The Story of Total Air War

Total Air War was one of the most praised flight simulations of the 1990s. In 2011, I joined the Air Dominance Project – a team of hobbyists aiming at improving the sim­ulation – and today we’re working on our own clone. Here’s everything I learned about the game, its creators, and its community.

Digital Image Design

Digital Image Design’s logo.

In the 1990s, simulations were hot. Big players like Microsoft released new simulation games every year. This was the time Digital Image Design (DID) was funded into.

They specialized in flight simulations – starting with F29 Retaliator (1989) and TFX (1993). While their space shooters EPIC (1992) and Inferno (1994) are nowadays mostly forgotten, their flight simulations were critically acclaimed and com­mercial­ly suc­cess­ful.

DID originally developed for the Amiga and later moved to DOS/Windows. But their simulations were not just toys: They also supplied a targeting sim­ula­tor for the British armed forces in 1995.

A tour through DID’s headquarters.

EF2000

DID’s most popular title, EF2000, debuted in . It is a combat flight simulator of the Eurofighter, Europe’s next-generation fighter aircraft. The player defends virtual Scandinavia from a Russian invasion. Selling 700,000 copies, it won several Game of the Year awards.

Old EF2000 logos from the game files.

Players loved EF2000 for its immersion: AI pilots would chat over the radio. The avionics and the cockpit’s simulated Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) integrated smoothly with the gameplay. The terrain was huge for its time (covering all of Scandinavia) and the game engine even ran day and night cycles on it. Ask any flight simulator fan about DID, and they will usually tell you that EF2000 was the game that got them hooked.

From a technical perspective, EF2000 was based on the heavily improved game engine of its predecessor, TFX (and so it was often called TFX2 internally). While commercially successful, its development was overshadowed by technical debt and management issues (just like that of the actual Eurofighter). As one of its programmers put it:

EF2k was about a million lines of code, about 3\4 of it was utter pants code. Most of it had to be thrown away for F-22 ADF. EF2k never had a game design, never had code design and certainly never had project plan. It was the project from hell. Its amazing we ever got it in to releasable state. […]
Don’t get me wrong, I love EF (and so did many of the team who worked on it), but it was a very difficult birth. My memories of the development are mostly pleasant. We effectively gave up all our free time and social lives to make EF. Several marriages were put on the line and at least two of the team came down with serious stress related illness. But we got it done, saved DID from ruin and pulled Ocean’s nads off the barbecue with that release.

Half a dozen of updates and extensions were released. The Windows 95 version, EF2000 v2.0, is the most polished one.

F-22 Air Dominance Fighter

Forget flying against computer-generated opponents in scripted missions. Instead, imagine fighting off an entire nation controlled by a detailed war simulation. Imagine an open scenario where every action you take can affect the outcome of the war – the enemies you attack, the supply lines you cut, the airfields you bomb.

This was DID’s promise for F-22 Air Dominance Fighter (ADF), which they released in . Just like EF2000, it was a combat flight simulator, but the Eurofighter had been replaced with the American F-22 and the location moved from icy Scandinavia to the Red Sea region. Unlike EF2000, it flopped.

The promised dynamic campaign mode did not make it into the release. ADF’s few scripted campaigns were disappointing, nonetheless it was sold at full price. Players felt deceived.

The F-22 being stealth-capable added a new gameplay element. The player would not only fly the plane, they would also manage the plane’s stealthiness during the game by restricting radio communications and weapons activity (EMCON). While this added a lot to immersion (reminding some of TFX), ADF never lived up to what had been promised.

Last but not least, DID (being a British company) was now confronted with more and more American flight simulation fans – who were the rudest and most abusive idiots in the eyes of one DID employee.

Total Air War

Air war being simulated.

ADF’s successor, F-22 Total Air War (TAW), arrived in . It finally contained the dynamic campaign mode that was promised for ADF already. There were some defects – like enemy nations having infinite supply of new airships – but these were minor. The scenario was living and breathing. War did not pause when you were off your plane. Fans still regard this as TAW’s great strength.

TAW received better critics than its predecessor, but for players, it was just an update of ADF. They were unwilling to pay the full price for it (even less so after ADF was released in an unfinished state).

DID released a quite different simulation, Wargasm, the same year. It has always been rumored that TAW was just a side project to cash in quickly. More over, there was constant rumors about Infogrames suppressing TAW’s sales by producing too few copies (only 50,000 were ever sold) or doing too little marketing. Infogrames always challenged these accusations.

