I’m on the plane flying back to Seattle from NY and thought I would take this time to write down some details about my trip. To be honest I didn’t really want to go to Spain. Considering my love of aviation and airplanes I had really wanted to go to Oshkosh, but that was not to be this year. As it turned out I had a great experience in Spain.
Here are a few photos from the trip.
I left Seattle early on the 22nd, Saturday morning said goodbye to the two loves in my life, my wife Sam and my daughter. I flew for 5 hours on a Boeing 757 to JFK airport in New York. I’ve never been to NY, but I can tell you the airport has seen better days. It’s overcrowded, dirty, smells a bit, and in general need of maintenance. Hopefully I’m not offending any New Yorkers, but that was my impression. On the good side, there was maintenance going on outside the terminal as the tarmac was all torn up in various places around the Delta gates (which of course made it even harder to get into and out of the gate).
My flight out of NY was about an hour and half late due to some unknown problem, then we had to wait for the pushback tug (all the torn up tarmac required a long push doing something like a 5 point turn just to get out from the gate), then we taxied for about an hour with about 20 planes in the queue to takeoff. For all of you Flight Sim fans out there that want everything as realistic as possible, how about creeping along in stop and go traffic for an hour just to get to the active runway?
Once in the air the flight was fairly pleasant. Unfortunately the power socket on the seat was a proprietary design, so I had to rely on battery power which promptly ran out after I worked on Flight Sim X for a grand total of one hour. It’s hard to get much done in one hour…
Arriving over Spain I paid attention to the patchwork farms prior to getting to Madrid. It seems about 70% of the landscape is shades of brown, 20% green fields, and the rest clumps of trees or patches of red. I would have taken pictures, but the camera was in my checked luggage. I also noticed several areas with lots of large wind power farms. On my drive to Valencia I saw several of them from a much closer perspective. I also saw a very large crucifix on a hill as part of a monument with some integrated structures. It must be really large as I could easily see it from over 20,000 ft. My host for the trip (Oscar) explained to me that it was built following the Spanish Civil War using the people who lost the war as forced labor. Apparently many lives were lost building the monument and it has a dark aspect to it. I don’t think we’ll be seeing it in Flight Sim anytime soon. The closer I got to Madrid the more brown the terrain became with more like 90% brown and 10% clumps of trees. Actually Flight Sim does a pretty good job of it.
I arrived in Madrid around noon and took a taxi to the hotel Puerta America. I guess it’s kind of a famous hotel and was designed by multiple architects. Each floor was in fact designed by a different architect and they are all thoroughly modern. Floor one is ALL white with organic shapes throughout. Floor four is all metallic with sculpted angular lines throughout. Not just in the halls, but in the rooms as well. I chose a more normal design which was still quite modern, but was mostly black and red with a hint of Asian art thrown in. Large mythical creature statues greeted me after exiting the elevator and it’s a good thing the bellman showed me how to work the room, because it was very different. Unlike normal hotels, you hold your keycard to a sensor and then just push the door. Try to use the handle and you’ll never get in. Also the lights won’t work unless you stick your keycard into a slot in the room.
Oscar picked me up in his VW Passat and we went on a drive through downtown on our way to lunch. Madrid is a very nice city with wonderful old architecture, roundabout intersections, and many trees for shade. We went to a very nice Argentinean restaurant for lunch and chatted about the plan for the next few days.
After that we headed off to Oscar’s very nice home so he could finish building his new PC for the events, install FSX and make sure everything was working okay. Did I mention is was blistering hot outside? Over 100 degrees in the shade…and it was even hotter in Oscar’s office on his top floor. Thankfully he has AC, but it was really hot for a long time as the AC couldn’t really deal with it. While Oscar put together his PC, I messed around with FSX with what for me was the latest retail build of the product. I never trust freshly configured machines, so for me my laptop was a good back-up. It was behaving pretty well as long as I left autogen off (more about that later) and looked pretty good. Then wham, lock-up. Reset, then another lock-up. After three of those I decided I was better off resting, especially considering I had been up for almost 20 hours by then with just a short nap of a couple hours on the plane. Besides the laptop was getting really hot on my lap and I was sweating even more than before. Turns out my laptop was overheating and causing the lock-up behavior, so it’s just as well I stopped.
Oscar finished up the hardware part of his task pretty quickly and it all went very well. That’s when it all began to unravel. First of all he still needed to install Windows XP. That went well enough, but it takes quite a while to do. Thankfully Oscar is really good at multi-tasking, so he was doing other stuff at the same time. Once XP was on, guess what, he had to install a bunch of security updates and other stuff. A couple hours later, we are ready to install FSX from a portable USB HD I brought with me. When all is well it copies over pretty fast. But hold on there, it’s copying awfully slowly… USB 2.0 isn’t working right. So off Oscar goes searching for drivers, installing patches, and searching around. It all should work, but so far nothing is. After far too long it turns out there is a switch in the bios to engage USB 2.0. How stupid is it for the motherboard to default to USB 2.0 being inactive? Once that was corrected, it copied very quickly, FSX setup worked flawlessly (thankfully) and after a while we are ready for our first tests.
