Microsoft Flight Simulator has surprised many by turning around a previously declining genre and bringing it back under the spotlight. Recently, we learned that it has passed 10 million players, and the future looks bright with a rich roadmap of content coming in 2023 following the 40th Anniversary Edition, which included a ton of free aircraft, scenery, and more.
To learn more about the present and the future of the title, Twinfinite interviewed the Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann.
Giuseppe: You just released Sim Update 11, and it seems you’ve found your stride with regular beta tests before a big patch launches. Do you think this process could still be improved, or you’ve found your sweet spot?
Jorg Neumann: I was reflecting again like I oftentimes do when we have events like this, and you know, 26 months ago, I promised that we would deliver an update each month, and we’ve done 27, so that makes me feel good. It Feels like I have kept my word, you know: 11 world updates, 10 SIM updates, and I think those things help.
You know, the DLSS 2 stuff, I don’t know if you’ve tried it, but it’s awesome. I love it… and then the DX12 stuff. We’re not a static product, and the world is also not static, so you need to keep updating things, and then the community has lots of feedback about them. I watched your panel with great interest [Editor’s note: a media panel hosted by the Flight Simulator Association].
I watched it twice, actually. As a matter of fact, the comments on the marketplace were really interesting. I immediately went to the Marketplace team, trust me, so just know that I’m paying a lot of attention. And then we did the Maverick thing and the Xbox thing and the Xbox Cloud Gaming thing, and I think it’s it feels really good, and what makes me really happy is that it was honestly all free.
So we are working with the community, listening to the community, and I think the Sim is getting better, and as far as the rhythm, I had put too much pressure on the dev team early on to do a patch every month, and we couldn’t do any flighting. There was barely any testing. It was just too, too frantic in the spirit of trying to do a good job or to be reactive to what people are saying. I think we overdid the speed in 2021 for the Sim updates,
That was not sustainable; it burned out the team. And then, in 2022, when you really look at it, we did Sim update 9, Sim update 10, and now Sim update 11. So it’s much more deliberate and much bigger and more meaningful and much better tested because we have 50,000 or so people in the betas, and they find a lot, and that iteration is key. Actually, we were kind of just a tiny little bit worried about the 40th [Anniversary Edition] because we didn’t really flight the new content.
There were multiple reasons for that decision, the content wasn’t all ready and we didn’t want to spoil it all that much. We wanted to actually let people have something to look forward to.
But in general, I think the process is much, much better. I think the timing feels much less frantic. And I think we are in a pretty good space now. That all said, I’m still in the forums every day. I heard what you said about our forums (laughs). That was pretty critical, let’s put it that way, but all we can do is read, be aware, see what people’s pain points are, and try to address them.
In my opinion, the number one thing that I keep harping to the team is just to be pretty honest about everything, like the stability is not where it needs to be. It’s the number one thing that bothers me. Performance, I think, is now fine. And I think we found something, actually.
There is the iniBuilds team, which is a group that has dedicated their lives to making sophisticated airliners, and bringing them closer to us – essentially into almost like a co-development type framework – helped us a lot to see what they run into.
There were some things that are happening as we crashed on Xbox quite a bit, and I’m like, what the hell? There is a spike [in memory usage] that happens when you draw the HTML pages of the glass cockpits that we thought was gone. We didn’t see it anymore. We didn’t see it in the profilers, but there’s a spike that goes up to sometimes 12 gigabytes. And on Xbox, that means you’re dead. If that happens, you’re done.
And we think we are now on the case. When people say that avionics turn black and then the thing starts stuttering, and it crashes. That’s exactly that behavior. If we had had a sophisticated airliner like this at launch, we probably would have found it, but we didn’t.
We also lacked the knowledge. Frankly, the team didn’t know how to do it, but now we have partners. This particular release, to me, is for the community and with the community, and that is a total switch from what we’ve done before. The original sim was essentially just Asobo, and then in 2021, we added Working Title as another partner team. Basically, I convinced Chris [Burnett] and Matt [Nischan] to quit their jobs and found a company, and I was happy to pay for that. And we’re growing that group, and they’re working on new avionics, and they’re also taking a hard look at the core elements of the sim, which is really good.
