Air Traffic Control Simulation Game - Kristian Lavin - TowerHouse

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Posted by Vincent Lambercy

Welcome to one more episode of Radar Contact. Today we'll be all about gaming, but serious gaming in the context of ATC. And for that, my guest is Kristian Lavin, who is our air traffic controller at EANS, the Estonian air navigation service provider. But also, and this is why he is here today, the CEO of a small game production company called TowerHouse. Kristian, welcome to Radar Contact.

Hello. Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here.

Okay, let's start. Can you first introduce yourself maybe a bit more and explain us your two roles once as an air traffic controller and the other one as the CEO of TowerHouse.

Alright. My name is Kristian. I am now approaching 40 years of age. I have been an air traffic controller for 16 of those years. That's quite a lot. And I used to be a engineer before I was air traffic controller. I have been playing computer games, I would say my whole life because I remember when I was six years old, my father brought us our first computer and I've been playing computer games ever since Till this day it's been always been a little bit of a passion of me playing those games. I always thought about entering the game development thing as well, but never really got into it that much. And yeah, that's my background. So kind of a ideal setting for this kind of project. I was an active air traffic controller and also a lot of interest in gaming in computer gaming.

So the project we will speak about today is an air traffic control simulation game called Flight Level. It runs on a platform called Steam that you can download on whatever computer you have. And basically this is replicating a radar screen as air traffic controllers know it in the center. And to be honest, I played it myself. You guys gave me an early access code. Thank you for that. And I must say it is pretty advanced and its look it is like a lot air traffic control. If you think of games like flight control where you have to guide aircraft with your finger, this is not what we are speaking about here. So can you tell us about the way the game was started and the level of realism that you have for now?

The high level of realism that you saw in the game is actually intentional. It's always been our main goal to make the experience as close to real air traffic control as possible. It was there from the first moment this game was started, the development started. It was actually a little side project for Enn a while, but the idea, he really liked the idea of this still a side project becoming a standalone game. So he started developing it more and more and more. At some moment he invited me into the team. So we created this studio called TowerHouse and the game, the flight level is the only game that we have for now. But yeah, this realism is something that we are aiming for. And also now when we have had feedback from our users, from the players, it's something that they really, really appreciate. As you said, you brought out a comparison with other games. This is correct. We are trying to not to go in the arcade way of doing air traffic control. It's more like a simulator and yeah, that's how we do things. We are trying in our development plan is also we are increasing the realism and also we are increasing the immersion as well into the game. So you can actually feel yourself as an air traffic controller being an air traffic controller in different kinds of situations that may arise.

So I played it for a while and I mean having a bit of knowledge of ATC, I could find my way through it and find how to click in a clearance and everything, but I guess this is really not for everybody. So how do you bring people who have, I would not say no knowledge of ATC, but little knowledge of ATC up to the speed to the game. Because I mean, when you are an air traffic controller, you get hours and hours of training on those systems. How do you manage that to bring your players up to speed?

Yeah, that's actually one of the issues that we had after the early access, we had, let's say three kinds of users. We had users that were air traffic controllers and for them it was no problem at all. They're just adapting to new system. And they said that it's really easy, no problems at all, very clear. Everything is very, very nice. Then there was the other segment of players that were, I would call them a simulation players. For them it was not that easy, but they are used to playing simulations, whatever, if it's a train simulation or an airplane simulation. And they are kind of used to the fact that the game must be hard and it is hard to learn. And the third segment of players were the ones that you described just a minute ago, is these guys that have no background in air traffic control, no background in simulation games, they just want to play the game for those kinds of users.
We had, let's say the most issues because it was difficult, but we quickly started to develop solutions for them. We actually shipped the early access version with a almost on campaign that can be used as a tutorial. Also quickly released a YouTube video where our content creator Ragnar does the little introduction into the flight level showing all the buttons and doing the general introduction in ATC. And because this issue has not resolved, we still have some requests of users that the learning curve is too steep. We are now having the roadmap that we are actually going to overhaul the campaign mode to make it more of a tutorial and also release more videos about air traffic control. And we just use the flight level game as an example when we are explaining the concepts of air traffic control to people that are not aware of how things go.

You said one thing that is a bit striking me. You said one category of users is made of active air traffic controllers. The question is a bit blunt because you are one of them, don't you get enough of it on your shift in the control room? Why go off work and start playing being a air traffic controller again?

Yeah, that's something that I don't understand myself because after a long day's work at my main job as a air traffic controller, the last thing I want is go home and start playing the game. But the thing is people are different and for some reason there are quite a lot of air traffic controllers that doesn't get enough of air traffic control at work. So they finish their shift, go home and start playing the game. Although I must say that the ideas that these guys are having is quite interesting because the flight level game ships only with the Estonian airspace. That means that if you are working as an air traffic controller somewhere else, the game can be played only in Estonian airspace. And I think for many of those controllers, it's kind of a new experience because yes, you do work eight hours a day, but you work in let's say in Canada or in Italy or something like that.
But then working in Estonian airspace that is different. The flights are different, the airspace is different, the rules are different. It might be a new challenge for them to try these kinds of things out. And also when it comes to Estonian air traffic controllers who like to play this game, they have said to me that they really enjoy this game as a way to test out ideas that they don't want to test out in real life. They might have some kind of a crazy idea when they are at work, but as safety is always the first thing in ATC, that means that if you even think of it, that might not be the safest way to do it, but you really want to test it out. Then flight level is actually an excellent tool for that. You can just start the game and you can try all your crazy ideas there because it's, it's just a game.

