The Tragedy of Terraforming

October 1, 2021

Cover illustration by: Asher Pramono

Despite the recent changes brought about by the introduction of Microsoft Flight Simulator, X-Plane has actually hung on pretty well. Whereas it is very likely Microsoft’s long term strategy will be to maximise profitability by commercialising the sim’s assets as effectively as possible, X-Plane’s strength lies in its openness. That is, if it were maximally open.

One of X-Plane’s sore spots, unrectified by the folks at Laminar for essentially a decade, is the nightmarishly inaccessible terrain representation. Where the MFS SDK provides on-the-fly editing of nearly all in-sim assets, X-Plane continues to rely on cumbersome external tools as stagnant as an expired diet soda -- which is why it’s time for Laminar to step into the light and enter the 21st century -- no excuses.

By now, everyone knows how outdated the whole terrain depiction is, yet Laminar has chosen to rest the burden of fixing it on the community. This has also had some truly negative effects, there’s a whole lucrative industry on terrain editing; outfits like Maps2xplane and, more recently, Aviotek scenery (who coincidentally wrote an opinion on terrain editing on Threshold a few years back when we just launched) are cashing in on Laminar’s negligence -- where, in this day and age, terrain issues should be easily fixable by the wider community, Meyer’s outfit has a habit of neglecting wider issues in favour of small details that hardly anyone cares about -- a perfect ancillary example is the ATC system, which, despite first being properly introduced back in v10, and has seen numerous claims to improvement since, mostly cries same old in the upcoming v12 also.

A cryptic non-answer to an inquiry about terrain editing for X-Plane 12 during the Q&A session

One of the advantages of Asobo’s approach lies in its all-around approach to the flight simming experience, which ensures that there are, quite frankly, no obvious weak spots in its depiction of flight. Now,  I’ve been in the game long enough to understand that, all things considered, X-Plane still does some things quite a lot better than MFS, especially in the aerodynamics department. Yet, one of the key reasons MFS meets more needs is a general focus on the overall sights and sounds inherent to flying, which includes the terrain representation.

For almost a decade, one of Laminar’s main goals has been to turn the current WED software into an all-around scenery and facility data editing solution. I think it’s fair to say they haven’t entirely succeeded, with the notable exception of the Scenery Gateway. As always, X-Plane continues to have its own following, but unless and until Laminar continues to ensure the accessibility of the sim to modders in the same sense as the competing sims are doing, the consumer viability of X-Plane may well be brought into question. MSFS has had a modern terrain system since 1999, so it’s not like Laminar hasn't had the time to catch up.

But, as always, there’s hope. We saw X-Plane take major strides in terms of the GUI in the v11 run, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll see a more holistic outlook in the future. From the standpoint of more conventional users, there’s also been a disproportionate focus on the mobile release -- but that’s understandable, because mobile sells like fresh fish. Then again, both companies have recently demonstrated full versions of their respective sims running on a mobile form factor. We could just as well be on the verge of a form factor shift, but I just somehow don’t see people using the simulators on mobile devices for extended experiences, unless there’s a tremendous improvement in the general usability and usability of VR. 

For the first time since 2006 or so, the sim wars are truly on. Let’s face it, FSX is pretty much dead, P3D was never really meant for us anyway, and X-Plane just trundles along, while the new MFS does its own thing, warts and all. But in a few years, X-Plane might have a hard time justifying itself in the consumer market unless it starts being a sim for the rest of us, not just one Austin Meyer.

Follow us on our Socials !

Threshold encourages informed discussion and debate - though this can only happen if all commenters remain civil when voicing their opinions.