bruce williams

bruce williams

Okay, well, my name is Bruce Williams. I live in Seattle. I've been in Seattle for 30 years or more now.

I got started with -- well, personally I got interested in flight simulation because I grew up with aviation. My father was a pilot in the air force. I've been flying since I was in high school. I became, of course, more interested in it when I went to Microsoft. I started out as a technical editor. I worked on a variety of projects there and then moved over to the Flight Simulator project just as the product was being transformed from a DOS product to Windows. I worked on six versions of that product in several roles but primarily as what was called the business-development manager.

So it was my job to sort of help spec out each new version of the product and work with our partners. As the product became more sophisticated it was no longer just a simple game with Chicago Meigs Field in it and a couple of airplanes. We needed partners in the aviation industry. Because of my background in aviation, I had been an editor of an aviation newspaper for a couple of years back in the mid-'80s, developed a lot of contacts in the industry.

I then proceeded to sort of drive that effort to work with partners like aircraft manufacturers like Cessna, Boeing, and other people like Jeppesen, which is now a division of Boeing which provides data and charts and other services to airlines and pilots around the world and FlightSafety International, a world-famous training organization -- similar operations. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

We tried to make the simulation more realistic, incorporate a worldwide database of airports, wide variety of aircraft and experiences, and also help people who were interested in aviation sort of follow the same path that a real pilot does. They're getting access to training materials and expertise that can help them learn and become more immersed in the world of aviation.

What specifically did you look to those partners to do or to provide for you and Microsoft?

Well, it depended on the partner. For example, with the manufacturers, we were looking for good information about aircraft so we could simulate them realistically. That includes data about their performance, their dynamic performance, and also details about -- we need information and photographs and things to reproduce the cockpits. With other providers like Jeppesen, they have a worldwide database of information which now goes into most of the GPS units the pilots use today to navigate -- you know, all the navigation fixes that you use, the airways, information about all the airports, the approaches and other procedures that you use when flying on instruments.

FlightSafety International was a big help in -- they both make "real simulators" that are used in flight training and they have an extensive training organization. They train a lot of pilots all over the world in how to fly, you know, business jets, they have contracts with the military, and so forth.

And other organizations such as AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Associations, they have a lot of resources that are available to their members and the public to help, again, pilots who are new to flying, learn essential skills, gain essential knowledge.

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel and do all this on our own, I wanted to partner with folks who were in the industry, had the expertise, and they in turn got exposure to our worldwide audience of aviation enthusiasts and pilots with their presence and their information. So that was sort of the basic proposition.

Gotcha. So, beyond increased realism and graphical fidelity, what were you in your role looking to achieve with each new game in the series?

Well, I always looked at it -- we came out with a new version roughly every two to three years, and of course at that point, starting in, say, early- to mid-'90s, the pace of development of things like video cards and the price of RAM and processor speed and everything was really happening at a brisk pace. So, every two or three years, you needed -- you had more capability. You could display better graphics. You could provide a more sophisticated simulation and so forth. You could start incorporating more content: videos and so forth and pictures and things.

It was a training program, so part of it was just keeping pace with the technological developments and the increased computing power that was available. I mean, we're talking again, long before the days of consoles -- at least the kinds of things we're used to today, Xboxes and the like.

And the other sort of motivating factor for us was this huge interest in and enthusiasm for all things aviation. Aviation museums are very popular. I think the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. remains among the world's most popular museums in terms of attendance annually in the world. There are similar museums in Europe and other parts of the world.

The sort of dream, the fantasy of flight is universal and of course outside the U.S., there's not a lot of general aviation: non-airline, non-military flying. Private aviation. It's very expensive. It's difficult. So forth.

So there's a lot of people who have always had the dream of being a pilot or being involved in aviation for whom something like simulation was a real outlet. If you know anything about this, you're aware of virtual airlines and so forth that have grown up as the Internet exploded so people could connect with others with similar interests in ways that just hadn't been feasible before.

And so our goal primarily was to scratch that itch. You know, provide people with this virtual experience who might, for whatever reason, never be able to become pilots and experience it in real life themselves. And we found over the years that probably something on the order of half our sales were in U.S. North America, and the other half was sort of outside with markets in Europe and Japan and some other countries being very, very important. And, you know, the airshow industry is very popular. Air shows are a very popular sort of spectator sport. I mentioned the museums.

It's just sort a perennial experience.

And it is important to remember what we were really aiming at was this simulation, this immersive experience where you could, depending on how much time and effort you wanted to put into it, how much money you wanted to spend on peripherals and things -- you know, recreate the experience of being a pilot as best you can in a simulation.

That was always the goal.

That was always the goal. Yeah.

Were there additional goals with each outing beyond that?

