A colossus of the gaming world is stirring from hibernation.
Microsoft Flight Simulator, the beloved PC-based pastime of aspiring airliner captains and wannabe fighter pilots since 1982, has been in a state of suspended animation since the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX), its 10th version, in 2006.
But 13 years of slumber hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of a global fellowship of "simmers" — avgeek devotees who've kept the game alive through their thriving community of desktop jocks and content creators who make third-party add-ons such as new aircraft, airports and scenery.
Within the ever-expanding microcosm of aviation gaming there's even a sub-ecosystem devoted to air traffic control simulation, with people and companies such as VATSIM, IVAO and Pilotedge controlling the world's virtual airliners and flight routes.
"Flight simulation is huge — it's a universe, with thousands and thousands of people around the world using it," enthuses Lisbon-based simmer Sérgio "HeliSimmer.com" Costa. Costa, a computer programmer, has a home setup with screens, joysticks and foot pedals that replicate the physical interface of helicopters, his preferred mode of transport.
"I've been using flight simulators since 1994 and started for the same reason as most of us in the simmer community — with a passion for flying and an image in our heads of looking up to the birds and wanting to fly."
'The dream has always been alive'
Fellow simmer Tristan "Novawing24" Ayton, based in NSW-Australia, who in his spare time creates aircraft liveries and scenarios, says that, "Microsoft may have been notably absent from the last 13 years but the genre has itself been very much alive." Ayton's day job involves pilot training for rookie aviators in the real world, using desktop simulators.
Costa and Ayton, widely known in the simmer world through their social media channels and participation in forums, might have happily carried on forever with FSX.
But out of the blue they, and a small band of other carefully selected simmers, received emails from Microsoft, inviting them to attend a preview event in September 2019 in Renton, Washington, to flight-test a pre-Alpha version of the new Flight Simulator.
It was the simmer equivalent of a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. But the bigger question was: Why was Microsoft resuscitating its Flight Simulator?
"In the hallways of Microsoft the dream of making another flight simulator has always been alive," Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, tells CNN. "Sometimes, what it takes is the right convergence of things. We knew FSX is highly regarded, lots of people play it and love it, but to take something meaningfully forward you need trigger points. In our particular case there was a convergence between tech, tools and partners."
'Awesome engine for rendering worlds'
The tech goes back to when Neumann was working in collaboration with Bordeaux-based game developer Asobo Studio on a project for Microsoft's mixed-reality HoloLens platform. "You could go anywhere on Earth — you could go to Machu Picchu and it would look exactly real, the rendering tech was there," says the Flightsim boss.
Simultaneously, Microsoft's Bing was accumulating a hyper-real high-definition database of satellite imagery: "The planet's getting scanned at a rapid pace. We have two petabytes of data on Bing in ultra-high detail, and we're going to have full mapping of the planet very soon."
"Then you need to have tools," says Neumann: "You need to store all that data and you need to get it to people, so we have infrastructure with Azure which enables us to get that to everybody's machine."
Somewhere along that journey, during the development of HoloLens, someone decided to throw an airplane into the mix, and suddenly the potential for a resurrection of Flight Simulator became a possibility. But that would depend on partners too — aircraft manufacturers, data providers, third-party communities, the simmers, and Asobo, which Neumann says "is the perfect developer for this — they have an awesome engine for rendering huge worlds."
Take the weather with you
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When Sebastian Wloch, CEO and co-founder of Asobo, started working with Microsoft on the new Flight Simulator the first thing he did was take flight lessons. The bulk of Asobo's employees also started flying to ensure they had a grip on the experiences they were trying to digitally recreate.
One example of the level of realism now achievable in the new Flight Simulator will be that weather will mirror what's happening in the real world by drawing on live weather data feeds. Previously flightsims simply pasted in generic imagery of clouds.
"Thanks to the conjunction of new technologies we can now finally render the world realistically, making users feel more connected," says Wloch. "The clouds are what we call volumetric, meaning they're 3D. When you fly through clouds the weather engine shows 3D rain. If you have the sun behind you and the rain in front, you're going to see rainbows — everything's extremely realistic."
As the elements started to align, Microsoft was increasingly conscious of the need to have simmers on board. For the past three years, Microsoft had been discreetly hovering around discussions in simmer forums and identifying their needs.
Then, at E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) in June 2019, Microsoft announced that the new Flight Simulator would be available in 2020, initially on PC, then on Xbox.
Concurrently they invited simmers into an insider program to interact with the development team, helping shape the game. Then in September, at Microsoft's preview event, Costa, Ayton and other invitees from the insider program got to flight test it.
"I arrived at the event fearing Microsoft was just doing an FSX 2 with better graphics but I came out completely overwhelmed at how far Microsoft Flight Simulator actually is from FSX," says Costa. "It's a completely new page being turned for flight simulation.
"It looks and sounds so real that it's easy to forget you're actually using a sim, and not watching a high-quality CGI video — or, sometimes, even a real video at all!"
"For a pre-Alpha it is very impressive," says Ayton. "The quality of the platform that we got to experience in Renton is second to none in desktop simulators."
Beyond the reboot of Microsoft Flight Simulator there's another dimension to the story that's acutely relevant to the future of air travel in the real world. With flight traffic set to double over the next 20 years, there's a looming pilot shortage. Flight simulators are the incubators of tomorrow's pilot talent pool — a factor that airline flight crew recruiters are very conscious of.
"There are several skills needed by pilots that can be practiced on this kind of flight simulation technology. Examples are hand-eye coordination, flight-related multi-tasking and instrument interpretation and scanning" says Captain Marie Stridh, flight captain and pilot recruiter at SAS Scandinavian Airlines.
"I've met several pilot candidates who've been interested in airplanes and flying for a long period of time before they started their actual training. When too young to fly themselves, many of them spent time with these types of games, eager to learn as much as possible about airplanes and flying."
The next generation of pilots
A good example of this is Captain Stridh's colleague Daniel Andersson, a young first officer at SAS who used MS Flight Simulator for extra practice of instrument flight procedures when attending flying school: "As the level of reality of these games increases, it allows for experiencing and practicing a wider scope of real-life situations — that can complement the regular flight training," says Andersson.
Looking to the future when electric planes become available, the next generation of pilots, brought up on a diet of digital games, might be a natural fit.
"Skills from playing home flight simulators could be relevant to learn to handle some aspects of present-day airliners. With the right software and hardware setup together with appropriate theoretical understanding it could very well serve as a useful way to acquire some of the skills needed," says Captain Stridh.
"The complexity of present and future-generation aircraft will drive a development towards increased and improved simulator training. And, due to the cost and lack of availability of full-scale flight simulators, this might be realized in small-scale flight simulators including home computer software for practicing routines in cases of severe weather encounters, like windshear, when it's important that pilots' responses are immediate and correct."
These symbiosis between Flight Simulator and a career path in the real world of aviation isn't lost on Microsoft: "First and foremost we're making a product for simmers," says Neumann.
"When you meet pilots a lot of them that say 'you know what? — my interest in this whole thing started with Microsoft Flightsim many years ago'. Some people choose that as a career, and we do hope to inspire this new generation. Ever since we showed our trailer we've been called by almost every airplane manufacturer and they all tell us there's a pilot crisis, but for us it's about priority-setting. We're excited about making a sim, and if we can help with the pilot crisis in some shape or form — we'll try when the time is right".