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Interview with Microsoft and Asobo at FlightSimExpo 2023

FlightSimExpo is over so I got to fly back home, not get any sleep for 24+ hours (twice in a week), and starting to see double at some point but I managed to sit down, listen to the audio interview with Microsoft and start writing.

Let me say this first, though: the term interview at the title? I thought that was necessary for people to understand that I talked to Microsoft, and we do have some quotes. But I don’t want to do it in the traditional format where you read the question and then read the answer.

Also, I have to say that I have changed the order of some of the questions since it helped me better tell the story as we went back and forth sometimes.

I will quote both Jorg Neumann (Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator) and Sebastian Wloch (CEO of Asobo Studio) when deemed necessary. Everything that is not quoted came directly from them during the conversation.

Oh, and by the way, this interview started in a funnily odd way as Jorg started to ask me questions while holding the microphone. I ended up having a taste of my own medicine. Don’t worry, though, I will spare you my boring answers! That was a ton of fun with the whole situation flipped.

Let’s start with the thing that has been puzzling people a lot and understanding exactly what Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 is. Some started saying Microsoft ruined the sim because it’s now all about missions, and others started saying Microsoft ruined (again) the sim because there were no airliners, all that from a single trailer that focused on showing what is probably the biggest new feature. So, I asked Jorg to clarify exactly what it is.

Yeah. I mean, so FlightSim 2020 is the basis, and Sebastian can explain some of the technical things that we're improving. There's going to be a ton of new content. You saw some of this in the trailer, and that is a tiny sliver of all the new content that we're becoming.

We've talked about the activities. There's tons of new aircraft. Some of them are featured in the trailer. Some are not. There's mission systems.

There's all kinds of other things we haven't even touched on. It's a massive, massive undertaking, and it's built on top of FlightSim 2020. And so therefore, nothing goes away, actually.

The idea is that the planes from FlightSim 2020 are coming over. They might be better than everything else that's in FlightSim 2020 will come over, but better.

So, think about it that way. The airports will be there… better. The POIs will be there, either the same or better. All the planes are going to be there. Everything that you love right now is going to be there plus, plus, plus, plus.

So, no. Nothing is being taken away and that trailer is not showing everything the sim will be. We are getting what we already have right now, plus the new features and content.

And, yes, for those that were freaking out because perhaps VR was going to be removed, VR is part of the package. I really see no reason for that not to happen – but then again, I also didn’t see why airliners would be removed – yet folks seem to be going nuts over it and I hope this helps them settle down and relax.

Another thing people are asking is “Why do we need a new version”? Why is Microsoft “milking the community”? They could have done it all in this version, right? Well, not really, and Sebastian explained to me exactly why.

Oh, yeah. It's a lot of work, but I think we had to do a lot of architectural changes. So, you know, we have the list of all the stuff that people are asking for, all the stuff that we want to do, the wish list. And some of this stuff we've kept pushing and pushing because it requires huge architectural changes. And so at some point we said, okay, now we got to do all the long, the big, big undertakings and do the big changes, like reducing the size on the disk by changing the way the data is organized, improving drastically the flight model.

A lot of people have been asking for improvements on the flight model. And what we've done a lot recently is all the little changes, all the little adjustments, but the big, big changes require a new architecture here again.

And so, yeah, we had to start, I would say, a new simulator in order to do all the bigger, bigger things based on 2020, but a lot of long, long architectural changes that take a long time and also a long time to test and to make work. So how we're doing it, well, we have a huge team now. You all guys explained yesterday, yesterday it's a huge team [editor’s note: Microsoft announced, during their presentation on Friday (watch it here), talked about a total of around 500 persons involved]. I'm going to have four PCs, you know, and so I have different versions running. I can roll with my chair, this machine, this machine. That's how we do it.

So, in fact, a new version of the sim was required to ensure all the new features could be accommodated, flight dynamics were improved (more on that later as there are some interesting pieces of data for all of us – and especially for helicopters) but right now I wanted to get my third clarification about MSFS 2024. Which was actually about the current version of the sim.

Microsoft indicated that MSFS (2020) will still be supported going forward and everyone seems to be freaking out because they think the world is ending. After all, that support will end soon, right? Or is it?

