Microsoft Flight Simulator came at the perfect time. While the world was dealing with the beginning of a pandemic and people were confined to their homes, here was a game that let you fly over a complete recreation of planet Earth. You could visit any country you wanted, and experience their weather in real time. You could visit iconic geographical landmarks, or just find your house. It was, and continues to be, a gorgeous technical feat.
I thought it was one of the most humbling and defining games of 2020. But it wasn’t without its quirks.
As Microsoft Flight Simulator largely used a combination of Bing Maps, satellite imagery, open-source databases and AI rendering techniques to make up virtually every square metre of the world, there were bound to be some mistakes. In the years since it released, the team has worked to hand-craft major locations for a greater degree of true-to-life accuracy and visual splendour. Now, it’s Australia’s turn.
Free to all players of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the Australia World update reproduces the country’s major capitol cities, significant rural locales like Townsville, Bunbury, and Mackay, and notable landmarks including The Great Barrier Reef, the Three Sisters, Uluru, the Parkes Observatory, and more. As a local, it is absolutely stirring to see the slew of locations rendered in such detail.
Ahead of the release of the Australia World Update, GamesHub spoke to the Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann, about the process of rendering Australia, Flight Simulator’s adoption over the last two years, and the plans for the future of this unique experience.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity]
GamesHub: Thanks for your time, Jorg. I have to say, the Australia update looks absolutely beautiful.
Jorg Neumann: Thank you, I hope we did your country justice.
Can you run us through the process of handcrafting Australia in Microsoft Flight Simulator? How long did it take? How do you start a process like this?
The process started about a year ago. Flight Simulator is what we call a ‘digital twin’ and we are determined to make the world as authentic as we can possibly make it.
So we at some point said, ‘gotta do Australia.’ So we did a bunch of research on our side and in this particular case, I contacted people like the GeoScience Australia folks, one of your geographical institutes in Australia – they actually gave me 3 terabytes of data, basically for free, since it’s all essentially data that exists.
So I’m getting data from the local authorities, and Bing Maps has a process where they basically have satellites flying across the planet the entire time – like constantly – and we get new imagery.
And then I then I spent quite a bit of time with local people. In this particular case, I worked with a company called Orbex in Melbourne, and we talk a lot about how do we do justice to a continent.
We typically we build about 100 famous places that are iconic, and then we have something that we call photogrammetry which is essentially flying airplanes over cities.
In this case, we had quite a few cities to choose from and we basically picked 11. We picked Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart, Cairns, Darwin, Townsville, Bunbury, Mackay – and basically reconstructed them in 3D.
How accurate are we talking here?
It’s like a seven centimetre resolution, so it’s super high resolution. But the thing with photogrammetry is that it comes from the air, like a plane flies over so it takes photographs. And sometimes bridges, for example, when we launched Flight Simulator, in Australia there was a lot of commentary specifically on Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Oh, I remember.
So we handcrafted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s an important landmark and it looks really good. So it’s sort of a mix between all those things, a new height field, new imagery from airplanes and from satellites, new 3D cities and new handcrafted objects, and that’s just the surface.
On top of that, we basically construct some specific airports. In this case we did four, and we tried to find airports that have a little bit of meaning.
So for example, Longreach had the first overland flight in 1920 (and is heritage listed – Ed.) so that means something. Shellharbour is famous because the Southern Cross sat there. So we have four airports that we constructed – Longreach, Mount Beauty, Paraburdoo and Shell Harbour – and it’s places that makes you want to fly around the entire country and explore.
Because that’s really what we want, we want everybody in the world to look at Australia and see how beautiful it is.
I noted that there are some pretty obscure Australian locations and landmarks you’ve included too. How do you make a call on those?
Well, we also look a lot more detail at a country’s airports. So in this case, we added another 54 airports that we just didn’t have.
And you know, one of the very first thing that you do if you’re a flight simmer is you try to fly under bridges. So in every sim update, one of the first things I do is say ‘Okay, what are the big bridges in this country?’ Or oftentimes, ‘What are the standout locations?’ Like observatories, sports stadiums, big houses of worship, those types of things.
And then we talk! For example, Luna Park wasn’t on my radar because I’ve never been to Sydney, so we learn as we go, we learn from people. The Xbox ANZ team gave feedback – we get a lot of feedback from people in the team, because people get excited, you know!
We spent literally weeks if not months, flying around, looking at things, and we research and really get into it. That’s part of the fun of it all.
The goal is to make the people in the country proud and to celebrate aviation in that region of the planet.
Did COVID-19 restrictions affect your usual process?
Honestly, not that much. Well, we did a lot of work on the Southern Cross (the historical aircraft – Ed). What we do when we make a plane in Flight Simulator is we take big 3D scanners like the big ones for archeological digs and stuff, and we scan in the entire plane down to like a millimeter.
