When hearing that I would be part of a group of people who would be “the first people in the world going hands-on” with the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, I was thrilled and scared at the same time. Thrilled knowing that I was about to experience something new and exciting. Scared, because I was worried I would walk away disappointed. If you haven’t already read my hands-on, then I suggest you do, and you’ll be pleased to know that I left incredibly impressed. Whilst my hands-on (hopefully) will give a detailed look at my actual playtime, this article is geared more towards the technical side of things.
During the exclusive Microsoft Flight Simulator global preview event, guests were given a presentation which lasted well over an hour giving a detailed look into the technology powering the simulator and what to expect when the simulator releases in 2020.
A few things to be aware of before you go in too deep. Screenshots and video were originally captured at 4K, but we have scaled them down here. You can view the screenshots in their original form in our media library here. Videos and screenshots were captured from a September 2019 build. Any information you see here was given to us by Microsoft and Asobo Studios developers and representatives. It is correct at the time of the event (September 2019).
To deliver the introduction to the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, took to the stage. After showing off some new footage, he immediately said that “[the team] is trying hard to bring something new to the table […] and some new innovations that really drive flight simulation forward.” He went onto say that the Flight Simulator franchise has always stood for three things: Realism, accuracy and authenticity of flying. As for why it took Microsoft so long to get back involved with the franchise, they needed to wait for the right combination to really advance those three core concepts. That combination is enabled by three key things: technology, great partnerships and a great development team.
The technology driving Flight Simulator started from a previous Microsoft project called HoloTour. With this technology, you could visit three places in the world. This then led the team to consider if this could be done for the whole planet. The team started with Seattle by gathering lots of data and information. Jorg then spoke about how when he showed off Seattle with a Cessna 172 to Phil Spencer (Executive Vice President of Gaming at Microsoft) he asked: “why are you showing me a video of Seattle?” When Jorg turned the plane in the demo, that was the moment it all came together for Microsoft.
The key factor in what made Seattle so rich with detail was the vast amounts of real-world data that exists today. Jorg said that the teams have “tons of data” for what makes the planet tick. From weather, photo imagery to transponders on boats – data is as accessible as ever. All of that data can be used inside the sim.
Whilst the data exists, the team also needed to start using tools to bring the world of Flight Simulation to life. As previously stated, Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator will use Bing to power the image data. Bing’s high-resolution satellite imagery goes right down to 30cm per pixel, with aerial imagery down to 5cm and most impressively, photogrammetry right down to 3cm per pixel. As mentioned before, the new simulator will use 2 petabytes of that map data. Before you get alarmed, that information will not be downloaded to your PC. I’ll go into detail regarding streaming services shortly and how that works. However, what is important to know is that all of this information will be available and can be injected into the simulator to give you a truly global experience. To get all of that information to people across the world, Microsoft will be using Azure – something that didn’t exist before and what makes all of this possible. For those that don’t know Azure, this is Microsoft’s cloud computing service that provides ‘Software as a Service’. Azure will provide both the storage all of this data and deliver it with very low latency (minimal delay).
New York City. The result of all that data being in your simulator.
The second of the three-pronged approach is great partnerships. Jorg made it clear that Microsoft is “working with the plane manufacturers and data providers” to help with core elements of the simulators. One of the key areas which were acknowledged to “keep this industry alive,” is, of course, the third-parties who have built aircraft, scenery, AI programs, etc. Jorg confirmed they are talking to many of them, but we will get more information in the coming weeks.
Another element of the partnerships is all about working with the fans. “We read the forums, we got magazines – we read everything to get feedback.” The team is keen to know what works and what doesn’t, as well as features simmers want to see in their flight simulators. This is evident through events such as these, the continuous blog posts and references to online sources.
With the right technology, tools, data and partnerships – it was about finding the right development team. Before development, Microsoft searched the world to find a team that could look after and nurture this beloved franchise. They also needed a team that could cope with large worlds on a vast scale. After all that research, Microsoft landed on Asobo Studios.
