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Celebrating 40 Years of Microsoft Flight Simulator - The Big Interview
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:53pm 20/12/22 | Comments
40 years of Microsoft Flight Simulator and flying a plane in a realistic digital setting is more popular and accessible than ever. We sit down with Jorg Neumann, to discuss the series' past, present, and future...


It’s hard to fathom just how far the videogame industry has grown and evolved over the past 40 years, from the beginnings of the arcade boom with the likes of Pac-Man to the arrival of home consoles and the very first personal computers from Apple and IBM.

The 40th anniversary of Microsoft Flight Simulator is something of a very special case, partly because the first version made its debut all the way back in 1982. A time when the idea of gaming on a PC was still new, graphics were primitive, and developers were still figuring out basic mechanics. What set Microsoft Flight Simulator apart even at this early stage of MS-DOS home computing, was that it aimed to recreate the act of flying a plane using the tools available at the time.

Fast forward to the impressive satellite and cloud-driven realism of Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo in 2020, and we’ve got confirmation that the series has always been about realism. And using the latest technology.


“Microsoft Flight Simulator has been remarkably consistent in achieving these three things: realism, accuracy, and authenticity of flight – which is another way of saying that the goal has always been to emulate real-life flying and flight conditions,” Jorg Neumann, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, tells me. “Every version tried to get as close as possible to this goal and was mostly limited by whatever the hardware capabilities were at the time of each release.”


“Microsoft Flight Simulator has been remarkably consistent in achieving these three things: realism, accuracy, and authenticity of flight – which is another way of saying that the goal has always been to emulate real-life flying and flight conditions.”



Even with four decades of technological advancement and the sheer processing power of modern gaming hardware, modern-day Microsoft Flight Simulator still manages to push the boundaries. From its realistic simulation of atmospheric conditions and the physics of how wind interacts with metals, to the entire planet Earth rendered in impressive detail using ungodly amounts of satellite and photogrammetry data streaming to players in real-time.

With Microsoft Flight Simulator available on PC, Xbox Series X|S, and even playable via the Xbox Cloud Gaming, Jorg Neumann notes that a big part of the attraction with the latest entry comes from “the unprecedented representation of our planet”.


“Previous Flight Simulators were very much bound to the storage size of whatever discs were available,” Jorg says. “FSX in 2006, for example, was 14 GB and came on 2 discs (3 if you include the Acceleration pack). We also produced a physical edition of our latest release in 2020, it came on 10 discs and was over 90 GB in size but that was only for the offline version of the world. For the first time, we could stream data from the cloud via Azure, which allowed us to add an astonishing 3.5 PB (1.2M CDs worth) of satellite and aerial data. For comparison, our 3D city of Seattle alone is over 20+ GB and Microsoft Flight Simulator features hundreds of the world’s most famous cities.”

“This online version of Earth is visually spectacular and has attracted not only the traditional flight simulation audience,” Jorg adds. “But many gamers and others who find joy in simply flying over the photorealistic world and exploring our planet.”

Microsoft Flight Simulator is now more popular than it has ever been, drawing millions of players into the world of detailed simulation thanks to jaw-dropping visuals and accessibility. Speaking with Jorg Neuman about all aspects of Microsoft Flight Simulator, including the addition of historic planes as part of the Anniversary update, and what’s in store for the future, we began by talking about the concept of the “hardcore simulator”.


The Flight Sim community on PC is passionate, but with the game available on Xbox and Cloud are there fundamental differences in how people play across platforms?



Jorg: In the past, Microsoft Flight Simulator series has only been available on PCs, which is why the community formed on that platform. Flight simming is a primary hobby for many, and they have been simming for decades. We usually refer to them as “core simmers” or established simmers. Many of them use sophisticated peripherals that allow maximum realism in their flight simulation experience. Some members of the community went as far as building to-scale and highly accurate physical airliner cockpits in their houses. I have seen a few of these in real life and they are incredible.


“This online version of Earth is visually spectacular and has attracted not only the traditional flight simulation audience, but many gamers and others who find joy in simply flying over the photorealistic world and exploring our planet.”



Core simmers are very focused on realism and accuracy and often enjoy what is known as “study level” aircraft; essentially aircraft in which the systems and flight model are recreated to a very high level of detail and accuracy. Generally speaking, this group has a greater tendency to fly airliners or more complex military jets and is usually focused on procedures and experiences that are closely emulating real-world aviation.

Over the years, the simulator also attracted new audiences; some of whom play on PC, but even more, have joined the experience on Xbox or via Xbox Cloud Gaming. Many of these audiences may be new to simming and aviation, so many try the extensive tutorials first, which introduce some of the fundamentals of aviation on an entry-level Cessna 152. After that, newcomers tend to explore the world, often starting with their home or famous locations and cities, before starting to explore the more complex planes. What’s really great to see is how many people who started as newcomers have now become simmers. It signals a bright future for the flight simulation hobby.


The regular World Updates and community feedback and response have not only been impressive but timely, do you feel the team is better positioned now to keep adding and addressing things versus say when the game debuted on PC?



Jorg: We try our best to be responsive to the input from the community. When we first launched in August 2020, the sheer amount of feedback and our desire to respond and make the community happy led us down a path of not having enough time to use flighting effectively to get the community’s eyes on updates prior to release.

