From modder to game developer, Brian Hernandez’s marvelous tribute to the flight simulations of the ‘90s

A story about fighter aircrafts, space ships, game design, modding and programming, with a pinch of nostalgia.

Brian Hernandez’s tweets are like madeleines de Proust to me, a reminiscence of an era that shaped my taste in video games. Every now and then, Brian drops a video of his upcoming project featuring an aircraft simulator straight from the ’90s. And every time, the way he blends deliberate angular style and super dynamic effects brings me joy. Tiny Combat Arena is the perfect combo between nostalgia and modernity.

Naturally, the full realistic experience has always been a dream for gamers — including me — and the holy grail for developers. Yet, as this dream becomes true, we start to remember how expressive low poly objects can be and how visual restriction drives creativity with radical artistic choices.

I decided to reach out to Brian Hernandez for a lengthy and captivating discussion about his project, his inspirations and his perspective about game design. While being a very private person when you ask background questions about his life, Brian turns out to be very loquacious when it’s video game related. He is passionate and gives very thorough answers, which is a blessing for me. However I’ve decided to make this article accessible to the majority of readers, and therefore left the most technical parts out of it.

The early days

Born in 1989 in the suburbs of Chicago, Brian was brought into gaming very early on: “My father was a PC gamer through and through, so my early years playing games were exclusively PC DOS games and later on Windows 95/98 […] Eventually he built me a computer out of spare parts from an old computer of his.” Insisting on being a PC gamer doesn’t seem quite relevant, as nowadays computers and consoles share roughly the same technical capabilities and even game catalog, but until the 2000s they were two very distinct worlds.

PCs were basically designed and sold as expensive and dull workstations that could run games, consequently the average owner was not a kid. As Brian remembers it: “To even keep a computer running to play the latest games required a certain kind of person and dedication. That demographic, along with the kind of people who had the skills to create and sell computer games, had a big overlap with traditionally nerdy interests like science fiction or wargaming.” Also PCs weren’t always equipped with game controllers or soundcards. All this resulted in a very different catalog of games.

I think playing so many of those early DOS games really influenced my tastes,“ says Brian. “Back then they tended to be a lot more simulation focused and complex. It sounds crazy nowadays, but every other cover of a computer gaming magazine featured some kind of flight or space sim. Even mech sims, like Mechwarrior, were commonplace.

Indeed, way before PCs became respected game stations with the advent of the 3D dedicated graphic cards, hardcore simulation was one of the genres dominating the charts every month. Most PC games came with thick and comprehensive instruction manuals, maps and keyboard overlays to remember the commands. Even the Star Wars games on PC were marketed as complex and “realistic” simulators with the X-Wing series — which Brian is still a huge fan of — while the consoles featured racing or action games inspired by cult scenes from the movies.

Eventually, Brian was acquainted with traditional game systems in 1999 with a Dreamcast. “During the Xbox 360 generation, I primarily played console games, since that’s where almost all development in the industry had shifted. It was kind of a dark age for the PC and I recall hearing a lot of “PC gaming is dead” talk until Steam [a video game digital distribution service on PC] really caught on towards the end of the generation.” This small detour on consoles led Brian to enjoy arcade and dynamic simulations as well — such as Ace Combat or Over G Fighters, which had a huge impact on him as a future game designer.

The Golden Age of modding

In the late ’90s, the release of Star Wars: Jedi Knight introduced Brian to the concept of modding. A mod (short for “modification”) is basically something added by fans to alter the original game. It can be anything, from new content, enhanced features, new rules of gameplay, to even a whole new experience where you barely could recognize the original. The endless possibilities brought by the usage of mods captivated Brian right away. “I spent countless hours downloading and playing on the many, many custom maps and mods people had made.”

For a long time, modding could be sometimes associated with hacking since it was not always intended by the developers, even though they would not complain about it, as mods boosted the original games’ sales significantly. Players had to figure out how the game content was originally scripted to alter it and share the result to the community.

While in middle school, Brian started to build his own mods: “Battlefield 1942 was the first game I actually made mods for. I can’t specifically remember why, but it probably seemed easy enough that I could do it, so I did it. […] At the simplest level it’s very basic stuff, like changing the fire rate of weapons, or making vehicles go very fast. Since Battlefield had such a robust configuration and physics system, players could get really creative with it and make things like helicopters or walking tanks.”

