F/A-18E TACOPS && MP Campaign Builder



Getting Started Designing A Campaign
Contributed by Tom "Tailspin" Jones
When Ken "Timber" Alger and myself decide to build a campaign together for Jane's F/A-18, we were, of course, very enthusiastic with all sorts of ideas and wonderful things that we were going to do in the campaign. We started thinking about all the various missions we were going to do and how they would be linked together etc. We even started designing our missions. However, as Timber got deeper into the mission builder and I got deeper into the campaign builder, my 7 years of dabbling with Visual Basic for Applications programming language started setting off warning bells in my head. I could see that Timber and I were headed for a lot of extra work if we did stop and lay some stuff out. The campaign and mission builders are very powerful tools to use. You can do some much stuff with them that I doubt we will ever have a truly finished campaign. ;-D

Using the campaign and mission builder tools are like programming an application, if you just start building it without plan, you will soon find that certain ideas don't work, things don't fit together and if it fits together really bad, you'll have to start all over again. Think of it like trying to build a custom home without have any kind of blueprints made or surveying done for location of property and utilities. After you build the house, you find out that: the sewer line connection is on the other side of property, the living room was built too small, the electrical wiring is missing in 3 rooms and you could build the den because the house is too close to the neighbors. It would cost you a lot of time (and money) to start over. Do the same thing with building a large F/A-18 campaign and you could end up wasting a lot of that "hard to find" recreational time.

In designing our campaign (we are still not finished :-), the process has gone something like this:

- General discussions of what we wanted to do. Ideas and excitement is flying all over the place. Can't write the ideas down fast enough. :-D

- Researched the Internet for maps and links on information for the area(s) where we think we want to have the campaign action to occur. We are looking to see if it makes strategical/tactical sense to have battles in certain areas.

- Checked the real world maps against the Jane's campaign map to make sure a location in the real world is built onto the Jane's map. Jane's map is not perfect due to various design/PC/tool limitations.

- Start checking out both mission and campaign builder tools. Realized there is a LOT of stuff to learn but see the possibilities for a LOT of cool stuff to be done. We both started getting confused as to what directions we were heading with all the stuff that we had to do. Timber was going one direction and I was starting to go the other way. ;-) We also found ourselves talking about cell groups that didn't make sense the second time around or didn't tie into action further down the campaign road. A cell group is a group of missions design to achieve a specific goal. Example: several CAS and interdiction missions linked together to try and push back a Russian assault on the Norwegian city of Hammerfest.

- More general discussions based on the information and maps found. Nailed down a tighter overall campaign idea. Started scratching off the ideas that do not fit in the overall campaign. Did some more research. Drew several major battle routes on Internet maps to get a graphical picture of the overall campaign flow and we could change direction if campaign was failing. - Wrote a rough draft preface for the campaign to give the player a general overall view as to why the campaign is happening. This is not a requirement for building a campaign but it does help add to the immersion factor.

- Developed a text outline for how the campaign will progress. Timber and I both have Word 97 so we used that. Outline consists of a description for each major phase of the campaign with a list of possible cell groups for each phase. This is a major work in progress and will change as we move along with the campaign missions. Changes can be looked at, say, like adding additional lighting or a skylight to a room before the room is built. This can be done after a room is built but it is more difficult to do.

- After even more research and discussions, produced the final version of preface and good draft outline of the campaign phases and their associated cell groups. Started flowcharting some missions for the 1st cell group for phase 1 just to see how this would all look. Word 97 has a decent flowchart diagram tool to use.

- Designed a master mission map to include all the (temporary) buildings that are required for the campaign. The campaign map has a lot of permanent structures built into the map already but the cities are very barren. Hit F12 when in the mission builder to see permanent items. They are highlighted in red letters with funny combinations of letters and numbers. (ed: hex numbers) The idea for us was to have one map with all the structures added in. This way, we didn't have to keep adding the same buildings each time we create a new mission or remember where we added them in the last mission. It is definitely easier to delete the stuff than to remember exactly where to add it all back. Also helps with generating mission ideas when reviewing the map. :-) Of course, this is up to you if you want to do something like this.

- After the flowchart was done for the 1st one cell group, we had a better idea graphically how things could flow in a cell group. We then made further revisions to the phase/cell group outline further refining what we want to do.

- We will continue adding cell groups to the flowchart and revising our outline until our campaign is done. Like it will truly ever be finished. ;-D If you look at the campaign builder (hit F1 after going to Tools), you will see what a campaign flowchart looks like. Our flowcharts look very similar to the Jane's campaign flowchart. That way, when we get the F/A-18 patch with ability to link mission and campaign goals together, we will be able to start building our campaign right away. All we have to do is look at our flowcharts to see how to link things together. Of course there is more to it than that and half the work is done already with the flowcharts.

A preface, if you want to do one, can provide information like history between the countries, wars between them, general attitudes toward each other, what exactly happened to cause the conflict to occur, current military readiness and capabilities of both side, etc. Our preface is about 2 pages long but you can make it any length you want. Again, this is NOT a requirement, just something to give you and the players flying your campaign a reason as to why the campaign exists. Once you get this to a certain point, you will rarely go back and make changes except for spelling and grammar. :0)

The text outline is a very important part in the campaign designing process and is something that I recommend you do. This is where you lay out the general overall flow and feel of the campaign. Before you start actually building missions, you should have some general where you are heading. You can always add or delete to this, though you should be careful when deleting stuff after the mission building starts. It will help put you back on track with your campaign when you start coming up with more cool missions that have nothing to do with the flow of your campaign. :0) Save those missions for another campaign or maybe go back and add them in later as a totally different path in your campaign, if you have designed your campaign properly.

