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Flight Simulator is Microsoft’s power move back into PC gaming

You may now check off ‘HoloLens’ on your Microsoft buzzword bingo card

A French-made DR400 over a winding river, its wandering path clearly visible from several thousand feet in the air. The sky is blue with few clouds. From an early pre-alpha of Microsoft Flight Simulator Asobo Studio/Microsoft
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.

The last version of Microsoft Flight Simulator came out in 2006. Many, myself included, had written the franchise off for dead. Now it’s back, due out for PC and Xbox One in 2020, with a sophisticated set of assets pulled directly from satellite imagery on Bing. Earlier this month I traveled to Seattle for a hands-on demonstration of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator. Later, I sat down with Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, to answer the question: Why now?

“I think there’s probably two answers to the question,” Neumann told me. “One is more of a corporate answer; Phil got promoted.”

Phil refers to Phil Spencer, who has been head of Xbox at Microsoft since 2014. But, in 2018, there was a bit of restructuring inside Microsoft. Now Spencer reports directly to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. That means gaming is more important to the software giant than ever before. As a result, Microsoft decided to plant its flag once again inside the world of PC gaming.

“With that [promotion] comes a a totally different view on gaming at Microsoft,” Neumann said. “We had Xbox. It’s successful. But [...] we wanted to bring back the PC games that we had for the millions of people who loved them. So, we restarted Age [of Empires] and we restarted Flight. Those were the two big pillars to go back into true PC gaming.”

The only question for Harrison and his new peers at Microsoft was if the technology was there to support the investment. Thankfully, while HoloLens didn’t end up being a viable consumer product, it did get the wheels turning.

Neumann points to one demo in particular, called HoloTour, as directly inspiring the approach his team is taking with Flight Simulator.

HoloTour allows users to experience places like Rome and Machu Picchu from the comfort of their own homes. The experience was so impactful for Neumann that he was certain the same sort of approach could be applied to Microsoft Flight Simulator. More importantly, it helped his team re-imagine a hardcore simulation experience into something that even the general public could get excited about.

“It makes Flight Sim purposeful for people who are not into just the tech,” Neumann said. “All of a sudden you want to go to places, and the places look real. And that’s now possible, and it’s awesome.”

To hear Neumann tell it, Microsoft Flight Simulator is as much about learning to fly as it is about being able to travel the world without ever leaving home.

“This is the planet we live on,” he continued. “You end up really loving it, and I think seeing it through the eyes from the plane is an amazing view. And I think that’s why, that’s why I think [our demo at E3] resonated so much, and that’s why we’re doing this.”

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