AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

Abacus Flight Sim Design Studio V3
(FSDS 3)

Product Information
Publisher: Abacus
Description:  Flight Simulator Design Platform
Download Size:
23 MB
Format:
Auto Install or Available on CD-Rom
Simulation Type:
MSFS 2004
Reviewed by: Brian Fletcher AVSIM Staff Reviewer

Introduction

Strap yourself in and get ready for the ride of your life. No, I’m not reviewing a fighter jet, this review is all about the program used to make those fighters and anything else you could possibly imagine. I’m talking about the Flight Simulator Design Studio (FSDS) version 3 from Abacus. FS Design Studio V3 (which I will just call FSDS from here on out) is an amazing technological marvel that simplifies the design, construction, animation, and implementation of aircraft, static displays, flight-line vehicles, buildings, cars, trucks, ships, and in deed anything that you would want to fly or use for static or dynamic scenery in Flight Simulator.

Since the original version of this program and FSDS Pro have been around for a few years, many people already have earlier versions. Those of you who are familiar with FSDS and FSDS Pro can just sit tight while I bring everyone else up to speed, or you can skip to the “what’s new” section to find out what makes this different from earlier versions. For those of you who are familiar with GMAX, you may want to explore the “FSDS vs. GMAX” section to see what makes this program so much different. For now, I will let everyone else know just what we are talking about and meet up with the rest of you later.

If you are not familiar with the process of creating your own aircraft and scenery objects, you are missing out on one of the most incredible and rewarding aspects of Flight Simulator. Just imagine yourself taking an idea for an aircraft, creating the plane, and using it in Flight Simulator. If you think that it is too difficult and time consuming, well, so did I. That is until I discovered the magic of FSDS. The whole purpose of this program is to design projects specifically for Flight Sim, and it contains an all-inclusive help file that will walk you through each step of the design process. As a matter of fact, you can actually build aircraft and scenery objects by simply following a set of instructions from within the program.

So how user friendly is this program? To answer this question, I will use myself as an example. Prior to receiving FSDS, I had never built an aircraft or anything else related to Flight Sim for that matter. By the end of the first day, which included printing out the help files and experimenting a bit, I had already built a fuselage, wings, tail, and landing gear. I used day two to make the intricate parts and build the virtual cockpit. By the end of day three, I had assembled my aircraft, added animations, textured all of the parts, and was flying it in FS9. Not bad for my first go at it.

If someone who has never built an aircraft before can do all of this in just a few short days, certainly any one of you can do the same. Sure I played a key role, but it was the utility that really did most of the work and walked me through the process. But just because this is the first aircraft I have made, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried before with other programs. We will discuss them later on, but for now let’s get this program installed and catch up with the previous FSDS and GMAX users and then I will show you just what I did, how I did it, and all the rest of what this program has to offer.

Installation and Documentation

Test System

Compaq Presario SR1232
AMD Athlon 2.2 GHz
2 GB Ram
NVIDIA Fe Force FX 5500 256 MB
StarLogic Flat Panel 21” Monitor at 1024 X 768
CH USB Flight Yoke
CH USB Rudder Pedals
Saitek X52 Flight Control System
FTP 290 Throttle Quadrant

Testing Time:
121 hours

Normally I would not spend a lot of time discussing a program's installation procedure, but in this case making sure that you have all of the necessary components installed (correctly) is especially important. To begin, you will have an FSDS setup launcher in your download folder. Double clicking on this icon will start an auto-install wizard that will walk you through the installation process, which is little more than agreeing to the terms and conditions and verifying the destination folder. After the installation is complete, FSDS will be installed in your program folder, but we’re not done yet.

 

There are three more programs that you must have in order for FSDS to function properly. First you will need to visit the Microsoft download center and pick up Msxml 4. After downloading this file, it can be automatically installed on your computer. The same goes for the other two files, "Make MDL" and "BGL Comp", both of which can be acquired from the Flight Simulator homepage. Failure to obtain these additional programs will prevent FSDS from being able to compile aircraft and scenery models, and possibly prohibit other features from working properly.

