MICROSOFT FLIGHT REVIEW PART 1: MARKETING

In this first part of the review I’ll look at the promotion and marketing strategy chosen for FLIGHT. It is safe to say that the entire marketing campaign has been a pretty tight lipped affair from the get go. Until recently all communication from Microsoft was shared through the Microsoft FLIGHT website – a pretty drab affair with few and infrequent updates.

This review is a work in progress and might be updated without notice. Feel free to comment.

ANNOUNCEMENT

FLIGHT was first introduced to the public at Gamescom in Germany in august 2010. It took a lot of fans by surprise. Since closing the ACES studio in January 2009 the future of the Flight Simulator franchise looked bleak. The press release contained very little solid information about FLIGHT, but nevertheless brought back hopes of finally getting a FSX replacement.

COLOGNE, Germany — Aug. 17, 2010 — On the eve of gamescom 2010, the world’s largest consumer-oriented games showcase, Microsoft Corp. unveiled the newest addition to the famed “Age of Empires” franchise, “Age of Empires Online.” Microsoft also announced the development of “Microsoft Flight,” a new entry inspired by the best-selling “Microsoft Flight Simulator” franchise. Published by Microsoft Game Studios, these new titles, along with the previously announced “Fable III,” fully integrate the free* Games for Windows – LIVE online service to deliver compelling socially connected gameplay experiences.

“Today, we’re bringing powerful, inventive gaming experiences to the Windows-based PC,” said Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios. “Over the years, our PC heritage captured the hearts and minds of millions of players. Reinventing these iconic franchises with social, shared experiences at their core marks the beginning of our return to PC gaming in bold new ways.”

[…] Introducing “Microsoft Flight”

Twenty-eight years after the debut of “Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0,” Microsoft Game Studios also announced the internal development of “Microsoft Flight,” a new Windows exclusive. “Microsoft Flight” will bring a new perspective to the long-standing genre, welcoming everyone, including long-time fans, to experience the magic of flight.

A teaser of the future of Flight on the Windows-based PC is available at http://www.microsoft.com/games/flight. […] 

* Broadband Internet required.

ANNOUNCEMENT WEBISODE

The teaser video released at the same time as the development announcement obviously wasn’t in-game footage, but a rendering, but it nevertheless contained hints of what to expect: Low and slow flight over picturesque scenery further enhanced by sentimental music and a female voiceover saying: “When I was a child, I dreamed I could fly.” I firmly believe that this message is a hit among the majority of real and “wannabe” aviators. The video also introduces a new default aircraft, the Boeing-Stearman 75 Kaydet, continuing Microsoft’s long affiliation with fellow Washington resident, the Boeing Company. Overall it is a nice looking video, although for some reason it has some horrible stutters (sadly a familiar phenomenon for FSX users).

THE WEBSITE

The official website has been the only source of information during the development process. The design has remained mostly unchanged since the beginning. Visually it does its job, but it can’t be described as cutting edge. The background image appears to be the same image used on the FLIGHT beta main menu/welcoming screen.

Usability is poor. It requires the use of Microsoft Silverlight plugin which shuts out a lot of surfers – even those using Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer unless they have administrative rights to the PC they’re using. Only a small portion of the desktop space is utilized for actual information and there are no alternative language or text resize tools.

There was also an offering to sign up for an exclusive newsletter. From what I hear that caused a lot of disappointments as only one or two emails from Microsoft were ever received. Personally I did get just the confirmation email and never saw a single newsletter. The website also has a feedback option and I still haven’t heard of anyone getting an answer or reply back from Microsoft regarding their feedback.

The official website seems to honor the tradition of dull websites belonging to the Flight Simulator series. Why Microsoft chose not to take better advantage of this cheap and accessible marketing channel puzzles me.

THE WEBSITE FAQ

The original website FAQ was published in September 2010. The part about ACES was later removed and replaced by a disclosure explaining which webisodes that were in-game recordings. Apart from the usual mumbo-jumbo, the FAQ contained several significant statements:

  • FLIGHT is a new PC game available on the Games for Windows – LIVE service.
  • FLIGHT will bring a new perspective to the long-standing “Flight Simulator” franchise.
  • FLIGHT will include new game play elements, aircraft, enhanced scenery and terrain and integrated content marketplace.
  • FLIGHT builds off its heritage of deep, immersive simulation and is redesigned to make the experience easier for virtual fliers of all interests and skills.
  • FLIGHT retains the full fidelity simulation longtime fans have come to expect.
  • FLIGHT is updated virtually. You can fly solo or join an entire global flight community online.
  • FLIGHT is being developed by many of the same creative minds that shaped Microsoft Flight Simulator.

From the above I conclude that Microsoft has observed that despite good sales most buyers didn’t spend much time playing previous versions of Flight Simulator. The entertainment market is global and highly competitive. PC games don’t just compete with other video games, but the entire entertainment industry where companies are fiercely fighting to gain control of our limited free time. Hence, FLIGHT needs a broader appeal and improved usability to succeed in a world where substitute products exist in abundance among teenagers with very short attention span.

