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 27th: Jarrad Marshall from Orbx
Jarrad Marshall is one of the original developers at Orbx and has provided the community with many memorable scenery packages. Innsbruck, Jackson Hole and Cairns Airport are just some of his developments and all of the high-quality product has earned him with the honour of being one of the most prolific scenery developers in the community. In today’s interview, we discuss how it all started, his ambitions and which other developers he looks up to.
Tell us a little about you and about what you currently do?
I’m an airport developer for ORBX Simulation Systems, working on major airfield projects for FSX/P3D, Aerofly FS2 and XP11. My day-to-day work primarily comprises of P3D development work (splitting time between all aspects of scenery design), and increasingly, project management of porting projects to other platforms. I’ve been developing with ORBX for over 10 years and am currently working on my 15th new airport – a project that I have been working on for the last 12 months.
How did you first begin with scenery development?
I have always been obsessed with aviation; as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in anything with wings. Growing up as a plane nerd in the ’90s meant two things: building plastic model kits and mucking around with flightsims. In terms of the latter, for me it was all about Microprose F117A, F-22 TAW, Jane’s USAF/IAF and Falcon 4.0 – well-used investments in the Marshall household. Of course, MSFS was a key part of this too – my first experiences were of belting a Learjet around Meigs with FS98 at my mate’s place.
As with many scenery developers, my first tastes revolved around improving my local airfields – Perth International and Jandakot. Whilst it was a big step up from previous versions, FS2000 was sorely lacking in the Perth scenery department. Arming myself with the tools of the trade (Airport for Windows – remember that?) and devouring the Avsim scenery development forums, I made my first tentative steps into the world of scenery design, and a journey that would take me down the rabbit hole of things to come.
It was the release of FS2002 that really ignited my interest in scenery design; big improvements to graphics (not to mention performance), more complexity and possibility with scenery design (including all-new autogen, AI and ATC systems) and the availability of decent SDK and community documentation, that set me on my way. Central to this was the inclusion of a cutting-edge 3D modelling program with the FS2002 SDK – Autodesk’s Gmax – a piece of software that was so complex and alien to me that I thought I would never get the hang of it. With the help of many in the community (a particular shout out to Godzone NZ’s Robin Corn for his amazing beginner tutorials from 2002-ish), I was able to make my first crude 3D objects, photoreal ground textures and simple AI plans. Armed with this rudimentary set of skills, I co-founded a small development house with a couple of other local simmers. Over the next few years, Westsim Design Group released a modest number of freeware and limited-payware airfields around Western Australia for FS2002 and FS2004. Although we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, our limited schedules inhibited our grandiose plans of churning out cities and airports at any great rate.
About this time, a well-known simmer in Aussie circles by the nickname of Koorby started dabbling with large-scale terrain scenery for FS9. John’s Vista Australis (VOZ) project was the precursor of ORBX, and the genesis of my working relationship with him. Westsim contributed a few airfields and vector/landclass the vast packages, and when he “went pro” at the dawn of the FSX era, John invited me to join his team as an airport developer. My first contributions to ORBX were some Perth landmarks (as part of FTX AU Blue – the first ORBX product), I released my first airport, Jandakot YPJT, a few months later, and the rest is history.
What has been the most impressive thing, technology-wise, in recent years as a scenery developer?
By a long way, the massively increased availability of open source GIS data from government organisations around the world. More than anything else, this has been a progressive game-changer for me.
The ability for scenery developers to legally access and use vast swathes of orthoimagery, elevation and LIDAR, vector, footprint and landuse data has enabled us all to product scenery of scopes and quality that we could only dream of a few years ago. This gives us more options for airports, can greatly reduce development times and makes locations previously too marginal become commercially viable to move ahead with.
As an example; autogen is often the bane of any airport developer’s existence. A few years ago, I placed all autogen by hand – even for very large photoreal coverage areas – whereas now I can automate and expedite large sections of autogen if source data is available. In 2014, I spent 10 weeks (60% of the total development time) hand-placing 1600sq km of autogen for Palm Springs Intl (KPSP). For my current project, I was able to place a same-sized area in 4 days total, using a combination of automated and selective hand-placed work. When multiplied over many similar scenery development processes (vector work, ortho masking, waterbodies etc), this saves months of time, which in turn can be spent on producing more or better-quality features.
