Back in June, a new developer took the community by surprise to release a brand new version of Chicago Executive Airport (KPWK) for Microsoft Flight Simulator. For a newcomer, FlightFX produced a highly impressive product that was full of small details that made it really stand out. In fact, the team compared real-world shots of the airport with images from within the simulator and showcased how close they were to reality. Since then, the team have been busy creating new products and learning about the community. We obviously then wanted to take them up on the offer of talking to them ourselves and conducting a small interview to get to know them a bit better.
In this interview, we speak to Nick, Tom and Jordan where we discuss the origin story behind the team, what challenges they have faced and what lengths they go to in order to create great-looking scenery.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
(Tom) I’ve been in 3d for ~20 years in one way or another. Nick is a pilot. Peter and Jordan are developers. We have other occupations, we also have full-time staff. We have worked together on and off in various digital projects. This is our first joint venture.
(Nick) For the last 30 years, I’ve been working in the large scale event industry. Things like concert tours and large corporate events. It’s also been sort of a family thing. I grew up traveling around the country with my father bouncing in and out of airports and hotels. It was here that my love for aviation was born. I remember begging my dad to make sure we got a view of an airport when he selected a hotel nearby. I have fond memories of staring out the windows of the Renaissance hotel near Lambert Field in St Louis watching the lines of TWA aircraft waiting to take off.
Safe to say that falling in love with flight sims was an easy transition and have had a copy of every single version of MSFS since its inception.
Currently, I live outside of Chicago with my wife and daughter who lovingly support my new venture!
The FlightFX Team. From L-R: Nick, Tom, Jordan and Peter
What’s the origin story behind FlightFX?
(Tom) FlightFX was born of a realisation that the 3 parties involved had the complementary skillset to create the best content possible. A 3d visualisation studio, a web company and an aviation enthusiast. (A 3d guy, a coder and a pilot walked into a bar….)
(Jordan) I don’t know I would kind of say the Pilot cornered the 3D guy and the coder at the bar, and said: “look man, if you don’t jump onto this plane it’s going to take off with or without you.” So I guess you could say we jumped—
(Nick) I mean. It’s not like I made them… LOL
The more detailed version…
During the pandemic, my industry was beaten to death with a singular question. Adapt or die. It was this forced change that led me to Tom and Jordan. We began working on several projects together. As I got to get to know them better I “accidentally” let slip my love for aviation and all things sim related. Of course, Microsoft also happened to release their latest version of their sim at the same time… So.
Anyways, once we got together about it, we discussed viability, approach, and what we thought we could bring to the community. From there FlightFX was born.
Do you have any aviation experience or other passions within the industry? Did that help you get into flight simming?
(Tom) Our pilot is Nick. He is the driving force behind creative decisions and quality control. We recruit beta testers from the airports themselves. It an amazing who you can meet by sticking your nose into an airport and talking to everyone working there. A lot of them are simmers, they are integral to getting our product right.
(Nick) I’m embarrassed to reveal how many hours I have without actually getting my license. Something always seemed to get in the way. That said my training always went remarkably quick due to my time within the sim. I was able to better understand and process real world training because of it.
Your first airport, Chicago Executive, is now out. Why did you decide to start there?
(Tom) We have a high bar for accuracy. Chicago Executive is on our doorstep, so we were able to secure resources for building it very easily.
(Nick) We were actually a bit more ambitious at the start. We began work on another airport that currently sits unfinished. We plan on resuming it when the time is right and when the SDK allows us to do so in a way that we feel is a quality representation of what that airport actually is. We never want to release something to the community that is not well received or is misrepresented in marketing shots.
As we continue to grow and develop more of a following, we will look to our supporters for input on how to proceed with it.
Tom is correct though. When we decided to pivot KPWK became an easy choice. We looked at some other fields as well. Ultimately though, the fact that 2 out of 3 of us lived only a few miles from the place, it was hard to pass up. Tom was actually a big proponent of it as well. To do things the way we want to do them, purpose-driven photography is essential. It ultimately translates into the best looking textures.
As a newcomer to the world of development, how have you found the experience of creating the airport? Any challenges? Anything that was easier?
(Tom) It was a steep learning curve. Although we are not from a game dev background, I think that actually worked in our favor. The toolset is in flux as they develop the game, but you just have to roll with those punches. The dev team is used to ‘look and feel’ being
everything as they are from an architectural and product visualization background.
(Nick) I think Tom is right. Further. It seems that all of the well-known scenery houses were learning all over again anyways. The SDK has been built and broken a thousand times over. So we just put our heads down and studied. I’m sure we made some rookie mistakes. In fact I’m sure we probably made some mistakes that we didn’t even realize we made. In the end though, I really like where we came out. It seems like the community did too.
Speaking of which. That was another one of the challenges that took some getting used to. Having a product out for the masses to comment on is a different experience to say the least. The internet can be a bit like the wild west. So QC-ing stuff has been fun. I have a real appreciation now for the disclaimer “Please state your computer specifications, a complete description of your issue, and what steps we can take to replicate the problem.”
