I’ve always been fascinated by everything that flies,” explains Felipe Falanghe, creator of Balsa Model Flight Simulator and founder of Floating Origin Interactive. A fairly generic statement to make when talking about the game you’re making and how it involves a realistic model of (model) flight. But factor in Falanghe’s history in gaming and it feels like a vast understatement, with his past work on the now-legendary Kerbal Space Program not just having an impact on video games, but stretching into the wider world of actual space flight. The man’s not lying when he says he has a fascination with flight.
And it’s from there the idea for Balsa Model Flight Simulator came – bringing together the handcrafted, customised nature of Kerbal and introducing it to the suborbital flying devices of model aircraft. You come up with the idea, you build it, and you take it out there to fly before crashing and starting again. But it’s more than just ‘what if Kerbal but planes?’ “I used to build my own balsa wood model airplanes when I was little, and that is one of the fondest memories I have of that time in my life,” Falanghe says. “I was already building – and sometimes setting fire to – little model gliders well before [Kerbal even existed as an idea], but I was too young to be able to afford anything radio-controlled. I remember looking at display models at RC stores and just drooling over them.
“Now that I’m (externally) grown-up, I could finally get into this stuff, so a couple of years ago I went and got myself a drone. And in very little time it had found its watery end in a ditch. I realised then I’m not a great RC pilot, and you shouldn’t trust me with one. There is still a drone battery at the bottom of an irrigation ditch somewhere in the state of Mexico. So, yeah, I guess you can say Balsa is based on a true story.”
Work started on the game back in 2018, with the original idea for Balsa Sim being a ‘simple multiplayer RC simulator for VR only’. After a few months, the vehicle editor came up as an idea and was introduced, and from there it just grew – aerial combat, AI, missions, career mode, and more. “I guess there was a lot of feature creep,” Falanghe says. “But really, I knew I wanted this to be an Early Access project, so the first idea was something I deliberately wanted to keep vague and open-ended. This is what I think Early Access is about, to let players in on the process of creating a game, not just playing it once it’s done, or well, before even that.”
Balsa Sim actually released on Oculus platforms in its VR form back in 2018, but not long after, the process was stopped and development shifted to the version we now see in Steam’s (non-VR) Early Access program. “[The Oculus] experience wasn’t great, to be honest,” Falanghe says. “I made it available, and there was very little movement. Very few people saw that it even existed. I learned then that first, VR still has a very small player base, and more importantly, that Early Access, in general, is a very different thing compared to when Kerbal started out.
“I was in a tough situation at that time, because I was working entirely without funding, and I couldn’t go much further. I was seriously considering having to abandon the project at that point. That was when I heard from people at Irregular, our publisher until earlier this year, and we signed up and that allowed us to continue working on the game.”
And so work did continue – years beavering away behind the scenes before a more ‘traditional’ non-VR version came out in Early Access. While experienced in the art of releasing games before they’re finished, thanks to Kerbal, Falanghe admits it’s an atypical approach. “It’s a very different way to do things,” he says. “I think this is one of the main things to keep in mind with an Early Access project – that it’s not as simple as releasing a game before it’s finished. The entire project needs to be planned out to be an Early Access project. It’s a fundamentally different way to work on a game project, and I think it’s not something that works for any type of game. The concept itself has to be something that is able to grow and morph while already being played. Also, you can’t have a solid vision of what you want from the game, because once you start getting feedback, whatever you had planned will almost surely change.”
Feedback is sure to be more intense, let’s say, than it would be with other titles thanks to Falanghe’s work on Kerbal, and it’s something he admits factors in to things: “There’s definitely pressure there, but I’m actively trying to stay out of my own way with that, if that makes sense,” he says. “It’s important to state that Balsa isn’t meant to be a follow-up to Kerbal in any way. Balsa isn’t a second step after Kerbal, it’s a new first step. This was a project I started on my own, from my own game dev studio – which has a team of entirely two people. It was built from scratch, and the only things it takes from Kerbal are the lessons learned.“
There’s still a way to go with Balsa Sim, and a v1.0 release shouldn’t be expected for some time. All the same, Falanghe is keeping his hopes for the game modest: “I’m trying my best to not have any,” he says. “But at the very least, I’m hoping to see the beginning of a friendly and positive community, and ideally, that would be enough to allow us to continue development. It’s very much like taking off in an airplane. You don’t need to go supersonic right from the start, you just need enough to sustain flight. Positive climb, gears up, then off you go.”
Genre: Flight sim Format: PC Developer: Floating Origin Interactive Publisher: Floating Origin Interactive Release: TBC 2022 Social: @BalsaModelSim