Explaining why Microsoft chose Asobo Studios to pilot the development, Jorg explained that “[they] have a proprietary engine […] that can work on gigantic worlds.” This is obviously important when you’re trying to make a world as big as… the world itself. The team at Asobo is so vested in the franchise that many of the 100 strong team is now taking flying lessons to “nail the authenticity.”
Now that we know what the core reasons for the long delay in the franchise are, and who is working on the next generation, Jorg wanted to introduce us to four core pillars of the brand new Flight Simulator itself. Those being the world, the sky, the aerodynamics and finally the cockpit. Each of these areas are being worked on by various teams within the studios. Things get a little more technical from here, so we’ll break it down into those respective areas.
Lionel Fuentes, Lead Programmer at Asobo Studio, took up the mantle next to deliver the vision that the teams have for the world. We now know that by using Bing Maps, the whole world will be included in the base-simulator upon release. There will be no need to download packs or areas, nor will you be restricted in your flying experience.
We have seen from numerous trailers and videos that some areas of the world include sprawling cities with highly detailed rendering. Who could forget that stunning view of the New York skyline? Well, it is confirmed that over 400 cities in the world will be included to that level of detail. New York, London, San Francisco, Berlin, Seoul and many more. Some cities will be more detailed than others (due to what data is available). For example, New York has been designed with 3cm scanned photogrammetry details. With that said, all other cities (calculated at around 2 million) will be included, but will use data and the Azure AI to compute how they look in the simulator. One other impressive statistic Lionel shared, is that 40,000 airports will be included. Just as we have in the world of FSX, these airports are ‘default’ based on data. From my hands-on experience, these airports, even at the default level, are still highly impressive but do certainly leave room for improvements down the line.
Between airports and busy cities are, of course, millions upon millions of miles of land, towns, forests, mountains, etc. Not everywhere in the world can be as detailed as those focus cities, but with the power of Azure, the team is able to generate much smarter autogen than ever before. Using real-world data, the simulator can detect where 1.5 trillion trees need to be placed, ensure that buildings are generated in accurate places with details such as accurate roof type and colour. Additionally, the Azure AI technology will also intelligently scan the Bing Map imagery and detect things such as blurries, clouds and shadows and attempt to improve the imagery for a better experience.
Other details, which were shared in a recent blog post, include 3D grass blades. Millions of them are generated all over the world. Water will be impacted by the wind speed and direction, and there is an impressive night lighting engine. Finally, procedural generation will happen during runtime (on your local machine), which will generate ground details such as dirt, concrete, asphalt, etc.
Rendering, Bandwidth and Internet Connections
The big question: how will all of this data and imagery be available on my PC? As mentioned before, there is 2PB of data for the maps alone – so it is impossible to suggest that data in that quantity would be required to have on your PC. Technology and AI is what makes all of this possible.
Let’s first talk about rendering.
It is confirmed that the rendering of the simulator will take place locally on your hardware. Whilst the data will be streamed (although not in all cases), all of the graphics, physics and sound will be rendered on your machine. Microsoft wouldn’t talk about specs at this point in time due to the nature of development. However, it was made clear that this is a long-term investment for Microsoft. This suggests that it is being built for more modern hardware, and possibly future proofing it for years to come.
As for streaming the data from the internet. There are three modes:
Fully Offline Mode
Adaptive streaming will provide the most detailed experience possible based on your bandwidth. Specifics were not talked about during the presentation, but it was made clear that the simulator will monitor requirements and only use what was available. Based on some of the menu options visible in our hands-on, there were internet options. When speaking to the developers one-on-one, they said that the level of detail will adaptively change depending on the strength of your connection and how much of the data you could download at what speeds.So for those worried that having a slow internet connection will impact your frame rate, that won’t necessarily be the case. However, microdetails such as texturing in cornfields or visible road markings may not render in as much detail if your connection is weak.
Simply put, your level of detail will vary depending on your bandwidth, but the core simulation experience will remain intact. Or as Lioel put it “the better your bandwidth, the better the experience.”
