ANALYSIS: Microsoft Flight

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Flight simulators have been around since the early days of computer games, with the first one landing around 30 years ago.

Technology and business models have advanced dramatically, but flying sims have always remained a more traditional part of the market. Lucrative, too: Microsoft releases new version, third-parties sell extra content, enthusiasts are happy. The PC games sell steadily at retail. Everyone wins.

But recent developments threaten this balance, due to the impending arrival of Microsoft's microtransaction-based online title, which arrives six years after Flight Simulator X.

GOING CASUAL

Microsoft Flight, out this spring, is not just a sequel. It's a rebrand and a revision of how the MS Flight business model operates. The word ‘Simulator' has been removed from the game's title – and for good reason. It will appeal to more than just the die-hard sim fanatics.

Users will be able to download it on PC for free, and pay money for additional content such as new planes, areas and options. It's a drastic change to adopt this modern model, but one Microsoft says can appeal to new audiences.

The free-to-play business model will open up the game to anyone who has always wanted to fly but were intimidated by the barrier-to-entry of flight simulation games,” MS Flight's executive producer Joshua Howard tells MCV.

This model allows us to release high quality new content much faster than a typical retail distribution model, and most importantly, to offer a preview of the game so that customers can decide what to purchase and when.”

That's all well and good for the flight sim community, but where does it leave third-party content firms?

STALLING TAKE OFF

Some expert flight game developers were the first to express their frustration over the situation. Orbx is one studio that is now embracing Prepar3d – a new game that uses the X engine. Microsoft has licensed this engine as a commercial product.

A closed environment with an in-game app store does not appeal to us since we cannot generate income from such a proprietary arrangement,” Orbx's JohnVenema says. We're porting all our stuff to Prepar3d over the coming months. We see no reason why anyone would walk away from five years of investing in Flight Simulator X add-ons to a new simulator.

”The irony, of course, is that the long-running traditional flight sim publishers are willing to embrace change and produce download-only content for MS Flight. While Microsoft is potentially hindering itself with the more old-fashioned strategy of shutting out third-parties. Although the computer giant hasn't ruled out opening MS Flight up to third-parties at a later date, it will only release its own DLC at launch.

Mastertronic's Just Flight publishing label and Contact Sales' First Class Simulations arm have released hundreds of flight sim expansions between them, but none of these will be compatible with the upcoming MS Flight. They admit the title is progressive, but also frustrating nonetheless.

We wouldn't have a problem with making DLC for MS Flight. We think freemium is the way the games industry is going,” says Mastertronic's operations director Dermot Stapleton.

But [Microsoft] would miss a trick if they limited the options for freeware and commercial developers, as that drives the whole hobby. And beware of creating an exclusive outlet just for downloadable add-ons. The minute you lock out boxed product, you start closing out markets like Germany, where there's massive demand for boxed sims.”

Contact Sales MD Robert Stallibrass tells MCV he is delighted” Microsoft is developing a new flight sim, but disappointed” about the lack of new opportunities.

It's all very well to put everything online, but a high percentage of people still like to buy boxed games,” Stallibrass says. Microsoft will want to control it.”

Microsoft's argument is free-to-play streamlines the buying process.

By consolidating all our new content under one roof, we can simplify the process for the customer and deliver a consistent level of quality through all of our releases,” says MS Flight's Howard.We'll be taking the lead role in new DLC for the launch and first months. As we gain experience with the model and our consumers, we will explore opportunities to grow our offerings.”

Mastertronic's CEO Andy Payne is more concerned MS Flight should be available through all digital distribution services, to open it up to a wide userbase.

We hope that Microsoft doesn't try to control the market by insisting all add-ons are sold through an exclusive marketplace, Andy Payne adds. From a third-party perspective, if Microsoft try to control it, then to me that's a bad move. As a consumer I'd have to go to Games for Windows Live, but if all my other games are from another digital distribution service such as Steam, Origin, Direct2Drive, Get Games or GOG, why would I want to have to play some place else?”

Stapleton adds: If they try and keep a walled garden around MS Flight I don't think it'll be a bright move. That'll close out millions of Steam users. But it would certainly swell the Games for Windows Live userbase to give away a product for that quality.”

By adopting the free-to-play model, MS Flight could be a runaway success. But the divide between Microsoft and other firms in the flight simulation games business has widened.And the computer giant could perhaps find it difficult to engage with these veterans again, once the turbulence has settled.

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