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Archive for the ‘Flight’ Category

Full disclosure: I work for Microsoft, but not in the Flight team or Entertainment & Devices division.

They picked a good day – February 29th. These days, a new Microsoft flight game release is as rare as a leap year. The Flight team today launched the first product after the meltdown of the old team. Any day you ship a product is a good day, but for these guys, who three years ago thought they would never get to give the public another release, it must have been a great day.

At the Microsoft Commons, the team set up a couple of machines and let people fly for a while. Here is a shot of some real Microsofties trying the game:

They also had a big tray of Flight cookies to commemorate the moment. Even though it was before lunch, and I have a strict no-dessert-until-you-eat-your-veggies rule, I had one anyway. Here is Amy modelling one of the cookies:

I have not yet downloaded the RTM, but I was on the beta, so I thought it was time to post my opinions (a review may or may not come later). There has been a lot of concern that by dropping the word ‘simulator’ from the title, Flight would become some kind of nerfed Xbox game (like the abominable Hawx series). The bottom line is, this is not true at all. The flight model is pretty much what you have in FSX, with additional helpers (similar to FSX’s auto-mixture and auto-rudder coordination helpers). If you turn those off, you are pretty much flying FSX.

On to the good – the performance is simply great. On my machine, it runs 50% to 100% faster than my FSX setup. The team promised improved speed, and they delivered in spades. On top of that, the visuals are greatly improved. The terrain rendering is more detailed, with more autogen packed into the same space, and a completely new lighting and shadow model – everything casts a shadow on everything in a soft, convincing way. The colours are more realistic, and the models are very well done, with details in the VCs even better than FSX. the new Stearman is a pleasure to fly.

People have complained that Flight is not a worthy replacement for FSX. But it is clear from using it for just an hour that this is not meant to be a replacement. Essentailly, the Flight team has followed the game model of racing simulators like Forza. You have one defined region to fly (Hawaii to begin), and various challenges/missions which allow you to unlock more content. This is completely different from the model of FSX or even X-Plane, which give you a completely open world, with all content available from the start. You can love it or hate it, but it was an intentional choice to move with this new model by the team. It’s an intriguing idea. I found myself staying on the sim a little longer just to find the next aerocache or unlock the next piece during the Beta, so I think it has good potential.

Also in place is a content store for DLC (the app store model is now on Windows 8, and you can expect to see it all over new Microsoft products). They already have a couple of good pieces of DLC there. The Vans R-7 aircraft retails for about $15, which seems a good price for DLC, if you consider the price of comparable third-party aircraft for FSX. We will have to see how it pans out. I am rooting for them to do well.

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April was a dry spell in new screenshots, but May brings a little bit of new info.

First off, a new aircraft – I may be wrong, but it’s a Van’s Aircraft RV-6A. I think this is the first kit plane represented in the history of Flight Simulator. Very nice!


This shot also shows the water – it is about the same as FSX water, but seems to have more texture. The earlier previews have shown the improvements in lighting, and this shot shows this off nicely:

The terrain shadowing itself is quite obvious, as well as the subtlety of colour in the clouds and horizon. The colours are less bright, and more realistic. Some people have compared it to the effects given by REX under FSX, which may be a good comparison. I’m looking forward to seeing Table Mountain casting its shadow over the city bowl.

The biggest improvements are obvious in the terrain rendering. The algorithm for texturing the terrain finally takes slope correctly into account, so that cliffs faces and other close to vertical areas are textures separately, making the terrain more geologically plausible:

Finally, the details: The resolution of the textures is much higher, the colours more subtle, and the vegetation casts a little shadow under itself onto the terrain. The surf also is much higher resolution, extending further into the water texture, giving a great effect:

Looking good! Can’t wait to see all these goodies animated together.

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New round of screen shots have been released on the Flight website – it is definitely a monthly trend now – I think its a great way to reconnect with all the fans they may have lost along the way. Shows they are serious about taking back a big share of the flight sim market again. As with the other previews, some interesting hints in these new shots.

1. The new shadow model will affect the scenery – Notice how the valley in the top right of this frame is darker, and how the slight ridges are also darkened by shadow (also, the Stearman 75 has now featured in a number of these previews, so safe to say it will feature in the release):

2. Airports using photo scenery – this is new. I suspect they are tapping into the Bing Maps photo database for this stuff (not in real time though, they would want to colour match the photos etc. before using them). It looks like we can expect much higher resolution textures for scenery also from this shot:

3. This shot shows two impressive things: (1) The cloud polygons, when interacting with the land polygons, don’t seem to do a hard intersection – notice ho hard lines where the clouds meet the mountain, and (2) the texturing of the land has been massively improved – notice how the sides of the cliffs now are correctly textured with a cliff texture, adding a lot of realism (getting away from the ‘tablecloth draped over a wire mesh’ look of past versions):

4. And a nice shot of the Stearman over the ocean. Can’t tell very much about the water from a still, but it’s a nice picture nonetheless ๐Ÿ™‚

The emphasis of the Stearman suggests that Boeing will once again be a partner in the release. Is it too much to hope that the 787 be one of the aircraft in this release?

