Yesterday Microsoft dropped an F-bomb (the 'F' in this instance stands for 'flight') when it announced its upcoming casual-friendly flight simulation game, Microsoft Flight, would be downloadable this spring gratis (for those who haven't seen Deadwood, that means free). The only catch: If you want more than just an aircraft or two and the island of Hawaii to wing around, you'll have to pay up. The F-word we use to describe that is "freemium."
Microsoft Flight Simulator X came out in October 2006. The vigorous aftermarket for FSX mods and add-ons aside, if you wanted a new, up-to-date civilian flight sim these past five-and-a-half years, your choice was simple: X-Plane or X-Plane. Hardly a poor choice, but more an enthusiast-caliber option. If you wanted dolled-up tutorials and game-style achievements plus a bazillion planes and airports and an unrivaled third-party aftermarket, you picked FSX (well, maybe until X-Plane 10, released last month, which boasts over 1,400 aircraft, 33,000 airports and some of the best looking scenery in the history of commercial aviation sims).
I'm not sure what FSX pulled in, revenue-wise, but you can bet it wasn't "blockbuster sales" that prompted Microsoft to shutter longtime series developer Aces Game Studio in January 2009. At the time, Microsoft wrote "We are committed to the Flight Simulator franchise which has proven to be a successful PC based game for the last 27 years." And that was it — radio silence for the next few years.
The flight simulation crowd's always been niche, it just looked hyper-popular because it defined the high-end of high-end PC gaming in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. But like other once-mainstream-to-PC-gaming genres ("adventure," "wargames"), it had nowhere to go when gaming itself went mainstream during the 2000s. Gamepads are in today, while joysticks, yokes, and rudder pedals seem like artifacts from an archeological dig. I assume Microsoft took a look at its balance sheet based on the number of developers it was paying, the protracted development cycles, and the lackluster product sales, then decided it was time to wipe the slate clean.
Enter Microsoft Flight, Microsoft's attempt to pull off a J.J. Abrams and reboot the series without alienating longtime fans. Very little's known about the game so far, so this is speculation based on interviews I've read in magazines like PC Pilot: I gather it's designed to be much more friendly to casual players and gamers who want to play it like a game, but with the option to scale all the way up for hardcore pilots who want FSX-caliber realism with all the visual benefits you'd expect from a graphical makeover circa 2012.
In any case, Microsoft needs to circulate the game en masse to get this thing off the ground. That's not going to happen in retail stores, where PC games have all but disappeared and casual players wouldn't dream of dropping $50 to $60 for something with a simulation pedigree. It's probably not going to happen on Steam, either, since Microsoft Flight will be a Games for Windows LIVE title (not that it couldn't live on Steam down the road, as many other GfWL-enabled titles do). So Microsoft's going to give the game away, or at least a micro-verson of the game, absolutely free. That's a surefire way to guarantee mass downloads, if only by would-be players curious to see what all the hoopla's over. And, if the company's done its job, they'll stick around and pay for more.
The freemium model works — we know this. Look at The Lord of the Rings Online, which went free-to-play in late 2010, tripling publisher/developer Turbine's revenue, according to the company's statements. There's Team Fortress 2, which went free-to-play last June and by all accounts is doing very well. Blizzard's even retrofitted World of Warcraft with a free-to-play option. This is how Microsoft's hoping to pay the bills and keep the game relevant without abandoning its original core audience (again, presumably — we'll see how well things scale up when the game's released).
One thing's certain: The days of mammoth manuals and convoluted, specialized interfaces are probably history (select hardcore gamers actually take pride in mastering this stuff, as if convolution were a virtue, like academics poring over arcane essays by jargon-obsessed postmodernists). If, when you first sit down with Microsoft Flight, you find it tripping over itself to please you, don't misread that as talking down to you. Yes, we used to have to manually plug cables into switchboards to connect phone calls, but automation and streamlining are generally good things, and if the worst that happens in Microsoft Flight is you have to flip some extra switches and hidden levers to put the thing in "ultra-realism" mode, well, you are still hardcore enough to dig around in the settings menu, right?