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Laminar Research : X-Plane and the future in the new world order It was almost impossible to define X-Plane as an ongoing simulator in all the hype of the release of Microsoft's reinvention of it's original "Flight Simulator" product. For one only beta (and alpha) users had access to it and also for most of that final build periods they where also heavily restricted by a NDA or Non-Disclosure Agreement, and step out of line and you were severely wrapped over the knuckles... all in the name of creating a good impression. But the mega-changing simulator is now out there and warts and all, Microsoft can't hide anymore, but on that count neither can Laminar Research in their aspect of this now complete "New World Order". This analysis of the future is going to note the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms and have a sort of vision into the future of what simulation will be. First you would have noted that I only mentioned two simulators. There are certainly more simulation based platforms out there, like Digital Combat Simulator (DCS), Rise of Flight, Aerofly FS and the upcoming is the Squadron 42. But first and foremost we have to define a "Flight Simulator". A lot of those titles that say they are simulation are in fact just games with an aviation theme. This is a big factor to consider with even the new Microsoft "Flight Simulator 2020" or MSFS. In the aspect of "is it a game or a simulator?" The definition of a simulator is what we call "Study" grade, in other words the simulator can replicate the effects of an aircraft flying through the air but mostly in it's system depth in replicating the aircraft's systems to mirror the real systems on real aircraft. This aspect means that pilot's can train on these aircraft (not officially, but many current "study grade" aircraft are actually far better than official versions) to gain their real world licenses and study aircraft systems to improve their real world skills. Currently in reality X-Plane is the really the only fully "Study" grade simulator, MSFS is currently in it's release form only still a game... but obviously that aspect will change in the future but by how much is a big question to explore here. You may have noticed in the above simulator list I didn't mention Flight Simulator X (and the oddly named "Steam Edition") and it's post cousin PrePar3D by Lockheed Martin. Microsoft discontinued the FSX development way back in January, 2009, in that aspect the Lockheed Martin (with it's military connections) needed to keep the simulator alive. This created a licensing agreement on the foundation of using the base code of FSX... PrePar3D, and most addons in aircraft and scenery in FSX could easily be ported over to the P3D platform, but from it's very early incarnation the P3D was not ever really a public simulator as early access was only under a Academic License which was available for US$59.95, the full version was a whopping US$499, although a Pro license was available for US$199, and all this for an older source code simulation platform. To note the "Study" aspect. Yes a lot of FSX based simulators do have the deep study grade systems, but don't have real world aerodynamic flying qualities of which X-Plane does via it's aerodynamic model called "blade element theory". The first point to define in the "New World Order" is that both FSX (and PrePar3D) platforms will now slowly and gradually going to disappear, one for being simply obsolete (FSX) and the other not withstanding it's huge improvements is still FSX source code based, and P3D simply can't compete with MSFS. The second point is more interesting and actually the most vital aspect of the "New World Order". The actions of developers are the lifeblood of any simulator. When FSX was at it's most vibrant it had an arsenal of quality developers creating product to create an attractive platform. Carenado, PMDG, Aerosoft, Just Flight, A2A, Majestic, iFly and Captain Sim. In X-Plane it had it's own highly original developers; FlightFactor, Rotate, FlyJSim, Dan Klaue, SSG, ToLiSS, IXEG and only a few FSX developers crossed over successfully to X-Plane in Carenado,and Just Flight (both via Thranda or Dan Klaue). In most aspects the platforms were highly separated in context in that the core aspects of both platforms were very highly built on very different standards, and as noted by a leading X-Plane developer "I had to totally rip the guts out to rebuild it for X-Plane". In reality the two platforms were and are completely different from a development point of view, so one platform developer very rarely strayed over to the other's territory, and even if they did try then they completely mostly totally hated it, and I can't name one X-Plane developer that went to the FSX platform? (a very few scenery crossovers happened), so in most cases it was two completely different platforms that were completely absolutely different from each other. X-Plane itself has been in constant development since X-Plane 1.00 in 1995 which is now 25 years ago. There has been eleven versions of the simulator with X-Plane 11.50 the current version, mostly versions are released every four years and