Over five months have passed since the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the critically acclaimed latest iteration of the long-standing series which has brought the genre back under the mainstream spotlight — perhaps, to its greatest extent ever.
Yet, there is much more to come: another release is coming up, with the Xbox Series X|S version in the summer, which promises to garner an even wider audience of new players on console. On the other hand, the PC version is receiving large monthly updates.
To know more about what Microsoft has in store for flight simulation enthusiasts and gamers alike, and to gain a better appreciation of the enormous complexity involved with running such a large piece of software and consistently updating it, Twinfinite spoke with the Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann.
Giuseppe: Five months have passed since the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator. How do you feel about it now that things had time to settle at least a bit?
Jorg Neumann: It’s been awesome. We announced at E3 2019 and I think it was a big surprise, but ultimately, as we opened up more and more between alphas and betas, we got a lot of input. A lot of that was positive and validation, but the proof is always in the pudding, really.
We launched and we knew that people were excited about the release, but then they played it and gave us a lot of feedback. The group that we always focused on is the core simmers because they’ve been here in many cases for decades and they know a ton.
Many of them were in the beta, but when you’re out in the market you get even more feedback and I oftentimes say that it’s incredible and a blessing that there are so many people who truly care about flight simming and that they’re so interested in sharing their knowledge to truly make the platform as good as it can be.
Most of those people don’t think about us as a sim or as a game. They think about us as a platform. With that comes a lot of responsibility. We are central to their hobby and in many cases, this is their main hobby in life, so it’s critically important for them and for their happiness.
Having a good relationship with the community and also with third-party developers has always been at the top of our list of priorities to make this really right, and I would say that’s going great. Flat-out great. We feel that the community is really caring and I think they embraced us even if maybe there was initially some skepticism: “do these guys know what they’re doing?” But I think they see us work hard. They see us listen, and we try to communicate this as well as we can. I think that’s really appreciated and builds trust over time.
That’s what’s happening and I’d say the same is true for third-party developers. Many of them were a little “who exactly are these Microsoft people? They’re not the same from Flight Simulator X back in the day…” At least from what they tell me, I think they’re pleasantly surprised about how open we are. We’re genuinely just trying to make it work and make the hobby great and the platform great.
Giuseppe: A complex flight simulator on consoles has basically never been done before. What are your expectations for the release on Xbox?
Jorg Neumann: I think there are going to be millions of people who will have their first experience with a flight simulator. I think the opportunity is fantastic to grow the hobby and we bear a lot of responsibility to make that great.
In general, to back up a little, when you talk to simmers, they’re all very particular and know a lot, and have a lot of expectations, and they all tell me that they would really like the hobby to grow. A lot of them have been at it for decades, and they all look forward to the next generation of simmers.
That was one of the goals on PC, and I think on PC we actually accomplished quite a bit of that, and people see that new blood is coming in, which is great, bringing great energy in the ecosystem and new thoughts. New companies pop up and groups like the FlyByWire guys and Working Title that didn’t even exist. They’re wicked smart and making great contributions.
I think, with Xbox, that is also a very dedicated audience that obviously has been with Microsoft and Xbox since the beginning. There’s a real opportunity to bring millions of people to take a look, and then we need to earn their trust because people always have choices and so we’re focused quite a bit on making sure that it works well on Xbox. It needs to have a good frame-rate and to look great. There’s no question about that.
We’ve made the decision long ago that we will never dumb down the sim. That was a no-no. Instead, we went on the path of giving assists, so if you’re not familiar or don’t have any idea of what IFR even is, you press a bunch of buttons and it helps you, very similar to how a flight instructor would help you.
On Xbox, we anticipated that many people have flat-out never flown a plane. Maybe they’ve flown planes in action games, but it’s not really the same at all. So we’re going to try to make it as elegant as possible.
Again, we’ll never dumb down the sim but there are some onboarding parts that we can do better. We look at the tutorials quite a bit: so many people play them and they’re quite accessible, but we can probably do a better job there to make it even less scary for a newcomer, give them bite-sized things to really learn. You also learn by repetition, and I think that’s also something that we’re looking at. How we give people confidence that they truly learned something that they can apply going forward.
