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Behind the Screen : September 2023


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Behind the Screen : September 2023


The one thing I'm not is in being a negative person. I always see the light, even beyond the darkness. But I understand and accept that for the first half of 2023, my outlook has been continually dismal towards X-Plane and Laminar Research.


I expected a lot of 2023, I had cleared my system totally out and ready for the 2023 year, but the first two weeks of January, it set a precedent for the year. A major hardware restriction, as my extremely good and loyal graphic card was suddenly now not being powerful enough to run X-Plane 12, in causing "Vulkan device loss" errors, and it was an expensive upgrade to fix. I'm not going to go on about this, but in reality the impact highlighted Laminar's non-communication of what X-Plane 12's requirements really were. Yes they put out as they usually do the minimum requirements for the new version's specifications. But looking back from this point of the now current relative stable running conditions, in reality the specs were way out.


Lets not get too excited on that X-Plane 12 could or should of stayed the same performance wise. Every simulator update has classically required upgrades to your hardware to run the more feature loaded new version, certainly were weather or effects are concerned or to the more processor power that is always required, it is a given.


I knew in early 2022 that X-Plane 12 would need or require a more powerful computer, or better hardware performance and invested as such into the system, with a new Asus motherboard and expensive (for then) new Intel 2th Gen IS1700 Core i7 12700K chips. These choices were in context with information that Laminar at the time were noting that a lot of the processing currently being done on the graphic card would be moved or shifted over to the processors to take the pressure loading off the graphic cards, and to put more power into the more modern and efficient multi-threaded processing chips, in other words, to even out the overall processing to be more balanced than just weighted heavily on graphic cards, plus the faster processing on the chips meant more systems were accessible to X-Plane 12. In X-Plane 11's later years you almost needed a separate computer with a mega graphic card and a factory sized cooling system installed just to run the simulator in full settings mode. The idea that X-Plane 12 could be a more efficient simulator by taking and using the newer Vulkan/Metal API capabilities, and then using them to their full potential was very encouraging, if even a help on the wallet costs. 


In July last year just weeks away from release, the Laminar conversation mood then suddenly changed (or flipped back), as powerful Graphic cards were noted as being still needed for the heavy processing with the new simulator version. More oddly with the beta "Early Access", I had absolutely no issues or restrictions of computer power in running the early beta versions of X-Plane 12 on my old card, as everything ran like an effortless bird in flight.


But with the X-Plane 12 formal release in mid-December on 17th December 2022, which I missed with the Christmas/New Year break, when I had returned in early January the updated X-Plane 12 release it just didn't feel right, the computer was sluggish, weather was horrible, winds were off the scale. My theory (mine alone) was in trying to get more framerate to satisfy the complainers, Laminar had pushed the boundaries too far. I went from framerates (with my old graphic card) of 35 fr, suddenly they were down to a lineball 20 fr, with no menu graphic changes, the computer started slurring, then the inevitable "Vulkan device loss" errors started popping up, in that I had never had them even once before the X-Plane 12 official release. Did I burn my graphic card out? a good question, but X-Plane 11 at the time still ran perfectly and well under the limits and exactly like it had before the X-Plane 12 release on the same card and settings.


To run a review site, I had no choice but to upgrade my graphic card to meet the higher requirements of X-plane 12, in other words I had to do a complete system upgrade to cater for the new Simulator version, my point is I was always middle field before on system requirements, but suddenly I was at minimum requirements with no headroom. The hardware changes were worth certainly worth the effort, but my unexpected bank balance was also seriously feeling the pain.


Another element in the weather was also then causing pain. High winds proved you couldn't fly normally at altitude. Aircraft compensated via flickering aerodynamic surfaces, so in flights you were bounced around for two or so hours at a time, and it all looked very unrealistic. Worse was that you couldn't dial it out, and reviewing aircraft like in this state was absolutely useless.

Switching to a manual weather mode caused the high irregular winds to still stick around at ground level, so you were faced sometimes with offset 35 knot winds on side when in trying to land. If you could lock in a calm day, you took it, then used it for many a review until it failed again, but that was unrealistic as well...  then you lost the weather altogether when the "GRIB_get_field failed", in other words the NOAA or "NOAA Operational Model Archive and Distribution System", shutdown, mostly on public holidays where simulations loads were at their highest usage. Lately in the Development blog, Ben Supnic has finally noted that NOAA is a unreliable source and a secondary backup source is being created to cover the breaks in the service, which should have been noted and implemented well before X-Plane 12 was released.


But overall my biggest struggle in X-Plane 12 has been the lighting, or the complete lack of it? X-Plane 12 is dark, very dark to work with. We are and I have noted often here the issues with "Dark Cockpits", and the later fix of lighting up the view lower instrument panel to compensate. But it goes far deeper than that.


