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Game Developer Interview: Tricubic Studios Combat Helo

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?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2734In 1972 the United States Army sought a new aircraft for the anti armor attack role that was once filled by the AH -56 Cheyenne. This aircraft would need to be under Army command so platforms such as the A-10 were out of the question due to the Key West Agreement which forbids the Army to own fixed winged aircraft. In 1983 the first production model of the new Advanced Attack Helicopter rolled of the line; the AH-64 Apache.


Many of us are the hunt for those very rare and very illusive combat helicopter sims. CombatACE has your six covered wingman because we have the scoop on such a game being developed right now… a game that is nearing its release.


CombatACE got the chance to catch up with Richard Hawley the lead the developer of Combat Helo, an AH-64 flight simulator. Thank you Mr. Hawley for taking the time to do this interview with us.


Please, tell us a little bit about Tricubic Studios.


My wife and I founded the company back in 2010 as the business entity for Combat Helo developed by myself, David Hopkinson and Fred Naar. David is responsible for the 3D art and map building, Fred is well known in his own right as the author of Helicopter Total Realism (a free add-on for Microsoft FSX) and I glue it all together into a coherent mess…make sure everything gets delayed and annoy people.

The name comes from Tricubic Interpolation, a method from which you can derive points in a regular grid from points around it. It sounded clever at the time, now it’s just pretentious.



What inspired you to start creating games?


No bolt of lightning or sudden realization. This has been a singular, life upsetting tumultuous pain in the ass determination for over a decade now. But like most things it started small and grew over time. I’m in my mid-forties now, in the 1980’s computers were a new thing, school hadn’t seen a computer so when I got my first computer I was asked by my teachers to bring it to show. Four years later it seemed like every teenage boy had one hidden away in the bedroom for playing games. At least the cool ones did (grin).


index.php?app=gallery&module=images&sectHow long have you been in the gaming industry?


Tricky one that. Before it was an industry in a very real multi-billion dollar sense it was a cottage industry. By the time I left school I had already contributed to three games. When I was 14 I helped out an outfit called “Assassin Software” publishing games on the ZX Spectrum from a board games shop. MY gaming origins are polluted with all those first edition Steve Jackson and Avalon Hill mega games that take months to set-up and play. All the table-top strategy games and RPGs. We sold them, played them. So when they moved into video game publishing I was added loading screens, machine code effects and duplicating the tapes. Later I was doing conversions of some of those games to other 8 bit home computers such as the Amstrad CPC and Memotech MTX 500. They were all extensions of those strategy games but on a computer.


Flash forward to present day; recently I installed an emulator on a tablet, I searched on one of our games (“Next War”) and I was shocked to see graphics I drew over 30 years ago appear instantly on a device in the palm of my hand. I want to go back to that young me and shout “Look at this awesome thing! You should have done more of it!”


In my life I’ve done a lot of things, freelance work. Microprose UK didn’t want me, then they did. Sometime later they had their famous financial breakdownto be bought out by Hasbro.After that I ended up writing working with Longbow 2 mission editing tools. Thenwriting stuff for Empire Interactive Enemy Engaged helicopter games. Then more game tools and QA work for third parties. You’ll see my name in a few sim manuals over the years in various roles.



What do you enjoy most about creating games?


I don’t think of myself as someone who makes games, I make things, I’m a maker with a need to be working on something all the time. I see a cool tool in a shop and think of possibilities,“What can you make with that tool?”I leave behind a trail of electronic projects, last year I completed a five year build of a video arcade machine, this year I started working on prop replica StormTrooper E11 Blaster. I wrote a book on Terrain Modelling for game engines (available on Amazon etc.)So many projects, not enough time. For Combat Helo I think the biggest thrill was Dave’s creative process. Watching something come to life. And later it will bewatching what other people will make with it, or build around it. That’s a big motivator for me.This guy at Komodo Simulations makes replica helicopter controls for museums and such; he’s got designs for 1:1 size Apache flight sticks in the works. I can’t imagine anything more thrilling than sitting in our cockpit on a huge screen feeling actual flight sticks. I’m happy to add features into our game to allow people to build crazy stuff so long as it doesn’t have a knock on effect to our schedule.


I have also found the perfect blend of my old school table-top origins and computers with this Augmented Reality technology. I really wish I had time to work on that.






What inspired the creation of Combat Helo?


?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2733Originally it was some time after the demise of the Origin Jameslabel behind the Longbow series. I wanted to play Longbow 3 and nobody was there to make it. A combination of a fanatical fan base and falling sales resulted in publishers dropping the genre like a hot potato. I attempted to have a go at a making Combat Helo back in 2002. During that time we made some progress but all I ended up with was a lot of prototype code for different ideas and systems will little cohesion. The cockpit was designed by a very talented guy from Italy who used the references I gave him. In fact we had a lot of good art contributions but the problem you quickly discover is that once you have art kindly contributed by six different people, you get six different styles. The hi-res cockpit that was built was never textured however you can maybe still see it today, it used to be included as the ‘test’ Apache helicopter in the Outerra demo. Due to work pressures I had to park the 2002 project and nothing happened for a few years. The world changed in that time.


I heard a news story about badly managed helicopter resources in Afghanistan with British commanders asking for more and British politicians saying everything was fine of course. In Afghanistan combat rescue units were stretched in the early days. What would it take to fix that? Was the mission possible given such limited resource?I liked resource management problems in simulations, so called strategic decision making. So when a query about my abandoned 2002 Combat Helo project came up I considered in detail what it would take to complete.Would Combat Rescue be a good topic for a game given the touchy subject matter? So I read Ed Macy’s books, Immediate Response by Mark Hammond and just immerse myself in the subject.


Then came along the idea of incorporating a counter-insurgency (COIN) type of campaignbut it tied into the question I had about resources.Thus was born the hidden agenda of Combat Helo and its COIN campaign, to find out what force levels were required to achieve a pre-set goal. In the end we never completed the implementation for that (nice subtext there). But it’s all good design work that one day could be resurrected. The system behind this was partly inspired by Physicist Sean Gourley’s work on the mathematics of war; his team identified an amazing yet counter-intuitive fact, that war (even asymmetric conflicts) had structure.That structure could be described as a simple one line equation (which I have pinned in large print on my wall). I ran with that and prototyped a model for our COIN campaign. As it happened we didn’t have the man power or funds to deliver that so it’s been parked until we can do it justice. I’m never in any hurry.


So the Apache, COIN, Combat Rescue, the need for a successor to Longbow. All these things conspired, we had to do it. And I was fortunate enough to find Dave. Couldn’t have carried it forward without him.



What are some the challenges that have been encountered during development and how have they been overcome?


?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2734Lack of funds from the outset. I agreed to re-start Combat Helo if it was funded. But after we had shown a simple prototype the economy went south and money vanished. I should have taken the decision to abandon it there and then. I totally regret that choice and trying to muddle on. If I had left it, when crowd-funding became a thing we could have returned to it. By that time I was already in huge personal debt and now my family was suffering as a result. So the project had to be parked. That’s why there are huge gaps in development after then end of 2010. It became something I could only pick up as a hobby project until things got better, which they eventually did.


The other challenges were technical. First you had a helicopter that had many classified systems. Then you had a large world that needed to be populated with trees with physical properties that would work in an off the shelf game engine.In 2009 Leadwerks engine was the only engine outside of EA’s Battlefield and possibly the new ArmA game was doing deferred rendering (that’s rendering geometry in one pass and then all the lighting in a later pass).In our ignorance we hit every problem in the book when it comes to trying to create large worlds with game engines designed for small ones.

David worked hard with the primitive tools he had. Getting maps of a decent size and performance required us to use every trick in the book. Since we were going for a retro sim look we can get away with a lot of it. The best feature of the engine is real-time lighting, so we make use of it where we can. Play to your strengths. If we had to do it all over we’d do it differently of course.


One of the problems you get is that of floating point math error. The further you move away from the origin of a world the more error creeps into every calculation until eventually the whole model is a jittering mess. You saw this in Longbow 2 in the virtual cockpit mode, that cockpit jitter everyone thought was a vibration effect was actually the fixed point math routines crapping out. And also one of the technical problems of the ill-fated A10 game. We had the same issue although I came up with portals to fix it. Everything in the cockpit sits at the world origin so it’s steady as a rock. I match up lighting with the outside world, you can hardly see the join, even leaning out of the cockpit with TrackIR.


Normally dedicated simulation games get around this by both tiling and resetting the origin, camera matrix manipulation or 64bit math.



How long has Combat Helo been in development and how much research went into its development?


The first lines of code started in September 2009, I was fortunate to meet David Hopkinson. We looked at what the order of battle would be, drew up a list of assets we’d have in game and how to build them.