There will be some point that you will have to stop adding things if you ever want to get the campaign built. :0) We settled on a campaign structure of 3 phases consisting of 3 cell groups each. Our cell groups will consist of a minimum of 5 missions for the player to fly. If our campaign had just a straight-line flow to it, that would be minimum of 45 missions in our campaign. Of course, Timber and I don't want a straight flow campaign, so the number of our missions will probably double to 90 missions minimum! That is a lot of missions to design so we should be pretty good at it by the end of the campaign. Hehe I also don't want to think about how long it will takes us to do it. :0) However, even if it takes us a year to finish due to real life things getting in the way, we feel a lot of people will still be playing Jane's F/A-18 then. Who knows, we may even release a mini version just to see how we are doing. I do see comments like no one has built a campaign yet. If you want a half way decent one like the one Jane's provided, you can see it is a lot of work. :^)

Our text outline may not be in the traditional outline format but it is close. We started off each phase header with a big paragraph describing what we were trying to accomplish in the phase. We described the general direction the battles would move, who is involved and doing what, what cities and areas are involved, what airbases or other major structures we wanted to have included, what changes in direction a phase could take, what may end a campaign in a phase, etc. Maybe throw in ideas for a surprise or special mission. Put in whatever you need to make sure you stay on track for that phase.

Below the phase header and text, we then include our cell group headers. Each of these headers get a short description of what is to happen in the each cell group. An example for the 1st cell group could be: "Marines land at Tromso. Set up 2/3 alternate paths for Marines to take."

Then under each cell group header, we indent 5 spaces and add in our alternate cells paths, each with short descriptions of possible missions. Some examples could be:

Cell Group 1
Path a - Marines invade Tromso and head east. Russian advance is light. Missions for HAVCAP AWACS, Barcap Tromso, scramble incoming bombers, escort 707 containing NATO leaders into Tromso, deep strike on captured Norwegian airbase in Northeast corner of Norway.

Path b - Marines invade further south of Tromso. Heavy fighting right off the bat. 2 Missions for CAS, Sead escort North of Tromso for strike group hitting Russians preparing to enter Tromso, 2 fighter sweeps, strike on bridge to west of Tromso to prevent Russian forces from coming into the city.

Of course, reading each path, it would seem like each mission would just jump right to the next one in a straight-line. That is where the flowcharts come in. We create a flowchart that shows both paths going straight to their next mission. Then you add decision links that could say "if I lose mission 1 on path 1, jump to mission 2 on path b". Or maybe there is a third area with single missions or a 3rd path that you jump to. I think Timber and I created 15 missions in our 1st cell group flowchart. We are hoping that you will never go the same route twice to finish a 5 mission run unless you replay the campaign quite a bit. If you add on top of that, the random stuff we plan to throw after testing each mission to make sure it works, you should have a lot of replayability without the feeling of playing the exact same mission twice. Yes, you will see the same mission description/same targets/same location. But if we design the mission right, you will never know exactly who will be defending, from where, what kind of weather you will be flying in, or maybe what kind of surprise help may arrive. A mission may be a cakewalk on a sunny day with just a few enemies AAA with F-14s flying cover with no enemy fighters in sight the 1st time you play. The second time you play it, you may be flying at night in storm and have 2 flights of Su-27s jump you with a neutral 707 in the middle of the fight and no F-14s to help out. :-D

Anyway, once you get the outline done, you should be ready to build a flowchart for your 1st cell group of phase 1. If you like the way things look, then start building your missions. Keep in mind that you can change/modify your outline any time you want though it will be much harder to do for cells groups that already have missions built and linked in the campaign. Try to stick to your outline as much as you can. If you want to modify your outline and flowcharts, particularly in the areas where you have already linked missions together in your campaign, try to keep your modifications to inserting additional missions/items to make things more interesting. Try not to remove stuff that you have already built into the campaign as that is where you will probably start running into problems with your campaign.

Also, follow the KISS method when creating and linking your missions together in a campaign. After building and testing the campaign with simple missions (your flight, bad guys, targets and nothing else), you can then go back and add more stuff for the immersion factor you want. Look at the campaign builder, it looks like there are a LOT of ways you can make a campaign change direction. So if you make all your missions so complicated right off the bat that you can't properly test the basic win/lose campaign variables, you may just find that you campaign breaks down where you don't expect it to.

This may seem like a lot of extra work to do at the beginning, particularly because of your excitement and desire to get building missions. I feel the same way. ;0) But you will find that if you don't do something like this, you will end up with even a lot more work to do on the back end by trying to fix all the mistakes and things that you forgot. And you could just end up being so frustrated at that point that you just trash your campaign and walk away with nothing but wasted time. I hope you will find some of the design ideas that I presented here useful and that it will help keep you on track with your campaign so that building it will be fun and that the frustration factor is kept down to a minimum.

Have fun with building your campaign and Check Six!

To read more about Tailspin and Timber's campaign, go here.