I will start by stating that the following is meant to be my objective opinion and has nothing to do with whatever or not I like the Sim's new features, visuals and performance. Note that this post is subject to updates, it represents the current state of affairs from my perspective and only covers a specific but very important aspect of airport addon design.
As you may have noticed, FSX introduces a "round earth" model, which is based on recent findings by Christopher Columbus about the earth not being flat. While many are contesting this outrageous theory, it appears that all scenery including airports are now being rounded by the FSX engine to match this new earth = sphere model. This is more realistic for the Sim overall and a step forward as far as simulating flights at high altitudes, in space and over the north/south poles.
For airport sceneries this poses a problem because while the earth is now rounded by the engine, the flat airport concept has been kept. To quote the SDK, "FSX does not support sloped runways" and airports are still flat overall as you can easily see at default KSEA and others. Herein lies a problem, while the airports appear to be flat, they are in fact being rounded to match the new earth model. To put it simple, airports and their runways are flat in FSX but not really flat.
The methods used in many FS2002 and FS2004 airport addons involved the use of a high resolution ground texture that was often derived from aerial imagery as well as several layers of textures for details such as concrete as well as markings, centerlines etc. These could be created using a number of tools, but the results were always 100% flat surfaces. While this method was never officially intended for the purpose of designing whole airports, we and many other scenery designers depended on it because it allowed custom ground detail and had no theoretical upper limit for the resolution/crispness of the ground textures and details.
While the FSX engine is now rounding the earth's surface in realtime, airport addons developed with the former method are not being rounded. The resulting effect when using a (large) airport addon from FS2002 or FS2004 within FSX is that, depending on your location on the airport, aircraft wheels' sink into the ground, shadows don't render properly, ground markings float above the ground and a slew of other problems. Because numerous (if not all) airport addons produced in the past 3-4 years are affected by this problem, many bright minds (brighter then myself anyway) are working hard to find a solution that works around the rounded earth effect on airport surfaces. While a solution may indeed appear, my feeling tells me it would be another unofficial hack method. I say "hack" because FSX's round earth model is here to stay for the long run and flat surfaces that do not conform to the round earth model aren't meant to exist in FSX. In other words, patching airports to regain real flatness will be a dead end at some point in the future anyway.
What is the new FSX SDK giving us as a replacement for the widely used unofficial method for airport ground design? Nothing new. Some may argue but: The official method to create the airport's ground detail has always been the same default method (always meaning since FS2002). With default method, I mean what you can see at "out of the box enhanced" airports such as KSEA, KLAX, KORD, KJFK, KMIA, EGLL and some others. The methods used there are simple and consist of 2 steps. A Photoscenery baselayer containing aerial imagery topped with XML type runways, taxiways, aprons, centerlines, etc. (also refered to as AFCAD data). Despite the fact that Microsoft apparently forgot or had no time to include the aerial airport imagery in FSX's KSEA, KLAX etc as they did in FS2002 and FS2004, these methods aren't new to FSX. Yes, they got enhanced, but they aren't new. What this means is that during the past years we and other designers were able to create airport addons that offered a much higher level of ground detail then FS2004 airports were ever meant to have if done "properly" using the default methods.
Unlike most airport addons made for FS2002 and FS2004 using the unofficial method, anything created with the official method suffers no problems in FSX as the official method conforms to the new round earth model. So why didn't we and other designers use the official methods in the first place? Because the offical method offers little or no flexibility. Again some may argue but: Can we create a high resolution Photoscenery airport ground in FSX? Yes. As high resolution as the old unofficial method? No. While the FSX Photoscenery method doesn't satisfy us personally despite greatly enhanced resulution, blendmask etc, I guess we could (and might have to) live with it.
A much bigger issue for us are the XML type runways, aprons, markings, lines and other ground details. Many of you know them as AFCAD data and the visual results are plain and simple default. Default concrete and asphalt textures, default holdshort lines etc. This kind of ground detail is totally unacceptable for anyone who has come to expect a highly customized airport ground. The XML method has in fact been around for years but barely any designer ever used it in the past for a good reason, it is not good enough. Now it could turn out to be the only option left to create airport ground details. So if you think the new default FSX runways, taxiways and aprons look awesome with their bumpmap and rain effects, lucky you, those could very well turn out to be the only type that you will ever see in FSX.
