Friday, January 23, 2009

Microsoft Flight Simulator Development grounded?

Microsoft has just annouced 5000 layoffs. While most of them are not related to the gaming businness, some of them are. In particular, ACES Studio (developers of Flight Simulator and Train Simulator) seem to be severely affected by the workforce reduction (source: ).

I'm not sure this means anything for the future of Flight Simulator. But I'm taking this chance to spend my two cents on what is wrong with FSX - which is, as you know, the platform I am developing for. there anything wrong with FSX at all? Definitely yes. Lots of people are sticking to FS2004 after two years from the release of FSX. Some of the users have been moving to XPlane and lots of freeware developers have quit. It is a fact, for example, that freeware (which was a key point for the success of FS) is not as big in FSX as it has been in the past. And some (excellent) payware add-ons are definitely overpriced. So, yes. I think there is an issue with FSX. Well, I think there is more than just one:

- Performace. Regardless of what Microsoft says, there is a performance issue with FSX. It is significantly slower than most graphically intensive games. I've yet to see a computer that can run it smoothly with graphics maxed out and some add-ons attached.
Ok, I know you can tweak the performance in several ways - but this is not what the average user does, and definitely not what is supposed to do IMHO. I also know that the poor performance is due to the extreme flexibility of the engine. Still, I think it is hard for the average user to forgive it.

- Graphics quality (versus performance). FSX can be beautiful (with proper add-ons and configuration in particular) but some stock textures are incredibly poor and some areas of the world are missing a lot of detail. The whole "cartoonish" color palette can be effective at times...but is far from looking real. The "desertification" of Italy (which is a problem all the Italian users know) is another example. Or take a look at the "bush flying" mission and you'll see some of the poorest mountain scenario I've seen recently in a videogame.
Now, take Xbox 360's Ace Combat 6: ok, I know it is just an arcade game. And I know FSX is dozen of times more complex. And I know the extremely versatile terrain engine of FSX. Still, Ace Combat 6 has some breath taking graphics which run at 60fps on a $179 machine. Ok, different software, different complexity, different customers....whatever. Still, please explain to the average user why his computer is able to run Crysis smoothly while FSX is stuttering.

- Poor freeware scene. This is not Micorsoft's fault, but it is definitely an issue. Quality FSX add-ons are so complex that there is just a bunch of crazy kamikazes that, like me, are willing to spend so much time on FSX-SDK for free. By the way,I think the SDK is not bad at all - with the exception of being somewhat 3DStudio Max dependent for modeling (while it offers Gmax compatibility we all know that .gmax is not really a file format you want for your souce files - as they cannot be exported in other 3d tools). The main problem, IMHO, is that the amount of work required for a completely new add-on plane or a highly detailed scenario requires such a high amount of work that: 1) almost nobody is willing to do that for free or 2) even if you want to do it for free, requires a lot of dedicated teamworking as well as resources for documentation.

Ok, these were just a first few things that come to my mind:there are a lot of other things that would need to be discussed.
Let me also say that, with all the defects FSX has, it is still an amazingly flexible simulation platform and, definitely, the most complete FS release and the best recreational flight simulator I've seen. It is, simply, not as good as FS2004 was at its times.

All in all, I want to be positive on the future of the franchise. So, here is my list of some of the things that Microsoft Flight Simulator XI should have, if it will be ever released:

- revamped graphic engine (or even better a completely new one)
- all the FSX:Acceleration features should become stock features
- default scenario should be as complex as, say, Ultimate Terrain X
- have the ability to create photoscenery from internet services like Virtual Earth (like Tile Proxy and FS Earth Tiles do). Possibly SDK shoud sport an automated Autogen placement tool.
- add STOV/L fight modeling
- A better support for freeware developers (I could think of several action Microsoft should take)

Ok, just few is 5Am so I think I should catch some sleep. The general idea is, "Dear Microsoft take a look at what the competition and third parties are doing good and do it". Like have the boats rolling, as in XPlane, just to make an example.

Come on, Microsoft! We love FSX and we do not want it to die! We want FSXI and we want it to be great!


John said...

I agree with your assessment wholehearted. I can live with FSX though as long as you continue developing these great birds. :)

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