And we couldn’t make that work. We talked to the Australian Government for a long time and it’s so difficult to set that up right now, to go into a museum. So we went to the place where they made a replica of the Southern Cross, and we visited them because they’re much more accessible. So there were a few impediments but by and large we were okay.
Okay, before we move on from Australia, I have to ask about the team’s reaction to the Melbourne obelisk. I think we all had a good laugh about it, but was anyone freaking out about that glitch?
Oh, no, no, we thought it was great. It was awesome. We laughed. I mean, honestly, the whole thing with OpenStreetMaps (which Microsoft Flight Simulator sources some of its procedural data – Ed) is OpenStreetMaps is crowdsourced. And that’s one of the beauties of it! I actually have some plans to deepen that, so that people can contribute to make the planet awesome.
I think of it as a sort of a beautiful, fun human error. And when you saw the flight simmers – the first thing they did was try to land on the skyscraper that was 200 stories high! It was cool, it was very cool.
Do you ever find yourself questioning the exceptional degree of accuracy and realism in Microsoft Flight Simulator, in regards to the possibilities of people using software like this for uh, ill intent?
I think fundamentally, I feel good that there’s no collision, no damage, no violence whatsoever in Flight Simulator.
But also the world is being scanned, you know, there’s 2500 satellites circling the planet, photographing it all the time. I mean, you can go to Bing Maps or Google Earth or whatever, right? The data just exists.
I think like most inventions or progress, you can use it for good or you can use it for not good, and we’re trying to use it for good.
So when I’m recommending Flight Simulator to people who haven’t tried it, I usually say stuff like, ‘you can literally fly over your house’, ‘you can visit the Pyramids’, that kind of stuff. Was the ‘virtual tourism’ angle a big feature of interest when Flight Simulator was in development?
I think we were all aware that it was going to be different. It’s the first one where you can fly around using visual flight rules, or where the world looks like the world. And we knew that was new.
But the amount of things that happened since… and how much time people now spend time just in what you call virtual tourism? It’s a lot.
I think it’s a beautiful thing, because like there is a there’s a Flight Simulator community that is very dedicated to the hobby, as we say. But there are millions of people that, for the first time ever, have tried Flight Simulator.
And I think a lot of it has to do with the visual attraction of what you just said – Find my house, visit the places of my youth, where you went on vacation, or where you want to go on vacation.
I think that’s getting stronger and stronger. It’s partially why do these World Updates, and I think that will evolve over time.
Like, there are lots of ideas of how you can take this digital tourism stuff even further , and I think we’ll eventually get there. Right now, it’s mostly places, places to visit and activities to do, but I think we can make that even more attractive by just telling people our stories.
I mean, I spent a month in South America (in Flight Simulator). I’d never been to South America. And what I ended up doing was flying around like ‘man this is amazing’. I’d stop the sim, go online, and start researching. Where am I? What’s happening?
And I think we can integrate this even more. And that’s where I’m hoping to go in the next few years for sure.
It was a bit of surprise when it was first announced that Microsoft Flight Simulator was coming back. It’d been a long time since the previous one, and with Xbox’s broad gaming audience you might assume that greenlighting Flight Simulator meant confidence that it was going to reach lots of people. So who was the primary target initially?
Core simmers, without a doubt. I mean, I didn’t even look anywhere else, because if you’re not true to the core of the product, you actually don’t have anything.
So the core simmers are the lifeblood. We’re celebrating the 40th year of Microsoft Flight Simulator this year, and the reason why it’s been around for so long is because it’s a hobby. It’s because people fell in love and have stayed in love for a long, long time. So yeah, the project is for them.
It’s more of a delightful surprise that we found lots of other people, and honestly our hope is that they will turn into simmers one day.
And you can sort of see it now. Like, I still get a ton of emails from parents or even kids that say ‘I just flew a plane for the first time and I’m totally hooked!’ And for most people who are flight simmers, that’s how they started at some point.
Whether it was Flight Simulator 1 or Flight Simulator 95 or whatever. That’s how it starts. You see the beauty of the Earth and the different perspective, and I think we have opened up the hobby to a lot more people.
And ultimately, with the Xbox version, it was a totally secondary thing. That’s why it came out like a year later, almost, right?
And we listened quite a bit after what happened on PC. It was clear that the simmers really liked it, but it was still, for a non-Simmer, a little bit hard to get into.
We added a lot more accessibility features with, you know… Discovery Flights were new. People loved the trailers, but then they launched Flight Simulator and they’re in an airport, they’re like, ‘Hmm, I need to press all these buttons… what do I need to do to get in the air?’
