• X019 Interview with Asobo Studio

    X019 Interview with Asobo Studio

    For Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

    Conducted by Michael Hayward

    Microsoft Flight Simulator

    On Friday 15th November 2019, Asobo Studio, who are developing the up and coming Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 showcased their platform at X019 in London. This was the first time a stand had been made available to the public, and the team were on hand to take questions from budding flight simmers and gamers!

    During the day, I managed to sit down briefly with Martial Bossard, the lead developer and co-founder of Asobo, so as to talk about the new platform and what it offered to simmers. I had quite a few questions to ask Martial, so I was eager to get started...

    Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator.

    You're welcome.

    So, let's get right down to it shall we. This is the first time Microsoft have released a flight simulator in about 15 years, but then in saying that, you guys aren't specifically under Microsoft, but rather Asobo. So how did you come to work on MSFS and how long have you been working on this particular project?

    So we've got a long story for this. Microsoft has been partnered with us for the last 10 years I would say, so we've done a lot of projects with them. They were projects with some technical components, so we did an early game for [Xbox] Kinect in which we did a lot of R&D and we also did three titles for HoloLens. We also did a lot of R&D for this title, especially one part of this we did, it is not published in the official SDK for HoloLens. So when it comes to Microsoft to have the idea to bring back this license, they were looking for technologies and a team that could embrace this to make Flight Sim be back. The fact here is Microsoft's own separate technology called Bing Maps means they have the data. They also have a great technology called Azure, so they know how to distribute the data. So they needed a team to embrace this technology and create an experience. It was three years ago now we've been asked to create the first technology demo, the first prototype to see how all of this could happen. As a matter of fact we were also very impressed to see how good it was to take this technology, to mix it with gaming components and to bring back to life and just put a plane here, it was very very very interesting, very very exciting for us. This was the ignition of this project.

    One of the biggest things we have seen about the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, is its use of Azure AI. So a lot of people have seen MSFS as both a new simulator for Flight Sim fans, but also a way for Microsoft to really push Azure right to its limits and showcase what it has to offer. So my question is, how much of the simulator is controlled by Azure such as the flight dynamics and Bing Maps rendering?

    No, no, no. Every calculation being done here is on the PC. The rendering is all locally on a PC, and the simulation is computed locally on the PC. The Azure part is here just to deliver data. You have the Bing Database which is not something you would be able to store on your machine; it's more than two petabytes of data. You cannot imagine a simulation asking people to buy two petabytes of hard drives. For the cloud computing, we also need some extra information because Bing is incredible! You've got a lot of data, but the 3D is only for here about 400 cities in the world, so to bring some 3D objects into the world you need some computations to guess where buildings are, the shape they've got, the size, the color of the roof, everything is computed on Azure and then distributed. It's another database that the user will be connected in so that they can see all of this locally and apart from buildings and Bing Maps, aerials and 3D objects, we also need the tree coverage. We also need the AI to detect every tree on the planet, so we have 1.5 trillion trees computed. So we have this database and another database both online all distributed by Azure. When you mix all of this information, download that, you are streaming the data. The computation, every single calculation for the simulation and the rendering is then all done locally.

    As it stands there are three different methods that the simulator will use for rendering scenery: an online mode, a hybrid mode where you can download data locally, and finally an offline mode. How do the online and offline modes compare to each other? As you say there is a lot of streaming, and so if you didn't have an online connection, would the simulator still look as good?

    I can't guarantee that you will get the exact same experience because that will not be true. The fact is if you like to play in the same area a lot such as Corsica, if you dedicated enough drive space, you will be able to just download the database locally so you can completely be offline. Plus in some countries you will have data gaps, if you don't want these gaps to be completely filled by Flight Simulator, you can download this to have it locally on a hard drive so you can have the exact same quality of flying on offline if you have done the cache before. So we still have a complete offline mode, and on this mode you will see that we have some data on the hard drive locally so you've got all the roads, most of the blueprints for buildings so you can generate them, we have some parts of the tree mask and the shapes of the coasts, basically if you've only got the offline mode, you will still be able to fly VFR. This is very important for us as this is the biggest novelty we are bringing into the world of Flight Simulations because in the past it was pretty easy to program an IFR flight and fly with your instruments but here it's a matter of fact we want you to fly some VFR flights, be able to do some navigation on a map and after that do this flight within the simulation so you can still do that offline. We you have sufficient information to have a proper simulation experience, but if you want to have the complete experience with kind of graphics we have on videos and what you have experienced here today, then it would be better to do some cache or be completely online.

