22 August 2020

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020: Not only am I not impressed, but actually disappointed

I always liked planes and I have played many flying games. One of the first I purchased was F19 Stealth Fighter and one of my favorites was B-17 Flying Fortress. I also had a really old version of Microsoft Flight Simulator but never played much because scenery and simulation were poor and I honestly did not see the point.

I then lost interest for literally one and a half decades until 5 years ago, for reasons I can't recall, I started playing Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX). Wow, things had really changed. Not only was the scenery relatively decent, but planes looked realistic. You could press buttons, switch on lights, adjust the altimeter, tune the radios. Furthermore, an ecosystem had flourished where you could get add-ons for virtually anything: airports, photorealistic scenery and study-level planes. There was even this online network called VATSIM where you could fly online and talk to air traffic controllers using real procedures. Amazing.

However, I wanted to go step by step, so I spent hundreds of hours playing the plain FSX. FSX actually impressed me: I think it was a product ahead of its time. Instruction in the game was excellent, air traffic control (ATC) was also very decent, and documentation was abundant and targeted towards real simulation. And, above all, you could have a lot of fun (and learn a lot) playing missions, like landing on an aircraft carrier or Loopy Larry.

I was so into it that I even took my first flying lesson on a Cessna 172 at Palo Alto airport, doing a short flight to Half Moon Bay and back. Years later I took another one to refresh, just for fun. Because FSX was showing its age, I tried other products like Prepare3D and some newly released flight simulators but eventually moved to XPlane, like most people.

Flying on XPlane simply felt more realistic. I had to buy a new computer as it required much more powerful hardware and I missed many things from FSX. ATC was very bad. There were no missions. So I focused on the simulation and tried to make it as realistic as possible:

  1. Planes: I purchased some add-on planes that were great, but I finally stayed with the excellent Zibomod, modeling a Boeing 737 (for free, great job and thanks!). Many consider the 737 the "de facto standard" airliner and it is possibly the one plane with the most documentation available. In fact, some airlines like Ryanair only operate this plane.
  2. Terrain: I installed some terrain from the excellent SpainUHD site (thanks guys for doing this awesome job for free!). This was really impressive, as one of the weak points of flight simulators has always been the bad quality of scenery and the terrible autogenerated buildings, bridges, roads, etc. I honestly much prefer having plain good quality realistic 2D satellite terrain than 3D autogenerated things that look terrible.
  3. Airports: I purchased the airports I normally visit, to make the experience more realistic and feel like at home.
  4. Charts and flight planning: I purchased a subscription to Navigraph and learned to read and interpret charts and learned how to prepare a flight plan, for which I used EFASS and later SimBrief.
  5. Weather: I tried some add-ons but eventually gave up. I did not want to do another PhD degree to configure how the clouds should look like. I could live with standard weather.
  6. Voice ATC: To me there is absolutely no point in simulating ATC by pressing a button on the keyboard. A simulation challenge is to learn ATC phraseology and communicate like real pilots do (using the radio), so I played a few times on VATSIM but I was shouted at once very rudely by a controller and lost interest. I later found Pilot2ATC which, while a bit cumber, did a great job and made the whole experience much more realistic. I was so into ATC that I even got ATCpro and played for a while to better understand how a traffic controller works.
  7. Shared cockpit: I played with a friend a couple of times using SmartCopilot.
  8. Traffic: Playing alone or with simulated traffic is no fun, so I eventually got World Traffic v3 to add some realism.

Nearly everything was perfect, but honestly. Playing using one or even two monitors still sucked, even with flight panels, rudder pedals, and joystick. Luckily XPlane later introduced VR! Of course, I purchased a VR headseat only for that. 

This was probably the biggest game changer in the field. Something absolutely astonishing. Not only because of the realistic 3D vision but also because of the controllers. Now you could push buttons and turn knobs with your own hands inside the virtual space! It was still a bit cumbersome to play in VR (for example, how did you check charts? Avitab later came to the rescue!), but eventually virtually all problems were solved.

Flying was nearly perfect, but I was missing, like most of us, a more integrated approach. Add-ons were cumbersome to install and maintain, version updates caused problems, etc. Would one day everything be nicely packaged? Probably not, but why not dream?

And then Flight Simulator 2020 was announced

Suddenly, nearly out of the blue, a new product was announced: Microsoft announced in 2019 they were releasing a new Flight Simulator that would be revolutionary and showed a trailer. An alpha program was started where people could join to test and help develop the product. Facebook groups were everywhere. Every airport in the world was promised. Tons of planes. As I said: an absolutely revolutionary product. That would also work on the XBox (!). A flight simulator in a console?

As a software developer and project manager, I immediately became suspicious when developers started releasing videos about themselves and making so much noise way before anything was released. They were also disclosing every little aspect of the game on their web and Youtube channel before the general public could enjoy it. I consider this a childish marketing strategy: "look guys how awesome our product is, how good it looks, we are having loads of fun but you'll have to wait". This continued for months and created a lot of hype and thousands of fanboys. I was harassed and literally kicked out of a Facebook FS2020 group for politely asking and questioning certain things about the simulator related to ATC, VR, and plane models. I was told "if you were part of the alpha group and already enjoying the game you would not be saying those things, loser!".

And finally released (August 18)

As a flight simmer and curious person, of course I was gonna try it anyway. But as a skeptical person also, I didn't want to purchase it. Fortunately, Microsoft included it in its affordable subscription-based Game Pass. After all, it looked absolutely stunning and I was probably being unfair. This was the promotional video below:

I start the download and notice the following things.