Well, yeah. As I said, we were trying to stay in pace with, if not run a little bit ahead of some of the technological stuff so the graphics got better and so forth. But, no, I mean our first goal on the first version I worked on was just to get a port over to Windows. You didn't have the whole -- you had the new platform to work with.

And then later on, it was adding the content. I can't remember the numbers off the top of my head now, but when we first worked on it we had maybe 300 or 400 airports and they were basically just very primitive lines on the terrain. At the end, by the time we'd worked with Jeppesen and some of these other partners, we had essentially every public-use airport in the world. Well over -- on the order of 30,000 or something like that.

[Laughs.]

So that anyone anywhere in the world could fly in their airplane and fly into the airport that they knew in whatever country in the world they were in.

[Laughs.]

There's International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, which is part of the UN. It's based in Montreal. And most countries in the world are members of that. They set standards for airport design and maintenance and pilot training and so forth.

We were basically trying to make it possible for you to be able to jump in an airplane and fly anywhere in the world. It's also important to understand that it was -- that worldwide sort of thing --

There have been other simulations that had come out over the years, which were limited in some way: they were limited to a particular region of the world or just a few type of aircraft. And although they had their limited success, we thought our best approach was just to be as broad as possible and a phrase I often use was, "Letting people make their own fun."

Use their imagination.

And so we also tried to provide a variety of aircraft. For example, there were a lot of people who just wanted to be virtual airline pilots, so we provided 747s and 737s and turboprops so they could recreate the experience that most of us by now have had of being on an airliner, except being up front. But we also had Cessnas and other aircraft. We had aerobatic airplanes and so forth, so that you could have this wide range of experiences that you might not otherwise have.

But I really think the key phrase was that one I just mentioned, which was making your own fun.

There's no storyline in Flight Simulator.

There's no -- although we did include, eventually, some things like races and other kinds of challenges, it was basically the challenge of flying was enough. Navigating from "A" to "B." Learning how to understand how the instruments work. Operating the airplane properly. Meeting your schedule if you were on a virtual airline.

All those things are very compelling to a certain number of people. I often tell my students -- I'm a flight instructor and I'm currently working with some students right now. We're trying to learn their instrument reading. And it's really -- it's a big puzzle you're always solving. The flying part is relatively straightforward. But where are you? What's next? What's air-traffic control going to do? How do you read this chart? What kind of approach are you going to fly? What's the weather doing? So forth.

That kind of challenge is very compelling to people in much the same way -- again, I often use another analogy. Something like golf, for example. It is not an action game. You aren't running up and down a field.

[Laughs.]

You aren't competing directly against another person. You're not physically in contact with another player like you are in basketball or football. But you are playing this mind game, this intellectual exercise. The different courses have different challenges. You have different strengths and weaknesses. The weather affects you. It's a very similar proposition.

Another analogy I used was that in the games world, if you take it as a whole, there's a tendency -- it's understandable to make action games where there's a lot of stuff's going on. It's very frenetic. I always said those are like action movies, the summer blockbusters. But there's also a big market for a compelling drama and there are some people who will never see a drama and there are some people who will never go see a summer blockbuster, but there's an awful lot of people where the Venn diagram overlaps quite a bit. Sometimes you're in the mood for a compelling story, adult grown-up movie. Sometimes you just want to be entertained with lots of explosions and car chases.

And there's no reason why you can't regard simulation as a compelling experience. It's just different from an action movie, but it can be equally compelling, emotionally satisfying as the others. Just as some people enjoy both golf and football.

Were you interested in videogames before your time at Microsoft? Or do you make distinction and you feel like simulators are in a different category?

Well, I actually use the word "simulation," because it's really -- "simulator" has a specific meaning to pilots. I won't go into all the gory details of that, but I do make the distinction between a game and a simulation. A simulation can be very entertaining in its own way. There's a lot of people out there -- I work with them all the time as a flight instructor -- who are never going to be professional pilots. They just enjoy the challenge of flying an airplane. It's something that maybe they wanted to do since they were a kid.

And they enjoy learning about the technical aspects of flying and the airplanes and the weather and all that sort of stuff. And they also enjoy using the airplane to go places maybe to support some of their business activities, whatever it may be.

But it's that compelling experience of being involved in a complex world, solving these puzzles, as I said. I don't fundamentally it's that different than a massive role-playing game or some of the other popular titles. It's just a bit different: In this case, we're trying to reproduce a real world, not a fantasy world.

As far as my own personal interests go, I'm of a generation where computer games, when I was in high school and college were more like Asteroids in the arcades. You know, those sorts of games.

Insert

And then very simple computer games that came out. We're talking Pong, here. Really simple stuff.