So we said, ‘Let’s launch them in the air, make the plane fully trimmed out,’ and you can just go and enjoy it. We added more tutorials and flight assistance, and we made landing easier and more forgiving in many ways because you can land on water and whatnot.
I think it’s an evolution because the core simmers are hooked, and they are, I think, happy that we’re back. The gap between Flight Simulator 10 and this one was significant, so with them it was very much ‘show them that we really mean it, that we understand them.’
And I think they’re very open. When you talk to them, they are very delighted that new people are coming into the hobby, because that’s really what it is. You’re sharing a love for something.
So Flight Simulator is doing well with the console audience, especially with being on Xbox Game Pass, I assume?
Oh, it’s awesome. I mean, we’re super gracious, right? Like, we got a… I think we’re still rated 90 or something (on Metacritic – Ed), so we’re up there, and I think that that gets people interested.
It’s like, a really good movie that people talk about saying ‘you should check it out.’ So I see tons and tons of people check out Flight Simulator. And obviously Xbox is growing, so I think there’ll be a continuing influx of new people checking out Flight Sim for the first time over years to come.
You’ve had quite a run at Microsoft working on AR projects like Kinect and HoloLens. Were there any projects or learnings there that informed the approach to Flight Simulator?
We started Microsoft Flight Simulator because we had worked on this this thing called HoloTour. And with HoloTour you could basically teleport yourself anywhere on the planet, and you could look around, you could even touch things because it was AR.
We did Rome – that was cool. You could go up in a balloon over Rome. And then we created Machu Picchu. Man, it looked real. It was so compelling.
Then the idea was: can we make the entire planet like this? Like, is this even possible?
This was six years ago now, the idea of Cloud (computing) kinda just started and none of it really worked. People said, ‘you know, internet connections are not that good, and streaming… you might want to just launch North America.’
And I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think this is gonna work, Flight Simulator is about the whole planet.’
But as we created the product, the tech sorta caught up with us, frankly.
Wow, that’s really fortunate timing.
It was. It all magically came together and it worked. It was amazing.
We started with Seattle, we made a map of Seattle, and then we did the Grand Canyon, that kind of worked. And then we did the places between Seattle and the Grand Canyon. But the planet is a huge place, and all of a sudden we flew everywhere.
I ended up flying over stuff like the Lord of the Rings tour in New Zealand and things like that, going, ‘oh my God!!’
And that’s why we’re so determined to keep up this ‘digital twin’ idea. There’s something really compelling about it. We are so blessed that we get to work on this and find new data and, and it’s so fun.
Like what I said at the outset – the countries themselves want this. You talk to these Institutes and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I love Flight Simulator! You can have all my data, what else do you need?’
It feels like we’re working on this together. And really, let’s make our planet really shine! For all the beauty that it has.
You mentioned some big picture ideas earlier, but what’s in store for Flight Simulator over the next couple of years?
That’s funny that you asked, I’m actually I’m sort of working on the plan now. So next — we’ll talk about this more pretty soon – it’s streaming, streaming to other devices via XCloud, so that’s coming.
And then comes Top Gun (Maverick), that’s announced. I just talked to Paramount earlier and the movie seems like it’s on track for May 27.
Then at E3… I have a bunch of cool surprises for E3.
And then for monthly updates comes gliders and helicopters and some stuff that I can’t talk about… but it’s crazy. I mean, I showed it to our team just a few days ago, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s so much coming!’
And it’s never gonna end. I think people will be very, very impressed and delighted by what we’re doing.
2022 is going to be such a banner year for Flight Simulator. We’re really listening carefully to what the community wants and we’re going to give them a lot of what they want this year.
What’s something about Flight Simulator that you’re really proud of, but isn’t something that might not be as obvious to the audience?
Hmm… maybe it’s not the forefront of mind for most people when I see how many people are playing, but you actually get better at learning how to fly, much more so than people realize.
I work a lot with airplane manufacturers, as a matter of fact, most of them. And I get some data because they’re testing Flight Simulator and what it does to their pilots or people that want to be pilots.
And it’s significant. Very significant.
And I think there’s something to explore there because honestly, the world has a pilot crisis. I don’t know to what degree that’s known. And they all look at something like this, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you have millions of people, please help us.’
Because we can inspire the youth. We can inspire people to actually go into that profession and frankly, that profession kind of connects our planet! Like, it’s an important piece to make the whole thing work, right? So I think we’re playing a little role to help people fall in love with aviation, and they really get used to it.
At some point, I think we’ll publish something about how much people are learning. And it’s not a learning tool. It’s not supposed to be, but it’s intrinsic by doing it.
It makes us so happy right? And I think that’s remarkable that we have such a potential impact on the real world as a game… that’s not that’s not a common thing. Very humbling, this whole thing.
The Australia World Update is available now, free to all players of Microsoft Flight Simulator on PC and Xbox consoles