So those are areas that we’re clearly looking at. There are a couple of other things we’re doing that I think are going to be helpful in that space, but my expectation is that the sim will look virtually the same. Depending on which Xbox you bought, it’ll just be like having PCs with different video cards, but you can make adjustments. It’ll look great. It’ll perform great and it’s also cross-play which is nice, so you can play on Xbox and with your cloud saves you can move on to PC and keep playing.
There will be newcomers and we want to be as friendly and as inviting as humanly possible.
Another thing is that to become a simmer, you need the right equipment. The gamepad works fine. Mouse and keyboard work fine, but fundamentally, if you really want to sim long-term, you probably want to get something like rudder pedals and a yoke, and I’m excited that there are several peripheral makers that are going to come to Xbox. Being tightly integrated with them is also important, as I think that’s the path of going on the journey to becoming a simmer on consoles over time.
Giuseppe Nelva: What do you envision for third-party add-on support on Xbox? Is it going to be the same?
Jorg Neumann: The same. We obviously won’t ever force anybody to do anything. There is some amount of work just like we have to do some work. Just even on the interface side, it’s slightly different to make sure that you can control the cockpit, for example, on the plane.
We make it optional for third-parties. It’s pretty clear that everybody is excited because they will meet consumers that they never met before. I think people really want to be on the marketplace because it reduces friction.
I have very little doubt that certainly all the airports and the scenery will be transported quite easily. On the planes, there is a little bit of work to be done and people just need to invest time in it, but it’s not tons of work. It’s the same code base. Many things are the same and some are slightly different so there’s a little bit of work.
I spend a ton of time talking to third-parties: probably 10-15 hours a week at least. I think they’re genuinely excited to come to this new [environment]. They’re all a little fascinated by it because they themselves often aren’t console gamers. They’re hardcore PC developers and gamers.
But yeah: the excitement is clearly there. My expectation is that most things will be available. Maybe not all things. We’re now working through how that will look in the menus. We’re probably going to have some iconography showing you what is available on the platform that you’re currently on, because the store is the same regardless of what platform you’re playing on, but then there’s going to be some indication showing if everything is going to be available on the platform that you’re currently on.
Giuseppe: Speaking of onboarding new people, I’m sure you’ve seen the result of the Navigraph survey that came out a few days ago: You’ve probably noticed that among respondents [Editor’s note: representing flight simulator users in general, not just Microsoft Flight Simulator users] over 96% are male. Have you ever thought about ways to encourage ladies to enjoy Microsoft Flight Simulator?
Jorg Neumann: I’m very aware of the Navigraph surveys. I think I’ve read all of them, even before we started. It’s a very specific audience obviously, and pretty sophisticated, but it’s a good indicator, so we look at that all the time.
I was aware that it was in the high nineties leaning [toward males] at least on the Navigraph side. I think that at least based on our understanding, that’s already not quite true for the people who have been trying the new Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s much more diverse than you’d think.
The audience is flat-out broader and the broader you go, the more diversity you’ll find.
I was just talking about this in the stream this week, but there’s something that’s called “Gaming for Everyone” that is super-serious and super-important to us. I don’t think it comes across just from the stream how much we talk about this internally to make sure that our products – not just Microsoft Flight Simulator, but in general at Xbox – are accessible for everybody, attractive for everybody, but also inviting for everyone.
It’s not just gender. It’s all kinds of other things like locations on Earth, particular needs that people may have, and I think about that in that context.
As long as you are an attractive, friendly, usable, accessible product, all kinds of people will come.
Giuseppe: The first World Update was a surprise because Japan is often fairly neglected in flight simulation, even by third-party developers. The following three were fairly predictable because North America and Europe are very well-traveled. Can we expect you to return to more exotic destinations afterward?
Jorg Neumann: I think what you should expect is that we’re going to continuously update the entire world and that has something to do with available data. We just announced yesterday France and Benelux. It’s not because of any other reason than us having really good data.
