With the Xbox Series X|S version of Microsoft Flight Simulator coming next week, the flight simulation hobby is going to be open to a brand-new audience.
Yet, Microsoft and Asobo Studio are also working hard to keep improving the simulator for the existing enthusiast audience as well.
To know more about what we can expect in the short, medium, and long term, we had a chat with the head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann.
Giuseppe: Let’s start off with something you revealed really recently: Orbis’ Flying Eye Hospital MD-10. Could you talk about how this collaboration came to be? Also, I can’t help but think that you could make it flyable down the line, and likely payware, perhaps with proceeds going to Orbis itself. Is this being considered?
Jorg Neumann: Orbis was seeking a partnership with Microsoft and talking about all sorts of cool stuff. It’s a very cool non-profit and their very first initiative was the Flying Eye Hospital. They told me the story — I did not know about it — and I immediately fell in love because to me our hobby, flight simming, is a close neighbor to real-world aviation.
Any time I see aviation making an impact on the real world and specifically something like this that is great… Flying to socio-economical situations where people need that type of help… I think it’s wonderful. So I genuinely wanted to help.
I looked at the MD-10 and wondered if we could make it. Frankly, our team was totally committed to other things, so we couldn’t make it flyable. It takes quite a long time to make a good flyable version of an aircraft like that.
So we said, let’s make sure that people can visit the plane. I wanted to show that there is a relationship between the real world and the digital world and make it available for everybody at the Xbox launch.
After releasing the video, I’ve read all the comments and everybody was asking about making it flyable. I put it on my “to-do” list to reach out and I haven’t done it yet, but would I like to do it? Of course, I would like to. I want to help.
We’re also going to spend more time with aviation’s history related to museums, and my intent is to help museums in the real world to preserve things. This is as far as I’m able to talk about it today.
A few weeks ago we announced the Junkers Ju 52. It means something to me being from Germany. I grew up with that. I call these planes “local legends” even if I haven’t coined an official name yet, but somebody will come up with something better.
Fundamentally, when we go around the world with our World Updates, my goal really is to have planes that are made in these regions, that mean something to the people in these regions, and celebrate aviation in these regions, and make them available.
I can’t do it for free. I wish I could, but there are licensing issues and that kind of stuff, but I’m going to keep the prices as low as I can possibly keep them without making the people who own the planes mad.
But I take this very seriously: these planes cost a lot of money to preserve, and I want to do what we can to help in the digital space.
About what you said, let’s make the Flying Eye Hospital payware and direct funds to Orbis, I’m going to look at that simply because the community feedback wants that. I can’t guarantee it right now. We don’t have the manpower to make that plane on our own, so we would need help. But there is help. We’ll see. I want to.
In general, I think this whole “giving back to aviation” concept is very much on my mind. Very, very much.
Giuseppe: This kind of initiative certainly conveys the idea of Microsoft Flight Simulator being used as more than just a simulator, but as a gateway to the world of aviation in general.
Jorg Neumann: Yes. That’s the goal. Flat out. I think at some point or another, the platform should morph into something that enables the aviation lifestyle. That’s how I think about it.
On my bucket list, I would love to have a floatplane company in New Zealand and just fly around the islands and give myself some purpose… but it’s a long story. We talk about it quite a bit. We have barely started because, honestly, we were quite busy getting Xbox done and other things like the Top Gun Maverick thing that we’re doing, which is super-cool by the way… I’m very happy that we could find that partnership.
But beyond that, this is where our mind is already going, and the Flying Eye Hospital… The folks at Orbis themselves said, “can we fly to all the locations where Orbis has a footprint?” The answer is “Yeah, we can. We just need to do it.”
Some comments said “don’t let it sit here” and I will take that to heart. I read everything I can and try to operationalize it down the road.
Giuseppe: Let’s talk about the Xbox version. We’re just a week from release. What’s your outlook on the last finishing touches? Is everything ready?
Jorg Neumann: It’s ready and we’re so excited. It’s the first time in over thirty years that this platform comes to a console. There are many unknowns on how the audience will receive it, but there is also so much potential.
Fundamentally, we see ourselves as being in service of the hobby. And it’s a great hobby that I think people will fall in love with. People in the hobby love aviation and we feel that there are many that would be interested in the hobby but they just never had access to it.
