Whether a beginner, or a long-time simmer, the thrill of spawning up at a location of your choice makes anyone anxious for the scenery to load and the checklists run. We all want great scenery, high frame rates, real weather and of course, aircraft traffic. Why are these important - they all create a highly immersive experience for the simmer.
The last of those mentioned, aircraft traffic, is arguably one of the most important factors to creating a truly rich flight experience. Of course, anyone can take a flight without other traffic either on the ground or in the air, but think back to the first time you were in the sim and you saw another aircraft. Whether flying with an add-on such as World Traffic or online with a network such as VATSIM or IVAO, there is a certain excitement when you see your first contrail, taxi with other aircraft and hear live ATC chatter on the coms.
That environment becomes even more "real" when you see others in your VA or custom liveries flying with you. If one is flying a standard airline livery such as Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Ryan Air, Condor, KLM or Lufthansa for the most part, the simulator will often match these perfectly. However, if you have an individual livery or a VA which has a unique paint scheme, you will need to understand the basics of model matching.
Model matching, in short, is how flight simulation software conveys data to show the correct aircraft type, livery and other important information to pilots in the sim. There are several ways model matching occurs. Correct matching is based on three basic components:
The flight simulator one is flying
The network on which they are flying
The type of add-on file type one needs to communicate
Although not an extensive explanation, here is some basic information to keep in mind when diving into model matching.
MICROSOFT FLIGHT SIMULATOR 2020 AND VMR FILE STRUCTURE
Microsoft (ASOBO) Flight Simulator 2020 is an incredibly complex simulator. The design and integration of built-in online environments was well designed for standard/stock aircraft. If a pilot would like any type of add-on, they must accept the fact the add-on basically runs in tandem and "outside" of the simulator. This is a bit of a cautionary tale, make sure your system can handle the additional inputs of third-party software integration. Now, let's get to the good stuff. MSFS does include several liveries. If you fly a third-party aircraft like the PMDG 737, the Operations Center allows for additional liveries to be downloaded past the PMDG house paint. A pilot may also load custom designs via the Operations Center and a designer can output a PTP file, a PMDG proprietary file, which can be sent to other sim enthusiasts so the livery will show on those pilot's computers. One can use this, coupled with a VMR file and VATSIM's vPilot to model match aircraft.
The cool part about this is, when everyone has loaded the livery, the VMR file (and a rule created in vPilot) will search the local directories of pilots in the area and pull the correct livery from your local fleet. The advantages of this are numerous. First, the resolution of these aircraft are stunning because it is the actual livery, not a low-resolution additional file such as a CSL or MTL. Secondly, It is also a fast conversion because it is reading from your local drive. Third, it is almost full-proof and if one uses the MSFS 2020 customization correctly in the livery choices, one can have a similar livery with different variations. For example, when using X-Plane, one livery is one livery. AAL is always the same American Airlines CSL file. In MSFS 2020, one can create a VMR string which shows a variety of different liveries (regional, retro, etc.) for the same airline code. The VMR differentiates one step further and goes beyond the airline code and the aircraft code and looks for the tail number. As long as one has set-up the tail number information correctly, it will pull the right livery variation - pretty cool!
X-PLANE 11/12 AND CSL FILES
The X-Plane platform (11 and 12) utilizes third-party software such as xPilot to model match across a network such as VATSIM. In order to do this, one must download a library of aircraft variants and liveries. Arguably, the most popular is a file named Bluebell. Within the BB matching folder, literally hundreds (if not thousands) or aircraft type (Boeing, Airbus, GA, helicopters) are in this folder. Within each aircraft type are scores of liveries from across the world. Each livery can be utilized to model match aircraft by using a specific aircraft code as a call sign within xPilot.
For example, when Bluebell is installed and the settings adjusted correctly in xPilot, a call sign on the VATSIM network with AAL 738 will show an American Airlines 737-800. If the call sign is SWA 736, the aircraft displayed to others on the network will be a Southwest Airlines 737-600 aircraft. This is a fairly easy system, but is based upon a very local solution. If the pilot flying has a custom livery or a special aircraft, there may be a chance the Bluebell system doesn't have the livery or aircraft within its extensive catalog. In order to mitigate this, one can create a CSL object file and code to be sent around to other pilots so they "see" the aircraft correctly.
To explain further, a CSL file is an additional graphic file (beyond the base livery file held locally in X-Plane) which must be designed. Once created, the file then must be distributed to all others who are participating in the VA, fly-in, etc. If the other pilots flying don't have the custom CSL file, then they will not "see" the correct livery and X-Plane/xPilot will substitute another paint scheme. How do they make the substitution? Great question, here is another kicker - make sure you choose an airline code that is available and isn't being used by a real airline. As discussed above, to trigger the correct livery, xPilot must have the correct three-letter airline code and the aircraft type. The CSL must be placed in the correct local folder whether it is a Boeing, Airbus, etc. It must also be placed in the correct aircraft variant, 737-200, 737-600, 737-800, 737-900 and so on. Once the CSL file has been created and placed, it is good to refresh the xPilot client to ensure the livery shows accurately.
MTL FILES FOR IVAO
In my opinion, IVAO is an entirely different animal in itself. Admittedly, I don't fly on IVAO, but the system used to model match is a bit different. Although, I haven't flown on the IVAO network, I have created a litany of liveries for Skymatix, a virtual airline which flies extensively on IVAO. Here is what one needs to know about model matching on the network.
The IVAO system has a keen operation style because the catalog of aircraft and liveries are held centrally. Unlike in MSFS 2020, X-Plane or the x/vPilot set-up, each livery is created and made into a MTL file. Although similar to a CSL file, this is where all similarities cease. Once created, the MTL file is bundled in a very specific manner and all files placed in a folder which has to be named in a very specific nomenclature. The folder containing all of the files then must be submitted to IVAO. The IVAO technicians will review your folder with the files and make any recommendations as to how the file needs to be changed in order for the system to accept and cast the livery correctly on aircraft flying within the IVAO network. Developing the MTL files is a little bit arduous, but once a designer finds the correct paint kit and understands the naming of files and folder, the global system seems to work well.
If you are searching for the next step in flight simulation, you might want to try one of these three methods to model match. As mentioned, custom liveries also additionally provides another level of true immersion between pilots flying in tandem or with others during an event or fly-in. Make sure you have an understanding of which files you need, where they are and share them with others so you are prepared to "see" your friends during flight on your next adventure!