The current iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator was released on PC on August 18, 2020, to much fanfare amongst both wannabe and professional pilots alike. Developed by Bordeaux-based Asobo Studio and published by Xbox Game Studios, it refreshed a Microsoft Flight Simulator series, now headed by Germany native Jorg Neumann, that had lay dormant for sixteen years, after the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X in 2004. Its release early in the COVID-19 pandemic allowed many to escape the real-world troubles and transport themselves somewhere else mentally. Indeed, many real-world pilots used it to keep themselves fresh during the downturn. There are even pilots who, according to Neumann, chose their career off the back of earlier versions of the sim.
Microsoft and Asobo tested their prototype with a rendering of Microsoft’s home city of Seattle first, then the Grand Canyon. “That was successful,” remembers Neumann. “I basically said, ‘I think we can do this’.”
“Many people don’t think about us as a sim or as a game; they think about us as a platform. With that comes a lot of responsibility. We are central to their hobby and, in many cases, this is their main hobby in life, so it’s critically important for them and for their happiness.”
“At some point or another, I think the platform should morph into something that enables the aviation lifestyle,” continued Neumann. “That’s how I think about it.”
One of my favorite aspects of the simulator is that the topography of the entire globe is rendered, so that the terrain you see from your cockpit in, say, deepest Peru is exactly as you would see it in real life. What’s more, with the simulator’s live-weather feature (the work of Switzerland’s Meteoblue), you’ll be experiencing the same conditions affecting that point of the Earth. It even has a draw distance of around 350 miles, allowing you to see, for example, storm clouds in the distance. The clouds consist of voxels and are represented with the help of raymarching, which is a kind of raytracing. A separate atmospheric renderer simulates accurate humidity and pollution. To port realistic weather, Asobo has divided the Earth into 250 million boxes, each with a side length of 64 metres, up to an altitude of 65,000 feet, and meteorological and climatological data are embedded into each of these boxes. Additional layers of data are added in the stratosphere. Using data of the forces on the weather at each location, the system creates a set of equations that are incorporated in the sim to forecast weather conditions. Satellite data is used to render actual ground conditions.
It’s because of all this, and that you’re moving through time, like the planet, that Asobo says the simulator (a “digital twin” of Earth) is rendered in 4D.
Also, real-world air traffic appears in the game, albeit with a time delay. So, if you’re flying across the U.S., for example, depending on your settings, the flights you see around you are actually occurring. It is especially impressive at night. I’ll often find myself just flying above the lights of Los Angeles’ sprawling suburbs, taking in the blinking green and red navigation lights, as planes are either descending into, departing out of, or just flying over its various airports. As mentioned, in the stock simulator there is a delay (of around fifteen minutes) as to when a flight that appears on, say, FlightRadar24 will be replicated in the sim. FSLTL is a great option for having flights closer to real-time, and with correct liveries.
“For me, there are three parts to [live traffic],” explained Neumann in July 2021. “For the density, work has been done already and we improved that. We can now have six different models in close proximity, which is a lot. It’s all about memory, but this is going to help. Some work has to be done in the partitioning system to make that even denser. We look at international airports, and we want to see literally the right plane with the right livery where it should be. That’s the design, but it needs to be set up the right way. On the models front, we are making fast progress to model almost everything. We look at FlightAware and we know what planes are flying around. My job is to prioritize the manufacturers, like Airbus and Boeing at the top, and then Embraer, and then possibly ATR and so forth. We are making good progress; we don’t have it all, but I would say we have 80% of all planes that are in the air. Then we model the planes, which we have made a bunch of progress on.”
As for official liveries: “I have to sympathize: not all airlines are in a good state right now, and nothing is further from their priorities than me asking, ‘Hey, can I use all of your liveries in my flight sim please?’ Their job is very contained. The very large ones, you can find a way to work with them, because they have enough people to actually take care of this. Then there are the ones in the middle, who may be struggling, and I think we just need to be a little bit patient with them. The moment we put something on Microsoft’s servers, we have to have the license. Yet, there will be this world in which we’ll fly around and have every single aircraft exactly right.” He doesn’t expect it to be done very soon, but by 2022 or 2023 at the latest.
A limitation of live traffic is that when an airplane uses runways or taxiways inefficiently, it causes aborted landings, as well as looking like they’re flying on rails. “There is a data issue,” admitted Neumann. “The navigation data isn’t always perfect. For instance, we have this airport in Germany named Heligoland Airport. In the data we get from FlightAware, there are planes landing there. In our sim, they never do. We saw there was an issue with the navdata and we added something driven by Chris from Working Title. We also added FAA data in the United States. I believe that’s now in, as we see a bunch more approaches. We don’t think there is a single database that we can use, so it will be a case of data synthesis.”
