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Microsoft Flight Simulator Interview - Air Races, Fighter Jets, and the AI Future
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 12:00am 17/11/21 | Comments
We chat with Jorg Neuman, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, to talk about the massive Game of the Year Edition, bringing air racing to the sim, and what’s in store for the future.

Beautiful, breathtaking, cutting edge.

These are just a few of the words we could use to describe Microsoft Flight Simulator. The series, which dates back to the earliest days of computing, made its triumphant return on PC last year. Developer Asobo Studio and its partners, working closely with Microsoft and all manner of technical wizards, managed to make the impossible possible. A near photo-real version of the entire planet right ready for you to explore.

With everything from photogrammetry, satellite info from Bing, and advanced AI used to recreate massive sections of the planet, not to mention countless planes and aircraft and airports modelled right down to the tiniest bit of detail or physical behaviour. It's a stunning achievement.

Flight Simulator is showing no signs of slowing down. Numerous (and free) World Updates have delivered improved versions of some of the most picturesque places on Earth. The Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S port from a few months back welcomed brand-new players into the world of simming alongside an overhaul of the UI, onboarding, and tutorial system.

Another major update is due... this week. The Game of the Year Edition brings the first version of a helicopter/drone to the game, fighter jets, more Discovery Flights, more airports, more everything. This week also sees the arrival of the first expansion proper with the Reno Air Races.

Ahead of Flight Simlator’s stacked week we got the chance to speak with Jorg Neuman, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator. To chat about the recent console launch, what’s in store, and get a glimpse as to what’s on the horizon.

Play Anywhere

“This Game of the Year Edition, the whole impetus was to just say thank you,” Jorg Neuman says. “It was two-and-a-half years ago that we announced Flight Simulator, and 15 months ago when we shipped it on PC. At the time we said that was just the beginning of a journey, and it was.”

Part of that journey saw Flight Simulator arrive on Xbox Series X and S this past July, where it arrived with all features in-tact, in addition to a bunch of updates.

“This Game of the Year Edition, the whole impetus was to just say thank you.”

“[On Console] we had a lot of newcomers or new simmers as we call them,” Jorg adds. “They jumped into missions a lot more which was great to see. We did a bunch of work for the Xbox release to make it more accessible. New features like land anywhere, a map system that gives you labels, the in-game flight assistant. We created more tutorials, and Xbox players jumped into the tutorials and then missions which proved to us that there was interest. On PC, players tend to celebrate the ability to go anywhere, do anything. Newcomers appreciate guidance. The Discovery Flights have been super popular because they get you going, give you a feel for what it’s like to be in a plane and just sort of look down at the Earth.”

Asobo is also looking up, with a version of Microsoft Flight Simulator headed to Xbox Cloud Gaming “sometime soon”. A new pillar for the traditionally PC-only series that recently found success on console.

“That’s the next thing, we're going to come to xCloud (Xbox Cloud Gaming) sometime soon,” Jorg confirms. “I've been playing Flight Sim on xCloud a fair bit and because you can play anywhere it's different. I'm sitting here on my PC and I’ve got VR, a flight stick, and pedals. When I go downstairs and play on Xbox, it's on TV. Now, when I travel, I can do things like flight planning. This vision that Microsoft has, where you can play on any device, it’s coming true. And that's really cool. It's going to help us reach completely new people.”

You Can Be My Wingman Anytime

One of the most exciting aspects of Microsoft Flight Simulator, especially for fans, is that Asobo not only communicates its plans for the immediate future but listens and keeps track of community requests and feedback. Since the game’s announcement, one of the things players have been asking for is the addition of fighter jets. With a separate bit of content set to debut alongside the new Top Gun next year, the Game of the Year Edition sees the arrival of the very first fighter jet - the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.

“We had to make sure that engine was ready so that you can go over Mach 1 (1234.8 km/hr), and not only that but go over the terrain at that speed.”

