Microsoft Flight Simulator is nothing short of stunning, a fully realised planet to explore in a hardcore simulator that caters for all skill levels. Available on PC and Xbox consoles, it’s captured the attention of so many people thanks in part to how beautiful and, well, realistic it looks. With real-world satellite data, photogrammetry, and all manner of AI magic and data in-hand there are locations in the game that look every bit as impressive and grand as the real deal.
A sentiment that until now, didn’t really apply to how most of Australia looked in Flight Simulator. Which, although impressive, lacked the sort of finer detail that made places, you know, look like the places. That, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge being missing at launch didn’t help.
That whole ‘until now’ bit is key because the latest World Update sees the development team at Asobo take the time to explore the entirety of Australia and bring a level of care and detail to everything from the MCG to the Great Barrier Reef to even Pine Gap up there in the Northern Territory. In fact, this free update is the biggest to date with the team using every tool in its arsenal to update no less than 11 cities.
Plus, the Australia World Update introduces new Landing Challenges, Discovery Tours, and Bush Trips so you can fly over the Gold Coast, take a trip to Uluru, fly a Cessna 208 Caravan to Tasmania, and even fly from Canberra to Melbourne. For some reason.
Ahead of the update’s release we had the chance to sit down with Jorg Neuman, Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator at Asobo Studio to talk about creating this impressive update, what’s in store for the future, and why there aren’t any kangaroos in the game yet.
Australia is this massive place, a continent with cities, natural wonders, deserts, bush. Where do you start? World Updates are also about improving areas so what were some of the key improvements you wanted to make?
JN “After we launched we got this feedback almost right away – where’s the Sydney Harbour Bridge? The cities too, why were they filled with generic buildings. The first thing we always look to is feedback, and to make sure that we address everything that we can. But, you know, cities are important in Flight Simulator. And there are some really unique ones found throughout Australia. We were able to get 11 cities into this update, which is much more than we’ve ever done. We have Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart, Cairns, Darvin, Townsville, Bunbury, and Mackay. At launch places like the 12 Apostles and The Three Sisters didn’t look exactly right either, so those types of things are much, much better now.”
“We have this great collaboration with Bing maps, and we recently formed a new team for stuff like this. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get more done and make all these cities look great. It’s a checklist. Is there enough high-quality imagery? That matters for resolution. The good news was we had a tonne to work with. We do our machine learning on it, make sure we’re planting the trees, creating the new buildings, and all that. I found an organisation called GeoScience Australia and they were awesome. They had three terabytes of data, and that was just the height-field of Australia.”
“For this and any World Update we want to make sure that we touch every part of the country so people can go out and explore. When it comes to updating airports it’s the same thing. We look at the entire landscape of the country and figure out where it would be great to land. We also try to find places that are a bit meaningful or have a history – like Mount Beauty. Shellharbour is another example, and that’s a place where some famous planes are stored. And then at some point you end up with a hundred places and it starts to feel like you’re doing justice to the place.”
Australia, like a lot of countries, is big on sport. When Flight Simulator launched, stadiums like the MCG looked, well, not great.
JN “When we look at a country, when we look at famous places, sporting arenas are included. They fall into this broader category of important landmarks. Bridges and other things that are exposed on mountains, like observatories. Stadiums stand out, and as we get cities in 3D we can be very judicious of what we’re adding. Photogrammetry is really cool because the resolution and the cameras keep getting better. We’re getting better data for things like stadiums now than what was possible not that long ago. But you know, when you have something like the Sydney Harbour Bridge or Luna Park you really have to construct them by hand to do them justice.”
Developing the World Updates during the ongoing pandemic, has that made the process more difficult? Would the ideal situation be that your World Update team visits all of these places?
JN “We are lucky in that we have a distributed team and that the large amounts of data haven’t been affected. The satellites are fine. With all of the stuff like heights and cities you just get all of that independently. With travel restrictions it meant that people who lived in Melbourne checked out Melbourne and people that lived in Sydney checked out Sydney.”
“Even so, we wanted to visit. Typically we make the local legend planes, we go as deep as you can go. We work with the manufacturers, we physically go into their archives. If there’s any pieces at all, we scan them right down to the millimetre. In the case of the Southern Cross, luckily there’s more than one famous Fokker FVII. We were able to get out to Detroit and scan one there. So we got this awesome scan where everything’s accurate. The real Southern Cross is in Shellharbour, in a museum. We really wanted to go but we couldn’t swing it. It was just too complicated. We talked to the Australian government and we got close but at some point it was just, you know, pandemic rules.”
When you’re handcrafting places like buildings, bridges, or airports where does the data and the schematics come from? That specific brick by brick detail. If Sydney Airport is going to become this one-to-one or super-realistic recreation, where do you get that info?
