Microsoft Flight Simulator hadn’t exactly been one of Microsoft’s biggest franchises in recent years, but its newest release came out not that long ago and took everyone by storm. With spectacular visuals, authentic simulation gameplay, a ridiculous amount of detail, and more, it’s probably one of the best games of the year, and one of the most impressive games to have come out of Microsoft in a while.
Shortly before its launch, we sent across a bunch of our most burning questions about the game to its developers, and got some very interesting answers in response, revealing plenty of interesting details. You can read our conversation with Microsoft Flight Simulator head Jorg Neumann below.
NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to the game’s launch.
“The dream to make another Microsoft Flight Simulator was always alive at Microsoft, but what we really needed was the right combination of elements – a convergence – to be able to reach a new level of realism, accuracy and authenticity – in order to really take a leap. What we have now, at this moment, is an awesome convergence of tech, tools and partners that allow us to take a meaningful step forward for flight simulation.”
Flight Simulator is perhaps one of Microsoft’s oldest and most beloved classic franchises, but seeing it making a return in such grand fashion after such a long hiatus was surprising for quite a few people. What drove the decision to return to this franchise now?
The answer is actually pretty simple – the time is right! The dream to make another Microsoft Flight Simulator was always alive at Microsoft, but what we really needed was the right combination of elements – a convergence – to be able to reach a new level of realism, accuracy and authenticity – in order to really take a leap. What we have now, at this moment, is an awesome convergence of tech, tools and partners that allow us to take a meaningful step forward for flight simulation.
Let’s start by looking at the state of technology. The PC hardware took giant leaps forward and we now have many cores, multithreading, incredibly fast hard drives, and many GB of RAM and VRAM to work with. Rendering techniques have advanced dramatically and we can now achieve near-photorealism, and outside of gaming and computers our world is being scanned – there are sensors literally everywhere. Hundreds of satellites circle the Earth and send data across the visual spectrum and beyond. Thousands of planes are flying overhead sending not only aerial imagery, but also weather information and turbulence data. We now have access to tech partners like meteoblue from Switzerland, who are delivering world-wide data to the sim in real-time. We also have access to live transponder signals from all planes, from ships, even from animals to populate our world in real-time – the amount of data is staggering! What makes our planet tick is available – often in real-time – to a simulation like ours, and it allows us to get the world more realistic and more accurate than ever before.
Next, is tools. At Microsoft, we are fortunate to have an awesome tech stack that helps us store and utilize all this data. Bing Maps stores over 2PB of data (that’s 1.7 million DVDs) allowing us to get an amazing data set to represent the entire planet at high quality. Azure helps us in multiple ways: for delivery, we can get these 2PB of data to consumers almost everywhere at low latency, and the Azure cloud also allows us to utilize however many Virtual Machines we need to process our data and to run machine learning algorithms constantly.
And finally, partnerships. We work with airplane manufacturers and lots of data providers, which makes our simulation actually possible. We also work with many of the key third-party developers who – in many cases for decades – created planes, airports, Live ATC and other cool features that kept the ecosystem of flight simulation vibrant. Most importantly, we’d like to thank our fans – the community of simmers out there – who embraced us as the new platform and who graciously provide us every day with their highly informed feedback and insights.
We have a clear focus of getting the fans what they want and with the above-described convergences of tech, tools and partners, we can create something really special together.
It’s been a long time since Flight Simulator X came out, and it’s fair to say that both the genre itself and the industry at large have grown and changed in many ways. So while developing the next entry in this storied series, how did you go about trying to strike a balance between building on what’s come before but also ensuring that you’re doing new things in order to bring the franchise and the genre forward into the contemporary market?
