Microsoft FLIGHT Team Lead
By Tom Allensworth
Publisher, AVSIM Online
Joshua, we met in December when you and your team were gracious enough to invite a number of organizations in the Flight Simulation Community to Seattle to discuss the next product in the MS Flight Simulation genre; FLIGHT. Since then FLIGHT has been launched and the anticipation that had built up over many months has been addressed. Now that it has been launched and has seen the light of day for a couple of weeks, we are very appreciative that you would take the time to answer our questions.
TA: At our meeting in December, when asked about the existing “hard core” flight sim community’s probable negative reaction to FLIGHT, you indicated that you and your team anticipated that reaction and accepted it as an outcome of your decisions you adopted in your FLIGHT business model. Since then, have you altered your view as to the significance of the “hard core’s” reaction?
JH: We accepted that by doing something different with the franchise, we were going to upset some of our existing customers, but that’s the cost of trying something truly new. This new version has always been about finding a way to bring the joy of flight to massive new audiences, and we felt that we couldn’t best do that by building Flight Simulator 11. However, we believe deeply in the value of that underlying simulation, and invested a lot in Flight to create a more sophisticated simulation than we ever had before.
It was encouraging to see that some of our most hardcore customers were able to appreciate how Flight actually improved on previous simulators in many ways, even if they were disappointed with some of the tradeoffs we had to make to enable those improvements. It’s critical as a business for us to understand what our customers are saying, and understanding the simmers’ concerns is still important to us. But simmers aren’t our only customers now, and for a product with as ambitious a mission as Flight’s, we have to make sometimes difficult tradeoffs between the various customers types all the time.
TA: Has that reaction altered the direction of your team in any way? If so, in what way?
JH: We looked forward to engaging in a productive dialogue with our users, but were disappointed in the degree of non-productive behavior some flight simulator enthusiasts exhibited. If anything, the unwillingness of the simmer audience to accept that Flight was intended to appeal to whole new audiences prompted the team to focus on areas where our engagement with our players is more productive. I want the studio to keep an appropriate balance of considering the needs of all of our customers, simmer or otherwise.
TA: Much has been said in the community, and you have obliquely addressed it in previous interviews, regarding the role of third party developers. You have alluded that DLC’s were going to be an in-house development effort for at least the next couple of years. Given that is the case, do you anticipate that your pace of DLC releases will keep the FLIGHT user happy with the content buildup and frequency of release?
JH: To deliver the improvements we wanted in Flight, we had to make some tough tradeoffs. One of those was breaking with the tools that enabled the rich 3rd party ecosystem we had with previous products in the franchise. I do think we will get back to that, but in the mean time we will be managing the content production. We‘re in discussions with other parties about having them develop content alongside us. As to our ability to keep up with what our customers want, we’re not yet able to gauge that. While there will always be customers on either edge of the curve – those who want new content every single day, as well as those who would be happy with new content every few years – we have yet to understand what the right frequency of content is for the bulk of our customers. I believe our internal efforts, and our efforts to find development partners, will be enough to deliver the kinds of content most of our users want – but if not, I’m confident we will do whatever it takes to meet that demand.
TA: What do you see that demand as? A scenery area each month, an aircraft every two? What are your goals in this regard?
JH: We’ve made some guesses, but fully expect to use real customer feedback to quickly replace those guesses with a better-calibrated plan. As that data is coming together, I can say that our current approach is to deliver about an airplane a month, and 3 to 4 expansions a year, as well as a variety of other kinds of content at various cadences.
TA: You have had three or more weeks under your belt in terms of DLC’s. Have the number of downloads met your expectations?
JH: We track a bunch of data, and thus far we have seen some very encouraging trends. The number of folks who sign into LIVE is higher than we had anticipated, and the percentage of folks who end up buying something is very solid. As expected, the Hawaiian Adventure Pack is the most popular piece of DLC. Both of the airplanes are selling better than expected, which is a nice surprise, and we are getting great feedback about both our basic aircraft concept as well as the deluxe.
Our marketing has already done a good job of bringing us the diverse audience we wanted for Flight, and we expect to get better at this over time. One great improvement in the way we now track player behavior is that we can see what players are actually doing, allowing us to pay attention to real user behavior, and not be inappropriately led by the vocal negative minority who post on forums and Facebook.
TA: Based on what you are hearing and reading today; do you anticipate that market demand will necessitate edging beyond “game” like functionality to that of higher fidelity model aircraft and functionality?
JH: When we consider the broad feedback we are getting, it’s fair to say that much deeper simmer functionality is not at the top of our list, but I also don’t think of things in such a binary way. We do get requests from simmers for things like ATC, TrackIR, or making the whole world available, and where we can we are adjusting our future roadmap to accommodate these kinds of things. However, our data reinforces that Flight already has a much wider audience profile than past products in the franchise, and those people are asking for us to improve the product in a variety of other ways (many of which are about improving the quality of the game, like adding leaderboards, multiplayer missions, or new challenge types). The art, as we see it, is to find places where we can invest in some significant area of the product that increases its appeal to as many people as possible.
TA: If so, do you think that your studio, independently or in cooperation with subcontracted lower tier developers, can deliver the systems and functional fidelity in future aircraft releases that traditional third party developers have delivered for FSX? The Carenado and PMDG products come to mind.
JH: I’m not sure what ‘subcontracted lower tier developers’ means, but there are a lot of great folks who want to extend Flight in interesting ways. Today, as we’ve said before, we are not in a position to enable that kind of external support, though we believe we will be able to in the future. However, we are working on ways to partner with other developers. As we get an ever better understanding of what the Flight customer wants (as opposed to what customers of the previous franchise products want), I see us meeting those needs through both internal and external development. We will take a curated approach, ensuring that at least initially, all development (internal and external) is working from the same set of priorities, intended to deliver improvements that will have the broadest appeal possible.
