The new MS Flight Simulator taught me how to fly an actual plane

0 Posted by - 1st October 2019 - Technology

  • Two GoPro cameras were mounted in the Cessna 172 plane that I flew over the Seattle area. I had never flown a real plane before. I had only played the new Microsoft Flight Simulator for about an hour; that was my only training.

    Sam Machkovech

  • You can see the event required that the co-pilot not touch any of the plane’s instruments. You can also see him bracing himself as I take full control of his plane on a gray Seattle day.

  • After playing MSFS briefly, I learned how to manage slight turns and how the screens in front made clear the number of degrees based on the notches.

  • A view of the Puget Sound area from my own smartphone camera.

  • Here, my co-pilot is chilling out a bit.

  • Now he’s back to his “holding on for dear life” thing.

RENTON, Wash.—This month’s Microsoft Flight Simulator world-premiere reveal event, held at a hangar just outside Seattle, was designed for two types of people. The first is the plane enthusiast, the kind of person who purchases pricey equipment in order to recreate the experience of piloting aircraft. Members of the new game’s lead development team, Asobo Studio, were on hand to speak about reviving the decades-old MSFS brand and the inherent scrutiny those fans will direct at any rebirth.

The second type is me, a person who has logged very little time in one of those pricey, realistic flight-sim cockpits, let alone flying a real plane. I didn’t even grow up playing MSFS, Janes, or other classic flight-sim series. Nobody in my family held aviation in esteem. For all the notes I took at the event about rotational weather systems, drag coefficients, and friction models, I got the feeling Microsoft and Asobo wanted to bowl me over with something a bit more specific and literal with its new Microsoft Flight Simulator, slated to launch on Windows PCs in “2020.”

My MSFS kiosk was set up with a pre-loaded virtual flight opportunity: to take off in a Cessna 172 from the Renton Municipal Airport, then simulate flight around the cities, forests, and valleys of the Seattle area. Hours later, I would do the exact same thing… in real life, in a real Cessna 172, as the pilot.

Jeez, I thought to myself. This new version of the game better be realistic.

Update: I didn’t die

To clarify: I did not manage my real flight’s take-off or landing, in spite of practicing both in Microsoft Flight Simulator. And an instructor sat at my side the entire time I was in the real plane, ready to take control should I lose control or become uncomfortable. But, yes, I piloted a Cessna 172 for about a half-hour, managing its altitude and bearing in a trip that took me from Renton to Snoqualmie Falls and from Microsoft’s Bellevue headquarters to the north end of Seattle itself.

This was Microsoft’s gutsy effort to impress upon visiting journalists how good the company thought MSFS was in its current, pre-alpha state. I say “gutsy” because it’s crazy to put a real-life flight up against a computer version in terms of visuals. Asobo has delivered a phenomenal rendering engine that juggles a mix of satellite data, machine-learning calculations, and procedurally generated buildings and terrain. It looks amazing on a computer, but I’m not crazy: the real thing looks better.

But the feeling of flight? Well, gosh. I’m barely an hour into the 100+ hours of flight time needed before I might qualify as licensed, so this is as anecdotal as it gets. But my time testing MSFS did a remarkable job of preparing me for the exact touch and execution needed to fly comfortably and reliably in the skies above Renton.

All of the nerves I had about real-life flight evaporated the moment I heard the command from my real-life Cessna’s co-pilot: “Your plane.” This was my cue to reply out loud, “My plane,” and take firm grasp of the yoke. At which point, the sense of force feedback and required movement was seemingly identical to what I’d tested 1,600 feet below when I had been testing MSFS augmented by a Thrustmaster Pendular Rudder and a Saitek Pro Flight Yoke. (I got a hint of this 1:1 connection to the simulator before I was officially piloting the Cessna. I lightly had my hands and feet on my flight equipment in order to feel my instructor take off in nearly the exact same way I’d successfully done on a computer.)

I was also astonished by how much my real flight felt like the MSFS version I’d played an hour earlier when I encountered the mild turbulence of flying through wind and clouds.

In the game, this required flipping through a menu of weather presets, which had been set to a sunny-and-clear option before our arrival—and, c’mon, this is the Seattle area in September, so good weather is never a safe bet. A “live weather” option, on the other hand, delivered a more realistic volley of thin, transparent clouds and associated wind patterns. The game version didn’t look exactly as gray-yet-clear as my real flight, but my need to adjust my bearing 5-10 degrees to account for regular wind did. I certainly exclaimed in mild panic when this happened in real life, but I was glad to have been prepared for it.

