Microsoft Flight Simulator is about to deliver another one-two wallop of content with the Game of the Year Edition and the Reno Air Races Expansion (of which you can read our extensive review).
Yet, while we’re already over a year after release, we’ve only just begun the ten-year journey promised by Microsoft.
To learn more about the upcoming releases and the developers’ plans for the near future, Twinfinite interviewed head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann.
Giuseppe: Let me start with something broad. When Microsoft jumped back into flight simulation, I suspected you guys were willing to put into it a lot of resources. Yet, now that we’re one year in, it went way beyond my expectations. You’re releasing world updates regularly, you’re hiring external teams to do a lot of the work, and the Game of the Year Edition comes with a bunch of content for free, including a top-of-the-line airport that as far as I know was supposed to be released by Gaya for $20+…
Jorg Neumann: We have a good relationship with Raz [Raz Goeta, founder and CEO of Gaya Simulations]. I talk to him every day. The vast majority of the points of interest and airports for our world updates are made by his team.
Giuseppe: Of course, I know you can’t give numbers, but how are the economics of all this working for Microsoft?
Jorg Neumann: It’s working well. With confidence, I can say there have never been this many people playing Flight Simulator ever before. We haven’t released numbers in a while but it’s great.
That’s the reason for the Game of the Year Edition. It’s really a reflection on hey, we’ve launched 15 months ago on PC. We said it’s the beginning of a journey. We’ve hit as you said with an update every month. Then we did the Xbox version and it was kind of humbling in almost every way: the core simmers embraced us. The press was super-friendly and welcoming… At some point, I was sitting here in the summer and decided that it was time to say thank you, and that is what this is. The GOTY Edition is essentially just that. It’s a thank you for playing, for caring, for helping us, because honestly, the community makes us better every day. And that’s good for everybody.
It’s just a small token for Christmas. The Porter at some point was supposed to be a payware plane, but we decided “nah, let’s just give it away for free. Why not?”
Giuseppe: What I’m getting at is, when you have your meetings with Phil Spencer, does he tell you “oh great, Microsoft Flight Simulator is making money, so we can afford to invest this much” Is the simulator justifying this kind of investment?
Jorg Neumann: While there is no such meeting, really, at some point Phil and I said “We’re gonna do this” and we all agreed that this was going to be a ten-year journey, which is why I was confident when we launched and said, “Hey, we’re going to be in this for a long time.”
There is so much to do and so many places we could go, and we’re now a year and a half – not quite – into the journey. Microsoft is super-happy with the sim. It’s rated well. The consumers are happy. That’s what we want out of software.
So I have a lot of leeways to make good decisions, and I think the Game of the Year Edition is hopefully one of those. it’s just a good, nice: “Hey, let’s play over the Holidays. You all wanted a fighter jet so here’s one. You guys wanted helicopters…” We actually couldn’t get helicopters really done for this year, as you know, but with VoloCopter, that’s a cool group of people. They actually implemented their own flight model into our Flight Simulator, so this isn’t even our stuff. It’s theirs.
It’s not exactly a helicopter. It’s a gyro-drone, but sorts of ticks that box that you can go anywhere and land on the spot. It was a cool opportunity. They didn’t want any money and I didn’t want to make any money on it, so we were “hey, let’s put that out for everybody.” Ultimately their mission is to help people understand what air traffic in the future could be. So why not have millions of people play with it in Microsoft Flight Simulator to really understand what this will actually be like?
Giuseppe: Reno Air Races was a surprise because not only it’s a massive expansion, but it also introduces a whole bunch of gameplay modes and systems in Microsoft Flight Simulator at the same time. Is this something we can expect more of in the future?
Jorg Neumann: Always. In 2007 [with the Acceleration Pack for Flight Simulator X] we had a fighter jet and racing so I felt that this was very much in the DNA of the IP. We have done this. People back then really loved it.
We started working on this and at some point, we looked into Reno and I met its leadership team and met the pilots, and at some point, it was clear that we needed to go deeper than what Acceleration was able to do back in the day. Basically, I said, let’s just make four classes out of six. The seventh class didn’t exist back then as we had this conversation like two years ago. Then we wanted to make ten different planes for each class so that there’s some variety.
When you talk to the pilots, those planes are their babies, right? You can’t look them in the eye and tell them you want to make their plane, but then you make just a generic thing with a livery on. That doesn’t work.
So pretty early on we said “let’s take our scanners. We scan every cockpit. We really do all the modifications right. We get the flight dynamics and all the stats that tell us exactly what modifications they did, what they do internally, how they juice the last few miles per hour out of every plane. We did everything that they told us to do.