Ah, that's really nice. You mentioned you replicate in the game the Estonian airspace. So two questions here. Why don't you start it from a non-existing airspace, a fantasy one, and do you give your users a way to create their own airspace? If someone says, as you mentioned Canada, Italy, I don't know, wherever, if someone wants to play Seychelles, can they create their own airspace or is it something you plan to do in the future to expand?

Well actually I think one of the funniest stories that we had after the early accesses, we were having a discussion just the night before we released the game on Steam that as soon as we release it, there will be a lot of bug fixes and then there will be a lot of people who want more content when it comes to scenarios and campaigns and stuff like that. But I said that that might not be true. I think there will be people who want to do their own airspaces on day one. And we said, well yeah, that might be a possibility, but let's see what happens. So we released the game and I think it didn't even have two or three hours when we had a discord full of people who wanted to create their own airspaces. And we quickly got the hang of it that these people actually want to do their own airspaces.
They don't really have no interest of playing in Estonian airspace just for testing purposes, but they're there for creation of their own airspace. They want to play in their own airspace. So I think it was one week when we had almost full Italian airspace, Malta airspace, Canada, I think it was Vancouver, all done by our users and there was a lot of support, especially from Enn because he's the only one who knows how this airspace building is done to actually helping our users, our customers building their own airspaces. And I would say that for now it is one of the main discussion points in our discord is different kinds of tips and tricks, how to build their own airspaces when it comes to us, for now, we don't have any plans on doing additional airspaces to Estonian one because we already have airspaces done by our users, so we just need their permission and then we will add them to the game if they are good enough for our standards. But maybe in the future who knows or we'll start expanding from Estonia. Maybe we do Riga next or Latvian airspace or something like that. But it's still far in the future.

It's cool to see how use our contributing content stem cell. Another thing that I found really interesting is that you integrated voice in the game. So when you have a pilot coming in, you hear him speaking and you also have coordination with the next centers. And that brings me to the next point, which I also found really cool in flight level is that you can play it with your friends, you can play it alone if you want, but you can also go in a multiplayer mode. Can you tell us a bit more about this kind of parties?

Yeah, multiplayer was actually one of the features that were there at the beginning because when we did a little bit of market research, when it comes to games like that, even if we do not talk much about the reality or the immersiveness of the game itself, but just like the features of the game, there were two things that popped up. One of them was the multiplayer thing. We didn't really find any players which have multiplayer capabilities to play with your friends. And the other one was the voice communication. We use voice both ways. When you are giving commands to the aircraft as an air traffic controller, it'll be read back as a real voice command to the plane and the plane's answer all also in voice, in full voice. It was quite risky because kind of sets the all limits to how much you can do and you cannot really use any freeform kind of communication with everything has to be pre-recorded.
But I think we managed that quite well. All the exercises are running quite okay for now. And we are now, I think it was week or two weeks ago, we added another voice. And together with that we actually added a possibility to put your own voice into the game with a little tutorial, how to go, how to record it, how to cut it, in which format they must be where they must be. So you can actually put yourself into the game as a voice. And that's something also that our users really enjoy is that they get a extra layer of realism when the communication is done with voice.

I like the way you say you can put yourself into the game going to multiplayer again, if you play with your friends, what are the rules? Is everybody playing an air traffic controller or can you also take the role of a pseudo-pilot or piloting?

No, yeah, everybody has to be an air traffic controller. It has to be a airspace with multiple sectors. For now as the game ships, there's only Estonian airspace with the possibility of play the Estonian east sector and Estonian west sector. There is also possibility to play approach sectors for smaller aerodromes in Estonia, but it's not really implemented yet. It's mostly like east and west. You cannot play as a pilot and you cannot play as a neighboring sector. But in the future, maybe

Now speaking of the future and of the features you have, I completely understand flight level started as a hobby project and goes up to having its own company and everything. Do you have a wish or a plan to go towards professional products in the sense product to be used by an ANSP? Do you think it could become a full center simulator or do you want to just keep it a game and have fun with it?

For now, it will definitely be a game. There's always a chance to go to spread out in different kinds of use cases and professional market is one of them. But for now we are concentrating on releasing the game, releasing the full version, and it would be entertainment purposes mostly. Who knows what the future brings. But yeah, for now it's just for entertainment.

Really nice. Now to finish up the episode with our signature question, where do you see ATM in five years from now? And you can take that from a flight level perspective or more generally speaking, and also how do you see the evolution in 50 years from

In five years? I think aviation, especially in Europe, are a really bad place at the moment because of the geopolitical situations and stuff like that. But I think the five years will be the timeline when it starts getting better again. For now it's only we see aviation all in tern colors, at least from the ATC perspective. But in 50 years I would say a lot of more automatization, computerization, artificial intelligence because we have actually tapped into artificial intelligence ourselves while we were developing the game. It's still too early to talk about this further, but it's quite frightening what an AI can do when you give them correct instructions. And it's something that we have seen when we were developing the game. And for me, I think in 50 years the role of an air traffic controller will change. I think we will not be as much of air traffic controllers, but we will be supervisors for an AI oriented solution that solve the calculations and stuff like that.

That's a very interesting vision. Kristian, thank you again for being our guest today. So one last time, the game is called Flight level and people who want to try it can go on a platform called Steam. I guess the gamers will know what it is and the other guys just Google's steam flight level and you will find it. Thank you very much.

Thank you.