Asobo Studio recently announced that the first major expansion for Microsoft Flight Simulator will be released on November 18 2021. This expansion will add 40 new aircraft to the game: 10 North American P-51 Mustangs, 10 North American T-6 Texans, 10 Aero L-39 Albatrosses, and 10 Aviat Pitts Special S-1Ss. These aircraft include many famous ‘named’ aircraft – champions of the Reno Air Race such as Baron’s Revenge, Pipsqueak, Radial Velocity, and many more.
Meticulous attention to detail has been a vital component of Microsoft Flight Simulator throughout the development of the game, and the Reno Air Races expansion is no exception. The Microsoft Flight Simulator team has remained in close contact with the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) throughout the development of this expansion, and consulted dozens of aircraft pilots and owners. On a recent Twitch livestream, members of the Asobo team mentioned that particular consideration has been given to precise details such as the individual appearances of each racing plane’s exhaust smoke, or the precise sound a specific engine will make as it starts up.
And this close attention to realism extends to the surface textures of each aircraft. Within the Substance team, we were thrilled when Bordeaux-based developer Asobo Studio confirmed that all aircraft in the Reno Air Races expansion have been textured with Substance 3D Painter.
In November 2020 we were fortunate enough to speak with Benjamin Rieubland, Art Outsourcing Manager at Asobo Studio. Benjamin spoke at length about the work involved in ensuring that the aircraft in Microsoft Flight Simulator are as close to real-life as possible.
Revisiting the workflow behind Microsoft Flight Simulator
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.
We created the planes from A to Z; our two big tools for this project were 3ds Max for the modeling, and Substance 3D 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.
We used Substance 3D Painter to texture the airplanes in the game, from start to finish.
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 Painter, so that it matched as closely as possible our reference. We created all our materials directly in 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.
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 (top); in Substance Painter, clean (bottom left); in Substance Painter, with dust layer added (bottom right)