This is an ongoing set of posts about my experiences in the home flight simulator community. I welcome your feedback - join the Virtual Flight Squadrons Discord server to chat with me and fly along with us.
Project Tusk, and the Role of the Non-Flyer in Community
It’s reasonable to ask why I’m so interested in the well-being of the home sim market; aviation as an overall activity demographic has a niche appeal anyway, why not go for broke and just join the General Aviation community for real?
Myth One: The Most Realistic Experience is Best
“Realism” has always gotten a bit of an eye-roll from me as some kind of great moral good. Don’t forget, I came from the world of the military/police shooter game, where that was the endless refrain, whether or not it was true. I’m not trying to have the most realistic experience, though immersion seems to matter. I want to feel as though there’s something alive all around me, the engines and the systems at work behind my seat. I think, with Project Nimitz, I’m getting there.
Reality, past a point, isn’t going to be useful for an individual user to chase. Once you’ve got the VR goggles, the haptics, and enough switchology, the industry as a whole has to move forward in some direction before you can eke out any more realism. 6-DOF motion rigs are a good example. We know putting the body into motion can aid in realism, but the benefit vs the cost makes it out of reach for just about all home simmers, and homebrew solutions aren’t in (almost) anyone’s wheelhouse to chase, and certainly not for cheap. The industry around us has to come together to deliver cost-effective solutions to move the reality needle forward, and it happens in fits and starts.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m amazed beyond belief how far things have come graphically, and in terms of how detailed the subsystems have gotten (I’m looking at you, F-18 FCR) - but that’s not where the bang-for-the-buck transformative effects are going to be felt next.
Myth Two: The Cheapest Experience is Best
Another fun fact being thrown around is that General Aviation is dying. Are you sure? The AOPA State of General Aviation Report 2019 has some conflicting information, but the answer in my mind is maybe. There’s a downslope of folks with their certifications (with the exception of Air Transport Pilot which has gone up since 2011), but the amount of private hours flown has actually been on the rebound since 2015.
Now, if you look at the EIA’s data on Aviation Gasoline prices you’ll see AvGas was pretty flat until around 1999, when prices took off – and they haven’t slowed down. It was about $1.00/gal twenty years ago, now it’s four times as pricey. Inflation in those years accounts for only $0.56 of that increase, so we’re talking three-and-a-half times the cost it used to be.
And yet, it’s not being used any less year over year, the AOPA charts show that pretty consistently. People who want to fly, fly, even if it’s costlier. There may be fewer of them that fly, as they get priced out of the market, but those that can fly appear to be picking up the hours and the fuel tab to make up for it.
When I think about how fast the affordability of General Aviation is steaming away from me, the more it makes sense to utilize simulators to get the feel of flying – but not at the cheapest price possible. Because I already regard flying - in any form - as an expensive hobby in terms of my time, and because I know the prohibitive cost of GA (not just in startup cost but in ongoing cost for every engine hour), mentally I’m seeing the investment lines between the cheapest entry into GA get crossed quickly by a decent sim rig. I can get cheaper value per minute with a good rig, especially as I fly more and more.
I’ve put in 300 hours so far. For a moment let’s assume Project Nimitz cost me $10,000. (You can get away a lot cheaper than this.) That means a cost of $33/hr. Once I get to 500 hours, then it’s $20/hr. 1000 hrs, $10/hr. (Of course there’ll be the usual upgrades, which means I might double my investment if I double my hours, but it still stays under $50/hr.)
Compare to light aircraft: According to an Investopedia Article about GA, we’re talking $200/hr for light single-engine aircraft if financed, and $80/hr for just fuel, oil, and maintenance. If you go as cheaply as you can into GA, it’s still something like 3 times more expensive than an expensive home sim rig.
