Microsoft Flight Simulator - The Past, Present, and Future
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:07pm 02/02/21 | Comments
We sit down with Jorg Neuman, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, to talk about the game’s development, launch, Xbox Series X release, and what’s in store for the future. Also, a shared appreciation for Pilotwings 64.
When Microsoft announced that there was a new Microsoft Flight Simulator game coming in 2020, many were left stunned. Not only by the fact that one of the longest franchises in the industry was making a return -- the series hadn’t seen an official release in over a decade at that point -- but specifically, that announcement trailer. It delivered exactly what a flight simulator could look like in the modern era -- beautiful, breathtaking, cutting edge.
Flight sim’s return would see it land with its cargo hold full of high-end visual effects, real-world data, satellite imagery, photogrammetry, and all manner of tech wizardry.
“I’ve told this story a few times, but the first time I showed the game internally at Microsoft to Phil [Spencer] and the Xbox team they didn't recognise that it was a game at all,” Jorg Neuman, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator tells me. “They thought I was showing them a video. That was the first indication, where we felt that we had transcended something. In the many meetings I had with Phil after that, he said time and again, ‘Man, it just doesn't look like a game’.”
As per its surprise announcement in 2019 the brand-new Microsoft Flight Simulator from developer Asobo Studio, released in August of 2020. It did so in the midst of a global pandemic, with travel restrictions in place, many working from home, and a strange sense of being unable to escape or leave your immediate surroundings ever present.
"The first time I showed the game internally at Microsoft to Phil [Spencer] and the Xbox team they didn't recognise that it was a game at all, they thought I was showing them a video."
Naturally, the promise of a near photorealistic world to explore from on up on high -- alongside its debut as a part of Xbox Game Pass for PC -- led to over 2 million pilots taking to the skies before the year drew to a close.
An impressive feat for what is at its core, a hardcore flight simulator -- a style of game or interactive experience mostly seen as niche or ‘for hobbyists only’. “We were very clear on who our core audience was,” Jorg confirms. “We always said that we were making a sim for simmers -- and we stuck to that throughout development. But we also knew there would be newcomers. I think people became interested because of how it looks. It removed a certain barrier or attitude people might have had towards gaming or sims. They become curious. And I think once you're curious, that’s essentially as good as accepting an invitation.”
Creating the Entire Planet
Earth is a big place, that goes without saying. But it’s definitely worth keeping in mind when thinking about Microsoft Flight Simulator -- an experience that strives for realism. A title where wind-speed and how it affects the surface temperatures of a plane’s wings is just one of many systems in place, there to simulate what it feels like to fly any of its real-world craft. Zoom all the way out though and you've got a 1:1 recreation of the planet on which we all live, recreated with impressive detail.
“At some point we did a little calculation because we had to create a robust test plan,” Jorg recalls when asked about the size of the digital world and how that affected development. “The calculation took a Cessna, flying it at around 5,000 feet with good visibility, and then figuring out how long it would take you to see the entire planet. The answer was 40 years. Yeah, that was a ‘wow, it’s a big planet’ moment. So the team spent the time needed and came up with a very smart test-plan, which basically sampled the planet.”
In December 2020 the team released a few fun stats surrounding the sim’s first few months out in the wild -- with one being the most telling. Even after over three billion miles flown, only 72% of Earth had been seen by players. Of course, a large portion of the planet is ocean, and the poles are mostly barren in terms of things to see (and places to land). Still, it’s interesting and one of the reasons we end up in a situation where there’s a monolithic structure in Melbourne -- or other oddities. There was simply no way to see it all during development, or even by an audience of millions.
"The calculation took a Cessna, flying it at around 5,000 feet with good visibility, and then figuring out how long it would take you to see the entire planet. The answer was 40 years."
The flipside to that is that 72% is something of an anomaly, an achievement. Especially in the flight sim space.
“Flight simming is a very international hobby, but we knew from previous Flight Sim games like Flight Sim 10 and others that a lot of people fly over Western Europe and the U.S. -- specifically East and West Coast,” Jorg explains. “That's where the greatest density of player activity has always occurred in these games. What we’ve seen here is different, the world looks much more like the real world and people are flying, frankly, all over the place. They're flying over Mauritania and places that a lot of people don't know about. I interpret that as a general curiosity about the planet, visualised and accessible via Flight Simulator.”
