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Microsoft Makes Big Cuts At  Flight Sim  Studio
Microsoft Makes Big Cuts At Flight Sim Studio Exclusive
January 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo

January 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Redmond, Washington-based ACES Studio, the Microsoft-owned internal group behind the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator series, has been heavily affected by Microsoft's ongoing job cuts.

Development sources have told Gamasutra that a large portion of the dev house's staff has been let go - with multiple reports indicating that the entire Flight Simulator team has been axed.

The Microsoft-owned Flight Simulator is possibly the game industry's longest-running continuous franchise.

The first Microsoft-branded version was released in 1982, and ongoing development stretches back over more than a quarter-century and twelve main versions.

The most recent version, Flight Simulator X, was released in 2006 and said to have been a success, with an expansion in 2007. A Microsoft representative had confirmed at that time that further editions of the game were in development.

Corroborating the reports, Twitter messages from collaborators of the Flight Simulator workers are claiming that the layoffs occurred earlier today, following Microsoft's announcement that it would immediately cut around 1,400 jobs.

The Flight Sim series is well-known not just for its official releases, but for its unusually dedicated fan base, which has produced copious amounts of user mods and resources for players.

Also in development at ACES Studio was Microsoft Train Simulator 2, the followup to Kuju's original 2001 game. The sequel was previously speculated to be releasing this year. Furthermore, ACES Studio was responsible for Microsoft ESP, a wide-ranging "visual simulation platform" based on Flight Simulator X technology.

The future of the three software lines in or out of house is unclear, particularly given how extensive the ACES Studio layoffs are said to be, but Gamasutra has contacted Microsoft for comment on the report.

[UPDATE: Microsoft has confirmed the closure of ACES Studio, with a spokesperson commenting to IGN that the decision was made within Microsoft's Internal Entertainment Business "to align our people against our highest priorities."

In addition, the company noted: "You should expect us to continue to invest in enabling great LIVE experiences on Windows, including flying games, but we have nothing specific to announce at this time."

Elsewhere, former ACES developer Phil Taylor, who moved away from the company before these layoffs, has been further detailing the shutdown in a blog post.

According to his reports, the studio has indeed been largely closed, with six employees retained to fulfill contractual duties -- though he comments on the hope that Flight Simulator may continue to exist as a franchise in some other form.]

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Tony Huynh
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So Microsoft over the last year or two, has either lost or closed down the following:

Bungie, Digital Anvil, FASA, Ensemble and now ACES.

They don't have much left to close down. All that's really left is Rare and Lionhead.

Will Taylor
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My God. If they really shut down the entire studio, this is going to have a huge domino effect. There's a whole industry around MSFS, not just a fanbase, but tons of people who depend on it for their daily income. Add-on developers, publishers like JustFlight, Flight One, and many others; magazines; hardware manufacturers; trade shows; etc.

Good luck to all you guys. This is an end of an era. I can hardly believe it.

Haig James Toutikian
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Very sad indeed :(

Aaron Harris
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Well, here's the thing. Flight Simulator X barely touched on the capabilities of DirectX 10 and Shader 4.0. (see for comparison between shader capabillities.

Flight Simulator X's engine was based off of their antiquated 1998/2002 engine, and it seemed as though ACES studio was just going to recycle the same engine for Train Simulator 2 and Flight Simulator 11. I would love and prefer to see what a "fresh approach" and a next-gen engine coded from scratch could do for Flight Simulator.

If a team isn't contracted to make a new Flight Simulator within the next year or so, X-Plane or some other new competition will likely make efforts to fill Microsoft's void, and embrace the wayward FS community.

Jeff Hanna
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The problem with X-Plane is that it is not friendly to new users. ACES had done, I think, an admirable job over the past few FS releases to make it very accessible to new users. X-Plane is a typical one-man show type of product. It is powered by amazing technology but the end user experience is lacking. Even for dedicated sim users X-Plane is daunting and complex. With a niche product like flight simulation it is always better to find ways to open the doors to new users. X-Plane doesn't focus on that, though. Instead it sticks with a convoluted UI and offers features of marginal importance like flying on Mars. I'm sure figuring out all of the math behind Martian atmospheric flight was a great intellectual challenge for Austin Meyers, the author. But, is it really a feature end users want or use often?

It's too bad that Terminal Reality gave up on their Fly! series after only two releases. It provided the commercial competition that Microsoft needed to put renewed interest into making FS better. Plus, Fly! was a well thought out and executed sim. If it was around today it would easily fill the void left by this closure of ACES.

Personally, I'd rather see a group try to commercialize FlightGear ( before the addon community threw their weight behind X-Plane.

Ian Meredith
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It is very sad but perhaps not unexpected. I think we just have to be realistic...

Any niche product growing massively in complexity, and thereby demanding resources that would surely return higher profit redirected must be challenged in such times. This does not seem entirely news to me, for as long ago as 2007 I commented that the increased MS support of third-party developers might reflect a desire to reduce internal load. FSX has almost certainly killed itself.

