Microsoft Flight

On March 3, 2012, in Games, by peterb

There’s a particular cry that goes out on gaming forums whenever any sort of sequel is released. The cry can be reduced to the phrase “They dumbed it down!” Deconstructing this, what it really means is “They changed some difficult or unforgiving aspect of the game such that more people will want to play it.” It’s the gamer version of “Oh, that band was really awesome until they sold out.” In the music context, “sold out” means “has made music that more people want to listen to.”

With Flight, Microsoft has made a flight simulator that more people are going to want to play. Microsoft has made a flight simulator that more people are going to be able to play. I think this is a great thing.

From a high level, here’s what Microsoft has done with Flight compared to Flight Simulator X.

The graphics engine is completely new. Usually this sort of change is evolutionary, but in Flight’s case, it’s revolutionary. Specifically, rendering has moved into the 21st century by being moved primarily onto the PC’s GPU instead of being CPU-bound. This has a huge number of effects, beginning with “It looks generally better,” continuing through “and runs at higher resolutions on the same hardware” and moving on to “with extremely high frame rates compared to FSX.

Second, where FSX gave you the entire world, with comparatively low detail, to fly around in, Flight has taken another tack: they’ve started with the Big Island of Hawaii for free, and made the entire Hawaiian island chain available for download as a purchase. But the positive side of this tradeoff is that the islands exist in a comparatively fleshed out form. Even flying at extremely low altitudes, the scenery is detailed enough that it looks much better than FSX, to my eyes at least.

LIkewise, where FSX gave you approximately 7,142,528 different models of aircraft to choose from, Flight gives you two (for free), and makes 3 more (at present) available for purchase.

Flight is structured in a very game-like, as compared to sim-like fashion. Yes, you can fly around on your own with no restrictions, or you can run ‘missions’. Some missions require particular aircraft (this, by the way, is what some people complaining about the aircraft choice might not have noticed. The Maule, for example, has a price tag not because of the bitmap of the plane, but because it’s effectively selling access to the cargo missions.) The missions I’ve finished so far have run the gamut and have been fun and engaging – I particularly enjoyed a coast guard Search & Rescue mission to find a lost kayaker, for example.

Furthermore, taking a page from Grand Theft Auto, Flight has a large number of ‘aerocaches’ hidden throughout the islands; finding them awards you with experience points, the occasional achievement, and bragging rights. The aerocaches are a good way to engage in some virtual tourism, since many of them are located at interesting sites around Hawaii.

In what’s an interesting decision for a flight simulator, you can get out of your plane and walk around. The world – at least so far – is fairly sterile, so this is more of a curiosity than a major selling point. But it suggests obvious areas for further expansion if Flight takes off.

The user interface is quite streamlined, working best with a flightstick but also being perhaps the first Microsoft sim to be plausible with a mouse and keyboard. This will no doubt infuriate purists. But they can get off my lawn. Flight also bravely steals the best ideas from non-flightsim games. For example, there is a “Fly to next waypoint” shortcut that jumps you straight to the next interesting thing in a flight. This is not something one would want to use all the time, but it’s nice to have it available when you need it. (Compare this, from a user-interface perspective, with FSX’s pretty-much-unusable time compression feature, and you can see how much more thought went into usability).

Obviously, this usability comes at a price: I seriously doubt that anyone is going to be learning to fly a real airplane by playing Microsoft Flight. But that’s clearly not the market they’re trying to sell to, and as a kibbitzer I can’t say I disagree with their decision.

To those who feel that the existence of Flight is somehow a personal affront, all I can say is
•Microsoft is in the business of selling software.
•The existence of Flight doesn’t take away your functioning Flight Simulator X
•Microsoft doesn’t “owe” you FS XI, XII, or MCMVII.
•No one is forcing you to buy Flight.

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” -Henry Ford

Flight is a bold experiment to see if, instead of trying to address the expressed desires of the existing flight sim market, Microsoft can expand it. It’s an attempt to focus on quality over quantity, on accessibility over detail. Microsoft is essentially making a wager. The wager is that by focusing all their efforts on the features that they think 90% of the potential customers of flight sims want, they can safely ignore the 10% of the market that wants more ‘hardcore’ features. My personal opinion is that Microsoft is going to win this wager.

But, of course, only time will tell.


3 Responses to “Microsoft Flight”

  1. Jason Boche says:

    Great writeup. With about 6 hours and level 13 into it so far, I was thining of writing something up as well. Much of your post sums up my thoughts. It is a beautiful sim with added elements that are interesting. I can spend more time with what’s available but what I really long for is commercial jets and of course the rest of the world, particularly the European airports. I assume MS has those things coming since there are achievents based on moving thousands and even millions of passengers. That would be tough to accomplish with the short medical runs in Hawaii.


  2. Rhuarc says:

    I think that Microsoft is going to a cheaper game centric view for Flight, while XPlane X is moving to an even more realistic hard core sim approach. As a Flight Instructor who has used both I can say that someone who gets some hours in on FSX or XPlane will have an easier time getting their Private Pilots License. The same does not hold true for users of Flight. Not that either approach is wrong, they are just targeting different market segments with the two products.

    When you get into instrument flying the disparity between the two products realism is even more apparent.

  3. peterb says:

    I would say that Flight isn’t targeting IFR flying at all – and I don’t think Microsoft has been shy about that in their marketing. Complaining that Flight’s IFR support is limited is like complaining that your bacon sandwich isn’t vegetarian – you knew what it was when you ordered it.

    I’m sure X-Plane is an awesome sim, but the UI makes me want to reach through the screen and punch the developers in the nose.