As Featured in PC Pilot Magazine
This is only the text of an article appearing in issue 34 of PC Pilot Magazine (Spring 2005)
Introduction: We're used to giving you our opinions on what's happening in the world of flight simulation and telling you what we think of developers' work. High time then, we thought, to get the view from the other side of the fence. With the recently released DreamFleet 727 garnering rave reviews, we were glad to get the chance to have a chat with DreamFleet's Lou Betti about bugs, release dates, the FS future and much more…
PC Pilot: Along with plenty of other desktop flyers, we're really enjoying flying the 727; do you think any aspect(s) of the aircraft in particular have made it such a success?
Lou Betti: I believe it is the product as a whole that accounts for this. It is a product that follows DreamFleet's design philosophy, one which has invariably made all of our products successful. When Paul Golding, an accomplished panel designer in his own right, joined DreamFleet, and we decided on the 727 to produce, I essentially told him: "Forget what you did in the past, the 727 has to follow DF's design philosophy. This means photo-based graphics, and much more. We must keep it consistent with products we are currently producing". Of course, due to the complexity of the product, delays were inevitable, especially when the team had to go back to add things that we had recently added to other products DreamFleet was producing, such as the Flight 1 ATR. At the 11th hour, I added the final delay by helping to make possible the inclusion of colour weather radar from Reality XP. This was the first step in DreamFleet's new partnership with Reality XP.
We had a great team on the 727, and it appears the lengthy development time was worth the effort by these talented individuals. We hope to have the 727 with us right through the next version of Flight Simulator, and Paul and team are planning a free update for the 727, one that will certainly take the FS community by surprise with its scope!
However, if I had to pick one aspect of the 727 for mention, it would not be something that we did per se, but the fact that the 727 is not a push-button, automated airliner; it requires flying and navigation skills just as the real one does. There's no FMC to make life easy for you, and no complex autopilot to do everything including landing the plane for you. I think for many, this has been a welcome change, perhaps even a challenge, as they hone basic flying skills that became quite rusty while flying the automated jets. Let's face it, anyone can program an FMC to fly a SID or STAR via an autopilot, but how many can do it by hand, with only minimal autopilot use and no autothrottle?
PC Pilot: The inclusion of Reality XP's weather radar is an innovative idea - do you think an increasing number of add-ons will feature similar cooperation between development teams which specialise in different areas?
Lou Betti: If we are going to increase the realism of our products, while still producing them in a reasonable time frame, this makes sense. Time does not exist to "reinvent the wheel", and when another developer, such as Reality XP, has something we need, it is most prudent to make an effort to license that technology for our products. This frees our programmers to work in other areas.
With our forthcoming Beechcraft A36, we will prove this even further. The A36 will feature Reality XP's new Garmin GNS430 and WX500 Weather Radar. It also features EagleSoft's Sandel 3308 EHSI (programmed by Ike Slack), and EDM700 engine analyzer / EGT (programmed by Bill Leaming). Making use of these gauges by other developers allowed us produce the aircraft in a reasonable amount of time, while keeping it faithful to the real version we modelled it after.
If we required our programmers create the most-realistic colour weather radar available, and a Garmin 430 that is essentially the same as the one in my Piper Dakota, you would not see the Beech A36 until some time in 2007!
In a month or so, I will be photographing the interior of a Cirrus SR22. Not for a DreamFleet product, but for an EagleSoft product
DreamFleet is happy to work with other developers, in order to increase realism, while speeding up production.
PC Pilot: There have been many complaints recently from disappointed buyers about FS add-ons that have been rushed out in a half-finished state - is this a necessary evil or unacceptable and unfair on the buyer?
Lou Betti: It all depends on the add-on, and what a buyer feels is "half-finished". Some buyers expect a 100% replication of the real aircraft, and anything less than that is considered incomplete. In other cases you have an add-on where the buyer understands that it will not be a 100% replication but, instead, what is provided works poorly and may have many operational "bugs" or inaccuracies. This is a different story, and is unfair to the buyer. Yes, with very complex add-ons, bugs can be expected, but I have seen some releases where the quality level gives all developers a "black eye". Fortunately these products are in the minority.