DID is dead, long live Rage

After the release of Total Air War and after a major dispute with their publisher Infogrames, co-founder Martin Kenwright left DID to form Evolution Studios. This was the beginning of the end.

In 1999, key staff moved to Rage, with just ten employees left wandering around an empty building trying to gather their thoughts. Insiders blamed Infogrames, upper management, bad marketing decisions (e.g. calling a title Wargasm – unsuitable for large retail com­panies) and the games just not selling very well. In the end, it was probably a mix of all of that.

The company was subsequently sold to Rage. Their last flight simulation, Eurofighter Typhoon (2001), was not as successful as its predecessors. DID became defunct years after.

Where’s the source code?

When it became apparent that DID would not maintain Total Air War any longer, and that modding was nearly impossible due to encryption of the game’s files, people started asking for source code. On two occasions, they almost succeeded.

Polak making sense of terrain data.

In August 2002, a German TAW modder under the nickname Otto got a letter-agreement from Info­grames over the development of an official patch. It would have been royalty-free, but all rights on the patch would be transferred to Infogrames, who would only agree to release the patch after review. For reasons unknown to me, the agreement never took place.

In 2005, an Algerian student under the nickname Moms_killer got a similar contract. After it was signed, Infogrames (now Atari) admitted they did not have the source code and he should contact Martin Kenwright over it. Kenwright never answered him.

At this moment we have a license agreement signed by Atari wich give us the rights to get the source code of TAW and use it to modify the game.

Having this license, in the last months we have tried to contact Martin Kenwright to get that source code as he is actually the only person who seems to have got the code.

We have tried to contact him lots of times but we haven’t get any response until now so if anybody can help us in this please contact us.

Even if Kenwright had answered, it would have been questionable whether he was entitled to give out the code in the first place. Although DID had been sold to Rage, the rights to TAW appear to have remained at Atari. Rage’s employees were themselves unsure about the legal status.

This turned out to be the main problem: After Kenwright leaving DID, source code and rights were no longer in the same place.

Excerpt from one of the letter agreements with Atari.

People never stopped asking for source code. It became a phenomenon. Even in 2018 – 20 years after the release of TAW – our team still received requests for it.

But at this point, I assume all hope is lost. Even if the source code should appear, its value would be questionable: Tools have changed radically; I wouldn’t know how to handle the Glide SDK, the Windows 98 SDK or the exact version of the Watcom C++ Compiler. We’d have to port hundreds of thousands of lines of code to modern interfaces before we could fix a single bug.

The Golden Years

Things changed in April 2006 when modder Krusade published a tool to read the game’s files from memory while it ran. Shortly after that, Benjamin Haisch (a.k.a. john_doe) solved DID’s proprietary RA compression.

Polak proudly presenting the first textures extracted from TAW.

Seven years after its release, TAW’s did.dat – the game’s primary data file – had finally been cracked open. Textures and models suddenly became accessible and replaceable. Modders like polak (a.k.a. Xela), MGonzales, mikew and DrKevDog rushed to improve the game.

One of the first – and probably most significant – mods was Polak’s enhanced texture set. Though still limited to 256 colors and 96×96 pixels per terrain tile, it improved the game’s looks drastically – eight years after its initial release. MGonzales and mikew provided tools to process texture files and palettes. DrKevDog researched the different texture formats of TAW and discovered some ways to replace the bland 256-color textures with 24-bit textures (True Color).

mikew placing a Norwegian iceberg on Luxor’s runway.

mikew analyzed the data format of the game’s models. He wrote a model viewer, which is a rough task considering TAW’s quirks (more on that later). He experimented with the manipulation of model files and in 2008, we could see models from EF2000’s Norway map being placed on TAW’s Red Sea map, giving fans hope that the legendary predecessor could be ported to the improved engine.

DrKevDog and Polak found some ways to manipulate the color of the sky – not just with altitude (which was TAW’s preset) but even in different directions. DrKevDog later specialized in sky and weather effects, adding layers of clouds, sky boxes, fog, and dusk/dawn effects.

TAW only supports resolutions up to 800×600 (although there is a fan-made 1024×768 patch). This could be circumvented with the use of a Glide Wrapper: A program that acts like an old graphics card, but internally upscales all rendering.

DrKevDog experimenting with True Color textures.

Other mods included a new head-up display, custom missions, and missions from the predecessor F-22: Air Dominance Fighter. On Windows XP and Windows Vista, the game often ran too fast or crashed, and there were problems with the in-game chatter if one didn’t install the DSP Truespeech Codec, but the community worked hard to fix all of this.

