By Parker Kang
At 2019’s E3, a business-oriented gaming expo, Microsoft announced the future release of its new flight simulator, MFS2020. This announcement came as a surprise to most, even those deeply involved in the niche flight simulation industry. Why? Their most recent flight simulator was released thirteen years ago. Since 2006, the company has had little involvement in the flight simulator market.
As Microsoft’s position as the leading flight simulation company gradually diminished, competitors quickly sprung up in its place. The most prominent of these became Laminar Research, known for its ‘X-Plane’ series. Their newest release, X-Plane 11, is the most advanced flight simulator currently available. Laminar’s monopolization of the industry seemed complete just a year ago. With the sudden announcement of Microsoft’s return, however, discussion quickly shifted to how Laminar was going to compete.
But what makes MFS2020 significant enough to threaten Laminar’s continued success? Like most modern simulators, MFS will include a fully rendered depiction of Earth and virtual pilots will be allowed to fly anywhere they want. Unlike any simulator that has come before, however, the product will feature the use of Google Earth imagery and Azure AI predictive algorithms to generate a real-to-life 3D version of Earth. Beta testers have claimed the terrain generation to be so accurate that one can easily find their own house in the simulated world. Never before seen details such as volumetric clouds, atmospheric light scattering, and fully modeled air currents are just a few of the improvements Microsoft has made over countless other simulators. The presence of a newer and higher quality simulator on the market will most likely have a negative impact on all other simulators, especially previous leaders in the industry like X-Plane. Once MFS is released, many add-on developers, companies that sell extra content for games, will begin to shift their focus away from producing X-Plane content and towards supporting MFS. Customers typically prefer virtual communities with active modding support, and over time fewer will be compelled to purchase X-Plane.
While most of the public reaction to Microsoft’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, some are less enthusiastic. The one-man developer behind Laminar Research, Austin Meyers, reacted with predictable pessimism, pointing out that “All the things that are necessary to build a truly dynamic, ever-changing, living, breathing city are literally engineered out of the system, is what it looked like.” Similarly, many loyal members of the X-Plane community defended the company, such as Tadeus73 on the X-Plane forums who stated that “If we would get a revolution for every flashy advertisement that gets presented by a big company, we would live in sci-fi times by now.” While X-Plane 11 admittedly demonstrates impressive graphical capabilities, there are few who deny MFS’s graphical superiority-- the differences between the two are quite obvious.
While it is likely that X-Plane will lose its prominent role as the leading flight simulator on the market with the release of MFS2020, Laminar Research is nowhere near ‘finished’ as many have recently suggested. Even if we were to concede that MFS was objectively superior in every way, it is highly unlikely that the community for X-Plane would totally diminish. At the date of its release, X-Plane 11 itself was far superior to Microsoft’s aging Flight Simulator X, yet the latter still enjoys an active following to this day. Furthermore, even if MFS is ‘unbeatable’ as many already believe, X-Plane has the means to establish itself in areas of the gaming market. Unlike Microsoft, Laminar has released multiple IOS games and is considered one of the leading developers of mobile flight simulation, along with other games such as Infinite Flight. A mobile-focused Laminar Research could have the potential to bring much needed quality to the IOS/Android simulation platforms. Ultimately, the release of MFS2020 will be a positive development for the flight simulation industry, as more competition will lead to better products.
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