- Release this new version of X-Plane with the ATC as is, and continue to improve it in a patch.
- Release this new version of X-Plane, but ship the old ATC from version 9, because while the new ATC is better, it's missing some features that some users have asked for.
- Delay the release of the entire sim because ATC is missing some features that some users have asked for.
No feature is ever done unless a program is dead. Austin hired me about five years ago to work on the scenery system, and it is no more done now than it was five years ago. It is a lot better than it used to be; more efficient, better looking, more realistic, etc. But the bar for what is possible keeps moving. That's part of what makes working on flight simulation software so interesting.
In yesterday's post I tried to clarify why we are using real physics in the AI ATC planes; a lot of the discussion surrounding Austin's original announcement made some assumptions about where CPU time is spent that aren't correct. This post describes how features are incrementally added to a release - without understanding release planning, Austin's description of 20 AI planes makes no sense.
Stretching the Playdough
Programs aren't just born whole, complete, never to be modified again. If there is one consistent misunderstanding of software, it's this notion that you "build" software the way you might build a bridge or a house. The truth is, software is made out of a building material that is nothing like bricks or steel, and thus the engineering practices have to be quite different.
If you build a house and decide you want a different exterior floor plan, you're pretty much hosed. No one is going to change the outer shape of a house because the materials used to build the house are not particularly pliable to modification. The cost of moving a foundation is about the same as building a new foundation, so modifications are made as minimal as possible.*
By comparison, code is a lot more like playdough than bricks or concrete. You want the master bedroom a little bigger? Great, we'll just streeeeeetch it out. Code is always modifiable after it is "finished" - if treated right, it never hardens and sets, and this is why successful programs are often on version 10. The problems a computer program tries to solve change, but code can change with them.
So my first take-away point is this: if we add a feature to a program later, it is not because the program was "incomplete" or "unfinished" before - perpetual improvement is the expected norm in a healthy computer program. In fact, perpetual improvement is desirable because it lets us match changing technology and because it lets us incorporate feedback we get from our user base.
(There's an old saw in computer software that the reason to put out version 1 is to learn what you did wrong so you can make version 2. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the only way to get really solid user feedback is to put something out there and then listen.)
Given that we expect our software to change perpetually, how do we plan? The answer is that we need a road map for the next several steps that the software will take as it evolves. By knowing where we are going we can be reasonably well-informed on the features we code now.
A road map of features needs to be prioritized for two considerations:
- What do users want first? The things we code first, we can ship first, so high priority features should go first.
- What features have to be implemented first? You can't build the roof of a house first, and we couldn't have programmed orthophoto paging of DSFs until we programmed loading DSFs themselves. Sometimes the features "have" to go ina certain order for programming reasons.
At this point we finally have enough common vocabulary to sanely discuss the AI airplanes for X-Plane's ATC. So far I have tried to establish that:
- The AI airplanes are going to get better over time.
- We will almost certainly ship ATC AI before the AI airplanes are perfect.
- The order that we implement ATC features will be a mix of what we think is most important and what has to go in first for engineering reasons.
- The code's already there, so it let us get some airplanes moving around quickly. Inventing a fully separate system from scratch would have taken time away from the rest of ATC.
- Virtually every optimization that has been suggested (and several that haven't been) can be applied to the AI ATC airplanes, so there's plenty of room to get faster. (If we thought we couldn't optimize, we might not have put the flightmodel in for AI at all.)
- By sharing the flight model code with AI, the optimizations we do pay twice - to make ATC faster and to make the framerate faster for all users.
- Inventing a new way to make airplanes (only for ATC) would mean two sets of editing tools, which would invariably mean worse tools in all cases.
Which techniques will we do, and what will the airplane limit be? I don't know. Optimization really needs to be driven by testing - that is, we need to improve the system by measuring it to see what the next best step is, not by speculating about what problems we might hit in the future. Over time, we will repeatedly optimize and the capabilities of the system will steadily grow.
If you want to know the final specs and capabilities for the ATC system, I fear you'll have to wait until X-Plane 10 ships. When we are in development, any planning for future features is just that: a plan. As we hit real bugs and learn more about the features, the plan can, and often does change. Thus estimates of what X-Plane 10 will do won't be truly reliable until we ship.
* I should be careful here; I used to have these conversations with Sergio, who is a professional architect among other things, and he would have to correct me on a million different aspects of construction technology.