Video games have always been the vanguard of technological advancement as developers wring hardware performance that no one thought possible. These advances come at no small cost—just look to Star Citizen to see how much time and money can be dropped into one game. This is why Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is so impressive.
The newest installment of PC gaming’s longest-running franchise makes a significant leap from minor iteration to enormous overhaul. The game will leverage Microsoft’s Bing Maps property to make it into a truly globe-spanning experience and use Azure’s computing technology to fill in terrain, buildings, trees, and water.
With a retail package that includes 10 dual-layer DVDs with additional downloads required, you’ll need 127GB of free hard drive space just to install it. What is taking up all of that space? Let’s delve into what Flight Simulator is doing to push the genre into the 21st century.
Flight simulators have been a niche interest among PC gamers for generations. The initial Microsoft Flight Simulator was a passion project for the nascent company, which primarily focused on business and productivity software.
Amazingly, Flight Simulator is Microsoft’s longest-running franchise, predating the release of Windows by three years. But it didn’t start in-house. Like many of the company’s successful products, it was developed by a smaller company that Bill Gates and his crew brought into the fold—Indiana-based Sublogic, founded in 1977 by Bruce Artwick.
Like most of the garage developers of the day, Artwick focused on Apple’s home computers starting with the original FS1 Flight Simulator for the Apple II in 1979. The title was extremely limited, letting virtual pilots fly a single aircraft over a primitive wireframe terrain encompassing just a few square miles, but contemporary reviewers were extremely impressed.
In 1982, Microsoft product development manager Alan M. Boyd approached Artwick. Impressed by his work, he tasked Sublogic to create a version of the simulator that could show off the new graphical capabilities of upcoming 16-bit computers. The updated version they made replaced wireframes with flat polygons and let players load new scenery from floppy disks, and a legacy was born.
As console gaming began to secure a foothold in American living rooms, PC games grew to be more complex and specialized. The wide input variety offered by a keyboard and mouse allowed developers to emulate the panoply of switches, levers, and dials on the dashboard of a plane. Hardware manufacturers also started making high-quality flight sticks to capture the simulation audience.
Further iterations of the franchise gradually improved on the concept. In the mid-1990s, Microsoft took advantage of then-new graphics cards to texture their flat polygons for the first time. The series grew to include more planes and airports, but with each installment the wow factor decreased a little bit. Interface improvements and nicer graphics weren’t enough to justify the purchase price outside of the die-hard audience.
In 2006, Microsoft shelved Flight Simulator. It seemed like the genre had reached a natural endpoint, with nothing else to be done. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about technology, it’s that it always finds a way to surprise us.
The new Flight Simulator is the first entry in the series in over a decade. The world of gaming—and computing—has changed drastically in that time. And Microsoft is looking to harness some of the biggest advances to create a radically new flight simulator.
Internally, Microsoft didn’t want to release a new Flight Simulator until it felt like it could actually do something new with the franchise. The basic interaction model of flight simulators hadn’t changed all that much since the 1980s, coupling precise controls with increasingly realistic landscapes to fly over. But those landscapes primarily had to be designed by hand, limiting their scope.
That is, until Bing Maps captured two petabytes of satellite imagery of the planet. Games using real-world topographical data aren’t anything new, but Microsoft’s datasets are unparalleled in their detail and resolution. In addition to the general shots, 400 cities are also captured in deep photogrammetric scans.
To bring Flight Simulator into the modern age, Microsoft turned to French developer Asobo; its 2009 Fuel served as a proof of concept. That racing game, set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, used satellite data as a “seed” for algorithmically generated landscapes to drive through in a 5,560-square-mile map.
That general concept would be employed on a much tighter scale in the new game. Those high-quality satellite images are fed through a series of machine learning algorithms to push them into 3D, using AI to fill in obscured areas and stitch everything together.
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The end result is spectacular. You can fly around the world, and the terrain isn’t just wallpaper—the team at Asobo simulated the effects of wind turbulence created by buildings and trees as you fly by, as well as how weather interacts with these features.
Of course, many of the world’s most recognizable landmarks can’t be created by AI. So Asobo painstakingly placed unique buildings and geographical features throughout the simulation, and plans to continue to fill out the world post-release.
It takes a suite of Microsoft products to do what Flight Simulator 2020 is doing. The Bing satellite maps of the Earth is only one part of the puzzle. The other major contributor is the company’s Azure cloud computing service, which feeds that data to your computer as you fly. An internet connection is required to play Flight Simulator 2020 at its full potential, although you can store terrain offline.
It’s easy to see why Microsoft took a decade to release its new Flight Simulator. It represents a huge technical breakthrough in the genre, pushing a type of game famed for realism to a completely new level. You can truly fly anywhere in the world and it will look right, if not exact.
Flight simulators often led the way for technological improvements in gaming because their interaction model is purposefully very limited. It’s easy to draw geographical features en masse if you don’t have any way of interacting with them besides accidentally crashing into them.
But the procedural terrain systems pioneered here are only going to improve. It won’t be long before the AI used to turn satellite pictures into flyover country becomes advanced enough to extrapolate the insides of buildings, or the underbrush of forests. Imagine being able to traverse the world of Flight Simulator 2020 on foot? Imagine a game like The Last Of Us that uses this kind of world generation?
It’s an incredibly exciting breakthrough in how we create virtual worlds, and even if you don’t enjoy flight sims it’s going to have ramifications for all kinds of games in the future.
Microsoft Flight Simulator for Xbox
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