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GDC 2008: Microsoft ESP Demonstration
Post by trog @ 09:22am 20/02/08 | Comments
Microsoft ESP is a platform for creating powerful and comprehensive simulation applications, using the same technology that Microsoft themselves used in titles like Flight Simulator X.

Microsoft ESP is a platform for creating powerful and comprehensive simulation applications, using the same technology that Microsoft themselves used in titles like Flight Simulator X.

Love them or hate them, one thing Microsoft has done right for years is Flight Simulator. I still remember playing the early monochromatic versions of this on the Apple II back in the eighties. It's come a long way these days, with the most recent iteration - Flight Simulator X - offering the best Microsoft has to offer. It is, in fact, Microsoft's longest running product line, and the ever-increase quality and continued sales is testament to Microsoft's commitment to the title.

Microsoft, however, have realised now that Flight Simulator is no longer just a game. It is an opportunity, and one that has lead directly to an entirely new product for them - Microsoft ESP. To be fair, a lot of this realisation came from the fact that they were approached – apparently very regularly – by various entities wanting to use their technology in various other applications.

You probably haven't heard of ESP - it's relatively new, and its target audience isn't exactly gamers. ESP is a "visual simulation platform", offering up Microsoft's hottest gaming technology to companies and government organisations that are looking to build applications for training and support for real-world enterprises. There is a strong focus on training and learning, and also what they call "decision support" - basically enabling people to make informed decisions based on accurate simulation.

ESP is the result of several years hard labour by the project team, headed up by games industry veteran Shawn Firminger. The project got off to an inauspicious start when it kicked off in 2004 – some early problems caused lack of traction internally and despite a solid business plan it never really left the ground. It was also competing with the Xbox 360 at around the same time, which had a lot of internal attention, detracting further from the project.

However, this wasn't all bad – it gave the team the time and opportunity to expand on the Flight Simulator product – but with a vision for the future. To capitalise on the huge Flight Simulator community, Flight Simulator X would include a comprehensive API and SDK, as well as a new mission system. It would also take advantage of a widely used coordinate system, allow easy migration of the vast amount of existing user-created content into the new game.

But these features weren't just for Flight Simulator X – they helped lay the foundation for EPS as a product, allowing Microsoft to develop as an "engine". This then lead to the creation of Train Simulator, which not only added another product to their software catalog but also gave them the chance to confirm that the platform would be viable for other titles.

The second attempt of EPS-as-a-product was much more successful, focusing on getting the right people on board for the development process and making sure sales and marketing team were well aligned with the development. The sheer polish of Flight Simulator X no doubt helped a lot in this regard.

Microsoft has built an extremely comprehensive platform for simulation with ESP, drawing from their own extensive collection of assets and data – an accurate model of the entire Earth is a big feature, including detailed maps of what looks like the whole planet, textured with (I assume) data from their Virtual Earth platform.

Perhaps one of the biggest attractions of the ESP product for interested parties though is Microsoft's attitude towards the entire project – they've demonstrated hardcore long-term interest in continued development of the platform, with a road map extending many years into the future.

Plans for version 2 and version 3 of ESP are still being formalised, but expect to see more focus on road and ground elements in the next edition, and further down the track, marine alternatives (Microsoft Ship Simulator might be due for an update around that time).

While of little practical interest to gamers (or game developers – the client license for applications created with ESP runs in the neighbourhood of US$800) – the long term effects of the ESP product will no doubt lead to more Microsoft simulation titles, and almost certainly significant improvements in future editions of the Flight Simulator series.

You can check out a high level video demo of the ESP platform on the Microsoft ESP website demo page.