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Behind the Screen : August 2021


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Behind the Screen :  August 2021


There was another anniversary in August (Besides our own X-PlaneReviews 9 Years), and this was one for the X-Plane Simulator itself, for it's 25th anniversary since version 1.0, released in August 1996...  a user posted some early X-Plane images here A Quarter Century of X-Plane.


There obviously has been a lot of simulators released in the intermediate years, the Microsoft Flight Simulator is the most obvious and popular one, but X-Plane had one very distinct advantage from the start, actually a hidden advantage in the inclusion of "PlaneMaker", and looking at the earlier designs it was very, very basic back then...  but that is not the point. As most simulators were sealed, in the point that you could only fly aircraft created by their own artists and developers, it sort of created a boxed environment, in that if they didn't upgrade or release any new aircraft, then you were restricted by what you could actually fly. 


The inclusion of "PlaneMaker" changed those dynamics, that is that anyone in fact (if talented) could create aircraft for the Simulator and distribute the aircraft though portals like the early X-Plane.Org. Yes MFS had the same sort of loaded content and portals, but X-Plane attracted the more technical or real world pilot aspect, the far better real world (Blade Element Theory) dynamics also helped a huge amount as well. It was these interaction elements that really allowed both MFS and X-Plane to thrive and still be extremely active today, were as most of the other Simulator platforms are marginal at best, or simply now extinct, sad as some like iFly were very good.


The user participation is an important aspect here, if the most important area of everything. In early X-Plane development it was the single user, but also later the clubby joining of a few talented people that got together to create mostly all back then freeware aircraft, to a point they created and built the X-Plane Simulator, or were the founding members on what we have today. MFS went in the other direction in going commercial almost from the start, in other words you paid for absolutely everything. Both dynamics have their positives and negatives.


Certainly the commercial angle attracted more developers to MFS, it created more addon product earlier as well, but it later became a curse, because it locked in the development to a lost and very poor basic application. it was a curse that ultimately faulted to the point of being a ridiculousness, even now with the newer Microsoft Flight Simulator MSFS, the old guard are trying to (and badly failing) to redevelop their products to fit a more modern dynamic engine, they complained feverishly that X-Plane was too hard to convert to, but they are now having to do just that, and to a far worse platform.


X-Plane created their own curse... "Freeware" and a sort of hippy leftover that the love should be free and available to everyone. The mechanisms come from the right place, of giving and sharing, all very noble... but it has also it's own drawbacks.


The biggest drawback would be that "Free" does not drive innovation and ideas...  a few however do stand out, like Zibo's Boeing 738, but even here it was based on an original default aircraft... if you want to attract the very best then they have to make a living from the work.


That is not to say that X-Plane is not innovative, because it is... and hugely, but in a small code capacity... if you want the big and better stuff, in reality you have to pay for it...  the distraction I hate is that why you would put up with an average simulation in both aircraft and certainly in scenery, just because it is free, in a way that is a serious backward thinking, but about 60% or more of X-Plane users are seriously devoted to the cause, and it feels in many ways that not much has changed in those 25 years.


But what is the core of a simulator... certainly the original developers of the Simulator in Laminar Research are extremely important in keeping the Simulator relevant, and considering their very small development team, have produced miracles in creating the tools we have today, but certainly now with the mega MSFS onslaught, currently X-Plane is feeling it's age, but in context it is also at the end of it's last version cycle.


But a decade ago a small gang of freelancers decided to go commercial in X-Plane, stalwarts like Danial Klaue, Jack Skieczius (FlyJSim) Khamsin and JRollon created the first commercial X-Plane product, others from the period soon joined and the commercial side of X-Plane was created. Later the single developer was joined by teams, with FlightFactor Aero being the first developer to create product with more than one or two people doing the work...  or a team effort. The problems facing single person developers is simply time, with two to three years the leading time to create their aircraft (Scenery is a bit quicker at say twelve months). With a team split mostly into three people, then you can or should turn out an aircraft a year, or at least every 18 months, it is now a business...  but that is not the biggest aspect of the single developer to the team angle.


