Analysis - The 2010s, the Golden Age of X-Plane?
For much of the past decade, X-Plane has been regarded as the top flight simulation platform, closely rivaled by Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D. The success of Laminar Research’s 25 year old simulator can be mostly attributed to its unique blade element theory based flight model, stable performance, and, most importantly, it’s thriving and generous community. If it weren’t for free add-ons like the Zibo 737-800, FlyWithLua, and many more (not even to mention the payware side of things), X-Plane certainly wouldn’t be where it is today.
Because of its previous triumph, on paper, it would seem as if X-Plane is set up for success coming into 2020 especially with a plethora of high quality payware add-ons set to release for the sim in the coming year like FlyJSim’s Q4XP, HotStart’s Challenger 650, Rotate’s MD11, and, my personal favorite, the Leading Edge Simulations DC3 V2. This may not be the case though with the return of Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio.
Through a 10-minute trailer, Asobo Studio has showed off their take on a highly dynamic flight model, similar to X-Plane’s blade element system. In theory, Asobo’s model may even prove to be more realistic. For example, it is being used to simulate very specific variations in weather. In the trailer, they showed the way a mountain affected the properties of the weather and dynamics of air masses. In turn, these variations affect the aerodynamics and performance of the airplane in the simulator. On the other hand, X-Plane takes a much simpler approach to weather. It just takes the data it’s given (similar to a metar) and changes the local air dynamics around the aircraft to fit the given properties.
For example, if it’s trying to simulate a 20 knot headwind and some light chop then it just moves the air over the aircraft’s surfaces 20 knots faster and adds some variation in direction to simulate turbulence. Long story short, in X-Plane the weather system isn’t very deep, in the upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator, the previews suggest that their system is much deeper. If Asobo is able to keep this level of detail up across the board, their sim may have a big leg up on X-Plane.
Asobo also has another advantage over X-Plane - their graphics engine and scenery infrastructure. Visually, their system is far superior out of the box than X-Plane is, even packed with add-ons. Microsoft Flight Simulator will come with volumetric clouds, photorealistic skycolors, a complex lighting system, 3D vegetation shaders, and much more. With access to Microsoft’s earth data and AI resources, the possibilities seem endless for Asobo. For example, they are using Bing data to render buildings and landscapes all over the planet to their real scale and with their true texture, something that currently, Laminar could never dream of doing.
Because of these advantages, Microsoft may have an edge on Laminar, at least for a couple of years after their simulator is released.
As for Laminar, their first step in competing with Microsoft is completing Vulkan. Vulkan will allow Laminar to open up the door to possibilities like volumetric clouds, better lighting, grass shaders, and more. Another key for Laminar is to ensure that it is very easy for developers to update their products to support Vulkan. X-Plane’s community is very strong and at least in the beginning, X-Plane will still have a better add on market than Microsoft Flight Simulator. It will take a lot of time for developers to adapt and perfect their craft on the new platform.
Even if X-Plane were to get completely lost in the shadow of Microsoft Flight Simulator at some point, it won’t be over for Laminar. They will still take in enough income from X-Plane Mobile, commercial applications, and Mac/Linux users to stay afloat, giving them time to develop their answer to Microsoft.