Basically the sort of plane you need a callsign like Iceman or Maverick to pilot.

“One of the features that kept popping up [in community requests] was jets,” Jorg explains. “There are some from third parties in the marketplace, but we felt like it was important to provide something in the base version.” Compared to regular planes, adding a fighter jet into Flight Simulator presented enough of a challenge that the team had to make sure the game could handle that sort of speed.

“We had to make sure that engine was ready so that you can go over Mach 1 (1234.8 km/hr), and not only that but go over the terrain at that speed,” Jorg continues. “That puts pressure on the streaming engine, so we did all of that optimisation. There was also quite a bit of research we had to do for fighter jets, work out Sonic Booms and things like that. We’ve spent a lot of time just on this one plane, it's been in production for a year and a half if not longer. But, we wanted to get it right and that’s important to us.”

Unlike most of the planes in Flight Simulator, being a military craft did restrict what the team had access to. “There’s international arms trade agreements so you can't even go inside the cockpit,” Jorg says. “When we recreate a plane we take hand scanners into the cockpit and then use this big archaeological scanner for the outside. If you go near military aircraft with that sort of gear it’s like “nope”. We did get to take some photos though, but that was it.”

The F/A-18 Super Hornet presents a different type of class of aircraft, and it’s something the team is always looking into when it comes to up-in-the-sky representation. 2022 is set to see the arrival of helicopters, something that fans have also been asking for.

“That’s going to take us a good long time,” Jorg admits. “We have propeller simulation in Flight Sim, you have propellers in front of a plane and they shoot a bunch of air particles at the plane. Helicopters are more complicated, there's plates in the back that we need to get right, to capture what's called the ground effect when you land. We have to do a bunch of work, which is why it’ll probably be later in the year.”

The Game of the Year Edition does however see the arrival of the first ‘sort-of helicopter’ with the VoloCity. A one-of-a-kind air taxi that is kind of like a drone. Not only a cool prototype, it actually allows you to slowly fly through cities and other locales to take in the sights at a more macro level. For those big on Flight Simulator sight-seeing it will no doubt become a go-to for digital tourism.

Reno Air Races Brings the Pilotwings Dream One Step Closer

When we had the chance to speak with Jorg earlier in the year we asked about the possibility of an update in-line with something like the classic Pilotwings 64. That is, something that’s more of a traditional game. An arcade mode of sorts. Well, with the arrival of the Reno Air Races expansion, it might not be exactly that, but it’s something that definitely feels like the first big step in seeing a few very different modes arrive.

“We embraced it as a collaboration, got to meet all the pilots, scan all the planes, make every cockpit unique, make all the flight models unique."

“Flight Simulator 10, or FSX, did something called an Acceleration Pack,” Jorg tells us of the impetus to add air racing into the sim. “It did a few things that were interesting, the Reno Air Races, and the Red Bull Air Race. We looked at that and realised that racing was a part of the franchise’s history. So, we looked at Reno first and I ended up talking to the head of the Reno Air Races and they were very enthusiastic about coming to Flight Sim.”

“Very early on we decided that we needed to go deeper than FSX, because that was more superficial,” Jorg continues. “We embraced it as a collaboration, got to meet all the pilots, scan all the planes, make every cockpit unique, make all the flight models unique. And there's 40 of them. Some of these planes are just amazing, and we got to hear all these stories. Like how Big Red was the lead plane at the Bay of Pigs Invasion.”

As an event that has existed since the 1960s, to this day the Reno Air Races is the fastest motor sport in the world. In terms of how it works, it’s very much what you’d expect to find in a traditional racer. Except this time… it’s planes. You’ve got markers and checkpoints, height limits, and a course that travels very close to the ground in a sky circuit with laps over the open spaces of Reno. In Microsoft Flight Simulator, much like the core experience, the realism is there. Not only in terms of looks, the team flew planes over Reno to capture and recreate the location as is, but in how the planes behave.

