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.
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”)
- 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
That 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.
So 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.