Tomorrow, Laminar Research and the X-Plane team are going to be showing off more of their next generation X-Plane product at Flight Sim Expo 2021. There’s considerable excitement and a lot of guesses still remaining on just what the new sim will be offering, how it will be changing things up from the previous generation, and even what the sim is planning to call itself.
Is this X-Plane 12? Probably! But since it has no name and the X-Plane team have been calling it “next generation” I’m just going to call it X-Plane NG for now.
X-Plane 11 is and has been a brilliant sim but it does have some issues too and its starting to look and feel dated in a number of ways so I wanted to write about some of the features and elements that I want to hear about from the next generation. Let’s have a look!
Better clouds and weather
X-Plane 11’s default clouds and weather system is definitely showing its age these days. Five years ago it was already behind the curve as other sims started to use volumetric cloud technology and now its needing a dramatic overhaul. Austin Meyers has already teased new weather and new volumetric clouds for their product and I have high hopes that these are every bit the visual feast that we’ve seen some other products such as DCS World and Microsoft Flight Simulator.
It goes beyond just a visual upgrade, however. Rain and realistic rain drops and rain streaks across windows should have the commensurate impact on visibility while landing in more challenging weather conditions and things like icing should be a visual effect as much as it affects the flight dynamics.X-Plane 11 may still have among the best flight modeling in the industry but if it isn’t conveying some key data points to pilots through the visual medium, I think it’s missing out on delivering the best possible experience.
Live weather also needs to become better. One of MSFS’s killer features has been their real time weather injection right into the sim. X-Plane in a default configuration does load in weather details from nearby airports but there is no smoothing to that information so it jumps from one weather state to another – abruptly. It’s not a realistic experience and it could be a lot better.
The door is likely always going to be open for third parties to introduce other weather system options or attempt to provide different looks to the weather system. A default upgrade doesn’t detract from those potential possibilities but it is key that the sim evolve and add some key features here.
A really good autogen scenery system
The comparisons to Microsoft Flight Simulator are going to continue for a long time and Microsoft has leveraged their immense corporate resources to do some incredible things with photogrammetry and streamed satellite data. X-Plane NG does not need to do these things to be a success or to be a visual equal.
There’s already been hints that the direction the X-Plane team is going in will be to do autogen at a far higher level than they have done before. The new sim doesn’t necessarily need photogrammetry or satellite imagery to create a realistic rendition of earth. But it does need far better autogen scenery with better structures and buildings, better trees and vegetation, and far better scenery textures that are more varied with the biomes they represent than X-Plane 11 does right now. A dozen textures is not enough but several dozen and some smart autogen systems coupled with open source vegetation, road, and building information could visually equal MSFS in most respects even if the exact satellite image isn’t replicated.
Custom scenery makers will undoubtedly have an opportunity to fill in the rest but elevating the default and making it so that exploring the world is a more visually satisfying experience is high on my list of hopes for X-Plane.
Make the transition from X-Plane 11 as easy as possible
The saving grace of X-Plane over its chief rival, over the last year, has been its aircraft. The default aircraft are a start but they aren’t really what I’m talking about here. It’s the impressive efforts by the third party developers supported by various storefronts including X-Plane.org Store that have come up with a wide array of helicopters, GA aircraft, military and airliner types of aircraft. Even in the last couple of months we’ve seen third party developers add some truly inventive, impressive and engrossing options.
Laminar Research needs to do their best to make sure that those developers have an extremely clear and hopefully trouble free way of bringing those aircraft from X-Plane 11 to the next generation. Previous iterations haven’t been too troublesome in this regard so I hope that remains the case now.
So many X-Plane 11 aircraft are already at their peak that the NG version could easily jump ahead of its rival almost immediately if the path is straightforward for third parties.
Better UI elements
To be fair to X-Plane 11, there are parts of the UI that are already well done. Though the keybinding system could still use some work, in general it’s well done and good enough that the next gen version could probably coast through with very few tweaks and it’d still be competitive with the best in the industry.
What I do want to see, however, is a more visually driven interface for setting up a flight and getting going with it. Microsoft Flight Simulator is the obvious competitor that I’d love to see X-Plane emulate. The ease of which you can setup a VFR or IFR flight there all while visualizing the experience so you can see where you’re starting and ending off and what the waypoints are like in between would be invaluable both as a easy way to get going as well as a learning tool for newer pilots.
I’d like to be able to pre-set my flight plan right in the flight planner as well. Yes, there are third party options, but I shouldn’t need to go out of the sim to get at least the basic functionality. I also don’t think those third party options need to go anywhere. They may offer features, familiarity, or complexity that a built in system doesn’t need to have. But I do want to see it become substantially better without the help of third party tools and websites.
Continuing to enhance the visuals
We’ve already seen some of the efforts that have gone into making the next generation X-Plane product visually better than the last and I have high hopes that this has gone into as many areas of the sim as possible.
More realistic lighting models not only enhance realism but also offer visual improvements to the experience that help contribute to that feeling of “being there” in the cockpit. Removing the grey washed low contrast sheen that seems to dominate default X-Plane and replacing it with something that is more appropriately vibrant is something that I’m really pulling for.
Visual upgrades to clouds, water, fog, lights, and shadows help bring the sim closer to reality while making it more beautiful at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive goals.
Let us feel like we’re not alone in the sky
A better and more intuitive air traffic control system, real time traffic, or massively multiplayer experiences are needed to propel X-Plane into a better experience that makes you feel like you’re flying together with other pilots and working together with ground controllers.
Traffic could be based on life traffic reports via open data feeds but they could also feature a massively multiplayer experience just as X-Plane mobile already offers and Microsoft Flight Simulator bakes into their sim from the get go.
Multiplayer should also be easier to setup than it currently is at the very least. Though MSFS has not been trouble free, multiplayer group flights are a part of the sim’s appeal. Another sim, Infinite Flight, does the same. and X-Plane would do well to encourage that kind of community interaction.
Continuing to do what it does best
I almost didn’t write this last section but for all of my critique and hope for feature enhancements in the next version shouldn’t neglect the fact that X-Plane does have some very good features too. From its cross platform approach to its open architecture and easy adaptability and expandability, X-Plane manages to punch far above its own weight thanks in part to a thriving third party community.
X-Plane also has an excellent flight model. It actually has two including their default and then an experimental version. If anything, I’d like for developers to be able to specify which version they are supporting with their aircraft and/or standardize the new experimental model as the new default in the next generation.
Ultimately, I hope to see X-Plane tackles its strengths and become even stronger than before while also not being afraid to admit that their chief rival has done some great things for flight sims and challenged the status quo. X-Plane NG or X-Plane 12 or whatever they start to call this next generation has the opportunity to show that it can do some impressive things too and push back with a great looking and a great flying sim of its own. I have high hopes! We’ll see what we learn tomorrow and stay tuned for my analysis of what we’ve seen after.