FSX is showing good framerates, even with some autogen on, but the textures are all messed up with black water and dark red terrain on land. Obviously it’s not right, so we try various settings and adjustments to no avail. How can it have been fine on my laptop and so bad on this desktop machine? Time to troubleshoot the machine again…
By now I’m absolutely beat. I’ve been up for something like 26 hours and I can’t function any more. Oscar takes me to the hotel and I crash after exchanging some e-mail with the team who are putting up with my freaked out questions about black water and red terrain. Adam suggested we might have some heat problems on the machines processor, and it seems he was right. Oscar tried it later when he returned home and the machine had cooled enough to behave normally. We were back in business and the laptop became a back-up solution once again.
Up and at ‘em in the morning, it was time to meet the press. Oscar picked me up again and we were off to the Microsoft Spain offices. They are located in some modern but simple large glass cubes of buildings. I guess there are about 600 employees in Microsoft Spain, so they occupy at least one entire building (if not several). Oscar is the marketing guy for all entertainment products (PC, X-Box, X-Box Live, etc) and is very busy with our wide range of titles. He’s a very smart and competent guy. When we arrived in the offices we went right to work getting the conference room setup for the demo. They had an audio support team, two large HD plasma screens, and a room big enough for 30-40 people. We were setup quickly and the press started coming in.
Right off the bat I was up for a TV interview with Channel Etress (I never saw the name written down and had trouble pronouncing it correctly). The interviewer spoke good English so no translator was necessary, and he was prepared having read my blog prior to my arrival. Here’s the catch. I had to say good morning to the audience in Spanish and say the name of the channel at the end of the interview. The problem is, I am terrible at remembering names, especially when pressed to do so… Buenes Dias was no problem and we chatted about my background, what makes FSX the greatest version of FS ever, and even some bits about the P-12 (seems that came up a lot).
Following that interview I had another TV interview, then another with CNN Spain, and another before we started the demo. By now there were about 40 people in attendance and we started with the basics.
I went into how the team and product are being transformed with a new global focus. How we are developing portions of the world and focusing less on the US at the expense of other regions. Then I talked about missions and why we are doing them and how they enhance the experience. We talked about the living world and shared skies and then I started up FSX and launched the ultralight from Madrid’s Barajas Aeroporto.
Before I took off I used the top-down camera and zoomed out for a space shot view of the planet just to prove that we really do model the entire planet!
I took off from Madrid and flew around the airport a little showing the moving airport ground vehicles and the custom airport buildings, then switched into the CRJ for a quick trip over to the downtown area to look at all of the custom buildings we have built and placed there and took a tour of the CRJ cockpit (VC and 2D) as well. After that I switched into the Airbus 321 and we took a look at it while flying around Madrid.
I wanted to make it perfectly clear that the core of flight sim where you can fly any aircraft anywhere at any time is still a critical part of the product. Starting with the Free Flight experience helped make that clear.
While flying around Madrid some of our performance bugs were obvious (since fixed while I’ve been gone by the way) and I could see the attendee’s reactions to the perf problems so I took the time right there to address them and I think I did so to their satisfaction. There’s no point in pretending we don’t have bugs we obviously do, and I think they appreciated my honesty and direct approach to discussing it.
Following this we watched the E3 video with the exploding oil rig then I flew two missions for them. I flew the Jet Truck Drag Race which I failed at miserably (too much talking and not enough flying). Then I flew the Red Bull Time Trial which I completed handily, but not in very pretty form (or particularly fast). I talked about missions in more detail, about the mission system and the promise of add-on content from the community, and they seemed to see the value in it all.
Lastly, I dived in a little deeper with muti-player and how we are supporting friends networks with Gamespy and getting on-line easily. How you can share your aircraft/cockpit views with a friend, instructor, and/or co-pilot for a deeper and more enriching experience. I also talked about how VATSIM and IVAO will still work with some effort from those organizations and that we are working with them to make that happen. There were clearly some people in the audience familiar with VATSIM, and they seemed put-at-ease with our support for massively multi-player experiences.
With all of that we opened the floor for Q&A. Here are the questions Flight Sim fans might be interested in (although because of time limitations and press event forum my answers were generalized):
Q – What are you doing to improve ATC?
A – We have made some small improvements, but overall we chose to invest in the vastly improved multi-player system rather than a lot of smaller improvements in ATC. We feel that users who go on-line will have a more immersive experience with real people behind the control tower than with an automated system.
Q – What are you doing to improve weather?
A – Most of the weather in FSX is the same as in FS2004, however we do now have multiple visibility layers and smoother transitions between them, thermals, and with the DX10 update the environmental visuals will be amazing (I didn’t have the images to show).
Q – What are you doing to improve flight models?
A – We have added systems for the new aircraft including the fly-by-wire system for the Airbus and have made individual improvements here and there based on beta feedback. However not all wish list items from users have been addressed and with the number of aircraft we are producing, there is no way we can address all of them.
There were more questions of course, but these were the hard ones. Following the demo I fielded some questions from individuals as they gathered to leave, and received a lot of praise and support for the product.
