EDITORIAL
Ethical
August 15, 2018
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By: Guest
August 15, 2018
Sapere aude

Keeping The Vocal Minority in Perspective

By Frank Kane

Frank Kane is the founder of Sundog Software, co-author with Maxx-XP of the X-Plane add-ons SkyMaxx Pro, TerraMaxx, Maxx-FX, and SoundMaxx, as well as the author of Real Weather Connector. Frank's credits also include Looking Glass Studio's Flight Unlimited III flight sim, and graphics software used for flight training by Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, the US Air Force, NASA, and many more.

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There is no shortage of thought pieces lamenting social media's ability to skew reality, and to provide a platform for anyone intent on spreading misinformation. How does this affect the X-Plane community? We may not have the attention of governments trying to sway elections, but the X-Plane world has a vocal minority, sometimes with hidden agendas, that we need to be aware of. As with anything we see online, inflammatory statements about X-Plane developers and products need to be looked at critically, and kept in perspective.

A vocal minority of a minority

X-Plane remains a small (although growing) community within its own small community of flight simulation enthusiasts. To put it in perspective, X-Plane add-ons co-developed by my company currently comprise four of the top ten best-seller slots on X-Aviation, and SkyMaxx Pro is one of the most popular X-Plane add-ons of all time. Yet, development for X-Plane has never been enough to pay our bills or to sustain a real business on its own - it's mostly a labor of love. The market is small, and this further amplifies the voices of the few people who choose to be vocally negative on X-Plane forums and groups. There aren't enough non-trolls to drown out the trolls, to put it simply. And nobody is making enough money from X-Plane development to justify spending their time managing their social media presence all day.

Active commenters in X-Plane social circles certainly aren't all trolls. But it only takes a few people to set the tone of the community, even when they don't represent the community as a whole. X-Plane's "vocal minority" seems to fall into four main camps:

The perfectionists

There is nothing wrong with high expectations; it is human nature to always expect more, whether it's from your flight simulator or from the world in general. This is creates progress. Many flight simulation enthusiasts have very high expectations, and will complain loudly if there is any divergence from reality in their sim. Whether it's exactly matching the weather conditions outside down to the last cloud, getting every switch right in an aircraft, or the finer points of aerodynamics, it's easy to find people aghast at the situation- and sure, we should strive for perfection.

But perfectionists are not the majority of X-Plane users. It's good to remind yourself of the data published by Laminar Research on how people are really using X-Plane:

  • More X-Plane users fly general aviation aircraft than airliners, and don't really care about the finer points of navigating a 737 or flying across the ocean online.
  • In X-Plane 10, the most popular control device was a mouse. Even in X-Plane 11, only a little more than half of the users have invested in a flight stick or yoke.
  • 71% of users fly with X-Plane 11's default aircraft, and aren't even using third party aircraft.

So, if you see someone complaining loudly about an FMC that doesn't work exactly like the real thing, a cloud that doesn't look like what they see outside right now, or something else that isn't quite right - keep in mind that although the issue may be very important to the person talking about it, it's not necessarily important to you or the rest of the X-Plane community. The user data does show that most X-Plane users own gamer-level PC's with lots of RAM and beefy video cards, which suggests that "gamers" are an even larger demographic within X-Plane than traditional flight sim enthusiasts.

Perfectionists are on the whole benevolent; their high standards and constructive criticism are what push the state of the art forward. But their criticisms shouldn't always affect your personal view of a product, and how it might meet your own needs.

The technically plagued

Many X-Plane users install large amounts of custom scenery, high definition terrain, and third-party addons. These extra components can all interact with each other in complex ways, especially if you're starting to push the boundaries of what your system can do.

A common complaint you'll see online is "I installed X and a got a CTD - don't buy X!" Or, "I installed X and my frames tanked to 5 FPS - don't buy X!" Not only do we see these sorts of complaints with our own products, but we see them with competitors as well - and we can commiserate!

Third party products certainly do vary in stability and performance, but it's impossible for you to know if a specific person's problem is due to the product itself, or due to pushing their system too hard. If you're almost out of RAM or VRAM while flying, ANY add-on, no matter how well written, has the potential to kill your performance or cause a crash. There's only so much your system can handle. It's also entirely possible for one add-on to corrupt memory used by another, making it look as though an add-on caused a crash when it wasn't actually responsible for it. Changing simulated weather conditions can also affect performance more than anything: so often someone will install an add-on, observe a performance drop that's really due to the stormy weather today, and blame the add-on for the performance drop.People with specific technical problems would generally be better served by contacting the vendor with the details of their situation through the vendor's official support channels. Messages on Facebook don't live for long, and vendors aren't watching every forum and group 24/7. Some vendors are even banned from certain forums for competitive reasons (many X-Aviation authors are banned from X-Plane.org, for example) and can't respond to you there even if they want to. If the problem is indeed with the vendor's software, by contacting them directly they'll have information they need to fix it and the ability to communicate with you about the issue.