A decade ago simulated aircraft were actually quite simple in their construction, mostly a hybrid and still based in the PlaneMaker" environment. But "PlaneMaker" basically is still a restricted medium, so to get around it's restrictions, then we introduced the "Plugin" format, mostly SASL (Scriptable Aviation Simulation Library) with the LUA code as it's foundation. Others are Chromium Embedded Framework (CEF) and the latest in Xjet. These plugins changed the whole concept on what developers could do in creating a specific areas in say animations, avionics, but mostly in replicating real world aircraft systems...  they also created the "Authorisation" system to stop blackmarketing (or the stealing) of commercial product.


In doing reviews there is an issue facing single headed developers. Basically there are three areas in creating product. Modeling, Texturing and Systems. the problem is that a brilliant modeler can create an almighty and excellent visual aircraft, but is hopeless in the coding aspect and this creates a weak area, or the opposite is true, were as the aircraft systems are first rate and the modeling a bit or really average. There are a very few (mostly the really older developers) that can cover the full triangle. This aspect makes it very hard to review, because the product is brilliant in many areas, but quite basic in one or others, it isn't actually the developer's fault, it is just a personality weakness as the three areas demand the very different skills to achieve a whole goal. Obviously being a team can easily overcome this critical aspect, as the perfect team has a member that covers a certain significant area, plus they have the huge advantage of each member working just within their own field alone, then combining their efforts at the end. And speed is the key here, so where as a single developer has to switch in each period to each state of separate development, that development can then go on for years.


The biggest deceiving area is when or if you follow an aircraft's development on the forums...  almost magically it is created very quickly before your eyes, but in reality it is only the pinnacle of an iceberg, in that the system coding can take three times as long as the quick reveal of the modeling...  most observers just don't understand this aspect, with the full modeling completed, they simply can't understand why it is taking or going on so long to release their personal favorite aircraft. Abandonware is usually big as well at this stage... what looked very easy early on, then becomes a nightmare when faced with the coding and animation reality. If the product does get through this stage then most of the observers are well gone and have abandoned the product, worse then usually two aircraft of the same design are released at the same time...  or even worse another aircraft of the same design comes along and whizzes past you to be released first and is far, far better than your own development, that is simply heartbreaking, and the worse of the worst is the never to be released but always in development aircraft... a Comet 4 anyone.


The coming through of plugin architecture also created a major shift in development. The clever "PlaneMaker" developers (mostly single headed people) were then left very quickly behind as development accelerated massively and very quickly past them, and sadly they could not adapt to the new aspects of creating ultra professional products, as in their hearts they were only clubby amateurs, their hearts were big, but their skills were not, and one by one they fell aside of progress.


One other interesting aspect of development is a cruel one...  on the purchasers. You put your money down for a product and it is indeed extremely good (for it's time) and lot's of times it is a crossover product from Flight Sim, very rare the other way around. In that an X-Plane developer has ripped the guts out of an FS product and recreated it in "PlaneMaker" to work or fly in X-Plane...  and it is very, very good, and you love it, purchase it.


Then the developer either gets bored, wants to move on with their life and we are left with a very good but now quickly aging product. The original host FS house won't or can't update the aircraft, so it gradually ages and soon won't work at all. This happened to me lately with an odd situation on the last update from Laminar (v11.53) that in the background the aircraft systems in the original X-Plane FMS was discontinued as were a few very old aerofoil profiles. This had the effect of simply shutting down a huge amount of well loved product in my "Aircraft" folder, mostly the Virtavia products (C-17, Seaking, B-29A), Peters A380 and the unsupported PMDG DC-6, which was not very supported from the beginning...  all broken and now unflyable. Is that fair? do we expect products to be supported over a longer period? (as a note I did get the C-17 flying again, but my beloved Seaking is now very sadly broken as is the DC-6.


