INTERVIEW: Joshua Howard, Microsoft Flight

MCV grills executive producer Joshua Howard about Microsoft Flight’s free-to-play model and why third-party publishers are not allowed to be a part of it, as the game launches today.

Previously, publishers like Just Flight and First Class Simulations have produced paid-for expansions for Flight Simulator games, but the new free-to-play PC download Flight will only have DLC produced by Microsoft. At least for the first year or so.

Now Microsoft is going alone with a new business model for the franchise.

MCV: Why did Microsoft decide to make Flight free-to-play?

Joshua Howard: When this started out, there was a real vision and a real drive to try to bring the magic of Flight to much larger audiences. Continuing to deliver to the existing audience was fine but frankly Flight is more magical than that and finding a way to do that was important. So one of the things to consider is how do you build a product for that, but another thing you consider is what sort of business model best supports that goal?

Free-to-play was a really easy choice. The idea that we’re going to give away an experience that can introduce, for no cost, millions and millions of people to the magic that is flying just seemed like a no brainer. We believe people will get in, experience the free thing, realise that flying is magical, it is doable, it is achievable. And then they’ll become fans. And if they become fans then they’ll want to stick around. And a free-to-play model with downloadable content seemed to be a great fit for that.

Is part of this free-to-play strategy to appeal to more casual players?

Absolutely – I think a lot of people look up into the sky and say planes could be cool – flying could be cool. But then they immediately say well that’s too hard for me. And we thought we could use software to deliver an experience that says no, actually. It’s a different approach than what has really been taken with Flight, it’s exciting, that’s what was cool about it for us. So free-to-play was just a perfect match for that vision.

Will Microsoft use this free-to-play model in other games, following the launch of Age of Empires Online and now Flight?

I’m not the guy who sits there and looks at the entire portfolio and makes those kind of decisions. But I do think that part of what we hope to demonstrate is that Free-to-play is a really exciting business model. I think we’d be doing a service to the company to help the rest of the studios understand its strengths and how to leverage it most effectively.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Microsoft consider doing more of this. I like that we get to be on the vanguard of figuring it out. I’m a big fan of it. I happen to think it’s something you’re going to see more of. But I certainly can’t speak from any sort of definitive knowledge about what the other studios might be doing.

Is Flight exclusive to Games for Windows Live or will it be available via other platforms such as Steam?

It’ll be launching for Games for Windows Live and as any developer, we look at other places that might make sense for the franchise moving forward but we have nothing to talk about at this point today. So right now you’ll see it on Games for Windows Live but the future is the future and we’ll see.

Was there a reason why the release date was brought forward from ‘spring’ to today?

Honestly I think what was really important to us was to get the product into beta and then to understand from users and from all of the data we collect during that process, where the product stood. And it did really really well. From a software standpoint in turned out to be very stable, our back-end system scaled very nicley and our feedback from customers, even when you consider the various different types of customers, was very positive. All of that wrapped together made it an easy decision to say this thing is ready. The world wants this product.

I’d rather ship it and continue to develop it as an online game than hold it back much more. The beta really helped solidify the launch date for us.

Obviously there are several publishers who’ve been producing and selling content for Flight Simulator games who’d love to be on board with Flight. Is it still the case that Microsoft will be keeping all the DLC in-house?

Yeah we believe that for the first year or two at least, this is something we’ve got to manage and understand and own ourselves. We need a more managed ecosystem to reach the kind of customer that we’re targeting now.

It was one of the more difficult decisions to take with the franchise but we think to appeal to millions of people we had to take a different approach. And one of the consequences of that approach was it’s going to be a much more significant effort to reintroduce that more extensible system. So I won’t say never. But it was outside the focus around the initial product and launch to try to do everything.

I think had we tried to do everything, had we tried to be as extensible as ever while also building a brand new experience I think it would’ve just been a recipe for failure. So let’s get a good experience out there, validate it and respond to what customers want. That gives us the time to understand really where the need and the desire is and then we can extend the product as we go.

What would you say to those third-parties such as Just Flight who are eager to produce extra content in Microsoft Flight? Some will do their own thing instead. Do you welcome the competition?

I always do. I’m excited that we’ve taken a very different direction than the traditional simulation audience has. I think there are some really fantastic products simulation products out there, not just Flight Simulator X.

So, I’ve spoken to many of those people, either directly or through members of the team, as we’ve reached out and continued to have those discussions.

I understand they’d like to come on board with Flight right now, we just weren’t able to do that. On the other hand the ecosystem around the existing products is still alive and strong. A number of devs I’ve spoken to are very happy to continue to manage that ecosystem. It’s a strong thing and I think when we’re ready as a business, as an organisation, to begin to turn and tap that experience for the next product, then we’ll do that. Until then, they have an exciting ecosystem they continue to manage and drive, and I think that’s just more beneficial for all of us.

