Flight Simulator Director Jorg Neumann On Australia, History, And Building A Living Museum

Flight Simulator Director Jorg Neumann On Australia, History, And Building A Living Museum

Jorg Neumann is full of excitement when we meet over Microsoft Teams. Neumann is the Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator at Asobo Studio, and today we’re talking about World Update 7. He’s bouncing in his seat as we begin our conversation, very ready to talk about what’s next for Flight Simulator.

“I was talking to (our PR rep) a bunch before we started,” Neumann enthuses at the start of our call. “Australia! Let’s go!”

World Update 7 is indeed focused on Australia. Flight Simulator has been rolling out regular World Updates since its launch in 2020. Each of these updates adds extra, hand-crafted granularity to a famously detail-rich map of the world. Except the United States, previous World Updates have been centred around smaller nations and specific zones. Previous updates include Japan, the Nordics, and the UK. But World Update 7 is special. Australia is a large and diverse country, with few cities, numerous landmarks, and a rich national history of aviation.

“It’s daunting,” says Neumann, when I ask about creating an update on this kind of scale. “We started Australia about a year ago and the very first thing we did, we did tons of internet research. I watched tons of videos and movies, stuff like that. But eventually, I said ‘it’s far enough away and specific enough that we need to get a local partner.”

Local knowledge

Neumann hired renowned flight sim studio ORBX. ORBX is a company that began life creating custom Australian scenery for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Thanks to its incredible eye for detail, the project exploded in popularity within the flight sim scene. As it grew, the project became Vista Australia (or VOZ). Its creator and project lead, John Venema, would found ORBX in 2006. The company has gone on to become one of the most respected names in flight simulator scenery, specialising in accurate terrain, cities, and hand-crafted airports. ORBX is still creating scenery for Flight Simulator today from its office outside the Essendon Fields airport in Melbourne. Neumann is thrilled about the level of expertise they’re bringing to the game.

“We’re trying to capture what I think is the soul of the country,” says Neumann. “On our side, I can go get good satellite imagery and good digital height maps, those types of things. But the airports that matter? They matter for different reasons. Some are historical, like Longreach, or Shell Harbour for completely different reasons. And so we try to find those places FOR Australians, but also for people who have no idea about Australia, to bring the country closer to them.”

To ensure that the Flight Simulator team were getting the Australian geography right, Asobo also worked with Geoscience Australia. Geoscience provided Asobo with a high-resolution digital elevation map of Australia, around half a million files that clocked in at 3 terabytes. Neumann says it took weeks to download them all at Asobo’s Redmond offices. Elevation maps fill in a huge chunk of data for to cluster of discrete programs and AI that make up Flight Simulator‘s systems. They allow the game to truly represent mountain ranges, gorges, canyons, craters, and cliff faces to scale. As Australians know, we have plenty of those.

Airports and terrain play a significant role in any flight sim, but they’re not the biggest focus for World Updates like this. What makes these World Updates truly sing are the points of interest. By partnering with companies like ORBX, Flight Simulator can include real-world POIs that not only speak to players that live in that area but create a more authentic and educational sim experience for everyone. But even locals don’t know every last street and landmark in their country.

Everybody lives somewhere

“POIs and famous places, that’s a very nuanced thing. Everybody lives somewhere,” says Neumann. “I’m from Germany. When we did the Germany update, I had never heard of some of these places. And Germany isn’t that big. If you leave it up to too few people, then you get this skewed view of the world when what you really want do is be everywhere, and really do these places justice.”

But the Flight Simulator team also spoke to locals, even within the Microsoft Australia team. They had some suggestions. “Lunar Park. I’d never heard of Lunar Park. I didn’t know the Banana? Ok, we gotta do the Banana. But this is part of the fun, right? You get closer to the culture.” He likens the work of immersing themselves in local culture and geography to that of Anthony Bourdain. Taking risks, and finding things that might be overlooked.

Flight Simulator has modelled more of Australia than just its capital cities. Using data created by a photographic process called Orthophoto, Asobo can recreate real-world towns and cities to scale. Orthographic photography is a form of aerial photography that captures multiple angles, allowing the construction of 3D models. Games like Cities Skylines have popularised the use of ortho modelling among its mod scene. Here, that technology is put to use creating a total of 11 Australian cities. All of the capital cities are represented, along with Bunbury in WA and Cairns, Townsville, and Mackay in Queensland.

When it comes to Australian place names, Jorg tackles them gamely, even the ones his German accent trips over. Bunbury and Mackay catch him out. So do harder ones like Coober Pedy, Kununurra, and Wyalla. But he bravely attempts them all, and is delighted to learn their proper pronunciation.

I can see my house from here

Jorg is very excited to show me the first of two trailers he’s brought with him (both of which you can now see on YouTube and in the Xbox Wire post announcing the update). When he goes to pull up the trailer, I get a glimpse of his desktop. There, on the right, is an open doc full of notes about the update that he appears to have prepared himself. The excitement isn’t a front. He’s done his homework, and he cares about communicating how proud he is of the update.

The trailer he shows me couldn’t more perfectly align with my own personal local knowledge. The first town to appear is Byron Bay, the familiar lighthouse prominent on the headland. Shortly after, the beachfront towers of Surfers Paradise come into view. I grew up in Kingscliff, a small town about 40 minutes either side of these iconic locations. Both loom large in my life and are as familiar as anywhere I’ve lived. Jorg chuckles when I reflexively tell him “I grew up north of there.” I idly wonder how often he’s heard that from players since the game launched.

The trailer goes on to show Townsville, the Paul Wild Observatory in Narrabri, Fletcher Islands in WA, and the Simpson Desert in the Territory. Weirdly, the Pine Gap surveillance station gets a look-in. The Split Point Lighthouse appears. The Twelve Apostles. The Three Sisters. Uluru.