JN “Honestly it just depends. Sometimes we make a deal with an airport and then we have a team on site taking 20,000 photographs or more, spending time really capturing all of the detail. And for that you need full access because you need to go out onto the runways. When it comes to buildings it’s hit and miss. For places in Melbourne, because Orbx is in Melbourne they can go photograph places directly. There’s also internet research, and a few cases where we go and track down structural blueprints. With stuff like sports stadiums it’s more macro as we’re not rendering every single seat. The opposite is true when it comes to planes.”
The level of detail that a World Update can bring is incredible. The closer to realism it gets the more beautiful it becomes. One of the goals with Flight Simulator is realism. In a lot of ways Australia has its own identity, in terms of fauna, animals, trees. We’ve seen examples of wildlife in the game. When looking at the Australia World Update, what do you take into consideration?
JN “For this update we did add some trees, but really, I wanted kangaroos in there. I was fighting for kangaroos, looking at distribution maps and figuring out how to get them in. In the end we didn’t add kangaroos but you know, I think about it this way. We’re going around the world right now with these World Updates. Getting the landscape and the structures more complete and in a much higher resolution. I think there’s gonna be another go-around in a year or two, where we go back and we add things like trains, ships, maybe people, but definitely animals.”
“That, and really capture the seasons. We looked at the salt lakes in the middle of Australia for this update, and they fill up for just a tiny moment in time. It rains, it’s there, and then it’s gone. That’s where we’re going next.”
“And then there’s digital tourism, because people are excited about seeing all of these places. So we’re thinking about stories based around the places you fly to. Because once the place actually looks like the place, that’s doable. If you flew over the Great Barrier Reef at launch, it didn’t look like the Great Barrier Reef. It was more of a light blue ocean. Now that we have the Reef, there’s a lot we could say. We’re going to continue doing these meaningful updates this year, and next. But there is a World Update 2.0 coming our way at some point, with living things making it all even more realistic.”
Telling stories in Flight Simulator sounds fascinating, to be able to see something so stunning and then get a real picture of what you’re looking at.
JN “I really think people would like it. One of the big things we’re doing this year, later this year , is we’re bringing helicopters. And that’s going to change things because all of a sudden you can just hover. In a plane, depending on the altitude, you’re flying pretty fast. In a helicopter, you can just look at stuff. And you can circle around a building, look at it, or land on it. When you get to that level of connection to a place, it becomes personal. That’s why we’re going from the macro plane-level at high altitude, to ‘what if I landed anywhere’. Am I experiencing the sound of the wind, the specifics of the grass. Are there birds in the sky?”
With the Helicopter update, does that mean the team has taken into consideration the ability to land on top of every building you see? Is that catered for?
JN “Yeah, definitely. Right now we don’t have helipads everywhere, but there are databases for helipads out there. That’s the pursuit. We want to get the world as accurate as you can possibly make the world. Helipads exist, so we need to add them.”
Australia is so far from anywhere, and that’s something we all feel. Even though that historical flight for the Southern Cross plane took like 80-plus hours, to this day it still takes us 15 hours to get anywhere. When it comes to long-haul flights and true exploration, are there plans to help foster or celebrate that feeling of going from one side of the world to the other? Perhaps things like endurance missions?
JN “We track where you go, it’s in your log book, but we could do a better job celebrating it all and showing what you’ve done. There’s quite a lot of people asking if we could add FSX-style missions [which included things like around-the-world flights] but those missions always felt one-off to us. You’ll never fly them again.”
“We want to do it differently, we want to embrace what aviation is like in the real world. You’ll see us talk a lot more about this in the future. It’s beyond the conceptual stage, we are playing around with what can be done. The world is a big place and you want to embrace the world. And all styles of players too. We have international travellers that want to see the world, visit Japan, and see South America. There’s also people that just fly a handful of routes and that’s all they want. We’re looking to find meaning and structure in both scenarios. A sense of accomplishment. We have live weather and that helps realism a tonne because every flight is an adventure, but there’s a lot more to it.”
“What happens during a flight? What do you have to overcome? Then there’s the idea of completing a flight and just sending it to someone. From my phone to your phone. Telling someone is one thing, being able to see it is another.”
With all of the updates and long-term plans for Flight Simulator, is there enough data available to store all of that information?
JN “With the cloud there is no more limit. When we launched, we were at three and a half petabytes of data, we’re now at four petabytes. We have three terabytes of terrain data just for one country, and that’s just the height field. Without a limit all it comes down to is, what can we do? Even now I think this is just the beginning of something. We’ve gotten better every month, and Flight Simulator keeps getting better. Recently we sat down to figure out where we’re going to be by the end of 2022, the end of 2023, 2025. We haven’t found an end yet. It’s still this super exciting journey that we’re on.”
Microsoft Flight Simulator is available on Xbox Game Pass for Xbox Series X|S and PCs now. The Australia World update will launch today for free.