Of course, there have been other more high-profile tech improvements to all platforms over the past couple of years – first-steps into PBR systems for both P3Dv4 and XP11, multi-UV mapping in AFS2 and P3Dv4, system-native conditional material scripting in P3Dv4 and performance improvements alongside all 64-bit systems, amongst many others. These offer valuable additions to the scenery developer’s toolbag, and already we are seeing terrific uses of this new tech.
What do you look for in a region/airport when deciding which product to develop?
My preference has traditionally been to work on mid-sized airfields with large coverage areas, as this gives a good scope for feature diversity, whilst still working within a manageable time frame.
Interesting destinations are key – whether that be the airport itself (unusual architecture, varied traffic types, etc), the surrounding scenery or the type of flying involved (dangerous or difficult approaches) – this has always remained consistent across my work. Quite often this has resulted in products situated within mountainous areas – a natural tendency given I live in one of topographically least-interested parts of the world! Feeling I was at risk of being typecast, I have consciously chosen to move away from the mountain fields for my next few projects.
With my airport projects, I always strive to offer scenery far beyond the airfield boundary. Whether that results in huge coverage areas (KJAC, KEGE, KPSP, KTEX), POI-rich cityscapes (LOWI, YBCS, KSFF), bonus airfields and heliports (YBCS, LOWI, KEGE, KRDD, KPSP, 74S) or specialized features and terrain (KSEZ, KMRY, YBRM), I think it’s very important to always offer a scenery package that includes plenty for simmers to explore, and excellent value for money. For me, being able to explore a high-detail scenery, or enjoy an extended approach with a highly-accurate visual representation, are as important as the detail on the ground.
Lastly – variety and interest factor are pivotal. Given that I live, breathe and dream about these projects for months on end, they have offer something to me as a developer that will keep me motivated during the long slog of mid-project development.
Your work has been considered to be some of the best in the industry. How does that make you feel? Do you feel a lot of pressure for future products?
I have been extremely lucky to be part of the flightsim development community for such a long time, and have worked hard to develop my skills in doing something that I absolutely love. It is true that I feel a certain level of pressure to improve with each project; both in terms of quality and customer value. And whilst development work is hard slog, it is enormously rewarding to do; even after all these (17) years, I still look forward to getting stuck into my next projects, and find it easy to stay motivated to make the best work I possibly can.
Just as importantly, over the years I have been fortunate to have the support and advice of many successful people from all aspects of the community; something that is never taken for granted and that I am always extremely grateful for. One of the many joys I get out of developing scenery is sharing what I’ve picked up along the way; the ability to mentor newer developers and sharing skills with the rest of the guys is also very rewarding.
How do you learn from feedback? Whether that’s from the community, other developers, etc.
Constructive feedback is so incredibly important to me, both in terms of existing projects, and future work. I’ve always seen the community as a group of people who are intensely passionate about our hobby, and I find that genuine criticism (as opposed to baiting/trolling etc) always comes from a place of good intention, irrespective of the way it is communicated.
Another great source of feedback is our strong beta team. My absolute favourite ORBX testers are those who are most “honest”; I owe them so much. The heaviest testing period for our products at the end of a project always correlate with the hardest time of the cycle – I’m always deeply sleep deprived, a little tunnel-visioned and bloody well ready to release the airport. This is exactly the time when a quality tester is needed the most – those last minor details that have been forgotten in the haze of the last development push make all the difference for a smooth release (“you forgot to include the terminal in this build”).
At the end of the day, it is my mission to make airports that are what you all want to use – both in terms of features, quality and style, as well as the locations themselves. As social media becomes (belatedly) more ingrained into our community’s day-to-day interactions, we’ve never had a time where it is so easy for developers and community members to directly interact with each other. My ability to receive that feedback – not only just from the community, but from industry leaders such as FSElite and fellow developers – is integral both to the continuing innovation and evolution of our work.
Outside of your own products, which ones out there really stand out in your mind?