I've never been an enthusiastic gamer. I don't own a console. I'm not particularly interested in first-person shooters, massive role-playing games. It's just something I've never had much interest in. But I am interested in the simulation part.

Did you have information about what your audience liked to do in the simulation? Were there prominent play types or things people preferred to do in the simulation?

Well, as I said, as the product evolved -- it was very fortuitous in my time there, starting on the product -- I would have joined the Flight Simulator team probably in '93, '94, something like that. That was just as the Internet was starting to come alive with AOL and other things like that. And so we were able, obviously, to monitor that, and of course it developed very quickly. We found that these people -- nothing we directed -- started, for example, virtual airlines or other forums or environments in which they could share their enthusiasm and their hobby.

So we watched that, and of course we went, as the industry developed and the phenomenon developed, we went to a lot of conferences and trade shows and other kinds of gatherings. Both just the simulation side of things and also real-world aviation. We would go, for example, every year to the big EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which is gonna happen here in about a week and a half. It's an annual show at the end of July. It's the world's largest aviation gathering. People come from all over the world and we would have a display with Flight Simulator and we would engage the audience, which was very diverse. You'd get little kids who were just interested in zooming around and you'd also get retired military and airlines pilots who wanted to sort of keep their dream alive by passing it on to their own families and friends or still enjoyed the challenge of flying but couldn't do in real life for whatever reason.

So we watched all that. There were obviously online communities that were created: flightsim.com, AVSIM, whole bunch of others with forums and things. We would obviously watch that and get a lot of feedback. [Laughs.] Most of it unsolicited from people about what they liked, what they didn't like, what they wanted to see in the next version.

I personally did a lot of travel to Europe and other places where I would go to meetings of enthusiasts.

And then of course there was this whole add-in industry that built up -- again, it was one of these things that nobody really anticipated. It seems obvious now, like a lot of things, but people decided, "Well, Flight Simulator only ships with 10 airplanes. I want this one, so I'm gonna figure out how to build my own airplane." Or, "The airport that they've got in here for some obscure small town in wherever isn't detailed enough, so I'm gonna hack the scenery and figure out how to make it look more realistic." Or, "I'm gonna add this feature that they haven't put in the product yet." Whatever it might be.

And so there was this whole universe of add-on developers, third party developers who created additional content and features for Flight Simulator, and we eventually started publishing software development kits, SDKs, and working more closely with them to help them do a better job of that. But it was mostly enthusiasts sort of taking on this challenge on their own, and these people range from -- you know, I personally a Lufthansa pilot who worked with some add-on developers to create specific aircraft and training materials, background material for people who wanted to pretend like they were flying a 747, for example.

So, again, it was just one of those things which now we sort of for take for granted with social media and all the other ways we connect, but 20-some years ago it was an amazing thing to watch. This community is really no different from the people who are involved with any sort of activity or hobby. People who are into trains or cars. Antique or classic car enthusiasts or muscle-car enthusiasts. For that matter, people who really into fishing or golf or any number of activities who really get into it. And then, you know, there were magazines, there were forums, there were conventions just like you would expect for any sort of activity.

Now, have you heard of a thing called Gamergate?

Well, I've heard the word, and I've heard of a couple -- you tell me which iteration you're talking about. Is that the thing with sexism and --

I don't really want to talk specifically about that and something I'd like to gauge is where did a lot of this tension and negativity and entitlement around videogames come from between people who play games and people who make them? Like, you're talking about the earlier days and I understand it's a little bit different. You're talking about simulations, and when it came to feedback, you used the word "unsolicited" and then laughed. But I'm curious, did you get a lot of negativity or viciousness --

No, we didn't get a lot of viciousness. We would get strong opinions and frustration that -- enthusiasts in any arena are going to have very strong opinions about what they think is right or wrong or missing or incomplete or whatever. And so people are always -- let's just take one simple example: the choice of aircraft.

We could only put so many aircraft into the product because it takes a huge amount of time and effort to create the 3D models and model the cockpit instruments and program them into the aerodynamic simulation and so forth.

Like, if you had to speculate: How long did it take per plane for that?

Oh, I have no idea. It varied, obviously. A simple airplane like a Cessna was a lot less complicated because it doesn't have complicated systems and so forth. But it's a major deal, right?

And so there's a limit to what you can do, and my goal was always to provide what I called a range of experiences. So if you wanted to be an airline pilot, we would provide you with at least a couple of different types of airliners that you could fly. A big, heavy intercontinental airplane like a 747 and a more short-haul-type airplane like a 737, for example.

But there's always somebody who thinks that the DC-10 or the 727 or the Airbus a320 or whatever is the best, coolest airplane.

[Laughs.]

And they would always wonder why you hadn't done that one.

Or we did a Cessna, "Well, why don't you do a Beechcraft Bonanza." Or, "Why don't you do a Mooney?" And there's only so many that you can do.

