The Flare Path: From Early Access to Early Grave

Having spent around eight months in Early Access and then three in a mysterious state called “Phase 2”, Flight Sim World, Dovetail Games’ modernised-but-feature-trimmed-and-unfinished version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, is officially dead. On Monday, out of the blue, DTG announced that work on the project has come to an end. Apparently, there simply weren’t enough customers to justify continuing. As the team assembled by the British train sim tycoons seemed to possess sufficient passion, will and, initially at least, resources to make FSW a success, it’s hardly surprising that some in the flight sim community are blaming the failure of the endeavour on poor project management and the manner in which Dovetail dealt with Flight Simulator’s vital ecosystem of third-party add-on devs.

In 2014, when Dovetail’s involvement in MSFS first became public, professional add-on creators were quick to warn them that the symbiotic relationship between the sim and its army of independent hangar fillers and scenery sculptors was a fragile thing.

“FSX is the flight sim king today primarily because 3rd party developers have been independently creating and marketing addons to FSX without restriction from Microsoft.

This has created a delicate balance for 25 years between independent developers of FSX addons and Microsoft. I would respectfully advise Dovetail not to disturb this delicate balance by imposing the burden of additional fees upon independent flight sim developers that already operate in extremely narrow profit margins.”

(Scott Gentile of A2A Simulations, in a July 2014 Flare Path)

fsw113Kahului

While a few eminent add-on artisans including A2A, Orbx, and Simul were eventually persuaded to contribute content to the base package (Accu-Feel, FTX Global and trueSKY were built into FSW), there was little evidence of third-party enthusiasm once the project had entered Early Access. One of the reasons it’s been so hard to get excited about FSW over the past year has been the dearth of interesting adjuncts…

Why did so few MSFS content creators hop aboard the FSW bandwagon? The unfinished SDK was unquestionably a factor, as was DTG’s insistence that plane builders obtain licences from aircraft manufacturers. However, for Robert Randazzo, the head of PMDG, a company that specialises in producing extraordinarily high-fidelity MSFS airliners, Dovetail’s rapacity and inconsistency were more significant disincentives.

“Five years ago, a group of us were involved in attempting to purchase the rights to FSX and Microsoft Flight from Microsoft with the intent to continue development for the benefit of this community. None of us had the financial strength to complete the transaction alone, so we joined together (sometimes uneasily) in order to build a marketplace in which all developers would be given a chance to grow and thrive in a living platform.

Our fledgling conglomerate was grossly out-bid by Dovetail Games in part because we just weren’t well-funded, but also in part because Dovetail leveraged their established, largely positive reputation along with a costly high bid. They knew from day-one that their plan was to subvert the third-party development community and enforce high fees on their own distribution channel that we would all need in order to survive.

They tried to gain cooperation by assuring us that this wasn’t the case, but the reality proved to be different than their promises and many of the long-standing trade names in this community (including PMDG) opted not to play along.”

fsw101BSp40

The “high fees” Randazzo mentions is a reference to the 60+% commission PMDG and their peers would have ended up paying to Steam and Dovetail, had they agreed to produce aircraft for FSW (While devs were contractually free to sell through other channels, they were – until a relatively recent policy shift – obliged to offer all content through Steam too).

That Steam stipulation was also cited by another industry veteran deeply unhappy with the way Dovetail has treated one of Simulatia’s crown jewels. Earlier this week, via email, Aerosoft’s Mathijs Kok explained to me why he thought FSW had failed.

“It had to fail, there was no other possible outcome once they made the decision to rebuild the sim into a new product.

They should have done exactly what Lockheed did. (Licenced to DTG for use in ‘entertainment’ products, the MSFS engine is Lockheed Martin’s to use in the ‘serious’ training sim sector)

Step 1. Fix some of the nasty bugs that were in FSX for many, many years and release that version.

Step 2. Repeat Step 1 twice. This will get customers used to the new sim and make it bloody good.

Step 3. Make it 64-bit after the customers are hooked on the new platform

And all the time listen to customers, talk to developers, be open and honest. They are a delight to work with, honestly.

