I received an invitation from Brett Schnepf, Microsoft FS-X Community Development Team Lead, to visit ACES Studios in Redmond, Washington and discuss the upcoming release of FS-X and how the simming community can interact and be supported by Microsoft with future endeavors of the flight simming world.
The discussions were spread over 2 days with interaction between Microsoft’s development team, online simulation media reps, like AVSIM, and select journalists. We had the opportunity to see, hear and touch this latest version of Flight Sim.
In the Beginning ….
Flight Sim started 25 years ago in 1981 and soon after its release, it received its first award. 1983 – Best Unusual Game Concept. Game? Who thinks of the present day version of FS as a game? We’ve come a long way from the early 80’s with the technical leaps and bounds of this product from the gaming world. This is the only continuously produced title in the Microsoft inventory during the past 25 years. That says a lot about both the product and the hobbyists that support it.
For the first time, this will be a worldwide release on the same day and in a variety of languages. It will be released on 2 DVD’s.
A Brief Overview
Microsoft’s motto for this release is Fly The World. All of their visual map representations during their presentation deliberately showed the world from a non-North American perspective. This was to show that they understand that simmers come from around the globe, not just the US. Screenshots from the game showed the earth from 18,000 miles up, the maximum altitude you can zoom out to. Once there, take a look around, 10,000 stars have been accurately placed in the sky. You can watch the sun rise or see the moon in its correct phase.
There is an amazing 24,000 airports included in this release. A team member mentioned that they have yet to be unable to show a requested airfield that isn’t included within the sim. Other features within the release include 23 environmental zones so the appropriate vegetation will appear in the area you are flying. There are also 5 seasons to ensure the correct texture is rendered in your location. 5000 real world weather stations ensure that today’s forecast is accurate for your flying pleasure (or displeasure).
The world is not a static place. 24 million roads have been accurately placed, and where there are roads, there is traffic. The roads come alive as the traffic is seen moving down the highways and roads below you. From rush hour to the quiet hours, the traffic volume is regulated by the time of day and your location, whether it is an urban sprawl or a rural country road. The headlights and tail lights are also included which should make for some very scenic night flying or evening approaches into major cities.
Flying long haul over water, then keep an eye out for ships as you cross the oceans. The world’s shipping lanes have been included and tankers, container ships and cruise liners are crossing the world’s waterways everyday. This ships even look great at night, should you be low enough to see their features.
Flying low level across open space in Africa, Europe, North America or anywhere for that matter will be a visual treat as wildlife roams freely in their natural habitat. Herds of elephants were seen migrating across the African wilderness during one flyover. Not just randomly, only during the actual season that elephants migrate. This is all part of the dynamic, environmentally correct effort that Microsoft’s team has put into this sim.
The world inside the airport perimeter fences also comes alive as baggage carts, fuel trucks and moving jetways greet you as you pull up to the terminal. This just mentions a few of the extra features that await you at your destination or point of origin.
Microsoft has other products that include cars, trucks, animals etc, so why not incorporate a proven product into this one to bring the world alive?
MS Flight sim has always included a sailplane. Have you ever noticed that there wasn’t a towplane to go along with the sailplane? There is now. The dynamics of towing an aircraft aloft isn’t accomplished with a towrope made of steel. The rope moves accordingly with taught and slack periods as the two planes work in tandem to get aloft.
Microsoft will be releasing 2 versions of FS-X. A standard version and a deluxe version. This release includes 24 aircraft and most of the “historic” aircraft from FS9 have been dropped.
For the first time ever, they are offering a trial version to be available from their website fsinsider.com. The Deluxe version differs in that the Garmin 1000 is included on 3 aircraft, there is a tower controller feature (more later) and the addition of the SDK tools. Another first, the SDK tools are being released at the same time as the product.
FS-X comes with an updated audio system. For those of you who enjoy the full effect through a 5.1 audio card, you will be able to hear the ambient noises through your speakers, while clearly understanding the ATC commands though your headset.
Other new features with FS-X are a new camera system and “missions” to be flown.
Originally, users who bought Flight Sim did not know what to do when they first started using the program. They wanted to take off, look for familiar landmarks and land successfully. They either continued using the sim or put it away on the shelf.
