Three Little Letters…

CAVEAT: This missive seeks only to provoke thought and debate amongst readers and represents only the author’s standpoint. Comments are invited – discuss the subject in the comments threads – but please beware! Abusive and unfounded comments may be edited or deleted! OK?
FPS. What is it about three letters that seems to make even the meekest Flight Sim flier get so passionately hot under the collar? FPS… Frames Per Second… How simple it is to start a flame war with a simple comment like “My PC can show addon ‘X’ at 176 FPS.

There’s many ‘for and against’ arguments about FPS, what it represents, how to interpret these letters… and there are many more cures for low frame rates than there are addons in the simMarket shop (Oh dear… what a plug!) BUT let us consider a few experiences about the duplicity of the debate on frame rates. For a start: FSX works differently to FS9 – 15 FPS in FS9 was unusable. In FSX you can get by on 10. I say ‘can’ not ‘have to’.

So why does a mere number heat our passions so? As recent addons have stretched the boundaries of what developers can program into their creations, the “frame wars” have become more and more heated. It’s almost as if there is a kind of Freudian penis envy developing – “I’ve got bigger frame rates than you”.

Having seen developers suffer under the onslaught of some fairly venemous attacks from the frame war cult, it is probably time to ask “Why is addon ‘A’ actually slower than addon ‘B’?”

First you must remember that the developer is offering his product for sale. Not yours or someone else’s, but HIS. So when we see the yammering start in the frame wars threads, we can see different factions developing. There’s those who accept what the developer has made and those who want the developer to change the product to their wishes.  We really must consider if this is reasonable behaviour. If a knife maker designs, makes and sells a ceramic bladed knife, is he at fault when the buyer tries to pry open an oyster and breaks the tip of the blade off? No! The buyer is at fault because he tried to do something with the knife, that it wasn’t designed to do.

So developer “A” has created a product that actually uses “spare” CPU processing resources.

Hold on, back up. What are “spare” CPU processing resources? Well in the absence of any given international standards, it is up to the developer to define his project (there is no ISO watchbody that sets the numbers for Flight Simulation Toys). So mister developer looks at what PCs currently produce by way of image fluidity. He sees that on average, many addons do allow the CPU to deliver a relaxed 40+ blocks of data to the GPU per second. (just examples folks, don’t pin me on numbers)

Now as most addons will display reasonably well at 20 FPS and above, that means the developer has (in this example) up to twenty frames worth of CPU time that he can use for other things. Other things like more detail in the hidden depths of the addon – buildings with balconies, overhanging gables, reflective windows, mansard roofs with gutters and drainpipes – scenery with individual blades of grass or leaves – airplanes with surface textured knobs and handles – functions in the background that you might not realise are there.

Developers have been given a simulator by MS / ACES which now gives them an opportunity to evolve what they make. So they develope… Is this wrong?

Possible Causes and Cures

Now if you read your spam mail, you’ll see that there are plenty of “snake oil” cures for diminished egos. It’s the same with FPS. Remember – low FPS simply mean that the affected CPU can’t produce enough blocks of data for the GPU to present the user with a “normed” viewing pleasure. Something on the user’s PC is different to that which the developer used as his benchmark.

The first thing all potential addon customers must ask themselves is what are they buying. They really ought to read the product specs and minimum / recommended / ideal specifications that the seller writes. The very first rule of any transaction between seller and buyer is:


The buyer must make sure he knows what he wants or expects from his ceramic fish knife…

Unfortunately sim addons aren’t like material goods – it isn’t easy to go for a test ride. Nor are two PCs or two FS configurations alike.

And this is when the frame wars begin

So how can we relieve the pain of buying the wrong product? Well the most important thing of all is not to burn the developer. There is no surer way to lose all chance of a cure than to destroy the developer in a mass attack of frame wars mail.

Before you even think about it – take a look in the proverbial mirror. How does your PC compare to the recommendations?

So you add up the numbers, get seduced by the graphics and pull out your credit card. BEFORE you press shift+Z you really must use the product, get to know it and how it performs. Do you really notice any problems with your new addon’s performance? Then and only then should you click shift+Z.

OK, you are experiencing slight jerkiness in the display and the shift+Z shows an FPS that may appear low. READ the manuals first! That simply cannot be said often enough – RTFM before you light your thermic lance up. There will be the usual possibilities, defragmentation, resolution, display settings, adjustments to other addons, FSX Tweaks. 

And even if you have applied all these adjustments and tweaks a short while ago before you added your new addon – go through them again! If “yesterday” you had 5 addons and “today” you have 6, then your CPU has MORE work to do. If you have been adding and removing other programs, or watching youtube or doing a thousand and one other things with your PC, then Windows has been shuffling data like nobody’s business. Explorer will have been indexing, the registry will be constantly changing, the amount of free space on your hard drive(s) changes.

What programmes are working in the background? Even an active defragger like O and O moves data while you play. Other open programmes in the background are clamouring for your CPU’s time…

NONE of these eventualities can be blamed on the addon developer. He is still selling a product that he designed with his own imagination and skills. He is still saying “This is what I have made, if you want it, feel free to exchange money for goods with me, but remember… I built this to what I wanted to see in FSX.”

There is still no reason to complain. An offer has been made, details have been given about this offer and the buyer has bought.

And there are still low frame rates?

Last resort – something I learned many many years ago: When all your best efforts still can’t find the cause of a problem and all your skill still fails to fix the issue… YOU DID SOMETHING WRONG. The old adage of “A bad workman blaming his tools” comes to mind. So before you go mad trying to fix and fix and fix… try one thing: Bo back to basics. Start from square one and follow your processes from the beginning.

In the case of a PC issue, it may even be advisable to “Format C:” and start from square one again. If anyone had cared to be present, a recent experience on a three year old PC started with an addon being totally unusable. Shift+Z showed less than 5 FPS no matter what was tried. Neither defragging, nor virus scanning nor prayers worked. In this particular aircraft/scenery/utility configuration, the sim was unusable. Other areas and other planes and deactivating other applications did reveal different fluidity rates, but none of the numbers matched what was said to be expectable.

So the last resort, back to square one method was applied. In FSX default at latest patch and service pack status, the subject addon was performing at a refresh rate faster than the monitor could give. Then the settings were adjusted to what the user (thought he) wanted and still the addon was giving FPS in the thirties and forties.

Then the other addons were installed. Meshes first, then terrain enhancers, then weather tools, then sceneries… and after each installation the user checked to see how he was doing. And finally, when all was done, the so called faulty addon is performing 400% better than before.

Not once was it any fault of the developer’s, that the buyer has subjective complaints about the performance of his computer.

Now let us talk about this in a civilized manner. The debate is opened, let’s keep it clean – are you a PC Jedi or a PC Sith? Do you examine tha facts before following your urges?

Some thoughts for the debate:

Do you think there should be a set of FS performance standards?
Should an addon work with all other addons?
What addons should be used when testing a new product?
Should there be some formal organisation to monitor standards?
Should there be some form of arbitrator?
What do you want?

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