Why are you initially shutting out third-parties?

instead of opening Flight up to everything, anywhere, by anybody, which frankly creates sort of a confusing mess for a new customer, we get to manage it more, we get to tell a story, we get to help it grow and get up on its feet. I completely believe that this ecosystem will come to be even larger than the existing product’s ecosystem. And that will be a point where I can’t possibly meet the appetite of a customer base, and I will invest to bring more people in. That’s the future, that’s what success looks like.

It is not diametrically opposed that we work with developers. It’s just that was one of the unfortunate consequences and some of the decisions we made that we thought were higher priority. So I look forward to reengaging with them. Until then I’m excited at the work they continue to do and they continue to innovate on in the Flight Sim tent.

Will Flight ever arrive in some form of a boxed release? Or stick with download-only format?

I guess it’s unrealistic to answer that question today. Never say never. We’re a free-to-play online product. We’ll be distributing our game to as many people in as many ways as possible. I wouldn’t be against considering how a retail box might further help us in the future.

It’s not our core strategy today, but if there were a good case to be made that there was a way to expand the audience even further by doing a retail box, then I’d certainly be game for it.

Do you think there’s still a market for boxed flight simulator games?

I think one advantage of the niche that is flight simulation is there’s a very dedicated fanbase who has demonstrated they will do virtually anything that’s necessary to support that hobby. That’s very exciting. Whether there’s a retail box or not, this is an audience that’s going to do what it takes to continue to feed that need.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say retail is dead, I think there are products that make sense at retail and there are products that don’t make sense at retail. I think it’d be exciting to see more folks bring simulation experiences to retail. It didn’t make sense for our product and our business, but it still might makes sense for somebody else’s.

You previously said that Flight can make more money than Gears of War. Do you mean the entire Flight Simulator franchise or just Flight?

As a franchise. Flight is one incarnation of what will continue to be an evergreen franchise for this company.

Grandparents and grandchildren will sit together and play these, and grow up with them over time. It’s part of what appeals to me about it. I believe in this particular incarnation of Flight as a very strong product. But to me it’s not just about this version of Flight, it’s about how this version of Flight allows us to engage with users in whole new ways. And how that will inevitably lead to the next version or the next outgrowth of the franchise.

Would you describe Flight as a triple-A game?

I don’t think most of my customers even understand the idea of a triple-A franchise. There’s a very specific expectation in the PC gaming industry or console gaming industry about the 18 to 34-year-old male who buys a certain amount of products. That’s a fine audience and there are a lot of people there, and I think I offer a lot of value to those customers. But I think In many respects our customers go even broader than that.

I’m not interested in limiting Flight to merely a triple-A title. I think Flight can appeal to people who wouldn’t ever consider themselves gamers.

Earlier this year you told us you’d be on the lookout for more ways to bring Flight to new audiences and platforms. Has that progressed any further since then?

It has progressed but there’s certainly nothing we’re ready to talk about.

Flight is free to download, but the technology is also there to stream it and offer it as a browser game. Is that something you’ve considered?

if you think about our mission of bringing Flight to whole new audiences, you ask what the opportunities are. Well there’s new devices, there’s new software solutions, there’s new home form factors, it’s a pretty exciting world.

I want to find the best opportunities that we can exploit for Flight. And I’m excited to say that it’s something the team thinks about and is interested in. Today we’re all about Microsoft Flight and I think over time you’ll hear more about how we’re going to exploit [other platforms], but there’s nothing we’re talking about or announcing today.

What’s the pricing like for Microsoft Flight?

What we’ve announced is our pricing for the initial DLC. The Hawain Adventure pack, which is the rest of the whole Hawaiian Islands, has a variety of additional missions and adventures and challenges, as well as a free airplane. That’s priced at $19.99 or 1,600 Points.

Then we’re selling two airplanes at launch as well. A basic airplane which is a P51 Warbird, that’s going to come in at $7.99 or 640 Points. And then there’s a deluxe airplane for the user who really continues to want all of that deep articulation inside the cockpit. We’re offering the MAW, a deluxe airplane priced at $14.99 or 1,200 Points.

Which territories will Flight be launching into?

Multiple markets from today. We’ll be fully localised into English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. But we’ll be launching into more markets than just that. We get to take advantage of the Live infrastructure and network.

What’s next in terms of future downloadable content?

I look forward to talking about what’s next at a later date.

We’ll be at the Xbox showcase event in San Francisco. And we’ll be showing some of what’s coming up down the road. I want our players to really understand that there’s a consistent and strong effort to continue to excite, to deliver exciting new experiences for Microsoft Flight. More places, more planes, more things to do.

I think we get to be one of the only PC games at the showcase. We enjoy and take pride in this organisation, that while we exist in a world which is very focused on the exciting things happening on console, we continue to be one of the areas of investment on the PC. And we like how we’re a little bit different. Yes they’ve called it the Xbox Showcase event but we’re going to be there and we’re going to be strong and we’ve got an exciting product to show.

For more information and comments on Microsoft Flight, read MCV’s analysis here.

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