on that timetable the next version X-Plane 12 is due later this year. The release of MSFS in it's 2020 guise is not lost on the release of the next version of X-Plane 12. So now at this date is the understanding the current situation of simulation... so where do we go from here. Simulation now more alike than different The next most interesting point to understand about simulation is that unlike in the past the most prominent simulators are becoming more alike than in the past of their significant platform differences. In the olde world of FSX and X-Plane they were very if completely different in their platform standards, or simply worlds apart. But look closely at the new MSFS release and there is now more familiar to X-Plane users than differences, as on the surface the MSFS has that familiar Flight Simulator look and feel, but look closer and in most areas it matches X-Plane in the way it has been recreated. Debatable is how much of the new simulator has been actually duplicated (carefully as not to start court cases), but in many areas both now have very familiar internal structures. Outwardly this would seem to be a negative impact for the X-Plane simulator, but in fact it will be the main reason that both simulators will be able to build substantial users going forward from the huge gaming base that they both want to access. Again developers are the key. The number one aspect is that developers are a business, so they are primarily here to make a profit, in reality they don't care about your feelings or what version of the Cessna 172SP you want, if it sells and makes sales they will do the aircraft or scenery to fit the market. The core of the issue is that X-Plane has always come from a hobbyist angle, to "Make" more than "Buy", and with different platform standards then the money usually went to the FSX buyers. So making money in X-Plane is noted as "difficult" even "impossible" as there is a lot of product easily shared and actually free. That is fine for the hobbyist, but not great for keeping the actual simulator viable. X-Plane has noted it has grown up over the last few years, and mostly that has been the remnants of the outdated FSX users looking for a better simulation, they liked actually what they found on the X-Plane platform and far more than what they would actually admit too... so the foundation is there to keeping them in the X-Plane realm and not switching back to Flight Simulator or even better in using both platforms. One of the first big surprises of the release of the first product for the MSFS simulator was that the only two platforms in product were promoted, and that is MSFS itself and X-Plane. This is a very interesting aspect in the fact that the two simulators at their core are now more very similar than actually different, yes ground textures and layout will be different, but now any scenery developed for MSFS (or the other way around in X-Plane) can be easily be converted to the other. For a developer it is a "win win" situation of creating one product for two simulators at the same time, doing away with the very earlier FSX standards means also dropping its very different standards (and why both FSX and P3D are going to fade away). This is a huge bonus for X-Plane and creates even more product for the simulator without the significant differential development costs. The more interesting area will be in the same context for aircraft? If aircraft are created in MSFS more of in the same structures as X-Plane (PlaneMaker) then it also means that aircraft can be shared as well, again a bonus for each simulator (think of PMDG in X-Plane and Rotate in MSFS) it makes for an interesting scenario. Most would say that would be to the detriment of the X-Plane platform, but in fact the opposite is actually true, what is does mean is simply more product for both simulators. In fact in the current situation MSFS or no new FS2020 then developers would have still left or abandoned X-Plane because it is simply not returning their time and investment in the simulator, overall we a "tightfisted mean, even selfish bunch of users". In reality X-Plane can go one way or another... We can go back to the decade old situation of a mega MSFS and a hobbyist smaller X-Plane (most seem to want that scenario) or both platforms thrive off each other, and notably X-Plane has grown up over the last few years and to point has even thrown off it's tinkering ways, but that aspect is also the difference of why MSFS and X-Plane can actually thrive together. Is MSFS a game or a simulator Currently that answer is easy, it is simply a game. You can fly an aircraft of course and look around at the very pretty scenery, but that is nothing a good aviation based game can do... and to a lot of gamers that will simply satisfy their ambitions of being a (so called) pilot. That in reality is not simulation. I have watched a few (or a lot) of extremely bad so called aviation piloting in the promotion of the MSFS... simulation users they are not, they are just gamers getting their gaming jollies. I actually thought it was a very bad way from Microsoft to promote a serious simulation application, I think it turned the more die hard simulation users off the