Interview with ORBX's John Venema

ORBX is, without a doubt, one of the most -- if not THE MOST -- famous and trusted scenery developer in the sim market. With products for FSX, P3D, X-Plane and Aerofly FS2, they are everywhere. We managed to steal its CEO, John Venema, some time from his busy schedule and answer some of our questions.

OBRX - John Venema

Hello John and thank you for taking some of your busy schedule to answer to our questions.

No problem, happy to have a chat as always.

2018 looks like the year of ORBX. The roadmap you have published in December looked impressive and you folks are full steam ahead. You’re everywhere: FSX/P3D, X-Plane, Aerofly. Would you say this is the year of ORBX?

It certainly seems like it! We have always had internal roadmaps for new platforms but not being a huge company, we have to wait until the right time before executing those plans. In this case we saw some fruits from internal R&D that told us it was the right time to expand.

To facilitate this, we have been hiring more staff and contractors with specific skills on different platforms, as well as creating our own internal SDK for some of the new sims. It takes a lot of careful planning and work to get to the point where we can port existing content and create new content.

So yes, in 2018 it appears that a lot of this work is paying off for us.

You must be really proud of the path the company has been following for all the years you’ve been active. How does it feel to be doing so much for the hobby and to still have so much ahead?

I’m immensely proud of the whole team. I have always had a grand vision of where I wanted Orbx to be, even a decade ago – and it’s only now that we are beginning to see that vision being realized.

We have some of the finest developers in the world on the team and they continually try new things and strive to go bigger and better with every release. I think flight simulation is undergoing a new resurgence as new generations of gamers discover the hobby. I can only see more growth ahead so it’s really a Golden Age of simming.

You mentioned you are hiring new people. I know there’s one that has recently returned, and we’ll get to that. What about entirely new folks?

Yes, there are a few new developers on board now like Tony Wroblewski who is a highly respected X-Plane developer, and a whole bunch of contractors who are working on ports to XP11. We are also bringing in new talent for Aerofly FS2 as well.

And now you have Bill Womack back as well! Is Bill back because of his experience with X-Plane? Was this something you wanted to happen for some time? Tell us a bit about him coming back to the team.

Bill is back because he and I kept in touch continually over the years and we both felt it was the right time to get him on board and leverage his expansion into X-Plane and other platforms.

His creative vision is very closely aligned to Orbx and he has some exciting projects underway that he felt would be better published with OrbxDirect. Our customers already know of his work through his earlier airports we published for him so it’s just a natural fit for both of us.

ORBX TrueEarth Netherlands

John, this is the type of question perhaps some folks would avoid asking and it’s not my intention to get into any sort of polemical discussion. I am – and I know a lot of our readers are as well – genuinely curious about this. And I think it must be asked. Not on a forum “troll-like” but in this form of trying to inform people and better grasp what makes you and ORBX move (and how).

In the past, you have mentioned you’d never develop for X-Plane. Then you mentioned you would. Then you wouldn’t again but ORBX is not only developing for X-Plane but it’s vastly growing its portfolio and bringing amazing products to life.

What happened? What made you change your mind so often? Was it the effort necessary to make it work? Weren’t you happy with the way things are done?

That’s not too hard to answer really. Orbx is first and foremost a business, and it just makes good business sense to develop for X-Plane 11 now because it’s a far more mature and robust proposition versus the previous V9 and V10 platforms and it’s gaining in popularity in the sim community.

It also looks superb visually; their lighting system is world class. We would be foolish to ignore it just because of personal differences or past idle remarks made between two CEOs. Sometimes it’s better to bury the hatchet and just get on with doing what we love doing.

ORBX TrueEarth Netherlands

Are you happy with how things are going on with X-Plane and its community? Is it something you see growing in the future and that ORBX will want to invest more? Or are there still some rough edges that you’d like to see smoothed?

The X-Plane community have wanted Orbx to come across for a long, long time and we can see that they are embracing our XP products very enthusiastically, so that’s a very encouraging sign.

To be honest there is not lot more that XP11 needs to fit into our product plans. The most obvious ones are seasons support, boned kinetic animations support and some tweaking to the lighting system to avoid tree self-shadowing, and we’ve raised those points with Ben Supnik already.

One of the other sims you have entered the market was IPACS’ Aerofly 2 which is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful sims out there. How did this work with AF2 started? Did you just take a look at the sim and though “this is worth taking a look at”?

Yes, basically. I bought a copy on Steam and was blown away by the VR experience. We believe VR is the next sim frontier and Aerofly does it better than anything out there. It was a case of just calling the IPACS guys and getting on a plane to visit their offices, and we found our goals were very much aligned so a partnership was easy to start really.