Queensland features prominently, its beaches and seaside towns providing the perfect, picturesque sizzle reel. The details leap out. The camera swoops over the Brisbane CBD and the Gabba, and as it does I notice the river is brown. The Brisbane River is in a video game, and it’s a deep, threatening brown. Oh my god, they know.

The comfort of home, and the value of getting off the beaten track

I ask about the selection criteria for points-of-interest. How do you pick what to model and what to let the computer handle? Neumann describes a process of slowly zooming in. It starts with the cities and then moving to smaller landmarks, step by step. “Once the big things are out of the way, then you can start to look at the things are more personal and have meaning. And you’ll only know about them when you actually go there, because they’re not the main tourist spots.”

“I can’t remember the name, but there’s like a little hut near Perth somewhere,” he says. “I’d never heard of it before. I knew of Perth, so I was proud of myself for that, but there was this hut, and it, we’ve gotta build this hut. And hopefully that’s delightful! For people to know that we actually spent the time to understand what makes this country tick.”

I believe that Neumann is referring to Hewett’s Hill Hut. It’s a structure named for Peter Hewett, former superintendent of the Forests Department in the 1970’s and sits on the Bibbulmun Track, just outside of Perth. It’s this level of detail and eye for even the smallest landmarks that sets Flight Simulator apart.

But POIs like the Three Sisters mark an important step for Flight Simulator and its model of Australia. In its original data, as fans have seen, the Three Sisters weren’t even there. They now stand in their proper place, a hand-crafted model based on the best capture data available.

The Southern Cross

There are a couple of Australian aircraft being added to the game co-incident to the update. Both of these aircraft are, by Neumann’s own admission, payware. You’ll need to purchase them separately if you’d like to fly them. The first of these planes is the Fokker F.VIIB/3M Southern Cross flown by Charles Kingsford-Smith and a crew of pilots in the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean by air in June of 1928.

The Fokker was actually a Dutch plane, recovered and repaired by Australian expedition leader Hubert Wilkins after a crash in Alaska. Wilkins would later sell the aircraft, sans engines and instruments, to Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm in San Francisco. Kingsford-Smith and a crew of pilots would fly the plane from Oakland, California to Eagle Farm Airport in Brisbane, Queensland. It’s a true vintage aircraft, recreated in loving detail. I mentioned to Neumann that I was excited to fly it. He said he’s been flying it all week ahead of the update’s release, enthusing “It doesn’t even have brakes!”

A moment of self-indulgent aircraft nerdery if I may: The Southern Cross lives in Brisbane to this day. It is permanently preserved under-glass at Brisbane Airport. The exhibit is free and open for viewing 24 hours a day. Please go and check it out if you’ve never been. It’s amazing.

The trailer showcasing the aircraft recreates the flight of the Southern Cross, departing Oakland and touching down at Wheeler Field in Honolulu to complete its first leg. The plane departs Honolulu at 6:30 am the next day, touching down at Albert Park in Suva, Fiji at 3pm, June 5.  It departs again, approaching the Queensland coast and landing at Eagle Farm, completing the crossing. “So this is the actual flight,” Neumann says as the trailer begins. “This is an experiment. It’s the first time we’ve done this.”

“The crossing of the Pacific was 83 hours. So,” he says with the grin, “we have a Bush Trip.” The new Bush Trip replicates the entire journey, and the conditions Kingsford-Smith and his team reported on the journey. “It’s 83 hours long.” Bush Trips are  Flight Simulator‘s longform challenges. Each trip tasks the player with flying a pre-determined plane from one location to another. These locations are often far apart, and the route or conditions treacherous. Some replicate famous flights. Others are just for taking in the spectacle of a given area. The Crossing of the Pacific may actually be the longest and most involved Bush Trip in the game to date.

There’s also four other other Bush Trips, six Discovery Flights, and six Landing Challenges. Players feeling overwhelmed by where to go and what to see can use these Flight Simulator missions to see the very best of what Australia has to offer.

The accidental creation of a museum beyond time

Neumann mentions collaborating with museums like the Kingsford-Smith Memorial to create high-resolution scans of historic aircraft, some in far from the immaculate condition of the Southern Cross. “Their lives are in these planes, and they see them come to life (in-game) and say ‘Wow, this thing’s going to be around forever.’”

When I ask how he feels about his game becoming a kind of living aviation museum, Neumann takes a moment to think before he answers. “There’s two things. There’s the history of aviation and the future of aviation. I think we’re sitting right in the centre of it. A lot of people make planes (for Flight Simulator) because we are a platform. There are third-parties that make lots of cool planes, CRJ’s and what have you. But we can also go back and really celebrate.

“I’m in this wonderful position where I get the resources to actually spend the time. This week we have people in Argentina, Brazil, Rome, Russia. And they’re scanning planes. We’ve scanned hundreds of planes. Hundreds and hundreds. Often times, the last surviving example of that plane. For so many of these museums, COVID was not kind to them. Some of these planes, its a bit like visiting the Titanic right before the ocean eats it up.

Neumann says he has a brief he’s called Local Legends. In this brief, he’s plotted out around a hundred planes from around the world that he considers truly meaningful to the history of aviation that he’d like to have implemented in the game over time. The brief includes important places and accomplishments. “I’m also honestly trying to make them affordable,” he adds, referring to the game’s microtransaction-driven model for 1:1 replica aircraft and airports. “I’m not trying to charge a ton of money for these things because I want people to have them.”

“We all love aviation,” he says, “and this is one way to see how it all started, and live it.”

World Update 7: Australia is out now as a free download for Microsoft Flight Simulator. The game is available on Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and Game Pass.

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