Despite the demoralizing sack of Flight Simulator series developer ACES per Microsoft's 5,000 jobs attrition plan, Microsoft says it remains "committed" to the Flight Simulator franchise. Make that a well-worn franchise, in computer game years -- perhaps the oldest.
It started with University of Illinois whiz kid Bruce Artwick in the late 1970s. Artwick's the guy who got the idea on its feet. Most folks peg Flight Simulator's birth in 1982, when Artwick officially licensed the series to Microsoft, but he was actually selling copies per his startup subLOGIC ("the computer flight people") in 1980 for the Apple II. In fact that's how I remember it: As an Apple program first.
My first serious run at the sim wasn't until 1991 on a 386. I'm sure some of you could trump me with your TRS-80s and Commodore 64s (there were versions for them, too). Sure, I had a C-64, but I didn't really catch the flying bug until Flight Simulator 3.0.
"But wasn't 4.0 out in 1991?"
It was – it came out in 1989, actually – but my CompuAdd 386sx/16 (no math co-processor, a paltry 8MB of RAM, a barely cognizant video card) ran version 4.0 like a donkey towing a freight truck. It's a "problem" that's followed the series through the decades. Until guys like id Software and Doom or Quake, you could even say Flight Sim was the benchmark for games performance (even if it's never really been a game).
Over the years I've dabbled with different versions and enthusiast peripherals – a pair of rudder pedals here, a flight yoke there. But it wasn't until Flight Simulator X that I finally took the plunge and built the home cockpit, stuck a piece of metal on my head to signal an infrared head-tracking gadget, bought a bomber jacket, signed up for private pilot's lessons, took an actual Cessna 172B Skyhawk up for a spin, and started working through Jeff Van West and Kevin Lane-Cummings's surprisingly applicative Microsoft Flight Simulator X For Pilots: Real World Training.
You see, I'm actually afraid to fly. Terrified, really.
You might say Flight Simulator's been a form of therapy, then. A place to park the usual psychological control issues by taking control in a virtual safe space. Learning how everything fits together got me back in the air after nearly a decade being grounded. It's true what they say – understanding how things work and why, can completely transfigure your perspective.
So when Microsoft responded to my request last week for more information about the ACES shutdown with an ambivalent "We can say that you should expect us to continue to invest in enabling great LIVE experiences on Windows, including flying games," I was pretty bummed. Variations of the same sentence have been circulating around other news sites. It's the company water being carried.
Which, being water, tastes like everything or nothing. "Flying games" is just a catchall for whatever you want it to be, from wingtips and ailerons to jetpacks and anti-gravity belts and magic carpets.
I have no problem with arcade games like Microsoft's Crimson Skies, but it's not my bag. "Sky-Doom" has its momentary appeal, but I've never much cared for aerial combat (much less aviation 101) with D&D physics and thumbsticks.
Microsoft has to do what's right for Microsoft, of course, and whether that's relaunching the franchise internally or licensing it out to former studio members, here's hoping the folks at ACES land on their feet.
In the meantime, maybe it's time to consider the alternatives. I've been meaning to give X-Plane a go and test the community claim that its "blade element theory" flight model beats all.
Who knows. One franchise's shakeup could bring about the rise of another.
Matt Peckham still pops sedatives for long flights across the pond. You can follow his sleepy aerial dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.