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Microsoft Flight Simulator X

The Sky Is Boundless, The World Is Alive. It’s As Real As It Gets.

This is the slogan on the outside of the Microsoft Flight Simulator X DVD packaging.  It captures the love of flying that flight simulation fans have explored through this program for over two decades.

The original box artwork for Microsoft Flight Simulator X.

Image shows the original box artwork for Microsoft Flight Simulator X.

Microsoft Flight Simulator X, commonly known as FSX, is the follow-up to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Released in 2006, it is the 10th major revision of the popular Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise. It features a brand-new graphics engine with much improved imagery.

This is the first version released on DVD. It also features a new security system using license keys. After activation, users can play the game without using the DVD. It takes advantage of multi-threading and Intel Core architecture.

Graphic detail is significantly better than the previous version. Waves on the surface of oceans, grasslands, 3-D animals, true star maps, and textures unique to specific locales all contribute to the realistic feeling.

FSX features accurate pictures of real life going on at the airport including trucks driving around, fuel trucks filling up airplanes with gas or fuel, luggage being carded everywhere, and jet-ways being maneuvered into position.

Even with all of the power and controls and ability to set custom settings, Microsoft flight simulator X is easy to use with the default settings. If you just want to get in an airplane and fly somewhere you can do that easily.

You are King of the World because you don't even have to taxi to get in position to take off. You can just take off anytime you want. On the other hand if you want to go through everything that a real pilot does you can do that as well: pre-flight checks, check the weather, flight plans, etc.

You can choose to follow the instructions of the ATC both from your departure airport and the destination airport. Maybe you want some problems to deal with – you can set predetermined equipment failures (or let the computer do that for you randomly). You can also fly on visual flight rules or “instruments only.”

Early Days

Microsoft Simulator had its genesis as a series of articles written by Bruce Artwick around 1976. He described the use of 3-D graphics in flight simulation. To create a program that fulfilled this vision, he created a company named subLOGIC Corporation in Los Angeles. In the beginning they sold flight simulators using direct mail. 

Screenshot from Microsoft Flight Simulator 3

Screenshot from Microsoft Flight Simulator 3, released in 1988.

The very first version of Flight Simulator ran on an Apple II computer in 1980. The graphics were primitive black and white wire-frames. In 1982 the first IBM PC version was released.  The IBM PC version was a step up from the Apple release. It provided users with more gauges, 20 airports and a better coordinate system. While it was an advancement, it still looked like the featured Cessna 182 was made of transparent Lego blocks and the airport was single lonely strip in what looked to be an abandoned airfield.1

In a June 2010 interview with tech industry maven Robert Scoble, Mr. Artwick explained that the evolution of raster graphics in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s provided the foundation he needed to simulate dynamic movement on the screen.2

Flight Simulator 2000 (7.0), released in late 1999, was one of the major releases. It came in two flavors, a version for casual users and another “pro” edition that shipped with extra aircraft. FS 2000 was also the first revision to add GPS, making for more realistic flight.

This was also the first time precipitation was added. Both rain and snow were introduced, along with the ability to download “real-time” weather.

Demo Version

Microsoft FSX is the first edition in franchise history that has a demo version. The demo is a cut down version of the full package. However, it does a good job of giving users the feel of the regular version. You can select “Free Flight” or choose between two flight missions, “Flour Power” and “Caribbean Landing.”

  • For “Free Flight” you can choose between 5 aircraft:  an AirCreation Ultralight, Beechcraft Baron 58, Bombardier CRJ 700, Bombardier Learjet 45 and a Robinson R22 Beta II helicopter.
  • The first flight mission is classified as a Beginner flight. Users pilot an Air Creation Buggy 582 SL Trike Ultralight. The goal is to “Hit as many targets with flour bombs as possible before time runs out. Get more flour bombs by landing on an aircraft carrier. Estimated time to complete: 5 minutes."
  • The second flight mission is classified as Intermediate. The aircraft is a Bombardier CRJ 700. The task is to “Fly a visual approach to the tropical island of St. Martin. Estimated time to complete: 15 minutes."

The demo also lets you adjust various settings like Display, Sound, Controls, Realism, General and Scenery library. You can view the Learning Center but most of the tutorials like the Step-by-Step guide, Multiplayer Flying, Weather, and Instant Replay are grayed out.

