Videogames and the stars have always been connected. Lovers of computers and engineering have long recognized aeronautics as king, their imaginations ensnared by the great unchartable dream of conquering the worlds beyond Earth. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the great breakthroughs in gaming was the simulation of an entire universe and a story that puts the player in the role of interstellar explorer. Enter Starflight.

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In 1983, the Commodore 64 reigned supreme and Paul Reiche’s Archon was taking the home computer world by storm. Rod McConnell, a pilot and entrepreneur, approached his racquetball partner Joe Ybarra, a producer at Electronic Arts, with the notion of making a computer game. Dave Boulton, an experienced programmer and colleague, had an idea about using Mandelbrot math to create a fractally generated universe that players could explore infinitely. McConnell, no developer himself, hired Boulton, engineering student Alec Kercso, programmer Bob “Doc” Gonsalves and later Greg Johnson and Tim C. Lee to form Binary Systems. None of them had ever made a game before.

Johnson had just finished a degree in bio-linguistics at the University of California at San Diego – a hybrid of animal cognition, Asian philosophy and computer programming – when he took the job with McConnell. Kersco, then an engineering student whose father knew McConnell, was his roommate. Kersco had been working on the game at home on an Atari 800, but wouldn’t talk about what it was. When Johnson finally got an interview with McConnell, he showed off a set of hobby game designs on graph paper and a comic called Samurai Spaceman. They hired him, he says, “for next to nothing.” He borrowed about $15,000 from a friend to make enough money to rent an apartment in Burlingame, California, where Binary Systems was located. “I didn’t think I was going to be doing it for long,” he says. “My mom was really disappointed. She didn’t know what the heck I was doing.”

Neither did the team. But when the project finally reached its conclusion, the numbers spoke for themselves: 16 colors, two diskettes (360K each), 800 planets, three years of development, eight alien races, six system ports and over 1 million copies sold – a platinum achievement and a breakthrough for home computer games. In 1987, Computer Gaming World called it “the best science fiction game available on computer,” and in 1988 science fiction writer Orson Scott Card introduced videogame commentary into his Fantasy and Science Fiction book review to say of it, “Starflight is the first science fiction computer game that actually gives you something of the experience of roaming through the galaxy. … I have found this game obsessively fascinating – and the graphics and player interface are superb.”

Worlds in the Sky

Those familiar with games on classic platforms like the Tandy, Atari 800 and Commodore 64 can take one look at a gallery of Starflight screenshots and tell that Starflight looks like six games in one. Where other games of its time like Marble Madness used single play fields, Starflight had five different play modes, including alien planet terrain exploration and resource excavation, ship outfitting and crew training, ship-to-ship space combat, alien communication and intergalactic space travel – all in an open “sandbox” world that nevertheless wove a sweeping and epic story.

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The year is 4620, and you are a human from the dark planet Arth – Earth, the “Old Empire,” fell a thousand years ago, and refugees fled to Arth, whose irradiated surface requires that they live underground. You are a pilot out to claim your stake amongst the stars, most lucratively by locating new planets suitable for habitation by any of the seven alien races: humans; the peaceful plant-like Elowan; their sworn enemies, the reptilian Thrynn; the violent and aggressive Uhlek; the greedy insectoid Veloxi; the zealous octopus-like Gazurtoid; and the obsequious jelly-like Spemin. Mechans – mechanical intelligences left over from the Old Empire – and Insterstel-made androids round out the cast of creatures, five species of which are available to fill your crew.

The entire universe is yours to explore. The star map displays the many destinations available to you: Each colored pixel is a star system that you can travel to, containing between zero and 10 explorable planets, and the green areas are dangerous nebulae that defeat your shields and hide hostile aliens. In all, there are 800 planets, which for players meant months, not hours or days, of continuous play.

While traveling in space you encounter alien ships, some of which will scan you for threats and others (like the Uhleks) that will fire on sight. Train your Communications Officer and you can translate the alien languages; then, by adopting different tones of approach (“friendly,” “neutral,” “obsequious” or “hostile”), you can shape their attitudes toward you, opening up new story branches. As you explore and interact with other races, you must find or buy artifacts to improve your ship, collect alien life forms, mine for crystalline endurium star-fuel and explore planets, all in pursuit of MUs (“monetary units”).

But the universe doesn’t simply sit there waiting to be explored. Passing through known space is a strange body known as the Crystal Planet that brings destruction in the form of life-eradicating solar flares, leaving waves of fleeing alien survivors in its wake. This applies a natural time limit to the game: You must stop the Crystal Planet before it reaches Arth, your homeworld.

Oh, and one more thing: The game is hardcore. Play on the master disks (as the manual vehemently warns you not to), and you’ll find your game is erased when you die.

Hailing Frequencies

What distinguishes Starflight‘s tone from other games of its day and ensured its longevity are the writing and design contributions of Greg Johnson. “Greg’s personality is Starflight,” Lee says. “It really comes through. His sparkling sense of humor and charming vision really capture the audience.”

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Johnson received design mentorship from Archon‘s Paul Reiche throughout Starflight‘s development. Reiche told Johnson to “make a story network on a big sheet of paper,” outlining major plot points and the in-game objects required to get between them. This paper map was one of the earliest sandbox story designs for a game, and gave Starflight its expansive, uniquely player-driven world.

Each of the aliens in Starflight has its own mode of communication, and this unique voice creates a vivid environment and a lasting impression. While navigating the conversation trees that allow you to collect story information, a cockroach-like Veloxi might say, “Our scanner is show you have most precious small egg of Veloxi grand lovely. You are return immediately, or Veloxi is declaring war. Agreeing?”, whereas the peaceful Elowan might say, “If the minstrel’s songs be true, the span of an ancient one’s life was measured not in years, but in millenia, so long-lived were they.” These simple but evocative touches, coupled with the expansive intergalactic history that shaped the story and world of the game, made Starflight stick in players’ minds and hearts for decades after they played it.

“I knew it was a classic while we were building it,” Tim C. Lee says, calling the game’s ambition and complexity “almost hard to put into words.” I asked Greg Johnson if he remembered feeling the same way. “I didn’t know it would be a classic,” he says. “I did think it was the most amazing thing ever, but I tend to think that about everything I make.”

More than one fan agrees with him. As late as 2007, a reviewer on Mobygames called it “the greatest game of all time.

Legacy of the Stars

But even, or perhaps especially, in 1983, that excellence came with a price. “It felt like we were working on it 24 hours a day,” Greg said, and Tim agreed. If they weren’t working on the game, they were thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to make it better. Both men recall their time on Starflight as a surreal experience. Toward the end of the project, when he wasn’t coding, Lee was reading Laws of Form by G. Spencer Brown – a book that had a reputation for cracking open programmers’ minds.

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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