Jorg told me the following: “[…] I think the general perception needs to be, in 2020 support continues, right? We want to make this great. When feasible, when there's improvements in 2024, we are thinking about backporting as feasible. We don't know if everything can be, most likely not everything. But we'll try, you know, make it as good as we can.

I asked Jorg if they had any idea of how many years we would expect support to continue.

I do. But I'm not going to tell exactly what year is simply because things change. But the plan is for many years to come. At least a handful. Let's put it that way. That's probably a safe way to say it.

And I actually had thought of making a slide for the presentation, all the things that we continue to update. When you really look at what's going on lately, we went from a very heavy Sim Update cadence [editor’s note: 33 updates in 33 months] to, you know, we added more elements.

We added city updates. We added aircraft and avionics updates. […] it didn't need massive SIM updates all the time. So right now, we're doing like one or two a year. And we think we're going to do something like that going forward one or two a year as needed, frankly.

And then the other things will be avionics updates, city updates, world updates. And we're going to keep that cadence. I have no interest in changing the cadence.

So, no change when people said, oh, we didn't promise 10 years. Yeah, well, that's what we're doing.

Jorg continued to expand on the need for a new sim and get us to understand why 2020 would not cut it anymore, in the future.

I think you should think of 24 as a necessary step for the long-term expandability. Right? And that's the thing that's probably the key here. Right?

We saw our sim is now at 300 gig. You know, there's 3,000 add ons now. We think there's going to be like 10,000! We keep adding stuff with updates. And at some point, the architecture does not really support infinite amount of data.

So then you dump, sort over to the cloud, right? That is as much more. There's more this space. We can pretty much afford anything, which is why this was necessary.

Regarding add-ons, the vast majority of ones that work for MSFS (2020) should work in MSFS 2024. And, by the vast majority, we are talking a very high percentage (~100%).

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024’s announcement was a surprise to pretty much everyone and I have to say that I was not expecting something like versions or new sims. I don’t think most of us did.

One of the things that led me to think about that was the name of the sim: Microsoft Flight Simulator. Note that there’s no version number or year. It doesn’t.

The community started calling it MSFS 2020 but “2020” was never part of the name. In fact, Jorg even jokes about it and says that “we started it” (“we” being the community).

But there isn’t really any indication of any sort of version, be it a sequential number or a year. So that got me to think this would be the platform that would be on going forth and just be updated. And, according to Jorg, so did Microsoft at one time.

Well, […] it's interesting. So when I think when we started Microsoft flight simulator, the thought was, oh, we're building a platform, the forever platform. And I think that's ultimately maybe a little bit innocent because technology changes too fast and data is massive.

And so, and at some point as we sort of live together the last three, four years, right? We did Flight Simulator 2021 essentially with the game of the year edition.

Then we did flight simulator 2022 with the 40th-anniversary edition.

[…] We kept seeing the ticker going up of like, okay, 200 gigabytes, 300 gigabytes. And you sort of project that out. It's like, uh, okay, we're going to be like the 2GB game [editor’s note: yes, Jorg called it a game, suck it up, it’s irrelevant; all sims are games – if you are affected by that, you need to do some serious introspection].

It doesn't work. And then technology is also accelerated. Like there's ML [editor’s note: Machine Learning] everywhere now.

Who knows where that's going to take gaming? Um, and we don't know. Like it's completely unpredictable, but we know it's new and disruptive. When you look at what Microsoft says about the future, AI is everywhere. And we haven't…, we are just beginning.

Like we're doing ML for terrain detection and surface detection and stuff like that. But who knows where this is going to go? I think right now this new architecture, at least as far as Seb and thought it should be a good baseline for a good long time.

It's the right step to take now to and open us up for the future. I think it was a top line in Seb’s (Sebastian’s) slide. Keep ourselves a bit able to expand. Right? Because we don't want the hobby to stall on old tech. That would be bad.

But is there going to be a new version at some point or another? I don't know. I mean, some people say, oh, there's going to be 26 and 28. No, there's no such thing.

So, there's no plan for that. […] I mean, I personally think there should be a 50th anniversary edition and that might be a new product. But it really depends on where tech is taking us. It's unpredictable. […] Who knows where this going?