Instead DTG locked up a bunch of game developers in a room and let them build something that was not compatible with – and was only moderately better than – FSX, and did not contain any jets. And then they released that without an SDK. Only months later did they start to talk to us and tell us that we should port the Airbus and other projects over. They did not have a clue about the fact that was simply impossible because their sim could not even handle C code.

fsw111TDBigBearCity

Also the fact it was so Steam-based is problematic. Steam takes 30%, DTG wanted 30% so there was only 40% left for the publisher and developer. Compared to 95% if sold, for example, via aerosoft.com. You’ve got to sell a shit-load of products to make that work and to sell a shit-load of products you need a shit-load of customers. We can release a product we like and sell 500 copies and be happy. Via DTG and Steam you needed to sell 2000 copies to make the same money.

It was so obvious from the first things we knew about the project that their way of working simply would not work. They had no clue about their potential customers, were arrogant and did not deliver. So add-on developers and customers just ignored it. We were just waiting for them to shut it down… Most of the people who worked on the project are fired now and we’ve lost a potentially good platform. Commercially it means nothing to us, but we loved FS for two decades and it is a shame to see it in the gutter.

If I sound bitter…. yeah, perhaps I am. It could have been so good.”

Predictably, there’s a fair amount of bitterness sloshing about on the Steam forum at the moment too. For every user thanking DTG for a relatively cheap sim with a solid core of nicely modelled GA aircraft, global scenery, and pretty clouds and rain effects, there’s one complaining about outstanding bugs and unfulfilled promises.

It would be wonderful if DTG could, via some imaginative and magnanimous gesture, transform all the ill-will into goodwill, but it’s difficult to picture what that gesture would look like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Chathamites will emerge a touch chastened – a little more willing, in future, to listen to third-party devs and treat them as value-adders and reputation-enhancers rather than simple revenue streams.

*       *       *

I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t touched a single historical strategy game this week. I’ve been far too busy swearing at Stukas, fumbling with Sten gun mags, and firing BARs blindly into swirling smoke clouds.

As Brendan pointed out yesterday, Day of Infamy is free to play this weekend. If you’ve yet to try it, do! It’s a lovingly fashioned multiplayer shooter set in Europe during WW2. Day of Defeat is the obvious touchstone, but playing it may also stir memories of the early CoDs, MoHs, and Brothers in Arms titles.

Apart from the odd friendly-fire gaffe, I’ve yet to slay a human-controlled combatant. The co-op scraps against bots are so entertaining, I’ve spent my first few days playing them exclusively.

Large, intricate maps littered with pleasing period detritus* encourage both long-range firefights and sharpshooting, and close-range SMG savagery and pistol duels. The lack of crosshairs makes tossing grenades through windows a tad tricky, but, along with mechanisms like leaning, and an optional absence of team identifiers, mean DoI stands higher on the realism ladder than DoD.

*There is the odd scenic anachronism. DoI is the latest in a long line of WW2 games to misleadingly suggest that large round balers were around in the Forties.

New World Interactive’s weaponers have done a fine job, as has their audio department. The unusually varied vocal cues (8000 lines of dialogue, apparently) include some splendidly earthy expletives. The outbursts of the Australians are particularly entertaining.

Remarkably, I’ve yet to encounter any bossy tossers, bad losers, or neo-Nazi pillocks on the battlefield. The community seems remarkably civil and tolerant – hopefully something that won’t change as a result of the influx of new blood this weekend.

Obviously, teamwork pays off in DoI but there’s numerous opportunities for freelancing too, and mic-less players aren’t hugely disadvantaged. Now is a great time to find out for yourself why Day of Infamy has a rare “very positive” user-rating on Steam. In combination with the free weekend, the devs are running a brief 70%-off sale. Until Monday, this pleaser is a bargain £4.50.

*       *       *

 

This way to the foxer

3 Comments

  1. phlebas says:

    Speaking of bargains, GOG has a strategy sale on for the next few days with some good bargains:
    link to gog.com

    It includes the first Combat Mission at 75% off, which would have been irresistible had I not found the CM anthology in Oxfam yesterday for 99p. Maybe by the next communal session I’ll have more of a clue!

  2. LewdPenguin says:

    Kind of a shame but also not hugely surprised to see FSW die, offering a marginally improved in some areas (yet worse in others) core product, whilst pretty much shitting on 3rd party support when that’s what kept the predecessor alive for years wasn’t exactly a great recipe for success.