So many! At heart, I’m such a fanboy and get just as excited as everyone else about the latest and greatest scenery and aircraft releases. I avidly keep up with the latest news (via FSElite, of course!) and find a great deal of enjoyment and inspiration following the progress of projects both within and outside of ORBX. Behind the scenes at ORBX, there are so many exciting developments going on at the moment, and whilst I can’t lift the lid on any of them just yet, there are some very cool unannounced airport projects in the works. Many of our well-known developers are cooking up terrific airports right now; keep an eye later in the year for new content from Misha Cajic, Marcus Nyberg, Matteo Veneziani, Tim Harris, Ken Hall, Bill Womack and Tore Stranden, not to mention the guys at Turbulent. Outside of ORBX, I’m always taking inspiration from many scenery and aircraft developers; most recently I’ve been gobsmacked at the detail from Mir’s Wellington, and like many I am keenly looking forward to FlyTampa’s Vegas project. [Editor’s Note: Jarrad wrote this before Vegas was released]
What is your current work environment set up?
To be perfectly honest, nothing exciting. I work from my home office and have a highish-end 2017-era rig. Whilst I do have several high-end components that help expediate development rendering/loading (namely, plenty of SDD space and 128GB of RAM to help working with 15GB orthoimagery files in Photoshop), I try to keep my system within the realms of what many other simmers have. Because optimization and performance and so important to how I design airports, it is important that I keep a “regular” system setup in order to test components during development.
What do you do to stay motivated when working through some of the tougher parts of a project?
Ha! This is one of the most difficult aspects of development work, and an easy trap for young players. I’ve always had a few tricks that have kept me motivated and on-task, and whilst I don’t always manage to stick by them 100%, they do help to ensure I get projects released in viable timeframes – a must for ensuring profitability (and maintaining any semblance of sanity!);
– Stick to one project at a time.
– Do the boring and long tasks first.
– Conversely, save the fun until the end. Terminals or other complex 3D models are always fun to do at the end of a project, at least for me.
– Set incremental goals along the way – particularly useful for large projects.
– First preview screenshots are a big goal to aim for – set the features you want to show early on and hold off any public pics until you are finished with them.
– No matter how tightly you plan your development schedule, add at least one month for buffer. There are always tasks that you forget about until the last minute.
Aside from this, and partly because I work (very) long hours, I make a conscientious effort to take breaks for exercise, socializing, and non-screen time. In other words, not forgetting about the real world.
Oh, and podcasts. I listen to sooo many podcasts while I work. If anyone has good recommendations, hit me up, I’m always on the lookout.
What advice would you give to aspiring developers out there?
We are in the midst of one of the golden ages of flightsim right now. From my viewpoint, I can’t remember such dynamism across the community since 2003-2004 – the diversity of opportunities presented across all major platforms is amazing to see. This translates to the perfect time for new developers to get into the field, whether it’s dabbling in freeware, starting a one-man-scenery-shop or laying the groundwork for the next development house empire. For anyone considering starting out, please learn from just a few of the mistakes I’ve made along the way;
- Start small. You see this written about so often that it’s become a bit of cliche. But I can’t emphasise this enough – start small, learn from your mistakes, and gradually build up with each new project.
- Stick to one project at a time. In my Westsim days, I spent years trying to juggle multiple projects with little to show for the effort. Getting sidetracked with one of your 37 other projects is certainly fun, though it won’t help get that difficult gound poly puzzle solved any quicker.
- The most difficult part of your project will be the final 10% – don’t underestimate how long and how much effort you will spend on this last leg of the journey. Add a generous buffer time to the end of your development schedule; you’llalwaysneed it! The road to product release is littered with the potholes of tasks you forgot about until the day before launch.
- First impressions matter. Always. Whether that’s the release-day version of your product (v1.0), the first screenshots you post of your pride-and-joy, or the first time you chat to someone about support – these will be remembered. Things never go perfectly right in any of these situations (and in which case, just roll with it and enjoy the ride!), however spending that extra bit of time in the short term can save a lot of effort in the long run.
- Don’t forget – ORBX are always on the lookout for hard-working and talented developers!
Thank you once again to Jarrad from Orbx for taking part.Developer Month 2019 Hub
Stay tuned as Developer Month continues tomorrow. We take the day tomorrow to re-cap week three.