It’s the same with England. We talked to the Bing team and they had this 25cm DEM [Digital Elevation Data] which is mind-blowingly good, and they had fresh new data from a provider they work with, so it was quite obvious that the data was ready, maybe with the exception of the photogrammetry cities, and that it would delight our consumers.
I’m working across the planet right now. Oftentimes it’s talking to governments across the planet because the government’s best data is often not publicly available or used.
There is no preference other than the fact that the data needs to be great. Otherwise, what are we doing?
When you say “exotic,” I think about maybe places that aren’t quite common in-flight simming. My intend is to go around the world.
I’m actually trying to figure this out right now: I think every two-and-a-half to three years we’re going to get around the world with a meaningful data update.
Giuseppe: Great. I’m quite curious to see if you will manage to get anything for China. I feel that’s going to be challenging.
Jorg Neumann: That one’s interesting because getting the data is challenging. We have an airport database and obviously an airspace database that need to match up with the terrain, and it’s not easy all over the world.
I don’t want to commit to anything… but I already did commit, because the community told us “Hey, can we please get photogrammetry cities in South Korea?” That was surprisingly (for me) high on the priority list.
So I took that and said “Yep, ok. They want that so I’m going to find the best companies to work with and the best data that is available period.” It takes some time to find that and then to process and integrate it all, but I’m committed to that.
Giuseppe: …And South Korea has some weird legislation for maps availabilities, from what I learned.
Jorg Neumann: I’m learning about it too. Look. When there’s a will, there’s a way. The will is there, so we’ll find the way.
Giuseppe: You mentioned that the French World update will bring a first batch of new content related to AI aircraft to the simulator. Could you share more about that? Also, does that mean that models and liveries will be added gradually going forward?
Jorg Neumann: David [Dedeine] is the Creative Director at Asobo. He and I talk quite a bit, obviously. I asked him “what bothers you the most right now?”
He’s like: “Jorg, seriously, the airports, we need to get the right planes with the right liveries to make the airports feel right.”
I’m like “Fair point.” Then I went on this quest to basically get the best possible match which is complicated. We have the data from FlightAware, but then to get all the planes licensed and then all the liveries licensed, that takes time.
Some of those airlines are really not interested to talk to me about this, so I can say all I want that I want to make the world of flight simulation as congruent as possible with the real world, but if they don’t wanna give me the liveries I can’t just take it and I’m a little bit stuck. Yet, I’m a persistent guy, so I will certainly keep trying.
On the planes, it’s a little bit easier in a way, because we have mostly good relationships. Some plane manufacturers opted out and don’t want to be part of flight simulators and there isn’t much I can do about that, but obviously, we have relationships with Boeing, obviously, we have relationships with Airbus and others, and that means that I can go and say “hey, I would like to not just have the planes flyable licensed, but either your entire fleet or whatever I can possibly get from them” and then we can make an arrangement.
I call these things Passive Planes: they’re not flyable and the cockpit is sort of modeled but you can’t really do anything. They’re there just to show the right traffic in the air and on the tarmac.
For the World Update in France, we’re gonna have some French manufacturers represented, which is really obvious what that could be right? And I’m pushing as hard as Jorg can push to get liveries for the Airlines.
Giuseppe: Can we expect to see this kind of content added gradually as you get the licenses?
Jorg Neumann: Per region. I use the regional updates as an impetus to get this done. If we’re doing France and Benelux, I’ll talk to every airline that originates in these countries, so clearly it’s Air France, KLM, and so on, and I’ll try to convince them “hey, I’m doing this update featuring your home country. I want to show your airline, come on, let’s be all proud together!”
Some agree and some don’t. It’s hit and miss. When you look at the number of countries that have massive aviation manufacturing capabilities, it’s actually not that many, but in France, there is a lot.
Giuseppe: I’m positive that if you give us the models, we’ll make the liveries that you can’t get, as long as the models aren’t too hard to repaint. Specifically, it’d be nice if you could avoid mirrored texture mapping. I tried to repaint the generic AI aircraft myself, and it’s nearly impossible.
Jorg Neumann: Yeah. We look at that. The issue with the mirrored textures in the airliners is in the community feedback as well.
