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The MS FLIGHT Sim - My Thoughts

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Tom Allensworth

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blog-0141494001325693927.jpgJust prior to Christmas a small group of people representing various organizations in the flight sim community were invited by Microsoft to attend a meeting in Redmond, Washington. The purpose of this meeting was to preview Microsoft's most recent and soon to be released entre' into the "Flight Game" world; MS FLIGHT. We were given an entire day to view, operate, and ask questions of the leadership of the FLIGHT team, including Joshua Howard, the studio lead for this program.

 

Robert Whitwell, AVSIM Reviews Editor, and I attended. Microsoft has released more images, videos and a press release since then, all of which have driven the flight sim community to disappointment in some quarters, and elation in others.

 

As some of you may know, and it certainly was not a secret, the MS ACES team were talking to AVSIM, and presumably others, as early as 2007 about the emerging importance of social sites and the possible integration of a social site and flight simulation. Other questions asked had to do with the mechanics of AVSIM, how much bandwidth per month did we consume, how many files were downloaded in a day, median age, income, etc.

 

It was obvious then and glaringly apparent today, that Microsoft was considering an alternative model to the one that was employed with FSX and its predecessors. That model, in light of the growing expectations of MS management for improvements in revenue and margin, was not going to work for any future release of a product in the flight simulation genre'. The lack of profitability with FSX lead to the enevitable; the ACES Team were let go, with only a handful transferred to other sections of Microsoft. (I believe that there is one individual from the earlier ACES team that is on the FLIGHT team today.)

 

In a very short period of time a tremendous amount of experience and talent were lost. From that point forward, there were two things that influenced the path to a new flight simulater; the pressure to improve margins and the loss of many man-years of experience and talent. With the decision to produce a "Flight Game" a totally different set of dynamics came into play. One of these dynamics was the damaging loss of contact, in my opinion, with the flight simming community (that is another blog entry for another day however).

 

It is then no surprise that FLIGHT has a totally different business model and stategy behind it today. There are too many games that have far outshown the flight simulation genre' in terms of revenue and profit. There is no doubt that the MS team took a look at the Apple ITunes store and even some of MS' own products which have an online presence with downloadabe content. The the light bulb did light up. Control of the downloadable content (DLC), and the revenue that DLC would generate, increased the odds of satisfying executive expectations.

 

Summing up the business side of the FLIGHT product, it all makes sense and I applaud the FLIGHT Team Management for making a decision that flew in the face of their historic market, and the thousands of sim enthusiast who they knew would not be happy about it. It is a risky decision on many fronts, not just that of potentially alienating their history core customer base - you and me.

 

About the product itself... We were given an hour or two to "play" with FLIGHT, both standalone and in multiplayer mode. Focusing just on the flight model, graphics and frame rates, I have to say that FLIGHT was not bad at all, considering that you were limited to one relatively small part of the world. That may well have impacted frame rates as well. I saw no discernable stalls or hesitations thoughtout the period we were given to fly that sim.

 

I am not a Stearman pilot, and would not know the performance charateristics of one if they were enshrined in the POM and shoved down my throat. Having said that, I put the Stearman through what I considered to be a relatively challenging set of manuevers (or at least they would be considered so in FSX). The one that I will describe here was the loop. If you do not enter a loop correctly and depending on the aircraft you attempt it with, there are no limits as to what can happen. Power on stalls, inadvertent wing over, spins and all manner of fun things. I made three attempts to loop the Stearman and succeeded on the third go. The first two attempts resulted in pretty mushy stalls, as would be expected. In the third, I was able to finally get altitude and trade that for speed. Hitting the loop at speed did the trick and over the top we went. Keep in mind that this was flying soley with the mouse (my joystick wouldn't work for some reason) and it took some getting used to. Anyway, the loop "felt right". You tell me what a real Stearman "feels" like in a loop.

 

My point here is that the flight charateristics of the Stearman are significantly more realistic than the assessment that it is a game and aircraft dynamics and characteristics are modeled for that less demanding audience. If the Stearman is an example of the detailed flight models to come, then the picture is much prettier than some vocal community opinions would concede.

 

Over the last couple of weeks, more information has come to light on the sim. Some strategies that Microsoft will employ in bringing this product to market and growing it into a online enterprise has caused all manner of angst. A lot of this has been debated to the point of mindlessness in the forums. I will keep it simple.. The one thing that causes me concern among all others is the perceived, or in some cases actual, reluctance of third party suppliers to participate in Microsoft's approach to product acceptance, revenue sharing, and distribution restrictions, among others.

