FSX:Today and Tomorrow


Hi, Let me introduce myself. I am Phil Taylor and I am Senior PM for Graphics and Terrain in Aces Studio. I joined Aces during the end-game of FSX and am now involved in all the studio projects moving forward.


 


I am seeing a lot of threads and a lot of thrashing on this forum, and I thought I would try to address some of the discussions and draw a line in the sand. One big topic of discussion is performance (FPS) and DX10.


 


DX10 by itself isn’t a magic bullet for the real performance issues that become evident as you move the sliders to the right. It was a conscious design decision of the studio to load the sliders so that, on day one, no one can run the sim at full slider levels. We did that so the sim will still have life in it three years from now. For better or worse, that is our design center. It is what it is. It will be that way in FS11, and it was that way in FS9, so this conscious design decision should not come as a surprise.


 


As to why we didn’t hold the product back and polish more: given that the product had already been delayed by the Vista wave delay, we decided to not delay the product any longer. Given the positive threads I see, and other sites where the rampant negativity isn’t as high, I believe there is a lot of fun to be had with the current bits if you approach them with the right set of expectations. If your set of expectations is, “I want everything and I want it now,” we may not be the right product for you. If that set of expectations is to grow over time with the product and see it blossom, we are definitely the right product for you.


 


With that said, in retrospect there are a couple things we see that are real issues, and I will say more about that towards the end. Behind the speculation, though, is a real desire for knowledge, which I always respect. The discussion amounts to a “mash-up” of three things:


a) performance with the existing bits and existing hardware,


b) how do new hardware bits help given the state of the FSX RTM bits, and


c) what is the target architecture of the future (where are FSX and the hardware roadmap going?)


 


If you are still reading, I have some things to say about the current product, the issues, and where I see things headed. As I see it, there are several issues combined here:


 


1) There are the theoretical benefits of DX10.


 


2) There are the actual benefits of the DX10 stack as measured by multiple hardware vendors’ products.


 


3) What can be done with current hardware?


 


4) What about the future hardware roadmap, the FSX application architecture, and how they will combine to make life better.


 


5) And then there is the Aces DX10 Update Plan.


 


1) Theoretical benefits:


 


These links contain content to help explain what the DX10 feature set is and its benefits:


 


http://www.gamedev.net/reference/programming/features/d3d10overview/


http://msdn.microsoft.com/directx/presentations/


 


We are now dependant on IHV implementation skills to see the promise of these API details realized with a hardware implementation.


 


2) Actual benefits


 


With respect to DX10, the API and its design show promise of reducing some of the bottlenecks in the runtime and the driver. And new interesting features are available. How these affect FSX is just speculation at this time by any outside the Aces studio.


 


The software stack for D3D10 is really three parts:


1) the runtime behind the interfaces the game developers use,


2) the DDI ( Device Driver Interface ) the runtime uses to communicate with the driver, and


3) the driver and how it communicates with the actual hardware.


 


Many of the DX10 design points address performance in areas 1 and 2. A new driver architecture was also created to help performance in area 3. Its all really moot without great hardware underneath the software stack. Historically the D3D hardware partners have delivered great hardware, but with each new generation of hardware some learning is involved before developers can make best use of it. This is similar to game consoles in that the 2nd generation of games for console X are better than the 1st generation.


 


It is unclear what core and memory clock pre-production boards run at versus final clock rates of production boards; or if if all hw pipes are enabled. From that it’s hard to guesstimate what the real performance multiplier is from pre-production to production.  So it is very hard to categorize what can and cannot be done in production mode today.


 


Until we get fully clocked production hardware from both vendors, we won’t be able to examine all the features of the API in a production environment and say with authority which are winners and which are a push on first-gen DX10 hardware. That’s key to how our DX10 investigation gets turned into a booked feature plan to make the “magic screenies” come to life.