When the pilot tells us that the aircraft is perfect, then we have done our job. And that is where we got to. It was a lot of work, as you said. 40 Planes. We had to get quite a bit of help.
The first thing was the Jet class, the Aerovodochody L-39 Albatros. It’s an interesting plane but it had actually never been licensed by anybody. I called Mike Jhonson, who made an Aerovodochody back in the Flight Simulator X days and I asked him if he wanted to work with us. He’s like, “Totally, I love that plane and I know all the pilots!” so we had our expert for the L-39.
We had already done the Pitts and we already knew Pitts really well because we have the two-seater in the base game. That was straightforward.
The T-6 was challenging. It’s a very temperamental plane so we had to do a lot of work on that. Then on the P-51 we actually got ourselves a lot of help. A2A made two of them. BlueMesh made one. Orbx made a few, and we only made two of them. It was very much needed as A2A has great insight into the P51. They made several in the past. It takes a village some time to get this really done.
I think the enthusiasm from the pilots was driving a lot of this. When you see how happy they are that we’re doing the Reno Air Races because obviously, it’s their hobby… we’re embracing the history of it… We were able to get Steve [Hinton] to allow us into his Planes of Fame museum. We got Strega and Voodoo which aren’t flying anymore. We wanted the Bunny which is an awesome plane that honors the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s now in Palm Springs so we went there. And then we flew out to Fantasy of Flight. I think everybody we talked to was just so happy that we’re doing it, so we went pretty deep.
Giuseppe: And then there’s the additional surprise because I don’t think this was clear in the announcement. You actually have the normal models, not just those modified for the races, which brings the total to 44.
Jorg Neumann: That’s true. I was actually torn about the possibility of making the base version of Reno free. The problem is that you need to have the right planes to fly the race and some of these companies that own these planes actually wanted to get paid.
So I decided to make a pack with four planes and you get the Reno functionality with it. It’s about $20 so it’s $5 a plane and I think that’s fair. And then the super-extravaganza full pack with 40 planes, when you do the math, each plane costs about $1.5. I feel like we’re giving fair value with it.
Giuseppe: Do you see the Reno Air Races developing into its own eSport?
Jorg Neumann: I don’t think you design an eSport. I think people make it an eSport. It comes down to how many people love it, you know. I’m honestly super-curious. I can’t predict how many people are gonna have fun with it.
It’s interesting because it’s kind of like Nascar in a way. On the surface, you’re always turning left, but when you play it you’re fighting for every half-second and you really challenge yourself to get better and better and try different tactics. It’s really deep.
I’m curious as to where it’s going to go. The way we’re setting it up is that any time we do anything and add functionality it becomes available in the SDK, so my hope is that people will make more racecourses. I, for one, want to fly through the Grand Canyon in some cool racecourse and I hope someone makes that.
That’s the goal of a platform. Give people the tools to make cool stuff. Asobo did a great job because before the precision of the online wasn’t high enough. Now you can literally get wing to wing because that’s important in a race. That’s now in the sim. Leaderboards are in the sim. All this stuff is now available for third parties to play with. I can’t wait to see what they make.
Giuseppe: Sim Update 6 was rather smooth, and from have tested so far, Sim Update 7 appears to be another painless one, touching wood. Is this a signal of a change in how your approach updating Microsoft Flight Simulator?
Jorg Neumann: I think it’s going to get even better. Sim Update 5 was rough. In order to get everything working on Xbox we had to do a whole bunch of things. We branched almost a year ago.
That integration is difficult and what’s particularly challenging for this particular product is that there are many third parties. We don’t have their code so when we merged the branches, some of the third-party add-ons broke and we had no idea that it would. Ok. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, but the magnitude was a bit beyond what we had thought.
Then we had changed the mesh setup and how you have to do the LODs and things like that, causing a lot of issues with airport designers. Long story short, merging the two code bases was a shock to the system. I don’t think this is going to happen ever again and my plan is to do what I’ve always talked about: The World Updates are not supposed to be code updates. Unfortunately, since we’re trying to listen and to do everything as fast as we can, throughout 2021 we actually put code updates into the World Updates.
On the surface that’s nice, but what it really ends up doing is that you ship new code every month, and then you can’t really flight anything. You can’t get the code out to the consumers and make sure everything works right.
In 2022 we’ll be much more strict with it: World Updates will be really focused on the world, and Sim Updates will be focused on the sim, and then we can flight the sim updates for like six weeks. Ideally even two months. And then it’ll be perfectly stable.
