It was once one of the most popular computer game genres. A little over 10 years ago, the space combat sim was represented by the likes of the Wing Commander series and Star Wars games centered around a certain TIE Fighter cockpit. Nowadays, the genre is moribund. It is pretty much dead in the marketplace, but a dedicated online community of devout fans has been keeping the traditional action-packed space sim alive, thanks to open source.
“We’re hoping that projects like ours, and the many other high-quality fan projects out there, will help build up the genre again,” says Anton Romanyuk, referring to Wing Commander Saga. Romanyuk is one of the developers behind this unofficial sequel to the epic combat space sim. Wing Commander Saga is built upon the FS2_Open engine, which is the open-source version of the graphics engine that ran another classic space sim shooter, FreeSpace 2.
Developers of these open source games share similar passions for the genre. Most are fans of science fiction, and some, like Romanyuk, had childhood fantasies about being a pilot. “A space combat sim is the perfect combination of the two. The speed, tactics and adrenaline rush of a well-crafted sim are something we never get tired of,” he says.
For Benjamin Suhr, a developer for Shadows of Lylat, the appeal is the lack of spatial boundaries: “What I really like about space sims is the freedom in movement. It’s a completely different experience when you try to escape missiles while you are flying through an asteroid field, [as] opposed to hiding behind a wall from gunfire in a first-person shooter.”
Like Wing Commander Saga, Shadows of Lylat is being built upon FS2_Open, and it’s also an unofficial sequel to a once-popular game series (StarFox).
So why did the action-based spacecraft sim die out? The developers of these open-source revivals of the genre actually have their own ideas …
Reason No. 1: The controls were too complicated
Suhr theorizes that the genre started to fade from the marketplace at a point in time when gameplay shifted toward simpler controls and away from realistic schemes, which included those of airplane simulators. Many of the classic space sims can be tricky to figure out how to pilot well.
“Most space sims are more complex [to play] than games like Doom 3,” says Suhr. “I do think they are harder to access. Some people prefer it that way, but it really is an obstacle for a lot of people.”
The keyboard commands of the open source Vega Strike are mapped so players familiar with the Wing Commander series can get into Vega Strike right away. Unfortunately, this is of little benefit to everybody else.
While more intuitive controls would be helpful for newbies to the genre, Daniel Horn, the creator of Vega Strike, says, “As an open source project, we hardly have time to code up new features, much less in-depth tutorials and walkthroughs.”
Reason No. 2: Outer space is boring to look at
The visually sparse setting of outer space is another possible reason why the space combat sim lost its appeal over time. Gamers today can traverse extremely detailed, realistic planet-side environments, and graphics technology has advanced to the point that re-creations our everyday, mundane world looks more interesting than the vast emptiness beyond it.
“One of the things that makes working in space challenging is making it visually compelling, vibrant and capable of evoking emotion,” says Romanyuk. “Space is an empty pallet. If we want a spooky or somber mood, we have to find more subtle game elements to establish one.”
To the layperson, a game set in space may not appear difficult to make. After all, outer space is essentially blackness, punctuated with stars and planets. But the planetary bodies and starships themselves can be as detailed, if not more, than objects set on a planet.
“In first-person shooters, you don’t have to make detailed models for objects that are far away. There is no need to build backsides of buildings,” says Suhr. “In space games, there are no places you can use low-res textures and simple models. You can go everywhere, so everything has to be on a decent-quality level. Take a look at X3. It was released in 2005, and it still looks great.”
Reason No. 3: First-person POV isn’t as appealing when a game is set in outer space
The original Wing Commander games depicted the play field from a first-person (cockpit) perspective, but the recent revival of the series, Wing Commander Arena for Xbox Live, goes for a third-person perspective of the player’s ship. It is an arcade shooter that shares little with its namesake’s original gameplay.
“Maybe they thought an arcade game could reach a broader audience. As it is action-based, rather than being a simulation, you lose the feeling of being in the fighter,” says Suhr. Although his Shadows of Lylat mainly uses third-person view, it will also have an optional first-person player mode.
“Perhaps people like to just admire how cool their spacecraft looks as it glides through the ether,” says Romanyuk. He and his fellow Wing Commander fan-game makers definitely wanted to stick with the cockpit view of the original games. “What we decided to go with is immersion. We want it to feel like you are there, actually inside the cockpit of your fighter, although there will be camera controls that you can use if you want to [see] the ship from the outside.”
Besides emulating a “being there” sensation, Horn says a first-person viewpoint also offers finer player control: “I can’t steer in the third-person view. If I ever have to drive a car in a third-person perspective, please stay off the sidewalk!”
Reason No. 4: Most gamers just don’t like the spacecraft sim genre
While this may be due to a combination of the first three possibilities, the developers of Wing Commander Saga, Shadows of Lylat and Vega Strike don’t believe the problem could be that the typical gamer isn’t into the genre.
“I don’t think gamers don’t like the genre. There simply aren’t many space-sims on the market at the moment,” says Suhr. “All it takes is a really big and well-made title. There are many people that usually don’t play RPGs but love Final Fantasy.”
Says Romanyuk: “It may be an issue with marketing. It may be that many space combat sims these days try to play like a first-person shooter, rather than a space sim.” He suggests bringing back the epic storytelling of the original Wing Commander series, to restore the genre to its former status. “It may be that there just needs to be someone who can recapture that perfect combination of characters, story and gameplay. If there is a game produced that will make people feel the way they first did when they played Wing Commander, TIE Fighter, Star Crusader, Elite or any of the major classics, and if it is marketed right, I think we would see a revival.”
Suhr thinks a modern space combat sim needs to play faster than its classic predecessors, but it “has to be easier to access and it simply has to feature a decent keyboard and mouse control system, ’cause that is what most games use.”
Or, perhaps revitalizing the original inspiration behind the genre could be the answer. “I love science fiction because it gives me hope about humanity’s future,” says Horn. “Look into the sky – that’s pretty enticing, don’t you think? All those stars and nebulae … vast, black and unexplored.”
Howard Wen is a veteran of the Zylon Wars.