A Space Fighter Versus the World

For more history on space combat sims, check out our Space Sim Timeline.

When I got home from school, I ran up to my room and pressed play on my boombox. The distorted guitar licks of Smashing Pumpkins screamed out as I plopped down and switched on my 386 IBM clone. From the DOS prompt, I loaded the executable file for X-Wing. After a few moments, the cockpit of a starfighter filled the edges of the 15″ CRT screen and I grabbed hold of the joystick suction-cupped to my desk. The field of stars blurred as I started tracking the TIE fighter ahead of me and I tried to aim not where the pesky Imperial ship was, but where it would be. The X-Wing I piloted was a bit slower than the TIE, but firing one of its four homing missiles was enough to turn the darting TIE into a mess of orange and yellow pixels. The splotch resembled the explosions from the Star Wars movies I had watched a few thousand times at that point. I smiled, and move on to the next target.

Just when space combat sims were nearly indistinguishable from the movies that inspired them, the audience for such games disappeared.

This exact scenario played out hundreds of times in my youth; even twenty years later, hearing chords from “Cherub Rock” still brings back pixelated images of Star Destroyers. LucasArts’ X-Wing, its expansions, and the sequel TIE Fighter cemented my love of PC gaming. Using the joystick to steer and the keyboard to change my starfighter’s settings felt exhilaratingly real when compared to jumping over lava pits by pressing red buttons on a grey rectangle.

I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with gaming after exposure to space combat sims like X-Wing and Wing Commander. “The genre has always held a special place in my heart,” says Chris Stockman from Seamless Entertainment. “I spent countless hours dogfighting Kilrathi, TIEs, and so much more. The immersiveness really illustrated to me that these types of games were for the big boys. I love the feeling of being in space, taking on huge capital ships and dogfighting groups of fighters.”

The genre had a sweet run in the early to mid 1990s, honored with multiple Game of the Year awards from the publications of the day and earning respectable profits from sales. But just when graphics processing progressed to the point where space combat sims were nearly indistinguishable from the movies that inspired them, the audience for such games disappeared. Declining sales affected almost all titles, but the commercial flop of two high budget games signaled the end of the genre’s golden age. Volition’s Descent: Freespace was a modest hit but the sequel did abysmally in stores, selling only 26,000 copies in 1999. Coupled with Wing Commander: Prophecy (1997) not doing much better, large videogame publishers came to view the space sim genre as a substantial risk.

Why exactly did gamers abandon space combat sims? According to Stockman, the audience shifted to burgeoning genres such as first person shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D and real-time strategy games because of a simple peripheral problem. “The main control mechanism for space combat games – and flight sims, in general – has always been joysticks. These completely faded away once FPS and RTS genres became popular. Gamers spent their peripheral money on better mice and keyboards,” he says.

But he also believes the flavor of the gameplay shifted too far into the economic sub-game or featured super-realistic physics models that made merely piloting your ship very difficult to master. Both of these problems resulted in games that failed to deliver the kind of visceral action players got out of shooting a nail gun in a first person shooter. “The most recent entries featured large worlds but the nuts-and-bolts gameplay was more about playing the economy and less about creating an intense action experience,” he says. “Some of the entries that were more action-oriented featured realistic flight models requiring players to overcome a steep learning curve to play. Either way, I feel both designs end up catering to a super niche player base.”

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Chris Stockman was the design director at Volition when the developer moved on to other genres with Saints’ Row and Red Faction. He said many of the founders of Volition would love to continue developing space combat games, but that funding just doesn’t exist because of the commercial failure of Freespace 2.

“My hope is that there is still a market for space games where players can jump in and feel like a badass immediately.”

“The last big budget space games, while critically successful, all but flopped at retail,” he explains. “Publishers, who are notoriously risk-averse, abandoned the genre.” Over the last decade, smaller houses have taken up the joystick, most notably the X series from German developer Egosoft, Tarr Chronicles by Quazar and games crafted by smaller mod teams that utilize the open source Freespace engine released by Volition.
The MMO genre has perhaps seen the most success in space recently. CCP created a near-perfect sandbox in EVE Online that incorporates many space sim elements, but Stockman doesn’t feel like EVE is able to appeal to wide audience. “EVE has proven to be very popular with a niche crowd and it’s obviously still making money despite being a very hardcore game. Good for CCP!” he says. “My hope is that there is still a market for space games where players can jump in and feel like a badass immediately.”