You’ve shared some comparison imagery on your site that shows the real-world airport and the in-sim airport side by side. How were you able to get such small details in the sim? Did you have support from the airport?
(Tom) The buildings are VERY accurate, as are the signage, ground finishes etc. As mentioned earlier, we are local to the airport which meant we could gather physical references rather than rely entirely on Google maps, Bing etc.
(Jordan) I’m pretty sure Tom and Nick sweet talked their way onto the runway.
(Tom) Ha, yes we did.
(Nick) That knocking sound at my door is the FBI…. For real though, we walked around and took a lot of shots as best as we could. The airport allowed for a fair amount of cross shooting as well. Ultimately not the best for textures but did allow for a good enough understanding of what we needed to build.
While we were there we actually were fortunate enough to meet a couple of people who worked there. Its funny, in trying to be inconspicuous we probably were more so. Thus, a few people smartly asked us what we were doing. The best part is that once you name-dropped Flight Simulator everyone’s guard comes crashing down and wanted to help. Without those people though we probably would have ended up in a different place.
The project we are working on now, Dupage, is the complete opposite of KPWK. We were greeted by the airport authority with open arms. They really embraced what we were doing and how it will give them visibility within the community. They actually ended up giving us full access to the airport, a tower tour and an escort from the Opps Director.
What’s next for you guys? What do you look out for when deciding on the next project?
(Tom) Good question! We have begun gathering assets for several airports, also researching the process of building aircraft. However, we need to get into the Microsoft Marketplace to make the operation support itself. It is a big commitment making an airport. We are not hobbyists, these are full-time US-based professional staff and we need to pay their salaries. We went into this with a hopeful and curious mentality. Until we see a return on this investment we can only be working on MSFS content when we have nothing else to do that does actually keep the lights on. Its easy to believe (and we see it mentioned frequently in the forums) that this is an affluent industry. It is not. It’s a business of small margins and a high-risk venture.
So, to answer your question directly; we have Pompano FL, Dupage, IL on the list and we have an almost-complete model of Fort Lauderdale, FL waiting in the wings. We did not want to release Fort Lauderdale until we got the elevated South runway completed to an acceptable standard, so until the game engine allows for that process to happen we are keeping that under wraps.
In the end, there is a confluence of data that comes together for us to decide on what’s right to do next. Jordan actually built us a form to fill out just to score certain ideas. Right now, our aim is to put out quality. That’s really the most important. We don’t want someone saying I bought it from the marketing shots and now i’m disappointed. Hearing something like that would really kill us. This brings me to the next point. We work hard to make sure people are happy. I’ve personally had a few zoom calls with actual customers to help sort any issues and reduce the amount of back and forth in a forum. Who wants to wait 10 more days after buying something in order to get it to work. I know it won’t always be the case that we can do that, but for now, I prefer it.
Away from your product for now; how do you feel about the future of flight simulation? What is getting you excited?
(Tom) The graphics in MSFS are phenomenal, especially the atmospheric engine driving the clouds, sunlight and weather. GPU technology is making huge strides, especially in realtime raytracing. Should the mapping technologies keep pace I think we will see some unbelievably good improvements in the algorithm assembling the 3d mapping data for the background scenery in the game.
(Nick) Whether it was planned or not. This simulator, coming out at this time, paid big dividends. While everyone was trapped in their houses, along comes a program that allows you to travel the world from your desktop. It satiated some people’s wanderlust from a virtual standpoint. On top of that people were taking on new hobbies with their time. Why not this? It felt like the perfect confluence of events in that way and birthed new aviation enthusiasts across the globe.
Furthermore, it injected new life into the community. Sometimes it’s not always well received, as with anything new. In time though, things will settle down. The learning curve will flex and the bugs will be eliminated. I look at it like a living, breathing organism. It’s going to figure out what its potential is and continue to evolve to meet it.
Finally, anything else you would like to add?
(Tom) The way we see our business being successful is to produce a solid product. The feedback so far leads us to believe we are doing just that. In the meantime, we are going to keep trying to expand our customer base, provide some new content, and see where it takes us. Hopefully we can stick around and continue to do great things.
(Nick) We really appreciate the feedback from our customers. Its scary being out there and exposed sometimes. The FS community has been great so far.
As new developers, we are really looking forward to getting to know more of you and connecting with you all in the future.
We all are working towards a common goal. That’s getting this sim to be the best version of itself while still being able to cater to everyone’s individual needs, likes and wants. On the surface it can seem like an insurmountable and oftentimes impossible task. After all, it’s a global audience. The more we can come together as a community to continue to develop for the community the better the experience will be for everyone.
Thanks to Tom, Nick and Jordan for taking the time to answer our questions. You can check out their work over on their website or pick up your own copy of Chicago Executive Airport from Orbx, FlightSim.com or Contrail.