54: Wing Leader

"The once-dignified halls of the Consumer Electronics Show turned raucous. That day, the entire Lucasfilm booth staff huddled in a tight, silent knot before the Wing Commander monitors. They watched for a long time." In Wing Leader, Allen Varney tells the story of a company named Origin and the space game that changed the world.

Wing Leader

Thanks for a thoroughly engrossing read on a game I'd all but forgotten about (to my shame).

There's a slight problem with the links being out of whack in the bulleted list on the final page though--specifically, the link to Privateer: Gemini Gold is for something earlier in the text.

Otherwise top-notch.

Y'know, as much as Wing Commander was the poster boy for space gaming, it was also a prelude to the genre's downfall - in a very real way. Those fast-moving bitmaps surely inspired Doom - for Id it was just a case of dumbing things down a bit, pouring on the blood, and, et voila, base gaming appeal ;)

- Z

Oh man..It's been such a long time since I played any of the WC series. It deefinitely brings back memories with my friend piloting with the flight joystick and me on the keyboard.

Actually Origin's Ultima and the Wing Commander series are what inspired me to get into the game industry as an artist.

One of my first games was working on Freespace 2 as a ship artist. The later WC series were always a quality standard and friendly competitor to push the team and I to new heights.

If I could meet Chris C. I would shake his hand for how much influence he had in my career and game playing..

jLA

The Truth about X-Wing and Wing Commander

I wasn't at CES in 1990, but I have to question the veracity of some of the statements in Allen Varney's article on Wing Leader. I entered the industry as a tester at Lucasfilm Games in 1991 and at that time Larry Holland was working non-stop on completing Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (which shipped that year.) SWotL was the 3rd in a highly successful series of flight combat games. Work on X-Wing did not begin until December 1991. I left Lucasarts and joined Larry's team in August of 1992 when X-Wing was still pre-Alpha.

The timeline is this:
" Battlehawks 1942 (work began in 1987, DOS release in 1988, Atari ST in 1989.)
" Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain (work began in 1988, DOS release in 1989, Atari ST and Amiga in 1990.)
" Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (work began in 1990, DOS release in 1991, with two expansions in 1991 and two more in 1992.)

There's a somewhat misleading history on Lucasarts' site: http://www.lucasarts.com/20th/history_1.htm (Misleading because they make statements attributing these games to the "the simulation team inside Lucasarts" when the fact is Larry was an independent contractor who assembled his own independent team. We incorporated as Totally Games in 1994.)

Now the story I've heard from a few different sources is that Chris Roberts pitched a Star Wars flight combat game to Lucasfilm and was turned down. It's not surprising - he had no experience with flight combat games, while Lucasfilm already had a partnership with Larry Holland that resulted in 3 very successful World War II flight combat games. Since George Lucas has said he based the dogfighting sequences in Star Wars on movies like Battle of Britain, it stands to reason that if they were going to go ahead with a Star Wars flight combat game they would naturally choose to work with Larry.

As for the technology in Wing Commander, Chris Roberts openly boasted to Larry that he had reverse-engineered the code from Battlehawks 1942. I've heard from former Origin coders that this was not actually true, that the engine code was original - just that Chris didn't write any of it. Either way, it's not a terribly flattering picture of Mr. Roberts.

Roberts' "focus and cleverness" in deciding to use sprites for the ships was nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that he wasn't actually the principal coder for the graphics engine, Battlehawks 1942 was using this method in 1988, as indeed were most "3D" action games. It should be pointed out that there were very few fully 3D games at the time. This was before 3D accelerator cards were commonplace. Hardware acceleration didn't take off until the early to mid 1990s.

In spite of this, I do have respect for the great commercial success that the Wing Commander series achieved. I never cared much for the actual games, though. The stories were hackneyed and derivative (the Kilrathi were clearly ripped off from Larry Niven's Kzin - Roberts even had the gall to put a "Niven Sector" in WCII, so I guess we could give him the benefit of the doubt and call it "homage.") The arcade-style gameplay was too simplistic and repetitive, and the AI was awful.

The Wing Commander series was great at allowing players to indulge the fantasy of being a starfighter pilot without actually requiring them to have anything resembling real flight combat skills. True aficionados of [simulated] dogfighting turned to games like X-Wing for that challenge.

As Allen Varney's article seems to make clear, the real goal of the Wing Commander series was about indulging Chris Roberts' dream of becoming a filmmaker. The dreadful result of his achievement of that dream is a movie that rivals Battlefield Earth as one of the worst science fiction films to ever see wide release.

X-Wing owes nothing to Wing Commander. We were building on a successful engine that predated Chris Roberts' efforts by 3 years. I think it is pretty clear who influenced who.

Thanks for reading,
David Wessman

Mission designer, chief writer and lead tester on X-Wing. I was to become the Gameplay and Story Lead for the rest of the series.

There has been some question as to the accuracy of Allen Varney's article, in which he describes the timeline of Wing Commander's release and makes the suggestion that LucasArts was forced to delay the release of X-Wing due to Wing Commander's impressive showing at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show.

In actuality, the game being developed by Larry Holland's team for LucasArts in 1990 (and for which they became nervous as a result of the impressive graphical showing of Wing Commander), was not X-Wing, but Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

Mr. Varney has asked The Escapist to publish the following letter in regards to this inaccuracy:

In my article "Wing Leader," I mistakenly described Lucasfilm Games as showing X-Wing at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show, when the record shows it was Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. I regret that error. With that correction, the CES anecdote happened as I related it in my article.