I believe a lot of people at times make the assumption that everyone can just buy a $3,000 PC. Most people can’t do that. The fact that you get basically the equivalent experience that you can get on a high-end PC on a console that costs one-sixth, that’s remarkable. I’m very happy with that and proud of it.
From day one, we decided that we couldn’t sacrifice quality. It needs to be completely intact and maybe even better. The good news is that it looks great and it plays in some ways better because there is so much optimization work that has been done. Some of the stutters that we saw on PC… For instance, when you take your A320 over New York, even on my PC it starts to be not-so-30 frames per second. On Xbox, it is 30 frames per second.
The PC build that comes out next week will benefit as well from this, as performance is dramatically improved. I’m very happy that the transition has been completed and that the quality is great.
Then we added these features that I honestly think are just great features in general. We told ourselves that there is going to be a bunch of newcomers to the hobby: if they’re purely console gamers, there is a very good chance that they’ve never seen a flight simulator before.
So how can remove friction? We knew that the tutorials we had on PC were pretty good but were also pretty long and they were already getting a little bit technical, so we wondered, “what would someone do the first time they touch a plane?” The answer is, “traveling somewhere.” That’s how the idea of the Discovery Flights was born.
During the Discovery Flights, you don’t do all that much because basically the flight instructor does just about everything, but you feel like you’re doing it and you feel like you’re in control of the plane. You get a bit of a sense of what this is all about even if you don’t have to do it all yourself.
We tested the Discovery Flights with what we call “Newcomer Audience” and they really love it. I think we have 16 Discovery Flights. Each World Update has two and then we picked some great locations on the planet that are interesting, like Rio de Janeiro, the pyramids, Mount Everest… you can fly there and see the Base Camp.
The Discovery Flights have helped people get comfortable and convey the idea that flying is cool. It’s not so scary and not so complicated. That’s what we were really hoping for.
At some point in my life, I studied geography so I love maps. I love that our world is very authentic to the real world, but it used to be hard to see it. If you don’t know how to read a chart, good luck knowing where you are, because you typically don’t see the world from that angle.
So now we have labels from Bing which is really cool. Mountain peaks have a name. Cities have a name. Rivers have a name. If you want to learn, you can turn on and off different labels.
I spent like a month flying over South America last year in the sim. I’ve never been there in my life, so I flew over Suriname and places that I had heard of just by studying, but I had no idea of what they looked like. When you fly there, you get a sense of the countryside, but I never felt like I learned anything.
On the other hand, now… I was flying in Africa the other day. I’ve also never been to Africa, mind you. All of a sudden, I learned things like the position of Lake Victoria and more. You start learning the relative positions of things. Now I’m starting to learn more about the planet and I love it.
On top of that, for the non-simmers, it helps them find their bearings. All of a sudden they feel like there is more substance to what they do and they have more understanding of what is going on. I feel that was an important and a good addition for everybody.
We looked at our flight training and I asked myself how much people retain of that stuff. It’s almost like going to school but are you really learning everything? I think the answer was “sorta” depending on who you are.
We have a really good relationship with Aerosoft and they made Aerofly, in which they have a very interesting way of doing tutorials where your performance is rated. We decided it was a good idea and talked with Aerosoft. They said that it sounded cool and to go for it.
We made our tutorials shorter but there are more of them. Then we added an evaluation at the end that tells you what you can do better. What I found, for myself and for a bunch of other people, is that all of the sudden it sparks the desire to improve yourself. I found myself doing the same tutorial ten times just to get the perfect score like with a landing challenge. Doing that, I learned more than ever before.
I think that helps and we will continue. The path with tutorials is pretty long. You start with a Cessna 152, but when you move on to a TBM there is still a tough learning curve all of a sudden and you sit there and go, “now what?” And then if you want to fly an airliner… oh my goodness. We’re working in the long term to get everybody onboarded more elegantly.
Then we have the Flight Assistant, we added Anti Stall, Autotrim… just because some don’t know what to do yet. This is to help them almost like a flight instructor would do.
We also implemented autoland and you can select a point of interest like the Statue of Liberty and the autopilot will take you there in a circular course.
