Back in the early days, we didn’t have much choice when it came to selecting flight simulator software. When I was a teen back in the early 80’s, I had a Commodore 64 computer. I had a version of flight simulator which ran on the Commodore 64 computer. In those days you only had a small selection of airports to fly to and from and typically only one type of aircraft. I spent many, many hours flying the Cessna around Meig’s Field in Chicago.
As time passed, the sophistication of the various flight simulator software titles evolved from just one aircraft and a few airports to any aircraft one could imagine and an entire globe full of airports with tons of eye candy to look at while flying from point A to point B. Today, flight simulator enthusiasts have many different software platforms to choose from when it comes to setting up their flight simulator.
I’m going to break down the options you have in the various flight simulators available today and provide a brief description and even some opinion regarding each of the available options.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
I’m starting off with Microsoft Flight Simulator since I very much consider this the grandfather of all today’s flight sim applications. While Microsoft discontinued their popular Flight Simulator franchise many years ago, many enthusiasts continue to use their two previous editions of Flight Simulator 2004 (FS9) and Flight Simulator X (FSX). Actually, the first several titles I’m going to list below were all born from much of the original FSX code. As I stated, many still use both FS9 and the original FSX boxed edition today. However, due to their age…I feel for those looking to get started in this exciting hobby entertain other available options.
Dovetail Games – Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition
In July 2014, Dovetail Games announced a licensing agreement with Microsoft to distribute the popular Microsoft FSX via Steam. Dovetail Games made a few minor tweaks to the application to help improve performance and fix many issues which Microsoft had failed to patch before they mothballed the flight simulator projects. The Dovetail Games Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition (FSX SE) is still available to purchase via Steam for $24.99. Since the release of FSX SE, many third party payware add-ons or DLC have been made available.
While FSX SE remains a 32 bit application, with the impressive list of available add-ons (which most have been optimized to function well with FSX SE) this simulator remains an excellent starting platform for the brand new flight sim enthusiast.
Dovetail Games – Flight Sim World
Around the same time Dovetail Games announced their licensing agreement to distribute the above mentioned FSX SE, they also announced they had plans to develop their own flight simulator platform. Just last month, Dovetail Games announced and released Flight Sim World as an early release (beta) product. Flight Sim World currently sells for $24.99 on Steam.
At this point in time, not a whole lot is known about the future of Flight Sim World (FSW). There’s a wide variety of opinions regarding this simulator and how much support it will receive from 3rd party developers. I recently wrote an opinion piece regarding my experience with FSW which you can read here.
In a nutshell, Flight Sim World is not a complete re-write. There’s still a lot of the old FSX baseline code which exists within the sim. However, Dovetail has developed it into a 64 bit application and of course this is great news from a systems performance perspective.
Unfortunately, the “what we don’t know” about Flight Sim World is about the only thing giving me some pause. The way I see it, (and this is just my opinion) but as FSW is born from FSX…if Dovetail doesn’t get the 3rd party developers involved and allow them to develop the content we all expect to see in a sim, then this may never get off the ground.
The Importance of 64 Bit
Before I proceed with my article, I just want to touch on one very important piece and that is the importance of a 64 bit application in today’s modern technology world compared to the older 32 bit architecture.
I’ve written many pieces regarding the obstacles we’ve all faced in trying to wring out as much performance as we can from the older 32 bit applications like FSX (and early versions of P3D). As we drifted further and further away from the date the original FSX code was developed, we’ve pushed harder and harder on that ever important envelope referred to as VAS or Virtual Address Space. Essentially available RAM.
Unfortunately, simply adding more RAM to a PC isn’t the solution. A 32 bit application (like FSX) will only utilize up to 4 GB of available RAM regardless of the amount available in the PC. Running down to the local hardware store and buying an extra 8 GB of RAM will do nothing to help prevent those pesky OOM’s or Out Of Memory Errors. Of course, these OOM’s are (for the most part) self-inflicted by piling on visually stunning add-on payware in the form of ground textures, enhanced airport scenery and highly detailed study level type aircraft. In other words, for the most part….the base FSX application works well until you begin adding the eye candy.
Let’s continue with the list….