Firstly, the install failed several times. A 100+GB download is no joke, as it can take a whole day in places where we don't have ultra-high speed internet. First, the installer froze. Then I left it and when I came back to check, it was not longer there. I restarted it and it started from scratch. 100GB. Finally, it worked at the 4th attempt. And before you make any judgements, yes, my machine and whole configuration are of very decent quality. Stable 40Mbps internet connection, recent i7 computer with an SSD, 32GB of RAM, and a very capable NVidia GPU, aside with all Windows updates. Anyway, at launch day and at such massive scale, problems are expected. It's okay.

Secondly, I choose a plane. Where are the airliners? OMG there are only two, one of them the  Boeing 747 which is not exactly easy to handle and cannot depart from most airports in the world. Where is the de facto standard for short-mid haul flights, that most of us learned to fly with, the 737? Okay, fine, I'll choose a Cessna.

Thirdly, I search for an airport I know well in Spain and from which I departed very often on XPlane: Zaragoza airport, LEZG. It’s not listed. Actually, Spain’s map is pretty empty. I must be doing something wrong, as this game promised "fly form any airport in the world". Zaragoza airport has two runways over 3Km long. There are international flights, Cargo Boeings 747 depart from there very often, there is a NATO base and LEZG is one of the NASA landing sites for the Space Shuttle. It is also obviously officially listed as one of the major airports in Spain.

No, I'm not wrong. I fly over and the airport and runways are simply not there.

Okay fine. I think I know what's going on (more later), but let's give it another try. I will now tour around Graz, where the company doing the revolutionary AI on the maps is based. I know the area well and certainly they would take care of their own city. On Google Maps/Google Earth Graz looks spectacular in 3D.

I fly over the exact same section, and this is what I find:

The main street on the right is flat, there is no pavement or trees. The street on the left (where a small river barely visible to the pedestrian runs) is flooded. And what's worse: all buildings are auto-generated and not even a person living there would recognize the area.

I then checked other places I know very well and I was equally disappointed. They look much worse than anything you are used to on Google Maps 3D. I flew over the Spanish Pyrenees and was really disappointed: rivers flowing in the middle of hills instead of in the valleys, footpaths that looked like roads, etc. Nothing like the stunning Google Maps 3D also available as Google Earth VR.

Yes, I understand now, and as I expected: everything depends on the quality of the sources and Bing is not the best in many areas. Zaragoza airport is not there because it is a bit blurred/pixelated on Bing Maps Satellite probably because of being a NATO base. However, the airport is a major one, it is listed in official sources, there are charts, and the runways are modeled in very good detail in Bing's Map view.

The "famous AI" advertised was misleading: it is not reconstructing realistic 3D scenery based on imagery all over the world, but it is doing the classical "autogen" in a smarter way: probably based on map information, height, etc... it is inferring that a line there on the map is a river and that one a road, and this is a house, and that a block. The problem with that is that in that a city I know well there is no cathedral (stunning in Google Maps in 3D) but a block of apartments and the bullfighting ring has been substituted by something that looks like a UFO.

In one sentence: I don't recognize the city where I grew up and the areas I visited the most in Spain, while I do with Google Map plain 2D Ortophotos, which I much prefer. The streaming technology and AI generation might be impressive on paper, but these fake autogenerated areas were one of the biggest problems of past flight simulators that FS2020 promised to solve and they didn't. There was no revolution there.

The 737, the plane that flight simmers use the most to do real flights in between cities is not there either. And the ones I quickly tried are not as well modeled as on XPlane. No revolution there either. I still have to play longer, and certain things seem to be good like weather and real traffic, but those are not revolutionary either, as they already existed. What to say about VR. I know Microsoft has promised it will come shortly, but it is still not there while it's working perfectly on XPlane. I do not foresee any revolution coming either. Once you have played a flight simulator on VR, there's no way back and anything else looks from a past era.

For me the biggest missed opportunity has been voice ATC. Voice recognition is working since ages ago. All major players are advertising their "AI-powered" voice tech: we can ask Google Assistant to do tasks for us in our smart home, Siri can answer complicated questions, Alexa seems useful, and Microsoft has Cortana. Voice ATC should be much easier than any of this, as it is rule-based and uses standard phraseology. Indeed, Pilot2ATC seems to have been developed by a single programmer using Windows voice recognition and it is very decent. However, Microsoft decided to stick with the 20 year old absolutely unrealistic menu-based commands that bring us back to FSX.

Yes, Microsoft and Asobo Studio, I am personally happy you made it accessible for another generation to join the flight simulation scene. I also understand the aim is to sell as many copies as possible and concessions need to be made for a dual PC/console game.

However, to me, an average flight simmer, this does not look like a revolution in flight simulation but just a small step in the right direction (map streaming) and a missed opportunity in other areas, particularly Voice ATC, and a bluff on others (realistic scenery and all airports in the world available). I think the most revealing proof is that I pre-downloaded and installed the game 5 days ago and I have probably spent 1-2 hours on it, because it does not appeal to me. Later I discover a marketplace where you can purchase add-on planes, airports and I even find out ORBX will be selling airports/scenery.  Didn’t this simulator have it all?

A good friend of mine who also plays flight simulators (more console-oriented) told me: "you are the only person I know who's not impressed". Am I?

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