product than actually attracted them. The core situation is that until Asobo Studios (creator's of MSFS) can get a decent SDK or Software Development Kit completed then MSFS will not move forward into being a real simulator, yes that will happen and mostly not till 2021, but even then in how much depth in systems will it actually have. Remember X-Plane has had a year on year succession of being deeply developed in it's core systems that cover; real icing (not the visual stuff on the wings but the way the icing affects the aircraft's controls and systems), Navigation systems, Hydraulic systems, Fire Systems, Electrical buses, Turbine Pressures, Engine Bleeds, Cockpit and Cabin environments and so on, yes clever MSFS developers will create plugins to simulate all of these aspects, but X-Plane has them all already currently built in, and yes you guessed it in being a deep system "simulator". These systems have been created over decades of X-Plane versions and updates, and are deeply entrenched within the simulator, no new simulator can possibly redefine that detail in a few years, no matter of their resources. So the current MSFS is only the starting point and not in being an actual simulator. The deeper argument is how much control will Microsoft actually give the user. We have already defined the gamer, but the core simulation user is a wholly different species. Currently we can note that for MSFS to deliver the graphic capabilities it has, and don't get me wrong they are quite substantial, you are required to run MSFS on the internet, the point being is that the simulator you own is not the full simulator, it is a bit like being connected up to Rehoboam in Westworld or in reality it is Azure which is Microsoft's cloud services and server division. It controls you and not the other way around... it is the only way that MSFS can function on this scale, you download 120gb as a base, but still have to access 2 petabytes worth of Bing Maps' aerial imagery which are stored away on the Azure servers. So with MSFS you can never be a solely owned product, the other point is how much access will Microsoft give you to their servers, that I doubt very much. Updates from Asobo Studios will be the only access. X-Plane is (still) a sole product, you own it and all of it is installed on your own server, this is the aspect on if you want to change any of it (I call it morphing) you can, obviously you can't change the root or core files (and many still do that with the constant shader inventions) but anything else is pure open slaughter, and many users don't know of the word restraint. The core user is constantly tinkering with their simulator, so no two X-Plane simulators are actually the same, this does create complexity, but also that American way of wanting freedom to do what they want, when they want to. X-Plane was built on this open philosophy, hence it's "Hobbyist" tag, and the X-Plane.Org is the centre of the X-Plane universe with constant new ideas and content to rebuild or change your X-Plane world to your own specific ambitions. Why do simulator users stay so addictive to simulators, and this open framework aspect is actually the key. I am not saying that Microsoft will allow certain areas to be changed, but I doubt you will be able to create FSX v10.1 So MSFS is not FSX, in fact in modifying elements then X-Plane is more to the FSX framework than MSFS will ever be, so will that aspect define the differences between the gamers and core simulation users, so if you want to continue to create your personal nirvana sim, then X-Plane more than MSFS will be the only place you can seriously do so. Other aspects are also important of the current differences between MSFS and X-Plane. First X-Plane is multi-platform or covers users that use different operating systems in Windows, Apple OS and Linux, the main and only reason I was attracted to only X-Plane was that I used then a Mac computer, even then I have never used or downloaded a FS version. MSFS has currently a very limited range of aircraft. Airliners, General Aviation are catered for, but there are no military, helicopters, classic or even the downright weird aircraft available to fly.. to note X-Plane was also based on the ability to create your own aircraft and fly it in the simulator, that is still the core use for the dynamics and tools available. Converging platforms This article is all about looking into the future, but as we have witnessed with this 2020 year, is that your future predictions can come seriously undone via even a small change in circumstances. But as noted I see a more of a convergence of simulation than the usual wide differences of the past history of simulation standards and platforms, more important will be the huge increase of the user base as the net will be bigger to catch more users into the context of getting involved into simulation as a passion, a lot of new users are out there, and they just simply don't know that simulation exists. Which asks the question of is "simulation" an entertainment or a skill.... or simply a skill learnt through entertainment. For me it is the continuing refinement of my (online) flying skills. I came into simulation to fly aircraft from my