The technology powering Microsoft Flight Simulator

The first version of Microsoft Flight Simulator appeared on IBM compatible PCs almost 40 (!) years ago, in 1982. As PCs have continued to evolve, so has the franchise, with each new release serving as a benchmark for what the latest PC technology was capable of achieving.

With the recent release of the eleventh entry in the series, creatively titled Microsoft Flight Simulator, that tradition of pushing technology forward appears to be alive and well. 

See if you can spot the subtle differences between 1982 and 2020.

It’s not only the visuals that have advanced, though they do set a new benchmark for fidelity and realism. Even more impressive is the ambitious cloud-based streaming technology that powers the experience, and allows Microsoft and Asobo Studio to provide the entire planet as a playground for airplane enthusiasts and curious explorers.

What’s New Here?

In addition to delivering a meticulously detailed flight simulation experience, this latest version of Flight Simulator also allows the player to fly anywhere in the world, and be treated with a remarkably true-to-life recreation of what you would expect to see while doing so.

While detailed open-worlds are not new to video games, and some titles have allowed exploration on a planetary scale, this is usually achieved with procedural generation. That process relies on the game to randomly generate spaces for the player to explore (think No Man’s Sky or Diablo) that are different every time. While this can certainly make for a compelling experience and one that favors replayability, it’s not ideal for simulating more realistic, organic environments.

Microsoft and Asobo found an inventive solution to this problem. By leveraging the immense resources at their disposal, including web mapping service Bing Maps and cloud computing network Azure, they were able to synthesize a life-like approximation of our planet that is updated in real-time as you explore it. 

How the Tech Works

Flight Simulator’s version of Earth, and the skies above, is generated with information captured via Bing maps, satellite imagery, and pre-existing photogrammetry data. This massive database of constantly updated data is used to extrapolate information such as building locations in cities, the depth, and appearance of geological formations, terrain attributes, fauna placement, and just about anything else you would expect to see from a bird’s eye view.

The game is called Flight Simulator, so likely you aren’t spending much of your time on the ground. When you do come down to Earth, however, AI is used to generate more subtle details such as leaves on trees, the wind blowing through blades of grass, and animals scampering across open spaces. While this AI is not flawless, and can occasionally result in oddities such as malformed buildings, misplaced textures, or the occasional graphical glitch, it’s overall quite effective at maintaining the illusion that the entire planet is stretching out underneath your wings.

This process is supplemented with some handcrafted elements as well, the most obvious example being the many airports you’ll visit as you travel around the globe. Because of the player’s close proximity to these locations, special care was taken to ensure accuracy. That meant the developer had to manually manipulate these locations so they felt authentic to discerning virtual pilots.

That accuracy extends to the airplanes as well. There is an unprecedented level of detail paid to make sure every airplane doesn’t just look accurate but behaves realistically as well. This includes details like every plane’s fuselage reacting appropriately to atmospheric conditions, and every switch and dial in every cockpit being present and accounted for.

Flight Simulator has always prioritized accuracy, but this entry takes that dedication further than ever.

Beyond Terrain

In addition to providing recreations of Earth’s diverse landscapes, this method of streaming data from the cloud also allows other enhancements such as real-time weather events and live air traffic. For example: if there’s a storm thundering above LAX in reality, you may have to contend with that storm, and the navigational challenges that storm presents, while trying to land in-game. 

These massive data sets are synthesized into a seamless, explorable environment by Microsoft's cloud infrastructure, and then streamed to the player’s PC. This method allows Azure to utilize assets and perform complex calculations that are far beyond the ability of even the most cutting-edge consumer-facing PCs.

Finally, the open-world dream of visiting your home in a digital space can be realized. Though the AI created approximation might not be an exact replica, the fact you can find it all is pretty remarkable and represents an exciting step forward for open-world games.

The Future of the Technology

This ambitious technology could have a profound impact on not just video games, but on digital spaces as a whole. When paired with other fledgling technologies like AR and VR, it’s easy to imagine how an accurately modeled digital version of our planet could have huge potential in fields like exploration, education, and engineering. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator may be focused on providing the most realistic aviation experience, but the developers have also pushed the boundaries of what a digital space is capable of achieving.

There’s no doubt Microsoft Flight Simulator has come a long way in the last four decades. It’s fascinating to imagine what it might look like in another forty years.