Lockheed Martin – Prepar3D
In 2009, Lockheed Martin announced they had negotiated with Microsoft to purchase the intellectual property (including source code) from the Microsoft ESP side of their flight simulation division. ESP was the commercial side of Microsoft’s business in developing flight simulation applications. Prepar3d version 1.1 was released in 2011, P3D v2 in 2013, P3D v3 in 2015 and finally Prepar3d version 4 (64 bit) in May 2017.
For me, P3D v4 has become my personal standard and it is what I use for my day to day flight simulation enjoyment. While P3D v4 (just like versions 1-3) still very much contain original baseline ESP code, and much of the base scenery hasn’t been updated since the days of FSX….the 64 bit architecture is a noticeable “night versus day” difference maker for this very popular flight sim application.
Unfortunately, the only real drawback to P3D comes down to their EULA or End-User License Agreement. To put it mildly, it’s confusing. Essentially, P3D is licensed under the following structure:
Academic – ($59.95) Designed to offer the academic community a platform to develop hands-on STEM lessons. While the academic version of the software is the same as the professional version, there is a watermark visible signifying the acceptable use of the license. The academic license is provided at a discount for students. Currently, there are no requirements to prove eligibility for the academic license.
Professional – ($199.00) The P3D Professional license does allow for training, instruction, simulation and learning.
Professional Plus – ($2300.00) The P3D Professional Plus license is designed for real world business customers who are going to use the software for extensive training purposes.
Developer – ($9.95/Month) Registered software developers can subscribe and receive two full copies.
I’ve written about the confusion of how the P3D EULA simply doesn’t offer a license for basic entertainment purposes only. It is for this purpose, I personally purchase the “Professional” level which does specifically identify simulation as part of the acceptable use of the software. I feel this is also the right thing to do considering that I do often stream and record my flights on YouTube, Twitch etc. Plus….I’m not a student.
All versions of P3D are still available for purchase on the Prepar3D website and all are offered at the same price. So if you are truly interested in the P3D platform, I would saddle up with the brand new P3D version 4.
Before I venture away from the topic of P3D allow me to address one thing. Many are upset, disappointed etc. with the fact that Prepar3D version 4 is simply a 64 bit update of the original ESP code. Meaning, much of how P3D looks by default hasn’t changed since FSX hit the store shelves almost a dozen years ago. While I truly understand what many are saying….I must also remind everyone that P3D has never been directly marketed to the general consumer for mere entertainment purposes. The real target audience of P3D is the commercial, professional and academic side of things and I suggest that perhaps…just perhaps the criteria is just different.
Needless to say, I for one am extremely pleased with P3D v4. If Lockheed Martin had followed the suggestions from those demanding a new game engine, the wait would be much, much longer. P3D v4 is performing extremely well on my gaming system and is allowing me to finally enjoy ultimate realism without the need to worry about the crash due to running out of memory.
Just a reminder, my list is not ranking the titles in any particular order. X-Plane has been around for a number of years and it should be noted that X-Plane was the absolute very first to release their flight sim platform built on the 64 bit architecture. Their recent release of X-Plane 11 has been making news and is certainly a worthy consideration. One of the great things about X-Plane is the community behind it. It truly reminds me of the old Microsoft Flight Sim days where the community truly worked together to develop quality freeware add-ons. Unfortunately, for the FSX, FSX SE and P3D titles….most add-ons will be payware (with a few exceptions).
For me personally, while I do own X-Plane 11, I’ve really found it to be a struggle to forget the old Microsoft ways of controlling the sim application. Fortunately for my old mind, much of how FSX was controlled (again from the application level) is absolutely the same in the most recent version of P3D v4. Plus my extensive collection of add-ons continue to work well.
Freeware/Open-Source Alternatives and a warning
There is an open-source alternative to flight simulation software available from FlightGear. While I’ve never spent any time testing or flying using the FlightGear flight simulation software, I know others do use it and there are methods of importing planes from Microsoft Flight Simulator into FlightGear. In addition, there is also an on-line client for the VATSIM network called SquawkGear that will allow you to use FlightGear to fly on-line. It is extremely encouraging to see developers like FlightGear contribute to the flight sim community with their open-source program.
