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February 8, 2012 at 5:24 PM

Q&A: Microsoft Flight boss on “rebooting franchise”

Microsoft is resurrecting one of its oldest franchises, “Flight Simulator,” with an entirely new game called “Microsoft Flight” that’s debuting on Feb. 29.

But instead of a new installment of the hyper-realistic, encyclopedic simulator that mostly appealed to flight enthusiasts, Microsoft built a smaller, more accessible game that’s going to be offered online for free.


Planes can be flown simply by moving a mouse around, though enthusiasts can also use more realistic and complex controls.

It’s also a new business direction for Microsoft’s PC game business, which is using “Flight” to experiment with free online games monetized through microtransactions. About 80 percent of U.S. gamers now play such titles, mostly through Facebook, where players spend an average of $29 per month, according to Parks Associates research.

To start, the game will let people fly around Hawaii – the Big Island – in planes including a Boeing Stearman similar to one displayed at the Museum of Flight. For $20 players can get seven additional islands, new missions and an additional plane.

Microsoft will periodically offer new territories, planes and activities. The company may also extend the franchise to other devices beyond the PC. Executive Producer Joshua Howard hopes the game will draw more than 20 million players eventually.

Joshua Howard_Headshot.jpg

Howard (left) leads a studio with about 50 employees, a third of whom are veterans of the ACES Studio behind “Flight Simulator” that Microsoft wound down in 2009.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview this week with Howard:

Q: Gaming on Windows has seemed to languish, maybe because so much energy was around Xbox. How much is this release a sign that the Windows game group is back, especially with Windows 8 coming up soon?

A: Some folks on my team will say Games on Windows isn’t what it used to be. You’re forgetting it is certainly the biggest platform for gaming anywhere, ever. I feel like the PC has been the most successful platform when it comes to gaming because gaming as a whole has become mainstream – 75 million people playing Facebook games of one form or another, that’s all on a PC. It didn’t happen on a console, it didn’t happen on a closed mobile platform.

As Microsoft – to have built that system and allowed that to happen – we don’t get to take credit for everything people do on a PC but that didn’t happen because we ignored PC gaming. So I think PC gaming is alive and well in fantastic ways in fantastic ways. It’s still where the heart of innovation is happening.

Q: I didn’t mean PC gaming as much as PC game development within Microsoft. Perhaps the company felt it no longer needed to seed the market so much?

A: It’s doing very well so that’s right, maybe that’s part of what it came down to.

Q: Is Flight intended to seed online services and bring people into Microsoft’s online realm?

A: I like to think this is both about reimagining a franchise that we know has always been successful. I also think it’s part of Microsoft the studio saying ‘I want to develop this new muscle.’ Maybe because we have so much of the organization focused on the console-side of the business which is more rigid when it comes to business models, you get to ask the PC side to be a little more experimental, a little more exploratory. I relish that opportunity and the team has really jumped on that. We couldn’t be doing half the things we do here on a console – this is not a console game that just happens to sit on a PC. This is really a PC game and we’re proud of that.

Q: Is your studio just building this title?

A: I imagine this is a group of people who will continue to bring flying experiences out over time. This is where we are right now.

Q: One you’ve developed new muscles, you want to keep using them …?

A: There are a lot of really cool, exciting platforms on the horizon. I’d love to think that someday you’ll be hearing from me about how we’re going to bring Flight to those exciting opportunities.

Q: On tablets and other devices with Windows?

A: It could be broader than that even. As a division we no longer organize around your PC games and your console games. We’re a team that’s about the thrill and experience of flight.

Q: But it makes sense that your games could be on the new PC form factors running Windows … like tablets, maybe TVs – the “three screens and a cloud”?

A: Yeah. I believe in crawl, walk, run. We’re rebooting a franchise, and that was really hard. We wanted to this well. We took the time and energy to do that. Now this becomes a platform to keep going.

Q: Is it running on Azure and will it be used to showcase the platform’s ability to run a massively multiplayer online game?

A: The services could be on Azure but they’re not today. It turns out they didn’t need what Azure provides as far as scale goes. It’s less MMO in that sense. While do have what we think of as interesting and enjoyable multiplayer, it’s still not that massive. (Up to 16 players can play together in an online session.)

Q: So the focus is on the PC experience mostly?

A: Yes. The way we talk about it is between the client, and the web site and the community that combines them, that’s what Flight means. It’s this combination of those three elements working together.

Q: It sounds like a hybrid PC game.

A: Exactly. In many respects we are like an MMO business would be run, we just don’t happen to be an MMO. We’re taking what is traditionally a game studio and transitioning it into an online business.

Q: Why did Microsoft take so long to resume development of MMO PC games?

A: I think the reality internally is we’ve continued to incubate and play and continue to try things. You just don’t always bring those to market or out until you believe you’ve got something you can be successful with. I was excited to see that instead of trying innovate in these genres that are already well-understood, Microsoft went off and tried Kinect. I think Microsoft just put their energies elsewhere and it paid off.

Q: Will you sell the game on discs at retail?

A: Sometime maybe in the future but right now we’re all in online. Retail is not something we’re talking about right now.

Q: Will you get it preloaded with PC hardware?

A: Possibly.

Q: Will it be part of the game suite included with Windows 8?

A: Probably not. We deal with those separately – that’s an operating-system business, we’re a game publisher.

Q: Will you be able to control the game with gestures, if you attach a Kinect sensor?

A: We’re not talking about Kinect support at this time but who knows.

Q: It seems like the tradeoff you made – building richer, smaller locales to explore in the game – is the loss of the full, open world that could be explored in “Flight Simulator”?

A: The bet we’ve made is that to the non-hardcore simmer, flying the whole world isn’t as interesting when there’s nothing really interesting to see or do. I do get that for some segment of the audience that was one of the values – I can fly anywhere, into any airport, 25,000-odd airports was crazy.

But I think as you try to broaden and you want to bring in not the next million or two but the next 20 million or 30 million people, you say I will err on the side of more interesting area that’s dense than the same amount of content spread all over the globe. There’s a lot to do in Hawaii, and Hawaii is gorgeous.

Q: It seems inevitable that you’ll have a mobile version someday?

A: We may do other stuff in the future but today we’re just talking about the PC version of flight. I think Flight has legs. This is a franchise that’s going to keep living for a lot of years. We’re going to do that by exploiting all the opportunities that are coming at us, whether that’s mobile, new operating systems, new hardware. There’s a lot of stuff out there and I think Flight is going to be part of that at some point.

Q: I thought the ACES studio was fully shuttered back in 2009?

A: The reality was inside the company there were already efforts underway to bring that core expertise back together with a new mandate of how they could move forward.

Q: Will Flight make more money than Microsoft’s “Gears of War”?

A: I think in the long-run, this franchise will definitely make more money than “Gears.” I think Gears is a great. Flight is one of those evergreen franchises in entertainment – this will live another 30 years.

Comments | Topics: Flight Simulator, Games & entertainment, Microsoft


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