• Op-Ed: Let's Talk About Microsoft Flight Simulator

    Microsoft Flight Simulator

    Let's Talk About Microsoft Flight Simulator

    By Michael Hayward

    Ever since it was first announced at E3 in June, there has been a huge following for the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, with updates coming from Microsoft themselves, plus various news and social media hubs.

    Last weekend I had the opportunity to fly the all-new simulator at X019 in London, and had a chance to sit down and speak to the developers at the event.

    In this article, I will tell you how I feel about the brief experience I had with the new platform, and what I think it offers to flight simmers.

    But before we even start talking about the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, it is worth talking a little about the history of the platform and where things have progressed.

    As we all know, FSX was originally released way back in 2006 by the Microsoft ACES Team. This proved to be their final project as financial troubles along with pressure from Microsoft led to the team being disbanded and the upcoming Microsoft Train Simulator 2 being cancelled. Flight Simulator had always been a popular product from Microsoft throughout its iterations, and so despite the majority of the original developers no longer being employed, they decided to hand the project over to their Games for Windows Live team to see what they could do. This led to the creation of Flight, which as we all know didn't fair too well. While it wasn't a terrible platform, it catered for an audience which was just too small and with its limited world coverage, meant that it left the majority of users uninterested. Before long, this too was cancelled and things really were starting to look bleak.

    Microsoft eventually sold the licensing for their 'Enterprise Simulation Platform' or ESP, to both Lockheed Martin (commercial license to develop Prepar3D), and also to Dovetail Games (entertainment license to develop Flight Sim World).

    At E3 2019, about mid-way through the show, an all-new trailer previewed a game nobody was expecting. It started off showcasing different scenes, from mountains to coastlines, with lots of detailing around that. Everything looked crisp and clean, with New York City especially looking full of life! Then came the hangar shot, our first look at the silhouette of a Diamond DA-42, and then the engine of a TBM-500 starting up. This was the all new Flight Simulator, and Microsoft was back in business! As a long-time simmer, watching the trailer was certainly emotional.

    The platform which had carried me for over 10 years, was making a massive comeback and one that was bigger than I or any others could ever have imagined. Microsoft have always been giants when it came to flight simulation, so watching this all-new platform with some of the most up to date technologies and libraries available, really made for a shocker. Even now when I look back at that original trailer, it looks simply fantastic, as the level of detail was just mind blowing! Very soon after, it was announced that the platform was being developed in partnership with Asobo Studio of France, utilizing the full potential of Azure AI.

    Since then there have been a number of updates through the Insider platform about how the simulator will work, plus the various rounds of Alpha testing. There has also been plenty of speculation on when we might possibly see a release date, with each new preview, looking more impressive than the last.

    With X019 then just around the corner, Asobo announced on the insider platform that they were going to attend the show and showcase the simulator, whilst at the same time, allowing people the chance to try it for themselves. Knowing this, I quickly booked tickets and was ready to get my hands on what looked to be the future of flight simulation.

    Before that though, we first got to see an all-new trailer showcasing more of the world, and above all a new aircraft, the Boeing 747-8. It just blew us all away, and even then it was just a quick snippet of what was to come!

    And then I got to play it, and this certainly was the best part of the weekend!

    The X019 demo came with three locations and these were Seattle, Naples and the illusive Courchevel. Each one was full of life, with road traffic below, houses that matched their correct locations, and airports that fitted naturally around their environment. Naples in particular was stunning to fly through, especially at night. Road traffic weaved in and out of roads that spanned the entire city, and the main road sitting at the end of runway 06 was full of traffic that lit up the aircraft as you flew over.

    I was also taken to a higher altitude, with the weather set to cloudy. This allowed me to look at how different layers of cloud interacted with one another. The biggest light source in the game was that of the sun. The light then gets refracted through the higher level clouds and blocked out to create shadows, and this was not only projected onto the ground, but also the lower level clouds too which then appeared darker. Each light source in the air and ground is dynamic and affects its surroundings, both on the scenery and the player's aircraft. There were also a number of different weather modes, including a fully-functional real-time setting which certainly throws itself in-flight. Naples for example was not the clearest of days, and high winds led to the aircraft being thrown about while attempting level flight.