Everybody said, oh, it's slowing down. Uh, okay. AI might actually accelerate us more. And we just need to keep our eyes open. The best thing I can say is our team has doubled since 2020 launched. That's great. The commitment from both sides, Microsoft side and the Asobo side, is clearly there.

We'll see where the future is. It's bright when you said, "Well, how do you see the future?" Bright.

Where exactly it's gonna go? Well, let's see where tech takes us. Like, what are the capabilities?

And, with these 3 points out of the way (quite big ones, really), it was time to get into what interests our readers in particular: helicopters.

And I went straight for the main issue that has been plaguing them the most and causing more issues: the governor. And I had Sebastian sitting there right next to me, so, this was the place and the time to ask.

I know that Andrey [(Petrovich) Solomykin], a physics engineer that's joined us recently, he worked on the governor on the turbine helicopters. He has done quite a lot of changes.

If there's still remaining issues, just yeah, we need to bring it up and improve it. I mean, we continue, I would say business as usual. There's issues, we track it and try to fix it, right? That doesn't stop. And I know he [Andrey] has done a lot of improvements on the governor.

If there's stuff still out there to improve, we're happy to look at it.

Jorg then added that he has “a list from some developers or maybe even from Sergio, it's entirely possible that there might have been a list from Sergio. Again. Yes. [editor’s note: yes, you may have noticed a bit of sarcasm there #professionalnagging].

[…] but we have a list. And then the thing we didn't really popularize it. Andre joined us from Stormovik [editor’s note: IL-2 Stormovik, the flight simulator]. So that's great. Seb already had another person. So it's not just everything on Seb. Seb's brilliant, but it's a lot of work.”

During the aforementioned presentation by Microsoft, Sebastian talked about many of the changes and one of them had to do with multi-thread improvements. And CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) highly benefits from it.

In case you don’t know it, CFD is the basis of Microsoft Flight Simulator’s flight dynamics so if it gets improved, flight dynamics will get better.

And here’s what Sebastian had to say about it:

[…] You know, CFD is very important for helicopters. And so with the new system, we're very much multi-threaded, taking work of the main thread about all the simulation aerodynamics works.

The CFD can be a lot more detailed than it could be for, without an impact on the FPS. Because basically, we stopped at the detail we had with the current implementation, because if you go further, it slows the FPS down, and we didn't want that.

But currently, you're sort of limited in how far the ground effect goes, because that's the limit of the CFD, and how accurate the vortex effects can be. And so, for example, on a dual rotor helicopter, if you take the same CFD and you stretch it, you sort of, it is so big that with two rotors, you can't capture the, the donuts are sort of almost gone.

And so […] for that, we can now increase the size without a performance impact. And so have a bigger CFD, more accurate, longer ground effects, all that is possible now, thanks to the architectural changes we're doing. And this with new architecture is super cheap, right? It's just offloaded, you don't see it.

All that makes a lot of sense. With more computational power, more stuff can be done. But I started to wonder about limits. How many cores can we eventually use for this? Sebastian answered that as well.

So, we don't have currently a hard limit set, it's just the limit of the memory. At some point, it's gonna drop the performance, right?

What we measure right now, and we're not finished optimizing, we're already at a four to five times performance increase. And I think we're gonna maybe get 10 […] you can easily add 10 times more surfaces, right? It's very quickly, right?

And so, I think if people add 20 times more surfaces than before, well, then you may be gonna offload, you know, load the other threads. And the more you load, the more you take away compute power for the terrain, or other stuff, right? Which is using thread.

And at some point, it's gonna have an impact. I don't think we're gonna set a limit. We're gonna limit ourselves, we're gonna have recommendations, but just like today, a third-party aircraft can do a lot of stuff. If it wants to load up the machines, it can.

Memory can be a limit because that would crash. But performance, well... There's no limit.

Also, the new aerodynamics is a lot cheaper on memory than before. Like, this is three or four times cheaper, right? In terms of memory footprint. Which is also necessary because otherwise, if you put more stuff, then you run into memory issues. So, we optimize that as well.

And yes, you did notice them talking about multi-rotors. Curiously enough, this was something that Jorg threw at me, I didn’t ask about them in this interview. I had asked Jorg about multi-rotors on a previous occasion and he told me they were coming so I was waiting for that to happen and it seems this is the moment.

Sebastian pitched in about that as well.

