When I was 7, my dad let me stay up past my bedtime to watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I didn’t understand all of what Sagan said, but I was deeply impressed by the realization that the universe, if anything, was huge and mysterious beyond my understanding. This impression was reinforced by an educational poster that hung in my childhood bedroom for years. It depicted, among other things, a map of the solar system, a calendar of the known lifespan of the universe, and a “powers of 10” sequence of 39 images that zoomed, in stages, from a carbon atom to an image of the entire known universe.
Yet, as a child of the Star Wars generation, I was raised on science-fiction as much as science fact. My imagination populated the cold, sterile universe depicted by that poster on my bedroom wall with exotic alien races and epic conflicts. I yearned to leave my humble planet and explore those timeless, endless worlds.
I’m still entranced by the thought of glorious exploration and dogfights among the stars, yet I look at the science-fiction games of today and I can’t help but feel saddened by the realization that in-game space flight is almost entirely absent. Instead, fast-paced shooting, roleplaying adventures and battlefield strategy are the order of the day. You’d think that travel and combat in the depths of space were no more alluring than the prospect of a coach seat on a flight across a few time zones.
It didn’t used to be like this.
In 1984, college undergrads Ian Bell and David Braben created a massive universe within a few dozen kilobytes of data orbiting the center of a single floppy disk. Their game was Elite, and for the space sim genre, it was the big-bang.
Elite put its players aboard a tiny spacecraft and launched them into something remarkable: a fully 3-D representation of vast, explorable space. Though capable only of wireframe graphics, its engine provided groundbreaking freedom of movement, and its eight separate galaxies contained more than 2,000 planets for players to visit. At the helm of the Cobra Mk III craft, the universe was the player’s oyster.
Elite‘s initial release had no storyline or plot. The only explicit goal it presented was a gradual increase in ranking, from “Harmless” to “Elite,” earned by defeating hostile craft piloted by adversaries including aliens, pirates and bounty hunters. Success in battle depended upon purchasing equipment and weapons upgrades. In addition to space combat, Elite provided the enterprising space entrepreneur with a robust galactic trade market, each planet buying and selling commodities according to its population’s needs.
Elite‘s massive universe predated modern “sandbox” game design by more than a decade and a half. Acclaimed by both critics and gamers, during the mid-1980s, it was ported from its original BBC Micro and Acorn versions to nearly every home computer on the market. It even made an appearance on the NES. In the years that followed, a number of unremarkable Elite-style clones tried to duplicate the game’s winning formula, but it wasn’t until the following decade that the space sim really came into its own.
The 1990s were the golden age of space simulation, owing in large part to the commercial successes of two major PC franchises: Wing Commander and the Star Wars: X-Wing series. Both focused on fast-paced outer-space dogfights, but they eschewed Elite‘s focus on trade and exploration in favor of scripted, plot-based missions.
From 1990 until 1998, the Wing Commander titles captivated gamers with space-based combat and character-driven, interactive storytelling. The series’ fourth installment, released in 1995, purportedly had a budget of more than $10 million. The franchise eventually spawned an animated television series, a series of novels and even a major motion picture.
The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, had been a science-fiction mainstay for nearly two decades when Star Wars: X-Wing was released in 1993. Though not as personality-driven as the Wing Commander series, the X-Wing titles and their expansions, released up until 1999’s X-Wing Alliance, sold joysticks by the thousands.
Not all of the space sims of the era were strictly combat-oriented. In 1993 and 1995, David Braben and Frontier Developments released two Elite sequels that expanded the original game’s features, and in 1993, the Wing Commander universe produced a popular Elite-inspired spin-off, Wing Commander: Privateer. Like Elite, both Privateer and 1996’s Privateer 2 focused on exploration, trade and travel, but they also continued the Wing Commander series’ emphasis on storytelling.
These games and their imitators put players at the controls of complex, capable spacecraft, and their zero-gravity skirmishes demanded far more finesse from players than previous action games. Maneuvering through space at blistering speeds took practice, and a flight sim joystick was usually a necessity. Weapons, shields, propulsion systems and wingmen often had to be managed in the midst of combat. Situational awareness was critical and usually augmented by on-screen radar and multiple camera views. In short, the genre had a substantial learning curve, but given the experiences its games offered, it was one many players were willing to overcome and eventually master.
For a few years, the space sim was a serious contender for PC owners’ time and money. But even as players explored and fought their way from one sector and star system to the next, a storm was brewing in the PC gaming market. It wouldn’t be long before space flight took a back seat to other diversions.
What Goes Up …
id released Doom in 1993, catapulting the first-person shooter into the limelight. Real-time strategy games rose to prominence with Blizzard’s Warcraft in 1994, followed by the Command & Conquer series in 1995. Diablo hit in 1996. Bolstered by online play and advances in 3-D graphics, an unholy triumvirate of three-letter acronyms – FPS, RTS and RPG – rose to dominate the PC gaming market by the latter half of the decade. The last three years of the 1990s saw the release of appealing, addictive games, such as Starcraft, Warcraft III, Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Quake II and III. The space sim was in trouble.
