Interview: DCS VSN F-4B/C Phantom II Developer Insight!
I have been slowly getting back into playing DCS more regularly with my friends as of late, and I cannot deny that VSN's latest mod, the F-4B/C Phantom II, has been the reason why. The Phantom is one of my favorite aircraft, so I wondered: What kind of effort did the developers had to put in to deliver this aircraft free for everyone to use?
We asked PeeJott, one of VSN's main developers, some question about the VSN as an organization, the effort it took to make it a reality and some details about their future plans! We sincerely thank him for letting us have this interview with us and for giving us pre-release access to the mod! So without further ado, let's get this one rolling. INITIALLY POSTED: 02/07/2023 MINOR ADJUSTMENTS: 11/11/2023 Q. Hello and thank you a lot for agreeing to have this interview with us! Let’s start with a simple one, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do? A. Hi and thanks for this possibility. I go by the nickname of PeeJott and I am one of those guys that find pleasure in looking at formulas all day (well in my free time at least) since I do the systems-coding and EFM-coding for some VSN-Mods. I started this DCS-Modding journey just in the fall of 2020 with zero lua or C++ coding experience, so a lot of learning was involved . My first project with VSN was the F-104, where I made the SFM, SFM-engine model and EFM. Q. What is VSN and for how long has the team been active? What does this group do and who is part of it at the moment? A. Well, VSN is a group of guys who like to spend their time “enhancing” DCS World in different parts. The most obvious is flyable mods. I guess it is safe to say that CDPKobra is the main guy behind this branch. There are a lot of other guys [have been] with VSN [for a long time] or just joined recently. The good thing is, everybody is interested in different parts of modding. The other good thing is that you are not being looked at suspiciously when real life comes in the way and you need to take a break. Real life always comes first, but I think I can say that we really like to get the job at hand done in a certain amount of time. So those projects which seemingly last “forever” [are not that common]. That is one reason why VSN has a lot of FC3 mods, since you do not need to code stuff like an electric system which is neither fun nor will somebody flying the plane say: ”Holy molly, this electric system is really a work of art.” The F-4B is the exemption to that rule, I guess. Q. How did the Century Series came to be ? A. Well, honestly, I wanted to fly a F-104 in DCS. That was my goal when I set out to learn this stuff. There just was no [other Starfighter mods] except the VSN F-104, so I started with it. Since I wanted to help make it fly like a real F-104, it began the journey of learning, searching, extracting data and what else [it would take to] get a decent flight-model. Once we kind of finished the first version of the F-104, CDPKobra asked: And what do you want to do next? I said: well, I guess after 104 comes 105 , and so we started that project. The Century-Series just has such cool planes. Real milestones of aviation, if you compare them e.g. to a F-84 or F-86. They are [a] totally different kind of planes and quite a “leap” in innovation for their time. That is a very big factor, they do look sexy and have that kind of “ Why not?” attitude. After the 104 and 105 it felt kind of right to go down that road a bit more, so there are some “Century-Fighters” still to be made. Q. The F-4 Phantom has been a long-awaited aircraft by people who enjoy DCS world. Was the team keenly aware of some of the public pressure to represent the Phantom mod well? A. I don’t know if we were thinking a mod, let alone a mod that was made by VSN, would get such an audience. Of course, since we, by luck crossed our ways with J.P.Ferré while working on the 104 (cheers to you JP) we had a bit of an edge in the “Trailer and movie”-department. But we started out making the F-4B [as a] FC3 mod with an EFM and borrowed F-15C cockpit, since we initially did not have a custom 3d-cockpit. We wanted to go down the same road we already went down with the 104, but since I was working on the 104 standalone ;-) and had help from a few really fantastic guys, I thought I could try to make it our first standalone. [Two and a half] months after we started our F-4B project, Heatblur Simulations (HB) announced they were making one too, [so our attitude it was more of a] “well, we already got this far, we could as well go the rest of the way too.” Once it was clear that one of the best third-party devs for DCS was making a Phantom-II as well, we kind of said to ourselves that our mod will most probably not get such a hype and will not have to be the long awaited Phantom by everybody, since that one is right around the corner and delivered in the form of the F-4E by HB. That does not mean we took