So I touched a little bit about this during the presentation, that the physics system has a big update and we are introducing something like, we call it templates. So instead of in 2020, where you had a, basically the plane was always, you know, fuselage, a wing, a tail, which had to be vertical and horizontal. And then the helicopter had one rotor and one rotor at the back, all you could do is spin, you know, choose the direction.

These things still exist, but for backwards compatibility, they still exist and they are used, but they are now templates. So it's not a airplane anymore or helicopter, it's a wing, it's a fuselage.

And there are different versions of wings and fuselage, and you can have as many as you want. So with that system, it was very easy to take the rotor and say, oh, now I just want two of them in opposite direction. And that's it. And you have a helicopter like a Chinook [editor’s note: I can hear Bel Geode freaking out right now] and it's very easy to do.

You could have two, three, four, five rotor, 16, do a drone. It's much more flexible. Two rotors, V-Tail is now easy with a system. And it's some sort of doing a two-rotor helicopter in 2020. It would have been very difficult because it's not, it cannot do that, right?

So, you have to hard code another rotor, implement everything, and then it's gonna eat more memory. Every plane can do everything. Can do 16 engines and then rotors and then another rotor. And it was just hitting a sort of a wall of performance and memory.

With the new system, you only pay what you want. And you can as many as you want of different parts. And different versions of parts, more or less complex.

And so that naturally made it very easy to just do a two-rotor helicopter. - It didn't have much work […] to do it. It was just happening.

Even coaxial helicopters?

Even coaxial helicopters! Yeah, it does this, it does this, it does whatever, right? You have a lot of control.

Jorg jumped in at this time:

Crazy new controls with whatever the rotors are, Piaseckis [editor’s note: I can hear Bel Geode freaking out again], trying to get stuff like that going, so it's super flexible.

Governor is being taken care of, flight dynamics are improved, multi-rotors are going to be possible out of the box.

This all sounds good, and I wanted to touch on two things that were actually questions sent to me by community members. One of them was helicopter autopilot and I took the chance to ask Sebastian about that.

So yeah, […] that's in the works. I don't know exactly what, timeframe. I had just last week before I left someone asked me how exactly AI would work. And I said, yeah, well, when I'd fight a circuit, once you're flying 15 knots or more plus it's actually very close to an airplane. Right. […] You trim it. […] The difficulty is more taxiing and stuff like that. […] Autopilot and AI are using the same subsystems, right? And in a similar way, when you, the autopilot or the copilot commands something, it goes down to the same piece of software. So, um, once this gets working, probably both systems be solved. But people are working on it.

Quite interesting and it makes sense that both the AI and the autopilot are part of the same system so if you solve one, you’ll have the other one pretty much solved as well. Not entirely as there is always something that is needed, such as the interface in case of the autopilot, but they come from the same base.

And talking about the AI, this went right on point with what another community member asked me.

Jorg picked up the question:

There's a slide [from the presentation] about, I think it's in the living world slide that I showed. There's something called the authentic air traffic. And what that means is we're going to do the right models, ideally with the right liveries as long as we can license these damn things.

But we are trying hard to get liveries and we're going to add things like helicopters. The data exists. We never modeled these things, but we want to. So, we're currently very busy signing licensing for for all as many helicopters as we can possibly get our hands on. As you saw, we signed with Airbus helicopters, which is great. You saw the 125.

It might or might not be others. We'll see. […] There will be quite a few other helicopters that are populating specifically grand cities, but there's so many helicopters when you go to New York, they're everywhere and in Flight Sim there’s zero. So that's going to get fixed.

Speaking of cities and AI and all that good stuff… Does it have helipads?

Jorg once told me that, just like with airports, he wanted to have helipads all around the world. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 is coming, the trailer was exciting with lots of helicopters, AI seems to be taken care of, what’s up with helipads?

Jorg answered but, again, our help is needed!

So you sent me a website of a, of a simmer that was collecting helipads in Switzerland. Remember? So, we look at that and we're trying our best to expand the database. And I will say that again. I think we had an interview like a year ago. Please community help us identify all the locations of helipads in the world because there is no global database.

We rely on local knowledge. And if you have information, please send it to us [editor’s note: you can send it to me and I’ll get it to Jorg]. We're trying to get as many as we can helipads and heliports. Um, but we need some help. We know, like, for example, you saw in the beginning of the trailer and there's some stuff just for you. We have an oil platform. So that's going to be interesting because there's helipads on those.

