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Chapter 8. Flight Simulator (1980): Digital Reality

Chapter 8. Flight Simulator (1980): Digital Reality

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as its potential audience, often by allowing the end user to turn off

various levels of realism or activate automated assists as a gateway (or form of training) for the full, unfiltered experience.

By the 1960s, after years of manual and electromechanical simulators that, at best, put pilots in realistic cockpits with minimal

feedback and only a limited sensation of flight, digital computers

were integrated and allowed for increasingly robust simulations,

even playing a critical role in NASA’s nascent space program. By

the 1970s, the foundation was in place for today’s full-flight simulators, which accurately replicate the cockpit and characteristics

of a specific aircraft type, flight condition, flight dynamics, and

navigation, with full outside vision and sound for other aircraft

and meteorological variables.

Screenshot of a later revision

of subLOGIC’s original Flight

Simulator for the Apple II.

It was during this period in the 1970s that one man, Bruce

Artwick, almost single-handedly established the market for realistic simulations in the fledgling home computer market. The

website Flight Simulator History sums Simulator History, sums up

Artwick’s early history best:

In the mid-’70s Bruce Artwick was an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois. Being a

passionate pilot, it was only natural that the principles of

flight became the focus of his master’s work. In his thesis of

May 1975, called “A versatile computer-generated dynamic

flight display” he presented a model of the flight of an aircraft, displayed on a computer screen. He proved that the

6800 processor (the first available microcomputer) was

able to handle both the arithmetic and the graphic display,


needed for real-time flight simulation. In short: the first

Flight Simulator was born. In 1978 Bruce Artwick, together

with Stu Moment, founded his own software company by

the name of SubLOGIC and started developing graphic software for the 6800, 6502, 8080 and other processors. In 1979

he decided to take the model from his thesis one step further and developed the first Flight Simulator program for the

Apple-II (based on the 6502 processor), followed shortly by a

version for the Radio Shack TRS-80. Both versions were completely coded in their respective platform’s machine-code. In

January 1980 SubLOGIC FS1 hit the consumer market. . . . By

1981 Flight Simulator was reportedly the best selling title for

the Apple. By the end of 1997 Microsoft claimed to have sold

not less than 10 million copies of all versions of FS, making it the best sold software title in the entertainment sector. And in 2000 Microsoft Flight Simulator was taken up in

the Guinness Book of Records with 21 million copies sold per

June 1999. We certainly owe one to Bruce Artwick.3

Although visually crude to modern eyes, with a painfully low

frame rate and rendered in only four colors, the original Flight

Simulator, released on cassette for the 16K (RAM) Apple II in 1980,

nevertheless contained all of the necessary elements to model flying

an aircraft—in this case a slow, but maneuverable Sopwith Camel4

biplane from World War I. The view was first-person, looking out of

the front of the plane, which was represented on the top half of the

screen, with the simplified cockpit display (instrument panel) on

the bottom half. The graphics and collision detection were far from

realistic. The scenery consisted of unfilled line drawings and players

could fly right through mountains. Even crashing into the ground

caused the plane to bounce back up rather than explode.

With the virtual world limited to a 6 ϫ 6 grid, where each grid

represented one square mile, Artwick chose to tie into the World

War I theme with an option for aerial combat. At any time during

a flight, the player could press the “w” key to declare war, which

would immediately send five enemy planes into the air. It was

then up to the player to engage the opposing planes and drop a

bomb on their fuel depot before being shot down. Although not a

great action game by any stretch of the imagination, the addition


http://fshistory.simflight.com/fsh/versions.htm. It has also been suggested that

Airfight (1974) for the PLATO networked computer system was an inspiration for

the young Artwick. While Artwick would have had access to PLATO through the

university, there is no evidence of any direct influence.


A British single-seat fighter biplane that debuted in 1917 and was famous for its

maneuverability (as well as being the plane that Snoopy from Peanuts imagined

his dog house to be). According to Artwick’s description in the manual for the first

TRS-80 version, the plane was chosen for having similar flight characteristics to a

modern Piper Cub 150.




of combat provided more incentive for the would-be player to try

what otherwise might have been an intimidating simulation.5

Screenshot from subLOGIC’s TRS-80

version of Flight Simulator.

Shortly after the initial Apple II release, subLOGIC published

a version on cassette for the technically inferior TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack (Tandy).6 However, this did not stop

Artwick from improving the program in at least a few key areas

based on user feedback, a habit that would become a hallmark

of subsequent Flight Simulator releases. Improvements included

the frame rate, which was increased from three to six frames per

second7 and an additional overhead, or “radar” view. Of course,

inherent to the platform, there was no sound and the visuals

were black and white and blocky. The resolution was limited to

the TRS-80’s 128 ϫ 48 display, which necessitated the removal

of the graphical instrument panel. Nevertheless, as laughable as

this sounds today, at the time what the program accomplished


To be fair, the breakthrough visual display would certainly have been a big

enough initial appeal, but this ultimately goes back to the earlier discussion of

balancing realism with fun and would have been one of the factors that helped

mitigate any potential monotony from just flying about, keeping players coming

back for more.