My research material dates back to 1996. I literally have boxes full of articles from journals, periodicals, sales brochures. All the historical material from when I was writing material for Enemy Engaged, hours of video. Pretty much anything I find and notes from conversations with crew.

If you go back through our blogs you can see it evolving over time. Dave helped research and drive the asset list, looking at Iranian equipment, US equipment, the area around Herat in Afghanistan and together we came up with a fitting scenario where they all fitted.

We drew up ideas for how radio comm trees would work, the handing over of flights between brigade combat teams (BCTs), we had all this really cool stuff researched that went into the master design documents. Sadly most of it is on the cutting room floor as we need to publish a simpler game. We hope that Gunnery will give us the opportunity to go back and build the original grand campaign.



We certainly drank a LOT of coffee.




How will Combat Helo standout from other similar games such as DCS Blackshark?


They are chalk and cheese, an English expression meaning they may look similar but are very different. The DCS series is a purist simulation product, written by engineers and enthusiasts with an engineering eye. All very procedural and institutionalised. PC combat sims as a genre used to be very different, they were more like animated documentaries. Different experiences.


One forces you to conform, the other indulges. We’re all about indulgence. Our Apache cockpit experience lets you learn as much as you want, go out and blow things up, play with it. We’re working on improving the content pipeline so we can keep throwing new maps and missions, even a dynamic campaign in there. We’re also trying to optimise your up-time. In our Apache you can spend 10 to 15 minutes prepping your ship or hit a key to get going, it’s your choice and we won’t judge you for it. There will be one initial load time and that’s it. No wait time between menus or “small” accidents.

Doing a barrel roll will NEVER be an option (well you probably can pull it off but it’s tricky).


One of the features I tried to bring to Combat Helo was this notion that you can walk around in a limited way. Do inspections and arm the aircraft, interact with base objects. I know this is all been done with military games and we’re not trying to be those games either.


Later when we activate co-op play your friends will be able to act as a load-master, arming aircraft as they are ready. We have laptops in the command tent that act as interfaces to the mission engine. A player will be able to assign specific missions to any aircraft ready at the airbase. Everything is message based, we experimented with pulling out game information and updating a HTML 5 page in real-time. That worked quite well, when it’s time to implement a user-facing mission editor we might go the route of SOAP messages from a web page. I’ve got code stubs in there just in case. It depends what people want and how they fly with their friends.


?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2733What can users both novice and veteran expect from your game?


We’re creating a game for a generation that missed out on those simulations from Origin and Microprose, PC combat simulations were a genre of their own. Those games were jingoistic indulgencies, escapism with a fair amount of technical depth.


They can expect to install the game and get up and running fairly quickly. This is an authentic representation AH-64D. It’s an odd bird, you can think of it as a Block I that’s undergoing a rolling upgrade to Block II. We made deliberate design choices about readability and ease of use.


95% of the cockpit switches work, engine start-up, APU, lighting settings, store jettison etc. Even the wipers have two speeds and an intermittent wipe mode.Pilots should expect some confusion about how the weapon systems interact between the front and rear seats (I still get confused). My advice is not to keep jumping between seats if you can avoid it, learn to go through the steps you need for the task at hand but we don’t force you.


The real Longbow is a very complex aircraft and there is a lot we don’t cover. It simply isn’t practical or possible to do without touching on areas that are secret. In those areas that are sensitive I take my cues from other games and make a best educated guess. The feedback I get from pilots is along the lines of “good enough” which suits me.


The initial release will contain a typical representation of a live fire gunnery range, operating out of a local stage-point. Essentially you’re given the keys, an ethereal instructor pilot and exercises to complete. You get to try different gunnery techniques, operating the aircraft systems and then engaging in some dynamic (but totally fictional) survival missions in SAM infested hills moving from point A to point B.


The AH-64D is armed with a 30mm cannon, a selection of rockets (including illumination and smoke) and AGM-114 L and K Hellfires (Radar and Laser guided respectively). TrackIR head tracking support is included so you can slave the cannon to your physical head movement if you wish.

We’ll have a mode for pick-up and play with a 360 joypad so you can fly instant action missions Comanche style. We have some lively crew speech to keep things interesting.


Initially we won’t ship with multi-player, it’s logistically difficult to debug and test. The game has been designed around messaging for multi-player so I don’t anticipate major problems, just lots of little ones, we will be enabling co-op (font seat / back seat) play around the third major release on our published roadmap. The cross-coupling of the systems presents interesting play challenges. You can actually fight your co-pilotfor control of systems.