 


Note: there are threads out there talking about Vista overhead causing a net reduction in frame rates. The same thing was said about XP vs Win98. Vista offers real benefits as XP did back then. Benefits are not free, they cost something. Over time the “Vista effect” on FPS will be diminished. And the benefits in day-to-day running of the OS will amortize themselves, where they are harder to see on day one. So while there is some truth in these threads in relative terms, in absolute terms I don’t see the issue as critical to this discussion.


 


3) Current hardware and how to get the most from it


 


There are several parts to the performance cost equation outside of the GPU.


 


CPU, FSB speed, FSB ( Northbridge ) chipset, Memory Type, and Memory Perf are all valid parts of the cost equation on the CPU side.


 


An excellent “comparo” of the AMD and Intel architectures is available in this article:


http://www.anandtech.com/cpuchipsets/showdoc.aspx?i=2748


It includes a good discussion of the new Intel memory controller, which provides the new Intel CPUs with a good bit of their punch.


 


And memory OC’ing can give good perf wins. This article


http://www.corsairmemory.com/corsair/products/guides/AN501_Latency_Settings_and_Performance.pdf


 


states a 5-8% system performance benefit from just changing BIOS settings for memory latency values, so there is quite a bit one can do to get better CPU side performance by smart choices among motherboards/FSB speed/Northbridge chipset/memory chips. Given that FSX is CPU-bound, and given that FSX touches a lot of memory on the CPU, enhancing memory bandwidth on the CPU is good. And that is with todays hardware, no mention of multicore.


 


Then there is the GPU, both DX9 and DX10.


 


DX9 GPUs are not all created equal. >256M cards will show some advantage. As will top of the line cards. Mid-range cards typically have less pipes ( can render fewer pixels in parallel ), have less memory ( cant handle the texture load ), have slower clock speeds ( are not fully powered ) all to hit a price point. Low end cards are even worse. And lets not even talk Integrated/Mobile. I worked at ATI, I know how the roadmaps and the product waterfall from hi-mid-low and thence to integrated/mobile works. You get what you pay for.


 


As far as  DX10 cards – we need to understand how the DX10 GPU hardware delivers on the promise of the API. Early tests show that the promise of less call overhead and better low-batch performance can be realized. Running at production rates with actual frame data will prove this, but small tests look promising.


 


This means there are real benefits to be squeezed from existing hardware with the RTM bits of FSX, independant of DX10 or multicore CPUs. And that DX10 should add to the benefits.


 


And I haven’t even gotten to the FSX tweaks. Some of these look interesting and worthwile; some just aren’t doing what you think they are doing.


 


The point is, there are positive actions to be taken with today’s hardware using the FSX RTM bits. The CPU is just one part of the cost equation. And just because we don’t make more use of multicore today doesn’t mean the end of the franchise or the end of your fun using it.


 


4 ) CPU architecture and moving forward.


 


Aces made its architectural decisions about FSX 2-3 years ago.


 


It wasn’t clear to me, and I am sure it wasn’t clear to the rest of Aces and many of our readers in 2003 and 2004, that multicore was the future. Since those sorts of design decisions are baked in early, as it became clear in late 2005 and 2006 that the CPU landscape had changed it was just too late to make the major architectural changes required to make our internal architecture more parallel.


 


We use fibers and threads, but still have serialization issues to work out. Which is why our second core (and beyond) usage is low, on the order of 20%. And the changes required are not trivial changes, like simply shifting thread affinity. The order of operations required for correct rendering and sim behavior and the linkage between subsystems is what it is, and it means that none of our options include simple fixes.


 


Once you are on the glide path it is a very risky decision to change the architecture underneath the product. For better or worse, we decided to not do that and ship the product.


 


With that said, we are listening to the community.


 


5 ) Aces DX10 Update Plan


 


We are following two paths:


 


Path 1


 


An investigation is under way to understand if we can do something that is:


1) targeted and isn’t a complete rewrite, and


2) gives real customer benefit.


 


That investigation includes areas of performance. I cannot comment on the full roster of issues under investigation, I can only say that if there are results worth reporting I will be back.


