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X Marks The Spot: Fun With Microsoft Flight Simulator

Pilot episode

This is the latest in a series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

I promised myself I wouldn't do how-to guides because there's seldom much to say, but this one doesn't count: I don't actually suggest you do this at all. It's a how-not-to, then. A how-ton't. See? Even the jokes are a mistake.

You get used to this kind of logic when playing with Flight Simulator X mods, where the mods aren't quite mods and the playing isn't quite playing. Not in the case of Tileproxy, anyway, which is so special and problematic a thing that I just had to remind you it exists.

Invented by Christian Buchner in 2007, Tileproxy streams satellite imagery into Flight Simulators X and 2009 and wraps it over whatever terrain mesh you have installed, creating a world that is literally photorealistic. What I like about it is that there's a certain stagecraft involved in using it, as I'll explain. What I love about it is this:

Flying over the Mesa just out from Escalante airfield in Utah. Not pictured: the mesh issue that sits the runway on a plateau some 50ft high.

Tileproxy is great in an 'I learned more from Civilization than I did from university' kind of way. (Granted, this is more a question of attendance than syllabus.) In principle it's the same as GEFS and Google Earth's own 'flight simulator' but having FSX as a vehicle sets it a world apart. The 'live' weather and 4K cloud textures (courtesy of payware 'mod' Real Environment Xtreme), together with a high fidelity landscape mesh (in this case FS Global) complete the optical illusion. I'm also using the old (and most compatible) San Andreas version of the ENB series mod, and a labyrinthine 'tone mod' for FSX called Shade.

So yes, Tileproxy is an interactive postcard from, if you want it to look 'right', about 8,000 feet. Anything lower and the 2D buildings look conspicuous and increasingly ridiculous; too much higher and you're asking too much of the streamed textures, if not the online map service itself. Being a violation of terms of service, Tileproxy has long been blocked by Google Earth but still supports Bing Maps and Yahoo. You heard that right: there is a reason to use Bing.

Cache rules everything around me

There are caveats galore when using Tileproxy. The amount of high-res imagery it has to download, store and display is crazy. I've ended up giving it an SSD to itself which it's happily on its way to filling up. I did this not just for the speed, but because it takes so long for Windows to count and delete the hundreds of thousands images afterwards that it's better to just wipe the drive.

Getting the images to display at a high enough resolution at a wide enough radius is a game in itself. It means balancing the storage of FSX's files - game install, meshes, mods, Tileproxy - across your system. It means finding the right 'LOD radius' setting in the game for the LOD rings you have to manually set in the Tileproxy config. It means finding out what the hell the LOD radius setting does, because it ain't what the name suggests.

Do this and the game can take anything up to 45 minutes to load the textures in. Hell, that's just for my setup that spreads FSX across two SSDs and one HDD. You may as well pick a number out of a hat and then treble it, or better just leave the house for a bit. The resolution you've chosen for the textures will then determine how quickly you 'out run' the ability to stream them, which again involves both Tileproxy (as in your broadband connection) and the game engine.

The Italian Alps. Not, it must be said, the best example of accurate colouring in Bing's satellite imagery.

Like I said, a how-not-to. This is such a ridiculous way to 'play' FSX that I have to manually refresh the textures every time I fly a few miles through a cloud, over a mountain, or out of sight of Swindon. I'm guessing that more 'modest settings' would mitigate much of this - whatever these 'modest settings' are. I am unfamiliar with the term. Apparently it helps make games run properly or something. Sounds awful.

Seek and deploy

Why use Tileproxy then? Because it's there, I suppose. A mountain to climb, with spectacular views at the summit, and I reckon I'm about halfway up. The biggest problem with decorating FSX with satellite imagery is that the quality is so unpredictable: even when the resolution is high enough to read car number plates, the colour can be borderline monochrome. Finding the right spot means exploring and discovering via Bing or Yahoo's website, which is kind of a reward in itself.

On which note, I'll leave you with a few of the places I never much thought about before stumbling upon Ed Truthan's website, an essential guide to Tileproxy and its settings.

I believe they call this 'Essex'. Not a place I really cared about the existence of during the 17 years I lived there.
Italy's South Tyrol province, as seen when flying from Bolzano airport. This actually uses Opus to calculate the weather, which seems to do a better job than REX, the textures of which I've kept.
The Namib desert, which I'd hoped would look more golden but again suffers from lukewarm colouring on both Bing and Yahoo Maps.
Aloha! Hawaii is one of the highlights of Yahoo's service, offering terrific inland views when combined with a good terrain mesh, REX sky textures and Opus weather simulation.

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