Quantum Leap

Despite the robust demo, the full version is a quantum leap in experience. There are Standard, Deluxe and Gold Editions. Each edition ships with over 24,000 airports covering every continent. The Deluxe edition comes with a Software Development Kit and a special Garmin 1000 glass cockpit digital flight deck. There are:

  • 50 missions in Deluxe Edition, 30 in Standard
  • 24 planes in Deluxe, 18 in Standard
  • 45 cities in Deluxe, 40 in Standard
  • 38 cities in Deluxe, 28 in Standard
  • According to Microsoft, “Microsoft Flight Simulator X Gold gives players the chance to purchase Microsoft Flight Simulator X and Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Acceleration together in one bundle.” Feature highlights include:
  • 20 new missions. These include Astronautics, Law Enforcement, etc. Users can fly relief supplies to the Congo; help put out forest fires in the Rockies, and more.
  • Increased realism. Life happens in real time: night turns to day, trucks rush around the airport; airplanes take off in the background. Everything that happens at real airports happens here.
  • Racing Capabilities for Multi-Users. Now users can race against friends in multi-user frenzy. Games include Reno High Speed races, Red Bull Aerobatics, and more.3

Full Version Walkthrough

Once you’ve installed the full version, you can choose “Free Flight.” Free flight mode provides tremendous flexibility and options. You can take off or land from any of the airports and use any of the planes.  You can land on grass airstrips.

First, you select which aircraft you want. If you chose to show “all variants” you can also select an airline. From there you pick which city, state/province, and country you want. Once you’ve narrowed it down to an airport, you can even choose which runway to use.

Next you can select what time of the year (and which calendar year) and the season you want. Then select the time of day: dawn, daytime, dusk and or nighttime.

Next, pick the weather conditions you prefer:  Clear- no clouds,  Building Storms- thunderclouds, Cold Fronts- clouds and cold weather, Fair Weather- a few clouds, Building Storms, Cold Fronts, Fogged In- low visibility, Fair Weather, Rain and Rainy, Heavy Snows, Major Thunderstorm, Stormy Weather, Winter Wonderland- light snow.

Weather in FSX showing clouds and snow.

Image demonstrates the weather system in Microsoft Flight Simulator X; showing 3D clouds and snow on the ground.

Then you select one of the following for weather

  • Real World Weather/Static- retrieves real world weather from the Internet and then doesn’t change.
  • Real World/Updates- retrieves real world weather from the Internet and then updates it every 15 minutes.
  • User Defined- you create the weather.
  • For example, under User Defined you can select:
  • Clouds- choose cirrus, cumulus, stratus, or thunderstorm clouds. Next choose cloud coverage- overcast or broken up. Also choose the turbulence, icing, type of precipitation (rain, snow), altitude and wind speed.
  • Wind- choose altitude, speed, gust speed, turbulence, direction and sheer strength.
  • Temperature- select temperature and dew point.
  • Visibility- how far you can see. This is used a lot in stormy weather.

Weather is reflected accurately so the same flight will be different depending on the time of year. Even the stars in the sky are accurate depending on the time of year and where you are in the world. You can test your skills in landing a plane during sleet conditions, for example. Or you can tell the computer to use their current weather that a city is experiencing right now in real life.

Other features include the ability to adjust include the ATC Window and “Fuel and Payload.” You can also load a previous flight or save the current flight. Then choose if you want to add in any “Failures” where certain portions of the plane will fail at predetermined times. Failure areas include Instruments, Systems, Radio, Engine and Controls.

Missions - you can choose from over 50 missions including tutorials, carrier missions, law enforcement mission, Red Bull Time Trials, dangerous oil rig rescues and more. You can select different categories: tutorials, racing, etc. You can also choose skill level--beginner, advanced and expert.

Some of the goal-oriented missions have mid-flight surprises- example: a stunt plane landing on a bus, flying helicopters into exploding oil rigs to rescue people, search and rescue missions to rescue people from capsized boats or lost in the mountains, flying into Area 51 on a secret mission, picking up a famous movie star, etc.

Multiplayer Mode - you can become an Air Traffic Controller (Gold version only) or race against friends. You have to create an account, then login and choose from the current game lists. Then just join in and start playing.

