A-10C Warthog: me vs. the controls

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Warthog’s many many pages of control settings partly explains the lack of mainstream acceptance of flight sims. The control systems for modern aircraft are enormously complex, thus the control systems for flight sims must be too. Also, pilots don’t use a keyboard and mouse to get around, so you need specialized equipment to meet the demands of flight sims. Warthog is more demanding than most in both respects, but it also has an interesting philosophy behind its control scheme. This makes setting up the controls both easier and harder than in most other flight sims.

After the jump, the lengths some simmers go for total control

First off, before I get into the nitty gritty of the control system, let me warn you that there’s little opportunity for me to show you the game in flight in this entry, so I opened with a gratuitous action shot to tide you over until next time.

A joystick is a bare necessity for flight sims. Once upon a time these were common sights wherever a computer was found, but these days they’re an endangered species. Only true enthusiasts have them, but although the market for these devices has gotten smaller, it’s also gotten more sophisticated. For example, I’ve got one of these:

That’s the Saitek X45 HOTAS. That stands for “Hands On Throttle And Stick”. Simmers love acronyms. It’s an older joystick and has since been supplanted by the Saitek x52 and other larger numbers, but it still works fine for me. While I know that just by having one of these, I’ve put myself on a different level of commitment to flight sims than 95% of the gamers out there, I’m actually a mere neophyte when it comes to flight sim hardware. Check this out:

Meet the Thrustmaster Warthog, a new HOTAS system that recreates the actual stick and throttle from an A-10. Warthog will actually recognize it, automatically mapping the controller’s buttons and switches to the actual functions they’d have in a real A-10. It costs $400 dollars. And that’s the low end of crazy control systems that hardcore flight simmers will come up with. Check out this guy’s rig. It’s a full mockup of a 737 cockpit he built at home in order to play Microsoft Flight Simulator, and the reactions he gets from the hardcore sim crowd aren’t “What are you doing with your life?” or “Why?” but rather “That’s amazing!” and “I wish I could do that!” Niche genre enthusiasts go a little funny when the mainstream moves on, I think.

But enough about the hardware, let’s talk about how the Warthog software expects you to intereact with it. When I pulled up the options page and browsed through it, I discovered that Eagle Dynamics has taken an unusual approach to assigning buttons to functions. Most games have you assigning buttons to perform some game function. Warthog has you assigning buttons to buttons. That is, you aren’t mapping controls to some specific action in-game, you’re mapping them to specific controls in the real A-10C cockpit. Take a look at the stick and throttle in-game:

Bear with me for a moment, because this is going to get a bit technical. On the back of the joystick are a few buttons and switches. The red button is the weapon release button. It does exactly what it says, and it’s pretty easy to just assign that to a button. The other switches are more complicated. Take the circular switch that looks like a plus sign in the bottom right — that’s called the Data Managment Switch – DMS for short. The DMS has a variety of different functions depending on what state the rest of the systems are in. For example, if the map display is currently the “sensor-of-interest” (a fancy way of saying it’s the system that’s currently the focus of the aircraft’s controls) the DMS zooms the map in and out. If my HUD is the sensor of interest, the DMS cycles through the navigation waypoints.

So, Warthog doesn’t have a command for “zoom map” or “cycle waypoints.” Instead, it has four commands for the four directions the DMS switch can move in. That’s it. On the one hand, this makes the controls really easy to assign. Many of the controls aren’t really intended to be assigned to any key — you’re expected to move the mouse around the cockpit and click on the relevant switch. For the rest, the manual does a nice job of spelling out exactly what the various switches are and where they are, so I spent a hour or so mapping my joystick to a close approximation of what the real A-10 joystick does. I have to fudge here or there — a real pilot doesn’t need to reserve some controls on his stick to look around the cockpit — but at the end I feel like I can use my HOTAS to do most of the things a real Warthog HOTAS would do.

On the other hand, now I’ve got my joystick mapped to a jumble of inscrutable controls, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what any of them do. A command called “TMS Forward” doesn’t really tell me much about what the function of that button is. But I can see why the designers did it this way. If their commands were things like “switch weapons” or “change targeting mode”, then they’d be adding another layer of abstraction between the player and the real thing.

So, I leave the controls as they are, and move on to the tutorials, hoping that they’ll explain exactly what the “boat switch” is, and why I want it sitting under my left thumb.

Next: This is my A-10C. There are many like it but this one is mine.
(Click here for the previous A-10 Warthog game diary.)