Before we started development of the new sim, we spent a lot of time reading forums and analyzing feedback to ensure we fully understood what the community wanted, and building off of our history and legacy as a franchise. We also spent a ton of time with FSX, which despite its age (it was released 14 years ago), is an awesome experience even today. When we embarked on the journey to create a new entry into this famous franchise, we knew that it needed to be something special, something that would really take the genre forward – but also something that would understand and maintain the roots of the series. We believe that Microsoft Flight Simulator is the sim that the community desires and we are committed to keep growing it with the community for years to come.
We actually started by merging the FSX code base with the Asobo engine. From the start, that meant we had a fully functional simulator, which was a great starting point. From there, we integrated the vast amount of data from Bing Maps, and we started to write an all-new atmosphere simulation and a new flight model. Essentially, we began improving one bit at a time until we had essentially written or re-written all of the systems we felt were necessary to make an outstanding new flight simulation experience.
Flight Simulator is, of course, a classic and beloved series, but given its very nature, it’s not one that would appeal in equal measure to all the players out there. In light of that, do you think Game Pass – which has been such a boost for developers wanting to take risks instead of just developing something that appeals to the masses – has been an important factor in the return of Flight Simulator?
Game Pass is an amazing opportunity for Microsoft Flight Simulator. One thing we have seen in Game Pass is that people just try things they otherwise might have not checked out. That’s exactly what’s happened so far, and it’s so exciting to see how many people via Game Pass have tried a simulator – often for the first time – and they are now experiencing the beauty of Earth from a different perspective and are experiencing how fun and exciting it is to fly.
We hear from developers all the time that bringing their titles to Xbox Game Pass means they have the opportunity to find new, larger audiences since members are always looking to try out different games. In fact, after joining Xbox Game Pass, people play 30% more genres than before, and we’ve seen 40% of members play a game they haven’t tried prior to joining the service. Additionally, more than 90% of members say they played a game they wouldn’t have tried without Xbox Game Pass, expanding the possibilities for developers to reach even more people.
“We benefit from the massive amount of data that Bing Maps has collected, which gives us the basis to represent the entire planet at high detail.”
The scope of Flight Simulator is staggering, given the fact that it simulates literally the entire planet, but the game is going about doing that in ways that we haven’t really seen in other games before, using Azure tech and data from Bing- can you talk about how the process of integrating that with the rest of the game was, especially from a development perspective?
Absolutely, and you are right, it’s something new that is quite possibly a unique way of using the cloud and we are very blessed to have access to Microsoft’s awesome tech stack. We benefit from the massive amount of data that Bing Maps has collected, which gives us the basis to represent the entire planet at high detail. That data, all 2PB of it, sits on Azure servers, which means that we can stream it to almost everybody on Earth at low latency, which was critical to make all of this work. But Azure helps us in several other ways: we use the Azure cloud to utilize however many Virtual Machines we need to process our data and to run machine learning algorithms constantly.
Azure Machine Learning Center allows up to elegantly manage the processing and Azure Cognitive Services helps us with text-to-speech and with speech synthesis, allowing us to make significant advances for voices in our sim … specifically the Air Traffic controller. Simply put, without Azure and Bing Maps, this product would not exist. This new Microsoft Flight Simulator is really a confluence of technologies developed by many different groups around Microsoft, partnerships with the great development teams at Asobo and Blackshark.ai and by using world-class partners like NAVBLUE, meteoblue, FlightAware and others.
Flight Simulator was in alpha for a good amount of time. How much did that and the feedback coming out of it help with the game’s development?
It helped a huge amount. We started with a small Tech Alpha in late 2019 and a full-on Alpha in January 2020. The amount of feedback, the quality of the feedback, and the collaboration with the community in these past 8 months has been outstanding. The sim is drastically better than what we could have made on our own. Think about it: we have 30 different planes in the sim. While some of us are pilots and many of us have flow or want to become pilots, there is just no way to be familiar with all these planes. It was awesome to see experts that had detailed knowledge (often because they flew some of these planes in real life), share their experience and drive us forward to reach a high degree of authenticity and realism. Same with the world! It’s huge!
