Monday, September 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Flight Simulator ready for takeoff

Seattle Times staff columnist

The big stories at Microsoft this month aren't coming from the main campus but instead from the satellite offices the company rents farther east, around the Target store at the end of Highway 520.

That's where a secretive team has been producing the Zune media player unveiled last week.

It's also where another small team is about to release what may be Microsoft's next blockbuster consumer product — a dramatically upgraded version of the venerable Flight Simulator.

It may be hard to believe if you still think of Flight Simulator as a slow, complicated and hypertechnical "game" that appeals mainly to aviation buffs.

But Microsoft has revamped the software to make it more realistic and showcase the new graphics capabilities of Windows Vista.

I wouldn't be surprised if Flight Simulator X — and future games built on its realistic model of Earth — become killer applications that convince millions of people that it's worth upgrading to a Vista PC.

That's not a coincidence. Microsoft has always used Flight Simulator to show off the capability of PCs using its latest operating system. Vista's graphics system will finally be powerful enough to make the game nearly photorealistic.

"In many ways Flight Simulator is really an expression of the PC over time," said Shawn Firminger, general manager of Microsoft's Aces Studio, which produces the game. "As the PC has gained in power and whatnot, Flight Simulator has always been there to take advantage of it."

But the timing's a little awkward. The game goes on sale Oct. 17, about three months before Vista is widely available. There's a risk buyers will be content to play it on souped-up Windows XP machines.

Microsoft is also working to connect Windows games to its Xbox Live online gaming service. Flight Simulator is designed for this, with the ability to play and talk to others online, but Xbox Live doesn't work with PC games yet so players will initially have to use the GameSpy site to connect.

Microsoft has been selling Flight Simulator since 1982, and it's now the longest running product in its portfolio.

It's also one of the few Microsoft products that seems a natural for Jet City. Firminger said the company has taken advantage of the local aerospace industry, working in the past with Boeing. His studio includes a number of people drawn from the local aviation community. Many are pilots, one of whom flew for Horizon Air.

Seattle is just one of 40 cities that received extra detailing in the game, but there are local hooks. Pilots in the game are images of studio team members, and players can earn an Orca award for taking a detour in the San Juan Islands to see a whale pod.

Experiencing the flight of actual aircraft is still the main point of the game, but the new version also has missions that can be completed to earn virtual awards. In one, you fly a helicopter to rescue people from a burning offshore oil rig. In another, you fly an ultralight and drop bags of flour onto targets.

It probably won't lure fans of fast-paced sports and shooting games — the only weapons are those bags of flour — but the new version may appeal to the demographic that actually buys the most games. Last year, 25 percent of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, and the average age of the most frequent game buyers overall was 40, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Microsoft believes some people may buy the game just to explore the Earth in a virtual plane.

Look up, and the constellations are where they should be in the sky, depending on the actual time of day you're playing the game.

Look down as you fly a Kenmore Air seaplane over Seattle in the late afternoon, and you'll see traffic getting heavy on Interstate 5 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Ferries and container ships move through the harbor on the actual routes, and the traffic thins as the sun sets over the Olympics.

Pretend you're Bill Gates and fly a Bombardier executive jet low over Africa to see zebras and other wildlife, or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Firminger wouldn't say what Microsoft's plans are for the virtual Earth it's created for the game, but it's obviously intended to support other games in the future.

The game works on Windows XP, sort of.

I thought I had a pretty good XP laptop at home, but I almost threw it across the room after downloading a free demo of the game from Microsoft's Web site. It took three hours on my wimpy broadband connection, and then the installation froze because I was running the laptop in a safe, guest mode instead of as the system administrator with authority to install software.

If I were running Vista, a dialog box would have popped up and let me enter the administrator password and keep going. With XP, I had to stop the installation, log out, log in as administrator and start over.

But that was minor. The real problem was that my laptop didn't have a dedicated graphics card and barely ran the game.

In Microsoft's studio, the system ran smoothly on XP systems that had 256 megabyte graphics cards, but even they weren't using the software to its fullest.

The game is also intended to show off Microsoft's upcoming DirectX 10 graphics software. Firminger said people who buy the game will get free upgrades.

As with Vista, Microsoft is also selling Flight Simulator in standard and deluxe editions, but the differences are relatively minor. The standard game will cost around $49, and the deluxe version, with tools for players to modify the game, additional aircraft and the ability to play air traffic controller, will be about $20 more.

Buying a Vista PC with a good graphics system will probably cost another $1,000.

I like the game but I'll probably wait a while before taking the Vista plunge. Meanwhile, I may have to see how fast that free demo downloads here at the office.

P.S.: I had a detail about the Zune wrong in Friday's special column. I said it could wirelessly sync with a PC, but it won't be able to do that at launch. It was my misunderstanding, but it doesn't change my opinion of the device. Microsoft is looking at that capability, and I'm sure it will be there eventually.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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