About autoland, people at times get confused and scared by having to land at an airport and this feature will land you. It takes the “fear” away. Some have a sort of awe of planes and the more we can dissipate that fear and make people feel, “I can do this, I’m learning, I’m getting better”… That’s when we can really onboard people to the hobby and they will stay, which has to be our goal.
The last feature we added, that I was super-excited about, we call it “Land Anywhere.” Most of the planet is water. I was in Saint Martin yesterday and didn’t do very well in my landing approach, but I had floats on, so I just landed in the water.
Adding floats, oversized tires, and skis help people say, “I had a good time flying, but don’t just want to quit in mid-air. I want to land it” without having to go and learn how to land at the airport and talk to ATC just yet.
All these things are designed to bring people unfamiliar with flight simming closer to the hobby and to help them feel more empowered. With that, hopefully, they will give us more time and dive deeper into the hobby.
Giuseppe: Speaking of accessibility in general, one of the features that I find most relevant on that front is the ability to share the cockpit or flight deck with another player. It would also help those who want to learn and those who would like to teach them. How is the development of this feature going?
Jorg Neumann: If you look at the feedback snapshot, it’s right at the top, so it’s foremost in our mind. Obviously, Working Title is taking care of a lot of the Garmin work, which is great.
We know we need to do more work on the shared cockpit. Obviously, we’re an entertainment product, but there are a lot of requests from flight schools, flight trainers, big companies that make aircraft… They all want to use this as a training tool and so far we’ve always said that there’s work to be done in order to enable that and there are things in the way to make it something elegant beyond gaming.
We’re obviously looking at this and we’re going to make a decision in a few months on whether we go left or right. It’s not decided yet.
But that being said, for simmers or people who are casually doing this, I think you’re completely right that it’s a needed feature because people can help each other. One of the things that I’m actually super excited about is this notion that people can assist each other in the sim.
Xbox, for instance, is a super social audience. They have grown up with Xbox Live. They play together and do stuff together, and flying can be a shared experience. Right now it’s not.
So, it’s right at the top. Honestly, I don’t know whether we can get this done before the year is out or not. Now that Xbox is done, we basically have our development team ready for features, but there is a couple of other features… The replay system is another that people really want and we need to do a good one. We have one that we use for our videos, but there is no UI and we can’t just roll it out and say, “hey people, here it is.” It’s super-clunky and we need to make that elegant.
All of those features are among the top five, and we need to do them. There’s no question. Extra-wide monitors are another thing and people have a lot of those… For me, it stacks below the shared cockpit, I think that’s more important. The replay system is important because it gives people some abilities that I think they should have, but also reassurance that they can go back.
Anyway, I’m genuinely always focused on what’s on the feedback snapshot and as a matter of fact, an hour before this meeting I had a meeting with Seb and Martial (Asobo CEO Sebastian Wloch, and executive producer Martial Bossard) and we said that we need to look over the feedback snapshot and update all the dates, when can we do what, because that’s how we communicate with our audience. Sometimes we say it’s “2021-2022” simply because we don’t know whether we can get it done in the next four months.
Yet, it means we started and we know it’s important and we have to do it.
Giuseppe: Since you mentioned it yourself, the replay system, can you commit to releasing it this year?
Jorg Neumann: The good news is that Seb has an idea for it and he thinks it’s cool. And Seb is brilliant. Someone a bit more design-minded like me, I can understand the consumer desire and come up with a spec that makes it work, but there needs to be a technical vision behind it.
Seb thinks he knows how to do this well, and I totally trust that. That means it’s much more likely to happen than if it had just a design spec.
Giuseppe: Speaking of Live AI traffic, I know there are third parties working on it, but you’re also working on your own long-term solution. Could you provide an update?
Jorg Neumann: For me, there are three parts to this. There is the density of air traffic, there are the models, and there are the liveries.
For the density, work has been done already and we improved that. We can now have six different models in close proximity which is a lot. It’s all about memory, but this is going to help. Some work has to be done in the partitioning system to make that even denser.
We look at international airports and we want to see literally the right plane with the right livery where it should be. That’s the design, but it needs to be set up the right way.
I think the next build definitely has improvements, but that’s not the endpoint. We want to go quite a bit further than that. How long is it going to take? It’s just further optimization work and I think of that as a spatial partitioning system because right now, if you’re sitting at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, we don’t have it set up in a way that you draw a box around you and we know only of the aircraft in there. We know about all the planes even so far that you can’t possibly see them. That probably has to be refactored a bit.
