Flight Simulation–The Struggle for Balance
While I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that Prepar3D, Flight Simulator X (FSX) and X-Plane are NOT video games…they are computer based flight simulators! It certainly didn’t start out this way. As I often show my age when I speak about the fact that I’ve been flying computer based simulations since the early 1980’s…really and truly at that time, the ancestors of P3D, FSX and X-Plane were just simply games. At that time, I really don’t think anyone (perhaps other than the developers) could imagine what these games would become and the industry which would rise up to support it.
A Picture is Worth…
They say “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”. The top image is what things looked like back around 1984 on the Commodore 64. I spent hours upon hours and a few hours more sitting at my desk flying around Chicago Meig’s Field.
Advance the calendar some 35 years and this is what the above evolved into. The image below is from my own Prepar3d version 4 setup and the PMDG 747-400. I believe I captured this screenshot on a flight from Denver to London late last summer (2018).
The stark contrast between those two images is truly amazing. From a very basic 2D cockpit with very limited controls to the flight deck of the Queen herself where just about every button, every switch and every dial does something is again just simply amazing. While I often envy the younger generation who have basically grown up with only knowing the more modern of things, I do consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to witness this first hand.
There’s an interesting backstory with the above image. I have this image on my work laptop and Windows 10 automagically changes out my desktop image every 15 minutes. I have two very large external monitors in my office and they are situated where if someone stops by to visit, they can see the desktop image if I have my applications minimized. One of my co-workers stopped by one day, saw the image and asked me where I found it. I explained that I captured the image (that’s all I said), he looked at me and said “how the hell did you manage to convince the pilots to A. let you onto the flight deck, and B. convince them to step out so this picture could be taken. LOL I explained this was a screenshot from my home flight simulator setup. I think we spent the next hour discussing the hobby.
The Struggle is Real
While I can’t speak for all who are involved in the hobby of flight simulation, I would wager to guess that most (at least some) struggle with the balance between ultimate realism and beautiful/stunning eye-candy. Which is more important and does it really matter?
As Microsoft Flight Simulator evolved over the years, there was still a time where third party add-ons were somewhat rare. Especially what I would refer to as complex versions like we have today from the likes of PMDG, FSLabs and A2A. So I would say (for me), as the complex aircraft were slowly starting to come onto the scene, I was still stuck in the “I care more about eye candy” mode. What I wanted was simple. I wanted an aircraft which closely resembled what ever I wanted to fly (Boeing 727, 737, 757 etc.), I wanted it to have decent flight characteristics (meaning perform better than a brick) and I wanted a livery for which ever real world airline I was simulating at the time. Again, at that time….all the rest wasn’t a concern. I also wasn’t all that bothered if the aircraft didn’t have a virtual cockpit. I would guess this was the time frame of about 25 years ago.
The turning point for me was sometime after the dawn of the SATCO/VATSIM age (circa 2000-01). Of course, this is also around the same timeframe when internet based virtual airlines began popping up and the interwebz made the world a much smaller place.
Immersion is Key
I think with any simulation based title, the immersive experience is due part from the software itself and also from ones own imagination. While I’m not suggesting any of us sim gamers go around thinking (or certainly not pretending) we’re farmers, truckers or pilots…but I believe, our own imagination certainly makes up a small (perhaps larger) part of our overall experience.
For example, I have my own rules for how I enjoy flight simulation. First, I almost always begin a flight from the last airport I previously landed at. There are a few times in my mind I will just say “jump seat” and start off from an airport I hadn’t just flown into…but that’s rare. Second, I’m also not the type of virtual aviator who fires up a flight and then either goes to bed, goes to work or goes shopping. While I’m not going to lie and tell you that my rear keister is always firmly planted in my chair for every minute, every hour of a flight….I’m generally not far away. After all, pilots in the real world will get up and stretch their legs and go to the toilet. Finally, when I was single…I would often heat up a “TV Dinner” which I would eat on longer flights. But hey…I was eating a lot of these types of dinners when I was single.
The Trade Off
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long ago most of us had to make a decision. Did we want the experience which the complex, advanced simulation add-on aircraft would deliver…OR…did we want the breathtaking visuals? Because it wasn’t always money that determined the path.
Before P3Dv4 was finally capable of taking advantage of a 64 bit architecture and move beyond the 4 GB virtual memory limitations, we all found it hard to mix both together. You’ll find older writings of mine on this blog site where I attempted to marry the complex and the stunning visuals….yes it was doable, but it required significant compromise.
It’s All a Balancing Act
Today, I enjoy a perfect balance between the more advanced simulation add-on aircraft and the stunning visuals. With the advancement of hardware, software and the financial ability to marry both together…I can finally shove those graphic sliders to the right and enjoy the challenge of learning and flying some of the greatest machines ever invented and experience the visuals as if it was really happening. My friends…that’s how you define the tagline “As Real As It Gets”.
Until next time…
Enjoy the experience however you define it.