Last week, Austin Meyer, the founder of X-Plane, did a webinar with the Flight Sim Association from the Oshkosh Air Show. He talked quite a bit about the next generation of X-Plane and what their team has been busy doing. It was an interesting presentation and while it doesn’t fully let the cat out of the bag I think we can read closely into what they have planned.
Getting an overview of the next generation
Right from the start, it’s become clear that what Laminar has been previewing has been all about the next generation of the sim. Austin made a somewhat sarcastic remark about a roughly $60 price tag every five years suggests to me that X-Plane 11’s life is coming to an end.
Next up, another major key point was the news that X-Plane 11 content (all of those third party aircraft for example) should work just fine in the new sim. There’s no telling what features may break or need to be tweaked in order to make them work in the new sim but I have high hopes that dedicated developers like Thranda, Aerobask, and VSkyLabs just to name a few will be able to quickly update and port their aircraft to the new sim.
Naming and pricing
It seems that Laminar is keeping their plans for the next generation close to their chest. Although Austin did say a few times that the next generation pricing model hadn’t been announced yet, it is clear that this is X-Plane 12 in all but name at this point.
Apparently, by the time of FSExpo in September, the team will be ready to talk about the name and price. Will they be charging their usual $60 price or some sort of subscription or both?
The issue of graphics including clouds and landscapes came up during the presentation and we learned some interesting things there too.
First, volumetric clouds are coming to X-Plane by default (finally!) and Laminar will be showing those off sometime soon. This is a must have feature to me and I hope that it will put X-Plane at least on par with the latest in cloud technology that we’ve seen from Microsoft Flight Simulator and DCS World. The team has also worked to make weather transitions smoother than the current more jarring and rather sudden transitions in X-Plane 11.
Austin did seem more resistant to upgrades to things like the wind model. Here, Microsoft Flight Simulator, appears way ahead doing detailed modeling of how wind interacts with terrain and buildings. That leads to some interesting real world effects, particularly when flying in the mountains. I don’t get those with default X-Plane right now and I’d like to very much. He did make a note of it so hopefully we see this evolve before release.
The issue of scenery and terrain also came up and of course everyone wants to know how Laminar intends to compete with Microsoft Flight Simulator in this area. For those who may not know, MSFS streams high resolution orthographic imagery to your PC via the internet much as you would your favourite show on Netflix or Disney+. This relies on Bing Maps plus BlackShark AI to populate the world. Other scenery elements are layered on top.
X-Plane 11 is capable of supporting ortho imagery although traditionally people have “made it themselves” or downloaded scenery packages such as the TrueEarth series from Orbx. This unfortunately can take up hundreds of gigabytes. Meanwhile, the default scenery in the sim uses data to populate areas with some basic textures and objects. It’s this autogen method that Laminar will be sticking with for the next generation although it looks like they intend to evolve it significantly.
As a side note, Austin did spend some time lamenting about Flight Simulator’s “melted apocalypse.” While MSFS scenery is not perfect, I feel like the 20 minutes of time he admitted to having spent with the new sim is not sufficient to get a good sense of the power of that system. However, realistically, Laminar cannot compete with the kind of resources that MSFS needs to power their system anyways. They are going in a different direction and that seems sensible.
Fans of this blog will know that DCS and IL-2 don’t rely much or at all on ortho imagery and instead use good textures and strong objects and autogen to make for a realistic looking world. It can be made to look a whole lot better than the drab and dull scenery that X-Plane 11 default currently supports and this seems to be the way that the next X-Plane is going.
A new ‘forestry preview’ shows greatly enhanced trees and Austin detailed that the team has built systems that will realistically transition the trees from winter, to spring, on to summer and then into autumn using real world data.
The webinar also showed off greatly enhanced details for things like air traffic control towers, houses, commercial buildings, lighthouses and more. It seems that X-Plane will double down on doing high quality assets and making use of autogen scenery and textures to improve the look of the scenery. It will look a little more generic than what we have from MSFS but maybe it will end up looking pretty good in its own right.
Another interesting comment was multiplayer. X-Plane 11’s default support for multiplayer is virtually nonexistent with third party plugins filling in most of the gaps. I’ve tinkered with that system and found it nearly impossible to use and certainly the average simmer is just not going to want to mess around with that.
Baking in something better would be great and I’m encouraged by the comments made during the presentation. Austin would like to see every X-Plane flight on there and I can’t think of a better way to fill the world with action than to see everyone else doing their flights. Flight Simulator does this and it’s great!
My thoughts about X-Plane’s future
In summary, the next generation of X-Plane is coming. Is it called 12? Probably, but maybe not.
Laminar Research and X-Plane creator Austin Meyers are being a bit coy about something that seems to be fairly obvious. They might pull a Windows 10 or an iPad and just call it “X-Plane” and be less specific about the version numbers in the marketing in the future. That could be. In the meantime you have some in the X-Plane community believing these “next gen” updates are still planned for future versions of X-Plane 11 and I think that may be setting some up for some disappointment. Be prepared to shell out some cash for a new version is my message.
X-Plane mobile and X-Plane as a tool for flight schools seems to have been a focus for Laminar and while the FAA certification is bandied about quite a bit, I think that matters less to the more average flight sim pilot. Having an authentic and realistic simulator is something we all want to see but we also want to fly in a realistic looking word, with good visuals and lighting, with complex systems, and excellent flight dynamics both from the aircraft and influenced by the surrounding terrain.
I’m a bit concerned with how much resistance Austin Meyers seems to have at evolving certain elements but encouraged that there is progress being made on many features and issues that I have with the current iteration. GUI upgrades weren’t talked about much and here too I think X-Plane needs to evolve – especially when it comes to creating flight plans from within the sim.
I’m approaching the next generation of X-Plane with both excitement and trepidation. Laminar Research has the chance to regain some lost ground and show the power of what their sim can accomplish while building on the strengths that it already has. But the sim also clearly needs to evolve and I’m a little worried that it won’t evolve quite enough. Time will tell!
Listen in yourself
Those are my thoughts but you can listen in and form your own opinions based on the latest presentation. There’s two ways to listen in. First, create a free account on the Flight Simulation Association website and listen in on their webinar section. They have a good collection of interesting presentations there already.
Second, watch the presentation on YouTube from the FSExpo YouTube channel.