So you're always gonna get that, just as you would in any other endeavor. It wasn't usually vicious, it was just people who were really enthusiastic and really into some particular aspect of that world who really wanted to see their interests in the product. And, again, it's no different than the debates people might have over -- I don't know -- in sports it happens all the time: Who's the better quarterback or the team or the coach?

Or in car enthusiasts, Fords are better than Chevys or vice versa. It's that kind of thing.

Well, so I know you left Microsoft in 2004, right?

Mmhmm.

So, I think that's around the time Xbox came out, a few years after. You were there after.

The Xbox had been out for several years by the time I left.

Did you start to hear word trickling from other departments or did you hear about an uptick in this sort of viciousness or pushback about --

No. I didn't follow that closely and it wasn't something I was interested in. I think most of the Gamergate type of things that we're talking about here -- I'm sure it was going on, but it didn't have the kind of widespread connection because, again, it's hard to imagine there was ever a world before Twitter and Facebook.

[Laughs.]

We forget how recent those phenomena are. I just saw something, I think it was last night or maybe this morning -- I was looking at the stuff about Pluto and there were diagrams showing that when the thing launched, that's basically when Twitter also started. Nine years ago. Or whatever it was.

We just sort have taken for granted that things can "go viral." Well, things would go viral but in a much slower pace and a much less widespread -- certainly didn't get into the mainstream.

So, again, let's go back to the concept of the simulation.

We're simulating a world, an environment, and activity. Everything that you would find in that activity -- in the real world, sort of finds expression somehow in the simulation. Just again to use an obvious example, in things like sports. You've got the fans. You've got sports-talk radio. You've got now, of course, ESPN and online forums and everything. And the same sort of passion and disagreements and arguments and everything that would go on with or without those media are there. They just get blown up a little bit more now than I think they did before.

Insert

Well, I mean, did you feel like you worked in the game industry or was it --

Well, it always a little bit of a frustration because we worked on the Flight Simulator product and related products. We did -- believe it or not, and I didn't work on it personally, but we did a simulation and we took the basic technology of simulating the world can be applied to any number of activities. And in fact that was one of the initiatives that we followed on later on in my career. Again, I didn't drive it. Another colleague of mine. But there was a lot of interest, for example, from commercial airplane manufacturers and others in the military training organizations because they saw the trend that everybody else was seeing.

It used to be creating a simulation -- just any kind of simulation, whether it was aviation or driving a tank or police-training simulation -- all of this used to be a very specialized, one-off expensive process. And now, of course, as the technology has converged you can do all this stuff with a high-powered laptop, it seems. And cameras and things like that are much cheaper.

So, there was a lot of interest in simulation just as a tool for training and so forth.

And then, of course, it was also expanding into things like movies and CGI and so forth. So, I always felt there was a bit of a tension between simulation and games and the idea was that simulation -- to most of the people in a gaming studio, a games studio, or a company that -- I don't know, Electronic Arts or something that makes more traditional sorts of games that we've been talking about rather than simulations? They're making action movies, just to be really simple about it. They're making action movies or something like that, which is not the same as a simulation.

And it was hard for people who were really hardcore first-person shooter enthusiasts or massive multiplayer games, whatever, to do see where flight simulators fit in. I think the most obvious example was when we would go to things like the E3 shows, right?

So Microsoft would be there, along with everybody else rolling out their latest sports titles or action games or whatever it may be, and then we would also then show off if we had a new version of Flight Simulator, for example, if it was available. There was always interest in it, and we would always do a bunch of demos and talk to the press and so forth. But if you walked around the exhibit hall, we were a little tiny slice of what was going on there. [Laughs.]

Just as -- to use the analogy, it's sort of like we're an indie movie versus a Hollywood blockbuster.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

But every once in a while an indie movie makes a big splash, wins an Oscar, and goes and becomes a big hit. Flight Simulator had the advantage -- we published an evergreen or perennial title. It would have a -- we launch a new version, the early adopters would of course get it immediately, but then the sales curve would stay strong and steady for a couple of years until the next version came out because it was one of these things that wasn't tied to a particular movie that had just been released. It wasn't like a James Bond movie or a -- you know, whatever.

And it didn't have -- you didn't run out of levels. You could always learn more.

Yeah.

And the world was what you made of it. So, it just requires, I think, a little bit of a different thinking than the traditional approach to, say, console games.

What is that traditional approach to console games?

Well, I think it's like making action movies. And then there's also just some other mundane but actually very interesting problems. The great appeal of something like an Xbox console-type game is that you can get a sort of generic controller that'll work for a variety of different types of games.

