SL aircraft makers, let’s get back to basics

Warning: What follows is purely for a Second Life audience. All others, flee now while you still can.

I have an idea, but I’d like to introduce it by rewinding back to the start, where virtual flight began in Second Life.

When I first logged into Second Life in 2003, aircraft were rare things in the virtual sky. There was one airport on the grid — Gray Airfield — and it was populated with flight enthusiasts who struggled to create airplanes that flew at all realistically. Borrowing the words of Douglas Adams, they were almost, but not quite entirely, unlike planes.

A Second Life biplane from 2004

Plane shapes were made by painstakingly cutting, hollowing, and deforming basic geometric prim shapes and mashing them together into something that resembled an airplane. Paint, when it was even applied, was whatever texture could be deformed to fit each individual prim, and was usually cartoonish.

They flew, but in the days before the Lindens implemented vehicle physics, flight was usually matter of pushing a zero-gravity physical object along different vectors with no thought to things like lift, drag, or any of the other physical forces we take for granted now. It was hard enough just to get something to move through the air without putting effort into those details.

Now let’s fast-forward through thirteen years of aircraft development and innovation. During this time, we saw a slew of new features in the continual one-upmanship of friendly — and occasionally not-so-friendly — competition between developers.

The list of innovations year after year is long. I’ll mention only a few here.

  • sit targets (which allowed for closed cockpits)
  • vehicle physics
  • runway take-off/landing (seriously, most planes just didn’t do this)
  • paint colour-chooser
  • lift/drag in flight scripts
  • avatar poses and animations
  • water interaction (spash!)
  • detailed sound effects
  • combat scripts for aircraft
  • paint texture-chooser
  • moving control surfaces
  • retracting landing gear
  • engine start/stop sequences
  • attached HUDs
  • user-customizable flight model
  • specific damage to aircraft parts (toggled “safe mode”)
  • auto-navigation
  • guest pilot permissions
  • high-detail texturing (often ripped from games)
  • highly detailed, realistic control panels
  • sculpted aircraft parts
  • complete mesh aircraft models (often copied from elsewhere)
  • ATC radios and navigation
  • auto-pilot and auto-takeoff/landing
  • piles of unnecessary features

2015-127-interior_textures_wipThat list was longer than it should have been. And by that I mean that maybe we’re overthinking this whole flight experience too much. Maybe we’re trying to pack too many flight sim features into a platform that’s less than ideal for that. Maybe we need to back off a bit on the feature creep and focus more on the core flight model.

In the end, Second Life is not a flight simulator. It can’t be. Its scripts are limited in speed, simulators get bogged down by unnecessary script load, and with every added detail, the user experience actually gets worse, not better.

Sure, your insanely-detailed WW2 plane is astonishing to look at, but how does it feel to fly? How fun is it? Do your half dozen HUDs with dozens of controls and instruments really improve the experience?

There is something to be said for the simplicity of hopping into a virtual plane, starting it up, roaring down the runway, and feeling it lift into the sky. The feel of wheeling, turning, and navigating by the seat of your pants. The feeling of being unencumbered by things that hold real aircraft back.

airplane_3_line_artSo finally, here’s my proposal for aircraft makers. Let’s bring things back to basics. Let’s see who really understands the feel of flight better than the fetters of instrumentation and special effects. Let’s see who can build a stripped-down, low-feature plane that’s just fun to fly.

Seriously, we need to reign in the feature wars now. If I hop into your plane to find dozens of amazing features and effects, but it flies like a spastic cow, what you’ve made is essentially a streaming pile of crap. It was a waste of your time to make it, and a waste of the buyer’s money to buy it. At the core, a plane needs to fly. If it doesn’t do that well, you don’t have a plane.

Make this: A simple, low-detail model. Little or no texturing. No moving parts. No HUD. Definitely no automation. Just wings and a pilot. Then we’ll see who really understands what flight is about.