Yet, in the midst of this changing gaming landscape, the space sim persisted. In 1998, Volition released Descent: Freespace and followed up with a sequel, Freespace II, in 1999. The Freespace titles featured streamlined interfaces and plenty of eye candy, including the spectacle of capital ships multiple kilometers in length. Both games were praised by critics, who heralded Freespace 2 as one of the greatest space sims ever created. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well.
A similar fate befell the mission-based Independence War, released in 1997, and its more Elite-themed successor, 2001’s Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos. Each had a compelling storyline and characters, but the games’ realistic spaceflight physics and elegant but complicated interfaces proved to be major roadblocks for many players.
Over the past few years, only a smattering of space sim games has actually made it to store shelves, and of those, only a few have garnered any measure of attention. In 2001, Jumpgate delivered Elite-style gameplay in an MMOG setting, complete with RPG-style character development and intricate economic and political dynamics. Despite a slow entry-level grind, it commanded a modest but loyal following. 2003’s Freelancer attracted players with its blend of story-based combat missions and a huge, gradually unlock-able universe, but it drew the ire of genre loyalists for its simplified controls and lack of tactical combat.
Somewhat surprisingly, there was a single franchise that managed to doggedly pull Elite‘s sandbox-style paradigm into this decade. Developer EgoSoft debuted the X series in 2000 with X: Beyond the Frontier, followed by X2: The Threat in 2003. They even managed a third release in 2005, X3: Reunion. With largely ignorable storylines, vast and varied universes, and possibly the most gorgeous interstellar vistas ever created, the X titles offered a ray of hope for space sim devotees. Unfortunately, their complex interfaces and poorly explained gameplay intricacies ensured that only the most patient and dedicated of players would fully enjoy the opportunities they offered.
To Obscurity, And Beyond
“The space sim is dead” is a common refrain of late. Given the dearth of new titles and the apparently dwindling interest in the genre, it’s a reasonable assessment, at least for now. Ironically, many of the very attributes that initially made interstellar exploration and combat so attractive have proven to be the space sim’s undoing.
As mysterious and awe-inspiring as space may be, it tends to be populated primarily by variations of the same distant, detached scenery: flickering stars, looming planets, gossamer nebulae and the like. Even the most majestic depictions of space and its contents have been familiar takes on the same cold, unwelcoming theme. The universe of the space sim may be beautiful, but it’s not particularly varied or inviting.
Space’s size is also daunting, particularly when encountered in Elite-style games. When you’re attempting to find your way across something as huge as literally everything, complex star charts and tangled hyperspace routes make getting from point A to point B challenging. Add to this the perspective-less freedom of movement across the six axes space sims provide, and the universe suddenly seems like the empty, disorienting and unfriendly place that it actually is.
Joysticks have always been the space sims’ controllers of choice, but for gamers raised on gamepad and keyboard-and-mouse controls, they’re a bit of an anachronism. Most of today’s gamers probably don’t even own a joystick, and if they do, it’s likely been gathering dust since the last time they played X-Wing Alliance. The space sim’s persistent focus on ship micromanagement via keyboard controls hasn’t helped its popularity either. Constant attention to engines, shields, weapons systems, camera views, repair bots, radar modes, wingmate actions and more requires levels of patience and attention that the majority of gamers no longer seem willing or able to muster.
There’s a clear trend in recent game design that focuses on stripping away complex, demanding elements that interfere with an immediately playable experience. Many space sim enthusiasts would argue that it’s these very elements that made the genre so unique and rewarding. Unfortunately for those who relish such depth, the space sim’s decline over the last several years arguably demonstrates that space simulations with flight-sim mechanics are destined to remain niche titles at best.
A cursory stroll around the internet development, many gamers, including myself, would jump at the chance to explore the universe unfettered by cumbersome control schemes. I’ll admit it: Like most of the gaming populace, I’ve become numb to the novelty of complex realism, especially when it interferes with my ability to play and explore.
I’m heartened by the introduction of new controller designs, adopted thus far by Nintendo and Sony, that seem well-suited for free-form space flight. I’m intrigued by the graphical and processing capabilities of modern hardware that appears more than up to the challenges of rendering complex, beautiful universes with an epic sense of scale. And I’m fascinated by the possibilities provided by widespread connectivity across the internet – arguably a universe in itself.
If the popularity of games like the recent releases of the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls series is any indicator, players are still highly receptive to the idea of huge, explorable worlds. And although space flight itself may not immediately command a huge audience, science-fiction games in general are certainly alive and well.
For millions of gamers, outer-space still holds its mysterious appeal. So I’m not going to completely write off the space sim yet. I’m holding out hope that, one way or another, our games will take us back to the stars.