I’m growing that team, and it’s a pretty steep growing curve to make that team bigger and more substantive. Working with iniBuilds helps in another way. And then with Nemeth on helicopters. Honestly, that came from Sérgio [Costa from HeliSimmer].
I asked Sergio who I could work with for helicopters, and he gave me some names. So I called them all, and then the Nemeth guy seemed cool. So we decided to work together, and that helped. And then the gliders, we have this German group, Flight Sim Studios. that helped us a lot.
All of that helps. The community in the forums gives feedback that way. In this case, we literally invited them to the party, and they are now directly working on it. So that’s good.
Giuseppe: so, do you think the current pace is the sweet spot, or perhaps it can be tweaked further?
Jorg Neumann: I think it’s gonna change a little bit. We’re obviously currently planning Sim Update 12. And there’s gonna be a new invention. Think about it as a more targeted SIM update. When you think about Sim Updates, the release notes are like a novel. Basically, we allowed every programmer to do whatever they wanted, really. They all try to make it better in their respective areas, but it’s a mind-blowingly large number of things. If you look at the complexity of the systems, it’s like, holy sh*t.
We need to do that at times, but there’s also something that is a little bit more targeted, and I invented something new. It’s called Aircraft and Avionics Update, and it’s something that will be very specific, and it will enhance specific aspects of specific planes and specific avionics. I think it’s going to be better.
It’s better for the third parties, and it’s better for the community because it doesn’t destabilize things as much as all these massive updates.
Giuseppe: How do you go about pitching this sort of massive free update like the 40th Anniversary Edition to the powers that be at Microsoft?
Jorg Neumann: No. There’s no such thing. That doesn’t exist. 2021 was a very good and successful year. We had finished with the Game of the Year edition with Reno in November, and then we did some patches, and then we took some time off. I basically encouraged my team to not work all that much in December. I went to Hawaii and just kinda like reflected upon the year, and while I was sitting there, and I was thinking about the momentous occasion that is a 40th anniversary of any game… Like there’s almost none that ever got to that milestone and is still active.
I decided that we had to do something. Last year, there was no plan for 40th Anniversary Edition at all. Then I decided that we had to do something and to make a SKU. Then I looked at what were the top things people wanted: helicopters, gliders, and airliners. So I decided to include all these things.
Then I literally sat there for 10 minutes looking at the boxes [Editor’s note: Neumann has a library with all the historical MSFS boxes in his office], and I’m like, “We’re celebrating that. How do we celebrate that?”
Looking at my memories of it, I miss Meigs Field. Then I started talking with some guys and remembering when we went to Hong Kong Kai Tak, and we decided to bring back some of these old airports that are just gone in the real world.
Then I cracked open Flight Simulator X and the Acceleration Pack and realized that we needed to do some of these missions so that people can have some fun with this stuff. So the creative director on our side looked through the 156 missions that had been made for Microsoft Flight Simulator 9 and X, and we picked 24.
The filter was to do something with the planes we were launching. You know, the planes ought to really have a purpose. You can’t do the Spirit of Saint Louis and not fly to Paris. It’s just weird. If you do the Spruce Goose and you don’t start in Long Beach, it’s weird. It is so tied together. So we basically said, let’s do 24 missions, and we worked with Perfect Flight. We brought in a new partner called Pipe Works that is a game company in Oregon that we know and that did a good job.
Then I was looking at the helicopters, and I decided that we also had to do some heliports. So we worked with Gaya to figure out what were the coolest heliports on this planet, and we did 14 of those. Then we worked with Flight Sim Studio, and while I am German and they’re German, gliders are a worldwide phenomenon, and while it’s not consistent across the world, South Africa has a lot of people, and Argentina has a lot of people. So we then did a bunch of Glider Airports as well.
And then and then I looked at the historic planes, and it was very obvious to me: Flight Simulator 9 [Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight] has done a really good job celebrating the first hundred years of aviation, but now we’re basically 20 years later. I decided to do the Wright Flyer, thanks to this relationship with the Smithsonian, and then to do the Spirit of Saint Louis… The Aeroplane Heaven guys were all gung-ho about the DC3 because they had done it in the past, and they love it.