After releasing a few mods on Battlefield 1942 and its sequel Battlefield 2, Brian fell in love with Freelancer, a classic space opera simulator. “It was the game I got into modding for the deepest, so I was intimately familiar with how the game worked since I spent so much time breaking it and pushing it to its limits,” he says, remembering how he improved some aspect of the game with the help of the thriving community at the time.

Brian feels blessed for living through this extraordinary period in gaming history: “I’m very thankful I happened to grow up during what seems like the “golden age” of modding. It exposed me to a lot of ideas, and I owe a lot to the amazingly open Battlefield and Freelancer communities.” He adds “mods were so mainstream in the PC gaming community that people bought games just to play the mods for it. Games tended to be built in a way that facilitated easy modding, even if unintentionally. It was such a common thing that it was almost weirder if a game didn’t get mods of some kind.” To give video game neophytes a reference point of modding’s impact in the industry, the famous Counter Strike was originally a Half-Life mod created by two 18 and 22 year old amateurs.

Even though modding might not be considered proper programming, Brian was definitely getting his hands dirty, something any long-time PC gamer would be accustomed to. It was an easy path for him to express his creativity without having to start from scratch (most of the time without even writing a line of code) and a good way to learn the arduous art of game design. Also, it was the first step to becoming a creator himself: “So many of the foundational computer and software related skills I have, come from playing and making mods. […] None of this was really programming, so it’s not like there was a language to learn, but you do spend a lot of time gaining an intimate understanding of how the game works and what can/can’t be done.

I… think I know how to do that

Brian switched to computer science halfway through college after not doing too well as a mechanical engineer, and got hooked right away by programming: “It was pretty amazing to me since it seemed so much more powerful than modding.” Brian later became a software engineer working most of his career on various defense simulation and training software. “I’ve worked on flight simulators for a couple U.S. (and one German) aircraft, as well a land-based combined arms trainer.”

In his free time, the fresh engineer tried to write his own game engine. This is obviously an overambitious task as the game engine is a very complex piece of software, yet essential. It usually handles the rendering (display), physics, sounds, animation, controls, assets, and so on. Most developers prefer to use off-the-shelf engines such as Unreal or Unity to be able to focus their energy on the game design, and Brian is no exception.

Getting more and more familiar with Unity, he finally gave up the idea to build his own engine in July 2012. A smart move judging by the immediate result: “In a single afternoon I not only managed to recreate what had previously taken me a month, but I had far surpassed it. By the end of the weekend, I had a cool little thing running with AI ships and some turrets,” remembers Brian. For the next two years, he kept working on small experiments featuring — as always — missiles and battle space ships, some of them still being available on his itch page.

In May 2014, reading about the development of House of the Dying Sun, Brian saw the incredible work Mike Tipul (the game author) was doing. He was admirative, and felt challenged as well: “It was the perfect blend of ‘Wow that looks amazing!’ and ‘I… think I know how to do that.’”

He called his first real project Unity Combat Space Sim. Funnily enough, Brian might be a complete and very talented creator, but naming his productions appears to be his obvious weakness.

The result was promising, especially considering this was Brian’s first attempt as a game developer. The few videos on his YouTube channel are very appealing but sadly, they are the only remains of this game as he never managed to finish it. “It was a fun project but it was never meant to be a fully finished and released game. I mean, it would have been great if it ever got to that point, but that was never really the goal,” he says.

Unfinished business

A few years later, the young developer then started to work on a series of aircraft simulator games, each one with a different approach and goal. Brian calls affectionately this series “the failed franchise” for being mostly composed of unfinished games.

Tiny Combat and Tiny Combat Redux were released in March and May 2018. They both feature very colorful angular 3D environments and look quite the same, but where Tiny Combat is just a simple Ace Combat knock off, Redux was meant to experiment with more complex game mechanics and more realism.

In November 2018, after being called out on never finishing his projects, Brian joined a game jam where the goal was to create a complete game (beginning and end) from scratch. He came up with Tiny Combat Arcade, with only 4 playable levels and very simple gameplay but at least, the game could be finished. Besides proving to himself (and to the world) that he was capable of creating a complete game, the lessons learned were way more important to him as “it laid the groundwork for ‘real game’ problems and solutions.”

