Aug 19, 2020 - Technology

Microsoft Flight Simulator's lofty aims

A screenshot from Microsoft Flight Simulator depicting a small plane over a midsize cityscape.
Screenshot: Microsoft

Microsoft is reviving one of its oldest game franchises — Microsoft Flight Simulator — with a new version that uses ultra-realistic map data to fuel its sky-high ambitions.

The big picture: The new airplane simulator is both a nod to Microsoft's past and an advertisement for the company's present, relying on Bing Maps and Azure to build a game intended exclusively for Windows and Xbox users. It's also a technological marvel, recreating the entire planet in virtual space and setting players loose to fly every inch of it.

Details: The planes in the game and the overall flying experience are getting high marks for their fidelity to the real thing. But it's the game world that's drawing the most attention.

  • The game, built by French developer Asobo, uses Azure cloud-computing technology, pulling data from Bing Maps, to render the world as the player navigates it, filling it out with buildings, flora, fauna and dynamic weather.
  • The technique lets the game render faithful versions of real-world buildings and entire cities, as Azure synthesizes realistic models from different angles and data in Bing Maps' vast database of satellite and aerial imagery.

It's not perfect. There are varying levels of photorealism, with the game putting greater focus on closely simulating 341 world cities than other locales. (Not all airports are created equal, either. Some major airports were painstakingly built in-game by hand, while most are generated algorithmically.)

  • And Azure makes mistakes. For instance, it assumed Buckingham Palace — a large, blocky building in a prime London location — was an office complex and rendered it from certain angles accordingly.
  • But it is still a far more expansive, detailed and photoreal version of the world than its closest forebears, the built-in flight simulator in Google Earth and GeoFS, a flight simulator built around open-source maps.

Between the lines: Microsoft is looking to draw people into its ecosystem.

  • Mac users and PlayStation players are out of luck. Microsoft Flight Simulator only available for Windows to start — including on Xbox Game Pass for PC, Microsoft's subscription PC gaming service. It's slated to later come out for Xbox One and the next-generation Xbox Series X console.
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