Then it got a little bit more random. There was a Beaver in… I think Flight Sim X, I wanna say… And I talked to Milviz [Editor’s Note: Milviz recently rebranded into Blackbird simulations] about it. The Beaver was totally not planned for the 40th Anniversary Edition. It was supposed to be the Local Legend plane for the Canada update. Right? Where it kind of belongs, in a way.
But then I talked to David [Dedeine], Asobo’s creative director, and I talked to Jim [Stewart] from Milviz, and we decided that the Beaver is so cool that it should just be put in the 40th Anniversary Edition.
I also talked to the Evergreen Museum folks a year and a half ago. They called me out of the blue literally in the summer of ’21 or something and said, “Hey, we’re the museum with the Spruce Goose. Are you interested in doing it?” And, of course, I’m interested. They gave us total access to everything.
That wasn’t planned to be part of the 40th, either. It was actually planned to launch on the 2nd of November when the actual plane had its 75th anniversary. But then it would have been a payware plane, and we decided not to do that and just put it in the 40th. We launched a week later. Nobody would notice that it’s not exactly the same day and the Spruce Goose guys were super happy that everybody on the planet can fly the aircraft, and that’s exactly what I want. Everybody who has access to Flight Simulator can now fly this historical plane.
So that’s cool. Yet, as far as your question, I sit there and think about all these things, and I don’t have to ask people for anything. I think there is a lot of trust that we’re doing a good job. I mean, what are we trying to do as a group? We’re trying to make people happy. We’re trying to entertain people, and the simmers seem pretty happy, and there are a lot more of them now, right? We’ve quadrupled our audience since we launched. With that happiness comes freedom.
You know, I feel like the feedback I get from the community is that we’re in tune with what it is they want, and that’s the most important thing. And then everybody will trust that relationship between the development team and the community that we’re entertaining, right? That’s it.
Our Executives… Matt Booty, for example, is a great guy… The funny thing about Matt Booty is that he’s a hobbyist aerial photographer.
So he knows a shi*ton about airplanes. He spends his weekends and sends me photos all the time of awesome warbirds flying around somewhere cool. So I think he’s genuinely delighted to see how well we’re doing.
Giuseppe: I’m guessing many people at Microsoft perhaps did not expect you to do this well.
Jorg Neumann: I think that’s probably true. I think this is a delightful surprise for many. You know, people used to think that Flight Simulator is a little niche. OK. It could be, but I’m not sure about that. Obviously, I’m in a certain age group, and every kid I knew when I grew up we were talking about planes. Planes were cool. Aviation and space were cool. I think it’s the same for so many people. Maybe there was the fact that you had to have a really powerful computer, and it looked a little bit intimidating, right?
Do I have to buy all this equipment to fly? Do I need to read books? This is what some may have asked themselves. I think what we’ve done is is is probably make that less intimidating. Also, I think it helps that the planet is inviting. All of us love our planet, even if some may not be aware of it.
I think people see it from that perspective, and it’s not too intimidating. You know, the discovery flights? Everything is done for you. You have Infinite fuel; the trim is set. You don’t have to do anything with the airports. You just fly around and look at stuff. I think that was a good idea, which is inspired by the real world. That’s what a real discovery flight is, right?
So, was there an approval meeting or something? No.
Giuseppe: I’m surprised because, you know, big companies tend to be a little bit careful about how spend money, but that openness to making this much content and releasing it for free is kind of inspiring in a way.
Jorg Neumann: Yeah. I feel totally trusted, and I feel I feel great about it. I think most of what we do right now is celebrate. This is now the franchise with the longest history at Microsoft, but I think now it’s also really substantive. It’s constantly mentioned right next to Forza, Minecraft, and Halo. It is one of the big games. There’s no question.
Giuseppe: Yeah, definitely. Maybe I’m wrong (but I don’t think I’m wrong), but Microsoft Flight Simulator is probably the game out there right now that delivers the most regular free content to its users among all games out there. You release airports, scenery, aircraft, all kind of stuff, and it’s all free. Of course, there is payware stuff that people can buy or ignore because it’s completely optional. Having so much content for free is surprising at a time in which so many developers monetize games so heavily.