On the models front, we are making fast progress to model almost everything. We look at FlightAware and we know what planes are flying around. My job is to prioritize the manufacturers, like Airbus and Boeing at the top, and then Embraer, and then possibly ATR, and so forth. Then we look at which ones we have licensed to legally draw the model.
We are making good progress. We don’t have it all, but I would say we have 80% of all planes that are in the air. Then we model the planes, which we have made a bunch of progress on.
I actually tried to get this done for the Xbox version, but it ended up being too much. Yet, we have them and we’re going to continue to make them.
On liveries, it has been super interesting. I have to sympathize: not all airlines are in a good state right now and nothing is further from their priorities list than me asking “hey, can I use all of your liveries in my flight sim please?”
I’m genuinely trying: the small ones that have 20 airplanes or less, they’re excited and are like “yeah what do you need?” Their job is very contained. The very large ones, you can find a way to work with them, because they have enough people to actually take care of this. Then there are the ones in the middle who may be struggling and I think we just need to be a little bit patient with them.
I couldn’t be more dedicated to getting this all correct. It’s just not going to be instantaneous. The moment we put something on Microsoft’s servers, we have to have the license. We can’t do otherwise as we have to be very honorable partners to all the IP owners. Yet, there will be this world in which we’ll fly around and we’ll have every single aircraft exactly right. I can’t wait, and I think we’re going to get there in the next year or two, but it’s not going to be in the next month or two.
Giuseppe: You mentioned three parts, but I would say that there is a fourth, which is how the AI aircraft behave in the world. At the moment they use runways and taxiways inefficiently causing way too many aborted landings and they look like they fly on rails. Is there any work being done on this side?
Jorg Neumann: First of all, there is a data issue. The navigation data isn’t always perfect. For instance, we have this airport in Germany named Heligoland Airport. In the data we get from FlightAware, there are planes landing there. In our sim, they never do. We saw there was an issue with the navdata and we added something driven by Chris from Working Title. We also added FAA data in the United States. I believe that’s now in as we see a bunch more approaches.
There is a strike team and Working Title is on it. Our aviation experts are on it, and some people from Asobo are on it and are looking at what is the best synthesis of data in order to get to the right global solution. It’s not that simple. We don’t think there’s a single database that we can use.
There is clearly Jeppesen, but no singular database has everything worldwide. There’s Navblue, Garmin has some stuff… On top of the strike team, we’re starting to reach out to the community as there are people who know a lot about this. Kai and his team at AIG have looked at this for a long time, for instance. We saw that we had a solution that wasn’t as good as we thought. Live and learn. It just means that we have to add some things.
Giuseppe: There is also the fact that FlightAware itself doesn’t have all the data on all flights.
Jorg Neumann: Nobody has everything and that’s exactly the problem. We probably will have to merge things. My concept is — and I don’t know if we can pull it off — I’m fine with licensing whatever. I think looking for a single solution that solves everything, I just don’t think that works.
Giuseppe: In a month we’re celebrating the first anniversary of the game. Do you have anything special planned?
Jorg Neumann: We’re talking about what we want to do. We have another product at Microsoft, Sea of Thieves. They just had their anniversary and it was delightful, with people celebrating the pirate life. I think that’s great.
I immediately wrote a mail to our community team about doing something, and we’re thinking about how do we best party with the community. That’s the goal. Maybe we’ll celebrate the past a little bit, how we got here, and perhaps a little bit of where we’re going. It’s coming up. It’s on the 18th of August. Planning has started, but I can’t tell you more because it’s not done yet.
Giuseppe: There is another big anniversary coming further down the line, and it’s the 40th anniversary of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise next year. Have you already started thinking about it?
Jorg Neumann: Absolutely. Outside of what I do in my job, I’m a book collector, so I’m very conscious of the past and I like to celebrate it. It defines who we are today. We’ll celebrate and we’ll do some interesting things.
I have to be careful about what I say now, but sometimes I like to follow in the footsteps of what has been done before on the franchise side, and I also like to celebrate aviation and its history. It’s sort of a combination of both things. But yes. The answer to your question is yes. We’ll do something.
Giuseppe: We’re now almost a year in, and Microsoft Flight Simulator has made much faster progress compared to what many expected, at times surprising even me. What’s your takeaway?