And now for some interesting wild speculation…

This leaked video from Live talks about the long term plans for the new Windows Game eXperience strategy. There may be some hints of what is in the future for Flight in each of the four verticals mentioned in the video:

  • Social – they have already announced that there will be more of a multiplayer element to Flight
  • Identity – this one could easily be added into any game; could we see the Xbox Live avatars in the menus etc for matchmaking in the server browsers?
  • Search – this one does not seem to fit into Flight, but one could imagine a good way to search for other players who want similar experiences, a global search for addons…
  • Transaction – I would be very, very surprised if we do not see a marketplace around Flight. My prediction is there will be one version of this game (no deluxe), with the extra stuff for sale one by one. I would also not be surprised if the major publishers (Just Flight etc) are not brought on board into the marketplace.

 

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The latest posting on the Microsoft Flight preview flight suggests something interesting: “Birds fly for for free…so can you… fly free”. Does this mean that Flight will have an MSRP of $0?

My guess: Probably not. The Flight team has already announced that Flight will have a persistent online mode (via the Live Games for Windows infrastructure), so I think that the ‘for free’ tag will apply to this service – buy the DVD, and you can fly online for free as much as you want. Most massive online games follow one of two model: Get the game for free and pay to play, or pay for the game and play for free (the WoW model). My understanding of this is that MS is going with the latter for their service.

Why don’t I believe that they will give the game away for free? The overall MS strategy seems to be to give for free only products which can make the money back via some tie-in with another MS product – so Office for instance – you can get a free Office online account if you are a regular Joe, but that’s because Office makes money from the enterprise space. Similarly, with Skydrive and the Windows Live Essentials tools – you can get them for free, but they make the money from the Windows and Windows Phone 7 sales which tie-in. I don’t see Flight as having a major tie-in in this way (not a big enough customer base, compared to those other products), so I think we should get ready with our $60 or whatever when it comes out.

In terms of new features, there is not a lot to see in this video – but the new shadow system is nicely evident. So the terrain casts shadows on itself quite nicely. Not just the terrain mesh, but the vegetation also:

Also, it is subtle, but the terrain definitely casts shadows on the aircraft – as the Maule turns, the shadow of the mountain moves over its wings (watch the video to see it more clearly):

I have heard on some podcasts disappointment that there is nothing really new to see in these previews. I think there will be lots of new stuff to see when Flight hits the streets. We have been promised an increase in performance over FSX out of the box – this is a really important feature. Second, the new shadow system, which points to a newly revamped graphics engine (and the Jan ’11 screen shots definitely point to better looking images compared to FSX out of the box), a new UI experience, and of course the persistent world to fly in (although how this will tie-in with add-on products will remain to be seen). Plus, I suspect we will see a lot more surprises. First, the product is still under development, so many features are probably not demoable yet. Second, there is a new move at MS to release features as a ‘Big Bang’ย  – so notice there have been no screen shots of what Windows 8 will look like, nor what features Office 15 will have, etc etc. I suspect they are going to keep more than a few secrets right up until release day.

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The Flight team has been releasing a number of teasers as ‘webisodes’. In the latest one (2 – Lift) we see some game play footage, which reveals some hints of what might be new features:

1. Scenery casts shadows on aircraft

As the biplane taxis, you can see the shadows from some piece of scenery playing across the top wing quite clearly (you’ll also notice the wheels on this model are not animated!)

2. Improved self-shadowing for aircraft

The resolution of the self-shadow maps is much increased, giving better soft-edged shadows.

3. Shadow maps rather than volumetric shadows for aircraft

Notice the shadow cast by the aircraft is made up of ‘blobs’ (much more obvious on the video, where you can see some artifacts of the technique). Together with 1 and 2 above, this points to them having redone a big chunk of the lighting model, which may give us improved frame rates.

4. Improved ground handling model

You’ll notice the plane is leaning to the right as it turns left – on the video it is quite clear that ground handling is much more realistic now, with the plane showing rotational inertia on the ground. In this shot you can also see HDR effects around the sky, so hoping they have fixed the performance issues with bloom effects.

5. Mesh (3D part) gauge elements

Rather than the old texture based VC gauge elements, the video shows only 3D gauge needles and other elements. This probably means that they are exposing custom part names for all this in the SDK. This will be a big relief to 3rd party modelers who up to now have been having to write custom scripts to do 3D gauges.

6. Integration with Games for Windows Live

The Live brand (bottom right) is applied by Microsoft to products that connect to the cloud in some way, so expect a heavy shift towards multiplayer stuff – probably including connecting with your xbox live friends lists.

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Excellent news! FS11 lives in aย new form:

http://www.microsoft.com/games/flight/ – just a suggestive movie at this stage. But I do love how a biplane is taking center stage…

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