18 Replies to “SL aircraft makers, let’s get back to basics”

  1. Oddly enough you can get the dynamic features with very little coding, at base my cub for example doesn’t run much more than the your scripts. I agree though a lot of features in the newer aircraft are frivolous and wasteful. Best example I think you used was HUDs which, in my opinion should always be optional if they are even included. I think part of the crux of the issue is a lot of “sl pilots” are there to feel like a pilot and rp rather than take the time to fly something. Put it in that context and it makes sense why a lot of the builders (especially airliners) have crammed so many silly little things that unless you go throgh the plane with a fine tooth comb no one will ever notice.

  2. It has to do with what folks want. If people crave RL type realism, things are just going to get more complicated. For those of us who frankly don’t care about that and like to build things that could never get off the ground in RL, it is not so much an issue. It is sort of like putting a bathroom in your SL house even though as full of it as some folks can be, they will never actually need one.

  3. It’s weird to think that way back all you had to do was make something mostly plane-shaped that sort of flew, and people LOVED IT. :D

  4. I agree with Steve. Having watched and participated in the metastatic growth, it occurs to me that the progress is much more a measure of builder’s ego and avoiding their own boredom than what the majority of users actually want. Each addition of complexity, once assimilated, becomes the new norm as the monster feeds itself.

    Had we not chased the “real” dragon for so long, raising the unrealized expectations that only serve to highlight how SL is not FSX, the users would be no less happy to simply fly. The builders inflate expectations that they then use to justify inflating more expectations.

    1. Yeah, and the Marketplace seems to bear that out. Stuff with engines like Cubey’s that is just realistic enough to feel like flight, but nice textures and room for friends sells a lot. I think it was Mal who remarked on the number of SLers from Brazil who buy airliners/transports with simple flight interfaces, but lots of room in the fuselage for social interaction. Not picking on Brazil by any means, I’ve got a few planes like that (Michi’s made some nice ones) in my inventory.

      As far as “inflated expectations,” not my issue. 1:1 simulation’s not happening here for reasons Cubey outlined. More stuff to keep the pilot busy? I’m not so good at flying I NEED more stuff to complicate a flight I’m making for fun. Just now getting to the point I can make bomb runs without augering in.

  5. The gauntlet has been thrown down. I for one am looking foreword to the challenge, and what aircraft come from it.

  6. You’re absolutely right. Realism doesn’t necessarily equate with fun. I’ve always tried to make my planes real enough to be believable while pursuing a certain non-realistic style. My Terra Atom, for example. Nothing like that would ever exist in real life, but it’s stylish and fun. It has moving parts, and fun features like damage and limited fuel, but I’d never add strobes, ATC radios, radar, and the like because I’m not building for FSX users. I’m building to please SL users. And myself. :)

    1. I believe there will always be space and desire for both. Personally I enjoy the fictional as much as I do the real when it comes to SL and there is a lot of time i spend just playing with scifi stuff that i find laying around. In the end I think relistic or not it’s mot important that the builder enjoy what they do

  7. This totally should have been an April 1 post. :)

    One of my favorite planes in SL is Chage McCoy’s homage to the Mehve from Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. No textures, one moving elevator, three throttle settings. No sound, no startup sequence, ridiculously floaty physics. But still, even today, it’s fun to fly, aesthetically pleasing, and it feels right for a lightweight flying wing. It’s the perfect embodiment of simple flying pleasure.

    Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy some of the crazy switch monsters, too. Going through the startup sequence on one of Kelly Shergood’s helicopters made me squee with delight. But even with their complex simulation element, once in the air, they’re still fun (and challenging!) to fly. I’ll take dangerous barnstorming under bridges over autopilot any day.

    1. I think you’ve hit on the crux of SL-realistic aviation – engagement in the flying process for those who want it. My Laminar Systems Piper Cherokee (a gracious gift which now is available in SL Marketplace for $1,100) has the perfect combination of flyability and control detail to let me feel as though I actually am physically dependent on air to keep me aloft for a nice SL flight experience.

