Flight and space simulator games have been around a long time, and they have no intention of slowing down as the technology in our home computers continues to match the creativity of developers. Flight simulators and space flight sims are making a comeback... although that statement is kind of misleading in that they never really went anywhere. MS Flight Simulator 2020 has shown a mass market (via GamePass) just how both tranquil and exciting this genre can be, giving rise to a slew of sales for other related games.
Since as early as 1975 gamers have been taking to the skies and stars, flying faithfully replicated commercial aircraft, fighter jets and spacecraft with the aid of increasingly complex joysticks, accessories and peripherals. Not only can you deck out your PC in the most high performing components to match the demanding system specifications for these vast, open-world games, but you can also turn your gaming space into a cockpit that would rival most aircraft.
Flight Simulators Are Born
Back in 1975, a software engineer by the name of Bruce Artwick created the first consumer flight simulator game, founding a company called Sublogic. Following his graduation Artwick went on to release what we know as the first version of Flight Simulator on the Apple II platform in 1979. This software was later purchased by Microsoft in 1982 and gave birth to the franchise that would go on to sell billions of copies across multiple formats with the first in the series: Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0.
Although very limited by today's standards, the feeling of escape and adventure was almost palpable for fans of flying, considering this was the early eighties. Later iterations in the series began to test the performance of even the most expensive PC hardware, and was literally used as a benchmark to see if a computer was truly IBM Compatible. Now, with over 21 million copies sold over the series, it is hard to ignore as being one of the most influential games in history, as the Guinness World Record for "best-selling flight simulator series" would imply.
Sky High Specification
It would seem that we have come full circle today, as most fully paid up members of the PC Master Race will ask if your PC can play Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 as a benchmark of performance. The immense specifications required to play this modern classic are enough to make you baulk, but smart PC enthusiasts have already worked out how to get the best bang for your buck when building a flight sim gaming PC. Gamers on Reddit and YouTube have discussed the best processors, GPUs, memory and even keyboards for the game, making it even easier for new fans of the genre to get into. These specifications also lend themselves to other games of this type, such as X-Plane, DCS, as well as space flight games such as Elite: Dangerous, Outer Wilds and Microsoft's own Allegiance. Of course, these specifications can be notched right down when it comes to older games, or less demanding games of the two genres.
When we compare the specifications for X-Plane 11 with that of Outer Wilds, for example, there is little parity:
X-Plane 11 Minimum Specifications
- CPU: Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 CPU with 2 or more cores, or AMD equivalent. (Dual-core CPUs slower than 3 GHz should try the demo before purchasing.)
- Memory: 8 GB RAM
- Video Card: a DirectX 11-capable video card from NVIDIA, AMD or Intel with at least 1 GB VRAM (NVIDIA GeForce 600 or newer)
Outer Wilds Minimum Specifications
- CPU: Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
- OS: Windows 7
- Processor: Intel Core i5-2300 | AMD FX-4350
- Memory: 6 GB RAM
- Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 660, 2 GB | AMD Radeon HD 7870, 2 GB
...and then there's Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020:
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Minimum Specifications
- CPU: Intel Core i5-4460 or AMD Ryzen 3 1200
- RAM: 8 GB
- OS: Windows 10 64-bit
- VIDEO CARD: Radeon RX 570 or GeForce GTX 770
- PIXEL SHADER: 5.0
- VERTEX SHADER: 5.0
- FREE DISK SPACE: 150 GB
- DEDICATED VIDEO RAM: 2048 MB
Whilst you may think this is quite tame, the result of using the minimum specifications on MSFS 2020 may not be to your liking.
What this comes down to is good developmental planning on behalf of the developers of X-Plane, DCS and others. By making an extremely complex and expansive game less demanding on hardware, it becomes more widely appealing. Microsoft, on the other hand, don't exactly need to worry about this trivial aspect of software production, because MSFS 2020 was a day one release on Xbox Series X|S, and they have already racked up enough fans of the series to know most of these consumers already have a beastly PC to get the most out of the games.
Flight Sims vs Space Flight Sims
What specification you need will depend on your chosen genre, naturally, and if you really want to see and play the game as the developers intended. Even with minimum specifications on some games, you will see some glaringly obvious problems that you just can't unsee, making them unplayable for the most part. Star Citizen is guilty on all counts here, with minimum requirements giving you a paltry framerates, according to some reviewers, and jagged textures that just don't do the game justice.