Jorg Neumann: I think that’s true. There is a film with Kevin Costner titled “Field of Dreams,” and it has this line: “If You Build It, They Will Come.” If you build it and if you are inviting and honest, and if you listen, then they will come. And I think that’s what we’re doing here. I think we are building an audience for flight simulation.
I had an interview yesterday with somebody who asked why this isn’t a sequel. After all, there is so much stuff in it. I’m like; it’s a party, you know? You can’t charge people to come to a party; that’s not the right mental model. My mental model is that it’s been 40 awesome years of flight simulation. We have lots to celebrate in the year now, and we had stuff to celebrate in the past, and it needs to be free. There’s no question in my mind. Will everything be free forever and ever? I don’t know. I’m more concerned about technology nowadays than about the finances behind this stuff. I was looking at where we are at, and we’re at over 300 GB. Are we gonna be ok?
Giuseppe: There are new compression techniques that come out all the time, but…
Jorg Neumann: Yeah, and I think that we’re outpacing them at a good pace, actually. But we’ll see. Right now, it’s very much about making people come in and making them happy. Giving them something that’s compelling and making sure that they wanna stay. That’s what we’re doing, and with the Sim Updates, it’s the same thing, right? It’s just making it better. We always said that this is a journey, and we’re going to have to get better. Things are gonna evolve, and I think we’re on that journey now. It’s good.
Giuseppe: What do you think, going forward, is the biggest challenge you and your team have to tackle?
Jorg Neumann: Space.
Giuseppe: Really? Do you want to bring us to space?
Jorg Neumann: No, no, no. I mean disk space. Don’t get me wrong; I think space is cool. My house is full of science fiction books. That’s my jam. But no, I think I’m actually starting to worry a little bit about the unbounded growth. Unbounded growth is not good. We need to be very thoughtful about this because we fought hard to get performance. There are now moments when I feel like the pace at which we are going is outpacing what can be done.
So I’m just very thoughtful about this because I wanna keep growing. I wanna keep making this world better. I’ve got some things I’m currently exploring that are awesome. So I think we can both make the world better, and we can increase the complexity of the simulation significantly. But is it all gonna fit? That is what’s currently on my mind. And you don’t know until you try.
You can dream up all these things. but we have to make them run, you know. Sometimes designer-minded people are just pushing all kinds of things, and at some point, you can get to a breaking point. That’s probably foremost on my mind. Do we need to architecturally change? That’s on my mind.
Giuseppe: So, what are these awesome things you’re planning?
Jorg Neumann: There’s new data that I’m playing with, and if we can get that to run, man, that would be amazing.
Giuseppe: Are you finally going to remove the cranes from photogrammetry?
Jorg Neumann: Yeah. I’m working on that. If you look at the feedback snapshot, people are asking for improved photogrammetry, and I’m getting rid of the solid bridges. We just spun up a team to fix all the bridges because I’m so bothered. they need to go away. It’s gonna take us a while because there are thousands of thousands of these things.
I have a better sense now of how much it’s gonna take to fix all the bridges and all the photogrammetry cities, which is a lot.
Giuseppe: You recently revisited the US with a World Update. What is your balance going to be between doing new countries and revisiting and improving those we already got?
Jorg Neumann: You are asking all the hard questions today (laughs).
Giuseppe: Sorry not sorry!
Jorg Neumann: The thing that I’m trying to do is to make the entire world better. What do you need for that? You need better data, and we have multiple teams at work on it. Honestly, it used to be just me looking for data like DEM (Digital Elevation Model) and photogrammetry data. It was just all on my shoulders, which is not a healthy place.
There are two research teams that help me find things, and the data situation across the planet is not at all consistent. There’s a socioeconomic component to this where some countries like Switzerland went and got the entire country scanned down to 5 centimeters, and they made that data public, and it’s awesome.
They also have the money to do that, and then you look at other countries and they just can’t do it. So I’m looking at solutions right now. How do I do this worldwide?
I listen, and I’m very aware we need to do upgrades in Africa, South America, Asia, and Central America… And I would say Eastern Europe is its own special case at this moment in time, but fundamentally my thought is to be worldwide. But I also think shipping a world update without any photogrammetry doesn’t go so well because there is an expectation that has been set.
