Article by: Tom Bews – Editor in Chief and Head Admin
As I’m sure many of you are now aware now due to the amount of coverage today, Microsoft has revealed a plethora of new details, previews and interviews regarding their Flight Simulator 2020. Although the sim is currently in pre-alpha stage Microsoft has shown the amount of work that has already gone into and it looks both stunning and is highly sophisticated.
According to the dev team over at Microsoft, based in Seattle; mostly composed of French developers – work on this simulator began way back in May of 2016. From then, they have been concentrating on a way to get high-level satellite imagery straight into the sim. It can now be confirmed they have been able to do this, with help from Bing as a satellite source, providing 2 petabytes worth of data, covering the expanse of the globe. Many of you will be wondering how you’ll be able to fly because all of us don’t have space for 2 petabytes of data. Thankfully, they have found a method that results in each user being able to stream the data, which is encoded in real-time into the sim. This is something we simmers couldn’t have imagined, this means not only is the data up-to-date but it’s also unbelievably accurate, but it also is in some cases photogrammetry down to 3cm per pixel, which is just astonishing. To feed all this information across the world, Microsoft will use Azure – something that didn’t exist in the times of previous flight simulator’s made by Microsoft. It is a system made by Microsoft which functions as a ‘Software as a Service’. This effectively means that Azure will provide both the storage and all of its data and deliver it with low latency (minimal delay).
Jorg, one of the lead developers on Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 stated that Microsoft has been working very closely with ‘plane manufacturers and data providers’ to help with core elements in the simulator. Microsoft has also acknowledged the importance of third-party developers and keeping them well and alive. Jorg confirmed that Microsoft has already been in contact with many of the existing developers about MFS 2020.
A highly prioritised point made by Microsoft was also how closely they want to work with the community. “We read the forums, we got magazines – we read everything to get feedback.” The Microsoft devs are very eager to understand what and what doesn’t work, especially as Microsoft stated that the 2020 Simulator will feature SimConnect compatibility, one of the main components when third-party developers and users are making addons for the sim.
When Microsoft opted to provide the community with another simulator they needed highly skilled, knowledgable individuals to carry out this project. They stumbled upon Asobo Studios, Jorg commented on Asobo by stating that the 100 people strong team had begun taking flight lessons “to nail the authenticity”. With the strength of this team, Jorg wanted to introduce the four key elements that MFS 2020 has; the world, the sky, the aerodynamics and finally the cockpit.
Lionel Fuentes, Lead Programmer at Asobo Studios took the role of explaining the vision behind “The World.” As already stated we know that upon release the whole world will be included in the base-simulator. There will be no need to download packs or areas, nor will you will be restricted during flying.
As shown above and in many other previews we’re aware that New York City is specifically modelled, well it’s confirmed that over 400 cities in the world will be included to that level of detail. Some cities will be more detailed than others, this is due to the amount of data available. Lionel also explained that over 40,000 airports will be included. Similarly to the likes of simulators around at the moment and previous Microsoft flight sims, these airports will be ‘default’ based on the data provided. Even though these airports are default, they’re still highly impressive but do certainly leave room for some TLC.
Using real-world data, never seen before in a simulator Microsoft will be able to generate smarter autogen than ever before, with 1.5 trillion trees needing to be placed around the world. In addition, the Azure AI technology will also amazingly, scan the Bing Map imagery and detect faults such as blurries, clouds and shadows and attempt to improve the imagery for better aesthetics.
Smaller details include: 3D grass blends, highly detailed water imagery and data, the impressive night lighting engine, water effects and finally and most interestingly – the procedural generation will generate ground details such as dirt, concrete, asphalt etc.
It is confirmed that rendering of the simulator will take place locally on your hardware. Microsoft has not stated what specs have been used during tested, nor what will be the minimum or recommended requirements for the sim to run.
The streaming of data from the Internet comes in three modes: Adaptive Streaming, Fully Offline Mode and Pre-Cache Mode. This summarises that Adaptive Streaming will provide the most detailed experience possible based on your bandwidth. Fully Offline Mode still provides you with a high-level experience, but not as high as Adaptive Streaming. It has been described as “reasonably accurate” by Microsoft themselves. And finally, Pre-Cache Mode is somewhat halfway between the previous two. It will enable you to download arbitrary regions of the world for offline access.
To summarise things, Microsoft is taking five steps to improve the experience of the sky within Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020:
1) Atmospheric Sim – Things such as light, air pollution, weather and more will all impact the atmosphere. Lighting, in particular, will be used within the simulator to provide a sense of realism not seen before. By using a layered atmospheric engine, the team will be able to create a world with variable particle densities throughout. Shadows will be cast by clouds, mountains, buildings and aircraft.
2) Weather Special Effects – Rain will now be 3D and realistic, it will also fall in shafts depending on the clouds in the sky. Rainbows will also be depicted within the sim. Fog will be generated in a 3D environment. Light and atmospheric conditions will impact the way it falls to the ground or rises in the sky.