Also requiring 16K RAM, which—on a platform where configurations at the time

could range from just 4K to 8K—was still a fairly reasonable requirement.


As a point of reference, movies are generally shot in 24 frames per second, television in 30 frames per second, and modern videogames often 60 frames per



was groundbreaking, as this statement from a contemporary

1980 review by Roxton Baker indicates: “This is a superb program. It is so innovative and advanced that it must be praised in

parts; its whole effect is beyond comparison with any existing

TRS-80 software. First, FS1 is a highly realistic simulation of small

aircraft flight. It combines with that a sophisticated, ingenious,

and breathtaking 3D graphics display. Finally it provides an exciting and challenging real-time dogfight game. In any one of these

aspects FS1 must be rated well ahead of its competition. Indeed

for the graphics display, it has no competition.”8

subLOGIC would release several more notable updates to

Flight Simulator: two for the Apple II,9 one for the TRS-80 and

a fourth, a completely new version for the IBM PC, published

through Microsoft. On the Apple II, version 2 added a crash

graphic message if the player hit the ground too hard, a low

altitude counter for a better sense of ground clearance, and the

overhead view from the first TRS-80 version; version 3 expanded

the size of the environment and added several new 3D objects in

place of the previously flat landmarks. On the TRS-80, the update

included a floppy disk version with enhanced frame rate and collision detection. The IBM PC version, released in 1982, would

represent a second generation product and be the true blueprint

for how the Flight Simulator series would look and perform right

through to the present day.

Microsoft Flight Simulator first appeared in late 1982 to immediate acclaim. With modest requirements—64K RAM and a

monochrome or CGA (four-color) graphics card—it was one of

the few game titles that showcased what an expensive IBM PC

was capable of at a time when even many low-end computers like

the Commodore 64 had far greater audiovisual capabilities.10 The

simulated aircraft was a modern-day Cessna 182 (complete with

retractable landing gear), and the interface featured an instrument panel with eight gauges, a new coordinate system, four different flight areas—Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York/

Boston—with 20 airports, weather, and more. In other words, it

took Flight Simulator to the next level. Regularly updated releases

would follow, with Microsoft publishing the first of several

initially black-and-white-only Macintosh versions, in 1986.




Check out Mark Percival’s excellent introduction to each Apple II version update

at http://fshistory.simflight.com/fsvault/fs1-apple.htm.


In fact, it was common for both Microsoft Flight Simulator and the spreadsheet

software Lotus 1-2-3 to be used to prove how compatible an “IBM-compatible”

computer really was. Microsoft would release a few additional versions of their

original program for other IBM-like platforms that didn’t have IBM PC compatibility but did run a version of Microsoft DOS, like the Texas Instruments Professional





Box back from Microsoft Flight

Simulator. Note the modest

system requirements.

In 1983, subLOGIC went back to the Apple II platform to

release Flight Simulator II, which would later be ported to the

Atari 8-bit,11 Commodore 64, and Radio Shack Color Computer 3.

It featured even more enhancements and innovations than

Microsoft Flight Simulator, and was based on the Piper Archer

aircraft. In 1986, Flight Simulator II was released for the advanced

Atari ST and Commodore Amiga computers, and represented

another audiovisual and feature leap for the series including

the ability to fly different kinds of aircraft. Over time, the Flight

Simulator series would receive expansions and complementary

programs in the form of additional scenery, aircraft, and features,

such as air traffic control or real-time weather.

subLOGIC and Microsoft would continue to release software

titles independently of each other, including related simulations,


Interestingly, Flight Simulator II would be one of Atari’s pack-in cartridges with

their XE Game System (XEGS), which was an Atari 8-bit computer with a detachable keyboard that was marketed against the Nintendo Entertainment System as a

more sophisticated videogame console.



Screenshot of Flight Simulator II

on the Apple II.

Flight Simulator II running on the

transportable Commodore SX-64,

shown with a custom controller

and the program’s detailed


like subLOGIC’s Jet (1985; Apple II, Commodore 64, PC, and

others) and Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe

Series (1998; PC). Today, only Microsoft has the rights to the Flight

Simulator name and continues to release new, ever-more-realistic



versions (like 2006’s Microsoft Flight Simulator X), with full support

for all kinds of expansions and third-party adjuncts to enhance

the product even further, rivaling even the most advanced commercial systems of years past.

In 1988, Artwick left subLOGIC and founded BAO, or Bruce

Artwick Organization, retaining the copyright to Flight Simulator,

though the company and remaining rights were bought out by

Microsoft in 1996. Artwick remained on as a consultant. BAO’s

Box back for Silent Service (1985),

Atari 8-bit version.



