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Microsoft revives flight sim by giving it away free

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Microsoft has said that it will be reviving its Flight Simulator franchise this spring with a free version of the game entitled simply Flight.

Redmond is making the game available in a private beta at present, but plans to release it as a free download eventually. The game needs a minimum of 10GB of hard drive space, a dual-core 2Ghz processor, Windows XP SP3 and 2GB of RAM, according to the video trailer. Initially Flight will only have one plane – the ICON A5 flying boat - but Windows Live users will get access to extra missions and plane types if they sign in.

“Many people dream of flying, but few have the chance to experience the fun of exploring the world from above. Microsoft Flight provides players the opportunity to explore that curiosity and interest,” said Joshua Howard, executive producer of Microsoft Flight in a canned statement. “Aviation can be incredibly technical, but we’ve taken great care to build an experience that makes taking to the skies thrilling and accessible for everyone.”

Microsoft’s flight simulator arm is one of its longest running software franchises, and the first version was released in 1982 – years before Windows saw the light of day. The game was originally bought in from subLOGIC, rumour has it because Bill Gates was a huge simulator fan and wanted one of his own, but the game attracted a small but devoted following. It was also very handy for checking compatibility on PC clones, which was where this El Reg hack first found it in 1987.

Microsoft developed the platform, adding 3D in the third version and developing a growing following, both among gamers and amateur plane enthusiasts. It was to that latter group that the game increasingly addressed, adding more and fans were willing to pay silly money for the ultimate rig.

By its tenth iteration with Flight Simulator X in 2006, the game was using simulations of 24,000 airports, with 24 planes to choose from on the high-end version. Its success also spawned other Microsoft simulators, including the late and unlamented Train Simulator – which was even more boring than it sounds. Companies like Just Flight grew up to provide add-ons to the game, including a memorable Space Shuttle sim, and virtual airlines sprung up in the community.

But in 2009, with the economy tanking and shareholders asking increasing questions about fixed costs, Microsoft axed the ACES Studio and the 150 developers working on the code. But this left a large group of commercial and private software developers out on a limb. For them, Flight’s announcement probably isn’t good news.

From the trailer the new game, set on the Hawaiian Islands, is going to be much more like an airborne Grand Theft Auto, just without the blood and guts. It shows pilots flying for awards and bonus features, rather than handling accurate wind shear or experiencing the exact layout of Lihue Airport. Worse still, the game is designed to be played with a keyboard and mouse.

Purists may not approve, but the move will almost certainly give the game a huge new user base, thanks to the free model. It looks likely that Microsoft will either sell upgrades, aping Zynga’s business model, and/or come to a deal with the existing developer base for a level of compatibility - in exchange for a 30 per cent cut of the take. Significantly, Microsoft made no mention of a software developer kit with the initial announcement.

More details will be released at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (potentially Microsoft’s swan dive at CES) and no doubt many Microserfs are frantically beavering away to get the code up to snuff. They may not avoid bluescreens, but the company’s stand will no doubt be full of people looking to check out the new code. ®

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