it as [an opportunity] to be lazy, but we gave ourselves the freedom to make it feel good but in the [sense] that we do not need to get everything 100% perfect and on the spot. Even cooler, that it came out like it did and we got a lot positive feedback. Q. How difficult was it working on such an early variant of the Phantom? A. Well, the good thing with less capability is, that it has less capability. Less capability means less coding work. So on that front the century-series is a lot more “coder-friendly” as an early F-16 or something like that. Astonishingly, the AeroData was already gathered in the NASA CR-2144 (Aircraft Handling Qualities Data) and delivered in a form we just needed to extract and could use in the EFM-Template made for the 104. Engines were almost the same (J79 as well, a later variant with more thrust) so we were pretty safe there as well. And regarding sources, we did find a lot of freely downloadable manuals and data-sheets, so that was not the big problem. And we got the help from the community, once the first F-4 did a good job regarding external model and EFM. So we got the rest we needed from those guys already interested in the Phantom. Q. How difficult was it working on the EFM for the Phantom? A. As I said above, we used the aero-data from the CR-2144. It had all the data I could wish for, so I just needed to extract it. Of course, that is just the beginning, since DCS simulates the world, but does behave differently here and there and there are 1000 ways to code an EFM, and the one way we went down might have some difficulties here and there. But in the end, it looked not too bad. Of course, since we are using a more simple approach to EFM-construction than others, a lot of special behaviours needed extra coding time. E.g. the wing-rock in pre-stall-flight-regime was a nightmare. Post-stall still is a “work-in-progress” since it is really hard to model uncontrolled flight correctly, so that it feels right, not to fast, not too slow. Then the F-4 had those “fuel-tank”-issues, that the CG really moved a lot from full-tanks to empty tanks. We could work on all that only thanks to our main test-pilot (shout out to Toby) who knew what he was talking about. So after the initial data-extraction and placement in our EFM-Template there was a lot of testing and tuning and retesting going on. Of course, sometimes you do hit a pretty hard spot and don’t really know how to get past that. For us that was a mix of 3d- and coding-problem. Our planes tended to fall through the cracks of the back-blast-walls of the supercarrier. Why? We really have no idea. So that took an extra amount of time to get to a “decent” level. It would be a bit, well weird, if our fleet-defender would not be able to safely take off from a carrier. Q. Were there any problems that you and the team faced while working on the clickable side of the cockpit? A. Well, we had not done clickables before, because we mainly used FC-3. So it was another journey to get that stuff done. Big Thank you’s are in order to all the guys in the DCS ModdingHubDiscord since they really helped a lot. Of course, the clickables held problems as well, since our switches and buttons refused to move, so we had to get creative again and kind of just played around that problem. Of course, more coding work if it had worked the right way around, but sometimes you can get so frustrated that you just say: “Well scr** it, I’ll make it the way I know it works, even if I have to code x-amount of functions more than I would need to.” Of course, making a two-seater plane opperatable by just one pilot was another “problem” so we could not get every switch and lever we would need for Radar operation, since we just wanted to make the front-seat cockpit. Multi-Crew really is a mystery to us and so everything needs to be manageable by just one person. So it is a clickable cockpit (or partly clickable) for the pilot, and he has to flick some switches via Key-Commands since there are just not the buttons to press in the front-cockpit. Q. Napalm is a weapon that does not appear on other aircraft in the simulator. How did the BIN-200 perform during internal testing? A. Well, we just got informed, that there was this BIN-200 available in DCS. Originally it came with one of those mainly “Trainer”-Planes, I do not know which one that was. But suddenly somebody in our discord wanted to make a NAPALM-custom weapon and somebody else said, wait a minute, it is already here, take this one. The Bin-200 is especially interesting with the “Fireball-Script” since without it, it will just act like a cluster-bomb. So for visuals you will need that fireball-script. The name does not disappoint. Q. Creating the AN/APQ-72 as a standalone radar for DCS is quite an accomplishment. How does the team feel about achieving this? Is the method used to create this radar now available for future aircraft mod projects to utilize? A. Well, honestly, it was not us who made