Where Next for Flight Simulation?


This post is a break from what I usually write, as I have a backlog of photos to scan, and for the moment I won't have anything new in the way of photography. As everyone knows, iPernity is an art site, as much as a photo site, and this is partly what makes it preferable to Flickr. You won't have your work booted or censored just because it's a drawing, painting, sculpture, video, CGI, or written work, among the various things that you can post here. Until my most recent upload, I've only posted photos, but what you'll know if you've been following my stream is that I've spent several years doing 3D computer graphics, especially for game modding. However, until now, I have refrained from posting any CGI except for on specialized sites (for my purposes, anyway). Having done extensive mods for Redline and Microsoft Flight Simulator, however, I now feel that I am ready to post some of it, since the games I like are experiencing a turning point of sorts. Redline is due for an update due to Mac OS 10.7, and may never actually be updated, while Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I argue is the best consumer flight simulator of all time, is no longer Microsoft, nor mainstream consumer. Breaking from the conventions of essay writing and journalism, I won't give you a complete introductory paragraph, but instead I'll go into the reasons behind this blog post over several paragraphs. I don't have any good illustrations for my specific points here, but I posted an album of screenshots a few days ago here:


To start my introduction, game modding is really the best reason to do CGI, when you consider you can reach the largest audience (larger than for Hollywood movies), and also that it's the most fun. If you can get paid work in it, the money isn't bad, either (although it can be exaggerated). Perhaps the most popular game modding has been for fantasy role-playing games and FPS, as these games are among the most popular PC games generally. They may not be as dominant on consoles and tablets, but the reality is that PC games are much easier to mod, and the most popular PC games are often of these genres. Games that can be modded are loved precisely for this reason, as once you finish all the single player campaigns and scenarios, and play the multiplayer world to death, the fun is only just beginning. Indeed, the depth of games like EVE Online, Everquest, and other such games can be nearly unlimited, given the size of their clouds.

However, violent games involving fantasy characters, or characters and storylines that many people (including parents) find offensive, aren't everyone's cup of tea. If you're not an adult, the problems are even more obvious. Actually, some of the best violent games are more technology-oriented, especially ones that are based on real historical events (there are a handful of FPS games that are also historical, like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor). Semi-realistic historical strategy games like the Civilization series, combat flight simulators like Aces Over the Pacific (back in the 1990's), and naval simulators like Dangerous Waters or the old Silent Service series (again from the 1990's) have been some of the most interesting. Regrettably, back in the 1990's modding required far more technical skill than today, as GUI editors were unusual, and many games developers preferred to limit modding to themselves. As a result, mods for Silent Service are very rare, although Aces Over the Pacific was so good out of the box that you hardly needed any. My favorite in those days, however, was a nonviolent game called Street Rod 2, a historically-accurate racing game in which modding was the whole point. It was full of interesting details beyond modding, though. For example, your player was represented by a driver's license with a late-1960's expiration date.

Prior to getting involved in games modding, I was very into model building in the physical world. I was never the best at it, but it was my main hobby for many, many years. The primary disadvantage was cost, which severely limited what I could actually build. In addition, the only “working” models that I could come close to affording were model trains. That was fine with me, but as the years went on the companies priced me out of the hobby. Ordering kits, parts, and complete trains could also take months, and by itself, this could be a topic for a blog post. For a few years in the 1990's, I developed plug-ins for Escape Velocity, a single-player space trading game from Ambrosia Software, but the obvious silliness of such a hobby meant that it was short-lived. About ten years later, I got back into games modding when Ambrosia released Redline, a car racing game that didn't have to involve hot rodding, as in Street Rod 2, but which could be modded and was. It was maybe the most-modded of all the car racing games available for Mac OS. Just a few years before, Microsoft had released their Train Simulator (which I plan to write about in a future post), and had expanded Flight Simulator to the point where it was easy to mod. Anticipating Microsoft by several years, a number of smaller companies like Auran had also developed simulation games that could be modded, for everything from trains to garbage trucks. My favorite flight simulator until I got MSFS was Fly!2K, which in fact had a lot of advantages over MSFS, scenery being an exception. Fly!2K could also be modded, and I downloaded plenty of mods for it, although I didn't make any. Compared to Fly!2K, MSFS has better weather, more detailed terrain, more detailed airports, and far more of them, but Fly!2K has much better flight panels, a 90X90-degree virtual world (as I recall), and I would argue better sound.

