Before there was X-plane and powerful processors to make FAA-compliant desktop simulators not just a thing but indispensable, there was Microsoft Flight Simulator. I first saw it around 1988, I guess, looking over the shoulder of a fellow flight instructor who said, “Hey, check this out. The instruments actually work.”

It wasn’t much of a tool, but flying through buildings was kind of fun. We couldn’t have envisioned what Flight Sim would become because we couldn’t imagine cloud computing, machine learning and cellphones with more graphics horsepower than an IBM PC AT 286 desktop.

But what it has become almost defies comprehension, as detailed in this week’s Best of the Web documentary from Danny O’Dwyer and NoClip Media. He specializes in long-form documentaries on how video games are developed and put together and his film on Flight Simulator is eye-opening.

In a market where game makers struggle mightily to outdo each other with vibrant, liquid motion graphics, Flight Sim has been essentially fallow since the last major revision in 2007. That Microsoft decided to invest so heavily in Flight Simulator 2020 may or may not have surprised gamers, but I suspect it will be welcome in the flight training and owner-flown aircraft world. It’s unlikely to match the serious applications of X-Plane, but for practice flying an approach before a trip, it could be useful.

In the video, MFS lead Jorg Neumann explains that the company set out to cover the entire planet from the air—every city, every airport, every road, building and tree. That it even conceived to do this was made possible by the confluence of several technologies. Cloud computing now makes it possible to deliver high resolution/low latency graphics to virtually every platform, so there’s no need to put all that data on a disc—a good thing, since that’s not remotely possible.

While the planet is relatively well mapped and photographed, detailed photogrammetry exists for only a fraction of the surface so Microsoft enlisted outside companies to use VMs or virtual machines to do extrapolation. A lot of extrapolation. Blackshark AI, a mapping specialist, filled in the detail of millions of buildings based on map and survey data. The world is well photographed in narrow strips flown by aircraft, but the AI has to smooth all the ripples and figure out how to blend color breaks. The results are stunning.

And so are the aircraft interiors and panels. The selection of detailed airplanes includes everything from a Boeing Dreamliner to an X-Cub to a Cessna 152. They even bothered to add a little wear on the radio knobs.

I asked Danny O’Dwyer how FS fits into the world of gaming, which has far advanced just in the past five years. “I think it’s also thought of as a simulator, but given the fact that games are designed for users of varying skills, the word ‘simulator’ means something else in the world of gaming. I guess it refers more to the core principle of the game—to simulate a real-world experience—as opposed to the majority of games which are based in fictional realities. There is quite a hunger for these types of simulator games in the world of gaming; from truck driving simulators, to farming, train operation and so on. But Microsoft Flight Simulator occupies a special role within games, being that it is thought of as the very first mass-market simulator, and it tends to carry a development budget that most sims don’t, given their niche appeal,” O’Dwyer told me in an email.

In context of other games and given Microsoft’s deep pockets, the investment is substantial. Do other gaming companies match this level of effort? “No, I think most simulators are made for fairly niche audiences. You’ll tend to see a lot of sims that launch at competitive price points but have a marketplace with loads of optional add-ons. They’re often called DLC which stands for downloadable content. Think of a train operating sim for example.

“These will often sell extra packs for say, steam engine enthusiasts, or fans of Japanese trains. Flight Simulator is different in that not only is it developed by a multi-billion dollar company, but it has stronger brand recognition than most sims. On top of that, you get the idea that it’s a bit of a vanity project for Microsoft, too. This latest iteration of the game is an ambassador for a bunch of Microsoft tech; Azure cloud computing, Bing Maps, and so on. The brand identity of this series is that of a prestige product, so it makes sense that they invest in it healthily,” O’Dwyer explained. 

As you’ll see in the video, the graphics are simply stunning, right down to the lighting conditions, the shadows and the weather. FS knows where it is, what time it is and real-time weather is provided by Meteoblue Swiss. Is this level of virtual reality what all games have become or is FS way out in front?

“It’s a tricky question,” O’Dwyer said, “because the game’s perspective does a lot of the work here. Most ‘realistic’ looking games are played at eye level or close to it. This means that every object in sight has to look realistic and be realistically lit. Humans are exceptionally good at noticing when things don’t look exactly right. Because Flight Simulator plays out at such a macro scale, it actually works in the game’s favor.

“Perhaps the easiest way to explain is with a hypothetical. Imagine you’re standing in a busy high street in a video game. The game has to realistically draw the shops, the cars driving past, trees, birds, bees and photorealistic humans walking around. It has to realistically cast shadows and light from hundreds of different light sources (the sun, shop signs, car headlamps) and all the surfaces that light bounces off of. Flight Simulator has a monumental task in reproducing the world from map data, but most of that data is not very detailed if you were say, 20 feet from it.

“When you are airborne, and looking at the terrain of our world rolling underneath you, the game doesn’t have to do as much to trick you into believing it. There are fewer light sources (the sun, and perhaps some ambient light from cities) and the details of buildings and roads don’t come under as much scrutiny. I don’t say this to minimize the technical marvel of Flight Simulator, but only to provide context for why it looks and feels more realistic than most games. Put it this way, it’s easier to sketch out a realistic looking drawing of planet earth, than one of your own face,” he adds.

Given the investment, I wondered if MFS is actually a profitable project, or just a prestige program for Microsoft. “This is a great question. By development standards, this title has a modest sized team working on it—somewhere around 100-200 people I think—and judging by some public data that is available it appears to have sold over a million units as of October. It’s also being developed for Microsoft’s new Xbox Series X console and will be available as part of a Netflix-for-games-type subscription service they run called Game Pass. So I think the answer is both. It’s a wonderful game to show running on a brand new games console, and it appears even gamers who rarely play sim games are willing to give it a go. In that respect, Microsoft Flight Simulator is unique in the world of games,” O’Dwyer said.

