It’s not that long ago since the market was flooded with flight simulators, but then again, it wasn’t that long ago since people actually bought LPs and CDs. Things change, and having been an avid flight simulator fan since the late 1980s I’ve followed the development closely.
Personally I think the golden era of flight simming was the years following the release of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2002 and 2004. Not only did these releases mark a great technological achievement, but they gave birth to a vibrant and innovative addon development and Internet scene. Things changed with the release of Flight Simulator X (FSX). The freeware scene almost disappeared completely, and the Internet scene lies in ruins with inactive forums, blogs and websites. The big question is why?
Many blamed Microsoft for the loss of interest. FSX put high demand on computer hardware, in fact, so high that most state of the art computers still can run into trouble running the software. Add to that the lack of backward compatibility and more complex code which made addon development more challenging. But that might just be part of the answer. Like so many other things, flight simulators might be a phenomenon of the past. Do present day teenagers hold the same interest in flight as generations before them? Flight simming might end up being the hobby of nostalgic middle aged men. I mean, flying has become as common as driving a bus these days and for young people there seems to be nothing magical about it.
But all isn’t starless and bible black. Aerosoft, ORBX/FTX/Fullterrain (whatever this company’s name and brand is), Real Air, Just Flight and Flight1, to mention a few, keeps bringing quality addons to the market. Saitek and Thrustmaster have continued to develop and manufacture innovative and affordable peripherals. Rise of Flight, Storm of War, A-10 Warthog are three recent titles proving that there is still stunning simulators being developed for those who like to blow things up.
But more importantly, Aerosoft, Microsoft and Laminar Research all have new simulators in development. But how will they manage to gain an audience outside of the imploding sphere of hard core flight simmers? Microsoft has been clear about their goal. They want to reach everybody with an interest in flight. If they do just that it will be the greatest achievement in the history of flight simulation and computer gaming. Sounds impossible, but the proof will be in the pudding. But what features does Microsoft’s Flight, Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10 and Aerosoft Flight Simulator 2012 need to include to become a success? Apart from obvious features like state of the art graphics and immersive simulation I think the following will be of great importance:
Usability. The simulator needs to be simple to operate and configure. It needs to have a good learning center and strong tutorials.
Playability. The majority of the market wants more than free flight and random missions. There needs to be a story and/or career mode to keep people coming back for more and to appeal to their competitive instincts. Intelligent artificial intelligence, exciting adventurous and immersive missions must be implemented.
Dynamic product. Users need to be taken seriously. A strong support forum and frequent upgrades is something we expect from a modern software product. Not a completely new release every five years with barely anything happening in-between!
More than a Simulator. For many users flight simulator has become synonymous with scenery and aircraft development. Also a great many take pleasure in creating videos and screenshots. With the development of more user friendly tools the birth of a new vibrant Internet addon and video scene is possible. Not only does this expand the areas in which people use the simulator, but it ensures that it is a dynamic kind of software constantly being upgraded and renewed. Most important of all, it makes the simulator adaptable to whatever need and expectation people have, which vary greatly among users that can be divided into many groups (video makers, vintage prop heads, wannabe pilots, cockpit builders, simmers, gamers, architects, aeronautical engineers, flight instructors, designers, virtual travelers to mention a few).