 

My personal opinion is that we need to give this aspect of FLIGHT a bit of time. Based on the initial success of FLIGHT and its early performance with the "target market", this will change. And that really sums up my feelings about FLIGHT today; give it time and wait and see...

 

But, there is one other aspect of this story that needs to be told...

 

There has been thousands of posts, or it seems like it, bewailing the demise of FSX and any successors that might appear. Of course that is not based on any real "fact" or "direct" knowledge of the subject. Nashing of teeth and arm waving are in my opinion, wasted energy at this point in the story of the Flight Simulation genre'. For those of you who are nashing your teeth, running around with your hair on fire and quickly damaging your shoulders, I have news for you...

 

In the meetings with Microsoft in December, the question of FSX's future was asked.. I can't remember the details of the answer, but I can sum it up by saying that MS has NOT SAID they are abandoning the product or ruling out a future successor. You can interpret that, anyway that you wish.

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I like to think and hope that MS Flight just needs a little more years, just like MS always needs more time (think windows 95/98, then XP, Vista then 7).

 

However is seems to me that Microsoft not only changed revenue model, but also target audience, and thereby left us simmers behind.

 

If they really were targeting simmers too, they wouldn't be as foolish to leave out this much simulation/realism:

- ATC

- Flight planner, world map, gps

- Jets

- A large continent with more large airports

- Alot of important small stuff (i.e. ILS, VOR's, weight n balance, etc)

 

And they p1ssed of some addon suppliers like PMDG, so rescue from from 3rd party addons is less likely too.

 

To me it seems like Microsoft wanted a piece of the 3rd party addon revenues, but then forgot that die-hard-simmers were spending all that money, not casual / arcade players. Marketing research and strategy gone totally wrong.

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Great write up Tom! I've been looking forward to reading this for a while and finally remembered at the same time I had the time to actually "read" it. It's nice to get facts over fiction and all the topics and posts just drived by anger and speculation.

 

My personal opinion on it is that in my years I've seen many people try their ideas, and each generation seems to go back and try many things that have been tried again and again. I honestly have no fair about flight simming greatly improving, and don't really care if it's from MS or not. MS has been trying to attract a new genre for a long time with the first implentation of missions. I think that's a smart move and to each their own. We all have our own tastes and some of us got into this hobby from just that sort of thing.

 

What I appreciate is how MS has always made a platform for so many addon developers to profit from, as well as so many ways to tailor our own sim to our own preferences. To be honest, I'm surprised they've held out from this sort of monopoly until now. If I had a fraction of their means, I would already have a full world simulator in action. It would dominate the gaming and simming industry as we know it and be one of the most profitable ones ever seen. The ground work is already there, yet no one touches it or in my case having had this idea since the 80's, can't afford to do anything with it, other than dream. A flight sim, train sim, driving sim and things like games, "The Sims" all as either stand alone products or can very easily be tied into the same virtual world. Bandwidth and ping (data packets) are already faster than we would need for such a thing multiplayer wise. I have made new friends in the train sim world, and recently played around with their simulators. Not being a train enthusiast at all, I loved it. I would love to fly my legs while seeing other below me driving their sim games or sims on the same screen. Knowing that people were in the houses preparing food while they boost their "Sims" moods would add a lot to my immersion and theirs knowing that jet sound they heard passing over their house was an actual person (or AI).

 

The beauty of it for marketing is that you would then have people that have no desire at all in flight simming buying addons for detailed airports near their house or work. They might even buy a flight sim AI addon just to see realistic flights over head, or a train station departing at the same time their local train does it's stops.

 

So, in short, it is very possible and who knows the future of our simming. I just think that it's the beginning of something that hit or miss will hopefully turn out bettering the experience in the long run. Doing what I said above is much easier than it sounds, it's just money to get it started. There's no better way to draw in a new genre than something like what I said I think. A kid playing the Sims might be attracted to the contrails of a default jet, then buys an addon, then the flight sim extension, then, then, then. Possibilities are endless for all of us gamers, simmers or business folk. If you ask me, they're thinking correctly, but far too small. They could do everything I said in less than 2 years (contact me MS and I'll fill you in on much more ;).

 

I applied a while back for their job and maybe I could have shared my other ideas. Unfortunately they passed me up ;)

 

Thanks again for the great write up.

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Thanks for the post, Tom! Very interesting points. Especially exciting is the last paragraph about a future successor to FSX. Just imagine Flight's graphics engine, but opened up and with all the simulation aspects of FSX, and more. THAT would be an awesome sim! Hopefully SOMETHING like this comes in the future.

