Welcome to Developer Month 2019. Between April 8th and May 8th 2019, we will feature a variety of developers, publishers, community personalities and more who will tell us their story. From written interviews and blog posts to video interviews and more, we have curated a range of interesting content to maybe even inspire you to be one of these developers in future years. Please enjoy Developer Month 2019 as much as we enjoyed putting it together for you.
We couldn’t have put together Developer Month without the support of all the developers & publishers involved. Also, huge thanks to Thrustmaster for their assistance in sponsoring Developer Month.
April 11th: Aeroplane Heaven
Barry from Aeroplane Heaven has given us some insight into their working environment, their development process and their thoughts on the current state of flight simulation.
Do note, at the end of the interview, is a competition for you to WIN a free copy of Aeroplane Heaven’s recently released Heinkel or their upcoming Cessna 140.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
We are Aeroplane Heaven. We design, develop and sell add-ons for flight simulation, build 3D models for all purposes and act as “ghost” builders for several of the bigger developers and publishers in the business.
What is your current team size? What skills and experience do each of you have?
A lot of people are probably unaware that we are just two people. We do this full-time, which enables us to produce in volume and in a much faster time than most developers who operate their businesses on a part-time basis, holding down full or part-time jobs in addition to their flight-sim work.
It is fair to say that a lot of developers are just as small but spend a lot of time claiming to be of a larger size, touting “in-house” production teams when in reality, they are just assembling a team from third party, outside sub-contractors.
We use a number of outside subs and suppliers, depending on the project but generally we actually do produce everything in-house. We can build in 3D, texture and create materials (including PBR workflow) code in XML, create (limited) sound files and author fight dynamics. Many of our titles use third party sub-contractors, especially when time is of the essence but a large proportion are produced completely “in-house”. It is this “one-stop-shop” approach that has led to AH being contracted to supply titles and models to other developers and publishers all over the world.
For over 30 years I was a Creative Director for international advertising agencies both here in Australia and overseas. Coming from an Art Director background, I was able to “re-train” relatively easily when the time came for me to look at a change. You don’t grow old very gracefully in the advertising business and the stress levels are very high, the higher you get. 3D modelling provides me with tremendous satisfaction levels, variety and most importantly a credible replacement income.
Mike, my son, is my business partner. He is the one responsible for me getting into flight simulation having bought me MS Flight Simulator one Christmas. He has exceptional skills in 3D, XML coding, texture and material creation and more. He has taught web development in Design College and maintains our web presence in addition to full-on development for AH and other people.
How did you first get involved in Aeroplane Heaven?
As I have already mentioned, it’s Mike’s fault. But there is a little more to it than that. Back in 1999 I was running my own marketing and communications consultancy and I was interested in dipping a toe into the then “new” world of internet web. To do this I needed a few things. A brand to promote, a website and of course, a customer base. So we invented Aeroplane Heaven as the brand – developing and selling expansions for Microsoft Flight Simulators. During the coming months, I began using my newly gained skills in 3D to build our first products. I already new programmes like Photoshop, Illustrator and so on from my advertising days so once I understood the protocols used in flight-sim, the learning curve was not so steep. Mike built our first website and we launched Aeroplane Heaven in the year 2000 with one product.
What is your earliest developer memory?
I began my flight-sim journey by re-painting other developers’ existing products. But my most enduring memory is of our first title – the Grumman XF5F experimental twin engine fighter from the 1930s. For most of my life I had been responsible for promoting other people’s products and brands and here we were now on the other side of the desk, promoting and servicing our own. It was a terrifying experience! Our first customer support issue had us sweating well into the night, I can assure you. The relief to get an “all-clear” from our customer was palpable.
Your business focuses on the more historic aircraft in aviation. Why is this? What inspires you to create such iconic aircraft from the past?
Aviation history is a rich hunting ground for 3D subjects. The sheer variety of aeroplanes from the early days of WW1 through WW2 to the Cold War and later, is immense.
