Update: Changed the title a little to better reflect the article.
Without delving into speculation too much, we’re fairly confident official information from Lockheed Martin is just days away. We’re reported on rumours, facts, insider knowledge and even some accidental leaks over the past few months – giving as much information as we can to you from Lockheed Martin’s worst kept secret. But what should simmers expect when the announcement is made? I’m hoping to set some expectations here based on my knowledge, some fact-finding and other key pieces of information from various developers and resources around the web.
I would also like to point out, this article is based purely on the speculation of a 64-bit platform. If you don’t believe this will be the case for the next sim, I suggest you close the article now.
There, with that out of the way, let’s continue.
So 64-bit is certainly a bit of a marketing buzz-word for the flight sim community right now. X-Plane has been in the 64-bit era for some time now, and Dovetail have released their full-fledged sim, Flight Sim World, with a heavy emphasis on the fact it’s using 64-bit architecture. But what is 64-bit and why does the flight sim community care so much?
In the simplest of terms, a 64-bit application can use much more memory allocation than a 32-bit program can. In fact, 64-bit applications can in theory use 16 exabytes, which completely destroys the 4gb limit of a 32-bit piece of software. Of course, this is also limited by physical memory available. So if you have 16gb of RAM, your application won’t be able to exceed this limit. So yes, you would have “unlimited” memory space available, you’ll all always be limited by your hardware. Additionally, if a developer doesn’t optimise their software or has bugs which leads to memory leakage, then you’ll still eventually hit your “OOM” limit.
64-bit won’t fix all OOM issues, but it will certainly give a LOT more breathing space than a 32-bit program will.
Also worth noting is that a 64-bit program won’t improve the framerate or stuttering of an application. It may allow for optimisations, but a literal change from 32-bit to 64-bit (without any enhancements) will result in little to no performance improvements.
But for the flight sim community, the upgrade from 32-bit to 64-bit is now needed in 2017. Developers have been extremely talented in bringing hugely detailed products to the sim, whilst being very mindful of their ‘VAS footprint’. Despite this, the more powerful the hardware, the more we want to increase the level of detail and texture resolution. With this increase comes an increase in memory and before you know it, you’ll be facing a blank screen with a pop-up window telling you that you have ‘ran out of memory’.
With this trend of more powerful hardware continuing to outpace 32-bit programs, simulator enthusiasts now crave better memory management and a change in code to continue being relevant in today’s hardware.
So what does this have to do with what we should expect when Lockheed Martin release version 4 of Prepar3d?
Well because the change from 32-bit to 64-bit won’t be as simple as changing a few things here and there. It’s a brand-new way for the sim to be coded and as such many dependencies for your favourite aircraft and piece of software will have changed. This means that IF V4 is 64-bit, then quite a few of your favourite add-ons probably won’t work “out of the box” on release day.
Some of these add-ons could include:
- PMDG aircraft
- Hifi Simulations Active Sky
- FSLabs A320X
- Orbx People and Object Flow
- …and lots more
Now this may sound scary, but this is the reality. As for why, it’s simply lots of the more complex add-ons rely on the DLLs of the simulator. And as the code-base of the sim will have to change to allow it to be 64-bit, then that means many of the DLLs for the sim will also change.
The first thing we need to expect is that most of our add-ons will not work with Prepar3d v4 on day 1.
Furthermore, even if a product doesn’t rely on a DLL, the installer won’t be compatible with version 4. Whilst there are great tools like the FSX to Prepar3d Migration Tool by Flightsim Estonia (which will also have to be updated btw), there won’t be official installers for a few weeks at least. I imagine you’ll be able to just point the installer to the right directory and you’ll be fine, but again, it may have some side-effects you won’t be expecting.
This is all of course, with the assumption that developers have only been using a test build of the sim a few weeks before it’s released. If major developers have had plenty of time to test and build their products with this new sim, then the wait may be significantly less than expected. We know that various developers have already shared their intentions for version 4.
PMDG have re-confirmed what was already said back in January 2015. So any P3D customers (including the upcoming DC-6) will be supported through “at least” P3D v4, so we won’t have to worry about not having our favourite airliners in the shiny new sim. Orbx’s John Vennema also said that all Orbx products will be “100% free” of charge when upgrading to the new sim.
Aerosoft’s Mathijs Kok also is keen to develop for Prepar3d V4. As for upgrade fees, well according to him, “that depends on how much of the code is identical and that is simply not known at this moment.” As always, Aerosoft will “never ask you to buy the product again for a new platform.”
Other 3rd party developers have also chimed in on the P3D V4 boat with FSLabs giving a “more formal road map announcement coming up next week“. ImagineSim also flat out stated they’re also preparing their upcoming Singapore scenery to be ready for a “64-bit simulator” by providing UltraHD textures.
From a developer point of view, we’re already seeing plenty of support for the new sim and by the sounds of it, plenty of them have the simulator in their hands already. And this is great news as it will hopefully ensure that products will be sooner than later for native Prepar3d V4 support.
Other expectations we need to be prepared for is that performance may not be out of this world amazing. Over the course of versions, we’ve seen performance increase for some users, but not for others. You may have fine-tuned version 3 to perfection, but come v4, you may have to go back to tinkering some CFG files and other variables to get that performance right! As simmers, we should know this already, but for newcomers to the field, just be prepared for some work ahead to get it to fly right on your PC. And again, just because it may be 64-bit, doesn’t mean it will fix your frame rate issues.
Another expectation will be the cost of upgrading. First and foremost, it stands to reason that upgrading from version 3 to version 4 of Prepar3d won’t be free. In fact, we believe it will use the same licensing structure as today. Of course, upgrading sim may not be the only cost. Orbx have said upgrading will be free, and Aerosoft continue to ensure you don’t pay for the same files twice – but other developers may choose to implore an upgrade fee to the user. Feelings aside, this is the reality we face. Upgrading from 32-bit architecture to 64-bit isn’t a cheap and easy process for many developers who rely heavily on the 32-bit DLLs from the current sim. It may take hundreds of man hours and not all developers can simply give that away for free. Furthermore, there are also aircraft which people love such as the RealAir Turbine Duke that most likely will never see the light of day in a 64-bit environment.
Other stray thoughts of mine would be that I don’t think we’ll see a significant update to the core engine. We may see some new effects, a brand-new lighting engine and improved stability, but if you’re expecting a change in flight dynamic engines, sloped runways and improved ATC, I think you’ll come away feeling disappointed. I honestly believe this update focuses on other aspects of the sim which are more important for Lockheed Martin’s primary customer: the commercial and military groups. We’re just very lucky to be able to invest in this platform ourselves for simulation and learning purposes.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not intended to scare-monger people into thinking that moving to a new sim is a bad thing – far, far from it. I’m extremely excited for the future of our hobby and passion. The past few years have been really interesting for the community as we now have 3 main development platforms for flight simulation. With AeroFlyFS2 on Orbx’s radar, this could increase to 4! With so much choice and platforms being continuously upgraded, developers are in a completely different place than we were 5 years ago.
PMDG’s Robert S Randazzo put is best a few weeks ago:
“We are coming out of a period of unprecedented platform stability. A full decade with a single platform has allowed developers to innovate and build capability without having to re-learn the process every two years as we used to do “back in the day.””
Whilst the wait will be worth it and the upgrade is overdue, there are some harsh realities we need to come to terms with pretty quickly. Don’t be put off; be prepared and open minded. And most of all, be patient as developers will be working around the clock to bring you their best products to the sim as fast as they can.