My all-time favorite flight simulator was F/A 18 Interceptor from Electronic Arts. With its “Top Gun-ish” opening credit soundtrack, the mood was set for quality visual combat. I still own it and here are some photos of my Electronic Arts classic album version, an interview with creator Bob Dinnerman, and a 25th Anniversary tribute.
2004 Interview with F/A 18 Interceptor Author Bob Dinnerman by Tom Steinberg.
In the late 1980s, a flight sim was released for the Amiga which was so atmospheric, so unbelievably cool that to this day it holds a special place in the heart of most nostalgic 20 and 30 something geeks. Its enduring appeal is different from that of PacMan or Pong – people still really love this game. That’s why there is a usenet thread nearly 13 years long discussing how to finish the last mission. That game was F/A18 Interceptor, and it was programmed by Bob Dinnerman.
Now, for reasons too socially tragic to confess to, I’m bringing you the world’s first, and only, Bob Dinnerman F/A 18 Interceptor Interview. I’m really delighted that Bob chose to take part, and I hope that all of you who loved Interceptor will express your gratitude to him in the comments field below. Now read on…
Me: For some background, can you tell us a bit about why you wrote F/A 18 Interceptor, and what happened during the development process?
Bob: After writing the arcade game Discs of Tron while working at Bally/Midway back in the early 1980?s, I started to explore 3D computer graphics and flight simulation and quickly became hooked on it. While attending my first SIGGRAPH conference in 1984 and viewing some demos of high-end flight simulation being developed at Evans & Sutherland, I was totally awestruck and tried to decide if I should pursue a position with a company doing some kind of 3D computer graphics application or to try to be an independent developer. After finding no companies in my geographic area doing anything that I was looking for, I was approached by game developers that I met at SIGGRAPH who asked me if I?d be interested in developing a combat flight simulation game for the Amiga computer. ?PERFECT!?, I thought and being a single guy (then) and able to take risks I wasted no time striking up a development deal with them, immediately gave notice to Bally/Midway, purchased an Amiga 1000 (my very first computer!) and began developing a basic flight simulator. We showed a very simple demo to Electronic Arts and almost immediately obtained a development agreement for a combat flight sim game. From that point I was totally devoted to the development putting in a huge number of hours designing, programming and debugging which really wore me down, but hey, it was most definitely a labor of love. And so… After all the years following, developing combat flight sims, it turns out that I truly derived the most pleasure in developing F/A-18 Interceptor over any other.
Me: To what do you attribute the sensation of flight and speed that people still say made Interceptor unique?
Bob: One thing that I strived to maintain was accuracy of visual scale and not resort to faking reported airspeed or altitude as has been done with other flight sim games in an attempt to cover for certain graphics limitations. Does this help to convey a better sensation of flight and speed?… Perhaps. But another possibility might be in how the engine sounds were manipulated in concert with the visuals.
Me: To me one of the most striking and memorable aspects of Interceptor are the sound effects. When I played it again yesterday I was amazed by their enduring quality. How did you create these? Why do you think they remain so powerful? And what inspired you to add in the little bump, and change of volume when you pass the sound barrier? This seems to be everyone’s key memory of the game.
Bob: In the ever-challenging attempts that I made to add to the experience as a whole, I tried to keep mindful of the importance of quality sound effects and their careful tie-in with the visuals. Dave Warhol takes credit for creating the base sound effects data of which I incorporated into the sim and manipulated during game play. One thing that I was sensitive to was to minimize any potential, well let’s say, ‘irritation’ that might otherwise result from the constantly playing engine sounds, and believe me… I sure got quite an earful of them during development! With that, I tried to coordinate the various engine sound parameters (pitch, rumble and volume) with the throttle and stick actions not only in such a way that seemed ‘right’ but also to help the player ‘feel’ the speed and maneuvering. My inspiration to add the little bump and volume change upon breaking the sound barrier were desperate attempts to find ANYTHING possible to help out in the experience and prevent potential monotony. I derived the avionics tonal effects from the film TOP GUN. Interestingly, with Interceptor’s aggressive development schedule, I do recall being concerned about the amount of time I was spending on the sound effects, but I like to believe that the time was well spent and contributed significantly to the game as a whole and helped it endure through the years.
Me:Why do you think people who don’t play modern flight sims much still have such a strong affection for it?
Bob: Back to basics, maybe. Perhaps many people develop an attachment to its approachability since it’s relatively easy to learn and one can quickly dive right into a fighter jet and do anything from stunt flying aerobatics, to intense dogfighting, to landing on a carrier deck. Since many hard core sims require lots of complex controls and setup just to get into the air they can cause much frustration for many, while Interceptor on the other hand, offers a non-intimidating sim/game mix.
Me: How do you feel about the fact that Interceptor can be downloaded and played on emulators?
Bob: I’m totally gratified that people find Interceptor worthy of being downloaded and played after so many years especially in light of its rather rudimentary visual content by standards constantly increasing over time.
Me: Who wrote the memorable music, and was it a tribute to anything in particular?