At last, Tiny Combat Arena

In July 2019, noticing that “nobody makes flight sims like the more accessible ’90s flight sims anymore,” he launched the development of his most ambitious project, an “open ended sim-lite flying game. Inspired by realistic mechanics where they add depth, but streamlined so that you don’t need to read a 200-page manual to play,” this time called Tiny Combat Arena.

At first, the project took quite the wrong path as fundamental architectural problems were continually kicked down the road and had to be addressed before it could be expanded to a full game. Creating a technical demo is pretty straightforward, but a complete game requires a lot of “little things people take for granted in real games like more than one map, a main menu, or an options screen.” Brian was already dedicating 30–40 hours of hobby time a week along his regular 40 hour a week day job and felt desperate about the situation. “Tiny Combat Arena was in a weird place around the time that happened. I wasn’t sure it could be developed further.”

The pandemic and the unfortunate lay off that resulted from it in April 2020 incidentally allowed Brian to work full time on the project. Losing his job was a tough one, but at least, he had the time to put the game back on track with an almost ground-up rewrite. “The argument could be made that [it] was the best thing to happen to my mental health in a long time!” he says with a bit of relief, “I spend like 90% of my waking life working on my game, playing other games, or otherwise doing something game-related like reading about or watching them, so you could say video games are important in my life to an unhealthy degree.

Judging by the number of open source libraries on his Github page (developer page) and his numerous posts on Twitter or Youtube channel, Brian seems not only devoted to his code, but he’s also willing to share, engage and help relentlessly his peers. An unselfishness he takes seriously and has to do with his past experience as a modder: “It is what inspires me to give back when I can, and make my own code available to others so they can use it to make cool games. It’s also why it drives me up a wall when modders in particular selfishly withhold information from the community, since I simply wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t able to build upon the resources and examples of other modders.

The perfect visual recipe

The retro graphics are evidently the first things that catch the eye when you look at Tiny Combat Arena. As I previously wrote in an article about Frédéric Souchu and the Pico-8, creating retro-ish games in 2020 might be done in various ways. One of them is setting imaginative technical boundaries as much as possible to have a genuine vintage look and feel. Brian decided to “pretend that Tiny Combat Arena is actually running on a fictional game engine with many of the same restrictions a circa ’90s engine would have, though stretched in places because it’s still a modern game. Some of the restrictions are actually technical limitations, while others are more of a conscious effort.” Brian pays tribute to Lexaloffle’s fantasy console calling this approach the “Pico-8 school of thinking”.

To put down these virtual restrictions, he observed closely three reputed simulators released in 1995 (A-10 Attack!, Su-27 Flanker, and F/A-18 Hornet 2.0) and their graphical visual limitations. He then came up with his own set of rules: no textures (plain colors only), simple geometric shapes for particles (smoke, explosion, etc), no transparency, limited lighting fidelity and of course, a drastic polygon limit per object. “All aircrafts are around 1000–1500 triangles, while vehicles are 300–400 depending on the type of vehicle. Operating under the same limitations as those older games forces you to use the same modeling tricks that they did. I think it’s a fun limitation, because it makes for distinctive looking models, and some really interesting and ‘improper’ solutions to problems that would typically be solved with more polygons.”

Yet, even with these restrictions, Brian still manages brilliantly to make the game very polished and modern looking as soon as the plane takes off, with many clever artistic choices providing a super smooth and refreshing experience. And this achievement didn’t come easily.

Brian changed the artistic direction many times until he found his muse mid-2019: “A-10 Attack! single handedly changed the direction of Tiny Combat overnight. Early in the project’s life, I was struggling with what the visual style of the game should be. After watching a great video by Silicon Classics, I immediately fell in love. I never played A-10 Cuba! when it was new, but I became obsessed with this game for several months. I got a MacOS 9 emulator up and running to play the original (Attack!) and its expansion (Cuba!). The beautiful simplicity and clarity of its graphics, along with the unbelievably ahead of its time physics set the bar for what I wanted to make.”

The quest for the right flight model

Reducing Tiny Combat Arena to a visual homage of the ’90s would be a great mistake. The colorful environment and sharp edges are a bit deceiving, as Brian’s intention is not to create a completely arcade game such as Ace Combat, nor to reproduce an authentic old school gameplay. He is looking for the perfect equilibrium between fun and simulation.

