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Opinion: The Curious Case of Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Fifth Sim Update

It has been a whole week since we saw Microsoft Flight Simulator Sim Update V released for PC owners. The update was touted as a bit of a holy grail for improved performance, increased stability and bring in features to allow pilots to land anywhere in the world. The anticipation was, of course, insanely high. However, a week on and Sim Update V has become one of the most controversial and curious cases yet.

Amongst all of the controversy, perhaps the most vocal complaint is from the visual department. Both Microsoft and Asobo shared that the new update would see performance increases for many people, whilst memory usage and load times would drop. From what I’ve seen, those promises have been largely met, but not without issues. Some users have reported a massive change in the level of detail found in the sim. With pop-in, lower resolution textures and poor-looking photogrammetry, the sim suddenly looked a lot worse, even with the gains in performance. Some people have discovered there to be a few bugs with settings now being saved incorrectly, whilst some simply resorted to this being because the Xbox version was released the same day.

For the record, I refuse to believe that the PC version of the simulator was ‘dumbed down’ for the Xbox. The team has been clear that the technology used has been designed to scale up and down depending on the hardware. I personally am in the camp of having an improved performance experience without any major issues with the visual quality. That said, I can appreciate there are some people who are having issues and that it is frustrating. To me, the issue is that incorrect builds or files were used when delivered to the community; or some bugs were unintentionally added. Robert Randazzo on the PMDG forums alludes to this when he said that Asobo had turned off a rendering channel as it needed more development time. This clearly indicates there is still a lot of moving pieces and that something simply slipped between development and pushing out the build to millions of people.

Performance issues and inconsistencies aside, the update has other curiosities that I believe need to be addressed. One, in particular, is how third-party add-on content was being handled. A few days before the new update, LatinVFR sent out communication that they have updated their scenery products to be compatible with the new update. These updates were made available instantly through the LatinVFR store and also Contrail, but those who purchased their stuff on the in-sim Marketplace would have to wait. Considering that Microsoft knew that some developers would need to release patches in order to get products working, it’s surprising to me that the turnaround on this would take this long.

Another developer example of how the sim update had an impact on third-party developers was with the FlyByWire A32NX. Perhaps one of the most popular add-ons for the simulator simply would not work with Sim Update V and was subsequently removed from the Marketplace. Yet, despite how close the FBW team appear to be with Asobo and Microsoft, they were not able to deliver a working stable version of their aircraft in time for Sim Update V. For the many who rely on the in-sim Marketplace to keep their products (free or not) updated, there was a huge oversight here. Whilst the ‘development’ version of the A32NX circumvents this, it’s not reasonable, in my opinion, to expect people to download non-stable builds just in order for their product to work. Equally, there are also people who will exclusively download through the in-sim Marketplace and as such can’t / won’t install through other applications. At the time of writing, the aircraft is still not available in the Marketplace. To be clear, I’m not bashing the developers at FlyByWire in any way, I’m just commenting on how strange the situation feels.

What’s more, none of this seemed to be communicated beforehand. Third-party developers seemed pretty much in the dark about what changes this update would bring – even those considered close to the core developers of the sim. It didn’t matter if it was freeware or payware, Sim Update V left a lot of add-on content unusable (and some of it still is, a week later). In fact, this problem of incompatibility is so widespread that FlightSim.to had to implement a compatibility notice on their site to let community members know if it was ready for SU5 or not.

Unfortunately, the result of this messy update has resulted in a lot of negativity and toxicity within comment sections (yes, including our own) and forums. In fact, the community managers had to impose some strict sanctions on the minority who were ruining it for others. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expressing disappointment or frustration, but there was some extremely insensitive commentary from people. This update has caused headaches for people, but some of the attitudes I’ve seen from some is uncalled for. However, there is still a vast majority of people out there who recognise that sometimes updates can go wrong and how it’s handled is what is important. We have already seen a hotfix released just days after addressing some of the issues and there’s no doubt Asobo and Microsoft are reviewing the feedback and prepping another update to address the issues.

Opinion: The Curious Case of Microsoft Flight Simulator's Fifth Sim Update

An image from the upcoming hotfix to address one of the issues with the recent update.