Whereas, if you're doing something like a simulation of flying an airplane, you need some specific types of controls. An Xbox controller does not work well to simulate being a pilot. Airplanes have specific types of controls: flight controls, power controls, the avionics and so forth. And you can do some of that with software and point and click and other people, as I mentioned before, these add-on folks would actually build flight yokes and rudder pedals and avionic stacks and things so that people could create this environment.

Some people have gone -- you've probably have seen some of these stories. You create what I used to call a "Flight Simulator fort" in the basement or the garage or whatever and at various levels, people would create a little cubicle. And some people -- the folks who wanted to be virtual airline pilots would go to a scrapyard and they'd get the front end of a 737. And then they would buy the throttle quadrants and the control yolks and other things and they'd hack together both the hardware and the software to make it all work and use Flight Simulator to drive it.

So, there was this sort of hobbyist aspect.

And, again, it parallels the real world.

There's a group I mentioned before, the Experimental Aircraft Association. These are the people who basically build their own airplanes or assemble kits that manufacturers put together. And in that group, there's some people who really enjoy flying and the home-built airplanes, the kits, give them a performance or options that they can't get from buying a Cessna. You know, it's like buying your car and being a hot-rod guy who soups it up.

But there's an awful lot of people -- their real joy in it is the mechanics and the task of actually building the airplane. I've known several people who have built four, five airplanes or more because as soon as they finish one, and it's beautiful and they fly it and they think, "You know, I really wanna go back in there and start building again. That's what I like to do."

It's like the guy who has a wood shop in his garage. You know, makes furniture or something.

So, my point is just that there's a wide spectrum of interests. Some people wanna be airline pilots, some people wanna fly. I know a young man right now who's finishing his F-16 training at Luke Air Force Base, and when he was a kid, 10, 12 years old, he got a hold of Flight Simulator and it helped inspire his whole career.

And I've heard that story many, many times.

And I also get emails -- I still get emails weekly from people who are retired airline or military pilots or something who still get joy out of being able to relive some of those experiences that they had earlier in their careers.

What was it like showing Flight Simulator at E3?

[Laughs.] It was hard because you had to shout a lot! [Laughs.] It was so incredibly loud.

No, I mean, you just have to understand that you are -- you have to understand where you fit in. I suppose it's like going to any sort of big industry event, a film festival, or whatever it might be and recognizing that Spielberg is going to get a lot of attention if he's got a new movie there. Or if there's a new movie these days about some kind of action hero or superhero, that's gonna get a lot of enthusiasm -- something like Comic-Con. But it wasn't ever -- I didn't ever feel slighted. It was just I recognized we were doing something different.

I wasn't expecting to be the headliner or the keynote or have all the people who specialize in writing about first-person shooters come by and be super-enthusiastic about Flight Sim.

Yeah.

I didn't expect that.

So who would come by? Who would show an interest, then?

Well, again, the hardcore people I was talking about? The virtual airline enthusiasts? They probably weren't at E3.

No.

But there is overlap. There are gearheads. There are people who are -- the type of person who's interested in the action games is probably also, at least percentage of them, are also interested in the sort of technical aspects and the challenge of flying. They may not spend hours a week at it and build a Flight Sim fort and join a virtual airline, but they would be interested in it and of course the magazines in those days would often have a freelancer or a contributing editor who sort of specialized in simulation. Remember, at times, there were several flight simulations out there. And so, you know, they would always come by.

You would get interest ranging from polite nods and smiles to people who were really interested in what we do. [Laughs.] But, again, that's typical.

Yeah. I mean, I just went to another E3 last month, so I know what you’re talking about. But I know one of the main points of the show is to have meetings with retailers and people to stock games.

Yeah.

So were you ever in any of those meetings?

Yeah. Yeah. I mean -- yeah. I wasn't strictly on the marketing side so I wasn't there doing the deals. Again, we're talking now about an era where people actually went to stores like Best Buy or Target or any number of places and bought physical media.

[Laughs.] I remember.
So, what would be happening in those meetings?

Well, Flight Simulator was always well-received and anticipated by the big retailers because, as I mentioned before, it was sort of an evergreen title. It wasn't one of these flash in the pan things which had a life of two or three months maybe. So, they recognized it was a perennial seller. They could also sell peripherals, so they could sell a joystick or a new monitor or a video card or whatever with the new version -- a new computer, for that matter. There were lots of people, when a new version came out, who would buy a new computer because they wanted a faster chip and more memory.

So, it was always well-received by the retail crowd when that's the way that you distributed these products.

Yeah. So, jumping back even further again: I know you had some metrics on your users. Did you have players who spent hundreds of hours in the simulation?

Oh absolutely.

Was there any figure that stood out as particularly impressive or memorable?

