For years theUK Virtual Gliding Association (UKVGA) have been providing twice weekly multiplayer (MP) virtual gliding events on Tuesday and Friday evenings in UK time and using VATSIM as the MP hosting service. This works very well for the club because they have members with a range of different MP capabilities that are compatible with VATSIM and most members live in time zones aligned with, or close to, the UK. Unfortunately the time scheduling of these events are not suitable for the time zone in which I live.
Late last year, Harry Osh, another virtual gliding enthusiast like myself and member of the UKVGA, contacted me via my blog and suggested we try some multiplayer flights together since we both live in time zones that are not too dissimilar. Since then we have been testing various FSX multiplayer options for members of the UK Virtual Gliding Association that live in Oceania time zones like ourselves.
Because there are only two of us currently involved in this project, we have agreed to make the task of setting up these events more interesting by trialling some new and sometimes radical ideas including: use of real-weather injection programs, trialing of various MP hosting alternatives and the addition of other AI gliders to our events. Moreover, we chose to base our tasks on Orbx FTX scenery for Australia and New Zealand to make our virtual cross-country gliding tasks even more convincing and enjoyable. The Orbx scenery is ideal for cross-country gliding and low VFR flights in general.
I have been flying gliders and other aircraft on VATSIM and other MP servers that support FSInn connections for several years, so I am well aware of the pros and cons of that MP system. This project seemed like a good opportunity to test and compare other alternatives. Initially we tried FSHost and FSCloud MP alternatives but our testing did not show any significant advantages over MP servers for FSInn.
So direct connect FSX Multiplayer Mode, in spite of some known issues, was the next logical choice to be tested. To test direct connect FSX Multiplayer Mode we conducted three MP events based on an 86 Km triangular gliding task at Stratford airfield (NZSD) New Zealand, the home of the Taranaki Gliding Club. I hosted the test events on my PC.
Without any shadow of doubt the three direct connect FSX Multiplayer Mode test events undertaken so far have provided our most successful multiplayer flights in regards to the performance, smoothness and reliability of the MP environment. I have hosted FSX MP events in the past and sometimes I have been frustrated by the susceptibility of FSX Multiplayer Mode to any restricted bandwidth connections, dropouts and latency in connected networks. So we are both surprised at how reliable these tests have been so far, particularly taking into consideration that the connection between our two flight simulators included a 3G wireless broadband segment. This reliability may be due to the fact that we are only located around a 1000 Km apart and presumably our connection does not involve any satellite links. And reliable it needs to be because any disconnection from an FSX Multiplayer session results in termination of the flight session for a player and thus wasted progress on a cross-country task.
The smoothness and lack of any discernible lag are prime benefits of direct connect FSX Multiplayer Mode. Other benefits include visibility of other players’ aircraft control surfaces in action and visibility of other players’ tow-planes.
One annoying negative observed in this test flight was that our CumulusX! “Smart-Tow” tow-planes, after being released and landing at Stratford, taxied off the end of the runway and continued on a cross-country hike together up the slopes of Mount Taranaki. At the end of our first test flight my tow plane was last seen continuing on its hike towards Henry Peak, while Harry’s tow plan somehow, and mysteriously, managed to return from its mountain hike to the airfield after we had landed. Under normal conditions the CumulusX! “Smart-Tow” tow-planes are programed to taxi to parking after landing and then remove themselves from the MP session. I suspect that our tow-planes failed to taxi to parking because of a lack of defined taxi ways for the Stratford airfield scenery and thus when our tow-planes land they don’t know how to get to the parking areas and continue taxiing in the direction that they landed. So at this airport, and possibly others, we will have to wear any overhead caused by these two extra AI aircraft in the session. This may become a bigger issue if our MP group ever grows significantly beyond our current two players because the extra AI effectively doubles the number of aircraft and associated telemetry data flowing between players. Moreover these tow-planes are not ordinary AI aircraft. They are flyable models and may have more overhead in the telemetry data traffic between players, so we really do not want them hanging around and wandering across the countryside.
With just the two of us and our two tow planes, data usage in the first test session measured by Harry for the entire MP session including TeamSpeak usage was 126MB, which seems quite reasonable given the large amount of time that we spent in pre and post flight testing and briefings, plus the smoothness and amount of detail being shared between our sessions. In the second test session data usage was even lower at 51MB, presumably due to our shorter time in the session.
To create an interesting weather situation for these test flights I made a snapshot of the Active Sky Next (ASN) historical weather for a typical summer’s day using the ASN GUI Client in Manual offline mode. I captured this weather situation in a saved flight for the task package and I also included the ASN dynamic weather theme file in the task package. We did not use the ASN GUI client applications for any of the three MP test flights because the ASN clients tend to randomize some weather elements and are difficult to synchronise for MP events. By using this mostly static approach to ASN weather definition for the task, I was hoping to not only have identical weather conditions but also to experience some of the unique features of ASN generated weather. So far this approach to setting the session weather has provided a consistent and interesting soaring environment but with only limited access to some of the features of ASN. Moreover, ASN is proving to be a difficult and clumsy tool to create weather for multiplayer events so our research and testing of various options and alternatives will continue. Clearly we asking ASN to provide something that was it was not designed to do.
With the weather, scenery, time and date matched, the CumulusX! thermal distributions and life cycles were identical for both of us. Screen shots compared after these events show that the FSX clouds generated from the Active Sky Next historical weather snapshot were also very similar given that we both have different cloud texture add-ons. On the other hand, the random turbulence was clearly different for each of us, but that was largely expected, in particular for any random turbulence created by A2A Simulations Accu-Feel.
Clearly FSX Multiplayer mode is a very strong contender for our Oceania time zone MP flights. Until a better option comes along, or other issues make this impractical, we intend to continue to use direct connect FSX Multiplayer Mode for our UKVGA MP ad hoc events, which we will run at times better suited to members in Oceania Time Zones.
A potential issue with FSX Multiplayer mode is that it is only compatible with FSX SP2 or FSX Acceleration. We cannot include FSX-SE players nor can we include P3D players in our MP sessions. Thus we are faced with a rather glum outlook for any expansion of our group because the flight simulator MP direct connect community is now split three ways and the number of virtual gliding enthusiasts is small to start with. Our preference for using Orbx scenery and payware weather engines may further restrict the pool of potential players. Moreover, anyone that wants to join our group has to be a member of the UKVGA to use their TeamSpeak service for MP comms but there are also numerous other compelling reasons for joining the club if you are a virtual gliding enthusiast using FSX.