Payware vs freeware. In X-plane the concept is as old as the Sim, and often the discussions surrounding the topic can be heated. X-plane has, first and foremost, evolved as a community effort, with such efforts centered at a few a few well-known (in the XP community, that is) online forums: xplane.org (aka The Org) and x-aviation.com. There’ve been painful divisions over the years, but both groups have, by-and-large, tried to move the Sim forward. One of the communities, the so-called Org, has developed a huge forum dedicated to fostering the efforts of freeware aircraft and scenery files, so there is a continuum of developers there, new developers and The Old Hands – who often act as teachers and mentors, helping newbies out as best they can. Because of this continuum, you can find all sorts of files at the Org, and for the strangest places, too. Odds are if you’re looking for an airport file anywhere in the world, you just might find it there. Odds are, and this is interesting if it ain’t there you can ask someone to make it for you! All-in-all, it’s a neat community of developers and teachers, and without making too fine a point about it, this is a global community in every sense of the word.
Because, I suppose, that’s the nature of this community. Interest in flight, and in flying, is a global phenomenon, and interest in learning to fly is too, and that’s been one of the most significant benefits of desktop flight simulators from Day One. As a result of this interest, and the foresight of the people behind the development of these simulators, these businesses made their platform open-ended, and by that I simply mean these developers built a shell, a world within which simulated flight could take place, and then by and large they left it to private, third-party developers to create the airplanes and airports that could be used within these worlds.
Naturally, development began slowly, and for years it was rather crude, but then again so were the computers we were working and flying on. Scenery tended to be constructed from simple polygons back in the day, and color palettes were limited, too, so the end results were somewhat simplistic, almost impressionistic renderings of the real world. Now…fast forward twenty years, and my-oh-my have things changed.
The global nature of the Sim community resulted in developers cranking out files for each new version of X-plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator, but when X-plane came to be viewed as more of a niche product (very Mac-centric with a flight model only purists could appreciate), XP fell behind as major developers turned away and concentrated on the easier to develop for MsFS.
Then Microsoft announced their development of Ms Flight Simulator was at an end, and while it’s been a long, hard road to this point (let’s not even get into the whole P3D thing right now), interest in X-plane is experiencing a resurgence, and I think the nature of X-plane’s large global community has been critical to that resurgence. I say this as the community has been active – for twenty-plus years – and they’ve been churning out freeware files for airports around the world all that time.
Let’s say, for example, you’re a real pilot, a pilot with an assignment to carry supplies and climbers high into the Himalaya, to an airport where these supplies can be offloaded and passengers carried back to lower altitudes. Let’s also stipulate that you, as our hypothetical pilot, have no experience flying into this particular extreme-altitude airport. Well, here comes X-plane’s global community to the rescue.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, will be to ferry supplies up to VNMA Manang (which supports climbs of Annapurna), a high altitude airport in Nepal where many basecamps resupply, and today you’re going to fly a Quest Kodiak into and out of this airport, which looks a little bit like this (yes, that’s the real facility, not a Sim):
The image just above is the file available for X-plane, and here’s your airplane, which, luckily for you, happens to have an extremely accurate model available:
You’ve got to load this aircraft properly and calculate the amount of fuel you’ll need, balancing fuel and payload limits AND the constraints imposed by the high altitudes you’ll need to attain in order to clear the mountains. Then…in XP you can fly the various routes until you get comfortable with the limitations of this kind of flying.
That said, none of this would be possible without XPs global community of developers. They’ve created airports literally everywhere in the world, from the Amazonian headwaters to Antarctica, from Cape Town to Cape Cod – and the vast majority of these airports are free!
That said, some of these efforts are fairly simple affairs – while some are anything but – yet, in the end, there’s a wealth of information contained in these files. Far from being a Walter Mittyish series of landscapes, these simulated airports provide real pilots (and student pilots) of all stripes a venue in which they can safely learn and practice their craft. At the same time, these files allow people with a passing interest in flight to become better acquainted with this other world.
Today, we’re going to look over two of the very best major airport files available in X-plane – and while one is a payware file the other is freeware. We’ll do so while we “fly” a Boeing 757-200 from Dusseldorf, Germany, to Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States.
So, first stop, Dusseldorf, Germany, and let’s look over the airport before we take off for America.
“We’re flying up from Madrid this evening in order to catch our very early morning flight on Delta back to the States,” or so it goes, but as we’re in X-plane just now we’ll note we’re coming in low over the city of Dusseldorf, about 2,000 feet over the ground. We’ll also note, in the image above, that we’ve maxed-out most of our settings, including World Objects, in our settings dialogue, and that we’re still maintaining decent framerates – which means the Sim is still operating fluidly – and more importantly, that this file has been heavily optimized. This is a good thing!
