We currently live in a world where the term “traveling” has become kind of a dirty word. For many, it’s something that hasn’t been done in over a year. That’s definitely the case for me, as the last trip I took was all the way back in December 2019. And as someone who lives on an island, the phrase “cabin fever” takes on an entirely different meaning when you’re basically stuck on a rock with no good reason to leave. Thankfully, for the last few months we’ve had the unexpected gift that is Microsoft Flight Simulator. It was delivered just in time to cure the travel blues for so many folks seeking to venture into the virtual unknown. But that’s the thing. A lot of simmers don’t always tend to fly into the unknown.
I’ve seen a good handful of posts of virtual pilots taking virtual “Around the World!” trips via the sim. But, there’s a seemingly larger number of people who have used the sim to explore lands more familiar; whether it be their own country or even just their state, if not flying to places they may have visited in real life. Case in point: a lot of people have been using Microsoft Flight Simulator to take their familiarity and compare it for the sake of accuracy.
This is all perfectly understandable considering that this sim boasts some of the best-looking visuals and complex scenery data ever seen in a product. But, it’s also for this same reason that makes exploring unfamiliar territory also quite an exciting journey. It seems Asobo is likely aware of this behavior. How so? Because the various “World Updates” that release every few months for Microsoft Flight Simulator seem to be just the perfect bait.
An invitation for exploration
As the name suggests, these updates are primarily focused on upgrading the scenery of a specific region. This process mainly involves updating a region’s terrain elevation, correcting its airports (and enhancing some major ones), and also adding in new Points of Interest with proper 3D models (typically famous landmarks and major manmade and natural structures).
These enhancements serve to introduce a much more authentic representation of a region in the sim. Although the core data that’s already present is typically quite good, these updates have proven to give some areas in particular massive overhauls as they end up getting special, handcrafted attention from human designers rather than just an AI. Asobo surely has not been shy about making sure people see all of the scenery designers’ intense efforts.
Each update is accompanied by a gorgeous trailer, screenshots, and — just to really drive the message home — a prominent place right on the startup loading screen of the sim. Those screens don’t change until the next world update; you have no choice but to be constantly reminded of what the latest enhanced area is. Not to mention that the in-game world map will spring to life after an update with exclamation points showing the hundreds of new points of interest.
So, what better response by the player to these not-so-subtle prompts other than to go check things out for themselves? And this right here is how the updated areas get true exposure.
Despite the fact that basically all of the mapped planet Earth is explorable in Microsoft Flight Simulator already, the world updates serve as extra incentives for players to step out of their bubble, so to speak, and actually see it all. And, quite frankly, I’m saying all of this by means of personal experience.
Getting sucked in
I’ve been flight simming for nearly two decades, and almost all of my flights prior to the ones here in the sim have involved me going to places I’ve visited in real life. I live in the Bahamas, so that’s been a frequent sight in my sims. And definitely, the United States is my usual virtual stomping ground, as I’m also familiar with a few spots there. Typically, my virtual flights take place within this part of the planet. I only venture “out” in terms of going north to Canada or deep into South America. But now, Microsoft Flight Simulator has pushed me to expand my own horizons.
For instance, I’ve never been to Japan neither in real life nor in past sims. Yet, it was World Update 1 for Microsoft Flight Simulator that pushed me to finally pay it a visit. I was thoroughly blown away by the gorgeous sights of the island country, despite it being nothing I could relate to since I’d never actually visited. Nevertheless, since I was already “in the neighborhood,” I decided I might as well check out South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan just for the sake of it. They also proved to be quite the treat.
As I write this, a similar situation is happening yet again. World Update 3 was rolled out a few months ago, and thus pushed me to check out the UK and Ireland. Once news of the recently released World Update 4 came about stating that France and Benelux were next, I decided to stay in virtual Europe while I waited.
To pass the time between updates, I decided to swing over to nearby Spain, Italy, and then Greece. At this point I’ve now covered a good chunk of each. This impromptu journey has been nothing short of beautiful, despite the fact that these last three countries haven’t been “enhanced” yet. As of the time of writing, I’m now soaring over the Mediterranean Sea making my way from Athens, Greece to Côte d’Azur, France to finally see all the recent upgrades. Clearly, Asobo’s strategy has worked on me, and turns out I’m not alone.
Typically after an update, Reddit and the official Microsoft Flight Simulator forums will light up with folks posting screenshots and videos of their journeys around the newly refreshed areas. While this fanfare doesn’t last incredibly long, it does prove the updates do generate at least a temporary spike in player activity around specific regions. This is important because, with Microsoft Flight Simulator basically containing the entire world in its servers, there are bound to be large swaths of land in the sim that the average player (and even developers) may very seldom ever visit — if ever at all (just as the case in real life). Thus, these world updates serving as exploration prompts ends up keeping players engaged.
Beyond the horizon
Humans are naturally attracted to new things, so giving players of the sim an incentive to venture forth will create another opportunity for them to perform a series of flights. If anyone is weird like me, I have to fly from where I last landed. If I’m far away from an updated area, I’ll still put extra time into the sim to simply get there. For example, I was in virtual Argentina when World Update 3 released. So, I made my way north across South America, connected into the Bahamas, flew up to Canada, and then crossed the pond over into the UK.
And again, this is exactly what Asobo and Microsoft want: player engagement via fresh content means a lot in a “live service” title such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.
With Microsoft Flight Simulator set to be supported for about the next decade, Asobo will have to continue to keep players coming back for more. These updates serve not as stopgaps, but milestones. In a few years, we’re likely going to look back at the screenshots and videos of the current version and say: “Things were so simple back then. Look at it now!” As this simulator grows with each update, it becomes ever closer to the series’ longtime goal of being “as real as it gets.”