At one point, all of these mods and improvements were collected into one package, bundled together with other TAW tools like mission editors. This was the birth of Total Air War 2008, which was extended to Total Air War 2.0 in 2009. Home Fries’ release note says it all:

Total Air War 2.0 is a total conversion of F-22 Total Air War (TAW), and also includes the campaigns from F-22 Air Dominance Fighter (ADF) and the Red Sea Operations (RSO) expansion disc. The goal of TAW 2.0 is to provide a simulation experience that equals or surpasses your fond memories with the original ADF and TAW.

Eleven years after its initial release, TAW was reborn. The fan-made update was widely acclaimed and praised by players of the series. At a time when flight simulations were largely considered dead, TAW 2.0 generated more than a thousand downloads in its first month, and the TAW community revived.

But all of this would be shattered shortly after.

The TAW 2008 1.5 trailer.

The 2009 Takedown

The SimHQ forum was the heart of the TAW modding community. Not only was it home to modders and fans – (ex) DID employees would casually answer questions, too. One day in November 2009, it just vanished. And so did all downloads of TAW 2.0 on other sites.

Polak simulating dawn.

It is not quite clear what happened. Here’s what I learned from other modders:

In 2006, a modder had composed a version of the game that would fit into just 50 megabytes, but it was removed from file hosters for suspect of piracy. He blamed this on the TAW 2.0 team. So in 2009, he sent letters to websites, claiming that TAW 2.0 was an illegal download that should be removed.

Most sites reacted with blindly taking down anything related to TAW 2.0 and deleting associated accounts. Though not being actual cease and desist orders, the letters served their intent.

Infogrames/Atari was informed as well. It is unknown whether they took any legal actions; probably not. Current SimHQ staff found no evidence for a cease and desist letter, though it was mentioned in hearsay earlier:

If I remember correctly, at one time either us or another site did get a cease-and-desist from Atari regarding this; I'm not sure now. I know that someone did, and that was enough. We attempted to get the readers to stop linking and stop posting about it. Some did. Some refused. So we had to shut the forum down.

Subsequent links to TAW 2.0 resulted in permanent user bans. Almost all knowledge on TAW’s internals was lost (as even the Internet Archive had only saved a small subset of the discussions). The community moved to Combatsim.com and the remaining knowledge was gathered in the TAW Wiki.

Coming Up Next

The 2010’s: Extending TAW’s world, decoding models, finding hidden levels, extracting the F-22 flight model, building our own engine …

Stay tuned!