Warbirds are purpose-built machines with a job to do. But far more importantly, the need for ever-improving technology means a wealth of technical innovation and ground-breaking design which makes these subjects so magnetic. Aeroplanes like the Spitfire are just beautiful machines to look at and fly. Airliners from the golden age of commercial aviation are equally immensely rewarding subjects to make.
But actually, we are not just focused on the classics. We build jet fighters and jet airliners – the DC8, BAC 1-11, F-111Aardvark, Hawker Hunter, EE lightning, Gloster Meteor and VC10 for Just Flight, the Hawker Harrier GR3 for Wilco Publishing and most recently, in partnership with FeelThere, we are currently developing the Embraer 170 and 190 series of regional jets. We also build GA, like the Cessna 140 and Piper Aztec, the Tecnam and upcoming Socata.
What is your favourite product and why?
Actually, I don’t have one. Since 2000 we have built over 60 different titles. I suppose if I had to choose, then it would have to be the Dunkirk Spitfire. The Mk1 Spitfire is my personal favourite aeroplane of all time. Every time I start to build one I get excited. This one is a recent attempt at portraying this icon as accurately as possible within the confines of MSFS. Our new Spitfires will be better again. But others that would rank among my favourites would be the Bristol Bulldog because it was originally one of our earliest products, now re-incarnated and the Lancaster because it was such a huge project and we were learning PBR workflow techniques at the time, some of which we used in the project.
What can you tell us about the end-to-end process of developing an aircraft? What planning has to go into the creation?
Everybody works differently but this is how we go about it. Firstly, the subject needs to be chosen and that can be a lengthy, difficult process because a balance must be struck between the desire to do it and its viability as a commercial product. Many outwardly beautiful or intriguing subjects are left on the shelf because they just would not sell. Freeware designers have the advantage here in that sales are obviously not an issue and they make whatever they want. We are often asked by customers to develop something which we have to refuse because we know that it would not be commercially viable.
Next comes perhaps the most important aspect of the process, research. Without adequate access to quality reference and data it is nigh impossible to develop anything with any degree of accuracy. We go all out to gather as much data and reference materials as we can, from pilot handbooks to manufacturer’s manuals and when possible, field trips to actual aircraft at shows and museums. For example, a trip I made to Canberra and the Australian War Memorial to visit the restoration of Lancaster G- for George made all the difference to that project. I was given a guided tour of every part of the airframe and was able to sit in the cockpit, visit the various stations and operate some of the equipment. To see the Lanc in its original pre-restored state and examine its smallest detailed components was a privilege not afforded many. My understanding of what makes a Lancaster tick increased ten-fold from that one visit.
The 3D build begins with the best plans and drawings available. Whenever possible we use original manufacturer’s drawings and blueprints. With careful selection, one can assemble enough drawings to make just about every component. We will often build components away from the main model and then merge everything together in a final assembly. These days with more powerful computers better adapted to gaming, large models containing a million triangles and more can be rendered in-game without too much of a “slow-down” in frame rates. The key is clean, tight modelling.
Once we have a 3D model “mesh”, we then map everything in preparation for the materials and textures. Previous to Prepar3D, one would follow a fairly simple set of stages to produce the materials and textures. Now, with the advent of PBR workflow materials for P3DV4.4 and above, the game has changed a bit. The need for high levels of accuracy in the mapping is essential to success in the PBR process. Overlaps and stretches are “no-no”s and considered packing of all the components to save on space is important to conserve memory and storage and the workflow in material creation possible.
The introduction of powerful programmes like Adobe’s Substance Painter make the creation of various materials and textures much easier and high levels of realism can be achieved. The trade-off is time. Everybody wants PBR these days but not everybody is prepared to wait for a development using the process. Without a doubt, PBR-based development is taking twice the time of conventional processes and this is difficult to convey to “hungry” customers.
As the material and texture creation is going on, we turn our attention to the other components of the package – flight dynamics, sound, special effects etc.
