There once was a time where you couldn't turn without bumping into a brand new flight sim in a computer store - and some with pretty cool names, too. Flight of the Intruder, A-10 Tank Killer, Flight!, Microsoft Flight Simulator and countless others covered almost every part of the aviation world, letting anyone strap themselves into a plane of their choosing, and take to the skies. But when Microsoft unceremoniously abandoned development on Flight Sim, the world of civil aviation sims was dealt a killer blow, with the genre all but dying overnight. Luckily for us though, the story doesn't end there, as in came Train Sim studio Dovetail Games, who sweet talked their way into a partnership with Microsoft, and left with the Microsoft Flight Simulator X engine. With a dedicated team on board, the rights to the engine provided all they needed to get straight to work on not one, but two new flight sims of their very own. We sat down with Stephen Hood, Creative Director on the first of two sims, Dovetail Flight School, to talk about the history of the genre, and what the future has in store.
So, to start off, could you tell us how the game come into being? You guys came into owning the Microsoft Flight Sim engine, and I imagine there's probably quite an interesting story about how that all came together?
It's interesting for me, as I wasn't part of the original FSX (Flight Simulator X) deal, and I joined just under 18 months ago to work on the new flight sim. But I knew some of the guys who were already at Dovetail, and they've got interests - particularly the CEO, [whose] interests are fishing, and trains - while another of the original founders is a pilot, who's also massively interested in flight simulation, so it's a bit of a dream for those guys really. So, they had many a negotiation with Microsoft over an extended period of time over creating a Steam version of FSX, and they got that deal. And that was the beginning of their path towards making their own flight sim.
And is the new game based on the Flight Simulator engine?
It is - it's based on the original code of FSX, rather than Flight! - and one of the reasons for us doing that is it contains all the components we want to build upon. So if you forget the fact the engine is 10 years behind the curve, in terms of the renderer and the graphics - we knew we had the expertise to upgrade those, whereas we didn't immediately, on day one, have the knowledge to upgrade the air traffic system, or the radio, or try to create an engine that allowed you to fly literally anywhere in the world, in and out of 24,000 airports, which is mind boggling... I mean, in this industry, you typically try to carve out a really small space, and create a corridor that looks really pretty, but you can't go outside of those bounds - but Microsoft said "well, we're just going to let them go anywhere they want!". If I'd proposed that in a development meeting about something we wanted to create, I'd probably get kicked out!
But they've done that, and we wanted to carry that forwards, so we've begun there, and we're building out of that core, because a lot of the systems are still relevant now, and it just gave us the platform to create a modern flight simulator. We've plugged our expertise into the renderer, and updated the textures and the world, added new software systems to make good use of today's hardware, make the world look better and more realistic, smarter looking planes, different audio, a totally new user interface, and just tried to make the project a bit more... accessible is the word we use internally, and at times, a lot of people take that and say "well you must be dumbing it down then, it's supposed to be a simulator". It absolutely is still a simulator, it's still authentic, and we want to increase that realism over time. But we wanted to introduce the concept of you turning up a flight school, and being walked through what it means to be a pilot, transferring from being a student to a qualified pilot over time.
In the real world, you have an instructor who talks you through the basics of the aircraft controls, and walks you through the various skills you need to apply to pass the tests and become qualified, and we're just taking exactly the same approach - mirroring what happens in the real world
To be honest, that's the bit that appeals to me the most, because when it comes to things like FSX, I've never really managed to get into the Microsoft Flight Sim type games - because it all seems very serious, and kind of intimidating in a way?
Yes, it is, it's a very alien world! When I moved across to Dovetail... I've always wanted to make a flight sim. I liked loads of games when I was growing up, and flight sims, or games with aircraft in used to be really, really popular. I used to play loads of stuff back on the Amiga back in the day...
Now you're talking - which ones did you play?
Knights of the Sky, a kind of WW1 combat game
And Red Baron?
