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Microsoft Flight Simulator's cloud debut comes with upsides for devs

Microsoft is releasing an API for developers interested in building cloud-native games with Xbox Cloud Gaming capabilities in mind.

Today Microsoft is announcing the debut of Asobo Studios' Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Cloud Gaming--an announcement that wouldn't normally catch our eye but for one additional fact. 

In addition to launching the game on its subscription platform, Microsoft is debuting a series of new APIs for game developers working on games that use cloud computing to offload storage and processing to external servers. It's a move that Microsoft says can help make more "cloud-aware" games that take advantage of cloud-computing technology be playable with cloud computing tech.

These APIs can help developers make automatic user interface adjustments depending on what type of device is streaming their game, it includes expanded options for touch controls for non-mobile games, and developers can access techniques and features developed to help Microsoft Flight Simulator run on Xbox Cloud Gaming.

Speaking to Game Developer,  Xbox Cloud Gaming vice president and head of product and strategy Catherine Gluckstein and principle program manager lead Jordan Cohen explained why Flight Simulator's cloud debut was such a technical achievement. Making games work on Cloud Gaming is generally implemented by a process called "lift-and-shift," where the Cloud Gaming team gets developers' games running on Microsoft's Azure server network, and makes sure they're compatible with the Cloud Gaming application. 

In this process, there's little that the original development team has to do to optimize the cloud-friendly version of their game. But this process works because the Azure servers can be thought of as just a different kind of Xbox. If a game is already engineered to work on one platform, the focus can be just be on moving where that platform is physically located, and using internet streaming to process video and input from player to server.

But Microsoft Flight Simulator already talks to those Azure servers, and uses data from Bing, MeteoBlue, and Flightaware to create the realistic, always-updating model of planet Earth that players can cruise across. Cohen explained that when he and his colleagues first tried the lift-and-shift process on Flight Simulator, the game actually handled fairly well--but it wasn't running as smoothly as other titles like Forza Horizon 5.

Cohen noted issues with the in-game marketplace, where the Flight Simulator community sells liveries and other custom objects for players' vehicles, as well as weirdness in getting the "world updates" working on first launch. World updates are large content packs (some go as high as 10gb) that Flight Simulator devotees can download to enhance the version of the game that shipped at launch.

But when the client is operating on the cloud--why should a player have to wait for them to download again? The cloud version of Flight Simulator will launch with world updates baked in, and players can select that new content immediately on launch to start flying right away.

Similar updates were made for the in-game marketplace. If a player purchases content in the in-game shop that was made by another player, it will appear instantly, and be available when they return to the game without needing to re-download it at all.

Cohen emphasized that these improvements weren't just engineered for Flight Simulator, they're included in the new cloud-aware features that other game developers can use in their own titles.

Cutting down on load times with cloud-based games

Part of Microsoft's motivation in streamlining access to this content was the idea that Xbox Cloud Gaming should have a quick "time to fun," Cohen said. "If we connect you [to a game] in 10 seconds, but you need to wait five minutes for the game to load, it's not really the best experience," he pointed out. The hope is that players accessing Microsoft Flight Simulator will be able to hop in and explore high-quality environments in the same time--or faster--than it takes an Xbox device or PC to load the game.

For the market-minded, Gluckstein said that loading speed is an example of how developers can think of conceptualize cloud versions of their games. The cloud version of Microsoft Flight Simulator is the most "frictionless" version to play, bringing the game to players who might have shrugged it off because they didn't own a newer Xbox device or high-end PC.

Now, as Asobo Studios' head of Flight Simulator  Jorg Neumann demonstrated, it can run on almost any device in nearly an instant. During our chat, Neumann couldn't stop raising his iPhone to the screen and showing off the build in progress--and he echoed a point Gluckstein made about hoping this technology could "democratize" video games in a broader way.

Neumann said he'd gotten the Cloud Gaming version of Microsoft Flight Simulator working on all kinds of devices, even an old laptop that he "didn't know how to properly recycle." He and Gluckstein pitched the idea of Xbox games being more accessible in communities where access to expensive computing software isn't as easily attained. 

Sales pitches aside, Neumann's enthusiasm for the technology extended beyond what it would mean for players. A 30-year game development veteran, he mused about what would change for making games like Microsoft Flight Simulator in the future. 

"You're in a position where you can dump almost everything in the cloud" he exclaimed, adding that for the development of Flight Simulator, Asobo used cloud computing to generate procedural buildings and terrain, but left high-resolution airplanes and airports in the client that's installed on player's devices. 

Now he sees no technological reason to keep doing that in future titles. "I already felt not bounded by the hardware in the last year or two, but the more I think about it--I can literally ditch [local storage] altogether, and embrace the cloud completely."

Cloud technology's impact on game development

Something else that shifted Neumann's thinking was how enabling the Cloud Gaming platform began to impact build distribution inside Asobo. The version of Flight Simulator he was showing off was a pre-launch build he could safely access from his own devices without the team having to deploy the build and then he'd download it. "It's like 30 seconds, and I've got the build" he said with legitimate delight. 

He said that the studio's test department is already working on adapting cloud technology for that process. We discussed how that deployment could benefit other branches of development as well--user testing, market research, pitches to publishing partners, etc. In one concrete example, he explained that deploying builds via cloud would speed up the time that accessibility testers and consultants could access builds of Flight Simulator, and help them get feedback more efficiently.

Neumann also said this tech could be a huge leap forward for the in-game content creators who populate Flight Simulator's in-game store with custom creations, saying that they could start testing their work right away too.

"I feel like this is going to change how we develop games, which I think is exciting," he said. "It's cheaper and faster. It's all about time, right? Get get get to the builds fast, check them out, iterate, iterate, iterate."

Xbox Cloud Gaming doesn't feel like a silver bullet for game accessibility; once you've solved for device accessibility, you have to contend with regions that lack up-to-date internet infrastructure. But Microsoft's dogfooding strategy feels like a win, even for companies it hasn't acquired.

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