AVSIM is pleased to publish an interview released today with Tim Gatland, Chief Technology Officer for Dovetail Games (image below). As most know, Dovetail recently released FSX via the Steam DLC system which has seen a great deal of enthusiasm in our community. The interview was conducted by AVSIM's Will Reynolds. We hope you enjoy the result.
Let's start with background. Dovetail Games started in 2008, with the Railworks Franchise. Paul Jackson came from EA. What was the original goal or vision back then?
We set the company up in 2008, initially to address the audience for train simulation. The founders had rights to develop the technology behind Electronic Arts’ Rail Simulator. Paul was a video game professional and train enthusiast (he had actually commissioned that project while he was at EA) who felt this was a section of the simulation market that was being ignored.
When Microsoft and Kuju Entertainment stopped their Train Simulator project, you set out to develop and support add-ons for Rail Simulator. Did you, at that stage, believe in a niche environment for Train Simulation, or foresaw a vacant market with a lot of potential?
When we set the company up, we planned on operating in a competitive environment. Microsoft's previous train simulator had a very active community and they were previewing Train Simulator 2 (which was subsequently abandoned). Auran's Trainz had a dedicated following and there were a number of other niche train simulators on the market. So we expected things to be competitive, but we believed there was room for that competition.
What is the current status of Train Simulator market today, in your view?
We see this market as very healthy. Our three most active audiences, UK, Germany and North America continue to show a huge appetite for Train Simulator add-ons and we are planning to offer expansions set in other parts of the world in the near future. We also see, in our new developments, the opportunity to provide train simulation on platforms other than PC as we migrate to using Epic's Unreal 4 for those new simulators. Our home will always be on PC but our goal has always been to ensure that anyone who enjoys a simulated railway experience is able to do so.
How much has the 'core" team from 2008 changed? Also, has the vision changed?
I am delighted to say that all of the original development team has stayed with us on our exciting journey. Of course, as the company has grown (from 7 to nearly 100 since we started) roles and specializations have developed, but it is nice to see familiar faces among all the new people. The vision has grown along with the company. We started being very focused on train simulation, but we are now introducing other areas of simulation to our portfolio such as fishing and flight.
In 2013 you announced a name change, to Dovetail. Shortly after, you announced Dovetail Games Fishing. Was the strategy to branch out into a leisure market? Or simply retain a broader range of simulation?
Our name change was simply intended to reflect the fact that we were developing additional simulation products that were not based around trains. We have always aimed our software at enthusiastic hobbyists, and we are deliberately not in the professional simulation business. The term 'leisure market' could suggest a move into a more casual style of product - this is not our plan. We always have to balance accessibility of the experience against accuracy, but the name change was not intended to indicate a focus on a more casual style of simulation.
You adopted the Valve's Steam platform very early. Can you explain why? What did you see in it that has worked as your distribution platform for so many years?
Steam was the best technical solution for digital distribution in 2008 and it continues to be the market leader for on-line distribution of PC entertainment software with over 100 million registered users. For many years, high-street games retailers have largely ignored the PC market so customers have migrated to on-line distribution platforms - we do not expect this trend to change. Steam means that our products are available to consumers around the world all of the time. Valve has been a great partner to us, both on a technical and operational level.
July 2014 was a very busy month for you. First, your announcement of the licensing agreement with Microsoft to release FSX on Steam. How long has this been on the cards? When did you first think of this agreement and why?
We’ve long been interested in moving into the flight arena but an arrangement of this type with an organisation like Microsoft takes a long time to bring to fruition. We wanted to both licence Microsoft's aviation technology to make our own product and also re-release FSX on Steam - there was considerable complexity in this plan and it took over a year to finalize.
There is some confusion in the community, what exactly can you now do with Microsoft Flight Simulator....obviously distribute it and add some fixes. Are you planning on releasing further patches to it? Are you able to make changes to the core of the game?
We are re-releasing FSX on Steam. This necessitated fixing a few things (such as the fact that GameSpy is no longer available), but other than these bug fixes, we have not implemented any major updates to FSX: Steam Edition. However, we continue to monitor the forums and see if other changes are needed. With the huge amount and variety of add-on content available, we have to balance making those fixes with the possibility that we may break something, so we are trying to keep the changes to the 'safe' areas. We can make (and have made) changes to the core software, but we are not at liberty to make significant functionality improvements that rightly would belong in a sequel.
We hear some programmers with experience in FSX are now working with Dovetail Games. Is this correct? Do you intend to have a dedicated development team for FSX?
We have a wide range of people who have been working on the project; they are a mixture of our existing development team and dedicated staff with FSX experience. We have assembled the core team who will be designing and creating our new flight simulator.
Let's touch a more "bleeding" subject. The dreaded EULA. Whilst FSX had an explicit clause in the EULA forbidding any user from making any changes to the program that would bypass the limitations of the program, several users discovered it was necessary to actually have a more stable platform. Can we expect any changes to the EULA in the future for the average user, be it in the shape of access to the software, use of the software or modification of the software?
This is one for Microsoft as we are republishing their product on Steam. We will be trying to ensure that any such modifications are not necessary in any subsequent simulator we make, and will use our experience with trains to try to ensure that we provide interfaces to our products that allow people to make add-ons within the terms of any EULA.
Microsoft's FSX gave birth and supported many third party developers (TPD). It is rumoured that as far as licensing goes, the engagement between these TPD and Microsoft was limited; it was very much an open field. What can developers expect from the new Steam version of FSX and any subsequent developments of FSX regarding licensing for add ons?
Again, we are simply republishing FSX on Steam and are not changing any of the relationships between Microsoft and third parties. We are partnering with some third parties to deliver their add-ons via Steam.
We are very keen to involve third party developers in the flight simulator we are developing. We want to learn from their historic experiences to ensure that we help them achieve their goals rather than stand in the way. Third party developers are the reason that FSX still has an active audience today and our respect for their work could not be higher. Additionally, we’re aiming to make the end-user experience of add-on integration more painless than it’s been historically. Details of this are still being worked out at the moment.
You have mentioned further product developments based upon FSX-SE. Can you give us some insight into what those additional products might be and do they include an FSX-11?
We are still in the design stage so we can’t disclose too much, but key priorities are to update the simulator in the context of improvements in PC technology and operating system features over the last eight years. We also want to provide a more integrated environment for add-ons, expansions and community interaction.
Finally, the Flight Simulation community is extremely wide-ranging. Our own Avsim readership covers young adults to retired hobbyists, aircrew, professionals or just generally passionate people from all over the world. What does Dovetail Games' entry into Flight Simulation, and more precisely, now owning their beloved Flight Simulator actually mean for their future?
Well, we don't actually own Flight simulator, we are licensed to release FSX on Steam and to develop products based on that technology. But the question of what Dovetail Games means for the Fight Simulator community is excellent. Built into our DNA are a couple of key things:
We are in this for the long term. With Train Simulator, we have continued to develop and enhance the software for over 6 years and have provided automatic free upgrades to the train technology every year. We are not sure we will follow this model for FSX and our follow-on developments, but we are committed to this audience for the long term.
We understand the needs of aviation hobbyists. We know that you want a huge variety of high quality aircraft to fly and you want to do this in the most realistic settings. We aim to satisfy this requirement.
We respect and understand the value that third parties bring to the flight simulation world. We want to work with these teams to make better content and deliver that content in accessible and wide reaching ways.
It is going to be a fun journey.
Many thanks for your time and the interview.