Well, I don't have a specific number in mind, but I'll tell you again to go back to the example of just the virtual airline types. There are people who would recreate in real time a flight from, say, London to New York or --

In real time?

In real time. Six hours.

One of the "complaints" we would sometimes get is if you launched Flight Simulator on your computer, you would choose your airplane. Let's say, for example, you're gonna fly the 737. So you would choose that, and we would, by default, the simulation would start with the airplane parked at an airport gate or at the end of a runway. The engine's running. The system's up and going, right?

So you could quickly put in a waypoint destination and go.

But there were people who would complain that that wasn't realistic. What they really wanted to do was arrive at the virtual gate, as it were, do the walk around of the airplane to inspect the airplane, climb into the cockpit cold and dark, flip on the battery switch, and then go through complete cold-start procedure for the 737 just like the pilots did, and get your clearance and your taxi out to the runway and do all this stuff, and fly the flight as realistically as possible.

And so there were people who actually created the add-ons where you could actually do some of that stuff. Or they would, you know, exchange information with one another on the various forums and things about, "Okay, here's the real checklist for starting up a 737 from sitting there cold at the gate having arrived last night."

So there's that level of enthusiasm and dedication to it, and people who had -- on these virtual airlines, you would join, just like you would get hired at an airline, you would get a seniority number and as you accumulated experience and time you would then be able to bid new roots and different types of airplanes and everything just like the airlines. So, in essence, it became a role-playing game.

Insert

This is all stuff that happened organically --

Yeah. We didn't drive it, no.

Did you guys anticipate anything like this happening?

Not at this scale, certainly. We knew that there were people -- we obviously knew there were people who wanted to fly airliners. We knew there would be people who were interested in maybe learning about how to fly, so we put a basic Cessna in there so that the airplane they were familiar with at their local airport was something they could pretend that they were learning to pretend to fly in. We had a virtual instructor, my friend Rod Machado, who's a well-known flight instructor and author of many books about how to fly -- he became a virtual instructor for us later on so you would take lessons -- we had programmed lessons into the product and you'd hear his voice and he'd give you pointers.

So there's all that going on, but we did not anticipate -- I don't think anybody anticipated how this enthusiasm would translate into things like the add-on developers I mentioned or these communities, these virtual airlines, and other enthusiasts around the world who found one another. Because, again, the product was developing at the same time that the Internet was exploding.

In a previous world -- it's sort of like the analogy of, well, I have some friends who are hams. You know, amateur radio operators. And the big goal in those days was to listen in on the scratchy short-wave frequencies and make contact and exchange CQ cards in the mail. You'd talk to somebody -- Morse code, more likely, and then a few weeks later you would get a postcard from God knows where that you'd make contact at a later date and time.

Well, of course, now with the Internet --

That's so much easier.

[Laughs.] The folks who are in their twenties and thirties, the millennials, they look at it and they can't even imagine such a world. [Laughs.]

So, you wrote some books as well about simulations and what skills you can learn from them.

Well, most of my books have been focused on the idea of using PC-based simulations to complement flight training. As I mentioned earlier, the FAA has very clear distinctions between what is a simulator versus a flight training device versus an aviation training device and what you can use for credit towards the requirements for specific certifications and ratings and so forth.

But my goal has always been to say: These tools, simulations, when used properly can be a great complement to traditional flight training. Especially as more and more people are less apt to learn from a book. They want interactive learning.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

They want to be sort of hands-on.

So if you're trying to explain to somebody how flight instruments work and you're showing them a series of pictures about how the altitude indicator tilts as you turn, that's just not going to work anymore. But if you can show them in real time how that works and they can see it happening and they can understand how the navigation needles move and so forth, it makes life a lot easier and it saves money and time and effort. And, so, for example, I mentioned FlightSafety International. They have a flight-training academy in Vero Beach and one of the things I did with them was help them set up a lab where we set up PCs with Flight Simulator on them, and their students -- many of whom were foreign students, they had contracts with foreign airlines -- could, on their own time, come in and practice some of these skills. US Navy developed a similar thing for their students at Pensacola and Corpus Christi. It was sort of an informal, extra credit, whatever you wanna call it, but it really helped folks learn some of these abstract skills like radio navigation and so forth at their own pace without spending a lot of money actually flying an airplane, etc.

And so that's where the real value of this comes in and nowadays if you wanna learn how to do something, you go up on YouTube, and, my God, there's somebody who's done a video about whatever. I'm astonished.

But it's the same sort of idea, but my books have been aimed from my perspective as a flight instructor: Here's some best practices and useful ways to put these into practice. Because of the distinction between "real simulators" and these toys or games, Flight Sim -- a lot of the training community has been skeptical of it in not understanding how best to use it. So that's always been my focus.

