Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
When the Stars Align

Erin Hoffman | 19 Jan 2010 13:40
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The team's inexperience made them hungry, a trait that carried many other teams of its era to fame and fortune. But it also meant slipped deadlines and a project that may have been too ambitious for its own good. The entire team sacrificed their health and relationships for the project - as well as sleep and a good bit of sanity. Lee and Johnson agree that they wouldn't be able to replicate those working hours again. "I remember saying that I didn't care if I died after it came out," Johnson says, "and please God let me live until then."

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One of the cerebral weights of the project was the language in which it was written. Forth, brought into the project by Dave Boulton, was a programming language with philosophical roots. Modern enthusiasts often compare the experience of writing it with Buddhism for its requirement of organized thought and self-defined context. Although Boulton left the project early on, finding it too ambitious, Lee was chosen as his replacement for his skill with graphics and language programming. He would turn out to be useful in other ways as well. "Without Tim Lee there would be no Starflight," Johnson maintains. "We were almost canceled on three separate occasions, but Tim's technical planning and his great confidence really kept the ship afloat."

Starflight's direct legacy encompassed several games: Johnson went on to make ToeJam & Earl, also set in space; Joe Ybarra made Protostar, while Paul Reiche was so taken by the idea of a big space epic that he pitched the idea of Star Control to Accolade and asked Johnson to write three of its alien races. Starflight itself had one full-production sequel in Starflight 2, and two fan-made projects (Starflight: The Lost Colony and the in-development Starflight 3: Mysteries of the Universe). The intensity of the Starflight experience stayed with its developers. Tim Lee, who went on to do graphics programming outside the industry, describes developing the game as "one of the fondest experiences of my life."

The strange alchemy that led to one of the earliest breakout success stories in videogames oddly rings true today. Without a model to follow, the Starflight developers did all the right things: They sought mentorship, invested themselves wholly in the creative process, believed in what they were doing and didn't let the game go until it was done, even though that meant publisher renegotiations. Traveling this distance without a map is viscerally inspiring and speaks to the challenges facing indie game developers today. Lee thinks that the kind of creative autonomy that those early days of the industry afforded was the key: "I guess if you allowed a game designer that kind of freedom, you could get another Starflight."

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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