    Next we headed to Seattle, Everett, and one of the guys there told me to try out an aerodynamic stall to put their flight dynamics to the test. In the Cessna 172 I climbed to around 1,500ft, idled the throttle and put the aircraft into an upwards climb to lose speed. As I got closer to the stall line I levelled off and waited for the inevitable to happen. The aircraft definitely felt heavier, and slowly lost its ability to maintain level flight. Soon after the left wing slipped into an aerodynamic stall with the aircraft dropping to one side - I was soon looking down at the ground with a low-level spin to correct. Recovery of the aircraft wasn't terribly difficult (let's face it, the Cessna 172 doesn't require much to fly level) and I was soon flying straight again after a drop of 400 feet.

    Next came the Courchevel landing challenge. Unlike the previous two scenes where I was flying the Cessna, I was now in the French-built Robin DR400. As the airport was at a high altitude, I had to lean the mixture, which somewhat limited my power. While I was successful at landing on each occasion, this certainly was no easy feat! The aircraft felt heavy on the controls at low speeds, plus on my last attempt I almost thought I was going to stall! I did manage to score average points on each run, but it certainly felt like a challenge!

    As well as the handling of the Robin, the airport too looked fantastic, with the runway shaped exactly as it was in real life! FSX and previous Microsoft Flight Simulators never managed to introduced curved non-flat runways, so seeing the affectionately named roller-coaster in-sim, was good to see.

    Overall, getting my hands on Microsoft Flight Simulator was refreshing as it was exhilarating. The world just looks fantastic and the scenery out of the box just blows everything into a new perspective.

    The scale of the world has always been a challenge when modelling it in any detail is concerned. Yes, Laminar Research's use of OpenStreetMap data made large improvements in X-Plane, but the detail being offered here by imported Bing Maps data, just blows it away to a new level. On a different note, I know there are talks of having VR Enabled in 2020, and I'm also aware that Asobo have worked on Microsoft's HoloLens, so once this comes to fruition, I'm certain it will change the way we fly (for the better in my opinion).

    Having talked about the level of detail on offer, it's probably a good time to talk about system specifications. While I couldn't get the full tech, I know that the system was a top-end gaming system which was able to run at a stable 40 fps at 4K resolution. Honeycomb had provided yokes for the event which ran seamlessly with Saitek throttles and some rather heavy-duty full-metal rudder pedals. Speaking to Martial, he explained that everything on show could be purchased by the average person; or in other words, nothing we saw or used was experimental so as to enhance gameplay.

    Now don't get me wrong, not every piece of software is perfect, and I did notice a few small issues during my time at the controls. Firstly the AI cars didn't quite drive on the roads, but rather floated one or two meters above them. Also, parts of the ground scenery had small artifacts where the world map didn't quite mold correctly. The guys at Asobo who were standing with me however, were quick to point out that this was being fixed, and that it was more of an alignment issue rather than something game-breaking. In my interview with Martial Bossard he also explained that they were actively working with Bing Maps and Azure databases to ensure that come release, we will have an experience to remember.

    As with previous versions, the simulator also suffered from a few microstutters, but these were very few and far between. Don't forget though, this is a simulator (an Alpha release) being run at a generally solid 40 fps at 4K, and so with optimization, there will be plenty of improvements.

    What's good to know though, is that all of the above issues are well known to the Asobo guys, and that they are working on solutions to these problems. A lot of game studios will happily drop a bugfest onto the market (not a popular move), and this is something I am certain Asobo will not do!

    Speaking of the Asobo Studio team, I must say they are extremely passionate and enthusiastic about their new simulator. Many of them hold PPLs, so their experience of real world flying, puts them in good stead!

    They were also quick and happy to answer any questions I had regarding the simulator, and also if there was something I didn't quite understand. They're a fantastic group of people who I am certain will carry the simulator forward.

    Speaking to Martial Bossard, the co-founder of Asobo and lead developer of Microsoft Flight Simulator, he was certainly proud of the work that his team had done:

    You can check out my interview with Martial of Asobo Studio by clicking here.