Sounds extreme maybe, but it has definitely wounded the add-on market. Add-ons can now be years in development, leaving publishers fewer products on the shelves, and generating costs for the developer that defeat any chance of profit. Something had to give!

Recall that FS 5.1 ( 1995) came of just 2 floppy disks...2.8 megabytes at most! Models, textures and corresponding research were infinitely more modest, there were no virtual cockpits or anything like.... development was rapid and could almost today be considered ‘quick and dirty’! While 5.1 now looks crude, it is only through comparison. I am unconvinced that enjoyment or training value has risen at an equivalent rate to the development complexity

For the commercial market the lower demands of earlier solutions ensured rapid development and thereby many products to sell, which kept costs down. Simultaneously it ensured an aircraft build required only so many hours as to be attractive to the hobbyist, and for whom, access to the aircraft and it’s interior, was not the pre-requisite it is today.

Now add-ons may demand multiple DVDs. Despite relatively tiny niche sales, the market continues to expect a pricepoint lower than a host which has fallen in price, in real terms. For the hobbyist the time commitment is now staggering, and when comparable to commercial deliveries must lead to such a long development period that the simulator itself will be in a new incarnation before completion - with no guarrantee of support for his or her work.

Such development increasingly demands professional levels of commitment, and tehreby hits another problem. The development tool of most FS developers remains GMAX... a product which has not been supported by Autodesk/Discreet for years. Few commerical modellers would choose the ‘career suicide’ of leaving mainstream tools for an obsolete, non-portable application. MS has developed an SDK for 3DSMAX, but with diminishing revenues 3DSMAX represents a significant investment for the developer, and hard to justify commercially while GMax ‘does the job’. Meanwhile it is only through software piracy that most hobbyists could move to this tool if growing sophistication ultimately dictated it.

So what does this mean for the future - let us not be too despondent... It must mean a longer gap before any new version of FS emerges - if at all. That means that developers efforts have a longer retail life .. and that is good, especially as the market has been noticeably slow to upgrade from FS2004.

It also means there will be some catch up time for the alternatives and that is probably good so long as they do not fall into the same trap.

If this level of sophistication cannot be suported as a domestic 'game' this too may not be bad for the future of FS. For too long it has contained functionality that 80% of its user base never really touch - stuff that is not a game or even of most GA pilot's true understanding... even if dabbled with. Equally whilst trying to iontroduce more gameplay to raise margins in the games arena - it has gone for adventure and eye candy... the former greatly damaging to a professional image and the latter to some degree irrelevant. Simultaneously the commercial arean now uses PC image generators and even NVidia graphics cards.. it has also ended the dictate of 'calligraphic' lights and further embraced procedural trainers with touch screens in place of many hardware switches. If FS moves upmarket into the commercial domain through the enabler of ESP then it can command a greater licence income and at lomg last get a clear identity.

It will finally cease to seen as a toy - and perhaps the selling of the IP to a more Aerospace focussed company may assist that image shift. Yes that will probably move our much loved sim beyond my price point - but perhaps it has outgrown me.

So chapter 2! Let us consider what that means for Flightgear and for Xplane

Ian Meredith
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Upon defeat of France’s gallant defiance of the German advance Winston Churchill broadcast to the French nation...

“Goodnight then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. ........Vive la France!” Well Vive les Aces!, Vive Le FSX! That dawn must come..

Or as Hamlet might soliloquoy...

To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say Aces escape the headache And the thousand tumbling stocks MS is heir to,

‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die? Nay just to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep what dreams may come when Aces shuffle off their corporate coil!

Could we see a new developer emerge? Forged in the white heat of Aces themselves, with such ideas and imagination unconstrained by the shackled of a corporate identity?

Such dreams ....Must give us pause!

I feel certain FSX will wake - but I hope we shall witness Aces rise afresh before then. Meanwhile what of ‘the others’ .....Flightgear and the quietly growing embrace of Xplane.

Of Flightgear; my general experience is that all ‘opensource’ has a small support licence community which fund any commercial costs and a large unpaying userbase that build the global footprint. That clearly which works well for servers and office solutions - but how for a recreational flightsim? What price would an inherently ‘for-free’ minded community place on flightgear add-ons - probably zero! How would commercial extension would itself affect licencing on the developer’s linux/flightgear platform...or any toolset that may be available for the aircraft creation. It just seems awash with commercial negatives.

I cannot see why a commercial developer experienced on an existing FSX platform - with the toolset and the knowledge that the host version was now going to be stable for longer than they may have hoped... would switch to a target with an even smaller user base and one which is by its nature more conditioned to believe developers do not need to make a living! As Eddie Izzard once said... “Thank you for the applause, but I don’t do it for applause. I do it for cash”

Simultaneously since FSX wil remain available and remains streets ahead of flightgear at this time - I don’t see any logic for it’s userbase to depart. In fact the opposite... many who spent a great deal on FS2004 add-ons only to find FSX could not support them, clearly felt slightly irked by this and stuck with FS2004... ( not helped by premature release with system sapping performance issues!) I actually suspect the news may increase sales of FSX now that a period of stability can be inferred.

