Prepar3D's Add-On Quality is Flourishing. Why is X-Plane Stagnant?

August 29, 2019

I can’t help but feel that in comparison with their ESP cousins, development of quality content has fallen behind, especially for aircraft. Unfortunately, at the very latest since the arrival of X-Plane 11, the days where a simple PlaneMaker model could pass for a payware release are long gone. Comparatively speaking, addon development in the ESP scene has flourished, whereas in the X-Plane space, it has been stagnant. With the likes of FS2020 practically around the corner, X-Plane native developers should step up their game to stay relevant. Let’s look at a few practical examples.

Consider first the ESP-platform Aerosoft CRJ. This particular project, originally undertaken by Digital Aviation of Fokker 100 fame, was seriously overdue at the time of its takeover by Aerosoft. With Aerosoft’s introduction, a  decision was made to realign the product’s design goals with the new developer’s strategy which considers deeply simulated aircraft largely unnecessary by virtue of their being destructive to profit margins. Thus, what was originally supposed to be a release in the ill-defined “study-level” category quickly became a much less ambitious representation of its subject matter.

Aerosoft's CRJ series

It is telling, however, that if this product today received an X-Plane port, it would arguably be the most convincing regional airliner available! JRollon was supposedly working on a new CRJ, but that one has failed to materialise. Developers need to pull their heads out of their collective behinds and start coming up with something more innovative more often – there’s really no excuse not to. When someone first pushes pre-existing limits, whether real or imagined, others will be inspired – or pressured – into following suit. When I and a group of friends set up the scenery development group TruScenery many years ago, the most important reason for doing so was that we knew the X-Plane 10 graphics engine was capable of a lot more than it had so far been asked to do. Needless to say, our first release, Helsinki-Malmi, quickly established itself among the most technically advanced sceneries for that platform, setting a predicament for others, such as Orbx. Despite John Venema’s best attempts at downplaying the importance and capabilities of X-Plane (“Project X”, anyone?), he eventually had no choice but to give in and invest in X-Plane, having since molded his company into a major cross-platform player, with a portfolio for no less than four platforms.

Here, too, someone has to cast the first stone: I maintain my position that PMDG is already late to the party (and no doubt happy to dominate the P3D space, much to the satisfaction of his investors). Thus, projects like the Rotate MD-11 will be pivotal to the continued success of X-Plane in a post-FS2020 reality. Rotate’s previews have looked good so far, and I look forward to pitting their trijet against the 2008 PMDG offering. Whilst Rotate clearly has an upper hand in visuals, which is no surprise given the PMDG is over a decade old at this point, besting PMDG’s systems implementation will be a formidable challenge given some of the aircraft’s original designers were on the team. I still trust Rotate to bring a convincing representation of the “Tri-Holer” to modern-day computers, especially as PMDG have since chosen to discontinue their product.

Image result for fs2020 cockpit
Microsoft's new Flight Simulator

Still, quality will be the key word here: judging by what Microsoft have chosen to show us, even the default cockpits will be far more functional than anything the Redmond-based giant has cared to provide us with in earlier iterations of their products; the latest previews have suggested the presence of new aerodynamics and meteorological models that will be shown off during the coming months.

Unfortunately, it does not look like Laminar have much to counter with, at least not in the current state of their simulator. The introduction of Metal and Vulkan is due primarily to the future depreciation of the OpenGL API, and by itself contributes little to an enhanced user experience. The company has shown a characteristic disregard for the wishes of developers, as can be seen in the persistent lack of terrain editing facilities.

Image result for x-plane terrain editing
Terrain Editing in X-Plane is like trying to defuse a bomb.

X-Plane must evolve beyond the engineering tool that it once was; it needs to become a full-blown flight simulator. Microsoft has shown exemplary conduct in its press strategy for the new simulator – where traditionally small companies have succeeded well, Microsoft have understood that a closed approach no longer works in the Internet age, and, to that effect, have provided the community with a detailed development roadmap, which is something we are not used to from such a large company. It goes without saying that the Microsoft team has at its disposal much larger development budgets than Laminar ever will, but this should be seen as giving Laminar a chance to stand out and differentiate itself – where it can do so is third party support. It’s looking increasingly likely that MS will eventually want to intervene in the unsolicited entertainment use of P3D. In such a situation, established developers would either have to submit to giving Microsoft a cut of their beef (which major developers, at least in the niche study-level segment, are unwilling to do) or embrace X-Plane, which will likely remain less commercialized for longer.

Going forward, Laminar and the third party developers will have to find each other: Laminar needs to invest additional resources in the continued development of the product, including major features, whereas third party developers will need to understand that the collective consciousness of the user base has established an implicit minimum standard, especially for aircraft. Even in the lower price segments, a relatively high level of interactivity should be considered the starting point. Nonfunctional controls are no longer acceptable, as the competing platform seems now capable of providing an out-of-the-box experience comparable with current medium-tier payware. And where is the proper ATC system anyway? Originally crafted for X-Plane 10 by developer Chris Serio, this branch of the product, along with integrated airspace and ATC unit data, has failed to retain the priority it needs in Laminar’s plans. How relevant those plans will be in just six months from now, is anybody’s guess.

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