Fuel to the Flight Simulator fire

  • This shot looks very familiar to me… because it’s the same airfield my above flight took off from, as rendered in the new MSFS.

  • This, if you’re wondering, is how the real thing looked in front of my lap. The rest of this gallery is made up of MSFS footage.

    Sam Machkovech

  • Is that Seattle over there, to the northwest?

  • Yes, it is, and we can take a better look by pulling the camera to a third-person view.

  • Use buttons in the game to look around.

  • More footage from a virtual takeoff out of virtual Renton.

  • I was sent a sequence of another virtual flight buzzing around the Seattle area. This one is identical to what I saw in my gameplay session.

  • The abundant detail on the shore is critical for the sake of recognizing where you might be flying. Which coast is it? That matters in a region where there are zillions of peninsulas.

  • Incredible detail on the shore, all cobbled together by Asobo Studio’s use of metadata to render its own 3D geometry and buildings.

  • The flight continues.

  • City data isn’t 1:1 with real life, mind you, but some of the landmarks are remarkably accurate. This isn’t just a satellite scan slapped onto the ground below.

  • MSFS doesn’t mess around with its volumetric cloud system.

Earlier this summer, Microsoft teased its new version of Flight Simulator during its E3 keynote. While tantalizing, the 60-second video flew by without answering some key questions. How would this new version of MS Flight Simulator work? Who was producing it? When was it coming? Would it run on Xbox consoles (a first for the series)?

A lengthy presentation from the game’s lead developers at Asobo Studio answered all of these questions and then some. That first question, of course, was: wait, Asobo? Who’s that?

Peeking at the French developer’s roster of recent games might make a flight-sim diehard scratch their head, since it includes zero flying games. The company has been a supporting developer for various Xbox Game Studios properties for years, whether by leading on Kinect and HoloLens games or supporting the development of “core” Xbox games like Quantum Break. But it’s Fuel, an open-world driving adventure from 2009, that kept on coming up in conversations at the MSFS event.

“I can tell you that the flight-simulation problem—the streaming of an entire Earth at high levels of detail plus altitude change—requires a proprietary engine,” Microsoft Flight Simulator head Jorg Neumann told Ars. “Asobo had made Fuel in 2009, then known to be the biggest game world [on a console]. That’d never been done before. Why? Because they procedurally generated it. They took the best places from satellite photos, condensed them, and made a game world out of it. The trees, grass, terrain were procedural. They’d already solved some of the problems hitting you when you’re rendering at this scale. When you’re in control of your own engine, you can go to double precision floating points without a problem. If you’re on a third-party engine, good luck with that! That’s a fundamental architectural change.”

The whole world

This custom engine work, which emerged well before the likes of No Man’s Sky tackled procedurally generated worlds, convinced Neumann to sign Asobo onto Microsoft’s select second-party slew of developers… but not to make an open-world game. This is when he led efforts at Xbox’s Kinect team, a tricky platform that required its own efficient engine work, and it stayed in the back of his mind while the Asobo crew worked on the first wave of major HoloLens games and apps and while he additionally worked on that platform’s room-scanning technologies.

Neumann’s appreciation for the team’s HoloLens work inspired him to drop a franchise reboot possibility in Asobo’s lap. In 2016, he asked the studio to prototype a realistic, playable flight sequence over the Seattle area, using a mix of Bing satellite map data and procedurally generated 3D details. His question to Asobo: could the studio combine existing map data with a Fuel-like game engine to make a virtual flight over Seattle seem realistic? Could that workflow then be applied to… the entire planet?

The prototype was shown to Xbox head Phil Spencer later that year, to which he murmured, “Why are we looking at this video?” Then the Neumann and the team pressed a controller to show they could manipulate the action in real time. “He looked at me, I looked at him, and he said, ‘Are we really going back?'” Neumann recalled. “‘If we’re doing this, we’re in it for the long run. You’re in it for the long run.'” And Neumann told Ars Technica that the plan is indeed a long-term vision: Asobo and Xbox Game Studios are pledging 10 years of support for this version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. That begins with an insane scope.

With previous MSFS releases, “People didn’t like that it was just flying between two states, 1-2 planes,” Neumann said. “They didn’t like that it wasn’t the Earth. Can you compromise on that? Nope. Now we know there’s 44,000 airports across the globe. For this game, that’s the baseline.”

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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