 


Path 2


 


Aces is making a commitment to a freely available Web download DX10 update that will enable all FSX RTM purchasers to upgrade to DX10 support on Windows Vista with DX10 hardware.


 


We are making progress on understanding what DX10 does and doesn’t do, and what we can and cannot count on. When we are done with those investigations we will have a fully booked DX10 plan. And then we can turn those screenies into real rendering and not “artistic impressions”.


 


Conclusion


 


In the long run, it’s all about fun. I believe everyone can find settings that are a blend of flyable and beautiful. Some of you can do that with existing hardware, some of you need to buy new hardware, some can do it with tweaks, some with all of the above. Regardless of the path you take, if you are having fun, we succeeded with the product.


 


Please bear with us while these investigations are underway. I understand the desire of some to vent their frustrations. Where the posts are targeted and constructive, we do hear you. This post and our active investigations stand as evidence that we are listening and taking action.


 


Moving forward, the conspiracy theories and other negativity should really be reconsidered.  The Aces team put a lot of love into the product, and work far above and beyond the call to create each and every version of Flight Sim. I am continually amazed by the commitment of the team to the product.


 


Consider that as you put fingers to the keyboard to slag over something, and consider rewriting your comments to be more constructive. There is always a nice way to say something, and a not-so-nice way. One definitely works better than the other in getting the point across. ‘nuff said.


 


I do promise to report back in a few weeks, right before or right after Thanksgiving.


 


Thanks for listening and for your patience,


 


Phil


Senior PM, Graphics and Terrain, Aces Studio


Comments (5)

  1. dsinder says:

    I must say that I find comments like "If your set of expectations is, “I want everything and I want it now,” we may not be the right product for you." a little distressing when they are made to people who have already paid for your product.   I almost purchased a copy last night.  I think I’ll be holding off for a while.

    Also, I noticed in an FAQ on FSX activation that it refered the EULA as a location on the DVD.

    Is there a place on-line that I can see the EULA BEFORE I purchase the product and break the shrink wrap?  

    Also, can you give any assurance that the terms of the EULA will not change when I go to get updates (bug fixes) for the product.  I seem to remember a number of instances where in order to get updates (bug fixes) for defective Microsoft products (XP for example) I am required to agree to a more odious EULA than applied to the original product.  I’ve found that more than a little annoying.  In fact even presenting me with a new EULA in order to get service on a defective product seems a highly questionable practice.  It’s a bit like taking my exploding Ford Pinto to a Ford dealer and being told that before they will replace the gas tank I have to agree to not sue them if the new one later explodes too.

    One final comment on:

    "Conclusion

    In the long run, it’s all about fun."

    Pardon me but I think that in the short, middle, and long run it’s all about MONEY.

  2. Phil Taylor says:

    To be clear, my comment you call out was in response to a series of threads on AVSim and should not be taken in isolation. In those threads, there was a minority who were unhappy that, regardless of hardware config, they couldnt maximize all the sliders. Taken with that in mind, I was reminding people that we architect the product so that as more powerful machines become available the product continues to have more to offer. We dont expect nor do we tell people that they can maximize the sliders with todays machines. That is how we design the product.

    In terms of EULAs, I am not a lawyer and thus cannot comment on what may or may not happen with the EULA. I can tell you that the ServicePack we are working on will have the same EULA. I believe you have to have a DVD to see the EULA.

    My comment about "its all about fun" was to remind people that the goal of playing games is about having fun. I believe we all should remember that, even though our hobby does require funding ( money ) to be enabled – the entire goal of entertainment is to remove ourselves from the everyday world.

    hth

    Phil

  3. roryS says:

    Phil,

    Thanks for an informative article. I would like to say at this juncture that I am and have been a fan of FS since "98".  I have updated and upgraded various systems in the past to cope with the varying degrees of change between each iteration.