With the ever-increasing complexity of FS add-ons, it is almost impossible to produce something that is 100% "bug free". The reason for this is simple: A very large beta team, using a variety of different computer systems, and living in different parts of the world would be necessary for the most complex of these add-ons (such as an airliner). I am referring to a potential beta team size of several hundred, if not more than one thousand testers being necessary to ensure such. The problem with doing this is the small sales volume of FS add-ons. If a developer used such a large beta team, they would be giving away a sizeable portion of their sales to the beta team!
Instead, what we do is assemble a smaller team of highly qualified and experienced testers; typically between 50 and 100 testers. Then we test, test, test, and hope all the bases are covered upon release. They usually are. Our 727 was released very "solid", and I attribute this to the way we now beta test. However, I must stress that such testing is never a guarantee, and after sales support and fixes must be there in a timely manner to address any issues that arise once the product is in the customer's hands.
PC Pilot: We're forever reading about new products that are going to be the "most realistic" ever developed, "more accurate than ever before" and so on. Is this over-hyped marketing raising our expectations unrealistically and ultimately likely to disappoint when the finished product arrives?
Lou Betti: If we are going to push the boundaries of realism and functionality, we have to let the prospective customer know this. However I would agree that over-hyping is unnecessary, and will create unrealistic expectations among some. The developer has to find a happy medium between advertising the features of the product, while not increasing customer expectations to an unreasonable level. Of course, to some, even mentioning the product more than once is considered hype. Often hype is not created by the developer, but by potential customers speculating and talking about the product at various on line forums. This is where rumour often turns to "fact", and then to hype; all without any developer input.
The reality is, if you say, "The most realistic yet created", to some this will mean, "Something more realistic than what was available previously", and to others it might mean, "I'm getting a 100% real aircraft in every respect". It is also necessary for the customer to have realistic expectations, tempered with the knowledge that it is impossible, in the case of any aircraft, to create a 100% functionally accurate replica. At DreamFleet, we generally let the features list, screen shots, and our reputation do the speaking for us. Add to this an application of common sense on the part of the customer, and the expectations should be reasonable.
PC Pilot: Do some add-on buyers have an unrealistic idea of what they can expect? We've seen airliner Captains staggered by the realism of certain add-ons (and even more so by how little they cost!) while some in the FS community are complaining that a certain feature is not 100% perfect.
Lou Betti: Absolutely. In general, I find many real pilots such as I are less concerned with what we consider to be "trivial" details, such as the nuances of needle movement in certain electrical gauges (mentioned at our 727 forum), while many FS pilots examine the product with a microscope, almost playing a game of "Trivial Pursuit". Sadly, while many real pilots judge based on fact / experience, I have seen many FS pilots judge based upon what they think reality should be, or what they may have read at a forum, or by comparison to another product. At our ATR support forum, we constantly battle problems caused by customers who think an ATR must operate like a Boeing 737NG, and when it does not, they cry "bug"! An ATR is not a 737NG, in FS or in real life.
When we released our Cessna Cardinal, we were told by some that it did not fly realistically. They felt that since it was intended as the replacement for the Cessna 172 that it should fly like a Cessna 172. The fact is, in real life, a Cessna Cardinal does not fly like a Cessna 172; it is very much a different bird.
Customers need to remember that Microsoft gives us an SDK (Software Development Kit), not the source code for FS. We can only do so much, and cannot do whatever we want. When we push outside the bounds of what FS allows, this is often when labour costs escalate dramatically, and problems almost certainly will arise when the product is ported over to subsequent versions of FS.
My suggestion to FS users: Most FS add-ons are a great bargain for what they offer. Considering their low sales volume, many should easily be two to three times the price just as they exist. Keep your expectations realistic and you'll be pleased with what you get; it will be a terrific value, and still well above what FS provides by default.
The reason, in part, for unrealistic expectations is usually the customer's perception of the price of the add-on versus the price of the Sim, and I will expand on this later.
PC Pilot: Do you think Microsoft should continue to release a new version of Flight Simulator every two years? It seems that the expectation from some users that developers and publishers should make their products compatible with each new version can cause a few headaches.