The very first mail giving us feedback about the sim came from someone in Hobart, Tasmania, and that simmer pointed out that our simulation of his home area was very good, but that it was a tad bit too red. Priceless! We fixed it right away and that was the beginning of floods of feedback about the world, about airports, about the ATC, and a myriad of other systems. It’s such a blessing to have a community as dedicated, as knowledgeable and as gracious with their feedback as the flight simmers. We could not have made this product without them and we hope to have their help as we explore other facets of aviation or dive deeper into systems that would benefit from more detail in the months and years ahead. It’s super exciting for our team to have this support and it pushes us forward every single day.
One thing in particular that’s been said about Flight Simulator since the day it was revealed is just how ridiculously good it looks. “Photorealism” is a word that gets thrown around when talking about games quite often, but it feels like that has more meaning for this game in particular than it has had for any other in the past. What challenges did you face in trying to bring that vision to life?
Well, the thing is that the simulator is a highly complex system, and we see it as a whole. Everything is interdependent. If there is no great, real-time weather system you don’t have a great humidity system, and you don’t have a great sim nor a great rendering if you don’t have a great weather system. So I would say that the main challenge was to create a global system on which no part was easy to build, but that were necessary to deliver the realism, accuracy and the authenticity of the flight experience we set out to create.
“I would say that the main challenge was to create a global system on which no part was easy to build, but that were necessary to deliver the realism, accuracy and the authenticity of the flight experience we set out to create.”
It’s no surprise that weather plays an important role in the game, given its very nature, but the game’s usage of real-world data for weather effects in the game is particularly interesting. Can you talk to us about what this adds to the experience, and why you decided to go with this instead of having a built-in system for weather mechanics?
Our simulated weather system is part of the core simulation experience and key for providing authenticity to flights. The fact is that there is no way to design a better weather system than what nature has already given us. There is no other way that present so much diversity and beauty. As every real-world pilot will tell you, weather is what makes each and every flight unique, and it creates a thrill and adventure that is unparalleled. In order to accomplish this in the sim, we have partnered with one of the world’s leading weather forecasting companies, meteoblue from Switzerland, and they provide us with an incredible amount of data about real-world weather conditions across the planet.
Meteoblue has essentially created a voxel grid around the Earth and separated the atmosphere small boxes where they provide us with temperature, wind speed, humidity, pressure, rain, snow, etc. … everything that defines the weather. As we need to have weather at all altitudes for Microsoft Flight Simulator, meteoblue created these 3D boxes all the way up to the stratosphere. In total, there are 250 million boxes that are storing individual weather information in real-time and the cloud system has 60 stacked layers to ensure that the weather and cloud formations are as accurate as possible everywhere.
This elaborate system enables Microsoft Flight Simulator to support realistic volumetric 3D rain, volumetric rainbow scattering, volumetric 3D-scattered fog, lighting, icing and many other weather effects. Overall, players will be able to experience full-spectrum weather, volumetric skies and native, live, real-world weather conditions that make the experience feel incredibly close to reality.
On top of that, we added a full world-wide simulation of the air masses depending on the weather conditions and the terrain. Air particles realistically move up and down mountains, creating turbulences and wind conditions that are as realistic are we can possibly make it in a simulator today. This generates dynamic updraft, downdraft and winds that really drive the flight model.
Another aspect of the game that’s impressed a lot of people is its attention to detail. Its commitment to recreating literally thousands of airports is impressive enough as it is, but given the game’s very nature, that’s easily understandable. What really stands out is its attention to detail in other minute ways, such as the world being populated by trees, buildings, vehicles numbering in the billions and trillions at times. Why was it important to you as developers to populate the game’s world so densely with that much detail?