Simulations have often bordered

on the fanciful, like subLOGIC’s

pictured UFO (1989) for the PC,

which simulates control of an

alien spacecraft.

most notable development was Microsoft Space Simulator (1994;

PC), one of the first and so far only comprehensive mainstream

general-purpose space-flight simulators, featuring different spacecraft, space stations, missions, and intergalactic travel.12 subLOGIC,

which released Flight Assignment: A.T.P. (Airline Transport Pilot) in

1990 for PC,13 was bought out by Sierra in 1995, who released the

first of the short-lived Pro Pilot series of Flight Simulator competitors in 1997.14

By the mid-1980s, many competitive titles had been released,

some taking Flight Simulator head on (Solo Flight [MicroProse,

1983; Commodore 64 and others]), with others focused on

more targeted experiences, like pure combat (Falcon [Spectrum

Holobyte, 1987; Atari ST and others]) or strict instruments

(nonvisual) simulation (BHXP1 Experimental Aircraft [Bruce

Hellstrom, 1987; TI-99/4a]). Of course, simulations, both of the

CSA and SSA variety, were not limited to flight. Many other notable simulations were developed over the years, including SCRAM

(Atari, 1981; Atari 8-bit), a nuclear reactor simulator by Chris

Crawford; Pinball Fantasies (Digital Illusions, 1992; Atari Jaguar,

Commodore Amiga, PC, and others), a pinball machine simulator with realistic physics; C.P.U. Bach (Microprose, 1993; 3DO), a

simulation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music creation abilities by

Sid Meier; Gran Turismo (Sony, 1997; Sony PlayStation), a sophisticated driving simulation with an arcade mode; Baseball Mogul

(Sports Mogul, 1997; PC), which simulates managing an entire

baseball franchise; and Microsoft Train Simulator (2001; PC), an


See bonus chapter, “Elite (1984): Space, the Endless Frontier,” for more on

Microsoft Space Simulator and similar games.


Modeling the Boeing 737, 747, 767, Airbus A320, and Shorts 360.


Today, “subLOGIC Corporation” provides custom part-task or full simulations to

industry or research organizations.



Box back for paper airplane

simulator, Glider 4.0 (1994),

Apple Macintosh version.

add-on friendly train simulator. Like Flight Simulator, all of those

games and more took great pains to model reality as closely as

possible to create compelling experiences.

Surprisingly, in an industry best known for quick pick-up-andplay experiences, the arcade has also played a part in advancing

the state-of-the-art for low-cost simulations. Outside of today’s

arcade games that mimic traditional activities like skateboarding,

skiing, riding a motorcycle, or racing a car—almost like a mix of

videogames and amusement park rides (see Chapter 3, “Dance

Dance Revolution (1998): The Player Becomes the Star”)—as far

back as 1979, the arcade was providing immersive experiences,

thanks in large part to Atari. In that year, Atari’s Lunar Lander

was released, an unforgiving vector-based simulation of landing a manned spaceship on the moon. The player must carefully

manage fuel consumption and the effects of gravity and inertia

while applying thrust in an attempt to carefully touch down on

one of several landing areas. Atari would follow up a year later

with Battlezone (mentioned in bonus chapter, “Defender (1980):

The Joys of Difficult Games”), a vector-graphics action tank game



Some simulations, like Microsoft

Space Simulator (box back

shown), have amazingly ambitious


with realistic controls that the U.S. Army famously commissioned

in a modified form for a simulation of their own. Atari would

repurpose the Battlezone hardware themselves that same year for

Red Baron, a first-person flight simulator skewed heavily toward

action-packed dog fights.15

Perhaps more than any other genre of videogame, the simulation—and more specifically, the flight simulator—has pushed the

boundaries of both hardware and software. A convincing simulation of flight requires an immense knowledge of both the real

world and the technology to represent it. Once these technologies


Not to be confused with Sierra’s Red Baron, a 1990 game for the Commodore

Amiga and PC (and now the Microsoft Xbox 360’s Xbox Live Arcade). Sierra’s game,

which offered a story-based campaign mode, became a huge hit for the company,

and is widely regarded as a classic of the genre. The game’s own sequels failed to

live up to the original.



Lunar Lander screenshot.

Red Baron screenshot, with

simulation of the color overlay.

had been developed, they could be adapted for a wide variety of

other types of videogames, such as the ubiquitous first-person

shooters of today. However, as we’ve seen in this chapter, the most

successful commercial developers of simulators had to carefully

balance fun with realism, making trade-offs that would hopefully please more gamers than they turned off. Artwick’s Flight

Simulator certainly achieved such a balance, and thus stands as

one of the greatest and most influential games of all time.

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