As far as the documentation is concerned, the three additional programs (Msxml 4, Make MDL, and BGL Comp) need no further attention, therefore their documentation is irrelevant. As for FSDS, everything you need is in the help file located within the program. This is where the entire program is laid out for you from the terms and lingo, to design tips and walkthroughs. The help file is arranged in a manner that is very easy to locate the things you need help with, and all of the menu and sub-menu items are printable, which I highly recommend doing.

 

So it looks like I managed to keep it fairly short, but just remember that all of the aforementioned downloads must be installed. Failure to do so will impede your FSDS experience tremendously.

What is FSDS and How does it Work?

The idea behind FSDS is quite simple; create, animate, and fly. Once you have FSDS and the necessary tools installed there is no need for any other design or texturing platform (or anything else for that matter) in order for you to create the aircraft or scenery of your dreams and use it in Flight Simulator. You will make the individual parts out of predefined shapes by adjusting the cross sections and individual polygons of that shape. For example, to make a fuselage, I would start with a tube that is the same length as the fuselage I am making, and adjust the cross sections to take the form of a fuselage. By using backdrops, you can be even more precise.

The same general technique can be used to make other parts of the aircraft, but thanks to the included templates, many of the parts can now be adjusted from a pre-made part rather than having to start from scratch. Once everything is made, you can assemble the aircraft by merging the parts together. You can place them wherever you like, and you can move them at any time. You will also be able to join parts together for a nice tight fit, and smooth the parts to your liking.

Next you can cut out details from the aircraft, such as flaps, windows, gear wells, and spoilers. This is done by use of the Boolean operation, which uses one part to cut a piece out of another. And of course you will want to texture your parts, which can be done in a variety of ways. I would recommend reading the Visual Aircraft & Scenery Studio section of this review for more on the texturing process, and the alternatives.

Now that you have a complete aircraft, you are just a few mouse clicks away from being able to fly it in Flight Sim. You can now compile the model by choosing what aircraft in your inventory you would like the configuration and airfile to resemble, and use that aircraft information for your project. You can always change these files later directly through the aircraft folder, but for now you will have the same panel, sounds, cfg, and airfile as the aircraft you have chosen.

After testing out your creation, you can always come back to make changes, and compile the new changes over the existing aircraft. The same goes for your scenery creations, and anything else you make. You may wish to smooth the parts, change the textures, and add or remove certain features, and this can all be done with ease. Quite simply, it is the most user friendly and powerful design tool for Flight Simulator. So let’s read on and find out why.

What’s New With Version 3?

If you already have FSDS Pro, you may be wondering why you should bother upgrading to version 3. So here is a partial list of the new and upgraded features. You can also view a list of features at the Abacus website.

The first and most amazing (in my opinion) improvement over FSDS Pro is the ability to conduct Boolean operations. This allows you to use a pre-shaped tool to cut out sections of a part. For example, if I wanted to cut out windows in a fuselage, all I would have to do is create a part shaped like the window, copy that part as many times as I need to, place it in the fuselage, and by clicking on the Boolean operation tab the windows are magically cut out of the fuselage. This same technique can be used for gear wells, engine intakes and exhausts, cockpit windows, and anything else that needs cut out of an aircraft. Not only do the cutouts look great, but imagine the time you will save by not having to adjust each polygon individually to hollow out parts.

I am also told that this version is intended to be compatible with the next version of Flight Simulator when it is released. This is not considered to be a guarantee, but at this point in time, FSDS 3 is expected to be compatible. Moving on, version 3 allows the user to select the aircraft properties directly from the program during model compilation. This means that you can now select the manufacturer, type, variation, and other identifiable objects within FSDS. Plus, you can now use a pre-existing aircraft for the airfile and configuration reference. Compiling a new model is as simple as selecting which aircraft you would like the dynamics, panel, and sound to resemble, and letting Make MDL do the rest.