I think the FAQ pretty much explained what FLIGHT is and isn’t. What we still don’t know is how it will be received by the market. Does FLIGHT retain the full fidelity hard core fans expect and will the gaming elements appeal to those so inclined? Reports and videos from beta testers show a very limited version of the game and should probably be considered a demo. Microsoft is performing quite a balancing act trying to cater different extremes of the virtual pilot market. By reinventing a proven franchise Microsoft might end up with a game too dumbed down for the hard core simmer, and at the same time, too boring for the seasoned gamer.

WEBISODES

As I stated in the introduction Microsoft has been very tight lipped during the development phase of FLIGHT. There hasn’t been much to read on the website, so most fans have studied the webisodes and screenshots over and over again looking for clues. Apart from the first two videos (including the announcement webisode), all webisodes are actual in-game footage. You can see all of them at Microsoft FLIGHT’s official YouTube-channel.

The first two videos have a mature and sentimental theme, even throwing in a Shakespeare quote: – My soul is in the sky. Both videos are quite short and feature a vintage Kaydet aircraft in low level flight. They’re very suggestive and seductive in nature, accented by a calm female voice delivering the simple messages. It is almost as if Microsoft wanted to calm down the excitement of long time fans and reassure them that this was a game/simulator for old school aviators.

In webisode 2 “Lift” the pace has been picked up slightly as we get to see the Kaydet take off from Hilo Intl. airport in Hawaii. A female voice is still narrating, but this time the calmness and sentimentality from the first videos are gone. For the first time we are shown real in-game footage and also get a glimpse of the FLIGHT’s scenery. Some nice animations and details in the Kaydet aircraft indicate that the default aircraft are of far better quality than those in FSX.

Webisode 3 “Free” introduces the Maule – an FSX survivor. Backed by some generic synthesizer music we see the Maule fly at low level over the ocean and into a valley. The narrating voice is gone and has been replaced by a simple three part text saying: “Birds fly for free. So can you. Fly free”. We now know that Microsoft wasn’t just suggesting a free flight option, but actually that they were going to give the game away for free.

Webisode 4 “Explore” was posted in june 2011. The music has become more dramatic and pompous, which suits this video perfectly. Its main focus is to showcase the grandeur of the Hawaiian landscape as it is rendered by FLIGHT’s scenery and weather engine. It is hard to argue that the scenery, skies and shadows/lighting aren’t huge improvements over FSX. We also get a short glimpse of the RV-6A cockpit, cementing the general aviation focus in FLIGHT.

Webisodes 5 “Gameplay” and 6 “Trailer” were published as part of the beta launching sequence. The change in pace, music and content makes these videos dramatically different from all the previous videos. Six months has gone by since webisode 4 was posted and focus has shifted towards fast paced action and game play elements. The Icon A5 and P-51 Mustang are introduced and the narrator is now a male voice trying to add an aura of masculinity and testosterone to the game.

The video quality of the above videos aren’t great, but they get the job done. Again, nothing spectacular to get ones blood boiling with excitement, but a lot of information is shared, although a tad subtle at times. What will remain a mystery is if the change in mood in the videos mirror a change in direction during the development of FLIGHT.

FLIGHT FACEBOOK AND YOUTUBE PAGES

 In addition to the official website Microsoft have bravely entered enemy territory and created pages on competing social media websites Facebook and YouTube. Traffic on these websites are only surpassed by Google, so Microsoft is clearly aiming at reaching as many potential customers as possible. The Youtube page contains all the webisodes in HD quality and serves as a nice supplement to less accessible videos on the FLIGHT website (requiring the installation of Microsoft’s own Silverlight plugin). The Facebook-page has more content. It’s also contains information and links that you can’t find on the FLIGHT website.

 It is very hard to judge how successful the Youtube and Facebook presence has been. Since launching the beta, these pages have seen a disturbing share of negative feedback from outraged fans. In fact it takes a diligent search to find positive comments among these hostile bombardments. But according to sources in the flight sim community that was invited to Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters for a secret briefing in December 2011, these reactions were expected. But I’m not convinced Microsoft forcasted the high number of fans voicing their flaming opinions.

INCONCLUSIVE CONCLUSION

Seven videos, 49 screenshots, a FAQ and some very infrequent news postings on the FLIGHT website is what Microsoft offered its fans in terms of information since announcing FLIGHT in august 2010. From a customer and fan standpoint I find the marketing campaign abysmal. There were a few glimmers of light along the way, but mostly Microsoft decided to keep outsiders in the dark. To me that signals a mix of arrogance and lack of pride and passion for their own product. If the product really is bad, then I can see why Microsoft didn’t bother. On the other hand, if it turns out great all will be forgotten and forgiven.

But aren’t I forgetting something? Yes indeed. Microsoft is giving the “demo” away for free. As such any criticism of the marketing campaign becomes kind of bleak and bloodless. Still, even large corporations like Microsoft would profit in the long term if they focused more on building strong customer relationships. As a huge player in the entertainment industry Microsoft could learn a lot from sports clubs and music bands in terms of customer involvement and loyalty. A look towards some of the smaller competitors in the software industry wouldn’t hurt either.  As a customer it is not desirable to be linked to a brand that so many have chosen to hate. I can’t understand why creating a little enthusiasm around a product is so hard for some companies. With the earlier versions of Flight Simulator Microsoft had no real competition, but FLIGHT is a different product and Microsoft might have to try a little harder to win a loyal following this time around.

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