Fireworks are cool as hell, which makes it all the more suspicious why there haven't been more video games where you can make them blow up in large and ridiculous combinations. There have been a handful in the past, notably the excellent puzzler FantaVision for the PlayStation 2, and Steam has a handful of experiments, but it's an overlooked mashup. Which is why the press release FWsim: Fireworks Display Simulator caught my eye:
FWsim was first released in 2010 as a fireworks display planning software, aimed at pyrotechnic professionals and fireworks enthusiasts. It’s realistic and deep enough to satisfy the needs of a fireworks pro, but intuitive and easy-to-use so everyone can enjoy it as a purely creative tool.
In 2006, Lukas Trötzmüller was a music-obsessed teenager and stumbled into some videos from a fireworks competition in France. Already mesmerized by the power of expertly edited audio and video to elicit emotions, Trötzmüller found the addition of fireworks to be profound.
"There are some people out there who can really make fireworks into an art with just amazing designs that just capture the mood of music," said Trötzmüller in an interview.
Like most teens, Trötzmüller was not a licensed pyrotechnician, but he did have a computer, an interest in computer programming, and free time. He wasn't aware of any software at the time to develop your own fireworks show, so Trötzmüller started writing one from scratch.
Around this time, Trötzmüller was hanging out in some online fireworks forums, where real-life fireworks designers and enthusiasts would hang out and talk shop. He presented some of his ideas for the proposed software, trying to figure out what people would want, and two months later, he'd published an early version to the forum. That was 14 years ago, and the first "official" version of FWSim would eventually arrive four years later in 2010.
Once FWSim was released into the world, people started messing with it and providing Trötzmüller with feedback. Some of that feedback came in the form of enthusiasts wanting different ways to tinker with their fireworks displays, other kinds of feedback came from professionals who needed FWSim to have features that Trötzmüller had no clue about.
"It's funny, but many fireworks people don't like making it visually, they like putting in the fireworks as text," he said.
And so, Trötzmüller added a way to program fireworks as text, in addition to exporting functions that'd allow the programmed displays to connect with firing systems that, when it's showtime, are the mechanisms by which the fireworks are then timed out and released.
Over the years, FWSim has straddled this between the amateur and the expert. There are actually two different versions of the game, with one aimed at the different crowds. As FWSim got more complex, Trötzmüller found he filled interesting roles for professionals.
"Most of the professional pyrotechnicians, or at least many of them—they don't actually want or need any simulation," said Trötzmüller. "They just figure it out in their heads. Of course, then the customers come and say, 'Hey, before I give you a lot of money for a product, can you show me how it will look like?' And then they get interested in simulation."
FWSim, unlike something like FantaVision, does not have objectives. There is no story mode. Instead, it's a detailed suite of tools that allow you to bring a creative vision to life.
"It's a way to make some of your dreams come true," said Trötzmüller. "It's a way to be creative in a quite unique art form that you see a lot of time."
Some of those dreams have involved FWSim becoming a legitimate gateway to the larger world of fireworks and professional pyrotechnics. FWSim user Florian Ferfer was eventually hired by the production company Groupe F as a computer artist, and later helped design the spectacular fireworks displays to open and close events like the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Ferfer declined to comment on their history with FWSim, citing a busy schedule.
Trötzmüller has spent more than a decade crafting a piece of software to simulate fireworks, but it's never gone further than that. He's never designed a fireworks display that was brought it to life in the real world, nor participated as an assistant on someone else's work.
And yet, building and tweaking and upgrading FWSim has continued to bring him joy.
"I play a lot of games myself, and sometimes when I play a game, I feel like, 'OK, this was just fun, but somehow it didn't really feel in my heart or it didn't feel me happy and satisfied,'" he said. "I want FWSim to be a game where people can express themselves, learn something about themselves, and maybe in some way even grow as a person."
The community around FWSim is small. Even on Steam, it's likely to stay that way. But one of the reasons Trötzmüller has been able to build a career out of building tiny, targeted pieces of software like FWSim is because that community becomes like a virtual family.
"Often when I exchange emails with users," he said. "I discover that they've been using the game for seven or eight years and they still design fireworks. So it's a small niche community of people designing purely virtual fireworks, which is pretty funny, right?”