Unfortunately, there are some individuals who have taken the open-source code from FlightGear, made a few minor modifications and are attempting to market the product under various names such as Flight Pro Sim, Pro Flight Simulator etc. I first learned about this back in 2010 and blogged about it here and here. But please….don’t take my word for it. Read the official statement released by FlightGear and judge for yourself.
What should you choose?
Unfortunately, we all have different interests and we all have different budgets. If you’ve previously been involved with the flight simulation hobby and are looking to get back in…then I would recommend either Prepar3D v4 or X-Plane. What we know about these two platforms should prove these will both be around and will see continued improvements and enhancements for many years to come.
However, if you are brand new to flight simulation and are looking for simply an entry level starting point to help you understand some of the basics of flight and serve as a litmus test if you want to pursue the hobby further, then I suggested giving the new Dovetail Games Flight Sim World a solid look. While this sim is in early access (beta), the current price of $24.95 won’t be money wasted even if you decide in six months you want to move to P3D or XP. I’m very impressed with the tutorials in FSW and believe they can be most helpful in helping you achieve a better level of understanding in the principles of flight. I believe this to be extremely helpful.
As time permits, I do plan to feature more flight simulation content on the GrizzlyBearSims YouTube Channel. Most likely, I will provide some videos from Flight Sim World and of course also Prepar3D v4. While I do own XP 11, I’m really just not comfortable enough with that platform to do it justice.
I hope this information has helped you. As I recently discussed, I truly believe 2017 will be a great year for flight simulation. I wish you the very best in your new aviation adventure.
Until next time…
The virtual world aspect is nothing new to us sim pilots. We nailed the virtual concept down many years ago and each year we’ve worked hard to make it better. While the early days were limited to a single player game, over time this has blossomed into what we enjoy today with multi-player groups like FlightSim Nation, Flight Simulator Network and even larger true-to-life experiences with VATSIM and IVAO. With Microsoft Flight Simulator X and add-on scenery such as Orbx Pacific Northwest and Stark’s Twin Oaks Airpark, one can be fully immersed in what Microsoft has been calling “As Real As It Gets” for many years. It’s hard to imagine it getting any better than this.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the online virtual community called Second Life. Second Life has been around since 2003 and as of 2010 has an estimated 18 million registered accounts. Yours truly has one of those 18 million accounts, but I’ve not visited the community in over 2 years. At a very high level glance, you register for a Second Life account and install their free client software. Second Life is absolutely free to join and use, but free accounts have many limitations. When you join you create an avatar and move around within the Second Life virtual world. Second Life has become popular in the corporate world as well as the arts, science and religious spaces as well. One can even buy property in Second Life.
I would estimate my account dates back to around 2006 or so, so I by no means can be considered as an early adopter of Second Life. I played around with it on a free account and then upgraded to a paid account and then completely lost interest even before my one-year subscription expired. While it was cool moving around the different virtual areas and meeting people, (I even explored the Titanic) I felt it was missing something to keep me fully engaged. Plus I got the impression I was mainly interacting with kids and very young adults. It got old really fast.
The one element to Second Life that I always thought about was how it might be neat to be able to combine some aspects of Second Life into the Flight Simulator hobby or vice versa. For example, as I stated earlier in Second Life one can buy land. The land purchase can be either already developed or can be undeveloped space. While I never purchased land in Second Life, the idea of being able to do something like this in relation to the Flight Simulator hobby interested me. Of course, I’m not a software designer and never really took the idea outside of my head and shared it with others. Thankfully someone else had the same idea and did act on it.
I recently learned of a project called Andras Field which has been in development for several months and available for download/purchase since 30 June 2010. Andras Field is a fictive airport located in Southern Bavaria, close to the Swiss and Austrian border. The add-on software is available through Aerosoft and as of this blog posting, the current version is 1.10 (full build) with update 1.12 applied on top. Updates are made available as property is sold. More about this later.
Again, as of this blog posting Andras Field is sold through Aerosoft for $27.36 USD. This price is very competitive for all that you get with this add-on product. Andras Field is more than just an airport, it is an entire airpark including a 7,006 foot asphalt runway, 2,000 foot grass glider base and a 6,000 foot water runway. Need space to land your favorite heli? No worries…you’ll find plenty of space at Andras Field to do just that. Still want more?