So why am I saying “Cheapest is Best” is a myth? Because flying, even virtually, has a high cost of time investment, and I think internal calculus for virtual pilots works the same as it does for real pilots. Those who want to fly, will fly, and having the experience feel reasonably real for the money is an investment commensurate with the time investment the virtual pilots are already putting in. “If I’m spending time in here (up here) already, it should be quality time.”
Because flying takes time, it takes money and that’s okay, for both real and virtual pilots. A Great Cheapening isn’t going to be the X-factor in what grows the home simmers market.
No More Myths: What’s Really Driving Us
Fine, fine - I’ve said what I think isn’t moving the home sim market forward. Let me tell you what is, and what isn’t talked about nearly enough at places like FS Expo (shoutout 2020 Las Vegas!): Community.
Right off the bat, you’re going to say “multiplayer”, and yes, that is the big draw at the core - and it’s still ridiculous to me that some modern sims still don’t have it.
But there’s more: it’s not just planes that can fly together. It’s people that can talk together, band together as a squadron. Those people can broadcast on YouTube, Twitch, Mixer. They can show live maps, live scoreboards, highlight their favorite interactions.
Friends can join in the “right seat”, act as observers, AWACS, co-pilots by watching livestreams, live telemetry. I’ve been exploring this with Project Nimitz, a bit with the F-14 charity Livestream I ran in Spring 2019, and in my surveying of the community events like SATAL and VFAT.
As a silly, but aspirational view of “community” is the reach of the Flight Sim X ATC series, a host of funny Air Traffic Control videos done with Microsoft FSX, the flagship video garnering 5.5M views and over 100K likes on YouTube. I’m not claiming this as the end product we all want as simmers, but as an ancillary output, a touch point the wider world can use to see a window into what we do and love as a community, five million people watching ten minutes of virtual planes flying around and people talking to one another isn’t a bad start.
A question for my friends in the sim community: What can we do to give the non-simmers a chance to view and share the excitement of what we do, without them needing their own rigs? What co-viewing experiences can we create? How can we make it easy, emotionally rewarding, bite-sized and fun?
I’ve got some ideas that I want to explore there. I’ll have more to share as we go.
How Big is the Home Simulator Market, and Where is it Going?
A simple spot check of DCS World servers at 9AM Pacific Saturday shows 1,600 active players in 696 servers. At peak, five days ago, there were 839 servers, 20% higher, so the “size” of the active multiplayer community may be as high as 2,000 concurrent users.
Interestingly, this tracks with the all-time peak users shown for the game on Steamcharts but recognize that DCS World is played on both Steam and non-Steam versions, so the Steamcharts only show part of the story.
How might we derive the total number of multiplayer users if we only know concurrent users from a single snapshot in time? We might not be able to, reliably. We need snapshots over time. From these multiple concurrent pictures, we can use some additional data and reasonable assumptions to separate out the concurrencies into likely active unique players.
Here’s the thinking:
So what does it add up to?
I have no idea. I have to write the code to do this. Stay tuned, I’ll let you know.
Some incidental stats:
|DCS World||X-Plane||Flight Sim X||Prepar3D|
My re-introduction to the world of modern flight sims has been going on for about two years now. Project Nimitz is functional; further improvements are incremental.
I’ve discovered some gems: the DCS World F-14 Tomcat, the X-Plane Grumman Goose. And, I appreciate that I’ll always have mountains of learning to do - my current sims of choice, DCS World and X-Plane, have at least six airframes each that I haven’t even flown yet. At the release rates of downloadable content, there’ll always be more to learn than can be covered at my personal speed of familiarization.
Throughout these last two years, I’ve eagerly downloaded the NATOPS manuals for first the Hornet, then the Tomcat as each were prepared for release; something like 400 pages a piece, and I devoured them during near-monthly air travel trips with little else to do. I think my formative years were like that: games like F-117 Stealth Fighter and Jane’s Advanced Tactical Fighters used to come with bulky manuals, some even dressed up to look like something from the Navy Printing Office. THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK, and all.