The team behind Microsoft Flight® consists of roughly 50 people, including a mix of professional pilots, 40% of which worked on the previous team. Three years into development, Project Manager Joshua Howard invited a select few involved in the Flight Simulator community to visit the Microsoft campus in Redmond WA, to see the project thus far.
Joshua Howard likes to say that he works on games for humans; bringing entertainment to those that don’t think of themselves as ‘gamers’. The plan was to turn the wonder of flight into a piece of software that will appeal to anyone at all interested in aviation, not just the hardcore simmers. The faithful Flight Simmers don’t like that it is referred to as a game, but dropping the word ‘Simulator’ helps open the product up to new people.
Microsoft Flight® is a new approach to a beloved franchise. It is a completely separate product from FSX, designed to appeal to the faithful Flight Simmers (prior primary target) as well as the casual flyers and the masses. FSX was great, but was not quite hitting the mark and reached only a fraction of its potential audience. The teams research shows that of all the people who visit flight museums, or attend events related to aviation etc. only a very small percent bought FSX. It became too easy for previous teams to focus on the faithful. While this could be seen as a good thing, at some point this became a burden that stopped the product from expanding.
The game features stunning realism, both in the models and textures. These amazing aesthetics are running on present day hardware that some people will already have. The way previous builds were made, the games ran very CPU heavy, and didn’t take advantage of the fact that graphics cards were developing quickly. The team has put a great deal of effort into getting the game to run smoothly at its highest settings, while not requiring out of this world hardware. But also, getting it to still look good on its lowest settings, accommodating those end users with lower-end hardware and even those running the Windows XP operating system.
The game is built on an improved legacy engine, for large scale scenery support. The base is still a globe, it’s just that there is not enough geography yet. But they would rather launch now and not have everything than wait and let the product age. This also helps keep the download size down.
An all new lighting system for scenery and objects, along with improved texture resolutions on world objects helps the game really come to life. The object density has been increased greatly for given performance and the new technology allows for greater density in cities as well. A lot of these objects are data driven generic scenery with hand touched detail, including non-flat runways on simple airfields. These stand out now that aircraft have proper contact points, compared to the one in FSX. Soft particle cloud and fog interaction with scenery prevents jagged game aesthetics or harsh edges and makes for some spectacular scenes.
Weather conditions are settable. When there is more geography in the game, they may add more features prevalent to a larger scale map. Such as the feature introduced in FS9, of being able to download information from real world weather stations, and have the game simulate them.
The work that has been put into the sound really makes a difference. Down to little things like how the sound of the engine changes when the door is open.
In the previous free form structure, players entered an open world and were left to it. This can be intimidating for someone who maybe just wants to get in a plane and experience the magic of flight, or simply go exploring. To that end, the team has worked hard to create more structured game play, without making it easy.
With Flight® you are at the controls and are free to play your way, whether that be structured or freestyle. The game is very accommodating, while not retracting from the finely honed skills that are required to be an ace pilot. If you can use a mouse, you can fly. Other titles in the past have tried control set-ups where you fly by using the mouse but it has never worked. This time, it’s perfect; it feels natural, it’s responsive and yet very forgiving to those who aren’t accustomed to flying planes.
However, the game also features full game pad and joystick support, with complete access to key bindings and control configuration, for those who want to make it as close to the real thing as possible.
At launch, not everyone will have the opportunity to fly where they are. The team has decided to not try and make the whole world this time. They feel that doing smaller areas at greater quality is more worth while. As such, the current game world is just the Island of Hawaii. The old audience may be frustrated that it’s not built with everything, but it is built for everyone.
The game will be free, and will offer more content to those that use the Games for Windows Live feature, and those willing to pay small fees for new aircraft, mission packs etc.
The game will feature its own marketplace, with content regulated by Microsoft. There will be no software development kit and hence no user created content. The Live marketplace allows for constant content flow and users that opt-in to share data, allow the team to react to user behaviors to improve the game and add more of what users want. It also allows for quicker response to user requests, fixes and general improvements. On top of that, integration with the Microsoft Flight® website offers a more direct link between team and users.
