Inside the Soaring Popularity of Microsoft Flight Simulator

Modern publishers aren’t averse to dropping a franchise that seems to be struggling for one reason or another. Gears of War, Hitman, Half-Life, and Deus Ex are all once-popular series that haven’t made it off the conveyor belt in quite a while.

The cancellation of the beloved space opera Mass Effect seems to have caused a cascade at EA, one that left us with the half-baked Anthem and a broken BioWare studio that never recovered.

Amidst this regular drama are the eternal properties, the franchises that live on even in the face of disaster. Sonic, Mario, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil have barely had a break in their multi-decade histories.

What’s lesser known is that Microsoft’s Flight Simulator has also been running on a roughly two-year release schedule since 1982, with another entry due out in 2024. 

It’s actually two years older than Windows.

Bomber Crew

Flight Simulator’s popularity is especially surprising given its realism and its attention to detail (each journey can be flown in real-time and every real-life cockpit button is included in virtual form).

Flight Simulator was in demand from the moment it was mentioned in print and it would eventually launch with an estimated 800,000 sales. That figure has remained consistent for the game’s four-decade history. Its success is helped by plane games’ (of any description) lack of titles in the video game industry.

Ace Combat is a singular example of an arcade-style fighter, while Runner Duck’s Bomber Crew tries a strategic take on mid-century combat missions. These are both arcade-style experiences that mostly dispense with the knobs and dials common to a real-life cockpit. 

Spribe reportedly found inspiration for Aviator in the video gaming industry. It’s a unique experience that has the player guess when a plane will shoot off into the heavens once it starts climbing. If they manage to hit their button early enough, they win a prize.

Flight’s potential for simplicity has also allowed the concept to be utilised in a different form of gaming altogether. The casino website Lottoland Ireland recently introduced a Spribe-developed title called Aviator. 

Plane enthusiasts may head into space for their flight fix too. Kerbal Space Program and Elite Dangerous both take a realistic look at flight mechanics, with all the detailed physics intact. 

Hot Air Balloons

Flight Simulator owes part of its current fame to the cloud. The franchise has sold more than 22m units to date but 2022 seems to have been a landmark year for Microsoft’s flagship game.

Despite a 2020 release for the most recent Flight Simulator, a port from PC to Xbox doubled the number of people playing it two years later. When it finally came to the cloud via Xbox Game Pass, that metric doubled again. 

The most recent Flight Simulator, which actually has no number or year for the first time since 1986’s Mac release (the first game was subtitled 1.0), is now the most popular piece of the franchise to date.

A reported 3.5bn hours were flown in just the game’s first four months, with a good 10m of those watched on Amazon’s Twitch platform. It brought in $65m on PC alone, the platform where it first launched a successor to a 1979 Apple II game, FS1 Flight Simulator.

Overall, with the trailer for Flight Simulator 2024 now in circulation (it will add aerial firefighting into the mix, among other things), Microsoft’s venerable plane sim looks like it could be here for a while yet.

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Lee Clarke
Lee Clarke
Business And Features Writer


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