But, the addition of a timer does give off a sense that you’re playing an arcade game.

“It might feel like an arcade game, but it’s realistic,” Jorg says. “This is not dumbed down in any shape or form, this is what they do. We got all the stats from the pilots, little details like what they do with the wing tips. A lot of them rip out the backseat just to get a little bit lighter too. We know how fast the planes go, we know the wind direction, and we are very close to the actual times.”

Where it becomes even better is that the addition of Reno Air Races will allow the community to basically go full Pilotwings and add races basically anywhere in the world. “We have this SDK where people can make things the way we have, with the Reno Air Races it's not that elegant yet so it’s not exposed to third parties,” Jorg says of potential racing mods. “But that is the intent. I would like people to make race courses through the Grand Canyon or somewhere else that’s cool. I'll fly those. Whatever we do, it’s always the beginning. We wan’t other people to be creative with the platform.”

Replay Into the Future

With giving players access to development tools, Asobo is creating and fostering a burgeoning marketplace for budding developers. It’s also looking to get features out into the hands of people as fast as possible. One of these, arriving with the Game of the Year Edition is the replay system. The ability to capture, watch, and share flight.

“Whatever we do, it’s always the beginning. We wan’t other people to be creative with the platform.”

“It’s what we use for our trailers,” Jorg says. “It’s a little kludgy as a tool because it’s an internal development thing. For this release, we're putting our replay system - exactly how we're using it - in the dev mode. So, it’ll be there and we'll also be making an effort to improve the UI. If you’ve had an awesome flight, or experienced a cool moment, you should be able to record it and send it to friends. That's one of our goals for 2022, making this side of Flight Sim more robust.”

Getting technical for a moment, with the game’s recent arrival on Xbox Series X and S, we’re also going to see a transition to DirectX 12 -- the latest version of the graphics API. Although ray-tracing might not be on the cards right now, switching to a more modern graphics toolset will eventually lead to improved performance on PC. “We were pretty conservative with DirectX 12 so don't expect too much at first,” Jorg explains. “Our DirectX 12 implementation will evolve over time. We think we're going to see about a 10 to 15% performance increase soon, based on stuff we’ve just tested. Not in this update, but soon. We're really just started with DX 12 because there’s a lot of experimenting.”

And with that the conversation shifted to the future, where without going into specifics what were some of the big things the team was looking into.

“When I think about the future, I think about the cloud,” Jorg says. “We’ve just started to unlock what's possible. If you really think about it, why do we still have a 120GB download? We could just leave it in the cloud. That's something we’re increasingly looking into because it’s going to enable us to do a lot more. There’s also cloud AI, and even though I’ve said a few times that I want to see a million caribou running through Canada, there’s no reason not to do it. It exists in the real world and we can simulate it.”

And when it comes to the bigger picture, for Asobo it all leads back to what it has set out to do. “We are in the pursuit of two things, creating the perfect sim and doing that with community input and focus,” Jorg tells us. “When you think about a digital twin, a perfect rendition of the Earth, we're pursuing that. It's to the benefit of realism. We have a very good idea on what we're going to do to achieve that and we've already started on specific aspects of that. Some of that might not come out until two years from now.”

“We are in the pursuit of two things, creating the perfect sim and doing that with community input and focus.”

And managing that whilst bringing community-led features like fighter jets, replay systems, and more is actually a lot easier than it sounds. Not that anything about developing a game of this scope is what you’d call easy. “I don’t lock us into a schedule because I want to stay flexible,” Jorg concludes. “If you make a schedule and everything's full you might as well stop listening to people. I only schedule about 50% of our time and we leave it pretty loose. If something comes in, that's new, awesome. Let's do that. If not, then we just take from the backlog and keep filling up our time. I want this to be a community product because ultimately it's their product.”

Microsoft Flight Simulator: Game of the Year Edition is available November 18 for Xbox Series X|S and PC alongside the Reno Air Races expansion.
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