    Regarding the default aircraft list, yesterday you mentioned that you now have partnerships with Boeing, Airbus, Diamond, Cessna, Piper and others, so what default aircraft do you plan to have included and are there any more that you're ready to announce?

    I will let you do the guess. You have seen the videos we have released so far, the only thing that I can say is that you haven't seen all of them. Whereas apart from that I will not give you any new names or models.

    As well as a simulator for the PC, it was also mentioned that we will see an Xbox release for Microsoft Flight Simulator. How do you see this happening and will there be any differences between the two platforms?

    We don't see Xbox as a constraint, it's a unified platform so we know the capacity of its systems but we also know that Xbox is open for keyboard and mouse. You can already get HOTAS, they are already available so you can have a proper experience on Xbox, but I won't want it talk about it as the team is completely dedicated to PC. It's a simulation it'll be PC first so we would like to talk about the PC as at the moment it is where the team is completely focused, and then we will try to bring to a larger audience the same exact experience. So we don't want to have two situations, it will be the exact same experience but probably adapt to the capacity of each machine. For example you have some concerns because you don't have a high [internet] bandwidth we are bringing the solution of doing some cache. On Xbox we are going to choose other solutions but for now its PC, we'll talk about the PC version only and as this is where the core experience is built right now.

    I can imagine that developing a simulator of this scale where the whole planet is being simulated, is no easy task. Are there any challenges you have faced in terms of generating not only the world, but also the aircraft and getting everything to work together?

    So the feeling we have got is we are not doing any dedicated work on one particular place, we are only building systems. So when the system is working on one side of the planet, this should also work for the opposite side of the planet too. We are working on systems that recreate the world. Basically it's interesting as yesterday somebody from the press who had access to the whole map coverage just came back from Oman so they asked us to go to a very specific place so you can be sure that nobody on the team ever flew onto that specific place so it's always a surprise for us. He was so pleased and this was very rewarding for the team because even in some places we have never been we know that the system is still working so the buildings were there, the ocean was placed and rendered and everything was working. By doing this systematic method it should work everywhere. The beauty of it, because it's a system it will always be updated, it's based on a database that can be completed, I think we're going to bring a really good experience on Day 1 and it's something that is going to be improved the next year too.

    One thing that was mentioned in the past but never really expanded on in any detail was the topic of backwards compatibility. So does this mean I could potentially download an old FSX aircraft and run it on the new simulator?

    This is a bit tricky because the world of flight simulation has been kept away from Microsoft for the last decade, so a lot of people have done a lot of things. This means it is impossible for us to say that every single add-on is going to work by default on backwards compatibility. As a result we're not really talking about that, not because we don't want to, but it's because we cannot guarantee that every single aircraft will still be working. Plus on some third-parties they've got licenses that say you've got an aircraft for a dedicated Flight Simulator. We don't want to be into that business, it's a relationship you should get between the customers and the manufacturers, so we don't intend to be into that. The fact is we've built this new simulator upon FSX. So every time we wanted to start a new system we based that on what FSX did. After that we got some feedback from ourselves, from pilots, from test pilots and from manufacturers telling us where to bring some improvements and so some parts of the product have been completely re-done such as the physics was CG-Centric in FSX but not anymore. Then we've got thousands of calculations now on every point of the wings and the fuselage so it's completely new. But everything has been started by taking the FSX piece of code, make that work then have it improved. So it's a bit tricky to talk about backwards compatibility because of the licensing, because of the improvements we have done and because even if we did make it backwards compatible you should experience another simulation. That said, we also plan to add an option that allows you to experience the simulation exactly like you did in FSX. To be completely honest we've also been talking to ACES Team members, they have tried the new Flight Sim and I hope you won't feel the need to go back.

