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Is the End of the Flight Sim Genre Near?

Over the last two years we've seen a steady decline in the number of PC flight simulations being brought to market. While that in itself isn't really disturbing because we've seen that the PC game industry tends to be cyclic as well, but what's caused some alarm is several existing flight sim franchises have gone away during this time period.

For a short recap, Sierra's "Pro Pilot" is gone (some have said "deservedly"), so has their "Desert Fighters" (reputed to have been the continuation of their "Aces" series). Then there was the cancellation of Jane's Combat Simulations "A-10" that came with the demise of the Austin, TX branch of Jane's (the people that brought us the brilliant "Longbow" series), and the cancellation of Jane's "Attack Squadron" (formally known as "Flight Combat" from Looking Glass Studios). Hasbro (formally MicroProse/Spectrum Holobyte, the creators of the "Falcon" series and the Pacific/European Air War series) announced that they will no longer produce flight simulations after their current scheduled releases are made. Kesmai axed "Jet Warrior," and the most recent casualty is the shutdown of Looking Glass Studios (the creators of the "Flight Unlimited" series).

Looking ahead to Christmas season 2000 and beyond, the future of flight sims certainly does look dark. We have "Combat Flight Simulator 2," "B-17 II" (whose ultimate release is rumored to be shaky), an update to "Flanker 2.0," "IL-2 Sturmovick," Rowan/Empire's "Battle of Britain," and a couple of arcade entries to look forward to--slim pickings compared to last year. Is this the beginning of the end?

If not, what happened? Has the public's fascination with flight dwindled? Has the public grown tired of PC entertainment? Well, looking at the numbers, pilot starts has not changed significantly (if that's any indicator), and PC game sales are still rising in other genres.

If anything, it looks as if stand-alone air combat flight sims are on the way out. (Perhaps it's the lack of a televised war that dried up public interest in air combat sims? I don't think so, but I'll comment on that theory some other time.) Aside from the demise of Pro Pilot (the Flight Unlimited series seems to be a casualty of a merger deal gone bad), it seems as if Civil Aviation sims such as Microsoft Flight Simulator and FLY! are here to stay.

In one of my columns about three years ago, I predicted that a great flight sim shakeout was coming. Although it'd be nice to claim clairvoyance, it was simple to see that the industry was producing too many products, and there were too many "me-too" products hitting the shelves. (After all, how many F-22 and WWII sims can a gamer play in one year?) Given the cost and the sophistication/complexity that consumers demand today, it was a losing battle for developers in a crowded market.

Still, Civie sims don't seem to be selling as well as they have in the past. Personally I think that one of the problems is developers have lost sight of what's important to the experience. What I'm referring to are the basic things that attract people to flight in the first place. Instead of trying to fulfill the thirst for "the magic of flight," developers concentrate on things such as the colors of buttons, and instrument placement. One can't afford to ignore the basics in the pursuit of new "features."

Although the quest for realism is admirable, one mustn't forget the elementary flight sim paradox--the more complex (read realistic) a sim becomes, the audience it'll appeal to becomes smaller. With a smaller market, the price must be increased to cover costs borne by fewer units sold, further lowering its mass-market appeal. It all then becomes a vicious cycle, spiraling downward into oblivion. If Microsoft isn't careful, I can envision Flight Simulator heading down this path.

So, are flight sims dead? I'll go out on a limb and say emphatically, no! This is a shakeout and a larger cyclic shift. I predict that flight sims will fly high once again... eventually--and most likely when we have a hardware breakthrough to accompany it. Until then, we'll have to make due and actually finish the sims we do get our flight-controller hands on. And that can't really be a bad thing, can it?

Clear skies!
2000 Ben Chiu

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