FSDS at Start-up

Right Viewpoint

Perspective Viewpoint

Picture with texturing menus

Since there are quite a few other improvements over FSDS Pro, here is a shortlist of the big ones. Full FS9 compatibility using Make MDL and BGL Comp tools, improved animation capabilities, support for specialized textures such as night textures and light maps, and an unlimited undo and redo feature. Wait, there’s more. Version 3 also has an auto-save feature that permits the user to select the save interval and a brand new set of help files, which I found to be extremely useful.

If you are concerned about your FSDS Pro project becoming outdated with version 3, fear not. All FSDS Pro source files are 100% compatible with FSDS 3. And by the way, if you are a current FSDS Pro user, you will get a price break of about half off when upgrading to V3. In short, you are getting a more advanced program over FSDS Pro that is much quicker and easier to use. With all of this said, let’s go see what the Gmax users are up to.

 

Some projects included with the package

FSDS vs. Gmax

I should start this section by saying that I have no intention of suggesting that Gmax cannot produce high quality aircraft and scenery objects. In fact, there are numerous top of the line aircraft on the market right now that have been created with Gmax. But when it comes to FS user friendliness, I cannot possibly put Gmax in the same category as FSDS. This is because Gmax is a utility designed for creations of all types from action-adventure characters to Sim City buildings. Because of this, the program is directed towards general design. With FSDS however, the program is directed solely towards Flight Simulator components.

When I refer to FSDS being directed towards Flight Simulator, I mean that not only is the lingo suited for aviation enthusiasts, but the program actually has pre-made templates and guides just for aircraft and FS scenery. This is something that you won’t find in Gmax, at least not by default. Plus, FSDS will compile the aircraft in-house without having to use the Make MDL and BGL Comp separately.

I will not go into much detail about Gmax. After all, if you want to know more about it, you can install it from your Flight Simulator disk and give it a try. There is only one point that I really want to get across right now, the fact that Gmax is not intended for just anybody. Those people who have created highly detailed aircraft and scenery objects with Gmax are a breed of their own who have most likely spent many years mastering the program. But with FSDS 3, you can achieve the same results in much less time and with much less effort.

So my recommendation for the current Gmax users is this; if you are capable of using Gmax, then keep using it. However, if you are new to the design aspect of Flight Sim, then I would highly encourage you giving FSDS 3 some thought.

Let’s Make Something

There is no set order that you have to follow when using FSDS. By this I mean that you can create any of the parts in any order you wish, and you can choose to animate and texture the necessary parts whenever you’re ready. Therefore, different people may have different methods of creating aircraft and scenery objects. But for the sake of this review, I will show you the steps that I used when creating an aircraft. Right now, I’m in the mood to make a private business jet, so let’s get started.

The first step will be to decide what I want to build and how true to life I want my project to be. In this case, I would like my jet to have a sense of realism with a personal touch. Therefore, I will use one of the backdrops included with the program, in this case I will use the Learjet. Once I have placed the backdrops in all three viewpoints, I will then size them properly and get the materials to build my fuselage. Using the “tube” shape, I will select the size, number of cross sections, and a few other specs, then put it into my project. After lining the backdrop up with the tube, I can now start forming my fuselage to fit to the backdrop. Throughout this process I will use all three of the working viewpoints to shape my fuselage, and refer to the perspective view from time to time. In reality, I will only be using two methods for shaping the fuselage. I will resize the cross sections, and move them to form to the backdrop. Once complete, I can then decide to keep the shape, or reform it a little for that personal touch I talked about. I will choose the latter and give each end of the fuselage a shape of my own.

 

Though not exactly payware quality, I have managed to form a pretty good fuselage in less than a half hour. As you will discover, time is the only thing that separates your ability from creating a so-so aircraft to ending up with a masterpiece. I can always come back and alter the fuselage later, but for now let’s move on to the wings, horizontal stabilizer, and tail. I have two options for the wings, which include using a wing template already included with the program, or I can make my own from scratch. In the interest of time, I have chosen to use the template, which is already mostly complete. I can adjust the wing in several different ways, but I have chosen just to sweep them a little. This can all be done with features within the program and require little effort on my part. The horizontal stabilizer can be created through the same process, and in fact, resizing a wing will make for a nice stabilizer for this aircraft. The tail will be created in the same manner as the wing by use of the tail template. Again, I can choose to make one from scratch, but I will continue taking the easy route for now.

