X-Plane Developer Brings Flight Sims Mobile
Flight sims take, well, flight on mobile devices.
Flight simulator developer Laminar Research has brought the high-end, realistic flight simulator game, X-Plane, to NVIDIA mobile devices and NVIDIA Shield TV. The massive game hasn't lost any of the details or depth from the original PC version. Chris Serio, mobile product manager and software engineer at Laminar Research, explains how the studio worked with NVIDIA to bring flight simulators to mobile devices in this exclusive interview.
What were your goals heading into this game?
From the start of development of this product, we wanted to create a mobile flight simulator that was easy enough for non-pilots to pick up and use, but remain realistic and comprehensive enough to keep real pilots interested as well. To accomplish this, we had to strip the product down to its foundation and rebuild it from the ground up, putting things back in a way that's suitable for novices and experts alike.
Can you talk about the X-Plane franchise?
X-Plane started as a pet project by Austin Meyer back in 1988 when he wanted to create a simulator for his own IFR currency. He called it Archer II-IFR at the time. After he got his degree in Aerospace Engineering he found himself continuously modifying it, improving it, and turning it into a simulator that could simulate all types of airplanes. Eventually, it was renamed to X-Plane in honor of the series of aircraft tested at Edwards Air Force Base in the '60s through today. He started selling copies, mostly to hobbyists and from there it started to find its niche. In 2007 we worked with Apple to create a mobile version of the simulator to run on the original iPhone. It was a huge challenge, but one that opened up an entirely new market for us.
How does this game connect to the bigger franchise?
Austin and Laminar Research (the actual company) have several other projects, but X-Plane (the desktop and mobile products) have always been the main focus and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
What are the challenges of creating realistic flight sims today?
Flight Simulators are unique in that you have to simulate the entire planet. First-person shooters really push the boundaries of modern hardware with fancy cinematic effects, impressive lighting, object interaction, etc. but they have the luxury of taking some necessary shortcuts. The sky can be a single texture. Distant mountains can be painted, as well. With a flight simulator, anything on the ground or in the air is fair game for the user to go to and inspect, so there are no shortcuts. The visibility up at 39,000 feet can also be over 100 miles. In a shooter game, you're likely to have buildings or obstructions limiting your view tremendously. Essentially, flight simulators have to spend the hardware budget very carefully.
How realistic is this game?
The mobile device shares much of the desktop's flight model which has FAA certification. It does computations on all of the aircraft's surfaces twice per frame so essentially about 60 times a second. You can enable the force visualizations in the product to see all of the forces interact with the aircraft. We often get users complaining that the planes "don't fly properly" and after speaking what them, we find that their complaints are not bugs, but are actually real-world phenomenon that are being accurately simulated-but are surprising to non-pilots. A good example would be the tendency for propeller drive GA aircraft to pull to the left on takeoff. Non-pilots do not expect their car to pull to one side while driving and that expectation transfers to their aircraft as well.
We model most major aircraft systems and are adding more from the desktop every day. The needles and gauges in the cockpits move not because of simple animations, but because they're tied to the actual system outputs. You can fail subsystems like the vacuum system, electrical system, landing gear etc and watch things fall apart.
How many planes are featured in this mobile game?
There are currently 13 aircraft available, but our artists are always working on more. We expect that number to continue to grow indefinitely. Each aircraft is highly detailed, animated and features a functional 3D cockpit. Newer aircraft come with multiple paint schemes and many have missions and tutorials as well.
How deep is this mobile game?
For a mobile product, we think it's a very comprehensive simulator, but users always want more and we want to do more for them. We're constantly working on bringing new features into the product to make the experience better. When the product was first created, we had to fit inside of 25MB of RAM. Phones have come a long way since then and we're trying to keep up with that rapid pace.
How have you worked with NVIDIA on your game?
We worked very closely with NVIDIA over the last year on porting the game over to Android and Tegra devices.
What have they provided in terms of tech that has helped with development?
NVIDIA understands games and game developers. It's in their blood and they know what we need to develop top notch games. They've assembled numerous software layers and tools that make the Android OS look and feel more like what we're familiar with which helps speed up development. They've also been a valuable resource to answer questions when things don't behave as expected in the Android ecosystem.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of Android as a platform?
I love the openness of the platform. I love that we can customize every little detail of the experience, not just as developers but as phone users as well. That freedom is exactly what some users are looking for. Unfortunately, the freedom comes at a price. We literally have 7,999 "supported devices" that X-Plane is available on. Each one of them behave slightly different than another because of the freedom and openness allowed on the platform. Overall, it's a bit of tax on us to have to write several versions of the code to encompass all of the use cases. But this is the type of thing that NVIDIA has been working to alleviate for us. They're doing a lot of the legwork in understanding the variations out there and doing their best to create some kind of commonality.
What excites you about Android TV?
For years people have asked if we ever see ourselves making a PlayStation or Xbox version of the product. And the answer was always 'No.' The work required to do the port would be tremendous, but then Android TV came along and all of a sudden, a 'console' version of X-Plane was no longer a big hurdle. I think a lot of game developers are thinking the same thing, and I think it's really going to shift the focus a bit for everyone.