This brings me nicely onto the point of mandatory updates. I feel it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. One on hand, having everyone all on the same version of the software has real benefits. Everyone is on the same standard, with the same feature set and code. This means that developers are all working towards the same standard and won’t need to worry about incompatibilities due to missing features in a prior update. But on the other hand, there are a few disadvantages which have really come to show during this past week.

By making the update mandatory, it doesn’t allow simmers to go back to a version that ‘worked’ for them. We have seen it with Prepar3D and X-Plane 11 where both small and large updates can have undesired consequences for a particular simmer. Whether that be because of incompatible hardware or software, there are always some things that just won’t work and ultimately break the simulator.

A much better solution, in my opinion, would be to make the newer updates optional. Funnily enough, this is actually a Windows option when it comes to updates. Updates are mandatory, but users can ‘defer’ them for weeks or a month or several maybe even. At least for the first few months so that way third-party developers and even Asobo can patch issues before users are plunged into a mandatory update. If there are concerns or requirements from a developer that their product can only work with the latest version, then they can take advantage of the minimum version number requirement when packaging their software. I feel this would make for a much less frustrating approach for simmers, developers and also Asobo/Microsoft.

As we have seen from this update, some products simply no longer work and developers are scratching their heads on how to fix their products for customers. Perhaps what has been most curious with this update is the level of communication from Asobo/Microsoft to third-party developers. Two examples really stand out:

The first is Aerosoft and the news that their Simple Traffic add-on is as good as “dead.” In the original news post, we said that the team was very close to releasing this AI traffic utility tool. So close that Aerosoft was talking pricing and a trailer was produced. However, just a few days after the new Sim Update was released, it was confirmed that the new update had broken the product and that files relied on by Aerosoft were no longer accessible and encrypted to the core platform. Considering that Aerosoft is an extremely close partner to both Asobo and Microsoft, I find it astonishing that communication wasn’t made to the teams at Aerosoft. Equally, there also appears to be plenty of issues and bugs with the CRJ as a result of Sim Update that one would assume would be solved prior to the release. [Editor’s note: this has been now resolved since this article was written.]

The next example comes from PMDG. With the DC-6 being perhaps one of the most popular and well-known third-party aircraft so far for the simulator. It’s unsurprising that PMDG also has a close-knit relationship with the core development team. However, what is surprising is that PMDG had only days to test the new update. Hats off to PMDG for being more reactive and releasing a number of updates in quick succession to ensure customers still could fly the aircraft. Still, the idea that key players had only days to test a large update calls into question when the update was actually finished by Asobo. I can appreciate that software development can continue right up to the wire, but to think that just days before July 27th the update wasn’t complete gives the impression of some form of rushed release.

Opinion: The Curious Case of Microsoft Flight Simulator's Fifth Sim Update

I am totally empathetic to the teams from a development standpoint. It’s highly likely that the impact of COVID-19 and working from home is starting to take its toll on the teams. When I spoke to Jorg last year, he said that the Pandemic-effect wouldn’t be felt until this year and I think the release of Sim Update V is some evidence of that. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was an element of development crunch to meet the deadline of the new update and, of course, the Xbox version of the simulator. It’s been just shy of a year and the simulator has been an evolving project ever since; it’s hard to tell just when the team plans on resting to recoup and getting their energy back.

Whilst the update has caused a lot of upset, Asobo and Microsoft have both been in the forums communicating the issues and what is being done to fix the problems. We already saw a prompt response to major issues last week with a hotfix produced within days. Just yesterday, a new post was shared indicating that another hotfix will be out in the next few days addressing even more issues. After that, World Update 6 should correct the remaining issues, whilst then adding more world content.

While this update has appeared to be a messier release than other Sim or World Updates in the past, there’s also the argument that this was the most significant since the sim was released a year ago. There were always going to be some teething problems, but some of those issues could be avoided in the future with some changes to how updates are implemented on the end-user. Once the issues are ironed out, which we can safely assume are being worked on, then we can go back to enjoying the simulator and flying the virtual world.

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