By now I have invested less than an hour and I already have the major parts of the aircraft complete. But without engines, landing gear and flaps, all I have is an airplane shaped boat. To make the engines, I have chosen to simply reform a few disk shapes. A little stretching here and some resizing there, and I have a nice engine. I will only need to make one because this one can be copied as many times as I wish.

Moving on to the landing gear, I will simply need to size a disk shape for the wheel, and add a couple of formed tube shapes for the upper and lower struts. I can add as much structural detail as I want, but let’s keep it simple and move on to the flaps. Again I have options on how I want to create the flaps. I can choose to make them independently and fit them into a pre-cut wing, or I can simplify cut them directly out of the wing. You can probably guess which process I used.

With all of the major parts made, I can now assemble my aircraft. There is no need to worry if we missed anything because we can always make it and add it to the plane later. I can also alter, remove, and reform parts on the aircraft whenever I want. If there is an easier way to assemble an aircraft, I have never heard of it. By starting with the fuselage, I can merge all of the components to our project and place them wherever I choose. Using all three viewpoints, with an occasional glance at the perspective view to see the aircraft in a solid fashion, I can move all the parts around the fuselage until they’re right where I want them.

At this point, I have discovered the need for some engine pylons and a few other small parts. Not to worry, as I can always go back and make more components any time. After placing all of the parts, we now have something resembling an aircraft. There are only three steps left to making this a halfway presentable airplane; adding animation, texturing the parts, and compiling the model for use in Flight Simulator. I can also cut out some windows and doors, add a virtual cockpit, and make all of those little parts that separate the novice from the professional. I am getting anxious to see this thing fly. The only animation that I am going to worry about right now is the landing gear and rolling wheels. Later, I will animate the engine fans and whatever doors I choose to make.

 

Designing shapes

Building an engine nacelle

Building the cockpit

Animating parts is just as easy as making them. You will get much more detail in the help file, but the general idea is to tell the program where you want the part to be when extended, and then rotate or move that part to where you want it to be when retracted. This process is used for any animation that you add to a project. In this case, I am making the landing gear fold into the fuselage, so I will have to select the upper strut and make it the “parent” part. By doing this, I have also selected what key will operate the landing gears. Next, I just need to add the lower strut to the upper strut in the parts properties menu. Then I will add the wheel(s) to the lower strut. When you define these parts, FSDS will allow you to select what action they are to take. For example, when I go to the parts properties menu for the wheel, I can choose it to be the left main wheel, and FSDS takes care of the animation. Once I have finished defining the parts, I can place them where I want them to be when fully extended, set the animation key, and then place them to their retracted position. After setting another animation key, I have a fully retractable landing gear. Do this to the other two, and we now have something to keep the sparks away.

Without getting too detailed, I will also use the new Boolean operation capabilities to cut out some windows and gear wells. I can always come back later and cut out the cockpit and anything else that I wish. This new feature for FSDS 3 will save me the time and hassle of having to adjust the individual polygons to make windows and other cutouts. Plus, by making a conjoined Boolean tool, I can cut all of the windows at the same time so they are even on both sides of the aircraft.

To texture all of the parts, I only need to select the part that I want to add texture to, choose my texture, and decide how I want it applied to that part. Later on, we can add a nice paint job to this bird, but I think it's time to test it out first. This takes us to the easiest part of the whole process; compiling the model. All we have to do is choose whether to define this as an aircraft or scenery model, select a similar aircraft for the airfile, panel, etc, and choose our aircraft manufacturer, type, and all of the other distinguishing characteristics like that.

 

Rolling out the finished product

It flies!!

Gear up

Now we have already seen the completed aircraft in the perspective view within FSDS, but before we check it out in Flight Simulator let me recap the whole purpose of this project before I get a stack of e-mails comparing this aircraft to something out of a comic book. For the experts out there, this was only to show how simple the process of building an aircraft has become with FSDS. For the novices, this is intended to show you that it can be done by anyone with relative ease. And for the rest of you, well, it was just fun. You may look at my two hour project and wonder how tired I must have been when making this thing. Remember, this program and its predecessor have been used by thousands upon thousands of people to build a large percentage of both payware and freeware aircraft, some of which you probably have in your inventory. So you can see that the possibilities and creative detail are virtually endless.

