Over the week, a series of announcements came from the Microsoft Flight Simulator team about new planes, additional content packs and also the 40th Anniversary Edition. For 40 years, flight simulation has found fans all around the world and is now more popular than ever before. To celebrate the franchise’s huge milestone, the team are working hard at adding a range of fan-requested content such as helicopters, gliders and high-fidelity airliner.
To give us some more insight into what the 40th Anniversary Edition entails, we spoke to the Head of Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann. During the conversation, we spoke about why certain aircraft were picked, why the USA is World Update 10 and whether space shuttles could come to the flight simulator. There’s a lot to unpack but enjoy this in-depth discussion with Jorg from the Microsoft Flight Simulator team.
Calum [FSElite]: We are recording this just after a few days after you announced the 40th anniversary. And any franchise that can reach such a milestone is awesome and incredible. And firstly, congratulations to you and the team. But I’d really like to pick your brains as to why you think that Flight Simulator has gone on for this long and why it’s almost bigger than ever, even after all this time.
Jorg: It’s funny that you say that as I actually got a really nice mail from Matt Booty, who runs gaming at Microsoft, and he was raving about how this franchise is now bigger than it’s ever been. And it’s true, we have more players than ever before. I think it’s because we get closer and closer to the dream. I honestly think that’s what it’s at the core of it.
When Bruce Artwick started this, in the 1970s, and Microsoft in the 1980s, I think the dream of flight and an accurate representation of how it is to fly a plane is closer than ever. How do the cockpits work? Does the Earth look like the Earth? I think people back in the day thought the original was a groundbreaking product, even though it was just vector graphics and it evolved. It was always sort of at the top of what was possible on any kind of PC at the time. I think this time around we have the sim looking as photoreal as we can get it at this point in time.
The abstraction layer is gone a little more and before places like Chicago were ‘buildings’ with this rectangle. Yeah, okay, I got it at the time. But now, you go to Chicago and it looks like every building is exactly the same.
People can now find their houses. That was the thing that really caught a lot of people’s attention. “What do you mean I find my house?” I can’t tell you how many people wrote me emails. Some countries, for example, Albania or something, or like Morocco, they literally said, there’s never been a game that had my country in it. Never. And it looks exactly what it looks like. As citizens of the planet, I think a lot of people came in just to see, oh, my God, they actually got the planet.
I personally can say that when I was a little boy I love planes from day one, they are amazing machines. Sometimes you go on with life and maybe you fall out of love or you don’t get into aviation. But this is a path back to the childhood dreams of something that is in your head that you want to try. And I think a lot of people have that, and a lot of people have never access to it
When you say congratulations to us, I honestly, and I really mean that it’s congratulations to a community that has really stuck with this for 40 years. We have players that are in their late eighties, and they write to us, and they’ve been there since Flight Sim 1. It’s a lifelong hobby and they love it and they bring in their kids and grandkids. It feels like a generational thing. Maybe the closest equivalent that I think is in the real world is possibly Oshkosh. We were there two years ago and they celebrated 50 years of Oshkosh, and there are many older people at the show. We’re like “wow okay, there’s a lot of older people in aviation.” And the next day were young families with strawlers and kids that were three years old going to an air show. I think that’s how it all starts and I think it’s a very sticky hobby, which is totally unusual. This not a gaming product in the traditional sense of like, hey, you fall in love with some fiction or something. This is a lifestyle thing. This is a human dream that we are fulfilling.
Calum [FSElite]: I think as well, aviation is somewhat expensive and kind of challenging for some people to get into. So being able to literally buy an Xbox or even using your phone nowadays to be able to fly around the world really adds to that accessibility for many people.
Jorg: Yeah, I mean, we just launched on Xbox cloud streaming last week in New Zealand and Argentina, and I would say New Zealand, is an aviation country. In Argentina, I’m not so sure, but it’s fascinating to see how many people are trying and I can see exactly how many people are coming in. You can see how long they’re staying. I think there are lots of untapped regions of Earth that had just never had access to either socioeconomically can’t afford or don’t want to buy really expensive PCs, or there was no console accessible. So I think there’s now a completely new audience and that’s a wonderful thing. That really is great to see.