Using adaptive bandwidth will give you the best experience and all those small, but important, details such as tennis course and accurately placed trees.
Fully Offline Mode
Those worried that they wouldn’t have a strong internet connection or simply don’t have one – you’ll be pleased to know that you will still have a complete experience in an offline environment. When installing the simulator, it will also include all of the real-life data such as lakes, oceans, roads, buildings and other landclass areas. Offline mode is described as “reasonably accurate” and users can still fly VFR.
How this works and the storage space required on your hard drive is not known, but I’m pretty sure it won’t require 2PB of storage (despite how quickly prices for storage is coming down).
A somewhat halfway point between adaptive streaming and offline mode. The Pre-Cache mode will enable you to download arbitrary regions of the world for offline access. This allows you to experience the same level of detail you would have found in an online world, but just in an offline setting. Again, no mention of data size or retention was mentioned. In our hands-on, the Seattle area was completely offline, but had the staggering details of millions of trees, accurate roads and lakes, along with the city represented in full.
Considering we will spend the vast majority of our time in the simulation in the sky, it’s important that this element works well. This important task is lead by David Dedeine, CCO and Co-Founder at Asobo Studio.
There are five big things changing with how the sky works in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
1) Atmospheric Sim
2) Weather Special Effects
3) Night Engine
4) Volumetric Clouds
5) Live Real-World Weather
The new simulator will generate over 600km of coverage for breathtaking views as far as you can possibly see.
An important element for David and the team is to ensure that the atmosphere in the new world is an accurate representation of the real-world. Things such as light, air-pollution, weather and more all impact the atmosphere, so it is important this level of detail is taken into account.
Lighting, in particular, will be used within the simulator to provide a sense of realism not seen before. The sun, moon and city lighting will all impact the environment. Furthermore, things such as humidity and pollution will have realistic consequences on your visibility out of the cockpit window. By using a layered atmospheric engine, the team will be able to create a world with variable particle densities throughout. Shadows will be cast by clouds, mountains, buildings and aircraft. Various screenshots were shared with us showing us just how in-depth this system will go, with the example being an early, humid morning with mist was rising up from the valley.
Weather Special Effects
Weather plays a vital role in the world of flight simulation. The new flight simulator will establish itself with a range of new effects to immerse you into the experience. Rain will now be 3D and realistic – no more random pixels and sprites hitting you. As the rain hits you, it will impact your vision on the windshield and will all depend on the wind speed, the aircraft’s speed and airflow. It is all dynamic. Rain will also fall in shafts depending on the clouds in the sky. Another impressive feature is that rainbows will form realistically based on the dynamic weather.
Rainbows form dynamically based on where rain is falling and there is a light reflecting down on the ground through the clouds.
Fog will be generated in a 3D environment. Light and atmospheric conditions will impact it the way it falls to the ground or rises in the sky.
A full day and night cycle will be present within the simulator, along with a full yearly cycle. Whilst there was no mention of seasons, the team did confirm that the sun will be higher during the summer and lower in the winter months. Stars are all accurately replicated in the simulator and moon phases too will be accurate.
The night lighting has been completely built from the ground-up with a new road, building and airport lighting system designed to immerse you into the world. Impressively, the night lighting from built-up cities will have an impact on the clouds in the sky. If you’re flying in a busy city with lots of night lighting, expect to see an orange-tint in the atmosphere and bouncing off of the base of the clouds. A short video of New York City going through this cycle was shown to us at the presentation, and we could see how the lighting engine changed the look and feel of the city.
Another area which many simmers wanted to see vastly improved is the clouds. Microsoft and Asobo Studios have worked hard to ensure these new clouds are rendered in “ultra detail.” In total, there are going to be 32 layers of clouds, all with different densities and shapes.
There is a huge number of layers here forming these dynamic 3D clouds.
Clouds will not be simple 2D or 3D models, but will instead be completely fluid to the environment. Clouds will form, dissipate and grow in real-time depending on the conditions. All cloud types will be supported and you will be able to watch the wind push clouds in the right direction and speed.
