Has it been 10 years? Yes it has.
Flight Simulation with Microsoft Flight Simulator products has been very good to me. Like a special friend that is there during good times and bad, always patient, and always wise. This friend encourages me to enjoy myself while challenging me to always be better, smarter, and more thoughtful.
I probably could not ask for a better hobby.
I have particularly strong nostalgia for the period of time in the flight simulation community when Flight Simulator 98 was wrapping up, and Flight Simulator 2000 was becoming the dominant flight simulator software. It wasn't the software that has me feeling so fond about this period. It was the people, possibilities, creativity, and passion within the community at the time that always puts a smile on my face when I think back about it.
Interestingly, most of these traits can exist separately from the flight simulator software itself. They are more of an attitude than anything linked to a particular time, product, or technological advancement.
Beautiful Flight Simulation on the PC was a new Frontier and we were LOVING it!
I think during the 2000-2002 time frame there was a realization within the community that we had reached some benchmark level of asthetic/sonic/realism quality within the 3d PC-based flight simulator realm that really got our imaginations running. Ideas for how to use this flight simulator software exploded! Virtual organizations, add-on development, screenshots and videos, adventures, and so many other creations were burning red hot due to the passion of a large number of dedicated hobbyists in the niche.
Particularly notable during this 2000-2002 period was the feeling that any and all things were possible, and that for nearly any type of flying adventure a person dreamed of, there was probably a small community of flight simulator users dedicated to just that activity. If not, someone was apt to use their own passion for a particular activity to create a group or community of like-minded individuals.
Hovercontrol started in just this way!
It is important to note that the rise of commercial products for flight simulator had not really come about yet, and it was not yet the norm to have a product to fill nearly every desire within the virtual flight simulator world.
Sub-communities of developers existed because if they wanted to do something unique (for example Bush Flying), they might very well need to specialize in developing their own Bush Flying sceneries, aircraft, and repaints. This frontier spirit was strong in the hobby at the time, and I believe it was this spirit that gave rise to the largest influx of freeware developers that the hobby has every known. "Doing it yourself" and learning how to do it yourself were important aspects of the flight simulator hobby at the time. After all, there wasn't much of a choice.
Summarized version of what happened next
The next era in the history of the flight simulation community is not so pretty. In fact it probably falls under the "be careful what you wish for" category. During the 2000-2002 period we often were looking to create larger audiences for our ideas and add-ons. Well in circa 2003-2004 that is exactly what happened.
With the advent of Flight Simulator 2002, and a HUGE number of free software developers, virtual organizations, and add-ons galore being offered by flight simulation portals, the audience for flight simulator exploded! When I say -exploded-, I mean somewhere in the realm of orders of magnitude. (A website with 10,000 members started climbing to 100,000 members). For example, it was during this period that Hovercontrol when from having a fairly stable 2000 registered members to having over 10,000 registered members. To the tune of several hundred new members per week at one point.
There was no puting the genie back in the bottle. Flight Simulation had caughten the imagination of PC gamers, and for some reason it was extremely popular during the 2003-2004 period. As the audience grew, so did the publishers of flight simulation expansion products. Soon, nearly every flight simulation website was adorned in flashing blinking ads for a variety of flight simulation add-on products.
Major relationships were formed between publishers and flight simulation portal websites. What had once been a hobby-driven community, was beginning to be channeled up and bought and sold. Nothing wrong with that really, but it successfully sucked a certain hard-to-define and magical quality out of the community.
Sub-communities of developers became less common as pre-packaged products at reasonable prices helped fill the niches they had for flying. Soon, many of those free hobby-oriented developers would show up as for-hire developers for one or more of the flight simulator product developer/publishers. Nothing wrong with that either, but some of these developers happen to be the same creative, passionate, and talented personalities behind the sub-communiites that made the over-all flight simulation so rich and diverse.
Attitude of fascination and hope - began to be replaced with entitlement and expectation
As the flight simulation community evolved from hobby oriented culture to product/customer culture, attitudes of expection, entitlement, and perfection came along with it. After all, publishers were (and are to this day) clammering to provide the most detailed and sophisticated Flight Simulator products at the lowest prices. Nothing wrong with that, but money and sophistication became the primary motivators. Creativity, passion, fellowship, and child-like wonder appeared to have diminished somewhere along the way.
Could the current climiate in flight simulation be leading back to a very positive era for the community and its members?
Flight Simulator X and the demise of the Microsoft Flight Simulator development team has been a real blow to the momentum of the flight simulation community in its current form. We certainly do not enjoy the popularity that had been amassed by the end of the Flight Simulator 2004 (FS9) period. Perhaps Microsoft had the data to show that the popularity was waning, and they made the correct business decision to leave the product segment and use their resources elsewhere.
We are left with a community that is smaller, more focused, and more passionate about flight simulation. It could be argued that Flight Simulation as a hobby is only retaining those that were truly passionate about it, and is only attracting new members that have specifically sought it out. It is also fair to say that Flight Simulator is not seen as a cool or up-and-coming trend on PCs or otherwise.
Perhaps we are finding ourself at the same situation we were in during the 2000-2002 era. We have a smaller community of truly dedicated hobbyists who love what this hobby is about. Perhaps as commercial publishers continue to fall by the wayside (lack of new products), the sense of entitlement within the community will continue to decrease and the frontier attitude of (if you want it, you need to build it or team up with others to do so) will start to seep back in.
Add-ons will be developed based on interest and passion, and although money might be involved, perhaps it will not be the only motivating factor. It is difficult to say. But if the audience and market decreases, it is logical to assume that money could lose its grip on this hobby and other motivating factors could rise. Right or wrong, if the market for flight simulator products gets weaker, they will continue decrease in availability.
Conditions that are similar between 2000-2002 and 2009-2010 era:
1. Uncertainty about the Flight Simulator product
2. Flight Simulator viewed as a hobby by users (not just a computer game)
3. Community segragating into niche activities and interests
4. Stable platform with tons of development/creative possibilities and tools remaining.
5. Fairly low-cost hobby, with opportunities to meet and participate with other human beings.
6. New and existing members of the community that are involved because they are passitionate about flight simulation, and not because they were given flight simulator as a "he/she might like this" gift from grandma at Christmas.
It is possible that while the audience is shrinking, and the steam is leveling off, that the conditions exist for a very enjoyable period of hobby-oriented flight simulation in the next 3-4 years.
A period marked by creativity, passion, and wonder instead of money, channel marketing, and gimicks. Perhaps we will find ourselves surrounded by new friends that strangely remind us of the friends we had made in 2000-2002.
Friends that loved flight simulation as much as we did, and still do.