Basically how we do our decals is the actual problem and it’s not at all a trivial fix to change it.
I am aware of it. When we said it’s not planned, I was tempted to take it out of the Feedback Snapshot, but I don’t want to, because I want to keep looking at it. Maybe that just means that we’ll find a solution down the road.
Giuseppe: I actually planned to ask you later: do you have any plans on making the decal system more easily accessible to users? I think the system itself is fantastic, but it’s not very accessible because you need to actually modify the 3D model in order to change the decals.
Jorg Neumann: So that’s going to change. What we had there was exceptionally memory-inefficient, let’s put it that way. We are already detaching now the way liveries are applied to planes, but as I said it’s not ruled out.
Maybe I’ve let myself become influenced too much by the Feedback Snapshot, but right now my priority for tooling is to do the Airport Gateway because people clearly want that. We’re actually engaging with the people who already do that well. We have open communication on exactly what that feature needs.
We’ll do that first, but I, in many ways, have quite grandiose plans to be integrated into an open beta-type initiative with these products. It could be one of those, but I just need to be careful because of licensing.
Giuseppe: A while ago you mentioned that you changed your mind about creating a fully-fledged Garmin autopilot for MSFS. Could you provide some details on what we can expect?
Jorg Neumann: Here’s a general observation and maybe a general thing that was well-intended and I may just have gotten it wrong.
From the get-go we talked to third-parties. Their career and livelihood depend on the things they do, and we wanted to be respectful of that.
We thought that if we overshoot too far, we are actually damaging those people’s businesses. We clearly don’t want that.
That’s why we decided not to take our airliners to study-level. Could we have done it? Sure. It would have taken longer, but it was possible, but then at some point, there is no more third-party ecosystem. We were trying to find the right balance.
On the Garmin, we were in a similar state of mind because there are some good add-ons, so we didn’t want to do something damaging to their business.
In retrospect, after reading a bunch, and that didn’t come through enough in the alpha and beta to make us really aware of it… now we’re like “How did we not realize this?” The base sim really needs to have great base functionality and the Garmin is that.
The next Sim Update has a bunch of Garmin improvements, but the Working Title team has also done awesome improvements. I don’t know if you downloaded that. It’s just great.
Instead of us sort of doing what we can, at some point, I think empowering the Working Title people is the right thing. It’s the right thing for the community. If we can get their work somehow into the base sim, I think that’s best for everybody. They did every page, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
It has to be the right license for us to be able to put it in the marketplace, and it needs to be in the marketplace for us to put it on Xbox. You can’t just put something into a folder on Xbox, so I have to have it protected.
I need them to do some things with their open-source licenses, but we’re working through things and I’m actually quite optimistic that it will all work out great.
Giuseppe: Speaking of the Airport Gateway, how will it work and when can we expect it?
Jorg Neumann: We have ideas to take this further in the future. At some point, I’d like people to make their own bridges and things that aren’t covered by the procedural buildings but are very visible.
Yet, for airports, there is an existing pipeline that people have established to work on another flight simulator, let’s put it that way. Those people contacted us after a livestream and gave us a lot of feedback about exactly what they needed, how the workflow goes, and all these things.
We took that all in and then we decided to make a prototype, which is what we’re currently on. One of the developers on the SDK [Software Development Kit] is currently building a prototype that is basically to spec with what was sent to us by people who are already doing this.
That’s my expectation. I’m sure they’ll have additional ideas when the tool is there. You know they’ll never run out of ideas on what they want out of the tool, but that’s the goal, to really embrace people that already have that hobby to fix airports. Let’s give them what they need. That’s the goal.
Giuseppe: Could you provide an update on the plans to provide a public test version of future updates to let users help you iron out the bugs before release? How is that going?
Jorg Neumann: It’s going all-right. It’s a step-by-step thing for me. Funnily, the meeting I just had before was touching on that topic.
Basically, we came from a more traditional testing approach, which is having a test team and the test team covers the entire project and then we launch.
That works great with games and works to a degree with simming, but then you get into the specifics.