    Both Asobo and Microsoft, when it comes to marketing the new simulator, have positioned themselves perfectly in terms of catering for the flight simulator enthusiast, and the absolute beginner. Having only experienced a small part of what the simulator can offer, it's clear to see lessons have been learned. For me, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 IS the future of flight simulation, and hopefully the revival of a fantastic genre.

    The wow factor is back!

    Michael Hayward
    Microsoft Flight Simulator official web site

    Tags: mfs, microsoft, msfs

    23 Comments
    1. dpg's Avatar
      dpg -
      So why wouldn't they tell you the specs?
    1. vflight2's Avatar
      vflight2 -
      Yes, indeed no tech specs, no buy until I have them, all of them clearly up-front.
    1. loki's Avatar
      loki -
      Quote Originally Posted by dpg View Post
      So why wouldn't they tell you the specs?
      As the sim is still in the alpha stage, it is too early to know what the required specs will be. They are still working on what features will be included, as well as optimizing the sim. Best to wait until it has been released and read a couple reviews to what hardware will be best.
    1. TightGit's Avatar
      TightGit -
      I've heard this sim will be subscription based which, if true, is a big off-putter for me.
    1. DominicS's Avatar
      DominicS -
      Michael, let me be the first to say thank you for taking the time to share your experiences of the new sim with the community.

      It's very much appreciated, so thanks again!

      Dominic
    1. loki's Avatar
      loki -
      Quote Originally Posted by TightGit View Post
      I've heard this sim will be subscription based which, if true, is a big off-putter for me.
      Microsoft has said it will be available as a standalone purchase as well as through Xbox Game Pass. Any talk of subscription beyond this is just rumour right now.
    1. Clutch Cargo's Avatar
      Clutch Cargo -
      Seems interesting. Were they actually demonstrating the "streaming"? I doubt it. My guess is it will require the best/fastest components (CPU/GPU), one can purchase $$ plus fastest internet speeds you can acquire (5G?). Then consider the purchase of the product and a monthly subscription to constantly d/l all those GBs of amazing scenery.

      Not trying to be a "Debbie Downer"... just realistic in my expectations. But again I am looking forward to see the end results in a year from now.
    1. loki's Avatar
      loki -
      Quote Originally Posted by Clutch Cargo View Post
      Seems interesting. Were they actually demonstrating the "streaming"? I doubt it. My guess is it will require the best/fastest components (CPU/GPU), one can purchase $$ plus fastest internet speeds you can acquire (5G?). Then consider the purchase of the product and a monthly subscription to constantly d/l all those GBs of amazing scenery.

      Not trying to be a "Debbie Downer"... just realistic in my expectations. But again I am looking forward to see the end results in a year from now.
      They have demonstrated the streaming at previous events, as well as talked about it in interviews, and it sounds like internet connections of ~20 Mb/s will be fast enough for the streaming. Of course this may change as they optimize the sim over the next year and finalize the features. There is also the option of downloading and caching the streamed content for offline use too. On the other hand, data caps could certainly be an issue for some, and there is a completely offline mode as well.

      As for hardware specs, it will probably happily take advantage of the fastest hardware you throw at it, however, I suspect it will run much better on mid range PCs as well. Unlike ACES and FSX, Asobo has the advantage of knowing better what hardware the sim will be running on, and will be working to take full advantage of it.
    1. W33's Avatar
      W33 -
      Quote Originally Posted by loki View Post
      Microsoft has said it will be available as a standalone purchase as well as through Xbox Game Pass. Any talk of subscription beyond this is just rumour right now.
      Good news there.

      W33
    1. W33's Avatar
      W33 -
      Quote Originally Posted by DominicS View Post
      Michael, let me be the first to say thank you for taking the time to share your experiences of the new sim with the community.

      It's very much appreciated, so thanks again!

      Dominic
      +1

      A bit of credit where it's due would be nice.

      Thank you Michael.

