Welcome to the FSElite Developer Month. Our theme this year is about delivering for the community and part of that is delivering great content to you all. As part of our commitment to you all, we’re pleased to announced Developer Month – a month themed solely around celebrating our great development community. Over the course of March, you’ll be treated to some behind the scene looks at some of our favourite developers, stories from the FSElite team, exclusive interviews and more.
Bill from iBlueYonder was kind enough to get in touch to share some his personal stories about why and how he became a developer. For those of you who don’t know Bill, he’s the founder of iBlueYonder who most recently put together Nantucket Island.
Bill was pretty darn detailed with his replies, so make sure you take the time to read through as it’s really insightful and interesting!
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started?
I’m the founder and primary developer at iBlueYonder, a flight simulator scenery studio. I was originally born in Memphis, Tennessee but call Dallas Texas home these days, along with my wife, stepsons, and our own personal zoo (two dogs and four cats). I feel like I’m pretty much the typical demographic for a flight sim fanatic – middle aged, with a lifelong love of aviation and a strong technical background. That said, I think of myself primarily as a creative.
My parents were both graphic designers, and I grew up watching them work and being fascinated by what they did. I guess it was only natural that I’d have a creative bent, being a third generation artist. When I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be a film director. It was something about telling stories, creating worlds, and the beauty of the visual medium that captivated me. And of course, I was heavily under the influence of Star Wars. Once I got to college, I discovered that I was too much of an introvert to enjoy working in the large teams that filmmaking demands, so I went for photography instead. Similar visual outlet – but I could create alone!
I spent 10 years as a commercial photographer before the digital revolution took hold. I was working in a color photo lab in downtown San Francisco in the early ’90s, when I got a chance to take a Photoshop class. I hadn’t been much into computers before that, but I jumped at the chance to grow my photo skills. Not only did I discover a love for the nascent field of digital photography, but a fascination with computers as well. A couple years later a design client asked if I could make something called a “web site” for them. This was the very beginning of the Web’s domination, and anyone with a copy of “HTML for Dummies” and a workstation could find work at the drop of a hat.
Out of pure luck, I found myself in Silicon Valley, with a passable knowledge of websites and a few fortunate friends who worked for the up-and-coming players in technology. Not long after co-founding a web design agency, I found myself designing sites for companies like Netscape, Apple, Silicon Graphics, and IBM. It was a heady time – I partied with Craig Newmark of Craig’s List, had breakfast with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and got to work on a several projects with my 80’s synth-pop idol, Thomas Dolby.
After a few years of this, the pressures and traffic of the Bay Area got to me, and I decided I needed someplace quieter to work. Portland, Oregon was the perfect antidote. I spent 14 years working there, mostly as a freelance web developer. It was during the Portland years that I happened to pick up a copy of Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 1. That led to FS2000, finding FS-related websites, and falling deep, deep into the hobby.
What made you decide you wanted to develop for Flight Simulator and why?
I’m gonna zoom back a long, long way for this answer, but bear with me. I grew up at the feet of a master. It sounds corny, but it’s true; my father was one of the most creatively gifted individuals I’ve ever known. He was a designer, calligrapher, professor, and model maker and he pursued each of those with a passion.
One of his loves was building model trains. When I say building, I mean creating them from raw materials; plastic sheets, balsa, brass rods, and the like. The result were the most breathtaking miniatures most people will ever see. He built in HO scale, which to the uninitiated is pretty darn small. He would do things like make a small hand-held oiler, turning down the flexible neck of the can on a jeweler’s lathe until he had created perfect rings around it. They were so small you’d need a magnifying glass to see them, but it didn’t matter to him. It still had to be just right.
When I was a pre-teen model builder he’d spend hours with me, teaching me how to use an airbrush to create weathering effects, rust streaks from bolts, etc. He wasn’t just showing me how to create the effects, he was describing why and how they happened in the real world. It led me to a lifelong pursuit of understanding why the world around me looked and worked as it did, and how to re-create that in a plausible way in miniature.
Not long after I discovered flight sims, I found the online community that serves the hobby. Given my background in world-building, you can imagine my reaction to realizing I could create actual digital locations that I could then inhabit and use in the sim. It was my personal eureka moment! I have yet to find another hobby that so perfectly blends my love of environmental art, digital wizardry, and flying things.
iBlueYonder is a fairly new company, but you’ve been around the hobby for a while. Where might other ‘simmers have heard of you?
Although it makes me feel ancient to say it, I release my first scenery over fifteen years ago. The first notable project I did was building Reading (Pennsylvania) Regional Airport for the MAAM-SIM group. Not long after that, I connected with FS-Addon and did some airport modeling for their popular Tongass Fjords package and created objects for FS Cargo.
I’ve built included sceneries for RealAir Simulations – the Bear Gulch bush airport that was included in their Scout/Citabria package, and RAF West Malling ca. 1944 for their Spitfire.
For FSX, I built Dillingham Field in Hawaii for Aerosoft, Plum Island Mass. for FS Addon before joining Orbx. My Orbx projects were Stark’s Twin Oaks Airpark, Cushman Meadows, and Siletz Bay State Airport.
As iBlueYonder, I’ve done a fun little fictional island airport in Maine called The Heron’s Nest (which is free for subscribers to my mailing list, btw), and our first commercial release was just a couple of months ago with Nantucket Island, which not only includes Nantucket Memorial Airport (KACK), but the entire island in photoreal detail, with many custom points of interest. The small neighbor islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget are also included, each with their own landing strips.
What interests do you have outside of Flight Simulation?