As clouds form, they will impact the airflow of your aircraft. Each cloud will generate its own aerodynamic system which in turn will impact the way your fly your aircraft. Clouds will be simulated across the globe and you will be able to see clouds up to 600KM away to the horizon.
Live Real World Weather
With an advanced engine creating all this weather, it’s only appropriate that real-world weather can be injected into Microsoft Flight Simulator. David confirmed that weather can be injected into the sim in real-time and 20 layers of weather data get pumped into the simulator. This is everything from the clouds, humidity and winds to the pressure, temperature and even jet-streams.
Everyone’s favourite subject: Aerodynamics. This is certainly an area of the new simulator many members of the community are excited to hear and know much more about. Asobo Studios’ co-founder and CEO Sebastian Wloch gave us the details on Microsoft Flight Simulator’s new aerodynamics engine.
The first thing to take away was that the team felt that there were elements of the original FSX aerodynamics engine that did work well. We’ve heard similar testaments from flight sim developers. Whilst that is the case, the team has worked on improving a lot of aspects to it, including the core physics engine, a new collision model, sloped runways, the friction modelling and much more. The new friction model simulates rubber, which makes taking off and landing much more realistic than before. Part of this process has also been done to improve the general simulation of the world and introduce a new worldwide air mass simulation in a 3D environment.
The team felt it was important to get away from the original “on rails” feeling of FSX and create a much more fluid sensation when travelling through the air. The new simulator will make a lot more calls per second than before, gathering more data to make appropriate adjustments to your aircraft as you are flying. A lot of work has been done on this to create a much more advanced aerodynamics model, whilst retaining compatibility for developers. The legacy FSX aerodynamic code is still available to developers should they require it, but obviously, this is a “turn it on” type function to ensure that new and more precise aircraft are created. The team has also made it much easier for developers to tweak, create and test aircraft than ever before. Interestingly, Sebastian also commented on how, if you experience a low frame-rate, the simulator will adapt and ensure that your aircraft movements are still always precise.
The bad weather and the large buildings below will all have an impact on the airflow over your aircraft.
Compared to the old simulation, a huge range of improvements has been made. Fuel consumption has been adjusted, load factor makes a difference and now every surface of the aircraft has an aerodynamic simulation. For example, if the gear is down, or you have external tanks on the surface, then you will feel a difference in flight. Flaps are another huge area of improvement as now each setting as a specific lift and drag model. Icing will also build up on your wings when flying through cool conditions.
The biggest change to the aerodynamic simulation is the introduction of 1000 simulator surfaces. Previously in FSX, the aircraft would lookup data from a call sheet. This meant that if the aircraft was doing X then it would look up the data and then do Y in the simulator. Now the aircraft will simulate aerodynamics across the whole aircraft. Pressure, speed, momentum and temperature will impact the aircraft – to the point where individual parts of the aircraft could stall. This was demonstrated to us in a debug mode where you could see the airflow over the aircraft as different stresses were put on it.
With the new aerodynamics systems, there is now local stalling, buffeting and flutter, along with native support for slipping, skidding and blanketing. Furthermore, crosswinds will become even more of a challenge than ever before.
Worldwide Atmospheric Air Mass Simulation
Mentioned earlier was something called Worldwide atmospheric air mass simulation. In layman’s terms, this is how the atmosphere and air around you will have an impact on your aircraft. The new simulation has native support for storms and supercells, and the aforementioned volumetric clouds will support turbulence, along with up- and downdraft. An example was also given about how if there was turbulence being generated on the left-hand side of the aircraft, then only those surfaces will be impacted. This is thanks to the 1000 contact points previously spoken about.
Whilst the weather will have a huge impact on air, so will the 3D environment. Mountains, large bodies of water and cities will now have an impact on the airflow in the sky. Any 3D shape, of any size, will have an impact on the movement of air. For example, if you fly over a large stadium building, get prepared for possible shifts in air around your aircraft. Termics, updrafts and currents are also going to be generated by buildings, hills and mountains.
