Never before has a flight sim looked more beautiful. But clouds and water are currently rather pretty pictures and not actually calculated physically. That should change soon, says Flight Simulator boss Jörg Neumann in an interview with the star.

“Happy fortieth, and what’s next?” Jörg Neumann laughs. That was probably the most frequently asked question about his baby’s birthday, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. He doesn’t blame anyone for his impatience, on the contrary.” I don’t want to go back to the days when we, as game developers, developed games largely without user feedback, put them in a box and sold them. Maybe there was a patch afterwards or an addon. But that was it, ”says the American by choice. Neumann, who comes from Germany, is the top project manager of what is probably the most famous of all flight simulators. However, for the latest version, the term flight simulator is an understatement. It’s more of a world simulator. The landscape data and photorealistic textures are provided directly from Microsoft’s Bing Maps. A flight from Hamburg to Cape Town, for example, would look just like the real thing, even from a low altitude. Never before has the world been depicted in such detail.

And now the weather from the day before yesterday…

However, two things are still lagging behind reality: weather and water. “We’re already quite far ahead when it comes to the weather,” says Neumann. In fact, clouds and weather effects such as rain, snow, haze and thunderstorms look deceptively real. The simulated wind stream is also realistic and is distracted by mountains, hills and high-rise buildings even the current weather at a certain location can be called up. And soon also historical weather data. “We work together with a weather service provider in Switzerland, who provides us with the worldwide forecast for the next seven days. At the moment we are accessing around 88,000 weather stations,” enthuses Neumann. One is in the process of installing turbulence at high altitudes. They can get dangerous. In early December 2022, a US airliner en route to Hawaii encountered turbulence at an altitude of 11,0000 meters, injuring 36 passengers, some seriously. But as always with simulations, the devil is in the details. In meteorology, which is difficult to calculate, anyway.

When gliders were introduced in November with the big birthday update, the limits of weather simulation at ground level became apparent. Gliders stay aloft because their long wings allow them to be carried upwards in warm air rising from the ground. The sun’s rays heat up the ground, which warms the air above it. Because warm air is lighter than cooler air, it begins to rise like a bubble. The bubble cools with increasing altitude, until finally the water stored in it condenses into water vapour: These pretty fluffy clouds, the cumulus clouds, form.

An important celestial sign for glider pilots. Cumulus clouds show you the way to the next energy filling station. Without them, a flight without a motor would quickly come to an end. These signposts do not work in Flight Simulator. The virtual clouds there are just graphic structures that have nothing to do with the ground or with rising air masses. Thermals are randomly distributed across the landscape.

“We took a very close look at the feedback from the glider pilots. We will definitely go back to the thermals and make adjustments,” says Neumann. For him there is no question that the flight simulator will one day also become the reference simulation for gliding. When it comes to weather and clouds, the Condor gliding simulator is currently the measure of all things. The program, which was originally born from a hobby project, demonstrates the flight simulator in terms of weather near the ground. It can do everything that Microsoft doesn’t do. “We have Condor very much looked closely. We’ll do better,” says Neumann with conviction.

For the 54-year-old, who steered gliders himself as a teenager, such improvements at the request of the user are the real plus point of Flight Simulator 2020: “It’s not a finished product, we’re thinking about ten years of continuous further development here. We draw the impulses for it from the feedback of our users”.

As in the past year, he will also spend a lot of time in the forums over the current holidays. The tone among the mostly very critical “hardcore fans” has become more and more positive since 2020, Neumann knows. And that will also be the case with gliding, he is sure. Now look what the pilots complain about and then gradually improve Improve piece in software.

seas without tides

For him, this also includes the simulation of water. “Ports, marinas, ships – everything that is in the tidal range is shown below rather than above water,” says Neumann. This is due to two things. Firstly, the satellite images taken at different times from which the virtual world is composed On the other hand, that there is no tide dependent on the moon in the world simulator. The water level in the virtual world is always an average value. So you are half right and half wrong. The developer Asobo in France had the topic in mind, but it is difficult. What Jörg Neumann is currently concerned about when it comes to water are waves. “Our water simulation is not the best at the moment. We can’t show rolling waves, for that we would also need data on the condition of the seabed, since the waves break in shallow water here too.” It will take time to get this data. Great hopes are placed on underwater drones, which have begun to map the seabed topographically. However, what is being worked on in the near future is shipping. In the future, ships of all kinds are to sail the ports, large rivers and seas.

It seems certain that things will continue. With around ten million virtual pilots, Microsoft Flight Simulator 20220 is the most successful flight simulator ever. The number is astounding in that there is no storyline, no campaigns for the players, and most importantly, no dogfights or weapons. The aim of the game is flying itself and the joy of discovery. Even if, according to statistics, the US fighter jet F-18 is the most flown aircraft in the fleet. However, the new Airbus 310 Neo is right behind it.

The secret of its success is the mix of PC, X-Box and the game streaming service X-Box Cloud. “Currently, the players are distributed one third across the platforms,” ​​Neumann knows from the internal data collection.

Nvidia 4090 the benchmark for hardcore flyers

Flight simulations have always been considered hardware hungry. On the editors’ test system, a Mifcom PC with an Intel i9 12900KS and a Geforce 4090 RTX, the Flight Simulator in 4K looks simply breathtaking. The latest graphics card from Nvidia is the reference for “hardcore gamers”. No other card manages to continuously display the Flight Simulator in full graphic splendor at over 100 frames per second. Also with the help of in-house techniques such as DLSS-3. For real simulator fans, nothing beats the high-end PC with a joystick or control yoke, throttle and rudder pedals under the desk, on which there is a 4K monitor or VR glasses.

But the software also runs on the X-Box and can even be streamed on a ten-year-old laptop with the X-Box Cloud. There seems to be something for everyone, from the demanding user who is practicing for his real pilot’s license to the occasional flyer who would like to have an uncomplicated view of his place of residence or the next holiday region from above.

Since the fan base is so diverse and basically the whole planet is simulated, very different wishes come about. “There are the railway fans who would like to get on the train and drive around. Winter sports fans want to fly to go skiing. Golfers want to go to the golf courses in the world and play there. Water sports enthusiasts would like to go sailing,” reports Jörg Neumann from among the many Requests from users. In principle, anything is possible, he says. It’s just a question of prioritization. And that’s where flying comes first.