Andras Field includes all the amenities one would expect in a self-contained airport city. You’ll find servicing facilities, restaurants, hotels and residential properties designed by pilots for pilots. When ready to fly, your airplane can be rolled out of your private attached garage and in minutes you’ll be on the active runway.
But how does all this tie in with Second Life? Well…like Second Life, you can buy commercial or residential property for real money at Andras Park. You can have the developers place a standard house/hangar or you can model your own to have placed on your plot for all to see including your name on the street sign. Updates are made available every ten days or so.
I haven’t decided if I’ll buy some virtual property. But I have had fun with this software add-on.
Until next time…
A hobby….any hobby has a cost factor associated to it. Each hobby I know of (and certainly those I’m involved with) have a cost which I like to call the introductory cost. By introductory cost I’m talking about the cost which you must pay to even participate. Now some people may not think of flight simulation as a hobby. I’m sure if you went to the streets and asked random individuals how to classify flight simulation using Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane, the results would probably lean towards it being considered just a game. Perhaps to some of us that is all it is. But to many others (and probably if you are reading this) it means a lot more.
Please allow me to step away from the topic of flight simulation for a moment. I’ll get back on track in just a moment. I have many hobbies in my life. I’m a licensed amateur radio operator, I love photography and I enjoy the game of golf. Each of these hobbies include an inductory cost which I talked about just a moment ago. If you play golf you probably own your clubs and in order to play a round you have costs associated with that (green fees and cart rental). If you enjoy photography and consider that a hobby, then you probably own a camera, a collection of lenses and other accessories. Back in the day you had costs to even determine if the photos you had captured on film even looked half-way decent. Of course today with digital you can view either on camera or on a computer before you decide to print the photo. If amateur radio is your hobby, then you have costs associated with earning your license and then you have costs associated with the purchase of transceivers, antennas and power supplies.
Now in each of the three hobbies I mentioned above, excluding the introductory costs, you have varying levels of costs associated. In golf you can choose to buy your clubs second hand or select a less expensive set. Of course you can also go for the very best and use the same set of clubs the pros use. In photography you can also use a second hand camera and lenses or you can purhase any number of brands and models….the sky is the limit. With regards to amateur radio….the same applies. Used versus new and also depending on your interests of wanting to talk to people across town, across the state or around the world. The costs associated with those all range from the low end to $$$$$. By the way, if you want to learn more about the hobby of amateur radio please visit my blog and/or podcast website.
Now before I come full circle and get back on topic. Let me just make this one statement. With ANY hobby, what you get from that hobby is a direct reflection of what you are willing to put into it. Now….this doesn’t always mean money. The best golfers in the world can play with just about any club and make it work. Some pretty darn good photographs have been made with a pin hole camera and I’ve talked around the world on my ham radio with a very small and inexpensive antenna. But in each of these examples, it takes time….it takes patience and it takes a commitment. I believe the commitment actually comes from accepting something (anything) as a hobby.
OK….let’s get back on track. I hope you are still with me. Now you might be wondering why I’m blogging about the topic “The Cost of a Hobby”. What got me thinking about this? Well….if you’ve read my introduction blog post here you know that I’m a long-time flight simmer who has been flying computer simulators for over 25 years. You also know that I stepped away from the hobby about 5 years ago and now getting back onboard. In the past month I’ve spent a few dollars building a new PC which I’ve dedicated to flight simulation. You can read that blog posthere.
Last night I was using Google to find more blogs and other online resources about our hobby and stumbled on the 10 Minute Taxi YouTube channel. Each segment ArcHammer (Shane) discusses topics related to the hobby of flight simulation and typically does all this in a short 10 minute segment. Recently he discussed the cost of various flight sim add-ons with a guest host (Vance from Sonic Solutions). You can view that episode here. Specifically they discuss the issue of some flight sim add-ons actually costing more than the base software (MS Flight Simulator) does. In addition, they talk about the demographics of those participating in our hobby. We have a strong user/customer base and the point the host tries to drive home is it shouldn’t cost as much as it does for certain add-ons. Please take a few minutes to watch this episode.