Also expect the occasional exploding cow (if you know which setting in the config.ini to tweak).




?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2734What can users who play hardcore flight sims expect from your game?


The best I can hope for is that they feel nostalgic for the games they played in the mid to late nineties and enjoy some of the attention to the flight model and cockpit experience. We have a really advanced flight-model thanks to Fred Naar who created the amazing free helicopter physics replacement add-on for FSX. There’s nothing else like it.


“Gunnery” is best described as Longbow 2 Tutorial Mode with trees mixed with a little Comanche Maximum Overkill. It’s a rolling release meaning we have a roadmap for the year in which we will be releasing upgrades and new content to extend the experience. Eventually moving towards our ambitious grand design.


Will you allow your game to modded? Will users to be able to add custom skins, sounds, and helicopters?


We acknowledge there’s scope for improvement. We’re only a small team and there are many talented individuals who make awesome texture and sound packs that can improve the experience. It’s something we’ll try to help with, any reasonable requests for information on the games forum will be answered by us. Anything really cool we’ll try and make it happen. Sadly making new helicopters is likely to be impossible without a lot of code behind. However if someone created a UH-60 that fits the game style we’d love to hear from them and maybe make it an official add-on/plugin. Same goes for more armour and other threats. We’re happy to update our internal database to add new entities.


If Combat Helo becomes successful what other titles do you plan to create? Is there a Cobra sim in the future?


Not a Cobra (although we did consider that and others). If “Gunnery” is reasonably successful we have a CH-47D already built, just needs us to integrate it into the code. This will allow for more mission profiles such as co-operative armed escort and combat rescue. I would like to add something like the “Little Bird” or a BlackHawk.


Post “Gunnery” and the roadmap want to crowd-fund the next phase. We have been experimenting with an amazing new engine UnigineSIM which delivers everything we need out of the box for our huge open-world campaign.We’re still in talks with Unigine so we don’t know which way this will go. I have high hopes, it’s a great engine, great design and we can do some amazing things with it. One of things we’re certainly going to do is make it much easier to add new cockpits and aircraft. But the focus will always be on helicopters and joint operations in that easy to pick up but hard to master game style.



Real-time 3D cockpit interior of the CH-47D.



Fully clickable overhead panel



Unigine SIM engine - Combat Helo (2) could look like this.


When do you plan for Combat Helo to be released and how can it obtained upon release?


We will be publishing the game on Steam, we’re currently listed in the Steam Greenlight Concepts area if you want to stop by, comment or start a discussion. It’s been well received on Steam Greenlight so far, hitting the number two spot at the weekend. That’s pretty encouraging for a PC simulation. Clearly people want these things. We don’t talk about dates but we’re aiming for around the end of Q1 this year which is not far off. That’s why you see all the activity on Facebook, Twitter, and the new official site (that’s www.combat-helo.com). Sérgio is new to the team but not to flight simulations, he’s community building. And importantly, he reminds me about my obligations and expectations. He’s been fantastic. Don’t worry, when it escapes on Steam we’ll be sure to tell everyone.


What are the final system specifications going to be?


NVidia Shader Model 3.0 GPU or ATI Shader Model 4.0 graphics card (NVidia GeForce 6600, ATI Radeon 3000). Or better. Most modern 3D cards.Any mid-level gaming PC, i5 2.5 GHz or better. 3.5GHz CPU and upwards is recommended for higher detail scenery.HOTAS Joystick configuration strongly recommended for simulation mode play. The lighting and post-shader effects are GPU intensive so I would strongly recommend the beefiest card you can muster. You can get a lot of performance improvements by selectively turning off effects. I can tweak it to run fine on my gaming laptop with an nVidia mobile GPU.


Do you have anything you would like to tell your supporters?


Stick with us for the ride. We have some amazing things in the pipeline and we need you to help us make it happen. PC Sims are as strong as ever and there’s room for variety. Support for Gunnery means we can carry on, taking it to the next level. And above all, thank you for the support and patience.



Combat Helo looms over developer Richard Hawley


Once again Mr. Hawley thank you for taking the time to answer all of these questions and I'm sure I speak for a lot of members here at CombatACE when in saying that I look forward to the release of Combat Helo.



We're aren't done yet. Somebody had to create the terrain, the Apache, and a  number of other things in the world of Combat Helo.Dave Hopkinson, a teacher from the UK who now lives and works in Asia, is the artist that brought the world of Combat Helo to life. He too agreed to an interview us and for that Dave we thank you. 

