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Tonight’s show: The Tightrope! – Our Mission Statement
But first, a word from our sponsor!
Well, actually, from us. But more about sponsors in a moment.
We’ve been throwing around the idea of posting some kind of “Mission Statement” here at XP10 World Headquarters (aka Chaos Manor) for a few days. Well. A few weeks maybe, but you know how THAT goes. The issue seems to keep popping up, however, and more often than not because we’re new at this and kind of making things up as we go along. When you’re running a sidewalk lemonade stand this isn’t really a huge problem, but when you start writing about the product of someone’s hard labor the issues become substantially more complicated. When you throw-in the nature of the whole X-Plane vs MsFS debate and shake it up until everything is all good and mixed up, you have the makings of a real mess on your hands.
And so we do.
It’s sometimes called being caught between a rock and a hard place. As I’m often fond of quoting my grandfather, and as he had an old saying for just about any occasion, I’ll quote him now as his wisdom still seems practical, and relevant. He had a little brass plaque on the wall in his office that stated: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” And that pretty much sums up where we find ourselves right now. Smack dab in the middle of a swamp. Let me explain.
There is a war being waged in X-Plane-Land. It is a war being waged by the Serious & Talented Designers vs the Let’s Have Fun Designing Airplanes group, or, if you like Ayn Rand, the Real Men vs Everyone Else, and the war is for the very soul of X-Plane. The Talented want us to write unflinching, hard-hitting reviews that point out all the faults in any given SIM we review, even in their own files, because failing to do so will, in their take on things, encourage mediocre developers to produce and market inferior products–and get away with it. Everyone Else wants us lay-off the heavy criticism because, in their worldview, beauty is in the eye of the designer and it’s bad for sales. It’s a classic moral dilemma: deontological vs teleological ethics. Duty vs rules.
Ethics is supposed to be about finding “the Good”, but the argument tends to become further distilled to “the Greatest Good”, and yet it is here that a crucial divide in ethical theory occurs. For you see, the Greatest Good becomes mired in one key point of contention: is the Greatest Good an absolute, or can it be measured by the some yardstick, like “the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”? Unfortunately, I got dragged kicking and screaming into teaching ethics at the college level during my last few years before retiring, so I tend to look at things of this nature through an academic prism, but hold on, I’ll try to get to the point.
We, Simon and I, met (so to speak) over at the Flight Simulator Network and discovered we had a few things in common. One was a complete love for X-Plane, the other was a shared addiction for newer and better aircraft and scenery files to use in X-Plane. We also saw that there was really no place offering systematic and regular reviews of new aircraft and scenery files, and of even more importance to us, there existed a tremendous gulf between end-users and developers. Developers tended to talk in one language (the language of creation), while end-users talked in “needs and wants”, but there did not exist a forum that spanned this gulf.
Oh, sure, there are forums where ideas are exchanged. X-Pilot admirably serves as one portal for the exchange of ideas among developers, while the ORG serves as a sounding board for consumers and a huge and incoherent array of freeware and pay-ware developers, but there is a gulf between these two factions now, and a sort of Cold War has developed between them. Simon and I saw this development and worried about the implications, then decided the best thing for us to do was step into the fray and offer a way out of the swamp. One thing is already certain: if you want to read the low-down nitty-gritty about a file, check out these forums. There’s a fair measure of mean-spirited one-upsmanship in these postings, and it is just that mean-spiritedness we will not engage in here at XP10 Reviews. We will not lend our voice to this war but will, instead, point out the good we find. If we find a major shortcoming that we can varify you can be sure we WILL report it, but we will NOT pass on rumor and innuendo.
We have, from the beginning, wanted to offer reviews and videos of aircraft and scenery from the perspective of end-users–not developers–and yet at the same time bridge that gulf between developers and end-users by presenting our Developer Interviews. In that way, we hoped, we could serve multiple needs. We could: 1) provide reviews to a market in desperate need of third-party information, a group that would no longer have to rely on developer marketing when trying to decide which file to buy, and; 2) let the developers use their Interviews to educate the consumer–their market–about the products they make.
What is missing so far from this ever-evolving mish-mash of stewing ideas is the “hard-hitting, critical reviewing” standards that the Serious & Talented Designers want to see, and this is a more problematic area for a number of reasons. First, these developers want to see a technical dissection of a file’s strengths and weakness. The second issue is a moral concern.
Simon and I are ill-equipped to make a technical dissection of an aircraft file; we’ve neither one designed an aircraft file before and what right do we have criticizing work we have little understanding of? One of the main reasons for starting this blog WAS to develop an understanding of this stuff, FROM the developers, because in the end Simon and I are consumers, NOT developers. As we learn more we can can bring that knowledge to our reviews, and to date we have and will continue to do so.
The moral dilemma, however, concerns far more delicate issues. Here we begin talking about pain and suffering versus the dictates of a free-market.
Suppose Joe X decides to go from making free-ware to pay-ware designs because he believes he’s ready to make the jump. He quits his job and starts working 24/7 on his new love, and perhaps he works for a year–or more–on his project before it’s finally ready for release. It hits the market, does okay for a few weeks until a rumor starts about bad frame-rates or a weird flight-model, and then sales tank. Joe gets despondent, thinks he’s wasted a year of his life, and returns to his former job.
Or worse still, Joe’s new file is released and does well until a well-intentioned reviewer comes along and mentions a flaw that–no matter how well deserved the criticism is intentioned–causes sales to tank.