Lou Betti: I would personally like to see a three year interval, but I doubt this is feasible for Microsoft. As to forward compatibility of add-on products, this should be considered a courtesy from the developers when provided for free, and should only be expected for one, maybe two new versions at best. For very complex add-ons that must be programmed outside the SDK, forward compatibility will be more difficult, and the customer should not assume that any update to make the product work with a new version of FS will be available "overnight".
You can only update a product so much before it is time to start from scratch and build it again. This was the case with our 737-400. It came out for FS2000, was updated for FS2002, and by FS2004 the work required to update it to current standards / expectations was not feasible.
PC Pilot: Virtual cockpits are now commonplace; do you foresee any great leaps in FS cockpit technology over the next few years?
Lou Betti: While I do not have a crystal ball for Microsoft, my opinion is that computer CPU speed and video cards will need to lead the way for any great advances to happen. Aside from us all putting on a pair of VR goggles, and entering a true virtual reality environment, the Virtual Cockpit as we see it now is the future for the next several years. Here, developers need to have available an increase in the number of allowable polygons we can use in the 3D model, and also the number of and resolution of textures we can use on the model. Currently we are maxing out the polygons that FS will allow. Yes, we can currently provide more, higher resolution textures, but most computer systems cannot handle them. I am still a big believer in using photo-based textures to bring a cockpit to life, however I want them to be of a higher resolution, and that is still not practical unless one is running FS on a Super Computer.
The Real Air Spitfire has a lovely VC, and that may signal a trend for the future. However, while this 3D technology is currently suitable for the relatively simple cockpit of a Spitfire, we experimented with it about a year ago, and found it economically unsuitable for more advanced cockpits, such as the 727, ATR, or even our Beech A36. In the future, of course, this too may change.
I would also like to see an improved default camera system for the VC. One that increases ease of movement, and also allows for capturing specific parts of the panel, that can be called up with just a click on the keyboard. This would be similar to how we view the 2D pop-up panel windows today. Yes, there is an add-on camera utility that does this, but I feel this should be included by default in FS.
Track IR is a device, that while I do not use, I have heard many fine things about. I recently viewed a video done by a Track IR user, John Dow, one of our Beech A36 beta testers, where he flew the pattern in the A36. It was amazing to see him looking about in the cockpit by moving his head, just as one would do in real life. A device such as this would make even current virtual cockpits come alive, and make them far more user friendly. Of course, a hardware device such as this should not be expected by default in FS.
The fact remains that we are still dealing with a 2D monitor and the VC will never be 100% real. This is why 2D panels still remain very popular with a sizeable number of FS users, including myself, for either primary flying, or as a supplement to the VC. Peter McLeland, one of our beta testers, is a former RAF fighter pilot, and retired British Airways Trident captain. Today, his FS flying includes some advanced aerobatics, photos of which stun folks at the screen shot forums. He performs this flying strictly with 2D panels, and on our Beech A36 beta test, he tests with the version without the VC! He is a very accomplished real and FS pilot, and 2D panels are his choice.
PC Pilot: A topic of conversation which crops up again and again on our office is which features of Flight Simulator Microsoft can realistically improve beyond the level offered by various specialised FS add-ons - for weather, ATC and so on, What are your thoughts on this?
Lou Betti: I prefer to view FS as a "foundation" or "operating system" and there is a limit as to how far Microsoft can go while keeping the price of the product reasonable. I feel that FS should continue to be evolutionary in nature, with each new version adding some increases in reality in various areas to the previous version. Now would it be great if FS came standard with an FMC, the equivalent DreamFleet Aircraft, Ultimate Traffic, Active Sky, etc.? Of course! However, at what price would Microsoft need to sell FS if they put all of this development labour into it? I dare say at least double the current price, and this would put a sizeable dent in their sales. Even if they could hold the line on price, the resulting simulator would be too complex, and turn off much of their customer base. For example: For the vast majority of the FS customer base, FS ATC is as complex as it needs to be. It is only a small minority that desire it to become a close replica of the real thing.
Microsoft also tends to view FS both as a complete product and as a foundation, and for the majority (perhaps 90% of their customers) this foundation suffices in the form of the product they deliver. Microsoft also supports the efforts of the add-on development community, as they realize it is this community that offers the more advanced options that the higher end users prefer. These are options that would not be economically feasible for Microsoft to offer, either as an add-on or within the Sim itself. It is an excellent relationship, and I feel it works very well.