Calum [FSElite]: A few days ago, you announced the 40th anniversary of Microsoft Flight Simulator. And as part of that announcement, we saw a trailer with a bunch of new aircraft, historic aircraft, helicopters, at long last, because I know every time I think we talk, always asking about helicopters and gliders. So lots of cool, exciting new airplanes. Are you finally glad you’re able to bring these types of aircraft, helicopters and gliders, to the sim after all of this time?
Jorg: It’s been two years since launch and helicopters were pretty much at the top of the list for two years. And we’re listening so carefully to the community, helicopters were at the top. It dropped off because third parties did such a good job. Then a lot of people said, “we want a study-level, or thereabouts airliner.” So those are the three things we said we need to nail in 2022.
Are we glad? Yeah! It actually is interesting because it’s a bunch of different work. Sebastian from Asobo has been rewriting the Fluid Dynamic system quite a bit to evolve the simulator for helicopters since lift is different in helicopters. He can go on and on about all the details, but he and his team are brilliant and it took this long to actually get it that good. It is the same with gliders. You need thermals, which are completely different. Some people think that we have thermals, but we actually don’t have thermals in the sim. For it, you need to know what the terrain is, where the sun is, how much moisture there is, what the wind conditions are, etc. Then you can get thermals and we actually needed a bunch more data that we didn’t have before.
Then the big one: a simulation of an airliner. That was actually a very interesting conversation because we more or less intentionally didn’t initially take it there. But we had an A320 that was good and a 747 that was a good entry-level kind of airliner. We didn’t want to go super far, but then it was clear that people really wanted [a high-fidelity airliner]. That is sort of the highest mountain to climb in flight simulation. It takes a lot of time and a lot of know-how and so we had to decide if we should we put a lot of the Asobo team on such a plane or should we go find somebody?
I then talked to Ubaid at iniBuilds. He’s great and the reason why he’s doing all this stuff is pure. He just wants a perfectly accurate representation of a plane, which is what they’re doing. When I talked to him about the 40th Anniversary Edition and said we’re celebrating, I told him I really want this to be free so everybody can enjoy it. He was like, “wow, I want to be part of this,” and so we basically agreed that the A310 would come over, which is great. I think that’s awesome. It typically is pretty pricey payware and so now everybody gets to play that.
So that was kind of the three threads we have from the community that came into this year. And then I was sitting there actually on a vacation last December or something. I was thinking about what are we doing for the 40th? We had talked about an in-person event, but there was COVID. But then, at some point, there was the first screenshot from Aeroplane Heaven’s DC-3. It literally clicked right there and I thought the thing looked just awesome; I was like wow! Then I was thinking back to experiences in Flight Sim, and the DC-3 was always a thing. In the trailer, we actually put the old livery on it just to really make sure that people understand we want to celebrate both aviation and our franchise. Barry was cool. He was getting really excited.
The story just grew. I had talked to the Smithsonian for a good long time about the Spirit of St. Louis. It was actually supposed to come out at E3, I can tell you that now. That was the actual plane that was supposed to come out with World Update 10, because it felt right. But then when we decided to make an actual release out of the 40th Anniversary Edition, I then thought it had to be in that!
Frankly, I think we’re going to have some fun in the next few months because I only had so much trailer length. There’s not every plane in there that we’re making. There’s other stuff that we’re making that’s also not in there. So we’re going to have some interesting conversations in the next four or five months.
Calum [FSElite]: These aircraft have been kind of co-created as well, with other third parties as well? You’ve mentioned two so far.
Jorg: So the conversation with Barry was sort of a breakthrough conversation for me because he was so excited. A lot of people in third parties space, I don’t know what it is, but maybe they think Microsoft, maybe the team of the past, as an ivory tower type thing. There was no direct connection. The notion that one of their planes could be in the base simulator didn’t even come to cross their mind as though it’s a completely alien concept. I said, “why not?” We’re celebrating the franchise.
It started with Barry and then I had talked to Jim at MilViz for a long time about doing something together. They’re a great developer and so they’re working on the Beaver for the Anniversary Edition. I talked to Jimmy at Blue Mesh about something completely different and I had just casually said, “I’m actually going to go to the Smithsonian getting the Spirit of St. Louis.” He then asked if he could get in on this and make it himself.
We also have Flights Sim Studios; the new offshoot from Aerosoft. They’re helping us with gliders. And then one of the helicopters is basically Asobo’s test bed, which is the Guimbal Cabri G2. The reason why we picked that out is that they’re in southern France. It is super important to have support from manufacturers. Seb [from Asobo] is actually there today sitting with their test pilots getting feedback if everything is working as expected. And I think that’s so valuable. So we said, yeah, it’s maybe not the most super well-known helicopter is pretty new, but they’re right local and they’re collaborative and that’s super important. And then the other helicopter is a Bell 407 and we are working with Nemeth Design on that.
Calum [FSElite]: So a real collaborative effort across the board, really, to make the 40th Anniversary Edition as special as possible.
Jorg: Yeah, it’s a celebration of the community and the community can show off what they can do. It’s just great.
Calum [FSElite]: Speaking of collaborations, I think the most interesting one we saw last week was from your collaboration with 343 Industries about the Halo ship.
Jorg: Yeah, the Pelican! It was kind of an interesting one, honestly. I was maybe a tiny bit nervous about it because flight simulation is a very pure product and to put a fictional thing in there was going to be interesting. But all of us here love Halo! The Pelican has a special place in everybody’s heart and it’s never been flyable in a sort of simulation type of way. 343 Industries gave us all their stats and also a bunch of freedom. They told us how long and heavy it is, etc, but they said to make it fun. So I think we had a good time specifically because at the same time as the team was working on the Darkstar, so we took it as far as we could to make it a believable version of the Pelican. Then we screenshots over cities, there’s a bunch of Pelicans flying around which is awesome. We get hit up a lot by people asking if we want to do this or that.
I think the Top Gun: Maverick collaboration was so positive, it sort of resonated even in the film industry because Paramount talks about how good our collaboration really was. It was really a joy for three years working with them until the movie finally came out. I think there are other opportunities. I just want to be really thoughtful about it. It is a flight sim, which is the real world. It can go a little crazy. So I think we’re going to restrain ourselves.
Calum [FSElite]: The last time we spoke, we joked about saying how the new world could be Mars. But then I watched your recent video where you went to the museum, and then there was talk of a spaceship. So I’m kind of thinking, maybe we’ll see a spaceship in the future?!
Jorg: So I was thinking about this a lot because there was Microsoft Space Simulator, which was actually a cool product, maybe not as famous as the Flight Simulator franchise. And a lot of people ask, hey, why don’t you make a space simulator? And I don’t know, because that space simulator was all about Earth. It was more about Earth and its surroundings than about space exploration or something like that. But it didn’t exactly go to Titan or Mercury.
I think the cool thing about the Smithsonian relationship is they are also very pure in their pursuit. They just want to preserve planes. So my conversation with them was all about, “hey, I think you guys are doing a good job,” and thank God they have good funding so they can actually keep those planes are in awesome shape. They have the best Junkers JU52 I’ve ever seen and I’ve visited quite a few because it’s my favorite plane. It’s, like, freaking new. It is awesome. But everybody knows at some point the truth of time takes its toll on machines. And this whole idea that we are digitally preserving, I think it’s resonating everywhere. I’m working with a lot of museums. A lot of them are thankful. Sometimes we do a little donation, which helps them, because COVID-19 was rough, frankly, on museums. And then we have those forever.
They have the space shuttle they scanned. It took three years to scan it. Now we look at that and in order to do the space shuttle that is a lot of work. Like, you can’t just say again here’s the go button, this isn’t an arcade game. A spaceship is hundreds of thousands of moving pieces. Who knows what the cockpit really is like? So we need to spend some real time on that. But the possibility exists now. You can’t really get to them. Can you scan them? No. I mean, we’re scanning planes sometimes for four or five days if it’s a big airliner. The spaceship took three years, and we could theoretically get that. If we do that would be great; that would be great for everyone.
Calum [FSElite]: So following the Xbox & Bethesda Games Conference, we saw the extended press conference from Xbox where you revealed what World Update 10 was going to be back in the US. I’m very curious as to why you have gone back to the US? And what new features come with this new world update?
Jorg: A World Update for me is a kaleidoscope of things. Sometimes we try to pick airports that are interesting. We try to pick airports that are sort of exposing the whole country by typically we put them on the edges so we can actually fly around, have a reason to fly around, and missions are supposed to do the same. But the real important thing is that the height field is better and that the aerials are better.
