Posted by Florian Wardell | 5 comments
Why Flight Simulator shouldn’t have died
I first laid my hands on Flight Simulator 95 when I was 8 years old. It was in one of my dad’s old CD boxes, and the idea of a game “in which you are a plane pilot” pleased me very, very much. I got through the traditional crash-in-buildings and fly-under-bridges period and started taking Rod Machado’s pre-recorded lessons very seriously, a step too rarely taken by flight simulator owners. I quickly learned the basics of attitude control, navigation, flight rules, flight planning, and aircraft configuration. Flight simulator became an addiction, but a healthy one.
Unfortunately, I suck at math. However, the many books I read about aviation and simulators in general taught me a lot about physics, aerodynamics and avionics, and in spite of my numerophobic condition, I was able to get a decent understanding of basic physics and other science-y stuff related to aeronautics. I eventually took some flying lessons (real ones, this time) and my instructor was quite impressed with the skills I already had when I “stick and pedaled” for the first time. I never thought I’d say this, but thank you Microsoft!
Flight simulator is a wonderful program because it allows anyone to have fun, but if you do decide to take it seriously, I promise you will learn a lot.
This article is aiming at giving you an insight at the history and features of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and will end with a snapshot of its current situation and possible futures or alternatives.
All began when a University of Illinois student created a 3D software and wrote articles about it, back in 1976. When the editor received mail from readers wanting to buy the product, Bruce Artwick, the creator, decided to compile a flight simulator and to market it with his newly founded company, subLOGIC. In 1977, he began selling simulators for 8088 computers, and in 1979, “FS1 Flight Simulator” was released for the Apple II.
According to Wikipedia, “the original simulator had black and white wireframe graphics, featured a very limited scenery consisting of 36 tiles (in a 6 by 6 pattern, which roughly equals a few hundred square kilometers), and provided a very basic simulation (with only one aircraft simulated). Despite this, it ended up being one of the most popular Apple II applications of the early eighties.“
In the following years, other versions were developed for other platforms, until subLOGIC licensed an IBM PC version to Microsoft in 1982, which was released as “Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.00″. In 1982, “FS2 Flight Simulator” came to the Apple II as well and was developed until 1986 for various other platforms.
Meanwhile, Bruce Artwick left subLOGIC to found the Bruce Artwick Organization to work on subsequent Microsoft releases, beginning with Flight Simulator 3.0 in 1988, which finally found commercial maturity. This was the first simulator to feature multiple aircrafts, the Gates Learjet 25, the Cessna Skylane and the Sopwith Camel. The support for variable weather, time of day, and multiple windows was also added, making it one of the most innovative Flight simulator versions ever released.
In 1989, Flight Simulator 4.0 was released, giving birth to the add-on industry. The program featured a new dynamic scenery with roads and bridges, and allowed users to design their own aircraft. Between 1989 and 1993, a large series of add-on products were designed for FS4.0, thanks to Microsoft’s and the BAO’s (Bruce Artwick Organization) “Aircraft and Scenery Design Module”, the ASD. This allowed FS4 users to quite easily build, on the fly from directly within the program, custom scenery units known as SC1 files which could be used within FS4 and traded with other users (this activity was quite popular in the FS Forum on CompuServe). Also, ASD provided the addition of the Aircraft Designer Module. Again, from directly within the program the user could select one of two basic type aircraft frames (prop or jet) and proceed to parameter customizations ranging over 4 pages of flight envelope details and visual aspects. The ASD underwent further development which added digital and synth sound capability to FS4, as well as high resolution modes for higher end video cards and chipsets, allowing a resolution up to 800 x 600.
The final edition of the ASD was known as the Aircraft Adventure Factory (AAF). AAF consisted of two primary components. First, the Aircraft Factory which was a Windows based program allowing custom design aircraft shapes to be used within FS4 utilizing a unique, rather easy to use CAD type interface, supported by various sub menu and listing options. Once the shape was created and colors assigned to the various pieces, it could be tied to an existing saved flight model as was designed in the Aircraft Designer module. The end result was a two file unit, creating a new custom aircraft for FS4. Thousands of aircraft were designed by users using this utility and like scenery files, found their way onto the FS Forum at CompuServe (the Mecca for FS4).
The other Component of AAF was the Adventure module. Using a simple language (similar to BASIC), a user could design and compile a script that could be run from within FS4. Many FS4 parameters could be accessed including such things as aircraft position, airspeed, altitude, aircraft flight characteristics, etc. These could then be used to do things like display messages on the screen, play VOC audio files, and even display 256 color VGA images. The end result was that users could create fun adventures to use and share.
