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Microsoft Flight Sim players have the world at their fingertips; now they want a time machine, too

‘We’ve got to go back’

A plane flies over fields of colorful farmland in Microsoft Flight Simulator Image: Asobo Studio/Xbox Game Studios
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When Microsoft Flight Simulator launched in 2020 it felt like the entire game development industry took notice. And how could you not? The software giant’s passion project launched with a satellite-mapped version of our entire Earth, a breathtaking day and night cycle, and real-time air traffic. The simulation is a seemingly effortless fusion of the real and the virtual that you can fly through by the seat of your pants, while playing on consoles and in VR. But players of a certain type always want more. Their latest ask? One time machine, please.

To understand how we got to the point where a community of thousands of amateur pilots is now requesting that one of the world’s largest software companies disrupt the linear flow of time, you have to understand how complicated MSFS is in the first place — and why its developers won’t say no yet.

First off, developer Asobo Studio hasn’t created the entire planet from scratch for players to fly over. Instead, it built MSFS to be a platform for raw data — high-resolution satellite imagery, topographical information, and real-world aircraft transponder signals — which it then digests to create the game world more or less on the fly. That’s how you get snowfall on top of images of green grass, sunsets sliding over mountain valleys, and realistic air traffic in-game. Among those data sources is a stream of real-world weather information, which the game receives in real time from its meteorological partner, Meteoblue. The MSFS platform then subdivides the globe into 100-square-mile cubes (sort of like a chunk of land in Minecraft) and sets the simulation loose to do what it can to simulate that weather.

When you look out your window and see a cloud in the sky, you’re not going to see that same cloud in-game... but it will be appropriately cloudy when you throttle up for take-off.

And what did gamers do shortly after MSFS launched? They flew directly into the eye of hurricane Laura, the deadly Category 4 storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast in August 2020. Of course, not everyone was available to fly when the hurricane was in town. So they’ve asked if developers can give them some kind of slider to roll back the clock, enabling them to revisit these and other extreme weather events in order to test their mettle in the sky. That part, at least, could be relatively easy.

But if we’re building a time machine anyway, what about historical weather? Wouldn’t it be swell to fly the Spirit of St. Louis into the exact same icing conditions that Charles Lindbergh did over the North Atlantic? What if we could simulate the exact speed and direction of the crosswinds the Wright brothers felt at Kitty Hawk the day they first took flight? And, while we’re at it, can we go back and watch the Spanish Armada sink? Pretty please, Jorg?

Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann, hasn’t said no... not yet, at least. Here’s Neumann, from the most recent developer update, which was archived on YouTube Dec. 1:

Microsoft has a relationship with a company called Vestas. They have something called the Vestas Climate Database, and we looked at this actually a fair bit. And the issue is that they don’t have worldwide weather. It doesn’t really fit into our system, so I don’t think this is going to come soon unfortunately.

Flight Sim’s going to continue to evolve for many years, so I’m not saying we’re never going to do this. But this is not easy. [...] Back in the day, we tried to make historical missions, like famous flights that ran into icing or something. And we couldn’t really do that. And sometimes we said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be nice to have historical weather?’ It’s just... it’s really hard.

What’s remarkable here is that Neumann doesn’t simply laugh the idea off. In fact, it’s something he and the team at Asobo have been mulling for years now. What he’s saying is that the raw data simply doesn’t exist, and if it did then it certainly won’t date back all the way to 1588. But if the data does become available later, he’s open to trying to work with it.

“I think it’s just [that players will need to] be patient,” Neumann concluded. “We’ll figure it out at some point, but not soon.”

So there you have it. Time machine confirmed.

The latest update for Microsoft Flight Simulator, dubbed a “sim update” as it deals primarily with the core mechanics of flight in-game, is now live on consoles and PC. Polygon can confirm there is neither a heavily modified Delorean nor a blue police telephone booth present in the patch notes... yet.

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