This is a phenomenon born, again, from that ‘this doesn’t look like a game’ reveal. Last year Jorg spent months exploring South America and the coast of Australia in Microsoft Flight Simulator, carefully planning routes, managing fuel, discovering new places to land. The team has heat maps covering areas that have been explored and seen by players, and it plans to release them soon. Partly because of how diverse and broad-ranging they are.
“The planet is a fascinating place and it makes us happy every time we see people flying through Suanam and other places that aren’t considered mainstream,” Jorg adds. “That’s driving a lot of the discussion and ideas behind the World Updates too, I want to really make the world shine – not just the most popular destinations. I want people to explore and embrace the planet as a whole.”
Of World Updates and the 10 Year Platform
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a platform in the strongest sense of the term, a title that will not only be maintained for the foreseeable future, but also receive free updates, third-party content from its community, and new ways to play. The most notable updates seen since its launch last year have been what the development team has dubbed World Updates. These see regions get major visual overhauls to present a more lifelike experience.
"I want to really make the world shine – not just the most popular destinations. I want people to explore and embrace the planet as a whole."
“It’s basically the biggest confluence of teams – where Microsoft, Asobo, and Blackshark, we all research the region,” Jorg explains. “We come up with the most important points of interest. England [the focus of the next major World Update] was super interesting because one of the things that really stands out are the soccer stadiums. Which ones do you pick? Because there’s like 20 in the Premier League -- and if you don’t do that one, you know, it'll be interesting.” That is, hearing from the passionate fans that might see their team miss out.
World Updates are carefully planned and take several months of coordination and development, from new visual assets to data to recreating landmarks and airports. Collaborating with Bing to acquire new digital elevation maps and others to obtain highly detailed aerial photography. “In the case of England we got 3D cities from a company called Blue Sky, and we’re bringing those into Flight Sim,” Jorg continues. “We're doing all the clean-up work to make sure that it all looks good, but it was basically inconceivable to do England without London in 3D. We have to find and continuously look for solutions like that.”
When creating or updating airports or specific locations it’s also aware of the community and the efforts of third-party creators. “I'm trying as good as I can to stay off their plate because then we become the competition,” Jorg contemplates. “I don't want to be competition; I want to be the platform. My long-term goal would be to ask the community straight up, what locations and places and structures are the most important to them -- because we're making this for them.”
With the Flight Sim community at the center of the work being done, this means that even though there’ll be new stuff coming five years from now -- the team isn’t necessarily thinking that far ahead. “The roadmap for this year is done, it's complete,” Jorg tells me. “And I'm currently working on the 2022 World Update roadmap. I think we will always try to be a year ahead.”
“Regular updates are different, that’s where we listen to what the simmers and the community are saying on a weekly basis,” Jorg continues. “We have a feedback snapshot where we capture the feedback from the community, what their biggest wishes are, or their biggest pain points. And we prioritise our work based on that list and try to nibble it right from the top down, get as many done as we can in any given period.”
“I've been making games since 1993 and I've never had this much fun,” Jorg admits. “Working with a community that gives you feedback, it’s the best way to be. I should have done this a long time ago, it's delightful. All you need to do is listen, have an open mind, and work hard.”
"My long-term goal would be to ask the community straight up, what locations and places and structures are the most important to them -- because we're making this for them."
That said, there are still ideas as ambitious as anything already in Flight Simulator on the cards -- or potential cards. Traditional DLC, these being major updates that fundamentally change the game are being worked on -- albeit cautiously. “Those are long throws, and you work on those for like a year and a half,” Jorg says. “At some point when you ship it, and nobody is putting pressure on us to ship anything, it will be a delightful surprise. When we think the quality is there and we’ve done enough flighting and got enough feedback and feel like we're good to go then we're going to talk about that stuff more, and actually get it out there.”
The Future, Mods, and Pilotwings 64
“There's some people where the only thing they talk to me about are the thermals in the Himalayas and that we need to do gliders,” Jorg tells me. “Some people just want to have a peaceful day by the beach, so they’re asking if we can do anything with whales? The answer is yes, we can, it's just a prioritisation thing. The good news is everybody on the team feels like we're on this 10-year journey, and that we don't have to rush things.”
