Okay, on to the reason for this entry...
I think that anyone who has been in this hobby for any reasonable amount of time would agree that it has come a long - a very long - way. The positives in terms of growth of our hobby, the choice of alternative sims and the thousands of possible add ons, all bear witness to the dedication and perseverance of companies and individuals throughout the long evolution of this hobby.
In January of 2012, I wrote a blog entry here about the then soon to be released MS Flight product. In that blog entry I wrote regarding Microsoft's position on its historic role in the market;
With the decision to produce a "Flight Game" a totally different set of dynamics came into play. One of these dynamics was the damaging loss of contact, in my opinion, with the flight simming community...
I would now like to pick up on that thought and look at it in context of this industry and our community today.
Let me start by asking you a question; are communications today between the sim community and commercial providers in our hobby better than when you got into the hobby, or are they worse? Put your answer to that question in the comments section below and lets discuss it.
When I look back over the last 18 years or so and ruminate over that question, I see distinct phases that took place and then only with the benefit of time have they made any sense, at least to me. And, I will be the first to admit that this is somewhat a view that is from an AVSIM perspective.
Most certainly the early communications (or lack there of) was driven by the commercially sensitive Microsoft. Everyone else in the commercial side of flight simulation, with some exceptions, seemed to have adopted the same mindset, or more likely, Microsoft had them all under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA's). Of course, that resulted in silent MS Clones around the world. Communication from that team were sparse and communications did take place, took place mostly with print media - certainly not web sites. Most of us knew from back channel communications that anyone from the FS team that dared to post in a public forum with anything but an alias and deny-ability would be drawn and quartered and never heard from again.
By 1999 Terminal Reality had launched FLY and communication within the hobby was about to change - in a very big way. Richard Harvey (pictured to the left), the FLY team lead, joined the forums and starting communicating directly with his customers. The earth shook, heads turned, questions from the commercial members of the hobby started to percolate and rambled about behind the scenes. After all, the Terminal Reality team was breaking the mold, throwing out the conventions of the day and actually daring to have a forum and post there and, with earth shifting impact, answer customer's questions. Publicly no less. The teams from Propilot and Flight Unlimited were increasingly visible in the forums as well.
PMDG had been in the forums too at this time and Rob and guys were very open with the community from the outset. So, I consider PMDG to be a significant part of the phase 2 opening of the lines of communications.
Phase 2 opened the doors to what was to become a relatively new era in flight simulation. The dialog between commercial providers and the flight simulation community started to dramatically improve and the effect could be felt.
Enter the new Microsoft FS team. In 2005 AVSIM held its conference and exhibition at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park. Michael Zyskowski (photo to the right), otherwise known as "Z"., the MSFS team "evangelist" at the time, attended and made a point of meeting with the AVSIM team. His message was pretty straightforward. There was to be a change in MS' approach to communicating with the community toward the better, but that it would be slow in coming. He was not kidding and the following year his promise of more openness was becoming true.
In 2006 we held the AVSIM Convention and Exhibition in Dulles, Virginia. MS had a whole team there and the event was a tremendous experience for all who were in attendance. Hal Bryan, Z, Brett Schnepf, and others from the team interacted with and circulated among the attendees. Their emphasis was what we now know as FSX today and they were very open to discussing it with the attendees, including a Key Note address by both Brett and Hal on the upcoming release.
To my knowledge, never before had MS revealed so much to so many in one place at one time. The relatively openness of the team to all attendees was pretty impressive. This level of communications would eventually lead to joint 2007 Microsoft DEVCON and AVSIM FANCON in Bellevue (Seattle), Washington.
For the first time in the hobby Microsoft held a Developer's Conference (DEVCON) followed immediately by AVSIM's FANCON at the same venue. The combination of the DEVCON and FANCON brought developers, Microsoft and the community together; a potent and very enlightening experience for all who were in attendance, I am sure.
Before it starts to sound as if all Microsoft communications and openness only took place at AVSIM events, let me dissuade you from that impression. From where I sat, evangelism had become a core tenet of the new ACES team. Evangelism meant reaching out to the community through whatever means seemed appropriate. AVSIM and many other entities in the hobby were in conversations with the team. Discussions that were comfortable and not encumbered with too many restrictions. As I alluded to above, this had a ripple effect.
That Microsoft openness was not to last...
In January of 2009, Microsoft shut down the ACES Studio and made an announcement on the FSInsider web site. 2008 of course is a year that we recognize today as the beginning of a serious recession that had a strong negative impact on just about every corner of the U.S. and global economies. It certainly was not a popular or well accepted decision by the flight simulation community. In mitigation, there were strong add on products to the FSX series of simulators and there were rumors of others coming. In dissolving the ACES studio, MS had abandoned its strategy behind the acquisition of the gaming studio in favor of turning to their own in-house Microsoft Games Studio.