      And it’s a big SL (for now, post-Sansar mileage may vary), so everyone can have the kind of flight they like. Want a fourth-gen fighter with one of Cubey’s flight engines in it? There are people who can hook you up. Want five rectangular prims that vaguely look airplanish, with HUDs and a while power-up checklist, and realistic handling? You might be out of luck, but who knows?

      Enjoy the goodness while you can, and make LL aware you are paying attention to what they want to do to Second Life.

  8. While simple can be good at times I find that if I want a simple flight I jump into a simple airplane (Relativly speaking). For instance I want to go sight seeing on a simple to control airplane where a hud is not required and is more of an “addition” I take a flight on a ZSK Tomahawk, or Tank’s Super Cub which are essentially get in and go planes in Secondlife and rightfully so. even in the real world (be it understandably more complicated) they are generally looked upon as fun planes to fly for sight seeing. In SL avation i think some want that same experience in a massive airliner or learjet which can be obtain given the right vendor, but the mindset going into these large aircraft tend to be off to our SL pilots. Each to their own, of course but i think even in a virtual space the curve between a fun toy and a role-play tool should still be present. Now what that curve means to you is completly subjective. Me its a cub easy to fly where as a 737 should be a challange. Maybe for you a cub should still be easy to fly where as a 737 should provide more of an RP aspect for passangers again each to their own but seeking simplicity is just a short search away at the smaller things in sl

  9. Enough talk. Cubey has set a fun challenge. To build a basic prim, featureLESS plane with stock library textures that is fun to fly. I for one am totally looking foreward to what others will build.

    1. This kind of reminds me of the old one-hour build contests we used to do at the Aerodrome. 60 minutes, prefab script, library textures, must fly. GO. :D

      Now that you’ve put it this way, maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and crank out a simple, fun plane. Hmm.

      1. I remember those! So much fun, maybe a bunch of us can get together sometime and host one!

      2. Remember Primtionary? Does anyone still do that? Some of the most fun I’ve had in SL. Nothing like timed, on-the-spot building to get the heart racing.

  10. Thank you, Cubey!

    I agree (somewhat) with Cubey’s remarks. Some advanced features (say, angle of attack indicators) just make it easier to fly in SL, but by and large it’s a lost game by the nature of SL to have a 1:1 simulation of actual flight here. Our world’s physics just won’t allow it.

    Spacecraft, specifically, are fantasy objects best described by Shakespeare (“The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them… “) if you consider our 4-kilometer ceiling from the ground. They, by and large, are just places to get away from the noobs for a little privacy.

    And I think Cubey’s proposed competition is an excellent idea – let’s see who can build the very best seat-of-the-pants flier. It might transform a whole generation of noobs into dedicated flyers and cause the people behind Project Sansar to reconsider their present thinking about making Second Life 2.0 another Utherverse/Red Light Center – a series of skyboxes connected by TP links, with no seas, landscapes or sky to explore.

    I don’t know about you people

  11. oops. Didn’t complete my last thought:

    I don’t know about you people, but I came back FROM Utherverse because of the absurd limitations of what we could do inworld versus what we have here in Second Life. And I don’t just mean Brian Shuster’s world o’boxes.. but his bureaucratic fiats on what accessories avatars can wear (supposedly to avoid “scaring off the noobs”), restrictions on speech unimaginable to a Second Lifer, and other things outside the ambit of an SL aviation blog. If Project Sansar means SL becomes like that, count me out.

    Aviation in Second Life is one of the anchors for realistic world modelling in non-console virtual worlds. We can build a constituency up here for that, or we can retreat into a futile endeavor to make SL an entirely faithful simulation of RL flight. I think it’s worth having a ‘big tent’ of SL aviators which would be harder for Linden Labs to ignore when they plan for the future of Second Life. What we current SL players do is our vote for that future.

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