It's been a tough year for X-Plane authors. Key framing, manipulators, global lighting, baked lighting control, generic instruments, normal maps...version 9 has extended the possibilities for airplanes in a huge way. This is great for X-Plane users, and great for any author who wants to push the envelope, but there is a flip side: the time investment to make a "cutting edge" X-Plane aircraft has gone way, way up.
Here's the problem: as hardware has been getting faster, the amount of data (in the form of detailed airplane models) needed to keep the hardware running at max has gone up. But the process of modeling an airplane hasn't gotten any more efficient; all of that 3-d detail simply needs to be drawn, UV mapped and textured. Simply put, NVidia and ATI are making faster GPUs but not faster humans.
That's why I was so excited about order independent transparency. This is a case where new graphics hardware and nicer looking hardware means less authoring work, not more. (The misery of trying to carefully manage ordered one sided geometry will simply be replaced by enabling the effect.)
My Daddy Can Beat Up Your Daddy
Cameron was on FSBreak last week last week discussing the new CRJ...the discussion touched on a question that gets kicked around the forums a lot these days: which allows authors to more realistically simulate a particular airplane...X-Plane 9 or FSX.
This debate is, to be blunt, completely moot. Both FS X and X-Plane contain powerful enough add-on systems that an author can do pretty much anything desired, including replacing the entire host simulation engine. At that point, the question is not "which can do more" because both can do more than any group of humans will ever produce. As Cameron observed, we've reached a point where the simulator doesn't hold the author back, at least when it comes to systems modeling.
(It might be reasonable to ask: which simulator makes it easier to simulate a given aircraft, but given the tendency to replace the simulator's built-in systems on both platforms, it appears the state of the art has gone significantly past built-in sim capabilities.)
When it comes to systems modeling, the ability to put custom code into X-Plane or FS X allows authors to go significantly beyond the scope of the original sim. When it comes to graphics, however, authors on both platforms are constrained to what the sim's native rendering engine can actually draw.
So if there's a challenge to flight simulation next year, I think it is this: for next-generation flight simulators to act as amplifiers for the art content that humans build, rather than as engines that consume it as fuel. The simulator features that get our attention next year can't just be the ability for an author to create something very nice (we're already there), rather it needs to be the ability to make what authors make look even better.
(This doesn't mean that I think that the platforms for building third party "stuff" are complete. Rather, I think it means that we have to carefully consider the amount of input labor it takes to get an output effect.)