Giuseppe: The arrival of the Xbox version and the updates to so many addons have caused a significant bottleneck in the approvals of new products for the official marketplace. How are you addressing it, and are you expecting the situation to go back to normal any time soon?
Jorg Neumann: The backlog was almost 600 add-ons. We hired around 6-8 people and the backlog is now down to less than 300. We are able to put out 60-70 items a week, but more are coming in.
We think that by the end of the year we’ll be through the backlog. Many developers want to ship simultaneously on our marketplace and theirs, and I think we’re gonna be there early next year.
Giuseppe: Going back to a question I asked you last time, has any progress been made in making Orbis’ DC-10 off the apron and on a runway in a flyable state?
Jorg Neumann: There is a plane being made, and I know that you know because I read your website every day. I know what you know (laughs). You know they’re making that plane and I asked them if they’re open to putting that livery in there.
My general principle has always been that if a third party is making a plane and spending a year of their life making their plane, I do my best not to interfere as it’s demotivating for them. We had some unfortunate cases as we had started the PC-6 Porter about a year ago with Hans [Hartmann] and Alexander [Metzger] and it was supposed to be a payware plane once, and then MilViz has brought out their version and there’s another group that’s making one and I’m like “Oh no!”
Giuseppe: We’re gonna have three Porters in Microsoft Flight Simulator!
Jorg Neumann: It’s because it’s an awesome plane. I totally get it, but I’m really trying hard not to do that. Typically, if for any reason we’d like to make a plane, I look if it has ever been made, contact the person who made it, and ask if they want to work with us. If they say yes, then we work with them. If they say no, at least they have a heads-up that we’re planning to do something. That’s typically how I work.
Giuseppe: So what did they say about the DC-10?
Jorg Neumann: I think they were interested. I don’t think they want to sell me their plane. They want to bring out their own plane, so we set up a special Discord for them. They get help from both Working Title and Asobo to get their plane to work. I think we’ll get the plane into the sim, but it’s going to be on their terms as a third-party plane.
Then the Orbis thing is something I will discuss with them. It’s getting closer. As you’ve seen in their videos. So I would like to find a way. My hopes and dreams are that we get the Orbis livery in there and then people can make a voluntary contribution to Orbis. That’s what I would really like. Of course, it’s their plane, so it depends on what they want to do. I actually need to call them back because I haven’t talked to them in a while.
Giuseppe: So if you need something for the sim that’s made by third-party developers, you’ll buy it, or at least try to work with them?
Jorg Neumann: I think that’s true. I will try to work with them. I think some people have a very specific viewpoint on how they want to run their business, and that’s completely up to them. If there’s a third-party plane that I think is useful and needed, I will go to third-party developers and say “Hey, we would like this plane, would you like to work with us?”
If they say yes, great, then we’ll do that. If they say no, then I have to make up my mind: do I feel strongly about it to actually make it simultaneously to what they’re doing, or do I let it go? Which is sometimes hard.
By and large, I want to make sure that the simmers get what the simmers want, and I’m pretty determined to do that.
Giuseppe: Playing around with the test build of Sim Update 7 I noticed that the weather feels extremely improved. I think you guys have been holding back in revealing that so far besides a few vague mentions, so it was a surprise.
Jorg Neumann: Honestly, the answer is that it came in kind of hot. The biggest problem is that we had the METAR and we had the prediction model. Getting those two to blend is actually not that hard from a values perspective. You have a certain air pressure and a certain temperature, dew points, and whatnot. But visually it was kind of hard.
When you have the truth of the airport with the METAR, that’s the truth. Then you have the rest of the world outside of the METAR bubble and it needs to blend together. Making that look right it’s actually really challenging.
I don’t know if you noticed, it works really well in the simulator, but we couldn’t get it to work as well in the world map, so we left the world map the same, but the goal is to get that working as well in the coming months. We tried, and tried, and tried and it doesn’t yet look right. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s one of these details that we want to get right.
And then there’s going to be cool weather features coming over the next two years. There is some fascinating stuff that is possible now with weather that has never been done anywhere. I mean nowhere. I’m not even talking about flight simulation. Nobody has done it. There are moving satellites that track storm systems by the kilometer… It’s very, very cool what we’ll be able to do.
Giuseppe: AI Live traffic is in a bit of a problematic state right now in Microsoft Flight Simulator. I don’t know if you’re aware, but aircraft spawn without the front landing gear, and then they never move from the gate. It has been like this since Sim Update 5. So people are wondering what’s going to happen.