What does this mean for FlyTampa in terms of scenery updates and future airport sceneries? Unfortunately, I do not know yet as this FSX "round earth" conspiracy is still fresh and unexplored. It could mean anything from no updates and no new airports at all, to updates where the ground looks very different then in the original FS2004 versions. Why? Because at the moment the outlook is quite depressing as far as custom airport ground goes and we are not willing to just accept the facts and move on with creating simplistic ground layouts that we don't like to look at ourselves. Rest assured however that we and many other airport designers who are also not happy about the prospect of using default methods will keep looking for more flexible solutions and I will update this thread as more info becomes available.
Again, this is not meant to be a negative rant at FSX, there are many other areas of addon development where the ability to create scenery has been greatly enhanced over FS2004, airport ground design however doesn't seem to be one of them.
Update 21 Oct
A number of people appear to be misreading this thread and coming to the false conclusion that it is all just a matter of developers like ourselves being lazy and unwilling to learn new FSX techniques.
This is not the case. We are not interested at all in holding on to "old methods & flat earth concepts" and if the addons we released in the past now become unusable (un-sell-able), we could care less. Some developers may care more, but honestly the ability to update old sceneries is a minor issue to us right now.
What this thread is about, is the prospect of what the airport development community as a whole can achieve using the new FSX SDK tools, which have already been read, re-read, studied and tested by developers like ourselves. We are also not saying that the new FSX SDK is bad overall. It is only bad (or incomplete) with regards to designing detailed airport ground layouts and possibly other aspects that are not covered in this thread.
Another misconception is that 3rd party developers can just come up with their own SDKs as long as long as they invest enough time and money in development. This is complete nonsense. 3rd party FS-Design programs and tools are basically just "front-ends" to simplify the design process, internally they all have to work within the framework that Microsoft's SDK and the FSX engine provide. To put it simple, if Microsoft did not intend the FSX engine to do a certain thing, then there is no magic way around it. Yes, there are sometimes undocumented SDK features, exploits and hacks that get discovered and used by 3rd parties over the years, but these are rare and hoping that a solution will just show up this way is like hoping to win in the lottery.
Please also note that this is not just a case of one single developer jumping to conclusions or taking sides in some ridiculous FS9-VS-FSX battle. FSX is the future and every developer knows this. If you browse through this thread you will see that a number of developers share our concerns, others have expressed similar issues on their websites, while the large majority is discussing these very same issues behind the scenes. Will there be airport addons for FSX? Of course there will, but if these issues turn out to be the "final word", I fear this could mean standardized and default-ish airport ground layouts throughout the whole FSX generation. At first this may even go unnoticed because other new shiny features like reflective windows and gimmicky vehlicles will catch our eyes, but once we have a dozen airport addons all using the same default textures for runways, aprons and markings... well, I hope you get the picture.
Update 23 Oct
Just for the record...
I am aware of what appears to be a "loophole, trick, hack, whatever" in how flat ground geometry that we and many other developers use gets "processed" by the FSX engine depending on the textures' alpha channel and/or some sourcecode tweak.
I am not yet 100% sure these tweaks are the "ultimate solution" as there are other unresolved issues needing to be fixed at the same time... but it could potentially make updates for FS2004 sceneries less painful while maintaining their original "look".
Does this mean we're happy, all problems solved? Not quite, but as I said in the very beginning, there are brighter minds then myself looking for solutions so there is always hope. This appears to be a partial solution that would potentially enable developers to keep using what they have been using for detailed groundwork (FS2004 style)... which is not exactly what we were hoping for either, meaning there is a new FSX-SDK where this should be implemented and documented.
Update 21 Nov
The FSX Photoscenery problem described in the 25 October Update (below) has been fixed. A first FSX Patch is available at FS Insider.
----------------------------------------------------------------Update 25 Oct
"Photoscenery bonus feature?"