Games (simulators?) like MSFS, Fly!2K, MSTS, and other such programs were not merely excellent in and of themselves, but in a sense redefined the modeling hobby, as for the first time costs dropped so much that time, talent, and will mattered more than funding or space in one's house. Today, in addition to modelers, railway and aviation enthusiasts of modest means spend a great deal of their time modding and using simulators (although less in the current economy, as nearly everyone has to spend a lot of time working and job searching). The problems with virtual modeling are different from those presented by offline modeling, however. When you model trains, for example, you can order HO scale track from any HO vendor and/or dealer. It's an international standard, with only one track gauge of 16.5mm, a scale of 1/87, and voltages which are close enough (nearly always 16v DC) so that compatibility is never an issue. The scale isn't proprietary, so any manufacturer can produce HO Scale models, track, electrical equipment (most importantly power packs), and decals. Computer simulators are far more problematic. The best simulators so far have generally used proprietary software that has been produced for a limited time, and been supported for almost as short a time. The only stable series in simulation has arguably been Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I will discuss next, and this series is a perfect example of the problems presented by an extremely dominant, excellent simulator that is nevertheless proprietary. As someone who has worked with real trains, I can also vouch for the relative accuracy of Train Simulator, and its overwhelming preferability to Auran Trainz, but again this is a topic for another blog post. Luckily, Train Simulator is still made and supported independently, as Microsoft sold off the rights rather than sitting on them (a good decision, to be sure):


...but Flight Simulator is only available as Lockheed Martin Prepar3D, which being a Lockheed product, has a military-grade price tag of $199, although academic licenses can be had for $49.99. These prices, too, are far less than what they were initially. The problem is that Lockheed, in spite of being a legendary company, have done almost nothing to let anyone know that they still make it (the resulting monetary losses can only be estimated). The de facto absence of Microsoft Flight Simulator has thus left a gaping hole in the CGI modeling hobby, the aviation hobby, and the gaming world that no other simulator has yet stepped forward to fill, and in spite of being out of production in its original form, MSFS remains the top of the line in overall terms for people who want to enjoy a flight simulation hobby.

Why Microsoft Flight Simulator is the Best: The Challenge for Future Sim Developers

Many, many critics of MSFS have criticized its accuracy, particularly its physics model. Some of the original planes don't fly exactly right (it's difficult, for example, to fly most of the jet airliners in the nose-up attitude, or to roll them, although the MD-80 rolls quite well), and the physics model itself is based on averages for the dimensions, plus a set of “flight tuning” fields in the configuration file. Moments of inertia can be quite bad, especially since the editor included with MSFS often calculates them wrong (in the sense that planes calculated with the editor can dump into the air, bounce around, or crash into the ground from a dead stop as soon as you load the simulation), making it especially difficult to build jet fighters that can maneuver without overstressing. X-Plane, for example, is more professional in that it models the individual aerodynamic parts of the planes. What is often mentioned is that wings in X-Plane are modeled in four sections, in line with professional simulators, whereas MSFS has only surface area, wing span, dihedral, aspect ratio, and sweep, plus some flight tuning fields like Oswald Efficiency Factor, something that you can adjust without any regard for true accuracy. In overall terms, MSFS guesses what the plane should do, whereas X-Plane makes a far more detailed set of calculations, allegedly resulting in better plane handling.

While the physics model is what separates a “simulator” from a “game,” it is only part of the larger package. X-Plane, after many years of quiet development alongside MSFS, is still far behind MSFS in most other respects. Other simulators are even more so, including Microsoft Flight, which Microsoft discontinued almost as soon as they released it. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of current simulators, which is counterproductive, I will now detail the features that made MSFS great, and which developers of other simulators should take to heart. Here, first of all, is a list in outline form...