We are blessed that the United States is very well photographed from the air. There are constant satellites, and overfly rights are easy, so you can get new data. When we did the World Update in 2020 in November for Thanksgiving, it was our second one. I had sort of the idea to do what to do with updates. It has something to do with we got to where we got to at lunch, but there’s always new data coming in, so how do you even do that? And then we had some Japanese cities that weren’t ready for launch because they have to process forever. So the first World Update was Japan, and the second one was the US. But we didn’t have time to look for tons and tons of data, which takes a lot of time.
So for this particular world update, we had 42 different data sources for DEM. So you have to imagine in order to get this data, you start by typically calling the government. The government says, “we have the country at 30 meters.” Okay, well, that ain’t good. Then you call the State, and the State sometimes has it down to 5 meters or meter. Some states say they have it to a meter, but only in urban areas. And then sometimes you call the cities or national parks, and everybody has different data. Ultimately it’s kind of a fun puzzle to actually put all the pieces together. And in this particular world update, we got a ton, a huge amount of data both on aerials and on DEM, and it just makes it much more realistic. So that alone makes it worth it.
Calum [FSElite]: I haven’t had the chance to fly over it yet, but from the feedback I’ve seen, people are enjoying the new cities and high-resolution imagery. There’s plenty more content such as the new airports, missions, and bush trips. Then we got Local Legend #5: Beechcraft Model 18 as well from Carenado.
Jorg: Yes, that is a lovely plane. The conversations with Carenado have been super fruitful. I think we’ve launched four or five planes with them already. There are many more coming, I can say that much. I think they’re very much a GA house, but then they also did the GBs, which I personally love; they’re cute and dangerous. Then they have some planes like this one. I think just when you look back at the history of Beechcraft, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the Beechcraft Model 18 made Beechcraft. This thing is such a good plane that they made it for nearly 40 years. That’s a shockingly long time to make a plane. The fact that almost 10,000 of them were made tells you everything. This is a great plane. Versatile, rugged, and it has character, right? The sound itself is awesome. You should try it, it’s so much fun to fly.
Calum [FSElite]: It’s the sort of aircraft you want in the simulator where you can take something historic and fly around and really hear that engine sound and fly over. Have you been flying anything specific lately?
Jorg: Personally, the plane I’ve been flying around most lately is the Boeing 247D from Wing42. I think that thing is just great. I didn’t know I had to wait almost a half-hour for the thing to warm up before you get started! But it was fun. I had so much fun with that. But this is a personal thing. Old cars versus modern cars. In old cars, you could fix stuff, you could open the motor, and you could go ahead and fix a bunch of things. Nowadays you open it, you need a diagnostic computer. It’s like, yeah, it’s technically more advanced, but you can’t feel it. So I love some of these old planes; it’s the greatest thing. You’ll see more of these classic types of planes in the 40th Anniversary Edition. It’s like a field day of classic awesome planes.
Calum [FSElite]: We’ve got Sim Update 10 coming in August. What are we expecting in that update and why was there a bit of a delay? What have you learned in terms of trying to make sure that the updates go nice and smooth for people?
Jorg: Look, we had energy at launch, but it was still sort of like, okay, we need to listen a lot, we need to act a lot, and we need to try to be as adaptive as we can be. So I more or less arbitrarily said, “let’s do an update a month.” And I remember the team saying, “what are you talking about? It’s not possible.” I’m like, no, we can do it! It was the switching back and forth between World Updates and Sim Updates that actually are making it possible because they’re completely different people working on these things. Like, completely different. They have nothing to do with each other. So we essentially have two months for Sim Updates and two months for World Updates. That’s kind of the rhythm, right? But still, what ends up happening is the way our systems work is we can’t ‘flight’ too many different flights at the same time. [Editor’s Note: A ‘flight’ is the open testing system in place to allow users to opt-in to try updates prior to a wider release.]
So we ended up shipping some stuff that we only had like really three days testing on the final package, which, I mean, the test teams basically more or less killed themselves to make those good. But the product is so big, you can’t test everything. It’s not possible. So we added a week ‘flight’, which basically meant to get feedback, but we can’t fix it because, by the time the week is over, the thing is already coming out. Then we extended it to two weeks, which was better, but still had issues. And then we finally said we need a month. We need a month for the community to play the ‘flighting’ to give us feedback, and then we have enough time to fix it and it gives us a lot more stability. So given where we are, the fact we have shipped on three different platforms, and that there’s tons and tons of people, stability has to become our top concern. We are basically saying, I think it’s now every six weeks or something that we’re shipping something. So we just changed the cadence a little for the sake of stability and polish.
And what’s cool about Sim Update 10 is there are some features in there that I think people have been waiting for for a long time, like DX12, DLSS and also multiple monitor support. Then at some point or another, we broke something in the bush trips. So that was a big effort. And in general, there’s a huge stability effort going on. There’s a new build internally with much better tracing. So we actually know what’s happening because it’s a very complicated product. So you need to actually have enough debug information to go find what the hell is going on. The team is, I would say probably 50% of the programmers are working on stability right now.
Calum [FSElite]: So we’re expecting the flight testing anytime soon?
Jorg: So we’re launching it on August 23. It will be in July. Right now, internally, the test team has enough time to actually test the build we have in our branch right now. And then we test it, make sure that the most obvious things are good, and then we give it out to the community and they’ll probably have a month.
Calum [FSElite]: You’ve talked about how the team now have a little bit more time for this testing and to try and get things right. How are you feeling in terms of motivation? I mean, you said this is a ten-year project and you’re kind of only a third, not even that, of the way in so far. So how do you guys keep going to continue delivering all this content to the community?
Jorg: That’s a great question. I think we are now feeling that people genuinely accept that we’re not perfect. Nobody is. But we try hard, and I think some of what I think was perceived as negativity is subsiding. And now it’s really just like, hey, guys, get the stable. Here are some more features. Okay, that’s a different tone. It feels like now we’re more together with the community, we’re not really new anymore, right? We are now reasonably known. I think people see what has been done and now let’s have a conversation and drive this forward.
When I said that about the ten years, it’s funny because some people say, “so is it over after ten years?” I’m like, no, that’s not what I tried to say. What I meant to say was, this is not just some flash in the pan. We’re not just making this game, putting it out and then we’re all doing something completely different after that. That you cannot do. That was going back all the way when I pitched the new flight sim to Phil Spencer, and he looked at me and he said, “okay, sounds good, but when we get in, we can’t get out. We have to stay in!” I said to him, “Phil, we all signed up for ten years.” Because when Flight Simulator X (FSX) basically ended and the community saw that were like “what’s just happened?” That cannot happen again. And that’s what I said, hey, look, we’re into this for a decade.
You can’t go to individual programmers and say “you’re going to spend the rest of your life here.” It’s not a realistic expectation. But when the team was growing, during all my interviews, I told them that if they take this job, it’s for a decade so I expect you to be around for that duration. So it’s in the fibre of the team and we’re all committing. We’re committing our lives to making this great. Technology changes so much and we came in right at the right moment to use the cloud to the degree that we did. But I can tell you, it is so much more stuff, technological change that is coming our way, that if you really want to take it further we will have to adapt to new technologies.
But the number one thing that’s important to me is that people trust that we’re here and that we’re not going anywhere, and that we’re going to commit ourselves to make the perfect sim, together. So we need feedback, and then we’ll do our best to translate the feedback into cool software, and then people can give us more feedback.
Calum [FSElite]: I think that’s really comforting to hear, especially what you said about what happened with Flight Simulator X and the aftermath of all that.
Jorg: I have hobbies, and it’s the most important thing in my life, outside of my wife and my kids. We’re taking this very seriously. Flight Simulator is an important hobby for people, and it needs to be perfectly stable.
Calum [FSElite]: It’s really delightful to hear so much positivity in the community in response to the 40th Anniversary Edition, which is coming this November. I’m looking forward to seeing all the cool new aeroplanes, some of which haven’t been announced yet. Thank you, as always, for your time.
Jorg: It’s good to talk to you again! Enjoy the new World Update.
For more on Microsoft Flight Simulator’s upcoming 40th Anniversary Edition, check out our coverage. Also, be sure to check out more details on iniBuilds’ A310 which is coming as part of the 40th Anniversary Edition free of charge.
(A small typo was corrected to state that it is the Bell 407 being made, not the Bell 47)