Microsoft Flight Sim Down in Flames? by Robert Goyer
Why am I not surprised? The signals from the folks in Redmond are mixed, but the news seems to be grim for Microsoft Flight Simulator, the popular flying game that predated by a good stretch the advent of the Windows operating system. (Many of our readers, it should be noted, can not say the same.)
Employees at the program's developer, ACES, were laid off as part of Microsoft's 5,000 employee downsizing last week, and the company won't say if it's going to shelve Flight Sim altogether, take it internal or what. All you get out of them is, that the company is committed to gaming and to flying games. Whatever that means.
I, for the record, am not a Microsoft Flight Sim fanatic. Don't get me wrong, I admire the game, and am appreciative of what Microsoft has done with it. I can trace my Flight Sim experiences back to the early 80's when my dad installed a copy of the software and on the family TRS80 computer. It was horrible. The trick to not crashing every time out was to anticipate the lag time in the system and feed in just the right number of key strokes at just the right time to keep disaster at bay. It was nothing like flying.
The game has improved tremendously over the years, and it's a lot more like flying now. On a good computer, the graphics are beautiful, the action is smooth and the details are rich and realistic. You can get a good semblance of the experience of an actual flight, with all the airport lights, gear horn sounds and even avionics functionality. And the best part is the terrain, which is better than ever. There are online communities of people who share the experience, too, flying virtual airlines, creating upgrades and customizations and scenery. It's great fun for a lot of folks.
But just who those folks are and what they do with their experience is something that's not entirely clear. Do kids who get into Flight Sim wind up learning to fly? Sure. But are they kids who wouldn't have learned to fly anyway? In most cases, probably not. And are there grownups who take their love of Flight Sim and translate that into a love of actual airplanes? There are probably a few.
Several years back Microsoft worked on making that link between flying and sim'ing stronger. They teamed with King Schools to get instruction into the program and with Patty Wagstaff to show the users how it's done. And they discovered in the process what most everybody had suspected all along. People who play flight sim games are gamers and people who fly airplanes are pilots. Is there an overlap? Sure, just as there is between people who play fly fishing games on their Nintendo Wii and those who hit the streams for real. But is that link significant. I don't know anyone in either industry who thinks it is.
This is not to say that there's no benefit in flight simulation games. There clearly is some knowledge and familiarity to be gained by playing them. But the dream that some folks held 20 years ago that Flight Sim would bring scores of new pilots into the ranks is now known to be fantasy.
And I wouldn't worry too much about the game itself. History has shown us that if there's money to be squeezed out of any product, someone will be there to do the squeezing.
And Flight Simulator is a well honed, fun and interesting game that gives a flying-like experience to those who play it. There's certainly some value in that. But my advice would be to go to the airport instead, where the experience you can get is exactly like flying.