Jorg Neumann: We have multiple things going on. We have a bunch of data that we’re currently not using. For example, we don’t draw GA aircraft at all, we eliminate aircraft below 5,000 feet because sometimes the flight path is a little erratic and they crash against mountains… but we know for a fact that there is work to be done.
I publicly said that I want to get all the right models and all the right liveries into the AI traffic. We have done a crapton of work with hundreds of models, but we have to get the memory right first. There is a memory organizational thing that has to happen before we can say “and now every plane is exactly what it should be.” It’s just gonna be work and I can’t even tell you exactly when it’s gonna get done. I’ll look into this some more and I also need to talk to AIG some more about their offline model, but my eyes are on it and I’m aware that it’s not in a good state. But give us a few months and we’ll try our hardest.
Giuseppe: Can you give us any hint about the next world update for Microsoft Flight Simulator?
Jorg Neumann: I’m going to announce it next week in the stream [Editor’s Note: It’s actually going to be tomorrow, Nov. 17. The interview was recorded last week]. It’s going to launch in late January.
There’s also a partner that I want to introduce and I want to do it right because they worked hard to make it happen.
Giuseppe: So what’s going to happen in December?
Jorg Neumann: In December we’re fixing bugs. The goal for Sim Update 8, which is going to be in late February, it’s just going to be fixing bugs. It’s been a crazy year now for constantly shipping, constantly doing versions, and at some point, we need to clean up. After we cleaned up the bugs, we’re going to go at it again in 2022.
We’re planning on 6 world updates, and 6 sim updates, and then there’s Maverick, there’s xCloud, there’s some stuff that’s not announced yet… and I’ve already talked about helicopters and gliders. It’s gonna be a chock-full year. We’re going to begin the year sort of like cleaning up the room, and all of it benefits the users. The bugs may not be big deals, but lots of little deals still add up and are still annoying, so let’s just fix them.
Giuseppe: So we’re not going to get a major update in December, correct?
Jorg Neumann: No, because I would also like the team to take a vacation. We think of this as a game as a service, so we’ve got to take time off. Many people didn’t get the summer because we launched on Xbox and I need the team to recharge. Recharging means two things: fix the bugs, clean up the space, get everyone in a good mental state for next year, and then also let everyone get some time off and be with their families.
Giuseppe: And it works out for everyone, as simmers can also enjoy the sim during the Holidays without any anxiety about updates and things that may break.
Jorg Neumann: That’s the whole point. There are new toys to play with with the Game of the Year Edition. If you like Reno you can get that. We will most likely launch the Antonov An-2 before the year’s out so people have another plane if they want it. That’s honestly enough. If it’s too frantic you don’t even know where you’re at anymore. I really hope that people just enjoy the Holidays with the Game of the Year Edition. There’s lots of cool stuff in it.
Giuseppe: And possibly third-party developers like PMDG may also have gifts for us.
Jorg Neumann: I heard that the DC-6 is coming to Xbox and I’m super excited. I bought the plane on Simmarket when it came out. It’s complicated but it’s super-good, and I’m very, very glad that it’s coming to both platforms.
Giuseppe: Anything else you’d like to say before we go?
Jorg Neumann: It’ll be a ten-year journey and we’re a little bit over a year in. It’s been great. Thank you for all the feedback. Our team is growing and we’re as excited or even more excited than we were when we launched. It’s a great collaboration.
If you’d like to read more about Microsoft Flight Simulator add-ons, you can enjoy our recent reviews of Auckland International Airport, Skiathos Airport, Athens International Airport, Bergamo Orio al Serio Airport, Amami Airport, Bristol Airport, Marrakech Menara Airport, Great Britain Central, Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport, Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport, Kraków Airport, Fukuoka City & Airport, Fort Lauderdale Airport, Chongqing City & Airport, Manila Airport, Santiago Airport, the Frankfurt City Pack, Key West Airport, the Okavango Delta, Bali Airport, London Oxford Airport, Berlin Brandenburg Airport, the CRJ 550/700, the PA-28R Arrow III, Kristiansand Airport, Macau City & Airport, Bonaire Flamingo Airport, Milano Linate Airport, the Singapore City Pack, Tokyo Narita Airport, Yao Airport, the F-15 Eagle, the Paris City Pack, Greater Moncton Airport, Tweed New Haven Airport, Santorini Airport, Sydney Airport, Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, Reggio Calabria Airport, Bastia Poretta Airport, Munich Airport, Paris Orly Airport, Newcastle International Airport, Sankt Johann Airfield, Dublin International Airport, and Seoul City Wow. We also have a beta preview of Singapore Changi airport.
If you want to learn more about the game itself, you can read our review that will tell you everything you need to know about Asobo Studio’s game.