In 1993, Microsoft released Flight Simulator 5.0, which was the first to use textures, hence making the visuals much more realistic. The bundled scenery was expanded to parts of Europe, the coordinate system was revamped. Other improvements included the use of digital audio for effects, custom cockpits for every aircraft, and better graphics. It took about a year for add-on developers to get around the new engine, which ultimately allowed them to release scenarios but also tools like navigation planners. In 1995, Microsoft released Flight Simulator 5.1, which added the ability to handle scenery libraries, including satellite imagery. Storms, 3D clouds and fog became Flight Simulator’s new strengths. This version was the last to be ported to DOS, and the first to be released on CD-ROM.
Thanks to more affordable computers, the rise of the internet, and the creation of online communities like Avsim or Flightsim.com which allowed up and download of freeware add-ons, the simulator truly took off between 95 and 96, leading in the world of desktop simulation.
As Windows 95 was released, in 1996, a new version (6.0) came out under the name of “Flight Simulator for Windows 95″. This was more or less just a port from the DOS 5.1 version, but also featured and improved frame rate, better haze, and the Extra 300, an aerobatic aircraft. Additional scenery included major airports outside Europe and the US for the first time.
A year after, in 1997, Flight Simulator 98, or FS6.1 was released as what was considered as a “service release”, offering only minor improvements, with one notable exception: The Bell 208BIII JetRanger, the first helicopter on Flight Simulator. Because Cessna resumed the production of the 182, in the late nineties, Microsoft revised the virtual aircraft and included a better flight model and a photorealistic instrument panel.
A major expansion of the in-box scenery was also included in this release, including approximately 45 detailed cities (many located outside the United States, some of which were previously included in separate scenery enhancement packs), as well as an increase in the modeled airports to over 3000 worldwide, compared with the approximately 300 in earlier versions. This major increase in scenery production was attributable partially to inclusion of the content from previous standalone scenery packs, as well as new contributions by MicroScene, a company in San Ramon, California who had developed several scenery expansions previously released by Microsoft.
This release also included support for the Microsoft Sidewinder Pro Force Feedback joystick, which allowed the player to receive some sensory input from simulated trim forces on the aircraft controls.
This was also the first version to take advantage of 3D-graphic cards, through Microsoft’s DirectX technology. With such combination of hardware and software, FS98 not only achieved better performance, but also implemented better haze/visibility effects, “virtual cockpit” views, texture filtering, and sunrise/sunset effects.
I remember the release of Flight Simulator 2000 (FS7.0), in late 1999, because I was actually old enough to understand what a new version meant in terms of improvements in the simulation process. You have no idea how exited I was when I opened the present at Christmas and installed it on the family computer. The graphics, interface and flight experience seemed so shiny and polished up compared to the previous releases that I never looked back. FS2000 was the first version to be released in a “standard” and “pro” package, which included more aircrafts. This version also introduced 3D elevation, making it possible to adjust the elevation for the scenery grids, thus making most of the previous scenery obsolete (as it didn’t support this feature). A GPS was also added, enabling an even more realistic operation of the simulator.
New aircraft in FS2000 included the supersonic Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde (prominently featured on both editions’ box covers) and the Boeing 777, which had recently entered service at the time.
An often overlooked, but highly significant milestone in Flight Simulator 2000, was the addition of over 17000 new airports, for a total exceeding 20000 worldwide, as well as worldwide navigational aid coverage. This greatly expanded the utility of the product in simulating long international flights as well as instrument-based flight relying on radio navigation aids. Some of these airports, along with additional objects such as radio towers and other “hazard” structures, were built from publicly available U.S. government databases. Others, particularly the larger commercial airports with detailed apron and taxiway structures, were built from detailed information in Jeppesen’s proprietary database, one of the primary commercial suppliers of worldwide aviation navigation data.
In combination, these new data sources in Flight Simulator allowed the franchise to claim the inclusion of virtually every documented airport and navigational aid in the world, as well as allowing implementation of the new GPS feature. FS2000 was the last version to support Windows 95.
Flight Simulator 2002 (FS8.0) was the first to introduce ATC simulation with AI aircrafts, in addition to autogen, which vastly improved the visual experience of Flight Simulator. Basically, this allowed a vast library of 3D objects to be displayed on the mesh thanks to “landclass” data, which provided information regarding various geographical features of the gound: Cities would get tall buildings and streets, the countryside would display barns and windmills and so on.
A “target framerate” option was added, enabling a cap on the framerate in order to reduce stuttering while performing texture loading and other “maintenance” tasks. In addition, the aircraft now featured a 3D virtual cockpit, creating the effect that the player was viewing the cockpit from the viewpoint of a real cockpit. The external view also featured an inertia effect, inducing an illusion of movement in a realistic physical environment. The simulation ran smoother than Flight Simulator 2000, even on comparable hardware.