The closing of the ACES Studio resulted in a unique event unfolding. Arnie Lee, President of ABACUS PUBLISHING (pictured to the left) was concerned enough that he suggested to companies and major web sites in the flight simulation genre that we should gather and spend a day or so discussing the future of the hobby, our industry, and how to mitigate the loss of ACES Studios.
As a result, a number of third party devs and a couple of major website owners were in attendance. We met at a hotel adjacent to Schiphol Airport over a weekend in April of 2009. I won't say that things were tense, but the group, almost to a man, were concerned about the closure and it's implications for their future business and direction. A full day of discussion took place, starting with a bit of marketing analysis and going through to alternative sim developments that the group was aware of. We left no better equipped to deal with the closing of the ACES STUDIOS, but at least we were talking. For a many of us that attended, that was a milestone in and of itself.
Never the less, the closure of ACES put a large pall over the entire community and it's industry participants. It couldn't get worse, could it? Answer? It sure could and did.
Enter Microsoft Games Studios... We knew from early in 2008 that MS was considering a "community" approach to its website, file hosting, community building and so on. Brett Schnepf had been scheduled to meet with some developers in Europe and he contacted me about my travel plans. I happened to be scheduled to be in London that week and he and I agreed to meet. We met at the White Hart Hotel in Hampton Wick, just across the Thames from Kingston. Though Brett was careful not to tell me what the "plan" was, it was obvious from his questions that the MS Management was looking into the "Socializing" of their brand. That is, a social media like environment tied into digital content delivery, including add ons. Over the coming months there was a number of questions and data gathering exercises, all pointing toward the "socialization" of the FS product line. The idea seemed to percolate through the first eight or nine months of 2008 and then things went silent on the subject. Here is the quote from the FSInsider page noted above:
We believe these future investments will push innovation, community, and collaboration to unprecedented levels and will provide more synergy with our ongoing investments in Games for Windows - LIVE as well as other Windows entertainment technologies.
With all the benefit of hindsight, this was a pretty accurate, though vague description of what was to come. After the closure of ACES in January, things got very quiet. Any communications with the Game Studio that developed were apparently under Non-Disclosure Agreements, which we knew a number of devs were restrained by. From the community perspective, the silence would be there until late 2011, when we and a small group of other individuals in the community were invited to meet with the FLIGHT lead manager and have a look at FLIGHT; the forthcoming MS replacement for FSX.
In December of 2011 the group met with Joshua Howard (photo to the left), Studio Manager for the MS FLIGHT product. In March of 2012, not three months later, Joshua gave us an interview. In our meeting in December, Howard pretty well closed the door on dialog with the flight simulation community. In that interview in March, he essentially said it publicly. Here is the question and the response:
TA: At our meeting in December, when asked about the existing “hard core” flight sim community’s probable negative reaction to FLIGHT, you indicated that you and your team anticipated that reaction and accepted it as an outcome of your decisions you adopted in your FLIGHT business model. Since then, have you altered your view as to the significance of the “hard core’s” reaction?
JH: We accepted that by doing something different with the franchise, we were going to upset some of our existing customers, but that’s the cost of trying something truly new. This new version has always been about finding a way to bring the joy of flight to massive new audiences, and we felt that we couldn’t best do that by building Flight Simulator 11. However, we believe deeply in the value of that underlying simulation, and invested a lot in Flight to create a more sophisticated simulation than we ever had before. (You can read the entire interview here)
With the closure of ACES the community was worried. With the advent of FLIGHT and the abandonment of the FS customer base for pursuit of the larger "masses", the community was furious. With the Game Studio's shuttering of the FLIGHT product development, the MSFS product was now presumably dead after decades of "presence" and a following by millions world-wide over all those years.
PHASE 5 - TODAY:
To put the history of this aspect of flight simulators into hard breaks, such as Phases as I have done, is probably a disservice to all that had been occurring in parallel with the machinations, drama and ultimately, the abandonment of the genre' by Microsoft. In the meantime other developments were taking place that have had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on our hobby. The communications have morphed considerably during the emergence of these other developments. Companies like Aerosoft, Lockheed, PMDG, Laminar Research and many other developers are increasingly engaged and their relationships community-wide were and are maturing.
One of the barriers to communications within our hobby has always been the polarization of enthusiasts along the lines of their favorite sim platform; FS vs. X-Plane, X-Plane vs. P3D, FS vs. P3D, etc. An important evolution is occurring; the evolving openness between sim enthusiasts despite sim selection. The previous two or three years have motivated enthusiasts to reach out and try the other major sims, even if only for a flight or two. But that cross platform participation seems to have "softened the edges" of communication between differing platform owners.
The story of "Today" is still being written of course, but it is tremendously encouraging to see the cross simulator dialog between users, the openness of Lockheed and Terminal Reality and the common understanding that our community is healthy, growing and busting with potential.