Yeah, Knights of the Sky, Red Baron, I loved all these sort of things, which I wouldn't necessarily class as a simulator now - although they'll probably say the same thing about us in 20 years time. It used to be really popular, but now if you say to someone "I'm going to play a flight sim", it's... kind of receded into the background. And I think part of that is because the same kind of products, in the same style have been made for many many years, and if you weren't on board early on, it's just progressed into the stratosphere, where you're dropped into a cockpit, and there's a million buttons in front of you, and you just don't know where to start, and there's no way to relate to it. It's not the same as driving a car, because there you know the fundamentals and the basics, so you can get away with it.
In something like FSX, or the last one I found when I was moving house was Flight Sim 2004: A Century of Flight, I thought, well, I've used this before, but I don't actually remember getting much from it, because I'm just dropped into this world and left alone. Or in FSX, it takes you from taxiing around a runway in a microlight, to a handful of lessons later, you're flying a light airliner from London to Scotland! So, Flight School is designed to say "we're not going to give you ever single aircraft type in the world, because that would be crazy. Let's start as if you're a student".
And I actually put myself in that position in the real world. I turned up at a local flight school in Kent, near where I live in Rochester, and I said "look, I don't know anything about flying - teach me". And in my first lesson, I was at the controls, lined up on the runway, and I took off myself and climbed to 2,000 ft and did a bunch of manoeuvrers.
On your first lesson!?
On my first lesson, yeah. Of course, I had an instructor next to me, who'd maybe been drinking or something - but it's not difficult to fly an aircraft. It's more difficult to do the landing, and get back down to earth. The complexity comes from all the other things, like managing the radio, communicating with the various flight services and air traffic control, navigating - because in Europe you're not allowed to use GPS, you've got to use the old instruments - and it's very, very alien. I jump in the car now, switch my sat nav on, put the post code in and I'm on my way, but you can't do that in a plane. Once you're qualified, you're allowed to do so, but when you're learning, you have to go through a million hoops in order to become a qualified pilot. But it's really fascinating, and it totally hooked me, so my job is to try and distil that down into something that people can quickly grasp, and will hopefully get over the hurdle of "OK, so this is how I use the aircraft, and this is how I can get from A to B". And you know, if we can even do that with flight school, I think it would be an advance over what's out there currently. Because you get loads of hardcore people who are creating a fantasy in their mind - I'm an airline pilot, or I'm a commercial pilot ferrying people around - they know what they're doing. But what about the people on the outside, who don't quite know how to operate an aircraft? Do we just leave them alone? Or do we say - this is the cool stuff you can do with an aircraft? And once you understand those things, it starts to click.
There was a lesson we were doing recently whereby some of the guys in the office, who know very little about planes, were on approach to an airport, and there are these little things at the side of a runway called "PAPI lights", and there's two colours, white or red, and there's a sequence that shows if you're too high or too low. And as soon as they were taught how to use that, it made sense to them, and they felt like heroes - qualified pilots! Whereas previously, people would jump into a flight sim, and you know, full throttle, take off, whizz about for a bit, go upside down, and then what? They probably walked away, because you don't know what does what in the cockpit, and that's a shame, because there's so much enjoyment you can get out of this. It's really cool to be a pilot and fly aircraft around, if only more people knew how to do it. So instead of starting out with a 747, we're starting in the general aviation space, and light aircraft. They're a lot simpler, but the fundamentals are the same.
I think having more structure would definitely help someone like me, because I'm the same - I grew up playing all the flight sims on the Amiga back in the day. My diet was basically Battle of Britain, Operation Overlord, and stuff like that, but then when it came around to stuff like Microsoft Flight Sim, I couldn't get into it, possibly because of the lack of structure. Whereas this, with it kind of having "missions", learning to fly a plane, I can see myself getting into more - and I can see it being good for beginners too.
Yeah - I'm not trying to bring in new people to the space, like people who only want to play some arcade video games. I'm very conscious of the existing community, they're quite protective about flight sims, and they'll [be thinking] "Oh, he's the guy who used to do the Formula 1 games, I bet he wants to make flight sims arcade", but I don't! I just want to help the kind of person who I think would get a lot out of a flight sim either get back on board, or enter this world for the first time and not be completely lost. I don't want to stretch the audience too far, where I've got all the guys who would play Call of Duty, all the way through to hardcore flight simmers - that's not really achievable anyway. What I want to do is capture the imagination of someone who could enjoy flight sims, if only they could be helped into it, and that's what we're trying to do with Flight School, so it almost pre-empts the larger flight sim, coming out at the end of the year.
Speaking of accessibility, that raises a good question - on the old flight sims back in the day, you could adjust the flight model. Can you do that on this, and turn off stalls, black outs, red outs etc?
You can! You can still turn all of those things on and off. I'm not trying to sound elitist by saying I always play it on the hardest setting, but actually Flight School, in the light aircraft, the flight model is actually quite benign. You don't tend to get into a lot of serious trouble. One of the guys at work, Tim, one of the directors who started this whole Microsoft deal, and who's a pilot, he's gone to great lengths (and I'm sure he got quite a lot of enjoyment out of it as well), by taking me up in the air, and showing me what it's like when the aircraft stalls.
Rather you than me!
Yeah! I'm not particular comfortable with flying, I've always been slightly apprehensive about it, which is a crazy combination - here's this guy who's creative director on a flight sim, and he's nervous about flying. And there's nothing worse if you're slightly nervous about flying, than going up in a light aircraft, because it's very cosy, it all feels very mechanical, and you feel every movement. And if he passed out, I'd have to land the damn thing!
So he was kind of climbing, the aircraft speed reduced, the wings started to stall, and all that happens is the nose just gently wants to drop - it doesn't feel like a roller-coaster. It doesn't even feel like going over a bridge in a car when your stomach drops. It's all very calm. Some aircraft are different in their characteristics, the scarier ones are the ones that have a wing drop, where instead of the nose going down, one of the wings will tip, and you'll go sideways and down, which I (luckily) haven't been in yet. But the training aircraft are all quite benign, and it's quite relaxed, so in this category, you can play with everything on max. [I think] there's also a feeling when you're not playing on the ultimate setting, that you're not getting everything from it, and there's a real sense of achievement when you start to do things properly, and it all makes sense. And that's what Flight School's about.
And these planes you've got in the game, are these totally fresh model you've put together?
We have created these models from scratch. So, one of the things that's been quite clear to us is that the likes of Microsoft Flight Sim have been going for such a long time because of the third party developers and the modding community that create content for it. And they have produced some fantastic looking airports, aircraft, weather systems, and all sorts of plug-ins. But they're having to be very smart about the ceiling that exists in the current FSX technology. So instead of having great light models on the aircraft, they've got to paint all sorts of things in. So in screenshots, it may look great, but once you get it in-game, it looks well crafted, but it doesn't have the kind of lighting effects you'd expect to see in real life. So we've tried to overhaul all of that, to make the world more believable. So you get lighting reflected on the runways for example now, which wasn't in FSX. We've put all those things in, and what we've had to do is create a bunch of assets to show what the engine can do, rather than just giving it to people and saying "here you go, try and make content for it". [So while that's something the future games will support], it's important that Flight School comes out, because it doesn't allow content from other people to be plugged in - we've created the planes for it, the locations, textures around the world, created new skies, clouds, and all sorts of things to harness the upgrades we've done.
So, when it comes to playing Flight School, you're going to be sat in the plane, in the cockpit, and I guess all the buttons will work?
Yes - all the buttons will work, you can click on all the stuff, you can move the dials around, you can move the throttle with the mouse or a flight yoke, you can look around the inside and outside of the aircraft, all of that stuff is fully modelled. Which has been a huge learning experience for us, as not a lot of the core team are flight sim developers, and not all of them were involved in any way with aviation, so it's been a learning experience for us. But one of the first things we tried to do was hook up with other developers, professional developers around the world who have got experience in this space, like Take Flight Interactive, who are original Aces team members, who worked on the Flight Sim franchise, so they know this stuff inside out. So what I'm trying to do is combine our industry experience with their experience of flight sim and aviation, to create something that is a new start for flight sims.
So, what's going to be the difference between Flight School and the upcoming Flight Sim?
So, Flight School is very much about training for aviation and training aircraft. A lot of the concepts that exist in Flight School will be carried over into the larger Flight Sim, that begins at the end of the year, in the sense that in Flight School, you always have your virtual log book, which we call your pilot's profile, that tracks what level of pilot you are, whether you've remained a student, or become a light aircraft pilot, which is something you can get in Europe before you get your typical private pilot's license, etc. It's almost like a skill tree, if you will. You can go to the US in flight school and fly a different aircraft, get a different qualification; you can log your hours and experience. Without giving too much away, when we get to Dovetail Games Flight Simulator later in the year, that experience starts to unlock events in Flight Sim. So one of the things I'm keen to do is rather than create a bunch of weird and wacky gameplay plug-ins for Flight Sim... though it may be fragmented, the world of aviation can still be pieced together to deliver a great gameplay experience. So I think it's entirely feasible to say in Flight School, you start as a student, and you become a qualified pilot. And when you move into the full Flight Sim, you can move up another level, and you can become a commercial pilot, which is one step before you become an airline pilot. And as soon as you become a commercial pilot where, in the real world, you can be paid for your skills and become a proper, full time pilot, opportunities open up that are not achievable in Flight School. Flight School is just about training; Flight Sim has a whole world that opens up, you can continue your training and become a commercial pilot in a variety of much more complex aircraft.
I guess that means there'll be plenty more planes in it too?
There'll be more planes in it, more locations in terms of flight schools, training and things you can add to your license, but I'd like to begin a journey that enables us to work the player towards becoming a pilot with BA, or Emirates, and go down a specific route, so rather than having to make it up, these opportunities exist in the simulator.
So the two games are kind of going to link together?
Yes, in the way that even though Flight School is a stand alone product, you'll be able to carry your history over into the new Flight Sim. Whereas Flight School is really about trying to bring new users into the space, people who've perhaps been scared off, as it seems too complex, or even too nerdy - looking in from the outside, it can appear that way at times - we're trying to bring those guys in. At the same time, there are a lot of experience flight simmers out there who are desperate for a new flight sim with a new engine. Things just haven't moved on significantly for them. So, I don't imagine they'll all start with the first license type that's available in Flight School, as they're all qualified pilots - some are actually qualified pilots in the real world. I had a chap in the other day who's a qualified commercial pilot, operates out of Biggin Hill, and I talked him through what we were doing. He was totally on board with it, but he said "I don't really need to do Flight School, because I'm a pilot in the real world." But you will still want to try it out, because of the new technology, as it gives you an insight into what we're doing in the future. And also, any hours that you do put in in free flight, where you can go around the entire world and go on adventures of your own - we're going to log your hours and experience, so even if he doesn't want to do the first license type, he could go straight to the US flight school to get his private pilot's license, which is the highest one that's available on Flight School. He has to do the opening lesson, where he's introduced to the aircraft, but then immediately he can jump to the check ride, which is like a skills test at the end, and if he can prove his worth in that, he'd obtain that license type, and start logging his hours. So, I'm not trying to force everyone through the same funnel - you can decide where you want to jump on board on a flight school journey - but he can collate his hours and his experience, and that will become useful in the full Flight Simulator.
Can you talk about pricing at all for Flight School?
Er, not with any particular detail! I can tell you now it's not going to be a £100 project. Flight School is smaller than Flight Sim, and I'm sure that will be reflected in the price, but as one of the company's intentions is to try and create more and more content for these things in the future, I wouldn't say we make all of our money from the core product - it's [more from] the kind of cool experiences we can offer people post release.
And the full flight sim is going to be fully open to third parties to make extra planes, mods and things?
I think there's going to be a learning process. As I was saying earlier, people are [currently] getting the most out of the limited technology from a 10 year old game, and we're totally throwing those doors open to new, wonderful things. Some will get on board with that quicker than others, so the team at the moment is batting around [whether things will be] completely open day one, or [whether] there's a method for approvals, or what. But we're not doing that in isolation - we're talking to a lot of the key developers that are out there, and saying "how do we make this better for you"? Because very early on they were discussing the fact that, actually, they find it a real mess, as a lot of the add-ons you can get from the different developers conflict with each other - and that harks back to my original quest for accessibility. So if you buy a product, from Dovetail Games, I want you to know that that's going to work with whatever you plug into it - and with flight simulation, that can be a bit of a gamble. I was installing something for FSX the other day, and it said "if it doesn't work, please re-install it and choose no on your second attempt". I don't want people to have to go through that! It's a bit of a wild west at the moment. Sp we're working with the developers to try and define how we can tidy this up, so it's a better experience for the end user, and the developers. That isn't without its challenges, but that's the plan.
One of the things I've got to ask about, around gamescom last year, you guys announced a partnership with Microsoft to bring the next Train Sim to the Xbox One, and they also mentioned Flight Sim and Flight School would be coming to the Xbox One too. Is there any news about that at all?
Well... I don't see Flight School coming to the Xbox One, but I personally would like to see Flight Sim, at some stage, come to the Xbox. People might expect that, because that's my background - I've worked on consoles for some time - but I'm of the opinion that a great flight sim, on the Xbox, would be a fantastic experience, because I can put this into people's living rooms. I don't have my PC in my living room - some people do, but I have to cart it aside and put it in my office. So having it on a console would be great, because it'd let us access a lot more people. I don't think I'd change the experience - it would just be, as you've said, with a little more structure to it. And if we can make these things work in harmony, and if we can make it engaging on the PC, why shouldn't it be the same on a console?
So it's not something that's actively in development at the moment?
We aren't actively working on it, but we are developing the technology so that it wouldn't be a pain for us to transfer it at some point, so it doesn't have to be an entirely separate project. But right now, what we're trying to do is concentrate on PC, because that's the bread and butter, and console is something that comes along, hopefully, at some point in the near future, because I think there'll be a huge demand for a really cool flight sim on console.
You said you grew up playing the combat flight sims - is there any chance of seeing that kind of flight sim from Dovetail?
Probably not! The company line is to kind of not wage war, death and destruction with our kind of products. I've played lots of them over time, we still play with lots of them in the office, but it almost becomes a distraction for us. Even if I've got a personal interest in doing that sort of thing, I don't think that's something the company would do. I'm not sure that many people are going to want that after enjoying Dovetail Flight School and Flight Sim, but we'll see!
On the other hand, will we get any warbirds in the full Dovetail Flight Sim?
Probably not on day one, but we will add all sorts of aircraft over time. One of the things I want to try and do is bring that structure, through different categories of aircraft arriving, and there needs to be a point to it. If it gets plugged into the core simulator, as aircraft do at the moment, it's great if you're a hardcore flight simmer or aviation enthusiast, but the wider audience will be coming into this, they'll look at these aircraft and say, well, what do I do with it? Take a Spitfire for example - just picking that out at random - do I just fly it around the world and enjoy it? Well, that's currently what you can do with a simulator, and it's very successful - but to be even more successful, there has to be a point to the aircraft's inclusion. It might be you have some ferry pilot missions, and you've got to transport this aircraft around the world, and so it matches what happens in the real world - or an air display, or something. Something to go along with the aircraft. You can always do what you want with it in free flight, but there needs to be more of a point to it for the wider audience. So I don't just want to throw random aircraft in to begin with, I want there to be a purpose to all of them, so you feel compelled to experience as many different aircraft types as possible, because it adds to your license, and your standing as a pilot, which would be great.
I like the idea of that, yeah. That sounds good! Well, we'll be looking forward to getting out hands on the finished product, and many thanks for joining us and having a chat!
Thanks for your time!