The long anticipation for this version, specially because of its interactive AI traffic and ATC among some others, was supposed to be released shortly after September 11, 2001. Due to the terrorist attacks on that day, the launch was postponed in order to remove the WTC Twin Towers in all copies. Release date was 19th October 2001.
“Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight” (FS9) is my favorite simulator to date for various reasons. First, the improvements included an improved weather engine, which provided true three-dimensional clouds and localized precipitation for the first time. The engine also allowed users to download weather information from real weather stations, allowing the simulator to keep the weather synchronized with the real world. Other enhancements from the previous version included better ATC communications, GPS systems, interactive virtual cockpits, and more variety in autogen (such as barns, street lights, silos, etc.). The simulator also included many historical aircrafts such as the DC-3 or the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brother’s flight.
The weather engine improvement was one of the most incredible updates I had ever seen in a new FS version. The clouds looked so incredibly real and silky smooth, I just had to load that Extra 300S and fly in them. The dynamic weather, evolving with time and space, added an incredible dimension to Flight Simulator’s realism, as the weather had to be now be taken into account when planning a route.
Flight Simulator 2004 stayed around for more than 3 years, allowing the add-on industry to widely adopt its new engine, which led to some of the most incredible products. I remember the release of PMDG’s 737NG aircraft, which simulated the 737 in a realism level never seen before. Every switch was simulated (Ok, you couldn’t call the stewardess), and the package even included an FMC, the Flight Management Computer (the two or three computers close to the throttle, with a command line-like interface), which taught me a lot about how modern airliners work. I’m pretty sure that I could land a real 737 on airport supporting autoland now.
Anyway, not only did the FS9 feature an immense array of add-ons, it was also very stable and ran on slower computers without any problems, which is something worth remembering in the history of ressource-hungry simulators.
FS9 is the simulator I use at present. I spent my whole teenagehood installing add-ons and tweaking it, I just don’t feel brave enough to give up on my 400GB+ installation yet.
The current version of Flight simulator is Flight Simulator X, or FS10, released in October 2006. The new features include new aircraft, improved multiplayer support, including the ability for two players to fly a single plane, and players to occupy a control tower (available in the Deluxe Edition), and improved scenery with higher resolution ground textures. FSX includes fewer aircraft than FS2004, but incorporated new aircraft such as the Airbus A321 (!), Maule Orion and Bombardier CRJ700. An expansion pack, called Acceleration, was released later; it includes new missions and aircraft as well as updates to the game. Flight Simulator X also was the first version to include the Software Development Kit (SDK) which includes an object placer, allowing the game’s autogen and full scenery library to be used in missions or add-on scenery. This was available in the Deluxe edition only. FSX is also the first of the series to be released solely on DVD-ROM due to space constraints.
As you can see, Flight Simulator underwent years of steady development. It started as simple 3D demo, became an important development platform and is one of the most complex consumer software products ever created.
For those who hadn’t the courage to read through the quite complex history of Flight Simulator, here is a brief description of how the program works, what it does and why it’s awesome.
When you start FSX, a menu will ask you what kind of flight you want to simulate. You’ll be able to choose the aircraft, its fuel and payload, the airport you’ll start at and even the weather, time and season. There are realism settings you can also choose from but for the sake of simulation, leave them at maximum.
Once the flight is loaded, you’ll be able to click the instrument panel. The instruments, the radio stack, navigation unit and GPS are all clickable. Some specific parts of the panel like the throttle or the fuel tank selector will show up in popup windows. If the whole window system isn’t realistic enough, you can change the view from 2D cockpit to the 3D virtual cockpit, which is basically a scrollable, pannable 3D representation of the cockpit. If you have a joystick, which is strongly recommended, use the coolie hat to look around. Once you’re set, you can use real life checklists for the various stages of the flight, from preflight to landing. Make sure everything is ok, put some flaps, check the mixture, hit the throttle and take off. The handling is essentially the one of a real aircraft: Pull to climb, push to descend, bank to turn. If you have pedals, you can also manage the rudder, and if not, FS can do it for you: The little black ball will stay in the middle of the slip indicator during the whole flight.
Instrumentation is very realistic as well. The anemometer shows “indicated airspeed”, the altimeter can be calibrated, the climb indicator shows feet per minute, the gyroscope can be adjusted to the compass and the turn indicator slides if your pedal work isn’t in sync with your turns.