The game was released for Windows in August 2020, through Xbox Game Pass and Steam on PC. A release date for the Xbox console is still forthcoming.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Tried the caravan on FS2020 to see if we could use it for training and the attention to detail is sorely lacking. The engine controls don’t work properly, the G1000 doesn’t display the right messages, etc. It isn’t close enough to do a real start procedure so why bother?

  2. Just another YouTube video gushing about graphics. Sure FS2020 is stunning, but that is not where the substance lies. Both myself and my CFI/CFII use home simulators in support of real world flight and flight training. FS2020 promised but summarily failed to provide a whole new level of accuracy and realism based on advanced and detailed modeling of the wing and tail surfaces. In short, FS2020 is 99% eye candy.

    I use X-Plane 11 plus a $20 addon flight model from SimCoders and with solid hardware can practice stalls and steep turn maneuvers etc. in my home sim. YOKO Yoke for me. I recommend the Honeycomb Yoke for those with tight budgets. I have no interest in FS2020 until the flight model for GA aircraft is sorted.

      • I think they do get it, as do I. It’s a pretty and fun flying game for an average consumer.
        But the hype machine also promised realism and systems depth that has not been delivered, thus the frustration of many.

        The interface feels like it was taken from a ’90s console game, which will make it familiar and easy for the console crowd (it is coming to the XBox, I believe), but a bit aggravating for many others, especially those using more than a generic game controller to fly.

  3. Can you use it on iMac, iPad, and iPhone or are the descendants of Gates still pissed at the descendants of Jobs for producing superior [but slightly pricier until training time expenses get figured in] software and hardware since the 80’s?

  4. I’ve used FS2004 since…well, 2004. It, and I assume the new one, isn’t intended to be a $100K real sim for flight training. However, I have very effectively used it to maintain IFR familiarization. All airport approach procedures are correct for the time, and the weather can be set real enough that I have actually, at 300 feet, still haven’t broken out, I am seriously considering the missed and an alternate. I shoot approaches at all our surrounding airports and find it very realistic, procedurally realistic, not the aircraft flight characteristics fully real. These sims are just a matter of using what they can offer and not trying to make them more than that. Then for the price, they’re like stealing. I fly with just the panel and in a 2D mode, not using it as a 3D visual game. I’ve also had a couple of beginning flight students who have been “playing” with FS for quite a while, and on their first flight in a C150, other than being able to land , they are like they have already had 10 hours of flight training. Use them for what they can provide. And I can even sit at home and drink an adult beverage while dong an ILS to minimums.

  5. I have been using an X-Plane11-based BATD to maintain IFR currency and proficiency for some time, but the artist in me was lured into building a new desktop simulator running MSFS 2020 by the promise of luscious graphics and weather modeling.

    The new sim setup is a work in progress (sim flight control hardware is in short supply this pandemic winter) but I can still offer a few general impressions.
    1. MSFS 2020 looks amazing: it’s totally immersive, visually. Spawn a flight with the Carbon Cub parked on the edge of a grass strip in Wales at sunrise on a crisp fall morning and you can almost smell the crushed grass under your tires.
    2. As a serious simulator for real-life pilots? To be generous, it is a work in progress. There are too many things not-quite-right about the flight models and/or missing from the aircraft systems and avionics simulations to be convincing; some of the lapses are seriously annoying. I imagine Asobo/Microsoft will make improvements over time and third party developers are starting to fill in some of those gaps, but…
    3. Did I mention the graphics are amazing? I think I’ll fire up the sim and go fly the DA62 out of Wanaka for a tour of New Zealand’s Southern Alps this morning.

  6. FS2020 is absolutely intended to be the capable of being the core of a $100k flight sim. In fact, it is intended to be able to exceed the capability of today’s $125M simulators in some respects (in terms of simulation scope).

    In order to be able to provide such a flight simulator for $120 though, requires that it have a much larger audience than the number of serious users that want this capability in order to fund the effort. So it must simultaneously be entertainment for a much larger population. There are (and will continue to be) aircraft in flightsim that will be primarily for entertainment and will not focus on accuracy. A good example is the Cri-Cri. Basically no one needs to train for the Cri-Cri, however it has physical characteristics (a bubble cockpit that surrounds 2/3 of the pilots body) and thus makes for a great “game plane” (with the air of authenticity) that allows you to experience the world purely for visual entertainment.

    Flight sim will quickly exceed all other simulators in capability because it is funded with far more income.

    The real reason Microsoft revived flightsim is to serve as a vehicle to launch their universal simulator that will eventually sell into many more markets beyond flight simulation. The accuracy of the universal simulation is of paramount concern, but this is a multi billion dollar project of which FS2020 is just the first baby step. Aviation will, however, ride this train and the aviation community will benefit handsomely from it.

  7. I’ve flown flight sims since their origin back in the 80s and more recently XPlane, P3D, FSX and MSFS2020. I must say MS and their subs have created a most impressive model of the earth. Unfortunately, way down their list of priorities was the aircraft and its associated systems. The good news is they continue to work on the sim and have released over a dozen massive updates. I remain hopeful that MSFS2020 can soon be called a “simulator” and not simply a “game”. I believe it was Pappy Boyinton who said “Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror.”. Simply looking at the earth, as impressive as it may be, will never be a successful venture. That said, I’m confident MS & company are smart enough to know this can never be a success unless they provide the public with a true “simulator”. It’s been a massive undertaking for all involved and I, like so many others, am disappointed in what I got for my $200 USD. We need to be patient and work with the developers to make this the best ever simulator!
    Jake