-Airports for the whole world, well over 23,700 of them, plus enough add-on airports to push the number over 24,000, with even the default airports including some of the most remote and obscure in the world.

-AI traffic for the whole world, which is fully moddable and fully in communication with the AI Air Traffic Control. This traffic can be made from most (although not all) aircraft available for the game, can carry realistic registrations (Microsoft registered all the default planes in the U.S.A, but you can use any registration in the world), and can be instructed to use their registrations or airline flight numbers when talking to ATC. As in Fly!2K, the MSFS AI even knows to use the “heavy” after the flight numbers of heavy jets.

-Accurate Air Traffic Control, either AI or Multiplayer, for the whole world. This can be vastly expanded with the update package included with EditVoicePack, an app that lets you add your own voices, airports, and so on in addition to what's included in the update. That the voice actors had the time to record themselves naming so many airports in so many countries is by itself impressive.

-ILS systems, markers, Airways, VOR's, NDB's, DME's, VORDME's, waypoints, and intersections for the whole world, even if they aren't complete.

-An automated flight planner that is fully integrated with the AI Air Traffic Control.

-A wide selection of aircraft that can be easily modded and/or repainted, with most being capable of AI use.

-Photorealistic ground scenery, plus models for popular areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and many other places. In some locations, generic buildings have been used to substitute for buildings not specially modeled, for example in the case of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. My favorite original bridge model is, however, the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh.

-Fully adjustable, realistic weather, with the additional option (my favorite) of downloading actual weather data from Jeppeson while flying. Moon cycles are also modeled, and days are shorter or longer depending on the season and latitude, including the “midnight sun” in the arctic.

-Flight panels of varying complexity, with some, like those of the Cessna 172 or the Tupolev Tu-154, which are more or less complete. Even better, the aircraft are so easily moddable that if you're not ready for the real Tu-154 panel, you can substitute a 737 panel (even though the 737 isn't even a tri-jet).

-Finally, the Easter eggs! These mostly include extra weather phenomena and effects, including the volcano effects in Hawaii, the Aurora Borealis over Russia and Scandinavia, and even a meteor that I spotted southeast of Berlin.

MSFS also shares many features with other flight simulators, like the multiplayer mode and support for .dll scripts allowing TCAS and other extras.

Without dwelling on it, FlightGear and X-Plane lack most of the above features, in spite of many years of development. X-Plane is coming along, but fully accurate ATC and better AI traffic are things that are sorely needed. FlightGear, in the rare cases when it actually functions (after years of development, it isn't reliable or compatible enough to work on most computers), lacks any ATC at all outside of multiplayer, has minimal AI traffic, and doesn't have a good interface for supporting multiple aircraft liveries on the same model.

Ideas for Re-using Work On Microsoft Flight Simulator

Arguably the most wasteful thing about Microsoft's abandonment of the world's most popular flight simulator was the loss of the thousands of add-ons made for it. For that matter, the 32 years of official development on MSFS is also now lost, except for in Prepar3D. The data collected for the airports may be useful, for the people who possess it in readable form, but this may be the limit of what can be salvaged from the 32 lost years. The full airport files will likely be lost, as it is unlikely they could be made compatible with X-Plane or FlightGear, especially since MSFS is proprietary software. The third-party models, however, could probably be reformatted for other simulators. Division of labor would probably be the best way to recreate the world airports, bridges, and other scenery, much in the way that Google Earth was done. People from the countries in question, especially pilots, could be recruited into the effort. It has also occurred to me that Fly!2K might be a good source for ideas. Fly!2K is very old, but it was so ahead of its time that today there is nothing to compare to it, given the departure of MSFS and the glaring inadequacies of existing alternatives.

The aircraft will likely be easier to transfer. The physics research has been done, the aircraft are far more limited in number than the airports, and the third-party models can, again, be reformatted. In X-Plane, the physics models are better (supposedly) than in MSFS, so the loss of the Microsoft physics models need not be regretted. Repaints can likely be reused also. For repaints of Microsoft's proprietary aircraft models, new models can be made with the same UV map, although it is possible that new textures will include enough of Microsoft's original work so that they would have to be freeware-only to avoid legal complications.