Which is a more valid reason for Joe’s fall from grace? Market forces or a critical review?
Putting that much power over the critical process into the hands of a reviewer is to my way of looking at the world at very dangerous thing. If the market votes and Joe gets blown out of the water there is some decent measure of objective validity in the result. If, however, Joe get’s clobbered by one man’s voice, is that fair?
Well, yes and no.
The nature of offering your product for sale in the public market means you ARE explicitly offering your work up to all forms of public scrutiny, and that includes to reviewers like Simon and Kevin and myself. Nature of the beast, it can’t be helped, because even with the best intentions all reviews are the product of bias and experience, both of which are subjective and can not be eliminated. It may not be fair but it’s the way the marketplace of ideas works.
But what if that reviewer’s voice isn’t impartial?
What if he masks himself as independent and impartial, yet isn’t? Then is the review produced a relevant measure of a product’s merits and weaknesses? The question isn’t irrelevant.
Simon and I aren’t millionaires, and we can’t afford to run out and buy every new 30-50 dollar file that comes to market in order to review it and pass the news on to you, and we tend to purchase files that are of interest to us, but perhaps not to you. We don’t have corporate sponsors or rich uncles slipping us an extra thousand a month to feed our airplane addiction, either. Sooner or later, we knew, the issue was going to come up: what do we do when a developer contacts us and wants us to review a product, with the developer offering to provide a review copy.
Well, it’s happened. We’ve been contacted by several developers over the past few weeks to do just that. So, what do we do? Well, the choice is simple. Practically speaking, we have to accept. There are only so many files we can afford, and with familial obligations and a sour economy this isn’t going to change. Refusing this option limits us to reviewing only a few pay-ware products and more and more free-ware offerings, while by accepting review copies we can keep you abreast of the latest new products.
But the ethical dilemma isn’t solved. If a developer “comps” an aircraft for review we’re potentially no longer quite as independent as we were, but isn’t that too in the very nature of the beast. No newspaper reviewer is ever truly independent; his employer relies on advertiser revenue to keep the presses running, and we all know what that means. Pressure can be put on the reviewer to change a bad review, and the reviewer has a family to feed. Yet all kinds of products are provided to reviewers so developers and manufacturers can get word out to their market in as broad and effective a manner as possible. This is simple, and it reflects our reality: if we refuse to take review copies we may continue to review pay-ware products, but these reviews will not be as frequent as we’d like, and only as our respective conditions allow, and we’ll cover free-ware products. Or we accept review copies.
The best we can do is make a promise that when reviewing a file given to us we mention the copy has been provided to us by that developer. This doesn’t mean that we’re not going to criticize that product, but you as a consumer have a right to know these circumstances exist if it applies to any given review. One other facet exists here, however, that needs to be mentioned.
Many files will never see the light of day on this site, and one reason may well be that the file is so bad it isn’t worthy of consideration. How do we communicate that to you? We will not simply come out and say Joe’s new file is a stink bomb, so don’t buy it. And just because we haven’t reviewed a file doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. It does mean neither Simon nor I think enough about it to buy it in order to review it. Does that mean something? I doubt it means much more than a reflection of the general market for that product, but that in and of itself might tell you something. We’re trying to review the BEST products we can right now, products we feel are worthy of your consideration. When a developer asks us to review a product, we’ll be reviewing a product the developers thinks is worthy of your consideration. We hope this distinction is clear, and we hope the effort of doing so is understood to be as unbiased as can be.
Where developers supply us items for free or discounted, as stated, we will declare this emphatically. We appreciate those devs and distributors who recognise the growing popularity of our blog and its influence, and will be pleased to assist where we can – but we will NOT be falsely making glowing statements if we feel they unjustified.
We are starting to see a fair bit of new traffic from MSFS users, especially from Simon’s videos. We know that MSFS fans have high expectations. As with all products, word of mouth regarding quality is spread quickly. We sincerely intend to make sure that any of our payware reviews do not paint a false picture of what is on offer. Take our recent ERJ-140 review for example. It makes clear that it is a work in progress, that the systems are not completed yet. The screenshots detail the cockpit enough for people to make their own informed decisions.
To that purpose, we’re implementing a new Rating System at the end of each of our latest reviews, but even so this rating system is new and evolving. It might be changing over the next few weeks as we hear from you about what works–and what doesn’t–with this system, so help us help the community be giving us some feedback via the channels referred to previously.
So, welcome to the tightrope. We’re walking a fine line now, the line between between writing independent, unbiased reviews on the one hand and churning out advertising copy with the other. We can’t do both, and won’t.
We’ve come down solidly in favor of providing our own unique brand of off-beat, cliche-ridden reviews in favor of a “consumer advocate” style of reporting, and that’s where you’ll continue to find us. Hopefully helping you make more informed choices about how you spend your hard-earned money on your hobby, bridging the gulf between developers and all us X-Pilots flying in X-Land, but please know we understand our reviews will only truly be helpful to the community if they remain as unbiased as we can humanly make them.
At the same time, we’re going to try to address the Serious & Talented Designers needs when and if conditions warrant. They’ve presented a good case for their argument, and we’ve listened. Nothing less than the future of X-Plane as a serious contender in the Flight Sim marketplace is at stake. We’ll continue do all we can do to help you present your case to our audience, as well.
So, we here at Chaos Manor will now return you to our regularly scheduled broadcast. As always, thanks for watching. And…we’ll be back!
Simon and ChipSim… The XP10 Team.