The marketplace will contain new aircraft, minor content packs such as mission packs, major content packs that contain new geography and micro-transactions for vanity items and new liveries. These will likely come with more than just geography. Smaller content like some liveries can be unlocked in-game with no payment needed. Players are Invited in with a great free experience and allowed to personalize it.
Included aircraft are, with the first being the Icon A5. It is a light sports-plane costing around $140,000 and is the only aircraft available in the ‘free 2 play’ part of the game. The second is the Boeing Stearman N25, which is unlocked as soon as the player signs in to LIVE. A shared experience is a better experience, that’s why there are a fair few rewards for the player if they use the LIVE feature. There are no airlines at the moment, because considering the current geography, there is no need for them. Some people may be disappointed, but it is definitely something on the teams list for the future. There is support for multi-engine aircraft; the team says that there is nothing they cannot make.
The aircraft models are stunningly detailed and are authentically modeled with new modular systems for both aerodynamics and physical systems. Stalls and spins, including snap rolls, are tunable per aircraft. There are also tunable ground dynamics for tires and water operations, fuselage drag for proper slips and prop-wash over control surfaces for more precise aerobatics and ground handling.
Directed play such as story based missions, which offer narrative feel and longer play, gives newcomers the confidence to take to free-flight. The new user interface is friendly while still allowing users of all levels to get what they want. Thanks to this and the effective, easy flowing tutorials, first time users have been more successful navigating UI, flying and completing missions and this early user success helps user retention over time.
The missions, whether story or not, have a big replay value, as does everything else. The persistent Pilot Profile tracks in-game statistics even when not signed in to Live, but if you are signed in to Live, it allows you to compare lots stats with your friends. Each activity you complete earns you points, and it’s very difficult not to hit the replay button to try and get those few more points you feel you missed. The profile does not have a personalized avatar, rather you pick from a collection of static profile images. More of which will be added by launch and may in fact appear on the marketplace under vanity items.
The game also has a huge amount of short consumable experiences that can be found mainly in the challenges. Hoops is a challenge whereby you have to fly through sequential rings in the fastest time, with bonus points awarded for aerobatics and special maneuvers. The landing challenges range from Level 1 to Level 5 and getting increasingly more difficult as the level increases.
Goldrush is a challenge that can be played on Live as well as offline. The objective is to collect as many of the gold items as you can before the time runs out. Or if you’re playing with a friend, maybe your objective should be to stop them from getting as many as they can. Although I will hasten to add, that there is no combat, as the verb is fly, not kill; it is not the experience they want to deliver. After signing in to Live, Aerobatics missions are unlocked. Players can use these to learn how to perform difficult flying maneuvers and better their overall skill in the air.
Aerocache Hunt is a fantastic idea that will suit anyone who likes to explore. Aero-cache’s are scattered around the island, and exploration for them exposes scenery and landmarks that users may have otherwise missed, or might be attracted to. Players can play the challenge mode to try and find specific ones, or find them in free-flight, as they are a constant in the game and will be there in any mode. If a player chooses not to sign in to Live, there will be three Aero-cache Hunts’. On the other hand, if they do sign in, there will be hundreds, with more added everyday, including themed ones. For instance, on the 4th July, one might lead you to a hidden fireworks display.
The new multi-player model using Games for Windows Live is more accessible and more stable than Gamespy. Provisionally, a cap of 16 has been set for the number of people in one ‘room’. Since the area is so large, they have added the ability to put yourself anywhere on the map, to allow you to get close to other players. Although there are no leader-boards yet, the stat-tracking still allows players to compete against each other.
Free-flight is of course, still a big feature and allows the player to do whatever they want. Including an endless amount of generated jobs that can be picked up from any of the airports. The world persistence is remarkable too. The aircraft in use will retain its location and state for the next session whether powered up or cold and dark. Fuel quantity also persists from session to session, as well as in the hanger. Fuel management is hinted at, but not forced; it is an advanced tool to effectively manage weight. Fuel does serve another purpose though, in this case. Because the geography is an island, but the game is still technically built on a globe, fuel prevents players from flying to the edge because they would run out of fuel before they got there. Technically, there isn’t an edge. But if Microsoft see that a lot of players are flying that far out and logging off, they will consider putting something there if they feel that’s what players want.