3) Night Lighting – A full day and night cycle will be present within the simulator, along with a full yearly cycle. Although seasons were not mentioned, the team did confirm that the sun will be higher during the summer and lower in the winter months. Stars are also all accurately replicated. The night lighting system itself has been built from the ground up with a new road, building and airport lighting system designed to immerse you into the world. Impressively, the night lighting from built-up cities will have an impact on the clouds in the sky.
4) Volumetric Clouds – Microsft and Asobo has worked hard to ensure the new clouds are rendered in “ultra detail”. There are going to be 32 layers of clouds, all with different densities and shapes. Clouds will all be completely fluid to the environment. Clouds will form, dissipate and grow in real-time. They will also impact the airflow of your aircraft. You will also be able to see clouds up to 600km away to the horizon.
5) Live Real World Weather – Microsoft has confirmed that real world weather will be injected into the sim in real-time and 20 layers of weather data will get pumped into the sim.
This is certainly an area of the sim that many community members are excited to hear and know much more about. Asobo’s co-founder and CEO Sebastian Wloch provided us with the details.
First of all, Sebastian outlined how impressed he was with the engine already present in FSX (Microsoft’s most notable previous release) and how complex it was for its time. However, with the new sim comes a whole load of new systems and features, these include a new core physics engine, new collision model, sloped runways, the friction modelling and much more. This new friction model simulates rubber, which makes taking off and landing much more realistic than ever before.
Sebastian also commented that if the user is experiencing a low frame-rate, the simulator will adapt and ensure that your aircraft movements are still always precise.
The most important of all the changes to the aerodynamic simulation is the introduction of 1000 simulator surfaces. Each with its own specific simulation, this will be included in the data downloaded by the simulator in real-time. Pressure, speed, momentum and temperature will also impact the aircraft – to the point where individuals could stall. Additionally, fuel consumption has been adjusted, load factor makes a difference and now every surface of the aircraft has an aerodynamic simulation. Flaps have also been improved upon, each with its own simulation of drag, lift, even icing will build upon the wings in cold conditions.
Worldwide Atmospheric Air Mass Simulation
To simplify, this is how the atmosphere and the air will have an impact on your aircraft. The new simulation has native support for storms and supercells, and the volumetic clouds (as previously mentioned) will support turbulence, along with up- and downdraft.
Whilst the weather plays a big part on air, so will the 3D environment. Mountains, large bodies of water and cities will now have an impact on the airflow in the sky. Any 3D shape, of any size, will have an impact on the movement of air. For example, if you fly over a large stadium building, get prepared for possible shifts in air around your aircraft. Termics, updrafts and currents are also going to be generated by buildings, hills and mountains.
A visual representation provided by Microsoft of how air travels in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. The blue lines indicate how the air is moving – notice how it climbs above the mountain.
The final element that Microsoft has revealed details of is the new cockpits within the simulator. Asobo Studios is creating a realistic experience from within the cockpit. The cockpits themselves will benefit from the brand new engine created by Asobo, which takes advantage of new technologies such as PBR material and output 4K resolution textures.
The new rendering engine will also enable effects such as detailed shadowing, pixel ambient occlusion and also reflection from within the cockpit windows and displays. Furthermore, there is now a brand new lighting system enabling dimmable panels and displays by default and the in-flight instruments are now incredibly sharp and have a fast refresh rate.
Integrated Checklist System
A completely optional feature built into default aircraft is an interactive checklist system. The premise is to simply guide people from a cold-and-dark aircraft to take-off and then eventually shutting the aircraft down. The system has been designed to help those new to simulation or to familiarise them with the aircraft.
Asobo Studios is aware that not everyone wants their handheld, and so, the checklist system will feature multiple modes such as fully assisted, semi-automatic or you can skip it altogether. As you go through cockpit items, the dynamic camera will pan to the area of the cockpit you need to be looking at. Furthermore, tooltips on cockpit instruments and buttons have been fully revised with greater detail and direction should you want it switched on.
Cockpit audio is a hugely important area for the team. For the current default aircraft, the team visited real-life counterparts with an array of equipment to record directly from the aircraft themselves. The new sound script is based on Wwise and the sound effects are all processed in real time based on the simulation itself. This is most obvious when pulling excess G-force in the plane when you can hear the rattle and groans of the frame having stress put on it.
What to make of it all?
The current version of this simulator is in a pre-alpha state, with the Alpha testing group starting towards the end of October. It has been confirmed that Microsoft Flight Simulator will launch in 2020, they did not announce anything with regards to pricing. However, it is confirmed that MFS 2020 will be a one-off payment, not a subscription service.
The simulator will also feature a “Marketplace” within its UI, no further details have been released by Microsoft at this time.
What we can take out of this is that Microsoft is serious, seriously back in the market with a simulator that looks to take control of the market, and rightly so because its features are unequivocally groundbreaking.
Stay tuned for further information in the future.