It all started out with a key request from the community to enable VFR (Visual Flight Rules) across the planet globally. Out of all our interactions with the community, that was the single most requested feature. Fulfilling that wish put us on the path to re-create the world as authentically as possible and we feel really great about how far we’ve been able to push this. However, once you have a great looking world, then you also need a great looking sky, authentic weather and wind conditions, great airports, an awesome water simulation for the oceans, and animals and traffic. Basically, if one piece was great, all other pieces needed to be great too. Given that it’s a simulator, we had another principle, which was “authenticity first” and “beautiful second” because we knew that beauty needed to be advancing. What you see now in the sim really is just the beginning of a fascinating journey to get us closer and closer to a digital twin.
I’m sure you must get this question a lot, but given its very nature, Flight Simulator seems like a game that would be such a perfect fit for VR. Is that something that has crossed your mind, perhaps in terms of developing post-launch updates for the PC version?
You are absolutely right! Microsoft Flight Simulator is an amazing experience in VR and we are super happy to confirm that we will support VR for the PC very soon. I am playing a lot on VR right now and it’s not an overstatement to say that it’s the single most awesome experience I’ve had in 25 years of game-making. It’s not just that the world and the aircraft look and feel just right, it’s also that the whole experience resembles reality so closely that your body starts to do the same things you’d do in a real-world aircraft. My muscle memory kicks in when looking over my shoulder to find the runway or I start wiggling in my chair when getting ready to land. It’s fascinating and quite amazing to experience it as it feels just like real life. The other great news is that VR will be a free update for all simmers and customers. We are working closely with HP and their excellent Reverb G2 so you can experience the ultimate VR simulation on Xbox Game Pass for PC, Windows 10, or Steam.
“The fact is that there is no way to design a better weather system than what nature has already given us. There is no other way that present so much diversity and beauty. As every real-world pilot will tell you, weather is what makes each and every flight unique, and it creates a thrill and adventure that is unparalleled.”
What are your post-launch plans for Flight Simulator as far as new content, features, or updates are concerned?
We said for a while that the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator is just the beginning of our journey. We will continue to update, expand and refine Microsoft Flight Simulator for years to come. We will try to have meaningful updates every single month. The plan is to alternate between World Updates (essentially, we will pick a region or country and will improve the visuals, add airports, activities, and other elements to really make the discovery of that region of Earth a joyful and compelling experience), Sim Updates (where we will add features – often prioritized via the community’s requests) and also Big Updates (that will add large new features like, for example, helicopters).
Beyond that, it is also very important to understand that we don’t see Microsoft Flight Simulator only as a simulator, but also as a platform. That raises our bar considerably. We definitely want to bring a variety of aircraft to the platform, and to us that means developing a new flight model for them, and many more things beyond that. So our approach to bringing additional aircraft will be fairly comprehensive, and we will likely supply several aircraft (similar to what we did with the aircraft at launch) to push the envelope. One main guiding principle behind all this is that whatever new things we add, we will be determined to make sure whatever feature we take on is truly great.
The ridiculous attention to detail, massive scope, and beautiful visuals seem like such an integral part of this new Flight Simulator. What are the challenges you’re facing in bringing the game to the Xbox One and ensuring that it doesn’t lose any of that, in spite of having to run on weaker hardware, or even the fact that the game there would rely on a gamepad instead of a mouse and keyboard?
We are very confident that the simulator will be just as amazing on Xbox as it is on PC. Some things might even be better. Regarding the controller, our intent is to deliver a great experience using any controls you already have, so you can enjoy the experience with a gamepad as well as a mouse and keyboard. We’ll have more to share with you about the Xbox version of the simulator closer to launch.
What resolution and frame rate will the game run at on the Xbox One and Xbox One X? And since Microsoft Flight Simulator will also be playable on Xbox Series X, what kind of enhancements will it have on the most powerful console?
Our recent focus was on launching Microsoft Flight Simulator on PC, but we have now focused a lot of the team to make sure the experience is just as awesome on Xbox. While we don’t have anything new to share today, we look forward to showing you the title on the Xbox in the not-so-distant future.