Bob: Dave Warhol created the excellent musical score for Interceptor and from the day he first presented it for consideration until the present, I’ve always remained totally pleased with it. I had requested Dave to try to convey the atmosphere to that of the music in the film TOP GUN which was at that time still a relatively new hit movie and he certainly did an exceptional job.
Me: What do you think of today’s game production values?
Bob: Aside from the ever-continuing advancements in technology that get incorporated into game hardware and software, and since game production in recent years have been tending toward development by larger teams, acquisitions of licenses galore and having enormous production costs, there has been quite a shift in game production values from those of years gone by with so many creative concepts toward sticking to a few proven successful concepts and creating clone after clone. I would love to see a resurgence of more creativity and diversity. Risk-takers are indeed developing creative and unproven concept games out there and I certainly hope that the trend shifts more toward that direction.
Me: Getting silly now. Do you think modern games have enough use of that scrolling effect where text appears one letter at a time, accompanied by little electronic ticking sound? If not, could you see yourself using the effect again?
Bob: Well, I never seem to tire of seeing/hearing that techie-type effect ever since I originally saw it done on some sci-fi films, which is what inspired me to do it in the first place along with, by the way, the computer-type font that I put into Interceptor.
Me: What /exactly/ is required to complete the last mission with the enemy aircraft carrier. Nobody who has ever done it knows exactly what they did.
Bob: Ah yes, the ‘infamous’ last mission of F/A-18 Interceptor… As far as what I believe I did, the destruction of all enemy aircraft plus the enemy sub and a successful return to base should do it. I must note though, that the enemy carrier sub never actually blows up even if it’s deemed destroyed! However I’m admittedly a bit remiss on exactly what constitutes the carrier sub having been destroyed, that is, perhaps the minimum number of cannon or missile hits on it, etc. I apologize for my brain lapse on this detail from 15 years ago! Another detail that I’m curious to know is if after one elects to and successfully lands on the carrier sub and gets rearmed/refueled, can he/she resume the mission and blast away at the carrier some more?! Some day I should find and dig up the code, go through it and verify what conditions are required to complete that mission. Again, my humble apologies. A footnote: Maybe the elusiveness to being able to complete this mission (though unintentional) has contributed to the game?s lure??
Me: Was yours the first flight sim to incorporate the now ubiquitous Golden Gate Bridge? Do you believe that flying under the Golden Gate has become a prerequisite of a good flight sim?
Bob: I think that the Golden Gate Bridge may have existed in an early version of Microsoft/SubLogic’s ‘Flight Simulator’ or ‘Jet’, though I do believe that F/A-18 Interceptor was the first COMBAT flight sim to offer flying around that ubiquitous bridge, which by the way I fondly recall modeling using graph paper and a pencil and entering lots and lots of numbers into the code. As far as flying under it being a prerequisite of a good flight sim, I can think of no better prerequisite than that except perhaps flying under it while inverted!
Me: Are there any Easter Eggs in the game world worth tracking down?
Bob: By now I?m sure that in the last 15 years anything that?s in there has been seen or done, but to recap some include the ability to land onto the enemy shadow sub to get refueled and rearmed, landing upside down on the carrier, landing onto roadways and driving your jet around the San Francisco area to track down the good old Electronic Arts Headquarters building and using it for target practice, but I also enjoyed ‘buzzing’ control towers or the carrier?s conning tower and switch to viewing from that tower and zooming in/out the view of my aircraft while launching ordnance.
The widely known ability to select  for the “Free Flight, No Enemy Confrontation”, which places your jet on the ground without a runway was originally intended to be another starting location (at Edwards Air Force Base) but I didn?t have enough time to finish it. Leaving the ability to take off from there in the game was, I believe, not intentional but… no harm done.
Me: My friend Jack asks “Do you think that in your game, Strategic Air Command was slightly laid back in sending out just one pilot in response to international emergencies such as intercepting MiGs attacking Air Force One?”
Bob: Or perhaps it was just that certain SAC officials weren?t overly fond enough of their Commander-in-Chief at that time to warrant sending out more??
Me: Jack’s most powerful memory of F/A 18 was playing on the day when his dateline for the first mission, September 01, 1994 (a futuristic date when the program was written in 1989) became the present day. Can you remember what you were doing?
Bob: Well, regretfully I?m fairly certain I wasn’t playing F/A-18 on that day. I was most probably too wrapped up gruelingly trying to work out some feature or bug fix while developing JetFighter III, though I’m sure I would have VERY MUCH preferred firing up F/A-18 on that day had I realized what day it was L.
Me: TedTheDog, founder of UK gaming community Barrysworld asked you if you “intentionally wrote the game so idiots like me and Mikeybear could land upside down on the carrier (thats a REAL mans carrier landing!)”
Bob: Very close to the end of the game?s development that ‘funny’ bug was brought to my attention and a few of us debated whether or not to just leave it in (fear of messing with the physics too soon before shipping). The obvious outcome of that debate was considered a bit risky at the time but now I’m glad that I left it in there!
Me: And finally for the question we’ve all been waiting for. Will there ever be an F/A Interceptor 2?
Bob: Publishing and marketing an F/A-18 Interceptor 2 is totally up to the owner of that franchise, which, as far as I understand, still belongs to Electronic Arts.