In a move that made his former colleagues at Volition jealous, Stockman abandoned his job at a comfortable publisher-funded studio to go independent. He is now the Creative Director of Seamless Entertainment, and the first project of his six-man team is to create the game he believes has a chance of bringing the space combat sim back to the forefront.

Sol: Exodus abandons some of the high technology conventions of the genre to deliver a gritty action experience on a downloadable budget. The setting for Stockman’s game bears more resemblance to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series than Star Wars, with an emphasis on real-world weapons and human stories.

“Our dogfighting is more up close and personal,” he says. “You’re engaging these ships at much closer ranges instead of simply sitting back and shooting off missiles. In that sense, we’re bringing the genre back to the days of Wing Commander when the Kilrathi were almost always in your face.”

You’ll still be piloting a small starfighter in Exodus, but the action will change its scale from mission to mission. “We’re letting players actually take on and destroy capital ships using their ship’s unique abilities. They’ll scan an enemy ship to reveal weak points and then use a combination of weapons and their missiles to actually destroy these spots,” Stockman says.

“I’m a gigantic fan of the Battlestar Galactica remake and I remember asking myself why we hadn’t seen a space game in that vein before,” he continues. “Traditional sci-fi means aliens, lasers, and so on and for me, personally, I’ve just grown tired of that.”

Despite the fact that Stockman’s Sol: Exodus sounds like a shot in the arm the gaming industry needs, he’s had a terrible time securing funding. “The key is convincing people that this [genre] can sell. It’s been like pulling fucking teeth,” he says. “Most publishers are not innovators. They are followers.” In an age where Call of Duty is king of sales, publishers tend to follow the model of Step 1: Make shooter, Step 2: Profit.

To combat publisher disinterest in the genre, Stockman is designing Exodus to work on a smaller budget. Seamless Entertainment doesn’t have the resources to create a full $60 off-the-shelf game, so Stockman’s strategy is to give the people what they want using the downloadable markets on Steam, Xbox Live and PSN for a lower price point of 15 or 20 bucks. “I want to get [Sol: Exodus] on as many downloadable platforms as possible,” Stockman said.

The biggest hurdle that Exodus faces is one of the reasons that space combat sims fell off the galactic map in the first place: Joysticks are just not as common as they used to be. Having played an early build of Exodus at PAX, I felt like all the pieces for a truly awesome game were there, but something was off using an Xbox controller to pilot the ship. Either I missed that feeling of immersion I got from X-Wing as a kid or my sensibilities have shifted along with the rest of the gaming public. I’m worried about the latter, but Stockman’s answer to the former is the promise of full keyboard, mouse and joystick support for Sol: Exodus out of the box. “We’d be stupid not to,” Stockman said, “but it’s important that the game be playable with an Xbox gamepad so that we can get it onto [Xbox] Live.”

“Firing weapons and blowing stuff up needs to feel extremely satisfying.”

For now, the control scheme limits the amount of user inputs, which influenced Stockman’s decision to depart from one of my favorite parts of X-Wing. “We feature ballistic weapons, not lasers, and our armor is based off real plating and not energy-based shield systems,” he explains. That may feel like there is less for the player to worry about in the cockpit, but hacking minigames and interactive objects in space draw the player’s attention to something more exciting than resource management.

For Stockman, such management was not what the genre was about anyway. “Dogfighting must be fun and engaging,” he says when asked what a game must have in order to feel like a true space combat sim. “Firing weapons and blowing stuff up needs to feel extremely satisfying. The AI must be challenging but not overly so. We must have big capital ships and ways to engage them. We must have plenty of wingman chatter.”

As long as Sol: Exodus has all of that, I for one will be satisfied because I know there’s no way to resurrect the love for the first game you played in the genre. Players will always pine for that first feeling of piloting a small ship through space that Elite or Privateer or Wing Commander provided, but the medium must move on. By challenging some of the conventions of the genre, and providing a more epic experience, perhaps Sol: Exodus will be the game that proves space combat sims can still move copies despite the lack of joysticks on computer desks. Then maybe, in two or three years, after publishers come around, we’ll see similar games pop up from more established development houses.

If not, then maybe game executives are right and the mainstream space combat sim is truly dead. I’m glad a game designer like Chris Stockman has the courage to test that theory against the odds stacked against him. Kind of like a tiny starfighter up against an Imperial space station.

For more history on space combat sims, check out our Space Sim Timeline.

Greg Tito will stay on target.

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