Should their be a system were if a developer wants or has to leave (or in some actual cases die), then why can't other developers support the products, which in a lot of cases only need updating? Yes we would pay for the updates (or upgrades) and just to have our machine workable again, but it is a real shame that they leave the simulator broken? Obviously not everything can or should be saved, but is it possible to save the better ones, and are we owed that aspect at least in purchasing it in the first place. Copyright is one of the biggest hurdles, as is the ownership of the rights.


When Microsoft released MSFS last year. Most current X-Plane developers noted that they were not going to switch over to the Wunderkind Simulator, Surprisingly JRollon did display his SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 in MSFS (a sort of traitor to the cause feeling), but overall most developers did not want or actually want to move over. It is an interesting aspect, and the one very important element to X-Plane going forward.


The on year situation is that X-Plane has delivered already some pretty astounding product this year... and like they say "You haven't seen nothing yet". As the coming Fall/Autumn releases are simply spectacular, if also going to be very hard on your bank account.


X-Plane developers will deliver another level if not "levels" of detail and system intergration. But let us be clear, if they go, we all go with them...  so it is very important to support these brilliant products... with the developers staying here in X-Plane, it is one of the most important points X-Plane of how will survive moving forward, certainly if Laminar increases their quality with the next revolution of X-Plane (12/Whatever).


One, let us be clear that the underlying engine to MSFS is still not great, but getting there, but the loss of this monetary aspect, in that could you make far much more money in MSFS, than here in the tightwad X-Plane environment.


Current noise coming out of MSFS is also interesting to developers, is that most of the current products are being priced well below value and more importantly only generating very slim or even low profit margins, to increase the Flight Sims awareness. Notable is that a lot of this cheap product is actually reworked product from the original Flight Sim FSX or Prepar3D, so they are getting payment for old stock (again). But even new product is being priced extremely low at 40% below other platforms, in fact PMDG priced their NewGeneration 737  at the (absurd price) $140, have now realised that the market will not support such greed, in fact any above US$100 products will not get the sales expected, except for a few, most X-Plane top product is better priced in the more realistic US$60-$80 range.


But still a lot are not happy, remember they expected a bonanza of profits, worse is that they don't at all like the new changed format to focus the simulator platform more to the (gamer) Playstation/Xbox crowd. To a point X-Plane is a pure Simulation platform, with an option to play the handheld mobile app... the problem is you can't have it both ways... in being a simulator and a game, it has to focused as one or the other, worrying for the big FS developers is that Microsoft is picking the other and bugger their profits and roadmaps...  could you fly a deep simulation aircraft on a games console? probably, but will that also bring a lot of dumbed-down product.


This edition of BtheS is focused on developers. Why because they are the most essential aspect of the Simulator... if they walk as mentioned, then basically X-Plane will simply fade away. And why would you want that to happen, with the product slated to arrive soon and now being announced for 2022 is the reason you would want them here and not walking away, hopefully the same product will enhance even the old school FS simmers to come back to X-Plane because of the excellent product, and the FS developers they want the support from (do I hear "Kicking and Screaming")


One other aspect to finally note is the sheer complexity now of X-Plane. Reviews are getting ridiculously long, you may wonder why reviews are getting more sporadic, but actually we are working harder than ever, and in context one review currently is three times longer than one of say three years ago, and that one was the largest review ever done in that particular year...  so much is the complexity and detail of the systems. Quality is also off the charts and so are the feature lists. I went back to a few aircraft of a decade ago, and it is like going back to the prehistoric era, you want it, well people you are getting it...  simulation on steroids, and these people and teams make it all happen, so you don't want these vital developers to disappear like a dinosaur now do you...  as they are a very special species.


See you all next month


And watch out for the X-PlaneReviews indepth coverage of the FlightSimExpo September 24-26, 2021


Stephen Dutton

7th September 2021

Copyright©2021 X-Plane Reviews


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