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Microsoft is gearing up for the debut of its new “Microsoft Flight” franchise for Windows PCs, announcing a Feb. 29 launch and providing new details on the free experience and premium content that will be available at launch.

Leading up to the official release, the company has had a tough time winning over fans of Microsoft Flight Simulator — the pilots and experienced Flight Simmers who contend that Microsoft has taken a step back by discontinuing development of the classic Flight Sim franchise and trying to broaden the audience by making Microsoft Flight more approachable and easier to use by default.

(To get a sense for the mood, see the comment thread on my earlier post about my hands-on with Microsoft Flight at CES.)

Microsoft’s Joshua Howard, executive producer for Microsoft Flight, says he hopes those folks will take a closer look.

“Actually the simulation in here is a more robust simulation than we’ve ever seen,” he said in an interview this week at the Microsoft Flight studio, giving a demonstration of the near-final product.

“The fact that we’ve layered on top of it a variety of ways to make it also easy isn’t a contradiction. This is one of the areas where a lot of the simmers have a hard time. They see things we’ve put on top of the game to make it easier, and they feel like that makes it less of a simulation.”

From the behind-the-scenes video, inside the Microsoft Flight studios

He added, “We feel like this really is a step up from all of our previous efforts.”

Even though Microsoft Flight defaults to friendlier controls for non-pilots, the company says the key is people who want a more hard-core simulation change the settings to manual controls — flying from the cockpit using instruments in some of the planes, for example.

In the online multiplayer mode, supporting up to 16 people in a session, users who are tuned to the same radio frequency in Microsoft Flight will be able to communicate with one another.

But it as much of a simulation as Flight Simulator X?

“Even more so,” Howard said. “It’s a more robust flight model under the covers than FSX ever had. The airplanes in this are more finely tuned than any of the airplanes in our products have been. We’ve had the luxury of time and a better engine.”

One of the reasons, he acknowledged, is that there’s no backward-compatibility to Flight Simulator.

“The Flight Sim franchise, for years, was trying to support this external range of products that were being developed,” Howard said. While that’s an exciting ecosystem and continues to be for FSX, the weight of carrying all that forward really limited our opportunities, performance-wise, accessibility-wise, sophistication-wise. By cutting with the past, building a better product, a better simulation, we were able to do things that we couldn’t have done in FSX.”

Microsoft says it will offering a basic version of Flight for free, giving access to the Big Island of Hawaii, with more features and content available to people who log in with a Windows Live ID. Microsoft will also be selling an expansion pack for $20 (1600 Microsoft Points) that includes the rest of the Hawaiian Islands and additional challenges and missions, plus another plane.

Additional planes will cost $8 (640 points) for a North American P-51 Mustang and $15 (1200 points) for a Maule M-7-260C.

Some members of the former Aces team that developed Flight Simulator are working on Microsoft Flight, but new people have come aboard, as well, reflecting the shift to a new model of development and distribution.

“We are really in the midst of transitioning the organization from being an old-school development studio to really being an online business,” Howard said. “I think that’s actually pretty exciting and fundamental, and we’re certainly not the only team at Microsoft going through this change. We are running a service now, not just shipping a piece of software.”

He continued, “It means I have to build a team and an organization that can always do three, four, five things at once, because I’m supporting the current release, I’ve got somebody working on the next release, I’ve got somebody working on the release after the next release and I’ve probably got somebody planning the next big expansion” after that.

Would an Xbox Live version be possible?

“I think Flight as a franchise has legs to go lots of places on lots of cool tech,” said Howard. “Today we’re a PC title. That’s the right place for us. But I don’t rule anything out.”

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