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There seems to be a lot of speculation, about what Microsoft may or may not do, and why they may be doing certain things.

It's all very well to want the revenue stream that it is assumed that addon developers have enjoyed, but the real question is, will Microsoft be able to afford the Man hours, at Microsoft's Engineering overheads, to develop anything close to what so many addon developers have produced, many times, while getting a ROI that is below minimum wage.

The SIM that the the avid simmer now wants is so far in advance of anything FSX can evolve into, without a costly major redesign, that one has to wonder if there is really still a market to support such a major investment, especially in the current world eccomonic state, and with the recent changes in what people now consider to be entertainment.

 

"I want it, I want it now, I want More, and now I'm Bored with it -- give me something different" -- looks like Micosoft Flight may well be giving the majority what they want.

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There seems to be a lot of speculation, about what Microsoft may or may not do, and why they may be doing certain things. It's all very well to want the revenue stream that it is assumed that addon developers have enjoyed, but the real question is, will Microsoft be able to afford the Man hours, at Microsoft's Engineering overheads, to develop anything close to what so many addon developers have produced, many times, while getting a ROI that is below minimum wage.

 

What makes you assume that add-on's are going to be produced in the states and at the MS campus at U.S. labor rates?

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Excuse me, Tom, for contradicting you and please don't hold it against me, for I feel great friendship towards you. The entire ACES team has not been disbanded, and many, many of the same people who worked on FS X are developing Flight.

 

The designers are the same, the visual modellers, the flight model devs, the terrain guys, they are all the same people and have not gone anywhere. And, even if there are many new people on the Flight team, this was always true of ACES as well.

 

Mike (tdragger) who was lead project manager for FSX, left before the team was fired, so did Jason Waskey, the lead artist, and even Steve Lacey (RIP) long before the demise of ACES. And who can forget Niniane Wang going to Google from ACES (I can just imagine Eric Schmidt chortling from glee every time a Microsoft developer jumps ship and goes to Google!)

 

So, the fact that there have been changes in the team is not particularly important. And it is wise to consider that companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google only hire the very best - they have to be brilliant just to be able to drop their resumés through the mail slot, much less get hired. All those working there on Flight are the very best in the industry, it is not correct to think otherwise.

 

Best regards.

Lus

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Excuse me, Tom, for contradicting you and please don't hold it against me, for I feel great friendship towards you. The entire ACES team has not been disbanded, and many, many of the same people who worked on FS X are developing Flight.The designers are the same, the visual modellers, the flight model devs, the terrain guys, they are all the same people and have not gone anywhere. And, even if there are many new people on the Flight team, this was always true of ACES as well.Mike (tdragger) who was lead project manager for FSX, left before the team was fired, so did Jason Waskey, the lead artist, and even Steve Lacey (RIP) long before the demise of ACES. And who can forget Niniane Wang going to Google from ACES (I can just imagine Eric Schmidt chortling from glee every time a Microsoft developer jumps ship and goes to Google!)So, the fact that there have been changes in the team is not particularly important. And it is wise to consider that companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google only hire the very best - they have to be brilliant just to be able to drop their resumés through the mail slot, much less get hired. All those working there on Flight are the very best in the industry, it is not correct to think otherwise.Best regards.Lus

Luis, thank you for that. When we were at Redmond in December, I remember distinctly being told that the size of the team is around 40 folk and that only one carried over from the ACES team. I will take your word for it. But that certainly puts a lot of confusion into this.

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FWIW, while I still visit these fora and keep abreast of major FS developments, I must admit that after 25 some odd years, my interest in all things flight sim has waned. I might be in the minority on these pages, I attribute this to a variety of factors, both internal and external. First, life. Raising and providing for a wife and two kids, along with increasing job responsibilities has certainly cut into my time. As has other computer alternatives, you tube, social networking, and the totality of content available on the internet for everything from how to tweak my TiVo, to what the best detailing compound is for my car.

 

Over the years I would purchase a computer to 'run' FS, yet I never quite felt that I got there. I would call the Gamestop of the day to find out if the lastest version of FS was in (invariably, they would say yes, not knowing it was the previous version). Far from an accomplished pilot, single digit frame rates on final to LGA (or a dreaded CTD at that same point), would prove incredibly frustrating. And while I did occasionally properly complete FMS programming with some great step by step instructions, I guess it all got too complicated for me.

 

So after taking a break, I am looking for something a bit simpler, which I guess I knew FS could always be.

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