A history of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise: the origins, the end, and a new beginning

A history of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise: The origins, the end, and a new beginning.

With roots that stem back to the late 70’s, Microsoft Flight Simulator has since garnered a relatively strong and loyal following, almost cult-like in fact. The simulator was just as niche as personal computers were back in the day, although it was first developed for the Apple II, which did go on to become one of the most successful mass-produced personal computers of its time.

Microsoft either saw something special in Flight Simulator, originally developed by a computer game company called subLOGIC, or maybe it was simply because of the lack of choice at the time, but the software giant went on to acquire the rights to the simulator and develop it further.

Over the span of 13 years, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator received updates that made it compatible with IBM PC’s, and introduced new much needed features like new aircraft, support for textures, and -- here’s the big one -- support for third-party add-ons.

A history of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise: The origins, the end, and a new beginning.

Taking to the Skies

It wasn’t until Flight Simulator 95 did the simulator really start to take off (pun intended). Along with the newly released Windows 95, Flight Simulator was upgraded with better flight dynamics, improved utilization for new hardware, and an all-around better simulation experience. With the growth of the internet, the Flight Simulator community grew faster than it has ever done before. Add-on’s became ever so important as users looked to add new aircraft, liveries and scenery to the simulator. Companies were established for the sole purpose of producing high-quality, payware add-on’s. This was the beginning of something huge.

“Microsoft is just a mission-disk away from transforming this product from the cult that it is into the major religion it should be.” – GameSpot (1996)

Microsoft ramped up development and released major versions every 2-3 years. Some of the additions included DirectX and GPU support in Flight Simulator 98; improved weather simulation and GPS support in FS2000; air traffic control and AI aircraft brought FS2002 to life; 3D clouds, improved scenery and real-world weather in FS2004; and virtual interactive cockpits, high resolution textures, support for multiplayer, multi-core processors, high-end GPU’s, as well as DX10 support in FSX; all while continuously adding more aircraft, and more airports to the simulator.

A history of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise: The origins, the end, and a new beginning.

Flight Simulator X – released in 2006 – was a force to be reckoned with, its high degree of realism brought the most powerful PC’s of its days to their knees, so much so that the simulator was used as a benchmark for new PC gaming hardware, until Crysis was released a year later of course. FSX was so ahead of its time that Microsoft could afford to put a hold on development until PC hardware caught up. Unfortunately, when the hardware did catch up a few years later, FSX was found to be terribly un-optimized for it. The simulator just didn’t know how to utilize CPU’s with more than 2 cores, and considering the title was CPU-intensive, this didn’t bode well.

Microsoft tried to compensate by releasing two service packs for FSX; the first bringing somewhat better support for multi-core processors, and the second introducing DX10 support that made dynamic shadows and water reflections a reality, but it was glitchy, took a massive toll on in-game frame rates, and worst of all, broke the majority of third-party add-ons.

Glitches aside, Microsoft were already hard at work on the next version of Flight Simulator, squashing concerns that the franchise was fading. Here's what they had to say on the matter:

The future of the franchise is secure.  Period. Any “discussion” about the demise of FS is just plain wrong. FS11 planning is in full swing, which means there will be an FS11. Guaranteed, unless we now do something wrong internally.

The End of an Era

Three years later, in early 2009, Flight Simulator was due for its timely upgrade. But instead of announcing Flight Simulator XI, Microsoft announced the closure of the ACES Studio, the studio in charge of developing the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise. Affected by the 2008-09 economic recession, Microsoft was in the process of cutting costs. That resulted in about 5000 layoffs, of which the ACES Studio was part of.

"We can confirm the closing of ACES Studios, which was responsible for the Flight Simulator franchise. Following our annual strategy review process, IEB [Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business unit] is making adjustments within our business to align our people against our highest priorities. The closure of ACES Studios was one of those specific changes."

This was officially the end of an era. 30 years of Flight Simulator, no more. To put that into perspective, Microsoft Windows has yet to turn 29 years old this year, and we’re now 5 years past the closure of the ACES Studios.

Flight Simulator enthusiasts were of course outraged with the decision, and voiced their concerns via comments, blog posts, petitions, and hate mail, but what’s done was done.

A Glimmer of Hope

A history of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise: The origins, the end, and a new beginning.

Following the closure, Microsoft announced that it had entered into an IP licensing agreement with Lockheed Martin. This gave the aerospace defense company the rights to use, and build upon the simulation engine used in FSX. As a result, Lockheed Martin refined the simulator -- which they called Prepar3D -- and patched everything that was wrong with FSX, all while maintaining the same community add-on support. This was a dream come true for Flight Simulator enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Lockheed Martin didn’t have any plans to release their version of the simulator for commercial purposes, although a $60 “academic license” was made available.

This year, Train Simulator creator Dovetail Games announced that they had also entered a licensing agreement with Microsoft, giving them the rights to “develop and publish all-new flight products based on Microsoft’s genre-defining flight technology.” With an expected commercial title planned for a 2015 release. And judging from what we saw from Lockheed Martin, there might just be a glimmer of hope for the franchise to take flight once more.

Editor's note: A certain short-lived Microsoft effort was made to re-establish ties with Flight Simulator enthusiasts as well as gain a larger audience, but it only added insult to injury so it didn’t deserve a mention. You can read more about that abomination here.