Visual Aircraft & Scenery Studio

The Visual Aircraft & Scenery Studio (VASS) is a separate utility from FSDS that can be used to texture your creations. The purpose of mentioning this program here, is to let you know that it is out there and should be considered for complimenting FSDS. I will not go into tremendous detail about this program, but here are the basics. In FSDS, texturing is a kind of art that takes time to perfect. The VASS program allows you to simplify this process by loading the FSDS source file into a solid multi-view format for easy viewing. Then you can texture the individual parts of your project and see the results instantaneously. With the four viewpoints, you can see the entire aircraft without having to adjust its position.

 

The main reason for suggesting this program, is the user-friendly interface and all around easy learning curve. You start by loading your FSDS source file and adjusting the four viewpoints to your liking. Then you select the part that you want to texture, select the texture you want to use, and define the properties of that texture. After choosing the color and manner in which it will be applied to the part, you simply drag the texture from the menu to the part being painted. You have the option of texturing the entire part, or just a portion that you choose.

In addition to the ease of use, VASS also offers features such as night texturing and a texture display for all four seasons of the year. Compared to the texturing method of FSDS 3, I would say that the Visual Aircraft & Scenery Studio is much easier to use, and will provide the same stunning results. But it is by no means required in order for you to be able to texture your FSDS project. Just something to keep in mind.

Conclusion

To be blunt, I found the Flight Sim Design Studio to be the greatest, most innovative product in the history of Flight Simulation. Now, I know that there will be plenty of GMAX users who would like to tell me what I can do with my opinion, but the bottom line is that I have tried them both, and FSDS really was much better. For those of you who would suggest a certain aircraft or add-on scenery to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, well…now you can make it yourself and save money. In fact, many of the most exceptional premium payware products have been made with FSDS. Unfortunately, a few weeks or months is not enough time for me to master the program enough to show you just how detailed you can get with it, but take a look at a few of the freeware aircraft in the Avsim library made with FSDS, and you will see what I am talking about.

So how much would you pay for a program that allows you to make just about anything you want for Flight Simulator with ease? Well, if you’re new to the world of design, Abacus has placed a $49.95 price tag on FSDS. Those of you with the previous addition will get a loyalty incentive of paying only $29.00 for the update to version 3. But wait a minute, isn’t GMAX include for free with Flight Simulator. Yes, and if you really want to spend the time trying to master that rubix cube, then go ahead. But if you want to dive right in and be flying your creations in no time, then I would highly recommend switching to FSDS.

There is simply nothing bad to be said about the Flight Sim Design Studio, and I would recommend it for the highest aviation simulation award possible. After all, if you find something that you think is more deserving of being labeled “the best”, just remember that with FSDS you can make any aircraft yourself, possibly even better.


 

What I Like About Flight Sim Design Studio
  • Extremely user friendly interface
  • Functions are easy to learn and easy to remember
  • Enormously informative walkthroughs and help files
  • The program is all-inclusive. You can go from concept to flight with FSDS.
  • Unlimited undo and redo feature
  • Variable interval auto-save feature
  • New Boolean operation simplifies part cutouts
  • Great cost-value. For the price of a few payware aircraft, you can make as many as you want.
  • Works for aircraft, static scenery, dynamic scenery, buildings, ships, etc, etc, etc.
  • Will be compatible with the next version of Flight Simulator (as projected)
  • You are limited only by your imagination

 
What I Don't Like About Flight Sim Design Studio
  • If you read the review, you should know by now that this section will be empty.

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The review above is a subjective assessment of the product by the author. There is no connection between the producer and the reviewer, and we feel this review is unbiased and truly reflects the performance of the product in the simming environment. This disclaimer is posted here in order provide you with background information on the reviewer and connections that may exist between him/her and the contributing party.

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