When did you start developing for flight simulators?
Oh dear, ancient history anyone? Around 1995 I purchased my first copy of Flight Simulator (Version 5.1) and almost immediately the things that interested me the most were the inner workings of the sim. I didn't really understand them at that stage, and tinkering too much lead to the need for various reinstalls, but it was the guts of the sim that always fascinated me. In those days Flight Simulator was a closed system with no SDK, so it was inaccessible to all but the most accomplished programmers.
However, one part of Flight Simulator that was a little more open was the Adventure or scripting language called APL (Adventure Programming Language). This allowed you to hook into events in the simulation and control some actions, as well as play sounds. So I took my first baby steps and created an "ATC adventure" for Flight Simulator 5, it was an ATC-guided flight from Melbourne to Sydney (YMML-YSSY) with spoken ATC messages (.wav files). It was very basic and I uploaded it to the Flight Sim section of Compuserve, in 1996.
By about 1999 when FS98 was out I felt comfortable enough to share my work with a larger audience and I see my first uploads to the FlightSim.Com file library date from around April 1999. Slowly over the years that progressed to opening a website dedicated to ATC adventures (fsadventures.net - now only found on the web archive) and then eventually to launching TweakFS in 2003 and FSWidgets in 2004.
Who would you consider to be your mentors or inspiration in the development world?
As someone basically self-taught and not having a computer degree or IT background, back then for me this was crucial. Unless you are especially gifted and can work it all out on your own, to begin with you need a little hand holding to guide you along the way.
As far as the initial inspiration to get started, that was Wilco van Deijl, a Dutch 737 pilot who released the famous GPWS Adventure for Flight Simulator. My first foray into coding as mentioned above was, with his permission, adding an ATC Adventure onto his amazing GPWS system.
However the one person who was pivotal to me becoming a proper FS developer was my FSWidgets development partner John Hnidec. Some may recognize him as one of the few remaining true "FS gurus" from the early days, from those "we don't need no SDK" times. I put him in the same category as someone like Pete Dowson, a staggeringly accomplished programmer for whom digging into the innards of Flight Simulator is child's play. When I'm hitting all sorts of walls, he's only just getting warmed up. I'm still in absolute awe of his abilities. Without his patience as he "showed me the ropes" in the early days, or his continued support and friendship down to this day, my developer career might have been very short indeed.
What do you consider your best or most popular work?
As for the best work, that is something only others can really judge and it is hard to be subjective when you are so close to it, but I would like to think that the most recent work is always better because it benefits from all the cumulative past experience and know-how. However, if popularity or sales statistics are the true gauge then the numbers do not lie, they're hard to argue with.
On the TweakFS side of the fence, the most popular product is TweakFPS for FSX, a utility that helps the FSX user to quickly change their scenery display settings. The whole idea grew out of a suggestion from FS aircraft developer Geoff Applegate (of B33 Beech Debonair fame), who wanted a tool which basically behaved like a pair of invisible hands that adjusted scenery sliders and settings with one click. So I came back to him a few weeks later with a prototype of what eventually became TweakFPS for FS2004 and was later re-written for FSX. In short, Geoff will never have to pay for TweakFS software again, or for that matter any drinks if I ever meet him in a bar.
At FSWidgets our most popular work by a long shot are our mobile products, both for iOS and Android. In a very short time they have outperformed any of our previous desktop apps by a factor of at least 4:1 which is surprising to me. I initially identified the iPad as the ideal vehicle for an FS moving map add-on but was unsure how many flight simulator pilots would adopt it. It is in effect a double niche market. I am glad to say there appear to be quite a lot of folk out there with iPads and Android tablets!
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of a project?
Coming up with a feasible idea in the first place is a real challenge. Of course anyone can come up with a whiz-bang concept for a product, but deciding on one that you have the developer chops for is another story. Especially in the early days of your development career it is important not to bite off more than you can chew or your project could get bogged down and never see the light of day, which can be very demoralizing. I have a couple of ideas that died a slow painful death and never flew because they were either too complex or just took too long. I have learned to minimize that by picking the project very carefully. Most of the time I create things that I want for myself but cannot find, that certainly makes the task much more exciting.
The other aspect that I find challenging is thinking in terms of solutions, not features. It is all too tempting to cram in a bewildering array of features into a product thinking that this is what separates it from all others, or that makes it really good. I have come to the conclusion that this can be a big mistake, not to mention you increase the chance for bugs in the program. I don't necessarily think that a product has to be simplistic or a one-trick pony.
The real challenge is to come up with a solution that produces the result you are after in the most unfettered and intuitive way, especially from the viewpoint of the user. We recently had the opportunity to focus on this with FSWidgets QuickPlan where the brief was to create an app that would churn out a flight plan file for FSX, FS2004 or X-Plane, in record time and with the greatest of ease for the user. I think we got pretty close to that aim.