Microsoft improved Multiplayer mode by moving it to speedy servers in the cloud. They also added voice over IP and other features.  For example, “Shared Skies” lets a user have another player sit it in the cockpit with them (assuming the plane design allows this)--useful for professional instructors helping students.

Pilot Records - these are a series of “markers” a pilot can accumulate that includes things like landings, Stunt Pilot of the Year, Gold Wings, Iron Wing (different rewards for missions) and more.

Logbook - this is a list of all your flights. Photos- you can capture screenshots. Learning Center- tutorials and guidebooks on all aspects of flight simulator X. You can choose between key topics, site map, index and lessons. The lessons are the same as in FS 2004.

Settings/Display - this is where you adjust all your graphics.  Click “Customize” to adjust the target frame rate. You may need to adjust it a few times to find the right frame rate for your computer's capabilities. You can also choose global texture resolution. If you select a very high resolution the pictures will be sharp but your computer will be taxed and you could possibly lose frames.

You can also choose between a 2-D or 3-D cockpit. If you select the 2-D cockpit, you can adjust a slider for transparency. You can also change the exterior settings such as shadow casting and landing lights.

The cockpit simulations are upgraded tremendously from FS 2004. You can actually use most of the controls. In the past some were just decoration with no ability to be changed by the pilot. The Deluxe Edition includes the Garmin G1000 cockpit in a few of the planes. This is an integrated set up with advanced electronics display. It fully replaces the standard controls in the regular cockpit.

Settings/Scenery - choose the desired level of detail radius- small, medium or large.  Other adjustments include:

  • Mesh Complexity is the texture on grounds and mountains.
  • Mesh Resolution and Texture Resolution will also affect ground and grass areas.
  • Water Effects can be set to none, low, or “2 times.”
  • Scenery Complexity affects buildings and airports.
  • “Auto Gen” affects trees and buildings outside the airport.
  • Special Effect Details- this slider selection bar adjusts moving waves, smoke, fires, etc.

Settings/Weather- figure out the optimum Cloud Draw Distance. In other words, how far away clouds become visible. You can also choose Cloud Details: check Simple Clouds or Detailed Clouds (low to high slider).

Settings/Traffic-choose airline traffic details like number of airplanes on the ground, general aviation traffic, airport vehicle density, road vehicles (on highways, etc.), ships, ferries and leisure boats.

The level of customization is extensive. Other Main Settings that can be tweaked include Sound, Controls, Realism, General (compass pointers, ATC voice types, etc), and Scenery Library (to help speed things up you can deselect scenery files if you never fly in those areas).

Aircraft: Plenty of Choice

FSX aircraft selection menu

Image shows a screenshot of the aircraft selection menu in Microsoft Flight Simulator X.

There is a wide variety of aircraft available for every adventurer. Some of the aircraft available in the Deluxe Edition include:

  • Airbus A321- elongated sibling of the A320.
  • Air Creation 582-SL Trike Ultralight- two seat tricycle with fiberglass shell.
  • AgustaWestland AW101- medium sized military helicopter.
  • Beechcraft Baron 58- introduced in 1970, it has double aft doors.
  • Bell 206B JetRanger- helicopter used in police surveillance and aviation training.
  • Boeing 737-800- probably the world’s most popular jetliner.
  • Boeing 747-400- the standard in 747 class jets.
  • Boeing F/A-18 Hornet- supersonic multi-role fighter jet.
  • Bombardier CRJ-700- an offspring of the Canadair Challenger business jet.
  • Bombardier Learjet LJ-45- part of the famous Learjet family.
  • Cessna 208-B Grand Caravan- first introduced by Cessna in 1985.
  • Cessna 172S SkyhawkSP- popular plane used by flight schools everywhere.
  • de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver floatplane- workhorse that can fly in to remote locations.
  • DG-808-S Competition Sailplane – lightweight sailplane made of composites.
  • Douglas DC-3- good balance of efficiency, payload, range and speed.
  • Extra EA-300-S- champion aerobatic competitor.
  • Grumman G-21-A Goose- can take off and land on runways or water.  
  • Maule Orion M-7-260-C Super Rocket- rugged planes good at short take-offs and landings.
  • Mooney M-20-M Bravo Yes- built for one thing- speed.
  • Piper J-3C-65 Cub- a stalwart of World War II.
  • Robinson R-22 Beta II- one of the most popular helicopters in the world.

