Microsoft Flight Simulator: How Asobo Studio's attention to detail promises lifelike realism

Although we can't leave New Zealand on holiday at all right now, in a week we'll be able to travel anywhere in the world easier than ever before - sort of.

The latest Microsoft Flight Simulator is released on August 18 and will simulate the entire Earth using data from Bing Maps, promising lifelike depictions of terrain, structures, oceans and rivers generated using Azure technology. 

It's been developed by Asobo Studio, a team clearly passionate about aviation that's gone to extreme lengths to try and craft a realistic, detailed experience.

As well as virtually creating the surface of the planet, the developer has utilised reference materials from aircraft manufacturers including 3D scans of cockpit interiors to ensure the flying experience is as authentic as it can be.

But when they started work on the project they had no idea a global pandemic would make it the only form of international travel much of the world can look forward to in 2020.

"When we announced the game in mid-2019, there was a pilot crisis. People thought we might help with that by encouraging people to become pilots," head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann told Newshub.

"But now, so many planes are grounded, we've had so many emails from real-world pilots saying they can't fly and wanting early access to the game to keep practicing, to basically continue what they typically do in their day-to-day life.

"So that's been a total shift. It just goes to show how the world is so dynamic."

Many players are going to travel to faraway places they're currently blocked from by COVID-19 - or places like North Korea where they might not want to actually travel anyway.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

But being a small island nation, many people who call Aotearoa home will be quick to virtually go on a tour of their own backyard.

"I've visited New Zealand in real life. It was beautiful, especially the South Island. I did an awesome Lord of the Rings location tour," said Neumann.

"Last week in Flight Simulator, I was flying around Africa, looking for movie locations. I found the hill where the final shot of Out of Africa was filmed, then I was looking for the final shot of Blood Diamond. But before that, I was flying around New Zealand looking for my favourite Lord of the Rings sites.

"I started up north - I flew down 90 Mile Beach, then went to the Bay of Islands, then flew south. It looks very similar. In the South Island, that's an area where I want to have better resolution in the game in years to come. Y'know, the valleys are very steep - it's not exactly accurate but it's as accurate as you could make it right now."

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

While Neumann conceded the Southern Alps need a bit of work, Martial Bossard, lead software engineer at Asobo Studio, reckons the main centres are spot on.

"One of the daughters in my family was born in Christchurch," said Bossard.

"One of her uncles has a plane and flies around New Zealand, so she's redone the exact same flight of Auckland to Christchurch. She was amazed because when you're at a certain altitude, you get the exact same landscapes. So she was absolutely amazed."

A video showcasing Lake Tekapo in the game indicates that the South Island actually looks pretty great already, too.

The new Flight Simulator boasts over 2 million cities and towns, 1.5 billion buildings, 2 trillion trees and 37,000 real-world airports.

Those numbers have only been made possible by recent advancements.

Microsoft Flight Simulator interview on Newshub New Zealand.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

"This franchise has a history stretching back 38 years. When you look back, each of the releases were at the top of what was technically possible at the time - and what is technically possible now has been changed so much by the cloud," said Neumann.

"Flight simming is all about getting the world looking as good as possible, so you need a massive amount of data. What we have on satellite data is equal to about 1.7 million DVDs of data, whereas Flight Simulator X came on less than 10.

"How is that even possible? It's possible because of the cloud. With Bing Maps, half the data sits on Azure, from where we can get it to every person at low latency. So that combination of massive storage and massive delivery across the planet is key."

Microsoft Flight Simulator also boasts a complex weather system that takes real-world, real-time weather data and replicates it in the game. So if there's a particularly thick snowstorm at Queenstown Airport - you can try and virtually land in it while it's happening.

"There are some tornadoes hitting the world at the moment and you can try and fly over those tornadoes in real-time," said Bossard.

"This sort of thing is a kind of experience you just could not have gotten from anything in the past."

"My parents live in Germany and I can't travel there to visit them this year [due to COVID-19]. But I did actually just fly there!," added Neumann - meaning he virtually flew there.

"I flew down to the lake where my parents live, it was the same time of day they had there with the same weather they were experiencing. Then I picked up my phone and told them, 'Hey, I can't be there in person but I'm as close as I can get.' It was nice."

Asobo Studio has paid such an intense level of attention to detail that any slight change in weather is said to be precisely calculated in how it impacts on your aircraft and the feel of piloting. This apparently takes away the 'on-rails' feel of previous flight simulators for the most realistic yet.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

A big part of flying planes in real life is being in communication about where your aircraft is and crucially, where others are.

Believe it or not, just as there are people who love being virtual pilots, there are people who spend their leisure time being virtual bus drivers, farmers and even priests.

There are also plenty of people who love being virtual air traffic controllers, which will mean the new Microsoft Flight Simulator has a sort of multiplayer functionality in quite a meaningful way. 

"VATSIM has community members who do virtual ATC [air traffic controlling]. You can connect VATSIM and some other services to Flight Simulator, because Flight Simulator comes with an SDK [software development kit]," said Bossard.

"So we've got a bunch of tools that help you and it's open enough that you can plug any other services into it and ATC is one of them." 

Oh and there is also traditional multiplayer, too. People can meet up with mates and take off from the same airport at the same time for a flight together, or just meet up somewhere in the sky.

Speaking of which, as well as putting live real-world weather into the game, it also reads real-world air traffic and simulates "most if not all" the planes actually charting the world at any given moment, Asobo Studio says.

If the game goes offline or you lose your internet connection, AI will take the reins until it's back.

While the realism may be intimidating to people new to flight simulators, the creators of the new game have tried to ensure it's welcoming to newcomers.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot - air traffic controller view.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

"I have no real idea of how to fly an Airbus or a Boeing. In real life I can fly a Cessna or Icon or Cub, those are pretty simple and almost like driving a car. But with the bigger planes and their complex systems, I need help," said Neumann.

"I can just delegate to what is essentially a virtual co-pilot and then experience flying an overnight flight to New Zealand, for example, and not have to programme everything." 

"They do all of the little tricky tasks with instrumentation and communicating with ATC and everything like that," added Bossard.

"As you get more confident, you can unplug more of those assistances, increase the difficulty and enhance the accuracy of the simulation." 

For people who don't normally play serious simulator games, one of the things they're most interested in is crashing. 

What happens in Microsoft Flight Simulator when you crash? Well, anticlimactically for some, the screen simply fades to black and then tells you what you did wrong.

As the studio has worked closely with companies like Airbus and Boeing to accurately simulate their aircraft, that came with some rules.

"They give you a lot of documentation like pilot handbooks, in some cases cockpit scans, access to the planes and test pilots and sometimes the plane designers. All that is great and has been wonderful, but obviously they have some sensitivities about having their planes be broken in a simulation," said Neumann.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot showing multiplayer.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

Bossard added that on a technical level, designing all of the animation that would go into accurately depicting fiery plane crashes would be a tonne of extra work on top of what is already a mammoth project.

And the core audience wouldn't care for it anyway.

"Crashing a plane is not part of the fun of simming. I don't know, people can do whatever they want but fundamentally you want to master the machines and really figure out how to use them - not crash them," said Neumann.

"You can do belly-landings as you would in real life, that works, but in a serious crash where the plane would break apart, we just fade to black." 

So if you want to try and pull off Sully's 'miracle on the Hudson' in Microsoft Flight Simulator, you can - although you should be warned that it's referred to as a miracle for a reason.

People are almost certainly going to pull it off, of course, and post proof of their doing so on YouTube. It'll be one of countless virtual miracles that come from this game.

I can't wait to experience them.