The Xbox first-party games operation might be going through a painful period of ‘spinning up’ new development studios and integrating acquisitions, but while slower-moving in those areas, one key success has been reliably humming away in the background with impressive and enviable growth: Microsoft Flight Simulator.
At an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of Flight Simulator – a milestone that reminds that this is Microsoft‘s oldest-running franchise, outdating both Windows and Office by a handful of years, developers of the game hammered home its newfound success with a simple stat: Flight Simulator’s player-base has doubled. Twice.
To be specific, Flight Simulator has enjoyed a couple of launches. First it hit PC, and was met with critical acclaim and strong uptake. Later, it was released on Xbox Series X/S, a move which doubled its player base. Then earlier this year, the game was made xcloud compatible, rendering it playable on Xbox One, older-spec PCs, and even on mobile. This doubled the player base again.
That invites a natural question – where to now? With the platforms Microsoft prioritizes now covered, how does Flight Simulator retain that incredible momentum? We asked series boss Jorg Neumann.
“The vision I love when Phil [Spencer, Xbox Boss] talks about it –- and Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] talks about it too now – is that we’re going to reach three billion players. Have we reached three billion players? No,” Neumann offers.
“So, when you say we’ve maxed out, what do you mean? I’m on the journey with Microsoft here at Microsoft is going to go – Xboxes are where they are, PCs are everywhere, and then xcloud can give you everywhere. And I think that journey has just begun.”
“So I’m very interested in, for example, places like India, where flight simming isn’t a thing, but there are 1.4 billion people. And what’s cool is the Indian government – I mean, this totally geeky flight sim stuff – but the Indian government, they always (like Turkey and North Korea and some other countries), they don’t allow data to be exported. That’s just what it is, right? But India just changed that.”
India has just joined the open data initiative; something common in much of the rest of the world, and a scheme that Microsoft is a part of. The Indian government has also announced plans to fund the scanning of the top 100 cities in the country, creating exactly the sort of data needed to craft Flight Simulator’s ‘digital twin’ of the earth.
“And then I get a phone call, like I often do, and some dude from India says ‘We’re doing cities in India, are you interested in that?’ Like, eat! When you got ’em,” Neumann adds.
“So at some point, we’ll make an India update and we’ll try to do justice to the country and speak to its heart.”
This, Neumann says, is a huge focus of his job now – trying to understand the world, and what makes the people of each country tick, plus what makes them proud. Flight Simulator has always to some degree been about preservation of aircraft and aviation history – but now, with a near-lifelike level of fidelity, it is more so. With the addition of the scanned model of the Earth, it’s not also preserving something else, too: the planet itself. This is where the idea of ’World Updates’ came from, which finesses the digital version of the planet with more hand-crafted data.
“A country is just a concept, but is also the history of a people, which can help us understand how we can make them feel connected with what we’re doing,” Neumann muses. This, he notes, is absolutely key to Flight Simulator’s future growth.
“What is their history with Aviation, for example? Or what famous places should I represent that are an appropriate representation of the country at large. I spend a lot of time with that, and it’s important. So far I would say the places we’ve gone to – there’s an explosion. An explosion of people who play.
“Japan was the first one. There was no flight simming. They didn’t even play PC games, right? So flight simming wasn’t at all the thing. They had Ace Combat – which is totally different.
“And now in Japan there’s – depending on the day – 50 to 100,000 people. In Japan! Still today – this is two years ago that we did this update, and they are now simmering.”
A lot of this international expansion doesn’t just rely on the world updates, but also xcloud. Neumann describes it in its current form as the “baby version” of what the service is capable of – and sees it as a key tool to offer Flight Simulator, which has huge casual appeal, to a wider audience. But accessibility to the game will pair with other elements, including potential tie-in content with other attractive brands, and the irresistible allure of being able to fly over your home country, city, or even building in surprising fidelity. That, Neumann says, is what will create new flight simmers – and keep that player base ballooning.
“The value that xcloud offers to a not super hardcore gamer is unmatched, in my opinion,” Neumann argues, citing examples of huge numbers playing Flight Sim on mobile devices despite its complexity, or how lapsed PC gamers can now hop into flight sim on an old laptop, via the cloud, with none of the expense of buying a high-end PC.
“But it takes time with those types of things. I think the world updates are the way to the soul. That’s the most important thing.”