In my own opinion, I would have to agree with the point Shane and Vance are trying to make. However, I also subscribe to the philosophy that there is nothing free in life. The good thing about the Flight Sim hobby and community is there are a lot of low to no-cost accessories (panels, sounds, aircraft etc.) to help keep us entertained and help to add more realism into our hobby. The one take-away from that episode of 10 Minute Taxi was just how much these online stores charge the developers. Vance mentioned the on-line stores will take between 20 and 30%. Again, in my opinion that is a lot of money especially when you look at the volume some of these on-line retailers are selling. But I also understand these guys have costs associated with their on-line presence.
At this point, I don’t really have any answers. After all I’ve been away from the hobby for almost 5 years. I guess the business is sustaining itself. I mean, the on-line retailers are charging the developers 20-30% and the developers are successful at moving their product. I suppose us consumers are in the drivers seat in this. Meaning we either continue to pay the prices which will continue to allow these costs to be justified or we don’t. This is all a very fine line.
The last comment I’ll make about the 10 Minute Taxi episode, is I’m glad I fit smack dab in the middle of the demographics Shane discussed. I’ll turn 44 in a few weeks, I have a successful career which allows me the opportunity to do the things I want to do with regards to the flight simulation hobby (or any hobby for that matter). I’m also glad to know I’m among “like individuals”. While this hobby needs youth participation to continue to grow…it also needs those of us in the older crowd. I call this balance and it’s good.
So is there a take-away to this blog entry? Sure…if you’re reading this and not currently involved in the hobby of flight sim…don’t let the glossy pages of Computer Pilot Magazine (I’ll blog about this magazing soon) and the $$$$ for computer hardware and such scare you away. While you will need a computer and you’ll need a version of Microsoft Flight Simulator and you’ll need at a minimum a joystick of some sort….that’s it. That’s really all you need to get started. This…and only this can be considered your cost of getting started in the hobby. There is a ton of fun to be had just in this basic setup. How you continue to grow and experience the hobby is all in your control from that point forward.
Until next time,
OK…where to start? Oh I know…let me tell you about myself. My name is Jerry, I live in Denver, Colorado. I’m less than 5 miles from KAPA and about 20 miles from KDEN. I’m married to a wonderful woman who supports all my various hobbies. Before moving to Denver in 1998, I lived in Dallas, Texas. I lived very close to KADS and about 15 miles from the awesome KDFW airport. As a child we would visit the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and one of my two highlights would be visiting Six Flags over Texas and KDFW to watch the planes.
I’ve always been fascinated with airplanes and flight. Now the weird thing is I’ve never had any desire to learn to fly and/or pursue my private pilots license. I know….this may sound weird…but it is what it is. My Uncle has his PPL and he took me flying for the first time in a small Cessna when I was a small child. While I wouldn’t fly again for 10+ years (and my first commercial flight was around the age of 16) I always loved watching airplanes. Even as a “Big” kid, I love all aspects of travel (well perhaps not the waiting in security lines). I love getting to the airport early and watching the planes and the people.
I’ve been flying computer simulator games for over 25 years. Yes….they’ve been around that long. It all started for me with the Commodore 64 computer. The Commodore 64 computer launched my flight sim hobby, but more importanly it helped launch the career I’ve enjoyed for almost 20 years in IT. This IT career has helped to further my enjoyment of the hobby with a better understanding of how computer hardware and software functions together and has provided the opportunity for me to fly around the world.
In the early days of computer flight simulation it was all very basic compared to what we have today withMicrosoft Flight Simulator X. While a friend of mine had a TRS-80 around 1982-83, I didn’t personally own a flight simulator program until 1984 when a company called SubLOGIC created Flight Simulator II. This was the second generation flight simulator and was amazing.
While I was interested in a few other “computer games”, flight simulator was the one that I spent the most time playing. Now I already mentioned that these early versions were basic. While I haven’t played Flight Simulator II in over 20 years, I do remember you would start off at Meig’s Field in Chicago. I honestly believe that was about it. I believe (but not 100% certain) that KORD was represented in the software as well as several other smaller airports. However, that was about it. I also remember a few updates to the Commodore 64 version. Towards the end of my Commodore experience I had obtained some sectional maps and such of the areas where airports were represented. I still only flew with a joystick but my skills were improving with every hour of flying time.