    At least in the flight sim market there are other options around, and even FSX itself still has plenty of legs. More of a problem is that they’re taking the exact same path with TSW too, and whilst it’ll take longer to happen if that does also die there’s precious few other options at present to turn too. The ‘old’ TS series may have all the content and lots of ongoing 3rd party support but that engine was past it’s limits many years ago, and other than that the various smaller offerings such as Diesel Railcar Sim or openBVE whilst having their own merits don’t really come close (so far at least) to offering a modern/pretty alternative to TS. Maybe this experience will get them to rethink their walled garden approach with TSW before everyone gives up on it entirely, whilst I hope it will I won’t be holding my breath either.

  3. rsf says:

    I’ll quote my comment on the Early access announcement. 18/May/2017:

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    > Dovetail came thinking the coast was clear to buy themselves monopoly of the civilian flightsim scene and paid addon profits without needing to do anything much to improve the old,old,old FSX codebase. Saw X-Plane-11 leap forward and drag civilian commercial flightsims into the modern era. Bailed into early access so they don’t have to foot development costs, withdrew their Dovetail flight school from steam, and dropped their full price flight sim that was scheduled for launch end of last year.

    > Now they’ve added a bunch of paid addons, done some minor stuff like 64 bit&dx11, and make a misleading pitch pretending they’re saviours taking flight sims forward being the only sim in town. ‘we believe it makes no sense to work in isolation’ – wasn’t the plan until end of last year and X-plane 11, and does that need making the public foot the bill?. Just listen to their trailer for lols.

    In retrospect, could RPS have been a teeny weeny bit more critical, investigative & interviewy, or ..uggh.. cynical?

    It’s so hard to be the one journalist covering so many simulation genres. Each a world unto itself.

    The general situation: simulation devs are so tiny, fragile, and delicate. Above all genuine, passionate and not driven by greed primarily. Earning less than otherwise. Livelihoods and lives of dependents are vulnerable to slightest change of fortune. Hard to be critical.

    Were there characteristics that made Dovetail & Dovetail in flightsims case different? Do these apply to other cases?

    * Some simulation studios are bigger. Some genres like Trucks or even Farming can be steam top 100 material. Money is just an opportunity for those of impure motives (e.g. Movie tie-ins + big publishers answerable to non-gaming stock holders + devs having little or no collective bargaining = inevitable train-wreck.. cash grab monetisation). Some of the Automated airliner folk are less hardcore & critical, gullible, old(er), will spend a bit without thinking. Money-wolves licking their lips.
    * Some genres are so much harder than others. Eagle dynamics(DCS), Laminar Research (X-Plane), flightgear = owners & head honchos with P.hd’s, or degrees in Aero eng.
    * Where’s their heart at? Do they have deep understanding to drive vision? Not enough background so owners get bored? Give up? In it for the long, long haul?
    * Developers with serious chops or backgrounds in engineering or science are so darn expensive. Dovetail’s history was with modding, trains. Never equipped to do custom engineering & push frontiers where there wasn’t a prepackaged solution because the genre was already popular. Using Unreal engine for less demanding TSW, and relied on trueSky plugin for clouds.
    * Invasions into flightsim are just going to suck blood out of flight sim, or a different genre with a bit of quick money, into a sinkhole never to be seen again. If invasion is from some genre that’s not where their heart’s at. If it ain’t what got them into simulation. If simulation ain’t what they do mainly – even if they make the darn vehicles in question.
    * Shame if Steam Early Access studio owners increasingly don’t have the same dreams at heart as their early access pitches indicate. It puts public funding footing most of the risk through EA in jeopardy. Eventually there’s going to be fallout and a Steam lawsuit – Valve are saving costs & being liberal to indie studios by not scrutinising EA too much..or having more scrutiny for bigger projects.

    Main warning sign is if there’s some quicker or easier money involved I guess.

    For the best that Dovetail is pulling out – eventually newcomers and Dovetail’s existing base will stop buying and spending on FSW and FSX. So they’ll get into some other sim where the worktime they spent earning a money to spend, or modding and tweaking time, helps flightsims. Meanwhile flightsim is going to be sapped by Dovetail’s gaming marketing connections and chops pushing FSX & FSW – and by airliner payware modder’s caring more about immediate term profits instead of their long term careers, the sim scene and dreams – by pushing or releasing for FSX or FSW. Dovetail will be able to leave 2 sims to bleed out, and repeat the early access resurrection stunt 6 years later. GG. Sad.

    Obvious question is if Dovetail at least spent all the EA money on developing FSW, and not just some or tried to make up for the earlier license purchase.