Jörg Neumann, the head of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise, has told Sky News he hopes his game will attract more young people to the aviation industry.
He also elaborated on how Microsoft’s longest running product line (some 38 years, three years longer than Windows) helped him stay connected to family during lockdown.
As Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020’s 2.5 petabyte map (2.5 million GB or 1.7 million CDs’ worth) gets a new Europe update, Mr Neumann explained the methodology used to recreate the entire planet in 3D, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on development.
The new update brings cities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland alive, allowing players to fly over the famous Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, the castle that inspired Disney’s logo, Schloss Neuschwanstein, and many other Germanic hallmarks.
Using Bing Maps satellite images to create placeholder areas in the game, Microsoft then manually flies over the region to capture higher definition pictures, resulting in a more accurate in-game map.
It’s technology that didn’t even exist when development on the game first began six years ago, and it’s a gamble that has paid off spectacularly.
Each region requires legal flight permissions, making it somewhat harder to render areas such as North Korea and Afghanistan, which, for now, continue to use satellite images as their basis.
But it isn’t exotic locations far away that players tend to fly to first, according to Mr Neumann. “When we ask people, ‘what do you do first?’, a lot of people just fly home,” he tells Sky News.
Mr Neumann, who lives in the United States, has struggled to see his parents in Germany during the pandemic, and said the game helped them stay connected: “My flight was cancelled, I was supposed to visit my parents… my dad’s 93 and there’s finite time, and it kind of broke my heart.
“I was so homesick, I flew the plane to my parents’ house, landed… and I called them up on the phone and said, ‘this is as close as I can get to you right now’.”
He also hopes the game will attract a new generation of pilots in the wake of the devastation the pandemic has wrought upon the travel industry: “I get a tonne of emails from either parents or eight-year-olds who say it’s the first time they got any kind of connection with a plane.
“It’s a heartwarming thing, I love it, because I can see them being like me when I was a kid, dreaming all of a sudden about flying.
“At least we’re conveying how beautiful it is to fly, and I’m hoping this will help with the pilot crisis.”
Mr Neumann says he is glad people have found their hobbies in the game, claiming some people have even invested up to $30,000 (about £21,800) in their home “cockpits” to best enjoy the experience.
But gamers aren’t the only ones eager for further map updates.
Private enterprise is also keen to use Mr Neumann’s cloud-based map, which is so large it cannot be downloaded.
“We announced the game in LA in 2019, and the first 50 phone calls I got were from companies… either airplane manufacturers, airlines themselves, or companies making gigantic [flight] simulators at 40 million bucks a pop.”
For now, though, MS Flight Simulator is to remain just that: a simulator for ordinary people to take off and touch down for themselves – and briefly return home, even when unable to in the real world.