Simeverything. (simulation software)(includes related article)
by Gregg Keizer
Decaying cities or humanity's march through time. Click. Crowded ant tunnels or the emptiness of the solar system. Click, click. Military machines or billion-dollar spaceships. Click, click, click.
Your computer's keyboard is the ultimate remote control. It lets you change the channels on your PC as you mesmerize yourself with a seemingly unlimited number of opportunities for learning and fun. Personal computers model an amazing number of situations and scenarios, mimicking the real world while keeping it safely at arm's length. The dirt, danger, violence, and complexity that make the world so untidy can be distilled into an onscreen representation that--if all goes right--seems like reality.
Simulations have been around a lot longer than the computer on your desktop, of course. They didn't just spring up like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Over a hundred years ago, German generals worked through kriegspiels, or waar games, to plan campaigns and fine-tune strategies In this century, universities modeled businesses with pencil and paper, while fledgling pilots tested their wings in crude flight trainers that were pitched and rolled by men standing outside the simulated cockpit.
However, simulations and games based on simulations have proved to be one of the most explosive areas of growth in PC software, seemingly independent of recession or boom and bust in the rest of the computer and software market. The PC's high power and low price have made mimicry on such a scale possible.
In the real world, simulations do everything from predicting hurricanes to helping physicists puzzle out the earliest moments of the universe. Simulations are no less diverse in the world of electronic entertainment.
Sid Meier's Civilization walks you through the history of a world you've never known. Starting with a band of nomads searching for a place to settle down, you guide your people in a race for knowledge, power, technology, and territory. Civilization has all the trappings of a simulation--decisions, realistic environment, and interlocking complexity--but it's as much a game as anything. That doesn't matter, because in PC simulations the end almost always justifies the means. And Civilization ends right, leaving you with the feeling that you've just witnessed the development of a people in the process of forming a dynamic (and sometimes extremely dangerous) culture.
SimAnt is simulation on a microscopic scole. With a fairly firm foot in science, SimAnt sends you back in time--to about 1955--when every boy had a plastic ant farm.
Tunnels fill with ants and ant eggs. Enemies battle it out for turf on a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-sized stage, and a house awaits the inevitable invasion of the black ants you control. SimAnt is a truer simulation, in that it lets you run things you have no real business running. Real ants may do little more than carom off each other, or worse, curl up into tiny commas and die, but the electronic ants in SimAnt do your bidding every time.
Falcon 3.0, a mechanical simulation, is even more traditional in its approach. Where Civilization compresses centuries and SimAnt expands tiny insects, Falcon 3.0 condenses intricate machinery worth millions of dollars into something civilians can play with. Packed with a mind-boggling array of simulated controls, Falcon 3.0 lets you fly an F-16 jet fighter against enemy aircraft in a missile-launching, radar-tracking, electronic-warfare feeding frenzy. Easily one of the most comprehensive and complicated simulations around, Falcon 3.0 also taxes the hardware like few others: If you don't have at least a 20-MHz 386 with a couple of megabytes of RAM, don't bother showing up.
A home PC brute of two years ago--a 12-MHz 286 computer with VGA, maybe a 40MB hard disk--simply can't cut it with today's top simulations. To run at full speed, simulations demand a fast PC, preferably a 486 or a 386 with a math coprocessor chip. Simulations test the PC like few other packages--databases, spreadsheets, Windows, and CAD software included.
Future simulations will undoubtedly demand more than today's PC can provide. "It's hard to see how you could simulate the earth in a much more realistic model [than SimEarth] and still stay on the PC," says Tom Ligon, president of ARC Software and the creator of Dance of the Planets, a majestic solar-system simulator. "In a way, its gameness reflects the faxt that the technology is limited."
In two years, 486-equipped computers will be as common in the house as 386SX machines are now. The power hungry will run chips like Intel's 80586, or perhaps a superfast RISC chip.
Sim It All
"You can simulate anything," says SimCity and SimEarth creator Will Wright. "[It's] a matter of semantics. But as we come to understand a system, we're beginning to understand the processes of a system."
Near-future desktop PC simulations will take on the task of simulating a larger number of such systems--whether natural or manmade--as well as explore their hidden processes in a deeper richer way.
At the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where designers strutted their latest stuff, several simulations stood out as ones to watch in 1992. Dynamix, the Oregon arm of Sierra and creator of Red Baron, a World War 1 air-combat simulator, has taken its flight-modeling and graphics techniques to the Second World War in Aces of the Pacific. Flying any of over twc dozen Japanese and American aircraft, you battle from carriers and land-based airfields, re-creating historical missions--including the dramatic assassination raid that downed Admiral Yamamoto--and try to survive through brutal aerial campaigns.
Electronic Art's as-yet-tentatively-titled Michael Jordan's Flight Simulator takes a page from simulations as it reproduces the grace of professional basketball with a three-dimensional perspective that will leave you awe-struck. Some may call it a sports game, but many will see it as the simulator it really is.
Interplay's Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space lets you guide the American or Russian space program in a two-decade dash to the moon. Using more than a hint of multimedia, Race into Space asks you to make decisions on rocket development, astronaut selection, and missin control. For those of us who grew up watching rockets rise into the Florida sky, this simulation promises a nostalgic look at the past and an intriguing what-if construction kit.
Two on the Edge
"I'd really like to see software like Dance of the Planets that goes outside, something that's not self-contained, that doesn't go away when you turn off the PC," says Tom Ligon.
What Ligon dreams of--a simulation that continues to intrigue its users long after the screen goes dark--is but one example of how designers look at their craft and where they'd like to take desktop simulations.
"Two areas that appeal to me alot are simulating space missions and neural networks," Ligon muses. "You'd learn a lot about neural networks and train them, but it wouldn't be a game. And I'd like to deal with the earth, even down to earth science of life science. It would take a lot of merit yet can run on the PC but I think it's worth doing."
Will Wright wants to delve even deeper into evolutionary and biological simulations, past the permise of SimEarth. "I find myself repeatedly attracted to evolution. Number one, because of the result and number two, because of the application to other tasks. The techniques could be harnessed to make your software evolve, for example, and I find myself pushing toward education--getting people excited about things, experimenting and exploring on their own."
And what of the charms of multimedia and videogames being applied to simulations? Wright thinks that videogame simulations are an attractive possibility, now that "the hardware is finally in place." Multimedia, says Ligon, may be a different story. "I don't think that's going to be competitive in the next five years because of the initial [development] expense."
Maybe neither is necessary to shift simulations into high gear. When you can simulate nearly everything now, why wait for the future?