And are you happy with how it’s going? Is it something you also see growing in the future? Is AF2 a sim you can see it expanding?

We have big plans for AFS2 and beyond. Whilst from a revenue point of view it’s not really making a large contribution right now, there is no reward without taking risks, so our investments in AFS2 will pay off for us down the track, I have no doubt about that whatsoever.

There is stuff coming down the line which of course I cannot talk about openly but I can promise you people will begin to gravitate towards this platform when they see some of the new stuff coming. Watch this space!

ORBX TrueEarth Netherlands ORBX TrueEarth Netherlands

Coming back to a more general overview of the company, what’s the biggest challenge for ORBX right now? What do you folks still have to tackle next?

The biggest challenge is handling the growth of the company in a controlled and affordable manner. We intend to hire dozens of new people over the coming few years but all that expansion needs to be funded and planned.

We have been operating purely as a cloud-based company for over a decade but we are looking into establishing a development center at some point. Some of our projects require thousands of man hours to produce so more staff is our number one challenge right now.

How do you see the future of our hobby, scenery wise and what are your wishes for the next iterations of scenery technology that developers might incorporate on their products?

I shared a vision of the future of simming as part of a series on the history of Orbx here.

Let me borrow some key themes from that blog in this answer. There are kids less than 14 years old today who will be CEOs of companies that introduce remarkable new simulator engines and technology this coming decade and will uproot and disrupt the status quo of the our industry. The simple rule is: 'adapt or die'.

Eventually the actual flight simulator engine will be marginalised and not relevant anymore. It will be all about the content which will run across a bunch of different simulators. The best performing most open standard sim will be the most commonly used. Closed proprietary platforms will die off. It has always been about the content.

There is a reason we guard our IP so diligently at Orbx; all those assets can be used on future platforms without knowing what those platforms are today. Orbx's value as a company is not how many sims we support, but how many assets we produce that will eventually run on anything.

A lot of Flight simulators will be cloud-based; meaning you will install a small base app and all the content you need and addons you purchase will be kept in the cloud and delivered on demand.  A huge scenery addon won't be loaded all at once, but streamed on-demand based on your FOV, current position and distance to horizon.

You will have multiple accounts from various vendors in the cloud and a standard FS addon format will likely emerge based on Vulkan and DX12 APIs or some other emerging 3D standard, terrain, weather and physics tech.

ORBX TrueEarth Netherlands

How do you see the place of ORBX in that future?

Well I can safely say by 2028 I won't be its CEO, and apart from still being a shareholder, I won't be involved in the running of the company on a daily basis. By then I would have handed the mantle and vision onto the next generation who will have fresher ideas and sharper minds and business agility than me. In 2028 I'll be almost 65 and well and truly retired.

Because I am a serial entrepreneur (I have been involved with starting five companies here in the UK since I moved here in 2012, and I own one and am a part owner of two of them), I am sure I will have fingers in many pies and always keeping my mind active in that respect.

The FTX brand will disappear, replaced by a unified Orbx brand. So FTX Global becomes Orbx Global and so on. The new Orbx Central will have intelligence added to scan your host device for any sims installed and will configure itself to offer addons that run on them.

You will be able to have Orbx addons from the cloud and download them on-demand when needed. You will be able to pull up Orbx Central mid-flight from inside your virtual cockpit, then buy and install scenery for your flight destination in real-time, ready for you to land there.

What’s next? What’s the next big thing for ORBX? Your TrueEarth line of product is impressive. Are you bringing it across all current platforms (P3D, X-Plane and AF2)?

The next big thing is TrueEarth, which is a new tech bringing amazingly detailed regions to life using ortho imagery and 3D models in a way that’s not been done on the scale we are doing it, and for an incredibly affordable price.

By the time you publish this interview we would have released EU Netherlands TrueEarth for Prepar3D V4 and this will be followed by versions for AFS2 and X-Plane, and we are already working on the UK and Pacific Northwest as well.

John, once again, I would like to thank you for your time. Any last words for our readers?

Always a pleasure! I think we are in a very exciting time for our hobby and things are going to get very exciting over the next few years.

Sérgio Costa

About Sérgio Costa

Sérgio has been a flight simulation enthusiast for nearly 25 years. His passion with helicopters developed during MSFS 2000 when he discovered the complexity of these aircraft and the challenge it was to control them. Since then he has been primarily a helicopter flight simmer, trying his best not to crash and kill all his virtual passengers. Sérgio is HeliSimmer's editor and writer and one of the Three Grumpy Simmers, a YouTube series and Podcast produced together with YouTubers Bel Geode and NovaWing24, obviously dedicated to flight simulation.

Proud partner of