childhood, but I still required the skills to fly them correctly. Ten years later that skill base is enormous, but I still need to train and practise in areas I still have weaknesses, that is ten years in consistent flying (and I run X-Plane on average 36 hours a week in doing reviews), but that is what also brings me back to the simulator over and over again. The skills are not just the basic airmanship flying skills, but also in how to fly the various and varied aircraft types and above all master their complex systems, yes I am talking about those study grade simulations, for that the simulator is always testing me, so the depth of the aircraft simulation is important to keep the interest. Most commentators note that MSFS currently blows the X-Plane simulator off the planet in terms of simulation, but as noted both have currently major deficiencies coming from different directions, in fact both simulators are not quite close in terms of where they need to be, but in completely different contexts. As noted again MSFS is certainly a ground breaking simulator in the aspects of the visual experience, but still quite hollow as a simulator under it's very extravagant exterior, the goal is to of course give depth to visuals, and both Asobo Studios and dedicated MSFS developers will focus heavily on those features, but to note it won't be done quickly or to the high level of what X-Plane currently has as standard, in fact there are many, many different areas to cover than just adding in a "Study" grade aircraft and payware scenery, it is in the details that need the work to make MSFS see it's full promise as a world defining simulator. Hollow is a word that MSFS will need to address, not only in it's systems but in the critical areas as well like weather, as again the weather system in MSFS is quite sensational, but only in a visual sense and more than a dynamic sense of the way it affects flight, and this aspect is a constant recurring theme. X-Plane is in the opposite situation, great depth of simulation but poor visuals. Certainly don't get me wrong on this aspect as X-Plane since the release of v10 has come an exceedingly long way in it's visual presentation, but in many aspects it has also fell way long behind the standard in what gamers expect in gaming experiences, in that 8 years or two version cycles it is a seriously long time in changes and with the advances in technology. X-Plane v12 In one aspect the timing of MSFS to release their "Wonderkind" simulator at this point in time is more to an advantage to X-Plane and Laminar Research than a release say in a years time and that X-Plane12 would have been released and on the table, it's features then defined and locked in. But with a before launch announcement of features and detail, it can give Laminar room to make adjustments to the feature process. Don't get me wrong, X-Plane12 was set out almost a year and a half ago as per the usual development cycle, work has already been long ongoing in the background, so in most areas the features will be already locked in and onboard, but the chance to cover areas that MSFS excels at can be at least addressed before the next version 12 announcement. Secondary note is will X-Plane12 make it's usual cycle November release date (or the release beta)... circumstances have thrown that aspect into some confusion as X-Plane 11.50 is late, very late, and almost over four months past the deadline and the beta process was extremely long and buggy as well. The Laminar core development coders were then also tied up just wanting to some sort of release point, and they have finally got there but at what cost to the development of X-Plane12. My guess is the release announcements will still be made in the usual November timeframe, but an actual beta won't now come until 2021. We will go through the details of what X-Plane12 requires to be in reference to the simulator market in reference to MSFS. (No I don't have inside information from Laminar, this is also not a X-Plane12 announcement, but a critical viewpoint on what is required in the v12 release to make X-Plane still a competitive if not a better simulator). Scenery and Mesh Let us first get this out there, there is no way that X-Plane or Laminar can compete with Microsoft's 2 petabytes of world mapping, it is simply not going to happen, but that is also not the be or end all of a simulator. To note that X-Plane (v10) was the first to actually use OpenStreetMap data in the simulator and the idea was clever and gave a semblance in creating an order in which gave shapes to the dynamics of recreating the real life layouts of the world. As noted the current mesh system in X-Plane is now eight years old, yes updated via some more updated DEM (elevation) data by alpilotx, but even he has been gone out of X-Plane for a few years now. So a new scenery mesh was always going to be top gong in any feature list for X-Plane12. MSFS will now just push that agenda far higher in the required quality of the mesh and texture detail. For everything since I started in X-Plane the biggest visual aspects have always been it's patchwork feel, this aspect is made worse in the (over) use of photo-ortho textures, other bad points are