We’ve done it once with Word Update 5. I was trying to get Stockholm and I just couldn’t get it. So we shipped to five countries without photogrammetry, and I think people were a little bit disappointed by that. And I listen to that too, so I realized that people actually care about these things.
The economics are such that people don’t do it on their own. Companies don’t fly to Tanzania, Palau, or just pick some countries like Suriname and different continents… They don’t fly there on their own. So I am now actually working with the flying companies directly and I’m renting planes to fly over places that I think are interesting. That’s where we are. So it’s no longer a Bing thing. It’s a Flight Simulator thing. And that just takes time.
Giuseppe: So it’s not just a passive relationship anymore. Before, you just received data from Bing. Now I can imagine that the data you get yourself, maybe you share it with Bing?
Jorg Neumann: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It’s one Microsoft. Everything I’m doing is One Microsoft, but it requires a lot longer lead times. So, for example, I just hired some flyers to fly to certain countries, and they just had to stop. This is a long story, I guess, but you know, you hire these pilots and the plane, and then the pilot got COVID, and he’s grounded in some country.
He completed 77% of the data collection for a specific city, and then the sun angle went too low, and the weather turned. You actually can’t just finish that, so you have to come back the next year. And that is just the logic with which that data gets made in this world, and that is the pace with which I now have to plan world updates.
That is why I did this thing called City Update just for Gamescom as an experiment, and I consider it very successful. I wanted to have something nice and that was much easier for me to get it done because it was based on cities I had access to and we could just process them and delight people. I think I’ll make more of those and give enough lead time to these world updates to actually get them right because the one thing I don’t want to do is say do South America and do a shi**y job. I don’t wanna do that. The one learning I had with Canada is that we tried to do too many cities, and we didn’t clean them all up correctly.
So I need to be a little bit less cavalier about the amount of content, and I need to pay a lot more attention to the quality. That is my takeaway from the last year.
Giuseppe: We’ve talked about free content, but of course, one of the reasons why you can do so much free content is that Flight Simulator is a platform, and Microsoft can earn money by letting developers sell content for it. Do you have any improvements planned for the marketplace?
Jorg Neumann: We did a big update called Marketplace 2.0, which I think improved things a fair bit. It changed the main menu, and it helped. The reason I thought your panel was so fascinating is that a lot of the points you made totally hit home with me, and that’s why I immediately sent it to the marketplace team and said, “Everybody watch this. We need to talk about this.” This is really what happened. And there were lots of good observations.
I think that’s the evolution I’m thinking about, like some of the things that you guys were discussing, like discoverability. I think there are some things that are getting washed under. There are some really high-quality things that are just not standing out enough, and then then it’s left up to the consumer to find them themselves, which is bad.
There is no actual plan yet, but I have considered having some of the things that you said, like almost a guest recommendation channel, and we’re actually talking about these things. I don’t have it in a specific Sim Update yet, but I know for a fact that you guys had a lot of valid points and so if there is an update to this In the future. I don’t know when yet.
There are thousands of add-ons. Like if you really look at the numbers, I have a gigantic tracker where I write down everything that’s coming out. That’s also why I visit your website every day. I see there are going to be 10,000 add-ons in about two years. When you have 10,000 things, your search needs to be really good.
And we need to get the consumer voice in there better, like the ratings. I don’t wanna go the comment route because it’s very difficult to moderate, but some of the things you guys suggested I think are right, and that’s what I want to do.
Giuseppe: Last year, you did the Reno Air Races. What is your takeaway from that experience? Do you think it was successful, or do you think it could be done better? Do you think there is room for more of this kind of content going forward?
Jorg Neumann: Yes to all three. I would say the main learning I have; if I had to do it again, I would do the base experience and stick that for free into the base game.
We put it behind this pay gate. It was four airplanes for $20, so I thought it was fair. But what I could have done and I would do now is I would put the racing experience itself into the base SKU. When you think about it the biplane class was already there. There was already a Pitts in the thing, so there was no need to add any planes. We would have had a higher player base at that level. I think more people would have tried it. I might actually go do that in the future. I have to think about that. Nothing has been decided or anything, but I’m just reflecting on what I saw.