How long have you been creating art?

On and off I've been producing 2D and 3D computer art for about 16 years. My original 3D art experience came from making levels for the first person shooter series Quake and also DukeNukem 3D. Later I moved onto 3D modeling and I started with Gmax (a free version of 3d studio max that was designed for developing game mods) and then moved on to 3D studio max. I worked on a variety of new aircraft for the Strike fighters series and then worked on Battle of Britain 2: Wings of victory. I also worked on a handful of total conversion mods for Medieval 2: Total war.

What are some the things you like to create?

Cockpits are an area that I really enjoy working on. The skill set involved in developing an accurate and detailed cockpit is quite unique and it can be very rewarding. To build an accurate cockpit you really need to work along side real world pilots and often the materials are written rather than visual. For example it's very rare to find a complete set of blueprints for a cockpit which means you really need to do some investigations, experiments and thorough research. Cockpits also allow you some artistic license as you have room to include small details that vary in individual aircraft. Photos of babes on the dashboard, colourful magazines in the map tray, odd quotations, comical re-spellings etc. Easter eggs in other words.

?module=images&section=img_ctrl&img=2734What inspires you to create the art you make?

As a technical artist there isn't a great deal of need for inspiration. Generally my job is to recreate objects that appear to be the same in 3D space as they are in reality. My production level is usually attributed to motivation which typically comes from seeing the developments on Richard's side of the project.

What are some of the things you enjoy about art and graphic design for video games?

For me the greatest reward comes from seeing people use and enjoy the artwork I create. Overcoming challenges and proving to myself that I have the ability to accurately reproduce an object also brings a sense of satisfaction.

Your work for Combat Helo is great. How much research went to the design of the AH-64 Apache?

Richard is a walking Apache encyclopedia of AH-64 knowledge and therefore there wasn't a great deal for me to do in this regard. He provided a huge quantity of images, videos and other reference materials that I needed to produce the artwork.

What are some the challenges you encountered while creating the Apache for Combat Helo and how have you overcome them?

The 3D engine that we are using to develop Combat Helo provided both Richard and I with a long list of challenges that we slowly had to work around and deal with. The main challenge that I encountered was getting the cockpit model with over 500 sub objects (switches, knobs, buttons, controls etc) to render at an acceptable frame rate. We had to experiment with the way the objects were grouped and arranged in order to optimize render time. We developed a method of hiding small detailed objects in the CP/G cockpit when you were in the pilot seat and vice versa. Thankfully the leadwerks engine provides support for lua scripting so we found ways to solve rendering problems through scripting.

How long did it take for you to create a model the Apache and get it to a point where you were pleased with how it looks?

We were lucky enough to inherit a basic Apache fuselage model from the earlier Combat Helo project which I used as a basis for developing the model. I re-modeled all of the components attached to the fuselage (landing gear, rotors, IHADs, cannon, stub wings, pylons, stores, weapons etc) then went through the usual process of UV mapping and painting it. We knew from the start that we were looking for a 90's sim retro feel and that super detailed models were not going to be in order.  Typically a model of that quality will take a solid week of working to build, uv map and paint.

How does it feel to know that your artwork will be enjoyed by thousands of people?

Hopefully tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands! :P  The more the merrier.



Fun question: When creating the terrain … did you have a Bob Ross moment?

I definitely had a few Rolf "Can you tell what is it yet?" Harris moments. In all honesty, terrain development is no joke. It's the one area of artwork where you really need to 'embrace the grind'.  We're hoping that Combat Helo 2 will feature a much more detailed terrain while involving much less work.

Do you have anything you would to tell your supporters?

Thank you for waiting patiently. Please buy Combat Helo



I don’t think you’ll have to tell many of us that twice. Especially considering a how a flood almost killed the project and how current events in Bangkok are troubling for you, your family, and Combat Helo. Please stay safe over there. Once again thank you Mr. Hopkinson and Mr. Hawley for taking the time to do this interview.

You can visit the Combat Helo Album to check out more their screen shots and art work.


Thank you for taking the time to stop by and in the words Wrench “Happy Landings!”



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Nice interview, but it does make one wonder about the relevance of this sim when/if it's released. Today's devs seem to place communication/updating it's customer base as a low priority. Additionally, it's been seen that they make huge claims as to what will be capable in sim-X. With the lack of helo sims over the last decade (maybe longer) I hope Combat Helo is successful and meets player's and devs expectations. Maybe this year? 

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