Extreme Realism: Asobo Studio Talks Microsoft Flight Simulator

If you want to be an airline pilot, you’ll have to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Aviation or a similar discipline, or to attend flight school; you’ll probably need to find an instructor with Federal Aviation Administration certification to teach you; you’ll have to get a student flying license and log 250 hours of flying time, then pass a written exam that will allow you to study for a pilot’s license. To be considered for employment by an airline company, you’ll likely need to log around 3000 hours’ flying time, perhaps working as a commercial pilot for smaller companies. It’s an involved process.

But, hey, now there’s an easier way to fly passenger jets.

Microsoft Flight Simulator has a heritage that stretches back nearly four decades, almost back to the origins of computer gaming. At various points in the development of this software line, the various versions of Flight Simulator have been developed in-house by Microsoft teams, or in partnership with external developers – and, always, the absolute focus of the game has been on creating as realistic a flying experience as possible, with the computing technology currently available.

Well, the technology available today, for the newest incarnation of Microsoft Flight Simulator, is remarkable, and Microsoft has partnered with a developer with the experience and knowhow to truly leverage the possibilities available to create the most realistic, immersive flight simulator ever created. This is Asobo Studio, based in Bordeaux; since its creation in 2002 Asobo has released a score of innovative and high-profile titles, establishing themselves as a company capable of handling the IP of some of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. One of Asobo’s more groundbreaking feats with Microsoft Flight Simulator has been the integration of Bing Maps data to automatically generate much of the surface of planet Earth; similarly, for those players wishing to explore the almost-real world in real-world conditions, Flight Simulator can use live weather data to recreate weather conditions across much of the world, in sync with actual weather.

And yet much of the focus on realism within the game is on its vehicles – these planes are, in a sense, the ‘player characters’ of the game; if the planes don’t look fantastic, this would impact every other aspect of the game.

And so Benjamin Rieubland, Art Outsourcing Manager at Asobo Studio, was kind enough to join us to discuss the extraordinary lengths necessary in order to ensure that the vehicles in Flight Simulator are hyper-realistic – and where Substance Painter fits into that process.

The Nuts, Bolts and Rivets of Microsoft Flight Simulator

References

Benjamin: The first step was to gather as many references as possible, in order to establish a basis on which we could begin modeling. We used a lot of photos – photos that we found on the internet, photos sent by aeronautic manufacturers, photos sent by the pilots of the planes themselves, and so on.

Sometimes it’s hard to go and see specific airplanes – particularly because of COVID – so it’s super-helpful when the owner of an aircraft agrees he’ll take pictures of specific parts of his vehicle to help us. Some elements of the aircraft are really hard to access and to represent. When we have good pictures of these parts it makes our job much easier because we absolutely want to avoid creating elements that don’t exist in real life.

In the studio, we also have quite a few people who are qualified pilots themselves, so they’d take the opportunity to take references photos when they went out flying.

3D scans helped a lot too. As often as possible we try to access airplanes or even simulators in order to scan the cockpits. We use an Artec Leo; it’s a very small, portable 3D scanner that gives us the ability to have a good representation of the elements, and their position in enclosed spaces like the cockpits.

Really, the big challenge at the start of the project was assembling references. Early on, most people didn’t know about the game, so it was pretty complicated to approach aeronautic constructors. Later on, we were in contact with Boeing, Airbus and Textron to validate the visuals of the airplanes. They provided material like pictures, documents, or even CAD files. This was really helpful throughout the project to have a better understanding of the airplanes.

With all of this input, we were able to make progress on establishing the realistic base that we needed.

Modeling

We created the planes from A to Z; our two big tools for this project were 3ds Max for the modeling, and Substance Painter for the texturing. As mentioned above, in many cases the airplane manufacturers provided us with very precise CAD data for the planes; we were able to use this information to model the vehicles with great accuracy in 3ds Max.

Also, keep in mind that the modeling of the vehicle interior is a very different type of work to modeling the exterior. For the cockpits, you really have to be meticulous, and to create all the details that you will see. It really is a step-by-step type of work. First, you need to create everything with the right proportions, and then you dive into the details, and make every screw and add every single piece of text. The position of all the elements has to be perfect. Also, cockpit animations are very simple; the only moving parts will the yoke, pedals, switch, and knobs. This is it.

For the exterior you’ll start with a global shape; the geometry is less dense. And then you have specific parts that will require in-depth details like the landing gears, the undercarriage or even the system in the wings that’s visible at times, with some moving elements. The exterior animations are much more complex, and you really have to study how a specific airplane will work to make everything move correctly. The landing gear animation in particular is really tricky, and the geometry has to be perfect to make the animation possible.

Texturing

We used Substance Painter to texture the airplanes in the game, from start to finish.

Instrument panel, in-game
In Substance Painter, clean
In Substance Painter, dust layer added

To texture the planes, we started out with some baking, in order to get all the maps we needed. And then, depending on the references we had – as mentioned, that could be scans, photos, videos that we’d found online; these references could really be drawn from anywhere – we’d reproduce the material of each object in Substance Painter, so that it matched as closely as possible our reference. We created all our materials directly in Substance Painter – plastics, metals, everything. If there were a few bits to touch up we’d do that in Photoshop – but that didn’t really take long, in general.

We use smart masks all the time. First, we’ll apply a clean layer of base material to make the airplane look like it’s brand new – we’re essentially creating a vehicle that looks like it’s just come out of the factory. This step is very important to provide the true visual appearance of elements like the cockpits.

Seat and joystick, in-game

In-game view (top); in Substance Painter, clean (bottom left); in Substance Painter, with dust layer added (bottom right)

Then to add all the details we want and to make it ‘age’ we’ll start adding fill layers with smart masks to add dust, dirt, wear and tear, and rust. With smart masks you can simulate a lot of parameters like dust collecting in corners, or in hard-to-access spaces. It’s very easy to play with the sliders of these layers to make the elements look older, or newer. Like this, we can really give a vehicle any age we want, instead of having all the vehicles in the game look brand new.

Some presets are used on several airplanes to end up with the same aspect. Globally, a vehicle will always get older the same way.

Cockpit seats, in-game

Cockpit seats in-game (top); in Substance Painter, clean (bottom left); in Substance Painter, with dust layer added (bottom right)

Microsoft Flight Simulator is currently available for Windows PC on Steam and the Microsoft Store.

Meet Benjamin Rieubland

Benjamin has over a decade of experience as a professional 3D artist and 3D Vehicle Artist. He joined Asobo Studio in December 2017, and is currently Art Outsourcing Manager.