X-Plane's consistent loss of tiles (water mostly), tile cracks and extremely poor horizons. The one most striking thing about MSFS is the consistency of the mesh, it feels as one and you move around within that same consistency making it seem all very seemless. Doing thousands of reviews I have seen everything in scenery and the one thing that is a major issue is that developers try to keep new photo based mesh punters happy, so you can have even up to four or five different base meshes with a single payware scenery, worse the default version is usually not refined into the background of the default mesh... yes I hate it as I want a one world solution. One thing that MSFS has done right, is that you have to fit into the already processed mesh and not the other way around and in so creating a one world flow solution and Laminar need to learn from this, the problem is weeding users off their beloved photo-mesh and terrabyte storage. But overall for the simulator to be successful it has to be all of a one form and get away from that very distinctive "X-Plane Patchwork" styled look. Laminar did have their hands tied with OpenGL in creating a better mesh solution, but with the Vulkan/Metal intergration those restrictions should now be overcome. So a complete and new world modeling mesh should be the main and foremost feature of X-Plane12. Weather The one thing that really blew me away when sighting MSFS for the first time was the weather engine. It is a masterpiece of coding and the biggest overall challenge for Laminar Research. As noted the weather engine does look quite sensational, but it is not as effective dynamically, so again X-Plane has an advantage there, but like the above mesh, the current weather system is again two cycles old. Nothing can be stated more strongly than how the weather engine stamps the look and feel of a simulator. The only really effective current weather engine for X-Plane is xEnviro and it is a pointer on how a big a difference the right lighting, shading, particle and colouring can create a very immersive experience. The problem with xEnviro is that it is expensive, extremely slow development (still not available for X-Plane11.50) and always feels it is a buggy beta more than a complete solution, missing features like to be able to set your own weather conditions also makes it very unusable or even an non-effective tool for the setting of the required conditions for training and practise. MSFS weather engine has everything you can dream of in a simulator, instant changes on screen, adjustments, changeable ice and snow, and exceptional lighting and all in 3d particle modeling and simply overwhelms even the likes of xEnviro, and the current default X-Plane weather engine is simply relegated to a none starter. For X-Plane12 to be a truly great simulator the weather/environment engine has to be more than great, if brilliant, no area in the simulator needs the most attention and that is currently a very tall order, but I do think that Laminar have the talent and skills to take this very significant aspect of the simulator and make it work and it is certainly the one vital area that X-Plane can then compete with MSFS on the same level or at least a level the playing field. ATC In one area Laminar can easily compete with MSFS is in the ATC or Air Traffic Control. The ATC in MSFS is just a revision of the already (if old) effective ATC system, in other words "It works so don't change it". Somewhere in the backwoods of a room of Laminar's coding division is Tyler Young, and Tyler has been pounding away on the ATC feature for years, some speech improvements have flowed out and dribbles can be found in X-Plane Mobile, but otherwise the development aspect has been going on for almost the full cycle of X-Plane11, that is years folks, not a year. There are two scenarios to take on board, he has simply given up on the whole idea of a effective ATC system, or he has created a masterpiece, with X-Plane12 we will find out which of the scenarios is the correct one. Personally I think it is the second scenario, because if Tyler had given up he would have appeared doing another vane of coding and being more visual on the development site. One aspect of ATC makes it very hard to implement and that is the A.I. (aircraft), and truth is we simply don't use it, and never have. We use JustFlight's Traffic Global and WorldTraffic3 from Classic Jet Simulations, so how can you have an effective ATC when there is nothing there to talk to? So any good new ATC system has to have an extension aspect to cover third party applications on using their traffic as well as the inbuilt traffic system, in reality it should be based on the real world flight numbers and general aviation registrations, complex yes. But like everything else hopefully doable. Either way I really don't think that users will wait any longer for a decent ATC, in X-Plane12 Laminar will have to finally deliver that very feature. Objects As noted Laminar were very clever in using the OpenStreetMap data as a basis for their autogen. Will the current autogen feature still be in X-Plane12, well quite possibly. There is nothing wrong with the autogen system, but the development pace was extremely