    I think what a lot of people that you refer to as the "I want everything and I want it now" brigade, do tend to express them selves irrationally having mulled over their various woes for some time and simply explode their frustrations onto the nearest website that will take their comments.

    I think however that there is something to be read into if taken in context, and moreover in light of the customer base that is the life line of FS, the ‘hardcore’ enthusiast. A point to note at this stage would be that FS is a simulator not a game and therefore people tend to want it to be as real as possible (or ‘As Real As It Gets’) and indeed don’t treat it as being "all about fun" but more about it perhaps allowing them to do something that they cannot do in reality (not as readily anyway).

    Like everyone else, I have read through all the forums and blogs related to FS and have for my sins some experience of the general causes of disappointment and frustration that many people experience and I don’t think that the stance of "we may not be the right product for you" is an acceptable response to what is ultimately Microsoft’s unhappy customers. It certainly doesn’t address the problem(s), which should be the goal surely.

    As regards the further development of FSX, I find it a little disappointing that there is seemingly still much in the pipeline (SP1, patch for DX10). Following on from this, I accept that the changes needed are not trivial (e.g. for multi-core utilisation), but we must remember that Microsoft’s FS is seen by its customers as well as by its own developers as a leader in terms of graphics etc. Also, I would have thought that if people are not to be expected by the developers to have all the sliders to the right using today’s best technology, then they should be told so. Is it implied? Where?

    Another question I have is a more general question regarding FS through the ages. In the past I have had the most up-to-date systems (various Dells and Alienwares) running FS relatively poorly in comparison to other sims and games (poor FPS etc). As I have said, I am a fan and like many others I suspect, will keep using FS into the future but should another simulator come along that can match it in terms of scope and adaptability, I would definitely reconsider. Let’s just hope FSX can fulfil the hype once all patches and adjustments have been made for DX10.

    As my local politician says, "a lot done, more to do". Maybe that should be Flight Simulator’s tag!

    Rory.

  4. vrapp says:

    This is what I don’t follow: "It was a conscious design decision of the studio to load the sliders so that, on day one, no one can run the sim at full slider levels. We did that so the sim will still have life in it three years from now. (…) It will be that way in FS11, and it was that way in FS9"

    I don’t understand, why would the sim not have life in 3 years if it was working OK with full settings from day one? would colors pale in 3 years? would small terrain details wear?

    Why not to give me more for my money today?

    You want the game to improve for the user with the time? Sorry, I don’t think it’s realistic. Users who seek new experience in the game, in those three years will buy then-new version of the sim anyway. I personally don’t recall myself increasing the settings of an old game after years of using it. It seems to me that those details in 99% are the hidden treasure that will never be uncovered.

    And yet another consideration. There’s a risk that whatever hardware and matching o/s will come in in 3 years, they will be for yet-unknown reasons incompatible with today’s game.

    And, besides everything else, I think this step is merely anti-marketing and bad business decision for Microsoft – speaking of the future sales of future releases.

  5. Timmo says:

    vrap- I believe what Phil was talking about in regards to the sliders was this (using terrain detail as an example): Sure it would have been easy to only allow a max mesh resolution of 5m (FSX went with 1m, FS2004 was 20m) so that, when users had their sliders maxxed they would get ‘better’ performance…but it would would be no different to the current FSX with sliders set at 3/4. ‘Aiming high’ has many advantages- users with slower computers (or indeed, lower resolution mesh…1m mesh is very rare) can simply set the slider at 75% and still get a 5m mesh. Users in the future, or developers with access to higher quality data can still use it without being forced to de-sample it. The position of the slider doesnt really matter except for bragging rights- it’s what quality of data is actually being displayed that is important.

    Aces decision shows foresight: As a scenery developer its nice when software doesnt assume too much as it only hampers developers potential to tweak, it gives stability to the design process (i.e. saves having to release updated formats/SDK everytime). All they have done is to try and remove the ‘glass ceiling’ so that people with faster computers arent hampered by people with slower ones.

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