The crowd of people -- there are these enthusiasts out there who were never going to become pilots for whatever reason, but many of them wanted to have a realistic experience: "What's it like to learn how to fly?"

And so they buy my books, too, because they want to learn the way pilots learn.

Were you ever surprised by people learning something from the software that maybe you hadn't anticipated they might be able to? Like, were they picking up something from what you put out that you hadn't necessarily intended?

No, not really. I mean, over the years I've flown with many people who have said, "I have been playing with Flight Sim since I was a little kid." And you get 'em in the airplane and they have a pretty good understanding of the basic flight controls and the instruments and so forth.

But are they a pilot? No.

There's a lot more to it. It's sort of similar to -- here's an example. The University of Seattle of Washington here in Seattle produces a program called Mini Medical School, and it's been running for many years. So, they have experts from various specialties come and give a public talk and they videotape them and put them up on this TV channel. So, they'll talk about the latest in heart surgery or whatever it might be.

So, you learn a lot and it's fairly sophisticated. It's not just a five-minute blurb on The Today Show. But, you know, you quickly realize that you are in no way prepared. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I should hope not.

You may know a lot now about heart valves you didn't know before but you are not in anyway prepared to diagnose and treat people.

So, that's the thing you'll occasionally see. It's less common now than it was probably 20 years ago, the idea of the youngest pilot to fly across the country or something and they put a 12-year-old kid in an airplane. Just for legal reasons, of course, since you can't be a pilot at 12 years old, there'd always have to be a qualified pilot in the airplane.

Flying the airplane and driving the airplane around the sky is not in itself a particularly challenging thing to do. Most people can pick up the basic skills fairly quickly, but it's that solving the puzzle--knowing about the weather and the regulations and the emergencies and the air-traffic control system is what takes time and effort. Like, most 12-year-olds could drive a car reasonably proficiently on a country road or whatever, but you wouldn't let it into traffic because they don't have the skills and the knowledge and knowing how to handle that complex situation.

So, no. People -- you go to any convention or a museum. I'm on one of the committees at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle. The education committee. You hang out at the museum and you hear a lot of interesting things from people who have read or seen something and they have some knowledge or some expertise but it's pretty thin when you dig a little deeper. [Laughs.]

And so -- but, as I said before, there are lots and lots of people out there who have learned a lot from simulations like Flight Simulator and credit their success later on, whether it's becoming a military pilot or an airline pilot or whatever to the fact that they were exposed to that early and became kind of enthusiasts for it. And they read some more books and they did some more studying and it really helped them get started.

When you started at Microsoft, where did you imagine that job would take you or be a path to?

Well, I had no idea. Again, I started out -- when I got out of college, I spent about 10 years as a journalist of various stripes writing for local and regional magazines and newspapers, doing some national stringing and so forth, writing features, and doing all kinds of stuff. And then, as I said, I spent a couple of years as an editor of an aviation newspaper. It's now called the General Aviation News.

But when I joined Microsoft, I joined it largely because as a mostly a freelance journalist I had self-taught myself a lot about word processing and so forth. I think at one time I was fluent in maybe three or four word processors: WordStar and -- [Laughs.]

Oh wow. WordStar. I haven't thought about that in ages.

So I started off at Microsoft as a technical editor working on Microsoft Word because I was frustrated. I went and banged on their door because I was frustrated with the quality of the documentation that was coming out because it was written as technical documentation, not for users really.

And so I spent a few years working on Word. Then I went over multimedia and worked on a variety of products. Again, this sounds very old-fashioned, but we produced these multimedia titles on CD. This was before the web kicked off, you know, so you could have these interactive experiences. We did a couple of those.

Then I finally got the opportunity to go work on Flight Simulator but, no, that's a little like saying -- I occasionally see a business program with some venture capitalist or something. I saw one the other night that a couple of VCs -- and one of the partners, he was really enthusiastic about, I think, it was Facebook and the other partners were looking at him like he was insane because, you know, at the time it was half a dozen college kids with this crazy idea and nobody could understand how that would ever be anything that would matter.

And of course we know the story.

And so I won't pretend to think I was some kind of visionary. I had no idea that Microsoft was going to become anything like it became and having been gone for more than a decade, I'm sure that if I went back into one of the product groups I would be way out of place. [Laughs.] I wouldn't know my way around the company anymore because I'm sure that a lot of that has changed.

I have distinct memories--for example, we had our own internal network, of course. But when the Internet first sort of started to bubble up, our people were very concerned about tapping into the Internet, so they would set up a computer at the end of the hallway with Netscape on it and it was isolated from our network. If you wanted to go poke around on the Internet -- this newfangled thing called the Internet -- you would go down the hall and play with this computer.

But it was very, very primitive and, again, nobody anticipated what happened with any of this stuff.