We, more often than not, will brief a sound engineer for our sounds. It is a lengthy, highly skilled procedure to author a full stereo set that is authentic and dynamic. We’d prefer to spend the time with areas we know more about. If it’s a basic sound set like a Cessna or something, we will occasionally do this work ourselves.
We can author flight dynamics here and also use third party authors depending on the complexity of the subject.
We make our own special effects and are always looking to include new, novel features in our productions.
How do you know when to not ‘feature-creep’?
This is an area that is perhaps the most difficult to control. Usually, the commercial side wins the day as it is possible to include features and “gimmicks” people just either never notice or even use. We prefer to focus on getting the basic models looking perfect than on introducing levels of complexity that few would appreciate. The other important point for us is that too much feature-creep can impact on pricing and we have always strived as a company to keep our products at what we believe to be an affordable level of pricing.
Speaking personally, I seriously doubt whether making the toilets in a B737 flush would sell any more product, at least not enough to off-set the time and costs to develop the effects, code and probably a degree of complex modelling to achieve an adequate result. So, no, I’m afraid the toilets in AH aeroplanes do not flush – sorry folks, as we say in Australia, there’s always the outside “dunny”.
Developing an aircraft cannot be an easy task. How do you stay motivated to complete a project?
Variety is the key here. We have always developed more than one project at a time. If things get tedious on one, we can always move to one of the others to keep fresh. We do this all the time. The benefits are no “burn-outs” and faster, more regular output which pleases our customers and clients. This particular period in time is very exciting for any developer who can stay the course. Yes there is always a lot to learn and mistakes will happen but we are all at last seeing how this hobby can catch up to the larger scale computer games.
How does community feedback help shape your products?
Immensely. We could not work properly without feedback. Our customer service system ensures that we always know about problems and issues with our products and we can then fix things quickly. We will never please all of the people all of the time, we know that, but we do our best to satisfy most. What we learn from our customer base is priceless. It defines what we do next.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into flight simulation development?
Dive in. Have fun.
Just don’t expect miracles and don’t expect to earn much with your first payware effort.In fact, don’t expect to earn much at all!
The market these days is extremely selective about what it buys and hyper-critical of what it does buy. Expectations are high as the customer increases their knowledge of development through forums and organs like this one. Compared to even 5 years ago, it is now a minefield for developers starting out. People are far less forgiving than they used to be. However, that can be a good thing as it certainly puts you on a fast-track with regard to learning new skills.
One thing I would say is that the community has become extremely toxic. Probably a symptom of today’s internet society to be honest but this toxicity has led to several developers with excellent reputations and track records leaving the industry. It is extremely hard to stand by and watch somebody launch what represents thousands of hours of hard work, acquired knowledge and skillsets, not to mention downright talent, and have it torn apart in seconds by a pack of keyboard warriors who wouldn’t know what to do with a pixel if it hit them in the head.
I’ll say right here and now that if this hobby ever does die, it will be these people who will have killed it.
That said, do not be discouraged, if you have the talent and the patience you will get there. Be selective in what you do and focus on your goal. Never start something you can’t finish, especially if you involve your prospective market – they will never forgive you.
Above all, have fun and lots of it. That is what this game is all about isn’t it?
Thanks to the team at Aeroplane Heaven, we are delighted to give you the opportunity to win a copy of their Heinkel HE-111 P2 or their upcoming Cessna 140.
To enter, you will need to take a look at the picture below very closely. You will need to correctly identify each of the 75 aircraft that have been created by the Aeroplane Heaven team.
If you’re the first to send us a complete list, we’ll give you a free copy. Send your entries to prize [at] fselite [dot] net with subject “Aeroplane Heaven Comp”.
[This competition was arranged by Aeroplane Heaven]
Thank you once again to Aeroplane Heaven for taking part.
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Stay tuned as Developer Month continues tomorrow with an interview from the developer behind Tomatoshade!