It's not the same for all games, though, as we've said. For example, playing Elite: Dangerous on Low settings with the minimum specifications will treat you to the exact same experience as gamers who have the absolute best specifications for the game - and this is how you will need to approach your flight/space flight PC build. It really is horses for courses.
You will need to think about which game you want to play, and what overall experience you hope to have. Do you want to muddle through on Low - Med settings, or do you want the full Ultra settings experience, replete with shiny textures, 60+ FPS and zero stuttering?
Flight simulators tend to have a lot more textures to worry about than space flight sims, in that space is... well... space. There's not much to render in space flight games until you enter the orbit of a planet, land at a space station or get into a ruck with an enemy pilot, so for the most part - you're not going to need all of your hardware power all of the time. Flight simulators, on the other hand, demand your hardware renders buildings, mountains, oceans and other assets most of the time if you want to take in the sights. This is truly what separates the genres - eye candy.
If you are a serious flight simulator gamer, then you will no doubt take to the sky and hit your cruising altitude among the clouds. You will enjoy the quiet, calm experience for what it is, and begin your descent at the appropriate time to land. If you are a flight simulator fan who enjoys the low flying scenic route, then your system will be working overtime on rendering the buildings and scenery, as you skim the satellite dishes and lightning rods below. Flying high above the clouds is also demanding in MSFS 2020, considering the huge amount of detail that has been put into weather systems and the volumetric clouds the developers worked so hard to recreate. Cloud settings alone can take an age to get right for your system, but it is well worth it, as this YouTube video by VR Flight World explains.
Low Flying in NYC in MSFS 2020 - Credit: MaximumGRAPHX (YouTube)
Space/Flight Simulators - Best Value PC Specifications
As each game in the space flight and flight simulator genre has multiple settings to play with and tweak to your liking, we just need a solid starting point for the PC build that will enable decent framerates and the ability to load up textures quickly. If you don't want to build your PC, then there is always the option to buy a custom PC fit for the job.
BUILD OPTION: CCL Core i9 10900F Motherboard Bundle
- Intel Core i9 10900F 2.8GHz
- 16GB Kingston DDR4 Memory
- MSI MAG B460 TORPEDO
Price as of November 2021: £579.99 (Click for latest pricing)
One of the best ways to get value in a PC build is to purchase a motherboard bundle, which will give most of the parts you need to upgrade your PC - a motherboard, memory and a processor. You can then strap in a GPU according to your budget.
Whilst this motherboard bundle gives you the starting point for excellent performance in all flight simulators (including MSFS 2020), you will of course need a graphics card. With the above specification, and with incremental tweaks of the game's settings, you can expect high framerates from even end of line graphics cards such as the GTX 1070 (1920x1080 High) or, better still, opting for one of the newer RTX cards such as the Gigabyte GeForce RTX 2060 6GB GPU. You will still be at around £1000 in budget with this option, so if you don't already have a graphics card at a good price, you could opt for a complete, custom built gaming PC.
BUY OPTION: Horizon 5 AMD GTX 1650 Gaming PC
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600 3.6GHz
- 16GB DDR4 3200MHz
- GeForce GTX 1650 4GB
- 500GB Kingston NV1 NVMe SSD
- 1TB Seagate BarraCuda HDD
- 433Mbps Built-in Wi-Fi
Price as of November 2021: £768.99 (Click for latest pricing)
The Horizon 5 Gaming PC comes with a powerful Nvidia GTX 1650 4GB graphics card, which means you are already paying less for your GPU having it preinstalled in a system. The Ryzen 5 3600 CPU and 16GB DDR4 RAM backs up the graphics card with excellent benchmarks in flight simulator games.
A similar specification can be seen below for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020:
The Horizon 5 Gaming PC meets all of the minimum and recommended specifications for flight simulators such as: -
- X-Plane 11
- Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
- FlightGear Flight Simulator
- IL-2 Sturmovik
- War Thunder
As for space flight, you will not have any problems playing any of the following: -
- EVE: Online
- Elite: Dangerous
- Star Citizen
- Outer Wilds
Tweaking Your Settings
The above games are some of the most popular games for each genre, but what you really want to know is how to get your settings just right so you can experience the game as the developers imagined it. We will leave you with some links for the best optimisation settings for each of the above games: -