What happened with Flight Simulator is it was originally developed by a man named Bruce Artwick in Champaign, Illinois. He was doing his Master's degree in computer science and he was a private pilot and he was looking for an interesting problem to solve. This would've been back in the late '70s.

He was particularly interested in computer graphics, so he started working around with this idea: "Well, I wonder if I could simulate what it's like to fly an airplane on a computer." And the first version was for the Apple, in what I call the "green sticks" era. You know, you have these green horizontal and vertical lines and that was your scenery.

To his great surprise, he developed this primitive simulation and discovered that there were people -- there was this market for people who really wanted to pretend like they were flying airplanes, as primitive as the simulation was. He said, "Huh, I guess I'll make a product out of this."

And he did.

And for a long time, and then for a long time Microsoft was the publisher of the product. He didn't develop it. He had a small team of people in Illinois who actually developed the product through several versions. Microsoft simply packaged it, distributed it, tested it -- you know, did some of the support work for it.

But eventually we decided the product had become popular enough, big enough, and our goals for it -- again, this was after I joined and one of the things I was involved in: That we bought the Bruce Artwick Organization, BAO, and brought some of the team members out to Seattle, Redmond, and then started the whole process. We developed the product and, you know, distributed it. And so that's what we did with it.

But I certainly wasn't involved in the invention of it.

Why did you decide to leave Microsoft?

Well, I'd been there for 15 years or more. I was ready to do some other things. I wasn't particularly interested in trying to run a big division or something. So, I just ready for a change. It was the longest I've ever been in any one job or any one company for sure and I was at a point in my life where I just wanted to do something different.

Did partners ever pitch you ideas for the product or were there ever goals from the team internally that just proved too ambitious or you had to scrap?

Oh yeah. Well, no, the classic example was we wanted to simulate air-traffic control because up until probably the last three versions of Flight Simulator that I worked on it was pretty much a solitary experience. We weren't really connecting the game into the Internet. You would get in your cockpit and you would fly around, but unlike the real world of aviation where you're talking to air-traffic controllers and you hear other airplanes and you have to fit into the traffic flow and so forth -- there was none of that.

And so we had, for a long time wanted to simulate that experience.

Well, the first time we tried it, we got -- I don't remember how far along into the process now. It was speced out as a feature. We were gonna do it. But as we came up against our milestones where we assessed our progress, we realized that we had just bitten off too much. It was way too complicated a problem.

And so for one version, we had to scrap it. It was a very painful decision to say, "We're just not gonna do that feature this time." Because it was gonna be one of our big selling points, right?

So, we eventually got it going, but as you can imagine, simulating air-traffic control was a pretty complicated problem.

It sounds like a product in and of itself, honestly.

In fact, there are air-traffic control simulations out there. In fact, it's what FAA and other people around the world are trying to do. They want to automate air-traffic control so that most of the mundane stuff is handled automatically and is communicated directly between computers: the computer on the ground and the computer in the airplane giving you a revised routing or your clearance to fly an approach or whatever so that the controllers would simply be monitoring and stepping in when necessary.

But we're talking billions of dollars and decades of development and really, really complicated systems. Obviously it has to be fail-safe in ways that a computer simulation doesn't have to be. But still, the basic problem of managing this dynamic complex environment is a pretty formidable one and you're trying to do it all on a PC while you're also simulating an airplane flying through the sky and the weather and all these other things. It's a pretty daunting prospect.

We ran up against similar issues in other parts of the simulation: the levels of scenery detail and so forth. So there was always a challenge of what can we realistically do with each version and make it work to a level that was appropriate for the simulation.

Well, I know you said you don't have much interest in videogames per se, but this far removed from them do you still tinker around on them for fun?

No, I still tinker around with it. I'm working on a couple of books right now that aren't related to using PC simulation. I've pretty much said what I think needs to be said at this point about that.

I mean, I use them everyday at the flight school. I was in one yesterday with a student.

And I watch the developments in the industry closely and it's interesting, of course. And as you probably know, Microsoft disbanded the Flight Simulator team a few years ago and has now gotten a deal -- I don't know any of the details of it -- with, the product is Steam, but I can't remember the company. It's in England, the UK, so that the last version of Flight Simulation is essentially available as an online product and I gather that at some point they will have some license to develop it further if they decide there's a business case for that.

Insert

And then, of course, there's X-Plane, which is still going on, which is really the only other PC-based simulation out there right now. So, I stay aware of what's going, but I'm not actively pursuing any business opportunities other than what's related to my perennial interest in flying.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

I don’t know what videogames in general have accomplished. I think you could ask the same question about movies or other forms of entertainment. I suppose at their best, videogames, like movies, can inspire and even help enthusiasts develop certain skills. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with basic entertainment.

don't die Logo