Monday, December 26, 2005

Season Finale

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanuka, Happy Kwansaa, Season's Greetings. They all say Peace, Joy, Blessing! To this we can add Happy New Year!

Here's a wee giftee for you. I've compiled a full year's worth of VR Blogger into a single PDF file - VR Blogger 2005 - and made it available at . It includes all postings except announcements such as this.

See you in 2006!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Have a Happy ...

You can fill in the rest. It's no small coincidence that the major religions chose to mark the winter solstice with festivals. Historically, the summer solstice has also been a time for festivals. What's significant about the winter festival - here in the northern hemisphere - is the turning from increasing darkness to increasing light. In other words, the victory of light over dark. Let's hope that this year, and every year, we use this opportunity to bring a little more light into a dark world.

God bless, everyone!


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Respond If You Please

I remember my first snow storm as a very young boy in New York City. I grabbed a sheet of blue construction paper and some colored pencils, sketched a brown tree, and added a thick line of white to both sides of the trunk and the tops and bottoms of the branches to represent the heavy snow. My father was so impressed he took it to the office the next day to show his fellow workers. Responding this way to things we experience is natural and, I think, what lies behind hobbies like model railroading and train simulation.

Historically, people first built models of locomotives, then cars. Soon they placed them on track, electrified the whole affair and launched the hobby of model railroading. Because of size limitations, most model railroaders take liberties with representation of scenery - simplifying, selectively reducing size, compressing distances, and omitting buildings and other features.

With the advent of computerized train simulation we have become able to model scenery more realistically - at least as far as distances and other measurements are concerned. We still tend to omit buildings and features for practical purposes, such as time and effort, and limitations of computing power. Still, we have seen some remarkable simulations, rendering the prototype quite accurately. One of the best examples you could hope to find is Luigi Cartello's Genova Casella Railway modeled in BVE (see the Ocober 2004 issue of Virtual Railroader ).

The cab-view drive-it sims, of which BVE is my favorite, have gone further than any when it comes to prototypically accurate representation of routes. One reason may be that since the sim is cab-view only, the route designer can treat 3D objects as stage props, knowing the driver will never see certain views, or views from angles other than those intended. This makes it possible to use photographs applied to flat surfaces to represent three-dimensional reality. If you could see the photograph from all angles, its flatness would become apparent. Full-featured, all-views-possible simulators, such as MSTS and Trainz, have a tougher challenge to meet since with them you CAN see all views.

If you haven't tried BVE, and want to experience the real thing as the engine driver does (at least to the extent possible with a simulation), I suggest you visit Trainsimcentral ( for all the information you need to get started. Steve Green, the site's owner, is a long-time developer of BVE add-ons. The information and downloads on his site are top notch. Give it a try! You may even get the urge to model your own favorite route in BVE. That's how I got started.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Fun is in Getting There

"And now comes Miller Time," proclaims a well known beer commercial. The implication is that a glass of Miller beer is a just reward for a job well done. Most, if not all, American advertising focuses on the reward, the light at the end of the tunnel, as being the ultimate bliss; but as the long-suffering Red Sox fans here in Massachusetts now know, that feeling of bliss is short-lived because as soon as the celebration is over it's time to plan for next year.

Students of life tell us that true happiness is in the doing, not the having. Getting there is more enjoyable than being there. I certainly know from my early days with wind-up trains, then electric trains and model railroads, that building the layout was more engrossing than running it. That's not to say one can't find happiness in operations. It's just that thoroughly engrossing operation, after the get-acquainted period, entails setting goals and trying achieve them. That could be operating to a schedule, completing train orders, and so forth.

What's interesting to me is that different types of simulations hold different types of interest for me. While many people can find happiness operating scenarios in Trainz or activities in MSTS, my form of "getting there" is to build things (as in Trainz routes) or to set up switching challenges (as in the MSTS Timesaver Route) or to try to capture the "decisive moment" "photographing" trains in action by grabbing screen shots.