That said, as Flightgear does not have the sophistication of FSX and in my last post I suggested that very aspect would seem to have contributed to its problems. Maybe the Flightgear community can extract something from that and find an alternate path in their development such that it does not hit the same impass.

Xplane is rather different. For one, I have always loved its flight experience... in a storm you definitely notice the difference which to me feels a closer match to real life flying experience. FS by comparison has always suffered from a sense that one is ‘flying’ on invisible rails. I defy anyone to get a truly genuine stall/spin experience in FSX!

Xplane offers more compelling flight, but I am less convinced that blade element theory is inherently accurate when applied to an entire aircraft, so simply modelled as those is xpLANE...countless factors are lost ( on the Supermarine Spitfire localised flat head rivets and pointing exhausts backward to effectively add some ‘jet thrust’ raised its speed. such things can be replicated in a flight-model - but not from a simple 3D mesh that has no rivets etc, and just how complete is this evaluation of the model? Do tail surfaces get aerodynamically blanked in near stall scenarios? Is there a truly modelled vortex of air running down the fuselage from the airflow helix of the prop, variable with prop pitch? Maybe - maybe not. If such factors can be ‘tweaked’ using other config parameters in Xplane then it steps away from the validity to claim blade- element theory alone is flying the plane.. it becomes a hybrid - in part simply an FS style flight model! Nonethless pedantry apart... I like it!

Xplane also has commercial merit and LaminarResearch seems more focussed on this... the interface of XPlane would seem deliberately ‘designed’ ( used loosely!) to emphasise this is not a toy for young Neddy. I like this too.

I hope the ACES news DOES turn heads a little more toward Xplane for it deserves it. Xplane is also good for commercial development in that it is not opensource and commercial add-ons already exist. That said I am unaware of it accepting imports from a mainstream modelling tool. If such does not exist I cannot see any career minded 3D modeller wishing to embrace employment in such work. There is also a much more worrying aspect...

Most of those I know ( but not all) who have used Xplane were impressed - yet ultimately uninstalled it in favour of FSX. Few I think develop their own aircraft, so as long as those they wish to fly work OK and to their rough expectations they are happy. With FSX they get acceptable aircraft with infinitely more sophisticated Virtual cockpits, superior eye candy, far more commercial quality add-ons readily available, full compatability for the more advanced hardware... and all at a comparable price point. I think most would say that being able to fly on Mars is a rather pointless gimmick when in Xplane most of earth looks like Mars anyway! As a pilot I berate the MS obsession

with eye candy instead of fixing their flight modeling - yet given Xplanes possibly better flight modelling but weak eye candy - I go with FSX! ... Users!

BUT! Xplane really have raised their game on the graphics with the latest release I mean hugely! Add that to the more compelling sense of being’airborne’ and some great features like precision radar approaches ( why does FSX not have these) and it’s a fine product. If you fancy designing your own aircraft I am also pretty certain it’s blade element theory will at least give a moderately accurate ‘out of the box’ flight model than one would with a model you might make for FSX

But again - why if developers struggle to make profits on a larger footprint sim would they move to a masively more niche product? More basic models with faster turn arounds is not a good enough reason - and that very aspect of lesser visual complexity and VC interaction - is exactly what is keeping customers on FS!

Ian Meredith
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FSInsider seems to be saying something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to the take on the news we have all followed.

MS seems to be saying it is still committed to the genre but has closed the internal development studio for now, but whilst halting development at the present time - it does not reject the probability of future releases when this is more valid .

In that FSX rather leapt ahead of the power of the userbase's average computer - to allow a period of catch up before releasing something demanding even more power seems only logical. That the recession means that slow PC upgrade will slow even more makes the lay off quite reasonable.

Given a longeer period on FSX life I think it offers greater chance of FSX products making a return for their developers and as such is not at all the as bleak as first appeared.

The million dollar question is whether when that time arrives the existing team can be reformed or how easily a new team could pick up the existing code. A fliup side of that is that ver often code over time becomes a Buckaroo game of feature demand pressing the programmers to add features far beyond the original architectures expectation.. ( add a feature - break a feature until every qddition risks complete collapse!) Mayeb that is the thougt - tim for a ground up re-write - but not today.

Dan Pepper
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The lay-offs are tough. I feel for all those affected. Judging from some of the work available on the links provided in some of your posts - there's talent out there that will keep the flight sim market alive and well - with our without MSFT.

If you're looking for a new opportunity, I own the domain Anyone interested in partnering to create an online realtime gaming site? I'm don't portend to be and expert in the gaming field - I'm a serial entrepreneur who saw the potential value in registering the domain back in '96. I'm all ears! email me:

Jesper Giortz
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I still think there's so many things that are still missing in X-plane before i do my switch:

- good ai traffic with real airlines that populate the whole world

- usable ATC and not just speech-emulation

- good add-on airlines with realistic panels and FMC

- better physics for heavy airplanes (now they feel too light and acrobatic)

- scenery for airports and not just flat airports

- general good add-on availability

But now x-plane has the chance to be a good sim - but it'll take some time i guess - and by then still FS11 could be released