A visual representation of how air travels across the world of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. The blue lines indicate how the air is moving – notice how it climbs above the mountain.
No matter where in the world you are, there the environment now plays a huge role in how you fly.
The final element Microsoft and Asobo Studios spoke about was the all new cockpits within the simulator. Martial Bossard, lead software engineer and co-founder of Asobo Studio gave the final presentation on how the team is creating a realistic experience from within the cockpit and how immersion is now an important factor in the development of these aircraft.
One of the first things mentioned was the fact that there is now a brand new engine for rendering 2D and synthetic vision 3D, which breathed new life into the equipped G1000s found in multiple aircraft from the pre-alpha build. Real world terrain data and environment is now implemented by default, enabling sim pilots a great accuracy in their situational awareness. Touchscreens have also been designed to be simulated and are interactive.
The cockpits themselves can now take advantage of technologies such as PBR material and output 4K resolution textures. The new rendering engine will also enable effects such as detailed shadowing, pixel ambient occlusion and also reflection from within the cockpit windows and displays. Furthermore, there is now a brand new lighting system enabling dimmable panels and displays by default and the in-flight instruments are now incredibly sharp and have a fast refresh rate.
The level of detail in the cockpits is incredible. Here you can see the reflection in the glass (left) and also the glare on the dials.
Integrated Checklist System
A completely optional feature built into default aircraft is an interactive checklist system. The premise is to simply guide people from a cold-and-dark aircraft to take-off and then eventually shutting the aircraft down. The system has been designed to help those new to simulation or to familiarise them with the aircraft.
Asobo Studios is aware that not everyone wants their hand held, and so, the checklist system will feature multiple modes such as fully assisted, semi-automatic or you can skip it altogether. As you go through cockpit items, the dynamic camera will pan to the area of the cockpit you need to be looking at. Furthermore, tooltips on cockpit instruments and buttons have been fully revised with greater detail and direction should you want it switched on.
Cockpit audio is a hugely important area for the team. For the current default aircraft, the team visited real-life counterparts with an array of equipment to record directly from the aircraft themselves. The new sound script is based on Wwise and the sound effects are all processed in real time based on the simulation itself. This is most obvious when pulling excess G-force in the plane when you can hear the rattle and groans of the frame having stress put on it.
Home cockpit builders will be pleased to hear that Microsoft will ensure that people can continue to build their devices at home with an extended number of variables available. Furthermore, multi-screen support will feature with the new flight simulator. There wasn’t much more information at the time, but the team made a clear point to mention it so that those who use such systems are very much in the development teams’ minds.
Conclusion and Other Details
The one-and-a-half hour presentation came to a close, but there were just a few more details Jorg shared.
The current version of the simulator is in a pre-alpha state, with the Alpha testing group starting towards the end of October. It has been confirmed that Microsoft Flight Simulator will launch in 2020, but is a long-term commitment from the team. This is why it is not officially named or referred to as Flight Simulator 2020 (FS2020). In addition to the 2020 release, it will be coming to PC first, with an Xbox version following afterwards. For those wondering, it will also be coming to Xbox Game Pass.
So there it is – the first range of concrete details regarding the new Microsoft Flight Simulator. The presentation was incredibly insightful and the developers were all clearly passionate about what they have created so far. The new simulator has been designed to be a collaborative effort with the community and the teams are always looking for feedback. In one of his final statements, Jorg concluded by saying that “[we are] a point we can take a massive step ahead for flight simulation.” Based on what we all saw at the Rainier Flight Service in Renton, Seattle, I couldn’t agree more.
A sea of clouds, which will have a huge impact on the way you fly.
Continue Finding Out More
[Premier – live on October 1st @ 16:00z] Microsoft Flight Simulator Developer Interview – Episode 2: Aerodynamics and Cockpit
[Premier – live on October 2nd @ 16:00z] Microsoft Flight Simulator Developer Interview – Episode 3: Community Engagement