Jorg Neumann: I think it’s the best experience I’ve ever had developing anything. I look back and I wonder how did we ever develop without this kind of community involvement. It’s so much better. Maybe this is a unique place and I can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison, but the amount of know-how and help that people offer is incredible.
I have been pinged by someone from India the other day, and after watching the live stream about the World Updates, he mentioned that we should be doing something about India. He offered to help. While the government is a bit weird about the data, he said that there is a local community that can provide all the stuff.
Then there was another guy from Iceland and he didn’t like what we had in the Nordics update. While that was the best data I could get, he mentioned that he had better data that is used by local Search & Rescue and is the best data there is. He just wants to see it in Microsoft Flight Simulator and didn’t even want any money. He simply wants to help.
That is what I see every single day. During my day, people come from all kinds of places just to help make this great. That feels completely different from traditional game development. It’s community development. People do it for the love of it.
Maybe it’s unique to flight simulators due to the history and connection to the real world, but man, it’s awesome! I can’t talk about some of these things, but sometimes I get messages from the CEO of some aircraft company who is like: “Hey, I want my next plane to be either development or simultaneously launched in your sim.”
It’s like this every day and Orbis was like that as well. People wanted to do something cool and all you have to do is say “yes” and figure out how to do it. It has been really awesome.
I feel very blessed about things like Working Title and FlyByWire because they’re so knowledgeable. In many ways, they’re more knowledgeable than we are. Working Title has a special place in my heart because they literally all quit their jobs. They all had really good jobs in all kinds of tech companies and whatnot.
I talked to them and they were so genuinely enthusiastic about making this Flight Simulator the best it could be that they literally quit their jobs to launch a company. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I think it’s stunning.
And then the FlyByWire people… What they have done on their own is just great. We didn’t expect this energy. I certainly didn’t expect it. I knew third parties and freeware existed, but the degree with which people jump into this is crazy.
I feel like we are in harmony with the community. I want to believe that people think we’re very genuine and work as hard as we can. I acknowledge that we have shortcomings but we try to make things better. It feels incredibly healthy to me and it’s fascinating to think where could we be three, four, or five years from now with this type of energy and passion going into it.
Maybe this is a stupid thing to say, but maybe we’ll build the perfect sim. If this keeps going, why not? Who can stop us?
Giuseppe: personally I’m impressed by how this simulator is breaking down borders and bringing out parts of the community that I wouldn’t have expected. There’s this team from Iran that just created Tehran’s airport as the first add-on they ever made, and it’s one of the best on the market.
Jorg Neumann: I actually have a tracker in which I write down everything that everyone has made, and we have content for almost all the countries in the world. There are a few missing like San Marino, but somebody just released something from Lesotho.
Giuseppe: You may want to put a checkmark on San Marino because the airport serving the country is actually in Italy. It serves Rimini and San Marino, and someone has already made it. I bought it a couple of weeks ago.
Jorg Neumann: Interesting! To me, it’s a truly worldwide product. There are people from all over the world who are simming. I see content being made for all the places… This World Updates concept that I cooked up at some point, I think it was good because it spotlights different places in the world. I’m from Europe but now I’m genuinely looking forward to going to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Central America… That’s going to be so cool.
When you go to countries like that, the way the community in the country engages, and the genuine interest in the country even beyond the gaming and enthusiast press… they help us. I think the hobby will grow because of that.
For example, I’m working on the next update which I can’t talk to you about, but we’re working with the country’s tourism agency. They embraced us and they’re helping us with all kinds of stuff.
Giuseppe: So it’s not going to be in Europe?
Jorg Neumann: (Laughs) Ah, don’t push me down this path!
Giuseppe: (Laughs) Sorry, I had to try!
Jorg Neumann: I always had this idea that in order to grow the hobby we need to attract new people. Young people, women, as the hobby was very male-dominated… We need to touch new people and avenues like this help us. One of my plans for the future is to work with schools giving them some free copies so that kids can play and feel it. Hopefully, they will fall in love just like we did.
If you’d like to read more about Microsoft Flight Simulator add-ons, you can enjoy our recent reviews of 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.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is already available for Windows 10 and Steam and will release on July 27, 2021, for Xbox Series X ad Series S.