References

  1. The system is already being used preparing pilots to use laser guided bombing systems in Jaguar fighter planes over Bosnia last year.
    Granada Tonight on : YouTube – EF2000 on Newsround 17 Jan 1996
  2. 700,000 copies for EF2000 was for all versions of it (EF2000, V2, Tactcom, Evolution, Super and budget). EF2000 was an amazing success at the time. Even compared to conventional PC video games that did well.
    Roger Godfrey (then Programmer at DID) on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  3. EF2k was about a million lines of code, about 3\4 of it was utter pants code. Most of it had to be thrown away for F-22 ADF. EF2k never had a game design, never had code design and certainly never had project plan. It was the project from hell.
    Roger Godfrey (then Programmer at DID) on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  4. Don’t get me wrong, I love EF (and so did many of the team who worked on it), but it was a very difficult birth. My memories of the development are mostly pleasant. We effectively gave up all our free time and social lives to make EF. Several marriages were put on the line and at least two of the team came down with serious stress related illness. But we got it done, saved DID from ruin and pulled Ocean’s nads off the barbecue with that release.
    Roger Godfrey (then Programmer at DID) on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  5. Sure, there are decent people out there but as a whole the flight-sim community stank - especially those in the US who were the rudest and most abusive idiots I ever had the misfortune to meet.
    Saxon on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  6. COMBATSIM.COM – Total Air War - AWACS Briefing (archived)
  7. Roger Godfrey explaining the dynamic campaign system on : COMBATSIM.COM – DID’s Perspective On Real Time Dynamic Campaigns (archived)
  8. It's an incredibly sad situation, there's just me and 9 others guys just wandering around an empty building trying to gather our thoughts.
    Carl Jackson on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  9. COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  10. Following confused speculation over the Warrington-based developer's future, Rage has snapped up DID from Infogrames for 5.5 million British pounds, or $9.1 million. The news comes hot on the heels of reports suggesting that Rage had poached staff from the flight sim specialist. It also comes as a surprise, given that Infogrames purchased the studio itself just four months ago. However, it seems Infogrames, which already owned 25.5 percent of DID, but acquired it outright in June, was effectively grooming the company for a buyout.
    Spectre on : COMBATSIM.COM – DiD: Beginning of the End (archived)
  11. Would it be possible to release the code publicly, or even for compensation, if there is a license agreement that any modifications and improvements would belong to Rage, and could be used by rage in a future release of a EF2000/TAW product.
    SimHQ Forums – Letter to Steve Hunt/Rage (archived)
  12. Release the source code! Lol!
    SimHQ Forums – Steve Hunt - if your listening...your legancy lives on (archived)
  13. SimHQ Forums – rig_1.ssd (archived)
  14. After long time waiting and sending lots of E-Mails to infogrames France ( Not germany, the delay was coming from france!!!) i finally received the draft for the agreement today.
    Moms_killer on : F-22 Hangar – Very good news about TAW mod group !!! (archived)
  15. Krusade on : F-22 Total Air War Official Mod Website – Project report (archived)
  16. […] as mentioned elsewhere, I don't think we even own it anymore. That's not me being -ve, it's just the way it is.
    Steve Hunt (then programmer at Rage) on : SimHQ Forums – D3D/OpenGL update/patch for EF2000 ver.2/EF2000 graphics+ PETITION (archived)
  17. I just got the responsibility of a professional military simulator project and I plan to modify TAW 2.3 code for this project. Is it possible we can cooperate? Or to whom I need to talk to for the access to source code of TAW 2.3? Or who has the copyright of the source code at the moment after D.I.D. disbanded? I am authorized and ready to talk over half a million dollar for this code.
    RaptorLead74 on : COMBATSIM.COM – F-22 Total Air War 2.30 (Final) Released (archived)
  18. Even if we got the complete source code in best condition now and we managed to set up a Windows 95 virtual machine with the exact Watcom C++ package they used, I'd have to work some months full-time to migrate it to a state where we can compile and start the game on a current Windows machine. By 2017, we may be able to do the first fixes or changes.
    Krycztij on : COMBATSIM.COM – source code? (archived)
  19. The tool works in background detecting the files that the f22.exe tries to load from did.dat and extracting/uncompressing them to the taw path.
    Krusade on : f22taw.com – DID.DAT Fully Open!!! (archived)
  20. […] the program you refer to extracts the files from memory after they have been decompressed by the games executable. The game needs to be launched for the tool to work.
    Mr.Mouse on : XeNTaX – Request for inclusion of TAW in the list of games (archived)
  21. I figured out the decompression scheme. […] It's basically an LZ77-based algorithm, I think with Huffman.
    john_doe on : XeNTaX – Request for inclusion of TAW in the list of games (archived)
  22. On October 12ᵗʰ 2006 Benjamin comes in: “I figured out the decompression scheme”. Not only that, but he posts a tool to decompress those files perfectly! Needless to say this got some people in the TAW community really excited.
    Mr.Mouse on : XeNTaX Blog (archived)
  23. SimHQ Forums – Textures (archived)
  24. SimHQ Forums – Mikew's Palette Editor. (archived)
  25. http://simhq.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/ubb/printthread/Board/5/main/323123/type/thread.html
  26. SimHQ Forums – EF2000/TAW hybrid. (archived)
  27. SimHQ Forums – OT: VB Modding Tools (archived)
  28. SimHQ Forums – EF2000/TAW hybrid. (archived)
  29. SimHQ Forums – Sky color commands ... (archived)
  30. Manteau's patch allows for the Direct3D version of TAW to be run in 1024x768.
    TAW Wiki – ADF/TAW Architecture and Modding – Direct3D 1024x768 Resolution Patch (archived)
  31. http://simhq.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/ubb/printthread/Board/5/main/323123/type/thread.html
  32. COMBATSIM.COM – F-22 Total Air War 2.30 (Final) Released (archived)
  33. We just hit the millennium mark!
    Thanks everyone.
    Home Fries on : COMBATSIM.COM – F-22 Total Air War 2.30 (Final) Released (archived)
  34. As far as I can tell there have been three DID developers on SimHQ...

    Steve Hunt
    Martin Carter
    Steve White

    Here's a thread with all three […]
    MGonzales on : SimHQ Forums – Palette files (archived)
  35. SimHQ Forums – Sky color commands ... (archived)
  36. If I remember correctly, at one time either us or another site did get a cease-and-desist from Atari regarding this; I'm not sure now. I know that someone did, and that was enough. We attempted to get the readers to stop linking and stop posting about it. Some did. Some refused. So we had to shut the forum down.
    Cat on : SimHQ Forums – No Total Air War sub-forum? (archived)