Larger challenges will be the recreation of the MSFS ATC and AI traffic. The voice files can be gleaned from EditVoicePack, and obviously the development of that excellent add-on could live on as a utility for X-Plane or FlightGear as a result. Indeed, for FlightGear the use of the sound files would be an enormous shortcut. In terms of AI traffic, I haven't reverse-engineered either X-Plane or FlightGear, so I don't know what this would entail. MSFS had an excellent, simple format for traffic files that could be compiled by a freeware program called TTools. Naturally, TTools could be ported for X-Plane or FlightGear, but only if these two simulators can or will support lists of AI traffic in a similar manner to MSFS. Questions of whether to make the traffic authentic, inauthentic, or mixed would be for the future. Having written a lot of AI traffic files myself (they're one of the easiest MSFS add-ons to make), I know that there is logic to making all kinds of traffic files.

What Next: Open Source or Payware?

As incomplete as FlightGear is, it does have a key advantage over X-Plane in that, being open source freeware, it can't theoretically be discontinued. This means that hobbyists who merely like flight simulation, and couldn't care less who's developing the software or profiting from it, could develop aircraft and other add-ons in perpetuity. However, the long development of FlightGear (since 1997) has still not produced a fully functional simulator. Even entire operating systems (like Linux) have been developed to a stable release in less time than FlightGear, and having corporate funding is part of what enabled MSFS to be so spectacular. FlightGear, on the positive side, has more aircraft and airports developed for it all the time, but the lack of ATC and the nearly unbelievable unreliability of the program after 15 years of development are glaring problems. Rather than indicating that the developers are stupid or incompetent, this merely illustrates the immense size of any such project. Developing a proper flight simulator from scratch takes time, and many skilled developers refuse to work for free. Given the employment situation of most people today, this is hardly surprising. In spite of going to bat for my favorite flight simulator here, the reality is that I've done very little development for MSFS myself. My own situation is typical in that I can't treat a hobby as a career, especially in hard times.

X-Plane, perhaps the best example of a current, commercial flight simulator, is solid but crude. The graphics are great, the program itself has a far better reputation for reliability than FlightGear, and what you see is what you get. In other words, you don't have to download add-ons to get basic functionality, or trawl through discussion boards for days trying in vain to get the program working. As I have already mentioned, the X-Plane physics model is even better regarded than the one in MSFS, and the graphics have become respectable. However, X-Plane's other features, such as the ATC and the AI traffic, are a whole other story. In addition, while the physics of the aircraft are great, the virtual world is limited to 70 degrees south and 74 degrees north latitude. For comparison, while going to the actual pole isn't possible in MSFS, 88 is possible in either direction, meaning that flying “over the pole” (as many cargo and military flights do) is easy. The limitations of X-Plane should clearly be worked on, but the proprietary nature of the program introduces a certain amount of uncertainty as to whether all the work in development will be wasted. X-Plane may make a profit, or not, and as we've seen with MSFS, even complete dominance of the market will not necessarily save a program.

Capitalism is theoretically rational in theory, but it often fails to behave logically in practice. This is not a socialist or other political argument, but simply an observation. The point is that an open source simulator would be in the hands of users and developers, whereas a proprietary one would be in the hands of non-interested parties who couldn't care less if it survives for its own sake. Businesspeople think of brand image, fashion, and short-term profit, and often they don't understand even these things. Hobbyists just want the tools to pursue their hobbies, and this is what simulators (not just flight simulators) are. Simulation hobbyists buy MSFS or X-Plane because it's the best tool to support their hobby, not because it's a brand or a specific product. The advantage of open source simulators is that they allow hobbyists to continue development on their own terms, without regard to the opinions of corporate decision makers. Such businesspeople may have nothing to do with the hobby, but they have the ability to crush the hobby (or set it back decades) nearly overnight.