    Does this mean then that deep deep down, there is still a little bit of FSX still there and that this new simulator has been built on top of that?

    Sure! I don't say that everything has stayed and been changed, but every time we wanted to make a new feature, FSX has always been the starting point. But like I told you, everything around the physics, it has been completely redone. If you look at the code now and do a quick comparison, then it has changed a lot.

    Will that mean the folder structure within the simulator game files will stay the same as it was before?

    If you want, you will still be able to find the organisation, but we also plan to bring in a way of doing packaging, where it will be simpler for people to manage their dependencies so I'm still hoping that nobody will have the need to go back, even if it's still possible, so it's a mixture of new technologies and a new way to do things and to respect what is the legacy and being able to understand what people are used to and not to put that away. But we are still hoping that people are looking for a more modern way to do stuff and when I say modern, I also mean easier.

    A lot of Microsoft's more modern games are available on both the Microsoft Store and Xbox Console Companion, but...you cannot access the game files directly. So when it comes to add-on aircraft, will people be able to download them online or will it be a little more locked off or potentially only payware?

    We are not talking about that just yet. We are going to do some communications regarding add-ons, but not today. The only thing I can say is that we have made some partnerships have been announced, so we are talking to third-parties so we can develop an easier way to create content. So the fact is, the same tool used to create the experience is the same SDK we use today. It is not like we have super high quality tools then we will deliver the light version of this. We are doing the experience with the tools that will be delivered in the SDK and everybody will have an access to that. The fact that you are able to trigger the simulator to the developer mode and on this developer mode you will have access to everything that allows you to create planes, sceneries and missions, everything that was done by the person on FSX in what I would say the tooled way, now it's coming with a proper SDK embedded into the simulation.

    Moving on to a hardware question, do you know what minimum specifications are required in order to run the new simulator? For example...could someone on their 2012 laptop run it, or would it need to be a newer top-end system?

    I won't say anything right now for many reasons. The first one is that this game is still in development, so we know we've that we intend to optimise the experience a lot so it would be a bit stupid for us to bring numbers now because we know it is going to change. The experience had today was approximately 40 fps, this is using a computer you can buy, you have not experienced something that was powered by any prototypes or anything you can't afford. Everything you can make this PC on your own. This was rendered on a 4K resolution at 40 fps already, so with optimisations and everything you will have a proper experience if you've got a PC for gamers. We won't talk about Laptops you can find for €500 or £500 in the UK, but if you have got a PC for gamers you should then get a very good experience.

    And so on to my last question, and that is do you have any idea as to when the new simulator will be released? We all know that you are in the early stages of releasing the alphas (well I say releasing, there has been a delay with that), but do you know when the simulator will come to us mortals?

    Yes, I have an idea. laughter So my answer is yes.

    Also, do you know how the simulator will be priced? In other words, will this be a subscription payment, or a one-time purchase?

    If you want to talk about business, you should talk to Microsoft. I can talk about everything technical, the content and the experience, but for everything around business it's not my area. So maybe with some PR at Microsoft but otherwise I cannot tell.

    Thank you very much for your time.

    It was a pleasure to meet you, and also having you to see this experience and to find your ways. It means probably we are on a good path. That being said after the event in September, seeing all of the simmer and real pilots being able to take off and being able to play and enjoy the scenery as well as see proper landings like what you've seen, this is very rewarding for the team.

    Asobo Studio

    www.asobostudio.com
    www.flightsimulator.com


    2 Comments
    1. loki's Avatar
      loki -
      Thanks for the great interview. Some good, straightforward questions and answers.
    1. macflyCYUL's Avatar
      macflyCYUL -
      Me too,thank you Flightsim website for this interesting interview
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