The simulator’s physics engine provides realistic flight control surfaces, with over one thousand simulated surfaces, as well as realistic wind modelled over hills and mountains.
The new release hasn’t been without its teething problems, with each update — as the fan community jokes — fixing some things but breaking others. Some of these issues have literally prevented some people from playing the sim until at least the following update came out. One of the most frustrating things about these road bumps is that they affect certain users only – pointing at, in my opinion, certain hardware combinations playing more nicely than others. I haven’t had many problems that haven’t been caused by a rogue add-on here and there, but the ones that I have had are so strikingly obvious that many wonder about Asobo’s level of testing of the sim, either by themselves or by those normal users selected to take part. This shortcoming was in evidence with Simulator Update 5, in July 2021, which was largely an unmitigated mess – not least because it was combined with the simulator’s release on Xbox. A hotfix was released two days later. “Maybe there was initially some skepticism,” said Jorg Neumann five months previously. “‘Do these guys know what they’re doing?’ But I think they see us working hard. They see us listen, and we try to communicate this as well as we can. I think that’s really appreciated, and it builds trust over time. We’re in this for the long haul, and we should treat each other that way – that we’re all in this together. We’re trying to do the best we can can and we’re listening as much as we can.”
Thankfully now, as I write, coming up on a year since the release, the simulator is performing the best it ever has. Amazingly, however, Asobo’s to-do list, which they publish, is always at least twenty items long.
Asobo release sim updates roughly once every month, and interspersed in between every three or so sim updates are world updates. At time of writing, there have been eleven such updates (the work done exclusively by Gaya Simulations). World Update 10 was Canada, released in September 2022, shortly after Sim Update 10. In November, New Zealand was revealed as the location for World Update 12. It was released in February 2023, followed a month later by Sim Update 12. Late April saw World Update 13.
The thirteen world updates so far:
- United Kingdom and Ireland
- France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg
- Nordics (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland)
- Germany, Austria and Switzerland
- Iberia (Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Andorra)
- Italy and Malta
- U.S.A. and U.S.A. Territories
- New Zealand
- Oceania, Hawaii and Antarctica
I’ve managed to move Asobo’s handcrafted airports and POIs to my add-ons folder, resulting in my “official” folder being reduced to under 100 GB in size, and I only have nine of Asobo’s aircraft installed. The world updates averaged around 9 GB over the first ten, so people are going to be asking for some kind of compression at some point, because the current mode of operation isn’t sustainable. The heavyweights of China and Russia haven’t been featured yet either.
Since Microsoft is the parent company, the simulator uses Bing Maps data, as opposed to Google Maps. They have done an excellent job, though. Bing Maps’ data totals 2.5 petabytes (2.5 million gigabytes). Another feature you can’t help but be impressed by is that where there is a building in the real world, it is reflected in the sim. Blackshark.ai implements machine learning to recognize buildings, trees and other objects from aerial images. (So, yes, your house will be represented.) Note, however, that, unless the area has undergone photogrammetry (that is, photorealistic 3D modelling of buildings, trees and terrain), a generic structure will be in position. While the building’s style won’t necessarily match, its footprint will. Software removes cloud cover from Bing’s aerial mapping and corrects colors.
Data stored and processed locally on-device include renderings of day and night, seasonal effects, procedural buildings, trees and other effects, as well as aircraft types and user interaction and controls.
As for the user experience, I was still using the AI air-traffic control and a virtual co-pilot for the first year after release, but I have now started using the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM), for VFR flights, to increase the realism. (I figured I’m unlikely to fly jets in real life, so I don’t feel the need to learn the ins and outs of IFR when I already have enough on my plate.)
Neumann says the introduction of a shared cockpit feature is high on the list of their priorities. “We’re an entertainment product, but there are a lot of requests from flight schools, flight trainers, big companies that make aircraft. They all want to use this as a training tool, and so far we’ve always said that there’s work to be done in order to enable that, and there are things on the way to make it something elegant beyond gaming.”
Microsoft announced a “Game of the Year” edition of the sim, as a “thank-you to the community,” in October 2021, released the following month as a free upgrade for existing owners. I’ve disseminated the information about this release around the relevant pages here.
Just over six months later, Neumann announced that another free upgrade is in the works, this time to commemorate that 40th anniversary of Microsoft Flight Simulator. One of the new aircraft that was introduced was iniBuilds’ A310.