Maybe some of you have been wondering why the aerial imagery for Microsoft's "high detail airports" (KSEA, KLAX, KJFK, KMIA, EGLL etc) is missing in FSX. I have been wondering myself. Was it lack of source imagery, no time to implement it before release? Who knows. The following maybe a possible answer, although I would prefer to believe Tdaggers' own 1 line explanation.
While the new Photoscenery (Terrain SDK) is capable of producing impressive results that are way ahead of FS2004 Photoscenery, it appears that FSX isn't quite happy when 2 Photosceneries (made using FSX resample with blendmasks, not imported from FS2004) overlay or overlap each other. Without getting too technical about the issue, the result when using 2 Photosceneries that cover any common ground, is that they do not blend very well together (to put it mildly). The resulting effect is water around the edges of the Photoscenery, where there obviously shouldn't be any water.
Lets imagine for a second that FSX Seattle/KSEA and other airports shipped with the aerial ground imagery (It was there in FS2004 and FS2002 afterall). What would this mean once the user installs some 3rd party large coverage Photoscenery for that whole city or region? Depending on how his Scenery Library (scenery.cfg) is sorted, it could potentially mean that KSEA airport would all the sudden become an island, with a "ring" of water around it. This effect wouldn't be the newly installed Addons' fault, it just happens to become a problem after a 2nd Photoscenery covering the same area is added to FSX. Having tested this a number of times (and confirmed by other developers), it doesn't surprise me that the only Photoscenery included in FSX is located on an island (St Maarten), where this overlapping problem is very unlikely to ever occur because there is water around it anyway.
If there is even a remote and hypothetical chance that FSX shipped without most of the airport ground imagery in anticipation that large 3rd party Photosceneries may make this problem more obvious, then how are we 3rd party airport developers expected to create any addon airports using this method? Obviously, resampled Photoscenery is the intended method to create aiports for FSX, because the custom groundpolygons I talked so much about earlier are no longer working 100% and not even present in the FSX SDK. Or maybe there is no intended method to create highly detailed airport groundwork at all in FSX? Is there a workaround for this? Sort of, but even the simplest workaround means that the large coverage Photoscenery has to "take over" the airport ground, leaving airport designers with little or no control over their airport addons. The point is that it cannot be expected from every developer that he knows this problem even exists, much less come up with a complex workaround. Why would he anyway, the Photoscenery appears perfectly fine when done according to SDK instructions and faulty results only come into play when a second Photoscenery is added. Keep in mind also there are thousands of developers both free and payware, we cannot all keep track of each other and coordinate individual fixes and patches for every single Photoscenery addon that may overlap.
Of course awesome looking Photosceneries can and will be made for FSX by other developers, but for small areas (airports) this method is rendered useles in my opinion. Does that mean I want the inferior FS2004 Photoscenery back? No way, but the new method has a serious flaw out of the box. This is again just my objective opinion, but I fear that if not some (better all) of the issues pointed out in this thread can be patched, fixed or worked out with a SDK update, the addon scenery community as a whole is in for a tough ride.
This doesn't make FSX a bad product overall. Like every baby it has great potential and can become anything it wants when it grows up, but right now it is screaming for some candy.... patch/update. I hope others will forgive me the generalization but: Most of the scenery community is anxious to develop for FSX, but we need proper SDK tools and more detailed documentation along with them.
"Episode IV - A new hope"
Our collective thread has not gone unnoticed by the Microsoft team. We wrote up a little tech-doc for them about the issues we are having and illustrated the avdantages that airport developers gain by being able to export their own 2D ground geometry using the new FSX 3DSMax/Gmax SDK.
Whatever this will bring the results that we and other developers are hoping for is unknown, but I will keep you posted as soon as I hear something.
Update 13 Dec
Another solution for this flat "ground polygon" issue just popped up. Thanks to Andras Kozma for this one (Author of Budapest, NY Manhattan).
I won't go into details but it is as simple as changing a single parameter value within the FSX.cfg file. This would of course be a non-optimal solution since this is a end-user setting. Negative side-effects from changing this setting are currently being tested by various developers.
I am not posting the actual setting/value here in public to avoid people screwing up their Sims... but if anyone, developers specifically want to try it out just let me know.