For example, the people who make the [Bombardier] CRJ from Aerosoft, Hans and Alexander… I talked to Hans the other day – he’s the project lead – and I asked how it was going, because we’re helping them a lot to get their plane ready.
He told me he’s going to open the test team more from 15 to like 30 people. Basically, these aren’t testers. They just know a ton about the CRJ.
It’s so obvious to me now, and honestly, I just didn’t know this: there is just so much specificity that the more general test team that we have is never going to be able to go into all the nooks and crannies and test all the details of every single thing that gets published.
I think the first step for us, and we’re doing that… The people who have already published planes on our platform get builds a little bit earlier, like a week, so that we know changes that we did to the base platform didn’t affect their products negatively.
Now we’re going to extend it to people like Fly By Wire, Working Title, Salty, and all those folks who are really doing a great job modifying the base planes.
Then there is an increasing group of companies, and you have them in your writing, that are announcing and working on things, and we’re trying also to include them.
That’s the first step which I think is critical: give the add-on makers early access to make sure their planes don’t break, because that’s an unacceptable situation.
After that comes the general simmer. That’s a little bit of infrastructure work for us. Frankly, it just needs to be good so that people end up downloading a big build that’s as solid as a release build or close thereabouts, otherwise, you’re just really damaging them.
That’s probably a few months down the road. It’s planned. We want it. I mentioned before, the people adjusting airports clearly need to get data as early as they can or we’ll end up changing things underneath them.
For instance, the people at Orbx who help us make the airports more precise, for instance, the British Airports, which are 85 or something… They’re adjusting the runways, the taxiways, the signage, and they’re doing a really good job, but the people that will be essentially volunteering on the gateway system, they need to see what we’re doing as early as we’re doing it.
We’ll open up there as well. I think you’ll see that we continue to open up. It’s very natural for this ecosystem, and exactly how wide that’s gonna go, I honestly don’t know yet, but I know at least the next few steps that we need to take.
Giuseppe: You mentioned a couple of months ago that both Microsoft and Asobo were staffing-up for the long-term support of Microsoft Flight Simulator. How’s that effort going?
Jorg Neumann: It’s going. The team here on the Microsoft side is roughly going to double. The work is very distributed. I don’t know if people are really clear of how many folks are really working on this.
At Microsoft, we also have the Bing team and they do a lot of work. Specifically, right now they’re crunching to make the UK update great.
We have a team that manages the store, and it’s is really important for all the third-parties that we have snappy responses when they send us something that needs to go in the store, and they get all the information they need quickly.
We also have flight specialists. For example we have a guy that’s a super-experience F-15 pilot.
Then Asobo is staffing up in a number of areas in which we just need more work throughput: sometimes it’s machine learning, sometimes it’s aviation, some times it’s the flight deck… They’re staffing up almost across the board.
BlackShark is also staffing up and when you look beyond that, Gaya, with whom we work almost exclusively on World Updates, that team has grown tremendously.
The number of people who make planes… I don’t know how many there are right now, but there could be as many as 40 making meshes for aircraft for additional future releases, the passive planes… that’s a bunch of work.
It is pretty much across the board that we’re staffing up.
Giuseppe: Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers and fans of Microsoft Flight Simulator?
Jorg Neumann: I would say that we’re genuinely delighted. I hope people feel that we’re genuinely pleased with the interaction with the community.
People sometimes get really frustrated with certain things, and I understand it, but please just be a little bit patient with us. We are trying as hard as anybody can.
We’re in this for the long haul and and we should treat each other that way, that we’re all in this together. We’re trying to do the best we can and we’re listening as much as we can.
Please give us the feedback as constructive as you can and we’ll keep making the sim the best platform that it can be for the hobby.
If you’re interested in more Microsoft Flight Simulator interviews, we recently heard from Orbx CEO Anna Cicognani about her perspective on the add-on industry, and from FlyByWire founder Iceman about the popular A32NX mod.
Incidentally, if you’d like to read more about Microsoft Flight Simulator add-ons, you can enjoy our recent reviews of Yao Airport, the F-15 Eagle, the Landmarks 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 in summer 2021 for Xbox Series X ad Series S.