My problem are the images coming out of X-Plane 12 to create reviews. All X-Plane images from time immortal are darker coming out of the simulator via the screenshot function, usually an 10% brightness is required to adjust them back to normal. But X-Plane 12 is requiring 30% and + more brightness to make them look even credible, that sort of brightness obviously blows out the other light, say the windscreen light when looking at a dark cockpit. It doesn't look natural, and a lot of the adjusted images get a washed out black and white look, even normal flying creates a whited out windscreen, to which I have been using the Sunglasses feature lately to tone it down a little.


Worse darkness was created by the light in not shining between the clouds, in other words everything was dull, except for using an absolute clear sky, which is again unrealistic, and the aircraft and even scenery were all very dull in view, and you couldn't get any life into the modeling or show off the detail.

Thranda Aircraft react the worse to this effect. Their excellent industrial process creates an effect that reacts to the look of the object in the simulator, “Diffuse Light”, “Diffusion”, “Subsurface Scattering” are all aspects of Physically-based rendering or PBR, but here it totally works against you. Creating black holes of nothing with no detail, and you can't dial it out either. I know I have tried.


Most users would note to change the settings (in my case) Nvida graphic settings...  but that is not the way it works. Yes you can adjust the graphic settings to create the perfect image on your monitor, but those graphic settings don't actually affect the simulator, it still takes the same (darker) images no matter what it looks like on your monitor, and the internal simulator lighting is only affected by your weather, season and time settings, except for a totally clear sky.


In the old days in X-Plane you could actually adjust the simulator brightness via the graphic sliders (gamma), but that option was taken away years ago, adjusting the Ambient Occlusion Quality to zero will reduce shadows, but will still not give you light into the simulator, so basically you hands are tied because the images screenshot is taken at the basic level of the simulator. There are visual tricks you can use to create light on an object (or aircraft model), a lot work, but doing all these adjustments per image for doing a review is time-consuming and not very work-flow friendly, so I have seriously struggled for the first six months of the year with all these complications... in other words, I wasn't a "Happy Bunny".


Which brings us to the v12.06 release. First of all, don't think I don't like the X-Plane 12 lighting engine, because it is really good, excellent in fact. Images coming out of X-Plane 12 have a realism we only dreamed of only a few years ago, it looks and it is sensationally gorgeous. The lighting engine creates a reality of real presence in the aircraft and it's place in the world, this is a simulator, but the changes to your artificial environment here is quite spectacular, in other words, when it works it really does "blow you away", and big time. It makes X-Plane 12 a real serious contender as a great realistic simulator.


It dragged on, but the (very) late v12.06/7 release has fixed a lot of the woes. Mostly the fix to the top level (Cirrus) clouds were a godsend, because they finally let the light flow (filter?) down to the lower levels, plus the light also flows on now between the clouds and thankfully lighting up the aircraft (model) below...  it's not perfect yet, as you can still be greyed out even with a clear sky, but overall the lighting model does finally work. With the better reflective light, it now gives you more options in the cockpit to get the images you want, again it is not perfect, but the lighting is far, far better than we had six months ago, even two months ago.


My initial reaction that the gains of X-Plane v12.06/7 would not last long (which shows my faith in Laminar), but to be told, six weeks after it is still shining nicely, and the test flights taken in between have been excellent, now I'm finally a "Happy Bunny", even a smooth simulation from "block to block" is now actually available in the Simulator, and with no damaging inbetween CTD's (Crash to Desktops).


But it's been a very long road to get here, almost twelve months after the initial release of X-Plane 12beta and eight months after even the official release of X-Plane 12. So is that aspect still too long to get to a reliable running simulation. Yes you expect changes and "bumps in the road" with any beta process, and yes as noted any Simulator is a consistent work in progress, I get that, lived that aspect for a decade or so. But nine months after an official release to get a relatively stable flying platform is just simply too long, not fixed, and only now are Laminar Research looking at the refining stage and fixing things that should have been done months ago.


It's great to have a stable simulator running up to Christmas, the promise now completed. ADD-ons in Aircraft and Scenery can now be completed and released in time for the holiday season, all can be enjoyed without another massive change coming along, although the Dev Blog notes...  "flight-model and systems, plus external-visual networking and some ATC features"...   flight-model changes? again? what to do if your a developer, sit it out or release and react, dumb...  these areas, like the lighting, weather and everything else, should have been stable from the version release point, or nine months ago? Good news is that Ben Supnic is making pirate jokes again, always a good sign, as he has been missing lately for long periods of time, so has his humour, and that aspect shows everything was not all "Hunky Dory" behind the scenes either.


I'm not saying perfection, but you do require a stable base to build up on, the X-Plane simulator in X-Plane 12 form deserves that at least, everyone from users, to developers, and to everyone that supports the Simulator deserves that as well...  


See you all next month


Stephen Dutton
2nd October 2023

Copyright©2023 X-Plane Reviews


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