It’s hard to write about a new release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, as if there was ever a topic that’s been beaten to death more than once, it’s a list of the advantages and flaws of the “final proper part of the MSFS franchise”. FSX is a title that refuses to die, though, well outlasting its successor like a classic aircraft that won’t go to the scrap merchant willingly and now re-released as the “Steam Version” by new franchise licensees Dovetail Games.
What we have here isn’t really a “reboot”, “remaster”, or true successor to the venerable sim, however – it’s pretty much the same thing – so what’s the point in releasing it? What’s new in this new version, does it fix any of the long-standing bugs and is it worth getting, either as a newcomer to the series, or as an additional copy to an existing FS user? That’s exactly what this article is here to discuss.
Let’s get one thing straight right at the start; FSX Steam Edition (FSX:SE) is FSX Gold, to all intents and purposes. It is FSX plus the Acceleration add-on, which includes Service Pack 2, so if you’re currently successfully running FSX, surely you won’t get anything from buying this, right? Well, actually, you will, so it’s still worth keeping on reading, but if you’re expecting a fully implemented DX10/DX11 environment, 64-bit code and and end to the out of memory crash then this is not the sim you are looking for.
The fact that this is basically the FSX we know and love (or loathe, if you’re a die-hard X-Plane fan) doesn’t mean that FSX Steam Edition is exactly the same. This fact is proven very quickly by the fact that a number of hugely popular – many would say essential – FSX add-ons that don’t currently work with it. On the other hand, and this is critical, most things will work with FSX:SE. What stops most of them working immediately is not the code changes, but rather the executable installers for those add-ons.
The reasons for this are that FSX:SE is not installed to the standard X:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Games\Flight Simulator X location that has been its default home for the last eight years. Instead, it can be found under X:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common\FSX. Likewise, the entries in the Windows Registry, known as ‘keys’, are also different, so installers may well not find them. Incidentally, if your install paths don’t include the (x86), don’t panic. That’s where 32-bit applications are normally installed on a 64-bit OS, while 64-bit applications are installed to Program Files.
To top the whole lot off, a lot of more complex add-ons require changes to be made to fsx.cfg, scenery.cfg, xml.dll and similar files. FSX Steam Edition – if you do not have another FSX installation – puts these in the same places as the Microsoft installer, so that’s not a problem. If you have an existing installation, however, more about which I’ll discuss shortly, then FSX:SE uses different AppData folders which, again, can cause installers to fail.
Finally, a number of add-ons, for security and/or version control, look at information within or about the files that make up FSX and, because changes have been made, the executables and DLLs for FSX:SE have been recompiled. Things aren’t where they were and file versions, sizes and dates have changed, so that can cause problems.
As with most things to do with the changes Dovetail Games have made, though, people are already getting around the installation issues. Copy and paste works in many cases, or redirecting the installer manually. Indeed within hours of the Steam Edition’s release, A2A Simulations were posting pictures of their aircraft working in the new package. Many other developers and users posted similar pictures, installation instructions and their thoughts in the hours that followed. Unfortunately some developers took the opportunity to complain that they had not been invited to take part in the beta, so “wouldn’t be able to support” the new platform. Others are investigating what is required to get their products working, or where they stand with licensing agreements given the change from MS to DTG, or have stated that they simply will be supporting it as soon as they can. It’s a pretty safe bet that most, although almost definitely not all, add-ons and installers will soon be fully compatible with SE.
A lot of the initial reports that add-ons did not work were down to two things – the lack of a compatible version of FSUIPC4 and the lack of a compatible versions of Simconnect, as FSX:SE comes with its own Simconnect version and FSUIPC4 was unable to be updated immediately. On the day after release, Pete overcame serious PC problems to release FSUIPC 4.938 (available here) and many people have discovered that installing the legacy Simconnect versions found in X:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common\FSX\SDK\Core Utilities Kit\SimConnect SDK\LegacyInterfaces resolved many connection issues.
Most of the sections of this article are going to end with a link to the Steam forums for more information, so here’s the first one – a list of “Addons that are working fine”
But it’s on Steam. I don’t like Steam. It’s a completely Closed Environment, isn’t it?
Yes it is, that’s your choice and no, it isn’t. In that order.
That last question is another one of the common misconceptions surrounding the Steam platform and, in this instance, it really isn’t helped by the fact that many people believe Dovetail Games best known product, Train Simulator, only supports Steam-distributed add-ons. In reality, whether you’re talking about Train Simulator or Flight Simulator X SE, provided a third party installer supports the correct file location, you can install content from anywhere. You can also edit, modify, copy and paste files freely within the Steam folder structure so provided you don’t break the application, you can do what you like. You can install the DX10 “fixes”, you can install freeware or payware at will. Just point it to the right place and subject to the limitations mentioned above, it will almost certainly work.
The link at the end of the section above proves the point nicely, but if you check the developers’ forums for the add-ons you want to install, you’ll probably find advice on how to get their add-on working.
Steam is simply an online distribution and digital rights management platform. While developers can, and some do, lock programs down to be unmodifiable by users, this isn’t one of them. If you do make significant changes to core files, you might want to stop Steam automatically updating your files in the case of an update, but the fact that you did so doesn’t automatically render your sim unusable. If you do happen to break it, Steam has a built in fault-finder, file checker and it will replace damaged files with their default versions with one simple button click and a bit of waiting, so that’s actually a significant advantage of the platform over the DVD version, where running a “repair” often causes more problems than it resolves!