Strategy sims offer a completely different form of "getting there." Strategy sims include building the route and managing operations as part of the game. "Getting there" IS the sim. There's no possibility of resting on one's laurels, freezing one's creation at a certain point in time, continuing to watch the trains endlessly. It can't be done because the game keeps moving forward. True, you can save the game at certain point and always come back to that point, but the game will always move forward, even as you are watching the trains. In other words, you have to go out of your way to make the game stagnant. That may make it hard to display your accomplishment for others to see, but it is certainly in keeping with life's rythms.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Challenge is in the Process

I'm fascinated by the builders of the first railroads in America - especially the railroads west of the Mississippi. They had to survey the route and its alternatives, plot the most cost-effective/time-effective route, in some cases buy the land, and finally build the line. As a matter of practical economics, they had to build something inexpensively and quickly in order to get the trains rolling in order to generate income for more building. In many cases, this process was undertaken in trying conditions - rugged terrain, early snows, hostile Indians, robbers, and so forth. I wish more first-hand accounts were available. Those that are describe challenging times in vivid terms.

Strategy-based train sims give you some of the flavor of having to determine and build a route in practical terms. (One sim - Railroad Pioneer - even gives you the chance to send out surveying parties.) Failure here could lead to an early bankruptcy and end-of-game. In other words, these sims simulate the process of building a railroad. This a major distinction from other sims, which are operational sims or modeling sims. Planning a new metro, for example, requires all the elements found in Transport Tycoon or Locomotion. You have to examine the initial need, the possible routes and obstacles, and the necesary construction and cost. You also need to think in terms of building usable sections in order to get things running and producing income. Then you can implement your plan and see how it plays out.

If you haven't tried a strategy sim, you've missed part of what railroading is all about, especially from an historical perspective, but also a perspective that is as valid today as it ever was. In case you think strategy sims are all planning and calculating, rest assured that there is plenty of train watching as well. I can certainly recommend the free demo of Locomotion available at the Atari web site (


Thursday, December 01, 2005

It's All About the Money

For the past several months I've been focused on strategy-based transport sims. While my main interest has been Locomotion, I've also had brief looks at Transport Tycoon (Deluxe and Patched), Railroad Tycoon, Transport Giant, and SimuTrans. My choice of Locomotion is at least in part a result of the excellent demo available for free download from the Atari web site. The demo gives a clear understanding of how the sim works and allows me to use the sim for limited time periods. What I want to say about strategy sims, however, is not limited to Locomotion, so the fact that I've been focusing on Locomotion is of little consequence.

First, let me dispel any idea that I have abandoned MSTS, Trainz, BVE, or any other sim that I have written about. The various sims - even those of similar purpose - are all unique and I love them all. None is truly perfect nor fully capable in all aspects, nor should we expect them to be. Each has its own reason for being and its own strengths and weaknesses. My purpose here is to point out the things that make Locomotion and its brethren interesting to me and why I've been able to zero in on them for so long and still think of them as fun and intriguing - not just something to write about.

In this and upcoming posts I plan to single out particluar aspects of the strategy sim genre that set it apart from other sims. Today, let's have a look at the most obvious thing that sets strategy sims apart from the others: MONEY.

Aside from any feelings or beliefs one might have about how society could or should work, money is a key element and it is here to stay. In a free economic society, free enterprise - success and failure in the market place - determines what gets built or made or created or performed, etc. (with some exceptions, thanks to amateurs and philanthropists). Thus, putting the economic factor at the center of a game is certainly a valid factor, especially for a simulation. It also has an educational component in that it identifies cause and effect.

The degree to which a simulation is valid depends on how realistic and how sophisticated the model is. Fortunately, the models are not overly realistic. If they were, we might find some of our transport systems meeting untimely deaths like the originals. From what I've seen so far - and that's admittedly limited - it has been possible to model systems that operated far more successfully than the originals. Then again, perhaps the simulation is suggesting that real people in real situations may have made the wrong decisions when viewed from a distant vantage point over greater timespans than were available to those real people making decisions based on short term, real factors. I'm thinking here of how successful my Locomotion tram systems are when compared to the reality here in America, where trams died out in all but a few cities only to be rediscovered (at great expense) decades later. (Of course, tram systems in Europe fared much better than those in America or the UK, and the game does not distinguish between countries.)

It does seem that the sims are based on principles more than reality. I'm happy with that, but it does leave open the possibility for creating sims that are historically based with the potential for examining alternative outcomes for alternative decisions. This would require a high degree of sophistication and enormous amounts of input, but it would still be interesting. Meanwhile, perhaps games with well designed principles will play some role in decision making when players find themselves in a position to act on principle.


News at Virtual Railroader

In case you haven't been keeping up with events at Virtual Railroader (, there are new issues for November and December, available free.

We've also made our list of available train sim software more accessible at our VR Pro Shop.