Microsoft Flight® is almost at its Beta stage. Microsoft has used its know-how to reach out to potential audiences, as most simmers will already have signed up from the Microsoft Flight® website. The beta has a low barrier for entry, as the team is not bias towards a type of player.
Microsoft Flight® will auto-set the games visuals and sounds based on the PC’s performance. The Beta will be in English.
A potential release would be the first half of 2012, but the Beta will be used to asses that. Flight will have a simultaneous release in all LIVE enabled countries, but will only support the following languages: English, French, Italian, German and Spanish.
The question remains, how are the people involved in the Flight Simulator Community’s supposed to get involved? Microsoft Studios® believe that this wider audience appeal will generate more customers, which will lead to franchise growth. That growth will lead to the expansion of content and features but will also most likely lead people to Flight Simulator websites. A lot of traffic can be expected, but how are we to accommodate these people? We can’t host content downloads for Microsoft Flight® because it’s a closed, in-game marketplace.
Microsoft's Official Fact Sheet provided to us
Below is the official fact sheet released by Microsoft for "Flight".
Spring 2012 Worldwide
The starter pack is free to play and includes the Icon A5 and the Big Island of Hawaii. Pricing for game add-ons will vary.
Microsoft Flight is an entirely new PC game that lets players jump into the challenge, fun, and freedom of flight with no special hardware or past experience. Whether players want to fly freely or choose to master real instruments and controls, Microsoft Flight is easy for a beginner while challenging for the most accomplished PC pilots. The game immerses players in the flying experience with realistic graphics and accurate physics, and will continually evolve with new terrain, aircraft and challenges that can be downloaded via expansion packs.
Top features include the following:
You’re at the Controls. Microsoft Flight offers hours of exciting gameplay for free with the initial download. Set the pace by choosing to turn on flight aids or use the cockpit controls to perform authentic piloting procedures. Choose how to play, whether it’s completing missions, finishing challenges, exploring the sky or finding aerocaches. Players looking to deepen their experience can download additional packs that add new aircraft, regions and customization options. As a player’s experience grows, so too does Microsoft Flight, with frequently released new content like daily aerocache challenges and regular mission updates designed to keep the experience fresh.
If You Can Use a Mouse, You Can Fly. With Microsoft Flight, players can jump into the challenge and fun of flying with no special hardware or past experience. At the push of a button players can see all available missions, be transported to specific locations, view the airplanes in their hangar, or track and share accomplishments. After a brief tutorial, they’ll be soaring past the lush, breathtaking cliffs of the historic Waipio Valley or witnessing the vast crevices of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with a view from above.
Stunning Realism. Microsoft Flight features a visually stunning and realistic representation of the region-specific weather patterns, foliage and terrain, landmarks and flight physics. Players can explore in highly rendered, accurate cockpits of airplanes, or fly with a view of the airplane from the outside.
Microsoft Flight is optimized for the average PC user, with no special hardware required.
- Dual Core Processor 2.0 GHz
- 256MB graphics card, DirectX 9.0c compliant
- 10GB hard drive space
- WinXP SP3 or newer
- 2GB RAM
- Dual Core Processor 3.0 GHz
- 1024MB graphics card: ATI Radeon HD 5670 or nVidia GeForce 9800T or equivalent
- 30 GB hard drive space
- Windows 7 SP1 64-bit
- 6GB Ram
We hope you found this article very interesting and hope that it gives you an insight of what you can expect from Microsoft Flight. Stay tuned for further updates regarding Microsoft Flight, we will always be the first to keep you updated of development progress. We should hopefully be able to release some screenshots from the beta edition at some time soon.
William Luxton. Seattle. 13th December, 2011.