      W33
    1. owend's Avatar
      owend -
      Thank you for the review Michael. I am going to look closely at this to see what their pricing model might be. Would it be subscription based or would there be a base level that one could purchase and add on? We don't have the answers to these questions yet. Subscription would be a big problem in my view. Yes, the sim itself looks fantastic, but I will hold my enthusiasm in check until I see what the price structure of the product is going to be.
    1. DrawyahGames's Avatar
      DrawyahGames -
      Quote Originally Posted by dpg View Post
      So why wouldn't they tell you the specs?
      Too early to say, the game is still in pre-alpha. Once more optimisation has gone into this and tested on more systems, we'll get specs closer to release.

      Quote Originally Posted by Clutch Cargo View Post
      Seems interesting. Were they actually demonstrating the "streaming"? I doubt it. My guess is it will require the best/fastest components (CPU/GPU), one can purchase $$ plus fastest internet speeds you can acquire (5G?). Then consider the purchase of the product and a monthly subscription to constantly d/l all those GBs of amazing scenery.
      Can you run Google Earth or Google Maps in its new 3D Sattelite view? If yes, expect slightly improved speeds over that, as Google Maps in particular is built for a low-spec Browser while showing off the 3D scenery.

      Quote Originally Posted by TightGit View Post
      I've heard this sim will be subscription based which, if true, is a big off-putter for me.
      Quote Originally Posted by owend View Post
      I am going to look closely at this to see what their pricing model might be. Would it be subscription based or would there be a base level that one could purchase and add on? We don't have the answers to these questions yet.
      Microsoft have confirmed on a number of occasions that it will be avaliable as a standalone purchase or through Gamepass. You won't have to pay monthly for MSFS 2020.
    1. nadlzfw's Avatar
      nadlzfw -
      It all sounds cool, but this is MS. The company that brought you stupid updates that break your computer and improve nothing. The company that brought you windows X...whether you want it or not. The company that brought you Office 365; big on aggravation, short on utility. I'll pass.

      Nadlzfw
    1. Rupert's Avatar
      Rupert -
      I agree, nice report Michael!!

      I'd also like to followup on a couple of others' comments. I'm only interested in a stand alone project. Buy it once and use it when desired. For me at least, streaming, renting, etc. will be a reason to take a total pass on the whole project!!

      Rupert
    1. felixfer's Avatar
      felixfer -
      Thanks a lot for your information, Michael.

      Félix FdC (Oviedo, Spain)
    1. dcmair's Avatar
      dcmair -
      Dcmair: I am more interested in the technical part of it. How fast will it load when you have a bunch of scenery installed. If there is a tech issue will the program fix itself. One that really gets me is if you happen to stall out a Ruth jet there is no recovering, no matter which altitude you are at. That's a misnomer. By that I mean you are doing the work of two to three people, and if your not paying attention down you go no forgiving. And then I want the sim to tell me what I did wrong. Another issue for me would be to make sure that when the sim is setup finally,on the computer it is to be at home on, make the sim so that the sim loads up into full screen without fumbling around to find out why. As to price, not an issue with me. I started with Mircrosoft Flight Sim when everything was flat no matter where you were at, FS4?
    1. grau's Avatar
      grau -
      Quote Originally Posted by loki View Post
      Microsoft has said it is coming to the PC first, and then Xbox later. They've also said the PC is where their development is focused right now.
      Thank you.
    1. Bartdude's Avatar
      Bartdude -
      I doubt many PC's out there would be able to run a standalone version at max.settings,scenery loading will take an age and storage requirements would be huge. I was led to understand that the scenery would be held on servers and loaded as needed, in order to reduce the massive load on PC's. If that's the case then a subscription charge would be inevitable. We'll have to wait and see.
    1. dilore's Avatar
      dilore -
      Thanks a lot for the report.

      Some questions:
      How did you adjust your views in the cockpit?
      Will they support TrackIR?
      Was there any ATC?
    1. Rupert's Avatar
      Rupert -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bartdude View Post
      I doubt many PC's out there would be able to run a standalone version at max.settings,scenery loading will take an age and storage requirements would be huge. I was led to understand that the scenery would be held on servers and loaded as needed, in order to reduce the massive load on PC's. If that's the case then a subscription charge would be inevitable. We'll have to wait and see.
      Sell the software and I'll build a box to run it. Require me to be online for whatever reason I'll pass!

      Rupert
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