Frankly, it's very savvy marketing on Microsoft's part, and I think they are on the right path. Trying to provide greater than what 3rd party developers provide would not be a wise strategy, as much of this added realism would be wasted on the majority of their customers. Microsoft: Stay the course, evolution, not revolution!
PC Pilot: As a sim flyer yourself, are there any recent add-ons which you've particularly enjoyed?
Lou Betti: I wish I had time to fly the Sim! These days any time I spend in FS involves testing our products, and even then, for lack of time, I let the beta testers do most of the flying, while I check bug reports, systems operation etc. Much of this is done on the ground. When I do have time to fly, you can be certain I'm out at KCDW with a certain Piper Dakota I purchased last year. About all I can say is that I have time to enjoy the current product I am working on. Yes, I do look at other products, and there are many fine ones out there, but looking is about all I have time to do.
That said; I will make special mention of a gentleman I spoke with recently, Kevin Sparkuhl, of Sky Decks Panel Design. Kevin has filled a niche by offering instrument panels, and only instrument panels, that fill the gap between the FS default level of reality, and the high-end reality offered by other developers. No FMCs or overly complex systems simulation in his panels, but just enough complexity and reality to attract that segment of the market that does not have 30 minutes to spend preparing for a flight. His products are offered at a reasonable price, and the graphics for his Boeing 737NG panel are the best I have yet seen.
PC Pilot: In view of the increasing complexity of airliner add-ons and the correspondingly longer development times, do you foresee a time when the price of add-ons will have to rise beyond the accepted price points?
Lou Betti: This relates to the previous question concerning unrealistic expectations. Frankly, most FS add-ons provide exceptional value, and most are dramatically under-priced! The problem is that some users make the mistake of comparing the cost of the add-on to the cost of FS itself. This is flawed logic. These individuals reason that FS costs £50 and provides all these aircraft, etc. while an add-on, for example, provides only one aircraft, and can cost at least half as much. Thus, they feel that for the price they pay for the add-on they should be getting almost the real thing in every respect. Again, flawed logic, and here's why.
Any given version of FS sells in the neighbourhood of one-million copies. The average FS add-on sells less, sometimes much less than 1% of that amount; yet substantial labour, thousands of hours, is still involved in production. Now, for example, if we knew we could sell even 10% the number of copies of an add-on that MS sells of FS, we could dramatically reduce the price, while also increasing the labour going into adding to realism, features, etc.
If customers want us to continue to narrow that margin between simulation and reality, the best thing they can do is buy, buy, and buy. The more we can sell, the lower the price can be, and profits will then exist to pay for the added labour necessary to increase the level of realism. Trust me, those developers who are also businessmen, like my self, will respond as I describe above. Those developers who do not will quickly find that is a big mistake!
The wisest thing an FS user can do is consider FS as nothing more than an operating system, or a foundation. We all know that an "OS" is often much less in cost than the average software installed on it. You can pay £100 for Windows XP Home, and then spend £600 on Adobe Photoshop, or £100 on Paint Shop Pro, etc. Operating systems are far more complex than the software installed on them, yet they cost less. Why? Because so many more copies are sold of them.
We need more customers at the current price levels, and if we can realise such, then prices will fall, while reality can increase at an even greater rate. Developers who work with one another, and also take advantage of their own built-in economies of scale can help stem price increases even at current sales levels. We are trying to do this currently. However, this only takes us so far, and if the FS community continues to ask for more, while not buying more, well, this is basic "Business 101" at play here, and prices will continue to rise.
Increasing prices is not just in the developer's hands, but mostly the customer's hands. It is they who ask / expect more from us, and if you ask for more, you will either have to buy more copies at the current prices, or pay more at the current sales levels.
PC Pilot: PC flight simulation finally seems to be gaining some credibility with real-world pilots. As a pilot yourself, would you say this is overdue?
Lou Betti: No. I always knew it would take time. FS needed to reach a certain level of sophistication first in order to attract real pilots. Perhaps this may have started gaining momentum during FS98, and continued to grow with each new version thereafter. I first experienced FS during FS4, and while I found it somewhat interesting, I also knew I would not be spending much time with it. By FS98, my opinion had changed...