“My goal long-term is I want the place to feel like the place,” Jorg continues. “That there's authenticity for those that live there. And not just for structures, but also the flora and fauna. Long-term my goal is to make Flight Simulator as authentic, a word simulation as I possibly can. And there's lots and lots of opportunities and ways to make that happen.”
“We actually researched butterfly species,” Jorg laughs. “And that was a little bit like ‘What are we doing? But, that idea of you can land everywhere. At some point, you’ll be able to get out of the plane to inspect your plane, and then you will be there in the soundscape of wherever you landed. The right things need to be there, feel right, and sound right.”
Suddenly the idea of researching butterfly species doesn’t seem so strange for a Flight Sim. This side of the experience, the realistic, accurate, and truly impressive world is seen as the digital twin to the straight simmer heaven that piloting real-world planes is.
"Some people just want to have a peaceful day by the beach, so they’re asking if we can do anything with whales? The answer is yes, we can, it's just a prioritisation thing."
“It's interesting how much the simmers appreciate that because they recognise it,” Jorg explains. “There are a lot of VFR (Visual Flight Rules) enabled, and we’re working on things like overland power lines because they have different shapes across the planet. The planes can be more accurate as far as liveries are concerned too, or what planes are actually standing at an airport. There's lots of detail to get into, and we're having a great time exploring it all.”
It’s fascinating from a pure sandbox perspective too, and with mod support we’re already seeing things like classic Star Wars ships flying over highly detailed real-world locations. Could this then lead to total conversions? Something like the more arcade-like Forza Horizon to the sim-heavy Forza Motorsport using that impressive world.
The real question we posed -- could a Pilotwings 64-style game or mode exist within Microsoft Flight Simulator?
“You're going to continue to see more types of things like that from us, but more like the Landing Challenges. I like Pilotwings 64 a lot, but instead of hoops to fly through, we’ll stay in the realm of being a sim but with assists,” Jorg responds. “The simmers still have needs that we haven't fulfilled and it’s easy to get distracted by other things. It would be slightly irresponsible too [to create a very different game within the game], we have that priority list from the community that they really want us to work on.”
“Again, it's just time,” Jorg pauses. “But you're totally right. Pilotwings. Are there design documents that do what you say? Yes. Is there software activity? Not yet.”
Coming Soon to Xbox Series X
With the console debut of Microsoft Flight Simulator happening mid-year, arriving on both the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S next-gen platforms, one of the major focuses for the team in recent months has been in getting the game console-ready. For many that have played on PC, they’ll no doubt be aware of how powerful a machine you need to run Flight Sim on high settings -- something the team is keenly aware of and has been optimising “like crazy” since launch.
"That video we made, the announcement for Xbox, that was all captured from an Xbox."
“When we started working on the Xbox version in earnest quite a few months ago now, we literally went through every model,” Jorg explains. “We looked at every buffer and it was shocking how much memory we found. That video we made, the announcement for Xbox, that was all captured from an Xbox. We are making great progress, but there’s still lots to do. I think people will be surprised; it will be virtually indistinguishable from the PC version.”
Although there will be differences between the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S versions, the team is confident that the console version will not sacrifice image quality or detail in order to tailor the experience for a different platform. In fact, being a hardcore flight sim for console -- is something to celebrate.
“[Looking great] is a requirement because we’re also newcomers,” Jorg admits. “Simming is a newcomer to console because it has never really been there. So, there’s a high expectation for how it looks and performs. But we also know that players will be new so we need to pay close attention to their needs. We’re starting to test it internally and at some point, we're going to test externally because we want to get it right. To make sure the people that are coming in feel welcome. And ideally, stay and become a simmer down the road.”
"I think people will be surprised. [Flight Simulator on Xbox Seriees X] will be virtually indistinguishable from the PC version.”"
More importantly, arriving on Xbox is simply another step in or leg in the Microsoft Flight Simulator Journey. Recently the PC release got support for VR, something the team will refine and support for a long time to come. And even with all of that on the plate, Jorg Neuman is also -- aptly -- thinking about the cloud. Forever looking into new technology, VR, next-gen console hardware, streaming over servers. Butterflies.
“I'm happy how we launched on PC, and it's great to see how it's been received,” he concludes. “Our focus right now is on Xbox, but I'm curious about what Project xCloud will allow us to do. It’s another device in the family and I think one that can reach people in different places and different situations, and I'm fascinated by that. Like, I really want to do that -- it's such an interesting product.”