Next, we’ll fly right over the airport before we land, and let’s take a look at this airport as we pass…
Oops, that’s the real deal, isn’t it? Well, let’s compare reality with AeroSOFT’s EDDL:
So far so good? Well, it just gets better ‘n better…
As far as fidelity to what’s located on the ground, from 2000 feet AGL it’s hard to argue with your eyes…AeroSOFT’s EDDL is gorgeous. Then again, maybe that’s because the architecture found at the recently rebuilt airport is phenomenal! There is so much going on around this area it’s astounding…
Next, let’s look at some more images from the real airport:
Here’s a closeup of the main terminal, but I’ve highlighted an aircraft in red…an Airbus A380, the immense long-range double-decker, and that tells me EDDL is a major airport. In fact, it’s the third busiest in Germany and sees 20+ million passenger movements per year. You can fly non-stop to Tokyo from here, or to destinations as close as Hamburg. BA operates a flight into London City from EDDL, which would be a hoot in XP.
There’s also a monorail system connecting the parking lots and the main terminal, as you can see here:
And note the monorail actually enters the curved portion of the terminal’s roof!
The monorail towers are included in the scenery file but, alas, the monorail itself isn’t! There’s also a railway station under the main terminal (very normal for major European airports, BTW), but it too is not modeled. You will find the Air Cargo Center…
…however, one more thing you won’t find here is a lot of ground clutter, and that’s perhaps the biggest drawback with this file…the ramps are just bare, and there’s very little activity on the tarmacs surrounding the aircraft…
The interior of the terminal is NOT modeled, as well. I’d never thought much about it…until recently…as it seems modeling terminal interiors is suddenly a big deal in MsFS files, and a few of the developers that have made it into XP are including full interior detailing now, too. Oh well, there go the framerates!
It’s about 3500 miles from EDDF to KBOS, Boston’s Logan International, while the Boeing 757-200 (or 752) can fly 3920 miles – which makes this aircraft an ideal fit for a fictional run like this one (Delta currently flies from EDDL to KATL Atlanta using larger, wide-bodied aircraft).
So… Let’s load up now and take off – in the dark of night…
Yes…it dark out, and the sky’s cloudy, too. That said, the ramps are lighted but they’re still pretty dark. And the terminal building looks very dark too!
Well, some places are a little darker than others, but the overwhelming impression here in Dusseldorf is that things are very dark indeed…dark and quiet…
In fact, poke around just about anywhere around here and it feels almost empty, devoid of activity, and that’s a pretty big failure for a top of the line scenery file.
So, after start-up and push-back, let’s taxi to the runway…
And yup, it’s still bleak out there on the taxiways. Not much going on out there at all, and that’s simply not realistic.
Yup…no comment…beyond this file is a dud at night.
Even taking off, the ramps look barren…
…and it looks like there’s almost zero activity on the cargo ramps…when this is usually their busiest time. Not good, folks. Some major improvements needed here.
And, so, with the Flight Director set, the FMS programmed, it’s time to settle in and cross the Atlantic. Next stop, KBOS Boston, and the freeware file by Mr. X…
Boston’s Logan International is a huge airport. Not quite as large as KJFK, and certainly nowhere near as big in land area as KDFW, Logan is nevertheless a sprawling, complicated tangle of terminals and taxiways. Looking at the scene below, Delta is located to the left, American and United in the center, and international arrivals and departures are to the right. Further to the left (and just out of view) is the new cargo annex, while some maintenance facilities and an older cargo annex are seen top-right.
AND, even from this altitude, you can see there’s a lot going on down on the ramps. In fact, it looks downright busy!
And once you land at BOS and get your taxi assignment, getting to your gate is a little like driving through rush hour traffic, but that’s the way it should be!
There are fuel trucks racing around, baggage trains and even people walking around…just like a real airport!
And note the asphalt surface of the taxiways and parking aprons. Not to mention the taxiway markings and runway markers…
And…once again…consider that this is a freeware file.
So, what else can you see around here? This is, after all, Boston!
There’s a lot more going on in this image than what X-plane will show you. Bridges, sports stadiums, popular hotels…? Not included in XP, yet many are included in this file, and this added feature marks what is an emerging trend these days. More and more developers are beginning to include landmarks and built up downtown areas, and this is happening because XP doesn’t do a very realistic job of rendering these right out of the box. The image above is, by the way, taken with XP’s World Objects setting at MAX, and this really impacts framerates. I’m not sure even an 8Gb GPU would handle this scene without slowing down some (I’ve got 5.5).
There are stock elements in this downtown area, and many custom objects in the area, too. Such as:
a. Boston South Station and the Gillette Razor Company;
b. The Prudential Center;
c. Fenway Park (yes, Fenway Park!!!);
These elements make good VFR reporting landmarks, too, and these types of features often end up on sectional charts.
Also modeled, the airport Hilton and Hyatt hotels, and the Marriott Long Wharf and Boston Harbor Hotel are included, as well. If you know where to look, you’ll find the Bunker Hill obelisk as well as Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution. Below, the two major airport hotels, and the models are extremely accurate.
