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.