Then I did a few more interviews (TV and otherwise).
Throughout all of this Oscar was translating for me and I was talking too fast and with stretches that were too long, but he was a trooper and did a great job conveying the information.
All in all it was a great press event!
Following this event Oscar, Maria and I went back to Oscar’s house to pick up some stuff for the trip to Valencia. Maria is a PR person from the firm that Microsoft Spain uses to help line up press coverage.
The drive to Valencia takes about 3 hours and I got to see the terrain change from predominantly brown tones and few trees, to crops, then a hilly area (not quite mountainous) with lots of pine trees then back to crops and then the city of Valencia. Along the way we drove past these very large bull silhouettes (they were at least 50 feet tall). Oscar told me the story of these bulls and how they were billboard ads for a company in Spain. When billboards outside of cities were banned the Spanish government decided that these bulls had become a landmark of sorts that became part of the culture, and the landscape, so they stayed, just without any writing on them. Thus they are now just black silhouettes. They really looked pretty cool and I think it would be fun to add them to FS sometime (or maybe someone else will do it for us).
The trip went well and we got into Valencia around 8 or 9 pm, dropped off our bags at the hotel, then went to the convention center for Campus Party to make sure everything was good to go in the morning.
The convention center is huge and when we arrived there were lots of “kids” unloading their parent’s car and carrying in their personal gaming machines, chairs, pillows, sleeping bag, tent, food, etc. I thought seeing someone carrying a pillow and sleeping bag in was a little strange, but I hadn’t seen anything yet…
Once inside Oscar went back stage and I just hung out with him as he tried to troubleshoot why his HALO3 video didn’t have Spanish subtitles, and was getting more frustrated by the minute. At midnight, the official start of Campus party was initiated and I turned to Oscar and said “Aren’t any of them going to go home?” and he answered, “They’ll be here all week.” It was then that it dawned on me they were sleeping on-site and staying 24 hours a day for the entire week! We’re talking about 5,400 hardcore video and computer game fans completely saturated and immersed in on-line gaming and the social thing which Campus Party enables. It was insane and I hadn’t seen anything like it!
We got to bed at around 2:00 am for a little sleep then got up early for breakfast and headed out to the party. We set-up on a stage with a podium inside of the simulations “box” which was simply an open area with plastic “walls” separated from the mass of tables and gamers in a huge hall. We both had microphones, but unfortunately we had no sound for Flight Sim. So here we are sitting there ready to go with no sound and we sat there waiting for the speakers to arrive for about 40 minutes. When the finally did arrive we already had a crowd of people waiting for the demo. Then we were told we needed to wait for some press people and some military pilots that were expected, so we sat around for another 15-20 minutes. By now a lot of the crowd is very bored so I decided to fly around Madrid and Valencia changing aircraft periodically and went through every aircraft in the fleet by the time we were actually ready to start. While I was flying around Oscar was interviewed by the TV press with FSX running in the background.
The actual demo presentation went very well and it ran basically just like the demo for the press the day before except that instead of doing a group Q&A session I invited people to come over afterward and I would answer their questions, which several of them did. For the most part they were the same questions as the day before. ATC, Weather, flight models, etc. After that we chatted about military flight simulation and the various products out there as that is primarily what the simulation fans were using at Campus party (flying multiplayer sorties in Falcon, Il-2, etc).
We went to lunch and had the same food that the attendees were eating, and I can’t say I envy that part of their experience. Granted they are trying to feed over 5,000 people, but it was terrible.
Oscar needed to get set-up for his X-box 360 demos so I helped him carry a few things then I set out on my own to just walk around and take it all in. I wandered down to the camping area and it was a bit strange. There were two large halls nearly the size of a football field each which was completely packed with wall-to-wall tents. It was quiet and dark, and had a slightly foul odor. I’m sure by the end of the week it will be wicked stinky in there!
After Oscar’s awesome 2 hour 360 demo we did one last demo-ish thing for a live TV show intro then called it good and headed back the hotel and a dinner of traditional Spanish Rice to wind down and relax a little.
The next day (Wednesday) we headed back to Madrid and I had the rest of the day to myself, which other than a couple of hours shopping for some gifts, I spent working on FSX in my hotel room (I’m behind on my normal work now by several days).
The trip home was relatively uneventful but was really long. It took me about 22 hours door to door to get home. It didn’t help that the flight leaving JFK in NY was delayed for 90 minutes sitting at the gate in the aircraft. Of course this is what happened when I left NY for Madrid, so maybe this is just normal for JFK! Also as we were being tugged away from the gate, it was very windy and the pilot was starting up engine 1. The engine was running at idle when I saw a baseball cap fly by right under the engine. If the engine had been running much over idle I think it would have gone into the engine, and I would have been spending the night in NY!
Overall the trip went very well. I met a lot of very friendly people and my host Oscar was wonderful. Hopefully we will sell a lot more copies of FSX in Spain due to our efforts. Based on the media coverage and reaction, I’m guessing we will.
Here are some links to media coverage on the trip (all in Spanish). I will post some photos later today.