Of course, nothing is perfect and there are limitations and problems with the Steam platform. I couldn’t log on to it earlier which, while not a disaster as you always have the “start offline” option which allows you to use any up-to-date installed software in your library, it would have meant that I couldn’t use multiplayer, or the Steam store or Workshop if the Workshop ever gets implemented for FSX:SE. There’s also the fact that you don’t have physical media but, on the other hand, can install on as many PCs as you like, within reason. The limitation is that you can only log into Steam, and thus use your Steam library titles, on one PC at a time.
So what’s actually new here? What’s the point?
This is the crux of the matter for many people. We already have a perfectly working sim and, if you shop around, you can probably pick up the DVD box for FSX Gold cheaper than the Steam Edition. So why would you want it? The first reason you would is if you run Windows 8.1, because many (not all, apparently) of the crashes and problems on that OS have been addressed by Dovetail’s development team prior to release. Also, the multiplayer functionality became defunct when the GameSpy servers were switched off has been transferred to Steam’s own systems so is now available. A lot of people reported that the FSX “Real Weather” downloads from Jeppesen had stopped being available over recent months, but these now seem to be working as well, not only on FSX:SE, but on existing FSX installations as well. I have looked, but been unable to find official confirmation that this ever intentionally stopped working, or has been officially reinstated, but can confirm that it works on both platforms at the time of writing.
One big thing which some people will find useful is that FSX/FSX SP2/FSX+Acceleration and FSX Steam Edition can happily sit side by side, not only on the same PC but on the same hard drive and user profile. If you have an existing installation and tell Steam to install SE, you will be presented with a dialogue box recommending that you back up your existing FSX settings. It will then proceed to install using paths entitled “FSX_SE”, rather than “FSX”, so the two systems sit side-by-side, but entirely independent.
Obviously, this is part of the cause for current installer incompatibilities, but it also means that you can continue to use your existing installation while updates and workarounds are created for non-functional add-ons or, and it’s a big or, you can maintain two independent installations. For developers, this is a major boon, as it means you can test your software in two entirely different environments – for instance I can test my scenery in Orbx FTX Global and FTX regions on my “legacy” installation, plus the default scenery on FSX:SE. Other users may prefer one configured for heavy jets and one for GA flying, for example, or one for modern flying and one for classic aircraft and airports. It’s actually a very useful capability that we had with FS9 and lost with FSX, so it’s nice to have it back.
If you want to know exactly what has been changed by Dovetail Games, the full changes list can be found here. A significant part of the list are graphical fixes, a number of which you will see the effect of very quickly – for instance anti-aliasing works properly now, as does the water detail slider. The screenshots taken here were taken with all configuration sliders fully right and getting around 40 to 50fps away from major conurbations, so there are definitely performance improvements, albeit small. I usually get around 40-45fps with everything set to maximum on a default installation with my good, but far from top-end PC.
They have also posted a thread specifically for existing FSX users, here, which discusses what they believe are the major questions and issues between the two versions.
The other question that has been asked a lot is “why bother re-releasing an 8-year old sim, almost unchanged? What are Dovetail playing at and what’s in it for them?”
All of this is subjective and just my opinion, rather than evidenced fact, but my suggestion is that DTG wanted some quick-as-possible income back from their investment in obtaining the license to develop the series from Microsoft, while they commence development of the future platform that they have already stated they intend to create. That, rather than FSX, is where their primary return on investment will come from.
Almost certainly, Dovetail Games will want to be add-on developers and distributors within their own brand, but from comments made by DTG themselves, they will be aiming their immediate add-ons “towards the typical Steam user”. That, I would read, means to expect default and maybe Carenado-level models, not DTG-branded PMDG, A2A or Majestic level packages. I would also suggest that, as they did with Train Simulator, DTG will put not-insignificant pressure on third-party developers to use Steam as their primary sales platform, rather than their own, or the existing, download or physical media stores. As that has not entirely happened with Train Simulator, I don’t think we’ll see the end of the status-quo at least in the near future for where we get our add-ons from, although Steam may well become an additional channel for many, as well.
To sum all that up, if you’re happy with your current installation, don’t use multiplayer, aren’t using Windows 8.1 and don’t want the Steam communities or any of the updates, then you really don’t need this. You won’t gain a lot from it and, at present, will lose some functionality. The out of memory bug still happens, the 32-bit limitations are still there, this is is emphatically not “FSNext”.
On the other hand, while it apparently doesn’t fix all the joystick disconnect problems, if you do use Windows 8.1, you’ll almost certainly want this. Likewise, you’ll want it if you miss the GameSpy system and the easy community that came with it, if you want the ability to run independent side-by-side installations or just want a digital backup for your ageing DVDs.
My copy was downloaded using a press Steam key provided by Dovetail Games but, had it not, I would have bought it at the initial 80% off sale price anyway. If it isn’t essential to you immediately, it’s probably worth waiting for another significant saving sale, as Steam tend to have them regularly.
I hope you found this article useful, but if you have any comments or questions which you don’t feel have been covered, then please leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get them addressed.
Thanks for your time in reading this article.