About one year after launch, we deliberately changed our code update rhythm. We had just released the massive Reno Air Races expansion and Game of the Year Edition. With the new update rhythm, which meant that simulation updates were roughly three months apart, the entirety of 2022 was significantly calmer, with fewer updates, but they were bigger and better tested.

We are quite happy with our current process and the feedback from the community confirms that our new approach is much better. Our recent Sim Update 11, which coincided with the 40th Anniversary Edition, is by far the largest update we have released for the sim. It included brand-new functionality for helicopters and gliders. We’re so pleased that it has been seen as a huge success, given its added functionality while improving stability and performance.


In addition to improving airports and the impressive World Updates, is the team positioned or looking to expand the experience in other ways with additional content coming in the near (or distant) future?



Jorg: Gliders and helicopters to the simulator had been the top requests by the flight sim community since launch. But even that is in no way complete. The 40th Anniversary Edition features 14 heliports and 15 glider airports, but that really only scratches the surface. Our research team is currently working hard on establishing a glider airport database as there is nothing like this commercially available. It’s a massive undertaking that includes lots of primary research, and outreach to several thousand glider club organizations across the globe.


“Our research team is currently working hard on establishing a glider airport database as there is nothing like this commercially available. It’s a massive undertaking that includes lots of primary research, and outreach to several thousand glider club organizations across the globe.”



We are embarking on something similar for helicopters, and thankfully, the very knowledgeable and passionate community is helping. For example, just last week someone sent a database of heliports in Switzerland. All of this will take a while to complete. But to answer your primary question, yes, we are looking at all kinds of additional content for future expansions as a high-level goal is to create the increasingly accurate digital twin of Earth.


When adding aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis and Spruce Goose, how does the process of adding classic planes into Flight Simulator differ from the usual Boeing-style planes we see everywhere?



Jorg: In general, modern planes are much more common and often more accessible to our team. The aircraft’s license holder is usually quickly identified and easy to communicate with, there is usually good documentation available, we can access the aircraft for scanning or photography, and the manufacturers frequently help us with explanations and sometimes even with testing. Most major aircraft manufacturers are delighted when we call them and want to be part of Microsoft Flight Simulator so we are fortunate to come to suitable agreements quite quickly.

With older aircraft, there’s often a lot of unknown information. We may not know who retains the licenses and need to find the right contacts, documentation is frequently slim and we either have to do extensive research on the web, in specialty books, or in various museums to find the required materials to ensure a high level of authenticity. The best cases are those in which we have close collaboration with major museums like the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, the TAM (Brazil), the Deutsche Museum (Germany), etc.


The curators and archivists often help us with all the details – and sometimes they even let us scan these rare aircraft in order to ensure accuracy. Both the Spirit of St. Louis and the Spruce Goose fall into that category. During the past two to three years, we have scanned hundreds of rare aircraft and are continuing the travel the globe in search of the last surviving specimen of many famous aircraft.


“During the past two to three years, we have scanned hundreds of rare aircraft and are continuing the travel the globe in search of the last surviving specimen of many famous aircraft.”



The high-level goal of these efforts is the digital preservation of aviation history and it’s been really wonderful to see how enthusiastic real-world museums are about this. In many ways, they see Microsoft Flight Simulator as an extension of their real-world preservation work. A few weeks ago, I was invited to a gala at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon – which is by the way a fantastic facility and one of the top aircraft museums in the world – to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the one and only flight the Spruce Goose took on November 2, 1947.

While there, I showed a video of the Spruce Goose flying by the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Several people in attendance – many of whom have dedicated their lives to preserving the Spruce Goose – had tears of joy when they saw the plane flying again after all these years. It was awesome to see how our digital preservation played a meaningful role and was additive to what the real-world preservation efforts are trying to accomplish.


The underlying tech and collaboration with companies to deliver photo-realistic visuals and even ungodly amounts of satellite info (in terms of raw data) is one of the game’s most fascinating aspects. Is this something that is continuously being revised and updated? If so, how do you manage the sheer amount of data?



Jorg: We are working closely with the Bing Maps team and external data providers that are constantly updating satellite imagery. Regarding the sheer amount of data, you are right – it’s enormous – but with Azure, we have a near-infinite amount of storage. Long-term, the dream of a digital twin of our planet is such an exciting proposition and we feel that we are in a really great position to fulfill this promise.

There’s seemingly no end to capturing realism and realistically depicting the world and things like how helicopter blades react to wind and so forth. When it comes to the realistic side of Microsoft Flight Simulator (which might be its biggest side!) what are some of the areas the team is currently focusing on - both near and long term?



Jorg: Realism is critical and is at the very foundation of it all. Our recent focus was on the release of the 40th Anniversary Edition and the addition of helicopters and gliders, both of which required significant improvement and additions to the simulation. For the future, the community has been asking for seasons, which is a very big and complicated topic. Others are asking for a more sophisticated water simulation, and others want us to focus on enhancing the ATC (air traffic controller), air traffic in general, etc.

The flight sim community is very knowledgeable and passionate and there is no end in sight for how we build together. Our plan is to tackle these topics one after another and – over time – get to what we hope will be a perfect sim.

Microsoft Flight Simulator and the 40th Anniversary Update are available now on PC, Xbox Series X|S, and playable via Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Cloud Gaming.
Read more about Microsoft Flight Simulator on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



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