Asked about how he fine-tunes his flight models, he answers: “First and foremost: does it feel good? There’s no objective way to measure that, but feeling smooth and responsive is generally a good thing and is ultimately the most important part. I do occasionally boot up other sims like DCS (one of the most realistic simulations) to get a general reference point for something, but I’m not really looking to have a 1:1 realistic flight model. As long as it’s in the right ballpark and captures the more notable aspects of the plane, then I’m happy. Honestly, I wish I could make the flight model slightly less realistic, but the combination of VTOL (‘Vertical and Take Off Landing’ of the AV-8B Harrier II, playable in the game) and the complex damage model gives it some very difficult requirements.

Programming and calibrating the game physics and the flight model is a tremendous task, especially for a single individual. That doesn’t stop Brian from sharing on a regular basis on Twitter every new feature he makes, or even from giving explanations about his game designing direction. He even released a demo to his fans to gather feedback, wondering how they will react with a new flight model making the game more realistic, therefore a bit more demanding for casual players. Even though he’s not a licensed pilot, you can tell that Brian’s knowledge and passion about flight simulation is a seal of quality in itself.

The future of Tiny Combat Arena

What will the final version look like? “I know broadly what I’d like it to be, but exactly how to achieve it is maybe not as concrete as I’d wish.” Planned to be released this year, Tiny Combat Arena is obviously delayed but when asked about it, the very talkative creator reverts to the cagey and mysterious Brian from the beginning: “I have a plan for release, and what is in it, but I don’t really want to talk about it yet.

Brian is a workaholic but let’s face it, working alone — even as hard as he does — has its limits. “I think the idea of teaming up with somebody with similar ideas is cool — the Project Wingman developer and I have also joked about making a game together — , but I’m not sure how it would work out logistically. Any kind of hypothetical team up would be for a future game and probably isn’t in the cards.

A stance that has to do with the fact that living off his own video games doesn’t appear like a reasonable idea to him: “I do think the fantasy of working on games full time is appealing, but It seems like a poor decision on every rational level due to the incredibly unstable job market, poor pay, lack of benefits, and poor work-life balance.”

Let’s hope Tiny Combat Arena’s success — if ever released — will prove him wrong.

The evolution of mods

Besides his project, I was interested about Brian’s perspective on mods as a creative process. After all, the mods of the ’90s were a bridge that led him to proper game development and helped him craft his game designer skills. The answer was less straightforward than expected as a lot of things changed in the industry since.

[One of] the other major shifts is how easy game development has become, in the past five years in particular. Instead of just modding a game you like, it is not beyond reason to make your own. Accessible engines and tools like Game Maker and Unity allow any sufficiently motivated individual to create new games. You’re no longer bound by the limits of Freelancer or Battlefield,” he says, admitting that the emergence of such game engines with hard coded assets pipeline is also the reason why modding a game became so difficult for amateurs.

“Although it’s not impossible to build a modern Unity/Unreal game to support modding, either intentionally or incidentally, it is something you as a developer have to go very out of your way to do. You will be working against the way these engines are intended to be used, making your life as a developer more difficult for no good reason. These in-engine editors are typically going to be a faster way to edit things” says Brian.

Also, some publishers might consider mods as being a direct competition to their own paid add-ons called DLC (downloadable content): “Why would anybody buy skins (character personalization) for your game if they could just mod them in? Why would the community want to jump to the next release if they are very content with modded versions of an older game?”

Fortunately, some developers have a radically different attitude towards mods such as Minecraft (Java Edition) that garnered huge and very dedicated audiences which satisfies Brian a lot: “What’s especially interesting about the Minecraft case is that it’s not just introducing a whole new generation to modding, but actual, proper programming. Minecraft is finicky enough that installing mods for it necessarily teaches kids a lot of important computer literacy skills. If you want to make Minecraft mods — and many kids do! — you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and start editing scripts in a real programming language. It’s no longer just editing numbers in a config file with Notepad. This is something that I am so happy about, and seeing that there even exists books in bookstores that teach programming through Minecraft really heartens me.”

For Brian, the hacking spirit might have been lost over the years, but only to be replaced with something much more powerful in return. Indeed, he concludes: “I look forward to hearing about the stories and career trajectories of the kids growing up today with these tools and learning these skills. They’re in a much better place than I was at their age to really do something with and apply that knowledge.

Where to follow Brian Hernandez aka Why485

Timeline

Co-founder at Gamekult, SensCritique, Molotov TV and Galion.exe. Previously at AlloCiné & daphni. Tech and product lover, VC & indie game enthusiast. @Paris