TA: Again judging from your previous interviews, creating scenery of the entire world as done in previous MSFS series products, is not a goal or yours. Can you give us a bit of a product roadmap on scenery development and priorities?
JH: Creating the whole world is not one of our goals for Flight. Previous versions of the franchise include the whole world, and still do, but we didn’t believe that delivering the whole world was a critical part of delivering Flight for massive new audiences. Players of Flight tell us they love the beauty and detail of Hawaii, supporting our position that it’s more important to invest in that level of detail in smaller areas than in having a whole world that looks very mediocre. With regard to future areas, our plans are less about delivering geographies and more about delivering very different ways to experience flight. Flying in Hawaii is beautiful and serene, but Alaska by its very nature is visually stunning in an entirely different way, while also being a more treacherous place to fly. Future expansions will continue to offer opportunities for new flight experiences. There are many magnificent places to fly on this planet, and over time we look forward to offering more and more of them, but don’t feel the need to offer all of them.
TA: Is there any connectivity between that roadmap and that of aircraft development; i.e., transpacific flights between PHNL and KLAX, or PANC, as examples?
JH: Long-haul flight is not one of the scenarios that we believe is interesting for the bulk of our audience. Clearly some people want this, but our research tells us that for anyone but the simmer, the idea of simulating a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu is not a highly-requested feature.
TA: There are a number of things that have been suggested for “fixes” or additions. One of the more visible (no pun intended) has been that of compatibility with Track IR. Is that on your schedule to add? For those who seem to be suffering from withdrawal without it, when do think it will be done, if indeed you are going to address this?
JH: As I mentioned before, TrackIR is one of the requests we are getting from simmers. In an effort to balance our investments, we are considering how we can accommodate this request along with all of the other ways we want to grow the experience. I can say that we understand that the experience of Flight with TrackIR would be very cool, even for the non-pilot, and even if the total number of TrackIR users is pretty low. I expect we will have more to say about this in the future, but today I can’t commit to anything specific.
TA: What other “fixes” or mods are coming that you can talk about?
JH: We think of extending Flight in many different ways, including by addressing issues that need to be fixed (it’s no shame to admit that Flight has some bugs), as well as by adding more content (planes, places, and things to do), and bringing in whole new features or capabilities. We have begun talking about Alaska, as our next expansion, but are still not ready to talk about the ways in which Alaska expands the Flight experience beyond just having a very different kind of geography to fly over. We will start discussing those details soon, though. But even beyond that, the team is hard at work already on the expansion after Alaska, we just don’t want to spoil the fun and reveal too much too soon.
TA: We took a very informal poll of third party developers for MS FSX / FS9, and found that many feel that they have been unfairly treated by you and your team in the lead up to FLIGHT. Given the almost universal nature of the replies, we conclude this is not an isolated sentiment. That being the case, do you have any intentions to rebuild MS’ relations with these developers? Or, do you even perceive that a problem with 3PD’s exist?
JH: It was a very difficult decision to put our 3rd party development plans on hold when we did, which I believe was the primary cause for the frustration these fine developers have had. Ultimately, though, we decided that with our available resources, as a business, we needed to increase our investment in other, more important areas. As a team we initially wanted to do it all – deliver an experience that could bring whole new audiences into flight, but also deliver all of the features the simmer holds dear, including support for the 3rd party ecosystem. The team started working with some 3rd parties, so when we had to back away from them it was bound to upset some of them. We do intend to reach back out to these developers, as well as to new developers, as we work to scale up our content offerings. I don’t have any concerns about our ability to build effective relationships with 3rd party content developers, whether they are from the existing pool of usual suspects or new faces.
TA: IGN this week pretty much raked FLIGHT over the coals. However, they ended with a question that we too were going to ask and hopefully you can provide an answer to. Fundamentally, where are you taking FLIGHT?
JH: Trying something new is hard, and we never thought that absolutely everyone would appreciate what we were doing. Some reviewers have better understood our goals, while some were merely angry that we dared to build something that wasn’t exactly what they decided we should build. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but our business is not about trying to please that kind of person. As to where we are taking Flight, the answer is that I can’t give you an endpoint, but I can tell you we are committed to the journey. I believe that Flight can appeal to millions and millions of people, far more than the simulation sub-genre ever garnered, and our journey will be continuing to explore ways to bring the magic of flight to a massive audience. But simulation is a critical aspect of what we are trying to do – no arcade game can capture the majesty of flying the way a sophisticated simulation can. On our journey I expect the depth and breadth of our simulation to grow, as well for the product to get deeper in many other ways as well. Unlike a retail product, with our living product, our fans can join us on this journey, and we can make progress on the journey measured in weeks, not years.
TA: We could spend the next week of your time asking questions of you; however one question is of importance to those of us that have supported the MS flight sim enterprise for decades. That question is probably one that you are not comfortable answering, but we’ll ask it anyway… Do you ever foresee a day when MS will return to its Flight Simulation product?
JH: Microsoft Flight is our effort to bring this franchise a whole new audience. Our focus now is on making Microsoft Flight the most enjoyable flying experience we can, for anyone who has imagined what it’s like to fly. If returning to Flight Simulator makes sense again sometime in the future, I am confident that Microsoft would not ignore that possibility, but it’s not something that is being actively considered today.
Joshua, thank you for your time and patience in answering what probably seems a rehash of questions you’ve been asked before. I am sure that our AVSIM readership will appreciate your time and in answering them once again.
You can participate in a forum discussion of this interview with Joshua here.