active in certain areas of the frontline. They became so effective, they could fly into an area together, clear REDFOR from it and deliver squads of infantry to capture the territory they attacked just minutes ago. They accomplished what could take BLUFOR AI hours to do in just 30 minutes. This sped up progress significantly in certain areas of the frontline. If ground strikes could be coordinated with fixed-wing combat aircraft, helicopters could be en route as attackers and multirole fighters destroyed REDFOR in the area and kept the area clear until the helicopters arrived to complete the capture. It was a great sight to see.
FEEDBACK, LESSONS LEARNED
Overall, we were happy to hear that the December 2023 event was received well by those that participated. Listening to feedback, there were some things to learn on our end. There is a short list of changes that need to be considered in future events. Many of them were minor and easy enough to correct. Two of them did standout.
First, the management of player controlled REDFOR aircraft. If an event is presented as a player vs environment scenario, the frequency of use and amount of these slots needs to be managed better. We intended these slots to be used to occasionally complicate things for BLUFOR, but it did hit a point to where it was nearly a full on player vs player scenario. The same happened to our October 2023 event in the last third of that mission. In the next original Skyward mission, if these slots are included, we must find a way to solve this problem.
Second, unusual weapon restrictions. There was genuine confusion as to why the weapon restrictions were so oddly specific. One of the big things requested for this event was an emphasis on within visual range combat. Fox Three missiles were denied and eventually air launched cruise missiles and glide bombs were denied. Though GPS guided bombs were perfectly fine. All aircraft in the roster were made available for the sake of access but flew with these restrictions. Some aircraft, like the F-16CM and JF-17 only had close range infrared missiles to rely on. This became an odd stand between closer to a Cold War scenario. Players expressed that in the future, if these restrictions are to be in place, it would be better to just have it be a full on cold war scenario. Though, constantly restricting aircraft and weapon access can be grating. Rotating restrictions between events rather than making them universal would be best. Perhaps even "Cold War" and "Modern" versions for the same mission would be needed.
PREMADE MISSIONS VS ORIGINAL MISSIONS
While our October 2023 event was a completely original mission that took roughly four weeks to create and test, using a pre-made mission for December 2023 was certainly easier to set up. It took about two weeks to do the basic additions and changes that were mentioned earlier. All the heavy lifting was done by the mission editor that has the mission file posted for free use. The most we had to worry about was making sure any changes we made did not disrupt the more complex system Dzsek put in place. There were not glaring technical issues throughout the three weekends of our December 2023 event, everything ran smoothly.
Comparing both events, the complete freedom of making an original mission from scratch does lend itself to more event specific goals. With no preexisting structure, things can be designed as needed. So long as the mission editor has the know-how, patience and will to design and test in private relentlessly. Though, that in itself can be immensely time-consuming. It can take weeks or months to design a solid multiplayer mission that can be used by large groups of people.
Going forward, Skyward may need to be more focused on creating original missions for future large-scale public events, while including occasional playthroughs of lightly modified missions designed by other mission editors.
THE NEXT EVENT?
While there are no confirmed dates at this time, a pair of Skyward mission editors are discussing what the next potential event could be. What is certain is that an original mission, designed from the ground up by Skyward staff, is to be used for the next event.
There is an alternate version of the mission used for the October 2023 event and an original mission on the Syria map that is fully functional, but has not been used for any public events. A third mission set on the Persian Gulf map has been in development for the past two weeks, but is still in design and AI only testing phase. It will most likely not be ready for use by human players until February 2024.
Keep an eye out for future announcements for events happening with our DCS server provided by Fox 3 Managed Solutions. Thanks again to every that participated in our last event. It was great to see you!
About the Writer
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers.