We recently had an opportunity to chat with Hal Bryan, Flight Simulator Community Evangelist at ACES Studio, developer of the Flight Simulator franchise. He touched on what it’s like to work at ACES, the research and development required to master a flight simulation engine, and what’s new in Flight Simulator X.

Shawn Snider (GamingExcellence): Thanks for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. To get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your role in the development of Flight Simulator X?

Hal Bryan (ACES Studio): I’m glad to do it, and appreciate your taking the time to ask them. A little bit about me would involve explaining that I’ve been involved with flying essentially all of my life, I grew up on a private airport, I’ve been a licensed pilot for about 20 years, and a Flight Simulator geek for more than 25 years. I followed the typical path for someone my age into the software industry – working my through college as a day care worker and postal employee, then spending seven years as a police officer, communications specialist, and emergency medical technician, before stumbling into a two-year stint doing phone-based product support for Windows 95. From tech support, I moved into software testing, and spent a year working on some part of Windows 98 that I still don’t understand, then it was on to the Flight Simulator team where I’ve been for 8 years as of this month.

Actually, that was quite a lot about myself – sorry.

So, very quickly, I worked on Flight Simulator 2000, 2002, 2004 and FSX, as well as Combat Flight Simulator 1 and 2 as a test engineer and/or test lead, which was a great fit for someone with a strong attention to detail and a tendency to complain. Over the years, I took on additional roles, including Beta Coordinator, Museum/Education Liaison, and one of the team’s de facto Ambassadors. These last bits, combined with my penchant for working trade shows and air shows and consistently failing to turn down opportunities to talk about Flight Sim have recently allowed me to make the transition from Test Engineering to my current position as the “Flight Simulator Community Evangelist”.

Shawn: Can you briefly describe the highlights of Flight Simulator X? What makes this edition better then previous outings?

Hal: FSX features a number of new aircraft, including the de Havilland Canada Beaver, the Air Creations trike ultralight, and the Grumman Goose among others, a new view system, and dramatically improved worldwide scenery including a new emphasis on “living” elements – moving traffic on the roadways, ships in shipping lanes, support vehicles moving around airports, even birds and animals. The online experience has been completely redone, with the addition of new roles including air traffic controller and co-pilot. In addition, we’ve introduced a series of missions, ranging from basic entry-level tutorials for new users who just want to get in the air quickly, up through racing challenges, emergency scenarios, and advanced “full procedure” airline flights with a virtual copilot.

Shawn: What is the most challenging part of working on Flight Simulator X? What is the most rewarding experience you've had thus far in its development?

Hal: The most challenging part of any software project I’ve ever worked on is unquestionably the constant need to balance what is sometimes called the “quality triangle”, with resources, schedule, and feature set (or scope) at the three points. Even though we’re Microsoft, our resources are finite, and, while we have a great deal of say over our schedule, eventually, we have to stop what we’re doing and put something in a box and sell it, or else we don’t have jobs. This leaves scope as the point with some slight flexibility – we have to set reasonable goals for ourselves, because the only way we could do everything we wanted to do is if we had an infinite number of people (or at least monkeys, well-fed every step of the way) and a schedule with no end date. Not even our friends down the road working on Halo get that.

It sounds trite, but the most rewarding experiences I’ve had working on FSX (and prior versions) are about people – getting to work with some of the most creative, talented, passionate, and intelligent people I’ve ever known, in development, testing, writing, art, marketing, PR, even management. Perhaps even more rewarding than my colleagues are our customers – I’ve had the chance to get to know people from all over the world who use, and in many cases, build and expand on Flight Simulator in ways we’ve never imagined.

Shawn: Developing a true simulation like the Flight Simulator series involves a lot of painstaking detail, notably in the physics engine. How do you go about gathering the data to produce such a realistic flight engine?

Hal: Thank you for noticing! We’re certainly are lucky to have dedicated engineers/pilots on our team that bring considerable expertise and real-world experience to the development process. As for how we gather the data, we work closely with a number of aircraft manufacturers and work from engineering data, anecdotal pilot reports, etc. Wherever possible, we fly the aircraft involved ourselves and run a series of performance tests in various flight regimes, and measure both objective data – roll rates, stall speeds, engine-out characteristics, etc – and subjective handling qualities using what’s called the “Cooper-Harper” ratings system. For a pilot, the chance to fly many different aircraft types is nearly as rewarding as all of the stuff I said about “people” in the previous question. Almost.

Shawn: Similarly, many of the larger cities and landmarks have typically been modeled in previous releases. What data is used to model the cities and how accurate would you consider these models?

Hal: For cities, in particular those with custom objects (San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the CN tower in Toronto, my house), we rely on satellite and aerial imagery from sources like Windows Live Local, personal knowledge, off-the-shelf photo books, and, in unfortunate cases, customer complaints from the last version.

Shawn: One complaint I've often heard in previous releases is the lack of landscape detail outside of the major cities - how will this be improved in Flight Simulator X? In addition, which cities have the development team most focused on enhancing for this release?

Hal: Speaking of customer complaints . . . ! To build the planet, we use data from NASA, the US Geological Survey, Jeppesen, and a variety of other sources from around the world. In this version, we’ve dramatically increased the density and the variety of the AutoGen objects we use to fill in the gaps around the world. In addition, our vector data (roads, rivers, coastlines) is of much greater detail in FSX – I think our customers will be pleasantly surprised at the richness and variety of the scenery worldwide. As for the cities that we’ve focused on, we haven’t released the list specifically, but we think that we’ve done a good job of distributing our attention around the globe.

Shawn: Can you describe the new mission-based element? What types of missions can players expect to find in the game?

Hal: The Missions in FSX provide structured game play across a range of difficulty levels, giving users the opportunity to fly a variety of aircraft in differing scenarios, from extremely basic novice tutorials to expert challenges at the higher levels. There are Missions involving flour bombing, racing, taking scenic tours, dealing with emergencies, startling sheep, flying airline schedules, etc. We used to joke that the inclusion of Missions would allow us to change our tagline to something like “Flight Simulator – Now With Something to Do”, but we realize that there is a segment of our audience that can be overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of FS, and the Missions provide a fun and accessible way to lead those users into the product. A happy side effect that we discovered in our early testing has been that, by flying the Missions, even experienced users are enjoying aircraft and scenery that they might not otherwise check out for themselves. We’ll be shipping with around 50 of them, and releasing the Mission creation tool, and personally, I can’t wait to see what our third-party community starts building.

Shawn: As Flight Simulator X won't require Windows Vista, what enhancements will be present on Windows Vista that won't be available for current Windows releases?

Hal: We haven’t announced much in the way of specifics as of yet, but the core of our Vista update, naturally, will be to take advantage of some of the new features of DirectX 10. The prototypes I’ve seen show new water, scenery, and weather effects that I’d be tempted to describe as jaw-dropping, except that FSX is already jaw-dropping on XP (in my biased opinion) – on Vista, it will be as if your jaw dropped to the floor and then ran down the street hopping around yelling incomprehensibly. But in a good way.

Shawn:The Flight Simulator series has always had a fairly steep learning curve. How will Flight Simulator X make stepping into the cockpit for the first time easier?

Hal: Thanks to our Design team, our Missions include a strong series of tutorials that do a great job of taking new users and getting them flying and seeing the sights – even landing as opposed to crashing – in just a matter of minutes. While all of the Missions are non-linear, the Tutorials use a logical progression, and even include some instruction on flying more advanced aircraft, such as the R22 helicopter and our jet airliners.

Shawn: The community for the Flight Simulator series is massive – evident by the larger number of mods available. What tools will Flight Simulator X offer to further support this community?

Hal: Flight Sim has been a platform for modding for years, as long as any title I can think of, certainly far longer than most. (Long enough, in fact, that I think it predates the term “modding”.)

With each version of Flight Simulator, we release a Software Development Kit that includes tools for building aircraft, scenery, etc. The problem we’ve run into in the past is that, no matter how hard we’ve tried to get them out on time, our SDKs have always gone out much later than we’d like, and are sometimes even obsolete, thanks to some of the tools that the add-on community has already built. This time, we will be shipping the SDK “in the box”, and have been working with key add-on developers for months to outline their needs so that we can ensure high levels of backwards compatibility and the availability of new add-ons as close to our launch as possible.

As I said, we’ve been a platform for years. The biggest change with FSX is that we’re finally starting to act like it.

Shawn: How big is the team working on Flight Simulator X? How long has the game been in development?

Hal: I’d say the average height is around 1.72 metres . . . and, the team ranges in number from about 40 at its core to upwards of 60 for the last several months to year of development, not to mention our thousands of extraordinarily dedicated external Beta testers.

Shawn: Any plans on producing a Combat Flight Simulator X?

Hal: We’re always brainstorming, discussing ideas, etc, but we don’t have any plans in place right now.

Shawn: And finally, when can we expect to see Flight Simulator X take off?

Hal: It’ll be on store shelves this Holiday.

Shawn: Anything else you'd like to add?

Hal: Just my thanks to you, Shawn, and to GamingExcellence for the interview, and to Monica Roddey at High Road Communications for arranging things and keeping me on track. Oh, and I’d also like to thank the people of the Dominion of Canada for their tremendous hospitality during my stay, and, perhaps most importantly, for the invention of things like Pogos, peameal, and poutine – another week and I might not actually fit back across the border!

Shawn: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions.