Microsoft Flight Simulator recently released an update with a focus on New Zealand locations. To test fly it, Sam Brooks and a former All Blacks captain took to the skies above Auckland.
“I went to the top of the Sky Tower and watched Richie McCaw land a plane on the Harbour Bridge” sounds less like something that actually happened to me and more like a phrase you might use to awaken a sleeper agent. It really did happen, though, just not how you’d imagine it.
A few weeks ago, I went to the top of the Sky Tower after an invitation to watch a demonstration of Microsoft Flight Simulator for the launch of a recent update focused on New Zealand. Richie McCaw, well-known for his rugby abilities and only slightly less well known for his flying skills, was in attendance, wearing the least necessary name tag in the room.
After a brief chat from the people who worked on the game, McCaw stepped up to play the game himself, watched by the assembled media and publicity team. McCaw apparently first started playing the simulator in 1995, arguably its heyday in the public eye, because he’d always wanted to fly. Since retiring from rugby, he’s made that dream a reality, so probably doesn’t have a lot of time to actually play Flight Simulator due to piloting real-life planes.
Watching him play Flight Simulator in front of us felt pretty surreal. Not just because watching an All Blacks legend play a video game is a surreal experience, even in the age of Twitch streamers, but because he was flying around a virtual Sky Tower, the very building we were all sitting inside. The graphics in the game are pretty great, but they shouldn’t be good enough to make me look outside to see if there would be a little plane flying around out there. Which is, of course, what I did.
A few minutes later, McCaw landed a Cessna 152 on the Harbour Bridge, to a polite round of applause. And because I was there already, I decided to have a go on the Simulator myself.
The continued success of Microsoft Flight Simulator is hard to overestimate. It is the longest running franchise Microsoft has ever had, at over 40 years, predating even Windows by three years. It is by far the highest selling flight simulator in the world, having clocked up over 21 million users by the start of the 21st century, and it currently has 10 million active players. Right now, players can fly through over 500 cities, rendered in glorious, near-photographic detail.
The latest update, which came out last month, has 62 points of interest for New Zealand, including Hobbiton and the Treaty of Waitangi grounds, and even includes smaller airports like Westport and Rotorua to take off and land at. Should you even want to fly through the Gorge River, you can do it. Beyond that, gamers can fly around Queenstown in a Guimbal G2 helicopter, Lake Benmore in a DG Aviation DG-1001E neo glider (an actual plane, believe it or not) and Auckland in the aforementioned Cessna 152. This is what I chose to do.
I need to preface this and say that I am not your standard fan of Microsoft Flight Simulator. The games I like are 80 hour long affairs with near incoherent plotlines, the flights I like tend to involve me drinking two glasses of wine and not being responsible for controlling the plane. The only simulator I’ve ever spent any real time playing is literally called The Sims.
Even so, there is something innately calming about getting behind the controls of Microsoft Flight Simulator. I did what I assume everybody does when they play Flight Simulator in their home city – I tried to find my house. It’s not a quick trip from the start of the discovery flight, but what surprised me most is how the Simulator splits the difference between being calming and being completely engaging. It forces you into a certain active stillness as you make your way to your destination. I make a beeline for the Sky Tower, close enough to my house. The PR person next to me commended my ability with the simulator, because apparently a lifetime of playing text-heavy RPGs has instilled a lack of movement in me as a gamer that can be mistaken for stillness.
My house looked pretty close to the real thing, though rendered in less photographic detail than say, the Sky Tower. I’m pretty glad about that, honestly. Home got boring after a while, so I asked if I could fly around Barcelona for a bit instead.
“The goal is that anybody who wants to fly can fly,” says Jorg Neumann, the head of Microsoft Flight Simulator. He’s a German man who speaks as enthusiastically about this game as any developer I’ve ever spoken to. “We open up aviation and what’s possible with it to a completely different set of people, and that’s a beautiful thing!”
Microsoft Flight Simulator is unique in gaming in that it really has no target demographic beyond people who have an interest in flying. If you look up at a plane in the sky and think, “I wonder what that’s like”, this game probably appeals to you. This lack of a target demo is especially thrilling for Neumann. “The emails that make me the most happy are when I get something saying ‘I’m an eight-year-old girl and I just learnt how to fly in Flight Simulator, I’m going to become a pilot’.”
“It shows that we’re making an impact on the real world.”
That the recent update focuses on New Zealand is also thrilling for Neumann, who came to the country in 2015 and fell in love with it. “Where I come from everybody wants to go to New Zealand, literally!”, he says. “A lot of people can’t afford it or their life doesn’t allow them to go for whatever reason, and now in Flight Simulator they can!”
He spends a good few minutes of our interview raving about the usual aspects of New Zealand that people rave about (the green, the blue, the mountains, the sea, you know the drill). These are all rendered in the game with meticulous detail. If you want to see the country without hopping on a bus, train, or real plane, Flight Simulator is how you’d do it.
However, the thing that makes Neumann proudest is how the simulator changes people’s perspective when they play it; they get a completely different view of the world they live in. A city seen from the sky reminds you of its size, its scale. Auckland, in particular, finally feels like an actual supercity rather than an unplanned sprawl of suburbs and villages. It’s flattering in a way that the reality is not.
“You get a perspective change of your day-to-day problems when you go in the air,” he says. “That’s why I think the dream of flight has been around with us for so long. There’s a real joy from people when they simply just fly around.”
“It brings us all close. It brings us closer to the planet and it shows us where we are, and what we are.”
Microsoft Flight Simulator is available via GamePass on Xbox Series X.
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