Just 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.