Flight Simulator is bliss for IFR, Instrument Flight Rules. For those of you who are not familiar with aeronautics, there are two types of flights. IFR is what airliners and most commercial flights use: it allows to fly though clouds and bad weather, relying only on your instruments and radio navigation. Flight Simulator is a great teaching program for this very demanding kind of flight: the ability to pause your simulation, to use real world navigation charts, and to adjust the weather makes the most stressful situation challenging but fun. The first time I managed to land my C172 using ILS (Instrument Landing System) in a 0 visibility weather was one of the most rewarding things I ever did on a computer.
Anyway, FS isn’t only capable of technical IFR.
The other type of flight is VFR, or Visual Flight Rules, and it heavily relies on observation of the ground below you for navigating through the skies. FS displays roads, railroads, topographic features and major landmarks in great graphical quality, which makes it really fun to take a regular road map and to try to find your way from A to B.
Off course, all of this would be pointless without proper planning. Because FS aircrafts feature precise and realistic flight performance, planning your fuel consumption, flight time, various legs and alternate airports is not only crucial but also adds a whole level of realism.
But perhaps the most interesting element in the Flight Simulator engine is its add-on friendliness. Trust me, a naked simulator is not a good simulator. Microsoft does not provide you with the simulator per se: It provides you with a platform on which you will built your own custom FS. The default aircrafts and sceneries are far from realistic. I remember taking the default 737 for a touch and go one time, and although the model only features the equivalent of a simulated C152 functionality in the cockpit, it gave me cold sweat during the landing because I had to learn to fly all over again. Yes, Microsoft’s physics laws are somewhat special sometimes.
If you’re serious about realism, get some add-ons. Some are free, some cost more the Flight Simulator X itself, but they are essential. You’ll find flight planners, performance improvers and tweakers, vintage aircrafts, sci-fi ships, military machines, carriers, airport scenery boasting such a high level of details that you won’t believe your eyes, mesh data covering the whole world and much more.
Once you’ve found a good quality, realistic plane (I recommend Flight1′s C172, it’s pure bliss), read the lessons and learn how to fly. Practice makes perfect, and although the learning curve may be a little steep sometimes, the results are very rewarding.
The present situation and alternatives
As you know, Flight Simulator is in a dire situation, and this is actually what compelled me to write this article. On January 26, 2009, Microsoft confirmed the closure of the ACES studio, which was responsible for the franchise. Here is the official statement:
“This difficult decision was made to align Microsoft’s resources with our strategic priorities. Microsoft Flight Simulator X will remain available at retail stores and web retailers, the Flight Sim community will continue to learn from and encourage one another, and we remain committed to the Flight Simulator franchise for the long term.“
“We can confirm the closing of Aces Studios, which was responsible for the Flight Simulator franchise. Following our annual strategy review process, IEB is making adjustments within our business to align our people against our highest priorities. The closure of Aces Studios was one of those specific changes,” said Microsoft Spokesperson Kelda Rericha.
Dear Microsoft, sure, 2008 wasn’t the best year for business, but you closed down the longest running Microsoft franchise. Ask yourself why it lasted so long: you created a wonderful, innovative product that people didn’t use because they had no choice, but because it was the best. Flight Simulator X is the result of three decades of development, you can’t just throw that away.
Anyway, now that FS is dead (it has been speculated in the mainstream and gaming media that future releases on the franchise would come as part of an internet game or on the Xbox 360, which seems absurd because of the controls and non add-on capability), what can we do?
For now, enjoy it. There are still high end PCs that can’t cope with FSX’s resource hunger, which means that it will be a couple of years till powerful enough machines are affordable. Until then, developers will release brilliant new add-ons that will allow you to expand and improve your sim experience.
As advanced as FSX is, and as much as I hate to say it, FSX will be obsolete one day, which leads us to the question of its successor.
Well, On October 12, 2009, several members of the former ACES Studio team announced the launch of a new simulations-based development studio named Cascade Game Foundry. Further details relating to their first project are to be announced, but there’s a good chance a new FS will come out of there.
The best chance for new sim experience in the next few years however is Laminar Research’s X-Plane. This cross-platform simulator is being steadily developed and FS’s death can only benefit its future. I’m not going to go into detail here, because I will write a full review of the program later. Just note that Flight Simulator’s old rival is one of the most promising software projects related to flight simulation to date.
To conclude, one could say that Flight Simulator is Microsoft’s masterpiece. Windows is not exactly popular, Office is good, but not really innovative. With Flight Simulator, Microsoft proved its quality as innovation leader and managed to create a huge community and fan base, which is what every franchise should aspire to. Microsoft, you shouldn’t have killed Flight Simulator.
You can sign a petition to Microsoft here.
Oh, and for everyone wondering if the thumbnail is a genuine FS screenshot: it is. Just with effects and add-ons.
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