And that weird looking building to the right of the Hyatt (above) is the air intake facility that channels air down into the tunnels that lead under the harbor back to downtown. To include this level of detail, to me, really says something.
Another critical VFR reporting landmark is the LNG gas unloading terminal, located out in the harbor off Runway 15.
So, what does it look like here after the sun goes down?
Well, all those cars and trucks are still visible, and the activity doesn’t slow down even a little.
Yes, there’s a performance hit when you include this level of detail, but it really is just a matter of finding which settings work best on your machine with which files (or going out and buying a really powerful new gaming platform, such as the forthcoming iMac Pro). That said, unless your computer is really old (say, no more than a year or so) you stand a fair chance of being able to make these scenery files work! No, it’s not quite that bad, but X-plane, FsX and P3D are all video intensive applications that just don’t perform well with an underpowered PC. Once you try X-plane, and if the bug bites, you’ll find yourself on the PC “upgrade your hardware” pathway – a never-ending, cash-draining exercise in futility. I say never-ending as it seems like once a new generation of hardware comes along scenery files evolve in complexity to drain all your power gains away. You end up saying, “Gee, if I only had a little more VRAM on my GPU,” so often that not even your dogs will listen to you anymore. You’ll remember when, once upon a time, you had a wife and kids…before the X-plane bug bit, anyway, before they gave up and walked out on you…
So…what have we here, in the end. In the final analysis. In conclusion.
Well, AeroSOFT’s EDDL Düsseldorf is a very workmanlike rendering of a stunning architectural landmark, yet not without serious faults. Mr. X’s freeware KBOS Logan International is a stunning scenery for X-plane, period, but is too not without fault, of a kind.
EDDL’s ramps are barren when compared to KBOS’s, true enough, but KBOS will tax all but the most powerful computers – while EDDL is a little, a very little more forgiving in this regard. Ideally, the developers behind EDDL would work on adding a little more activity to the ramps, and perhaps reworking the pavement markings and lighting to be a bit more vivid, while not impacting performance too much. And why do the terminal interiors have to look so lifeless at night?
KBOS could be more framerate friendly, but how do you do so without killing the essential chaotic complexity of the file? All I’m left with is the hope that even more powerful GPUs will save the day – and sometime soon, too – because what Mr. X has created with this file is X-plane perfection.
It should be noted here, and now, that Mr. X is leaving the ranks of freeware developers. He has just finished his latest creation, a new, very comprehensive KABQ Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it released this weekend at the Org store. In comments in the forums at the Org, ‘X’ stated that developing scenery files of this complexity – for free – is a losing proposition, and we agree – and for multiple reasons.
The first, most obvious reason is that work of this caliber should be rewarded with more than just a “great job, buddy!” and a pat on the back. If a developer works literally for months on a project, and his work is excellent, shouldn’t he profit from his labors?
The second, less obvious reason is simple enough to understand once you think about it. By releasing freeware files that are much better than many payware files, freeware developers are in a sense undercutting the market for payware developers…as in: “why should I buy Brand X KABQ if there’s Brand Y KABQ that even better over there?” In a way, they hurt XPs future.
Say what? Well, let me explain.
Sorry, bad pun.
Anyway… Mr. X pursued a laudable course at the org for a few years, whereby he developed some of the most interesting airport files available for X-plane, and yet they were all freeware files. He did so (I assume) with an end goal in mind. Develop his skill-set, improve his time-flow, learn what he could about the things that make a file worthwhile, like how to optimize framerates – then, when he was ready – he made the leap to payware, turning a hobby into a career, in other words. When that happens we all win, too. Mr X profits, the Org Store will as well, and everyone who uses X-plane will, too, by having truly worthwhile airport files to use. In the end, the X-plane ecology profits when better files are readily available for people to buy.
The issue that some people have expressed with this is, however, simple enough to understand. If you’ve been getting high-quality files for free over the years, some folks are upset that they’ll now have to pay for this man’s work.
But let’s think that through for a moment.
If the X-plane community is known for supporting the work of freeware developers at the expense of payware development, just how many FsX and P3D developers are going to make the costly leap into developing files for X-plane…? In the end, most people who choose to get professionally involved in scenery or aircraft development do so because they want to earn money, and for all the usual reasons (food and shelter come to mind…). We can’t expect developers to spend months at a time working on a scenery file and then expect them to earn nothing in return.
In the end, you devalue a man’s work by asking him to do so for no compensation. Another way to look at it: if you value a man’s work, pay him for it. This is free market capitalism at it’s best, by the way, and it’s how and why we have AeroSOFT files to buy, and IXEG files, and Carenado files and on and on and on.
In the world of payware X-plane scenery developers, we now have a new force in the market. Compare his work with the best AeroSOFT has to offer, and you decide.
Me? I’m off to fly out of KABQ.