My Commodore 64 computer was finally replaced in the late 80’s with an IBM PC. My flight sim hobby took off from there with the Microsoft Flight Simulator version 3.0. This was a HUGE jump from the version I had been flying on the old Commodore. In the complete history of Microsoft Flight Simulator software, I did miss out on versions 1.0 and 2.0. Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 (the first MS product I used with a PC) 3 aircraft including the Cessna we had all known to love along with a learjet and a Sopwith Camel. The graphics were much improved over the Commodore 64 version and for the first time you could actually look outside of the aircraft. From MSFS 3.0, I’ve owned every version released and each release was better and better and I couldn’t wait until the next one would come out.
Over the years as the graphics improved so did the options. Microsoft began adding more scenery and a lot more choices for aircraft to fly. With the birth of the Internet, an entire industry was born to cater to this exciting hobby. No more were you just limited to the features Microsoft provided….you had access to hundreds…probably thousands of different add-on products to enhance your experience. You could fly around the world and land just about anywhere. “Real World” airports and the accurate scenery around them was all being developed into the software or available through a third party add-on.
Again, while I’m fairly confident I’ve owned every version of Microsoft Flight Simulator since version 3.0 (circa 1988), for me personally it was Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (aka version 7.0) that really pushed the game experience into a true hobby. I picked up a flight yoke and peddles and joined a virtual airline or VA for short. I have flown for several VA’s over the years. The first was a VA setup as American Airlines. It soon went bust. I then joined a VA operating as Air Canada and then found another American Airlines VA which looked awesome. I joined and within a short period of time had worked my way up in the management ranks to VP of Operations and also managed the DFW Hub.
In this timeframe I began flying online and experiencing operating with other online pilots and online ATC (Air Traffic Control) through a network called VATSIM. During this same timeframe I was traveling more and more both through work and for personal reasons. I would fly from KDEN to KDFW, then down to KILE (now KGRK) to visit family a few times a year. One of my favorite things to do would be to re-create the flight before and after a trip. I would fly the same aircraft at the same time of the day etc. It almost became a pre-trip ritual. My first real international (over the pond) flight was in the Spring of 2001. I was headed to our London office for 3 weeks. My real-life trip would take me from KDEN to KDFW then to London’s Gatwick airport EGKK. I simulated this trip in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (version 7.0) before and after my real-world flight.
Microsoft has used the phrase “As Real As It Gets” since at least the days of Flight Simulator 95 (version 6.0). It all became too “As Real As It Gets” with the release of Flight Simulator 2002 (version 8.0). Microsoft had planned to release FS 2002 in mid-September 2001. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, Microsoft delayed the release of 2002 so developers could remove the WTC twin towers from all copies of the software. As a way of paying respect to those who perished that day, all online flights taking place on VATSIM were suspended for the same duration that real-life air traffic operations were shut down. I was scheduled to fly to London on 14 September for business. Needless to say this trip was cancelled. I wouldn’t fly again until just before Christmas of that same year.
I continued participating with VA’s until sometime in late 2006 when life just really got busy for me. Like with any hobby, my flight simulation hobby had to be set aside. My wife and I bought a house and my job has changed dramatically over the years. Just before I put the cockpit and software in storage I had purchased the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator X (version 10.0). At the time of FSX release, my computer was a weakling and there wasn’t a lot of add-ons available. I’m also not even sure FSX at the time would work on the VATSIM network. But I had to have it and purchased it soon after it came out.
Now it is late Summer 2010. I was flipping through the TV channels and came across a History Channel program about to start called Extreme Airports and I was reminded of how much I loved flying the flight simulator software. The PC I used back in the 2005/06 timeframe still had FS9 and FSX installed. I connected my GoFlight gear, my yoke and peddles and flew from KDEN to KDFW in FS9. My old PC just wasn’t powerful enough to run FSX. But this was soon resolved.
I’ll blog about my new “Beast” of a PC on the next post and bring you all up to speed on what I’ve been doing to get started in this awesome hobby again.
Until next time,