It feels like I never leave my desk! I do every now and then, though, and when I do I like to go for long walks in local parks. I love making things with my hands, especially woodworking. My lovely wife and I enjoy a good Margarita, and have combed Dallas looking for the best. My other love is writing. I’ve written two novels so far, neither of which has seen the light of day; the first because it was just flat-out awful, and the second because I’ve been stuck in rewrites for years. Someday, though…
Tell us what your typical day is usually like.
It took me years to figure out that I’m a morning person. At the crack of 5:30 every morning I pop out of bed and brew a big pot of coffee, then browse social media and watch 3D design tutorial videos for the first hour or two each day.
Sixteen years of working at home as a freelancer has left me fairly disciplined in how I lay out my time. I set up a schedule for each day, and mostly stick to it. My web work only takes up a day or so each week, with the rest of the time devoted to FS design projects. I work on my various sceneries in blocks of time. I might spend a few hours building models for one airport, have lunch, then move on to character design for a library of animated 3D people in the afternoon. Big blocks of time devoted to a single task seems to work best for me, and I’m finally starting to improve my output after years of limping along with slow-moving projects.
Favourite power drink and why?
Coffee! Because coffee is life.
Favourite snack and why?
Eating at my desk is a huge problem, mostly because it gets crumbs in the keyboard. Still, when the 3D work gets really intense, my first reaction is to reach for something crunchy. I dig Cheetos, especially now that I’ve learned to eat them with chopsticks to avoid the orange fingers.
When scenery development gets tough, how do you continue to motivate yourself?
The worst part of any project is when I’m deep into it and make the mistake of looking ahead at what I have left to do to finish. The lesson I’m slowly learning is to focus on a single aspect of a scenery at a time and not worry about the rest of the project. So, if I’m working on ground polys, ground polys are the only thing in my field of vision, no matter how many buildings I have left to make or autogen to annotate. Also, switching projects now and then can breathe fresh life into my day.
Who’s your biggest inspiration in the Flight Sim community?
Oh geez, biggest? That’s tough. I have a lot of inspirations. My favorite developer, just purely for his artwork, is Russ White of Turbulent Designs. I think he’s hands-down the most accomplished 3D artist in our community. That said, I’m in awe of the work of Flightbeam Studios for their tight, economical designs. I love just about everything FlyTampa has ever done. And Orbx, of course, have done amazing feats in pushing the bounds of small airport creation. It was an honor to work with them for the years I did.
Favourite add-on (that’s not your own!)?
Again, another tough question. It would have to be a toss-up between the FlightZone KPDX scenery for FS9 and FlyTampa’s Grenadines. PDX because not only did I live there when it came out (and it included KTTD, the airport where I learned to fly in real life), but because it was visually stunning, and technically well ahead of its time. The Grenadines package gave me a lot of enjoyment because I could fly for hours between airports that all had the same look and feel – sort of like a sim within a sim – and they were so challenging!
How do you balance your work life and home life?
Part of that discipline I talked about earlier was that I keep strict office hours. Except for the last couple of weeks before a scenery release, I tend to knock off work at 5 or 5:30 and go do family things. It’s not an easy thing to do with the computer and my work calling from the next room, but I’ve learned that it’s important to get away from the box and recharge regularly. Those Margaritas I mentioned earlier help with that.
Any hints on what’s to come after your next project?
You have no idea how much I want to drop a big, juicy hint about my next project. It’s going to be so cool, and I think the community will love it. I’m teaming with a well-known developer to create a package of small airfields centered around one large airport. I’m working on both, which is a new thing for me – doing large buildings and the like. I have to say I’m loving it. I hope we can announce it soon, but we want to get some really photogenic modeling completed first so we have something to show in the first press release. Stand by!
Where do you see Flight Simulation in 10 years time?
I sincerely hope that we can get to a point where the hardware has caught up to sims well enough that most people can have a super smooth flight experience without having to break the bank. Knowing the push/pull of technology vs. profits, I’m not sure it will happen, but there’s always hope.
In my home flying rig, I have an Oculus Rift that I use for VR flights using P3D and the fabulous Fly-Inside software. It’s a huge leap forward in immersion, so if they can keep improving the interaction and the resolution, I think that might factor heavily into future sims as well.
Are there any kinds of scenery that you feel are under-represented in flightsim, or not as popular as you feel they should be?
Hang on, I just need to drag my soapbox over. This is going to sound odd, given the popularity of Orbx and their offerings, but I’d still like to see a lot more attention paid to small and medium-sized airports, up to and including regionals. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but my sense is that for every large international airport, there are hundreds of regional and small airports out there, and so many are unique and full of character.
I know FS seems to be primarily an airline simulator, but you don’t really know a challenge until you’ve flown cross-country in a 172 in marginal VFR by dead reckoning with a little radio nav thrown in for good measure. Plus, the small fields and aircraft tend to be cheaper, perform better, and can be a hell of a lot of fun.
I’ve discussed this before with some developer friends, and a lot of us agree that we’d love to do more small airports, but it’s not an easy decision because they don’t sell nearly as well as the big guys. If anyone reading this is interested in promoting GA fields and aircraft, my advice is get more involved in the community. If you find a scenery you love, promote it! Post screenshots everywhere you can, talk it up, review it. This is a team effort, and if we don’t want to see third-party airports dwindle to rehashing a few large international hubs over and over, we’ve all got to start talking up the alternatives.
Anyway, that’s all the rant I’ve got in me. For now. Thanks for inviting me to share some of why I love this hobby so much!
Thanks Bill. Come back next week as we continue Developer Month with FSFX Packages, Airline2Sim and even Matt Davies!