that radar, it was NERO from the ModdingHubDiscord who made a Radar and RWR-Example which is usable by everyone, as long as it is used for a free mod, if I remember that right. That radar-example is pretty basic, but once you get to know how it works or at least manipulate the right variables, you can make it simulate a lot of different performing radars. The only thing is, that I think it can’t do TWS-locks, only single target track. That was no problem for us, since the F-4B only had the possibility to track one target at a time. Of course, as always with modding, you do need to take the time to understand the code to get an idea where you need to start tuning to get it to a state that is usable for your own project. But yes, it can be used for further projects as well, as far as I know. Q. How was modeling and texturing the aircraft like? How many people worked on it? A. Well, since we do not have that many Texture or 3D artists (the one really good 3d-Artist we’ve got now, only joined recently, the other one was pretty busy real life) we bought a license for the 3d-model, since F-4’s get modeled pretty often. The work on the liveries was in the hands of Urbi, who just always does a great job and has an eye for details.The cockpit we needed to order from an outside 3d-Artist as well, since at the time we just had nobody who could have made a full functional 3d-cockpit with good looking textures. So yes, we do spend our money and our time to release mods everybody can enjoy for free, since it gives us joy to work on the mods, make them better, develop them further and may be find a bit of time in between all that 3d-ing, coding, animating to fly a few sorties with those planes we just made. So, if you count everything together, the external 3d-model + textures was one guy, the cockpit + textures another one, skins another one and fitting everything together was another one. So basically 4 different people were working on the external and internal model of the F-4B. Q. With Heatblur’s F-4E on the horizon, what do you think this mod’s place in the game will be? A. I guess it will get good use as long as HB’s F-4E is not here. Once the F-4E enters the “DCS-Scene” it will be “second-fiddle” to it, which we are totally cool with. We do “know”, that the F-4E will be another remarkable Aircraft from HB with a depth that will just be pretty hard to beat. So I guess, since F-4E is not carrier capable, as long as HB does not deliver an F-4J, our mod will still have a place in the hearts of Phantom-Enthusiasts. Once that F-4J comes out, well I guess those guys who have to look onto the euro will still enjoy flying our mod and would not have bought the F-4E anyway, so it should not be in the way for HB’s F-4E. And may-be our F-4B will give HB the possibility to deliver another almost feature complete module, since the urge to “release it now” is not as big as without it. Who knows…. Q. Which other aircraft will VSN work on for the Century series after the Phantom is out? A. Ohhh, we do have some really nice aircrafts in store for the community and cold-war-airplane enthusiasts. If you take a look at the Century-Series fighters, there is still the 105 that needs a custom cockpit and an EFM. The 102/106 is still there to make and the 101. I guess you can expect at least one of those planes from us in the nearer future. The 104 will get a big update in the even nearer future and later on will get standalone-status with, I might add, really, really good looking systems. Everybody who says now, the F-15C-Style-Radar is to easy will bite his tongue once he sees our version of the NASARR-F15C radar…it is very interesting to operate…very, very interesting. There are some more planes that will get fixes, updates or overhauls, but I do not want to give away too much. Q. All VSN mods will be freely available for anyone, correct? A. Yes. Everybody can download them for free. The only downside is, that for the majority of planes the FC-3-Pack from ED is needed, since we just can’t make custom systems for every plane. That would just take too long. Q. That will be it, thank you a lot for answering our interview! Is there anything else you would like to add before we conclude? A. Thank you for finding an interest in those pretty cool cold-war-style-planes and having me answer your questions. I hope everybody can enjoy our mods and if she/he finds something that is not 100% as it is in reality, well, may be it can be generously overlooked with a little smile on the face knowing that there are people making those mods that do have a normal day-job which work during evenings or weekends to get you the possibility to fly those planes. And as much as we want to get everybody the best experience, we might and will fall short if measured against third-party devs or the reality. 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 the co-founder and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord : Cubeboy#9034