Graphics vs. Speed

Microsoft Flight Simulator X brings unparalleled graphics to the desktop. You can look down from the cockpit and see cars and trucks moving on the highway below you. You'll see boats and ships moving when you fly over water. You can even see wildlife.

The graphics are one of the biggest improvements over FS 2004. The land and sea look much clearer and more accurate. Terrain has more detail. The computer will create terrain on the fly when it does not have any preconfigured models to work from.

To get all the graphic richness out of the program, however, you need a computer with some firepower. Lifting a giant aircraft into the air and drawing entire cities, oceans, mountains, weather conditions, star maps and more puts a lot of demand on computer processors.

Here are the Minimum System Requirements from Microsoft

  • Windows XP SP2 / Windows Vista / Windows 7
  • Processor: 1.0 Ghz
  • RAM: Windows XP SP2 - 256MB, Windows Vista – 512MB
  • Hard Drive: 14GB
  • Video Card: 32MB DirectX 9 compatible
  • Other: DX9 hardware compatibility and audio board with speakers and/or headphones
  • Online/Multiplayer Requirements: 56.6 kbps or better for online play

Most users will benefit from more RAM and computer speed than the minimums listed here. Each user should experiment with adjusting settings up and down to find the perfect balance of graphics vs. speed and performance.

The FSX frame rates are relatively low due to the high detail. FS 2004 would consistently operate at higher frame rates. The bottom line is you need a powerful computer to run FSX. That said, if you have the hardware, you can get an unparalleled flight simulator experience with FSX.

Commercial Success and End of the Road

Microsoft Flight Simulator X continues the long history of sales success marked by previous versions. In 2006 and 2007, it made the Top 10 PC Game Titles (by Units sold) according to GamaSutra (a popular gaming site) reports.4

Aces studio building

Image shows the Aces Studio Complex in Redmond, Washington.

Despite this, in January of 2009, Microsoft announced that, as part of a series of company-wide cutbacks, the Flight Simulator team would be disbanded. It marked the official end of the world’s longest gaming franchise. At the time Microsoft indicated that more versions of Flight Simulator would be developed at a later date. However, in August of 2010, they announced a new product, Microsoft Flight, would be introduced into the marketplace instead.

Microsoft Flight employs advanced graphics designed to work with Windows Vista and Windows 7. It will feature extremely realistic imagery. It will also be “Microsoft Live-enabled” which provides users the opportunity to join in true multi-player sessions with Gamertags (universal names for player names on Microsoft’s X-box Live).

Add-ons & downloads

One of the best moves Microsoft made early on was allowing users to create add-ons to enhance their experience. Add-ons include everything from aircraft to scenery. You can change the game visuals, game play features, scenery, and more. 

Boeing 747 add-on in FSX

Image shows a Qantas Boeing 747-400 add-on being flown in Microsoft Flight Simulator X.  This file is available from our jet downloads section.

Here are some example add-ons in the library

You can explore a number of free flight simulator add-ons for FSX in the Fly Away Simulation downloads section. There is a wide variety of different themes and missions. For example, you can fly in an Ozzie Air Show or search the jungles of Panama with the FSX Missions add-on.

You’ll find additional aircraft like the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet in FSX Military Aircraft . There are private planes such as a Learjet 45 and other jets in FSX Business Jets and the adventurous can try to fly the Space Shuttle Atlantis and other unique aircraft with the FSX Other Aircraft add-on.

Conclusion

Microsoft Flight Simulator X set a high bar when it came out on the market. Never before had consumers seen such vivid detail and action. While acknowledging its shortcomings, it cannot be denied that Microsoft FSX represents an exciting milestone in flight simulation.

The positive reaction of flight simulation fans everywhere is the final test. As one Amazon.com reviewer said simply, …the most fun I’ve had on my PC in as long as I can remember.

Additional resources

Sources

  1. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3689/sponsored_feature_microsoft_.php?print=1
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUCT0MobR6E
  3. (Broken Link)
  4. http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ptaylor/archive/2008/06/05/success-of-fsx-and-future-of-the-franchise.aspx

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