Bringing technical complaints prematurely to social media is detrimental to the community. Some percentage of any add-on's users will encounter problems and blame it on the add-on, whether or not it's justified. And it's also true that people are much more likely to post on social media when they have a problem or a complaint, than if a product is simply meeting their expectations. As a result, the more popular an add-on is, the more complaints you are likely to see about it online, whether it deserves that reputation or not.

It's a numbers game; imagine two add-ons where 1% of their customers have a problem of some sort. If one add-on has 10,000 customers and the other only has 100, the first one will have 100 complaints and the second will have only one. The popular product will appear to look 100 times worse than the less popular one to the community, when in fact they are of equal quality! But in neither case are you likely to hear from enough happy customers to balance that out, even though they are the overwhelming majority.

The impatient

Lots of posts can be summarized as "Where's my free update? What's taking so long?"

Let me repeat my earlier point: nobody is making a living from this. My company, Sundog Software, may sound like a big organization, but in reality it only has only ever had one employee - myself. And X-Plane add-ons only comprise about 10% of "our" revenue. Most add-on developers are doing this out of passion more than for the money, and most still have a day job to pay their bills that is competing for their time. The impacts of piracy and IP theft only makes the case worse for spending time on X-Plane development.

Developers want their product to be as good as it can be, and customers have a reasonable expectation that bugs will be fixed as part of free updates. But expecting new features to be delivered indefinitely, for free, is not reasonable, unless you purchased some sort of subscription plan to the product. Most customers understand this, but there is a vocal minority that does not.

A developer that promises a roadmap of future updates as part of what you're buying, however, deserves your ire if they fail to deliver on those promises. I have little sympathy when the "vocal minority" comes down on situations like this. Over-promising and under-delivering is never a good strategy.

Release dates aren't always in a developer's control, either. Writing the code, tweaking the resources, and beta testing are just the first steps toward release; the update needs to be packaged, marketed, and distributed as well - and this creates a dependency on whatever publisher an author uses to actually get their update into the hands of users. It's not uncommon for something to go wrong at this stage, and further delay a release.

But remember, very few X-Plane developers are doing this full time - they need to steal whatever extra time they can to work on these products. That's why updates often take longer than some customers would like.

The angry pirates

Neither perfectionists, the technically plagued, nor the impatient are acting out of malice - they just want a flight sim that works and meets their expectations, and they often bring information that helps make X-Plane better. But there is another category that borders on evil, and they are the most vocal minority of all.

One Facebook thread, which I'll withhold the details of in the interest of privacy, called X-Aviation (our publisher) "scammers plain and simple," and accused them of "horrible support" and "advertising their products falsely." Needless to say this alarmed me as an author on X-Aviation's platform, and I demanded a look into the details of the customers making these claims online and marring our reputation.

It turned out the people in question were caught pirating software from X-Aviation, sharing license keys with their friends in violation of the license terms. When their accounts were terminated, they went on a vendetta against X-Aviation, and worked to promote our competitors instead.

This is just one instance of many; there are many people who fit this profile, and they are VERY vocal.

This is only one route in which piracy leads to misinformation. To this day I see criticisms of our products that only apply to older, pirated versions of our software that are in the wild. They're issues that we fixed a long time ago, but someone using a cracked version of our software from 3 years ago won't have those fixes. (SkyMaxx Pro's draw distance and performance have both come a long way, for example.)

It's bad enough when people steal software from small developers who aren't even making a living from X-Plane, but it's worse when they steal software and then proceed to tarnish the reputation of the developer they stole from. It's enough to make us question why we do this.

Certainly, not all complaints you see online are from jaded pirates - some are legitimate. But in our experience of digging into these extremely vocal critics that crop up online for the past five years, every single one has turned out to have been caught pirating, with their license keys being used on IP addresses in multiple countries at the same time.

Things aren't as bad as they seem

Fortunately, posts in social media and online forums don't have much bearing in the real world. The sales of our products have been steady regardless of the current sentiment online; trolls just don't have the influence they think they do. The vocal minority doesn't matter as much as the happy majority when it comes to business; developers that stay focused on continually improving their products and providing good customer support will, in the end, succeed.

Unbiased, honest reviews of products are still out there and easy to find, including from Threshold. As a customer, these are your best tools for making purchasing decisions - you don't need to rely on social media buzz.

There is further cause for hope. While preparing this article, I went looking for current posts that I would classify as "developer bashing," and they are not as easy to find as they used to be. Community moderators across the board are doing a good job of keeping the trolls at bay, and the community as a whole is growing and drowning them out. The vocal minority is still out there however, so keep their comments in perspective now that you better understand them.

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