I also show we're going to have ship traffic. There's helipads on those too. So there's quite a bit. And then when you look at the trailer, really, there's a whole bunch of helicopter based missions and things that activities because they do a lot in the real world.

And I think we're going to do all that. […] We need to have all the locations where helicopters really operate. So, help us where you can. […] We are obviously we're building our own database. […] It's not like we have nothing, but to get as accurate as possible we need local input.

So, there you go. A call to arms to everyone in the rotorhead community. Send us the data! Oh and did you notice they mentioned ships too?

I then grabbed something that Sebastian had said in the presentation and merged it with the helipad conversion. I had been talking to a real pilot (Chris from Pro Flight Trainer) and he was telling me about metal grid helipads.

Because of the fact they are gridded, air goes through them, reducing or removing the ground effect and I asked about that to Sebastian:

Yeah, yeah, I will take note. Especially if the helipads are grid, it means they are above ground. And when we do this effect, we know the ground altitude and the surface altitude. And we can say that if a helipad is over the air, that we reduce the ground effect. Or is it completely gone or is it just reduced? That's something I don't know with a grid. It depends on how-- - Well, yeah. - How profound it is, maybe. 50% gone or something

I then threw yet another curved ball: metal gets hot with the sun, so the air above it will get hot, meaning lift gets influenced as well.

I saw “the look” on Sebastian’s face – one that I have learned to be of when he gets curious and his brain immediately starts working to imagine how that would be done. His reaction? “Oh, double penalty, okay”.

I guess the seed is planted!

Finally, I had to wrap up with something that has been bugging me since I first saw the trailer: the mission system.

Specifically, if we are stuck to a career mode or if we can do those missions independently, build our own and share them.

“It's a good question. I would say, I don't wanna give you an answer that I don't 100% can verify. […] We need to talk to the design team. I know the intent is that, for example, third-party planes can participate, this is important.

There are some things that they need to do in order to be adherent to the activity system because otherwise you have infinite cargo loads, right? You can actually cheat the system, so we need to put something in place.

As far as the scripting system and the whole engine that drives that, I think, I mean, obviously the intent is to give that to the creators to which degree that is, so you can definitely create separate missions that you can now, right?

Lots of people can do that. Inserting new missions of the career mode, I don't know. So it's gonna be for a future interview that we need to talk about this.

Sounds like a plan – and a promise, dear Jorg, I will definitely be waiting for that.

My conclusions

A big part of an interview is what you don’t see, what you don’t hear, and the details that are lost even on camera (which is not the case here).

We have had conversations before and after the interview, the information from announcements, presentations, and all sorts of material that is released by companies.

From everything I have been hearing, and from my conversations with Jorg and Sebastian, here’s what I am hoping MSFS 2024 to be:

  • MSFS 2024 is a first-class member of the MSFS franchise. No cutbacks, and no removed features. It’s MSFS (2020) on steroids. They have picked up where they were at and added features;
  • Some of those added features include a lot of what helicopters do in real life. Unfortunately, I have seen community members saying the team is gamifying MSFS with the addition of those activities. Those who are saying that seem to be completely oblivious to what helicopters do in real life. Perhaps they never looked at helicopters before and realized how much more these machines do when compared with fixed-wing aircraft in real life.

    "If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that's just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life."
    – Igor Sikorsky

  • Not only features were added, but the engine was also redone so we can have a lighter version that uses less space in our drives, updates quicker, and has better performance;
    • Better performance also means we will have, improved flight dynamics and more rotors for helicopters, for example;

In a nutshell, I am super excited about MSFS 2024. I think it will be an amazing new version but the current sim will not be abandoned. As you can read in this interview, there are plans for continuous support and even new features that may be added to MSFS 2024 to sneak into MSFS (2020).

Closing statement

I’d like to thank the MS team at FlightSimExpo, especially those that made this interview possible. For privacy reasons, I will not name anyone except for Jorg and Sebastian that were kind enough to talk to me once again. Thank you all.

As for you, what are your thoughts? What do you think of MSFS 2024 now? Did my interview and my input help you in any way? I would love to hear from you and get your feedback.