slow, as there is in reality only two artists working on the autogen, in most cases it was just one. As excellent as the work is (the night lighting is exceptional) then over two cycles and X-Plane 10 and 11 then the autogen has grown significantly, but still not even close to fast enough to create the virtual world in it's complexity, as noted without ShortFinal's excellent SFD Global addon we would still only have two in the US and European style autogen, it is simply not a fast enough pace and highlights the deficiencies of the advancement of MSFS to the current autogen status, in other words Laminar dropped the ball or lost the lead. I always noted that to make a realistic autogen work you needed two elements, a wide scoping autogen to do the layouts and the Icons/landmarks to cover the more intimate VFR aspects. To a point even the MSFS system has to do the same issues in that it can't cover all the smaller details like the missing Sydney Harbour bridge and Buckingham Palace block of flats, so still you need these landmark city packages to fill out the missing areas. Laminar did indeed create a few "Landmark" packages and again as good as they are they are just to minute to have any effect on any VFR visuals. It is noted that Laminar has recruited (finally) a large art team and noted they are mostly Eastern Europeans, so certainly the art or autogen will get a significant boost in X-Plane12, the results will be certainly interesting, but I still think that addon payware city packages will still be require to fill in the blanks, again the crossover factor will be interesting in that the same packages will be available for both MSFS and X-Plane. To note that most city packages currently being released in MSFS are also X-Plane based (which were originally FSX modeled, but the current quick conversions from only X-Plane sourced scenery to MSFS is significant). Another area MSFS has made an impact has been in fauna. FSX was littered with simply horrible trees with very poor jaggy low-resolutions and mostly blue halos around them, but in MSFS the trees and fauna is very good, 3d and have volume they finally get away from the 2d cardboard look of trees, ditto the excellent grass and far better than anything we have in X-Plane... after thousands of reviews I am really over poor trees, but one point is in MSFS the trees do look out of scale as in being too large? In this aspect Laminar have a chance to fix this forgotten area of X-Plane, as again in those patchwork looking ground textures and the serious need for something to cover them over. That lo-res mottled ground texture look is a very X-Plane looking style, and needs to be addressed and creative grass can cover and create a more viable eye level and realistic world. Extra Laminar always throw in something that you would never think about and then deem it essential, but more features including systems, lighting effects and even Garmin GTN 750 and Garmin G500 GPS instruments are also likely to be new features. Meshing Simulators If you read the above features that could be the future of X-Plane, then one thing becomes very clear, MSFS needs to become like X-Plane and X-Plane needs to become like MSFS, in fact if you take the visuals and highlight features from MSFS, and merge them with X-Plane's better diversity, better system dynamics and tools you get really the ultimate simulator. But currently both are very far from the ideal situation of simply having it all. You can see where all this is going over the next few years, as in reality the race is on, but as noted the future development will be mostly that the simulators will share more this time than be totally different than it was set out in the past. As their platforms are now significantly more closer than the same in being totally opposite each other, in fact it mirrors the real world in that Microsoft has currently taken the Apple approach in design and layouts with it's Surface and even Windows 10 software than the older Windows 7 legacy feel and applications... or a new if the same design direction, simulation will be the same in taking only the best if only direction and in an odd way the product will then become very similar. Obviously the above feature list for X-Plane12 (and that is very old promises included) is critical, but not impossible to create the next generation of X-Plane simulation, and it will be a very interesting story on how all this unfolds out. There will be really no answer of which will be the better simulator in the future as that aspect is in the hands of fate and change, but X-Plane will have on balance the diversity of allowing more OS operating systems and the more open user interaction to adjust your simulator to your own liking, VR - Virtual Reality and open cockpit builders are also more highly catered for, but ultimately it will come down to actual flying experiences of feedback from the aircraft, not only in the systems but with the environments around you.... after everything else, a simulator has to provide the basics of training and learning to be a pilot and heighten his aviation skills, and he is not there just to look at all the pretty scenery. Stephen Dutton Copyright©2020 X-Plane Reviews