-- Allen Varney
www.allenvarney.com

This letter will also appear in the "Letters to the Editor" section of our next issue of The Escapist.

Fletcher:
There has been some question as to the accuracy of Allen Varney's article, in which he describes the timeline of Wing Commander's release and makes the suggestion that LucasArts was forced to delay the release of X-Wing due to Wing Commander's impressive showing at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show.

In actuality, the game being developed by Larry Holland's team for LucasArts in 1990 (and for which they became nervous as a result of the impressive graphical showing of Wing Commander), was not X-Wing, but Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

Mr. Varney has asked The Escapist to publish the following letter in regards to this inaccuracy:

In my article "Wing Leader," I mistakenly described Lucasfilm Games as showing X-Wing at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show, when the record shows it was Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. I regret that error. With that correction, the CES anecdote happened as I related it in my article.

-- Allen Varney
www.allenvarney.com

This letter will also appear in the "Letters to the Editor" section of our next issue of The Escapist.

Thank you Mr. Varney for acknowledging the error you made on what title Lucasarts was showing at CES in 1990. However, it appears you still hold some misconceptions regarding the facts underlying your "anecdote." I will offer another interpretation of the events at CES 1990 and offer an anecdote of my own:

Following up on the success of Battlehawks 1942 with CGW's Hall of Fame award-winning Their Finest Hour in 1989, Larry Holland had established himself as one of the premiere designers of flight combat games. His challenge was to outdo himself with a game that was even better and SWotL was going to achieve that in every way possible.

Encountering Wing Commander at the show did not drive anyone at Lucas to force a delay in the release of SWotL. If someone from Lucas looked nervous it was probably due to their concern that Origin was showing a contemptuous disregard for everyone else and blatantly breaking the rules of the convention. Kudos to Origin for being pioneers of obnoxious trade show behavior. The other concern would obviously be to follow up on Chris Roberts' claim of reverse-engineering Battlehawks 1942 to see if it was true, or if he had gone beyond that into outright theft.

The delay in the release of SWotL is entirely due to two things. The primary of these was that Larry enjoyed the luxury of being able to hold back the release of a game until he was satisfied with it. Larry's design philosophy was very open-ended, with a lot of exploration, iteration and what is now dismissed as "feature creep." The game kept growing in scope and complexity as he kept coming up with cool new ideas. This was fed in part by an unusually strong test team whose input was welcomed and led to numerous refinements. Because of his solid track record Lucas was willing to let Larry keep pushing back the release date.

The other factor contributing to its delay, (and the only one that can be said to have "forced" the delay), was that QA standards at Lucas were exceptionally high in those years. A single repeatable crash bug would prevent the game from shipping, and there was one tester by the name of David Maxwell who had the uncanny ability to find such bugs at will. He loved the game so much that he was determined to keep it in test for as long as possible. He made it a point to find at least one repeatable crash bug every day. It got to the point where he was single-handedly keeping the game from shipping! David was eventually forced to take some past due vacation time. As it turned out we were still working on it when he returned from vacation, but we did ship it soon after. SWotL was an even bigger success than its predecessor, and was about as bullet proof a game as ever appeared on a PC.

I'll grant that people remember things differently, but this pernicious nonsense that Wing Commander influenced Larry in any way is simply incredible. I know. I was there.

Completely offtopic.. but Wessmaniac, please make a new X-wing style game set in the Star Wars: Episode 1-3 movies. We beg you!!! And yes, I speak for the human race. :) There's also a huge Penny Arcade forum thread asking for a redux of the TIE Fighter games..

shihku7:
Completely offtopic.. but Wessmaniac, please make a new X-wing style game set in the Star Wars: Episode 1-3 movies. We beg you!!! And yes, I speak for the human race. :) There's also a huge Penny Arcade forum thread asking for a redux of the TIE Fighter games..

Hi shihku7,
Believe me, I would love to make another Star Wars space combat game in the X-Wing tradition, and I know David Maxwell (the other mission designer on the first 2 games would, too.) Sadly, there are a number of factors working against this. First of all, the team responsible has scattered to the winds, and some key people have left the industry. Worst of all, because of rampant piracy of PC games there simply doesn't seem to be adequate demand from people who would actually PAY for a copy. Back in 1999-2000 sales of "hardcore" simulation games went into a nosedive from which they have never recovered. As pointed out in another article from issue 54, most PC gamers no longer buy fancy joysticks. It would be a huge challenge to convince Lucasarts that it would be worthwhile. And even if they were interested in doing another starfighter combat game, they would probably insist on dumbing it down for the mass market...effectively killing what made those games so great.

That said, I believe the time may be ripe for another go at this, and a Star Wars game would have the greatest chance of success. I'll check out the Penny Arcade forum. Thanks!

"Back in 1999-2000 sales of "hardcore" simulation games went into a nosedive from which they have never recovered. As pointed out in another article from issue 54, most PC gamers no longer buy fancy joysticks. It would be a huge challenge to convince Lucasarts that it would be worthwhile. And even if they were interested in doing another starfighter combat game, they would probably insist on dumbing it down for the mass market...effectively killing what made those games so great."

I can't believe I'm writing to a man even related to Battlehawks 1942, one of the greatest historical works in gaming history, but have hope for a gamer's sake. Perhaps with the release of Flight Sim X there will be a re-birth of the genre. I need more to do with my pedals than rotate the turret on a mech.

 

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