We had a meeting with some community members in Cologne at Gamescom, and we invited the three top racers from Reno. They sat right next to me, so I had an entire evening of feedback, and they bought me a long document full of what they thought we could improve on. Our team went to Reno this year physically, and we had the longest lines among everything else.
Reno happens every year, and I wanna think about this like that. I think of Reno as a yearly event. And I was thinking about the fact that there are seven classes now. Should we do another class? Should we build a Hellcat or something?
So we could expand it. I don’t have a particular plan yet, but I don’t think of this as a one-and-done release. Air racing has been a yearly thing for over 60 years, and I think of air racing in general as a pursuit that is worth doing.
Giuseppe: You have launched a complex airliner as a default aircraft in the simulator, which I believe no one really expected, but complex airliners normally are flown by two pilots. What is the situation with multi-crew? Are we ever going to get it?
Jorg Neumann: Yeah.
Giuseppe: Do you have an idea of when?
Jorg Neumann: I have an idea, but I don’t have a firm date. I would say this is one of those where I think next year is likely gonna be too early. Obviously, people are working on stuff, but it’s complex.
It changes the fundamental multiplayer architecture. That is basically what it is, and for that, you can’t just change it easily.
Giuseppe: Makes sense. Then I’m going to pitch an idea. If you can’t do multi-crew relatively quickly, which I understand, perhaps you could still do something that may pave the way to that change in architecture and help test-run it. I actually have wondered if you guys ever thought about it.
One of the most attractive points of Microsoft Flight Simulator for casual users is virtual tourism. At times I want to enjoy it with a friend, but not all of them want to have to pilot their own plane. What about having another player simply sit on a passenger seat and enjoy the view while I chauffeur them around the world?
Jorg Neumann: The funny thing is, back in 2016 or something, I think that’s what Phil [Spencer] said to me in my pitch meeting. I showed him the video, and honestly, my memory is blurring a little. It’s been a long time. I remember him saying, I just want to sit there and watch this. And actually, to some degree, the implementation of the Discovery Flights was a little bit like that.
Ultimately, it’s the shared cockpit idea. For all the companies that want to use Flight Simulator for purposes other than entertainment, it’s at the top of the list, almost for everybody.
Oftentimes when people want to do flight instruction, there is a situation in which one person instructs many pilots. It’s definitely an execution, but it’s still a shared cockpit. We still have to have a second viewport. We still have to do all these things, but it’s probably the first entry point of what we’re doing.
Giuseppe: It might be easier to implement, at least because you don’t have to share the controls.
Jorg Neumann: Yep. That’s right. I appreciate the push, and I am aware that we need to do it. It’s completely clear to me.
Now we have gliders and helicopters, at least. The entry point has been given now, right? There are going to be more things that people want, I guarantee it. I think this is probably gonna be the next 20 years of where we need to go.
The iniBuilds guys put entertainment screens into each seat of the Airbus A310. It’s actually running. You can click on the buttons, and you can see what the plane is doing. It’s cool, and I think people want to do more of those things. Fundamentally, I think Flight Simulator needs to become more social, and it’s very much what you just said. For instance, I thought the campfire thing From Parallel 42 is really clever.
I also like the balloon from Hype, and you wanna do those things together. That’s fundamentally what people want to do. That’s obvious.
Giuseppe: Do you have any final insight for our readers before I let you go?
Jorg Neumann: This is a true celebration of our past and aviation in general, and I think we’re achieving that. I think if you’re already into Flight Simulator, this is definitely worth looking at because we are adding a ton of cool stuff. And for those who have never been into Flight Simulator, this is de facto the best version there’s ever been.
That’s how I really think about it. We didn’t do a new physical box, but it’s the best version of Flight Simulator by far. Hopefully, we’ll find some new friends that are inspired by this. Maybe they’re into gliders, or they love historical planes as I do. Hopefully, it’ll bring more people into our ecosystem, and hopefully, they will stay and fall in love. That’s what this is for: it’s a love letter to an awesome hobby.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is currently available for PC (Windows 10 and Steam) and Xbox Series X|S.
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