These mission can be used to guide the new user through flight sim akin to a tutorial, however, you do have to have the basic flying skills in order to perform the task at hand. The missions are ranked beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert.
While some may look at this from a “gaming” perspective, the missions are taken from real world events. One of the Development Team members demonstrated a mission from the Red Bull racing series held in Reno, Nevada. The object of the mission was to successfully fly the course and attempt to beat the course record. Flying a plane through pylons without hitting them, on a pre-determined course at a pre-determined angle of attack while trying to beat the clock is not easy. He failed to beat the time, but his time did qualify him for a position on the Red Bull team. His “reward” for completing the event, was a Red Bull contract which appeared at the end of the mission and will be kept in his flight log.
There are other rewards and “surprises” at the end of each mission. The premise of these missions is to broaden and enhance the user’s experience within the product and to help grow skills and knowledge.
I flew a leisurely guided tour from one Hawaiian island to another. Along the way I saw tourist boats and a pod of humpbacked whales. The right place at the right time, as these whales are migratory and can only be seen off Hawaii during certain times of the year.
Other examples of missions are air show stunt related such as trying to land atop a bus or racing a jet truck. Air show enthusiasts around the world have seen events like this. There are also rescue missions and other flying skill missions. Personally, I think this is a great new feature in the release and I’ll be flying them all when I get my copy.
Additional mission will be available for download at the fsinsider.com website and I’m sure we will see a lot of hobbyists posting their own missions as well.
This is a completely new concept within Flight Sim. Shared skies comes with several components to it. The most obvious is the ability to share a cockpit with another person. Whether that person is sitting in the same room on another PC or half way around the world.
By joining through the multiplayer feature, you can share you cockpit duties with another. It’s not Pilot and Co-pilot, but you are virtually sitting in each other’s laps. This is an excellent way to show a newbie how to fly the aircraft and operate the fully sync’ed gauges within the cockpit. Control of the aircraft is held by one person, through Shift-T you can pass control to the other or conversely, request control from the other. Since “Shared Skies” includes Voice over IP (VOIP) you can “instruct” a newbie as to what you are doing in real time.
Another option of this shared capability is if you are flying long haul, you can share control time of the aircraft for those of you who like to fly in real time. Hong Kong to Vancouver can be a lifetime sitting at the controls by yourself.
A third feature is the “tower controller”. You can connect many users together though the multiplayer portal and control them from the tower. This is an enhancement to the sim, it is not intended to replace VATSIM. This feature gives an average user an extra ability to perform within the sim without having to be at the controls of an aircraft. There are 3100 airports that you can control from.
3rd Party Development
Microsoft is working directly with add-on developers to ensure al their products will work with FS-X. This includes payware and freeware developers (Squawkbox, FSUIPC).
As previously mentioned, they are also releasing the SDK concurrently with the release of the product to assist 3rd party developers to continue with their own products.
Microsoft is looking at a tiered approach to community development and support. End Users, the majority who buy the product and want to be kept up to date through newsletters, downloads, information, etc. Basically a “one stop shop for all things Flight Sim”. Hobbyists, those that enjoy producing further add-ons, usually through freeware. Professionals, those that product the payware add-ons and utilities for the product, and Academia.
I enjoyed my time at the Aces Studios and it was a pleasure meeting many of the Development and Design team for FS-X. The ability to “play” with the Beta version of FS-X gave us all an object view as to what the final product will look like. Those that saw the product at IFC, have to remember that it is still in Beta.
While flying in multiplayer mode, I found a new bug that the team hadn’t seen before. After recalling the title bar across the top of the screen, I wasn’t having any luck in getting out of the multi-player mode, so I right-clicked the bar to the right of the menu options available (the empty part of the title bar). Poof, I was kicked out of the sim and the product re-booted. Thus the “AVSIM Effect” was born.
There were other Beta issues, especially with some of the water effects and landclass edges. But hey, it’s Beta, there’s supposed to be problems.
Key messages we received from the team, “ FS-X is a portal to the world of aviation”, the are “committed to the community” and “FS-X is the platform of choice”.
The last slide they showed us was what they envision FS-X to look like once Vista is released and DX-10 is onboard. One word….”WOW”. Stay tuned for a full review of this exciting new release.
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