Wing Leader

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Chicago, summer 1990. The quiet aisles of the Consumer Electronics Show grew suddenly loud when Origin Systems turned on its sound system. Stirring music, volume at 11, blared across the trade show hall. The upstart game company, best known for the Ultima series of fantasy roleplaying games, was playing the soundtrack from its forthcoming starfighter simulator, Wing Commander. A bank of monitors showed the demo of a Terran Confederation spaceship cockpit, and its view of beautifully rendered enemy Kilrathi ships diving and swooping with amazing speed.

At the LucasArts booth – or Lucasfilm Games, as it was then – a programmer ambled away from the demos for the imminent Star Wars: X-Wing starfighter game. X-Wing was weeks away from going gold, and would easily make the 1990 Christmas season. Like a stately elk, the coder approached the Origin booth, momentarily surveyed the Wing Commander monitors and ambled on.

A few minutes later, the programmer returned with another stately Lucasfilm coder. They chatted politely (over the deafening music) with the young Origin employees; now and then, they glanced at the Wing Commander monitors; they departed.

Trade show officials asked Origin to reduce the volume. Booth staffers turned it down until the officials left, then gradually amped back to full. Meanwhile, six Lucasfilm staffers gathered before the monitors in silence; in silence they departed.

The next day, companies in the booths near Origin’s brought their own sound systems in self-defense. The once-dignified halls of the Consumer Electronics Show turned raucous. That day, the entire Lucasfilm booth staff, including every senior producer at the show, huddled in a tight, silent knot before the Wing Commander monitors. They watched for a long time. They departed.

A former Origin employee recalls, “You could see the fear in their eyes, as they walked by. We joked about how cool they tried to look, the faux nonchalance. You knew they were afraid.”

After the trade show ended, Lucasfilm Games unexpectedly announced X-Wing required much more work and would not make Christmas. It finally shipped years later, in 1993.

That was the debut of Wing Commander.

Born in 1968, Chris Roberts had been a professional game designer since he was 13, when he sold small games in BASIC and machine code for the BBC Microcomputer. Origin published Roberts’ Commodore 64 RPG, Times of Lore, in 1988 and his post-holocaust RPG, Bad Blood, in 1990. For his next project, Roberts envisioned an Elite-style game, initially called Squadron and then Wing Leader, that would combine arcade-style space-fighting, innovative music, great graphics and a cinematic storyline; he loved movies.

With programmer Paul Isaacs, writer Jeff George, artist Denis Loubet and a team considered large for the time – 11 people! – Roberts pursued his vision with focus and cleverness. He decided to handle each spaceship not as a polygon-based 3-D model, but as a collection of sprites (images) that showed the ship from all angles. These looked better and would run faster, because the computer need not calculate the images in real time. “It took about two months of 16-hour days to come up with the rotation and scale routines for the bit-mapped images,” Roberts said in a 1992 interview. “I think the bitmaps were what helped give the game its movie-type feel.”

Like every Origin release, Roberts’ new game aggressively embraced advanced tech: The DOS version required (required!) EGA graphics and a full 640K of RAM! It would barely run on an 80286 machine; you really needed a cutting-edge 386 with two floppy drives, and you desperately wanted the high-end 256-color VGA chipset.

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Former Origin Producer Warren Spector remembers the 1990 coming-out at CES. “Chris was personally writing code, tweaking the demo as we set up on the show floor. And he took his PC – with the only copy of the demo on its hard drive – to the hotel room each night of the show. I shared a room with him, and I can tell you he didn’t sleep much, just coded all night, every night, making for a different and better demo every day of the show. That was the commitment and madness that made Chris a great developer.”

Published in 1990, Wing Commander – changed from Wing Leader for trademark reasons – scored a brilliant success. It spawned a six-year, multi-million-selling franchise: Three direct sequels; the companion games Privateer and Prophecy, plus numerous expansions; 10 novels; and a 1996 animated TV series, Wing Commander Academy.

Newly wealthy, Roberts bought four expensive cars and an estate outside Austin, Texas, named Commander’s Ranch.

Later games in the series kept pushing the hardware frontier. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi introduced spoken dialogue to computer games; the Wing II Speech Accessory Pack became the first killer app for the Creative Labs SoundBlaster. Wing II‘s story, too, moved into new territory. Ellen Guon Beeman, the game’s assistant director and lead writer, took a cue from players’ Rorschach-blot interpretations of Wing I‘s characters. “I spent a lot of time lurking on the Wing Commander fan forums on GEnie and Compuserve. Some guys talked about how the character Angel really had something going for the hero. I went back to the scripted text for Wing I and searched for that scene. I couldn’t find anything that hinted at romantic interest, it was just a scene in which Angel described how to fight a particular Kilrathi ship. But after talking about it, [director Stephen Beeman] and I decided to create a full cinematic story, including the planned death of a major character and a love interest.”

Wing II also used rotoscoping for its cut-scene animations. Stephen Beeman recalls, “We used people around the office, filming them with a camcorder, capturing with a really primitive capture card, and painting over the vidcaps in Deluxe Paint, frame by frame.

“The best part of the rotoscoping came when we filmed the scene at the end of Wing II, where Angel punches Jazz. Jackie Chapman, one of Origin’s marketers, was playing Angel, and we had Chris play Jazz. Needless to say, neither of them was a trained Hollywood stunt person, so when Jackie threw that punch, it didn’t breeze past Chris the way we intended – it socked him right in the nose! Naturally, that’s the take we used.

“The fans should be pleased to know Chris literally put his blood, sweat and tears into that game. The rest of us settled for just the sweat and tears.”

Roberts’ commitment to innovation peaked (this time without injury) in 1994’s Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger and 1995’s Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. In these two hybrid game-movies, with branching storylines told in ambitious full-motion video (FMV), Roberts aimed for a true cinematic space-opera experience. The games starred Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies and (in III) porn star Ginger Lynn Allen.

Filming in Hollywood with multi-million dollar budgets unprecedented in computer gaming, Roberts directed the FMV sequences, shooting live actors in front of a greenscreen and later inserting computer-generated backgrounds; a decade later, this technique would become common in Hollywood. (Wing IV also used 38 actual sets.) Roberts paid only passing attention to the games themselves, which were produced and directed by Origin staffers in Austin. He focused on learning filmmaking.

Spector recalls, “The very first day I met Chris” – in 1989, well before the first Wing Commander game – “he said, ‘Someday I’ll be making movies.'”

Moving Into Movies
Riding high on the success of Wing III and IV, Roberts left Origin in 1996. Together with his brother, Erin (Privateer), and Origin Producer Tony Zurovec (Crusader: No Remorse), he founded a new media company, Digital Anvil, in posh offices on high-rent South Congress in the heart of Austin. While Digital Anvil worked on several games in a publishing deal with Microsoft, Chris Roberts quickly undertook a Wing Commander feature film.

We often forget how recently electronic games were invented. In 1996, the commercial field was hardly 25 years old. Roberts was 28. Imagine a gifted young creator from the dawn of film who arrives in today’s Hollywood ready to tell a story using the best techniques from 1915.

Stephen Beeman observes, “Sketches can be just as artistic as oil paintings. Everything about Wing Commander – the plot, dialogue, graphics, action, AI, sound – was a sketch of Star Wars. Like a good sketch, it captured just enough of just the right details to let your mind fill in the rest.” (Think of the fans imagining Angel’s romantic feelings where none were written.) “There’s a gap between sketches and painted masterpieces where the art has too much detail – your mind ‘flips’ and starts focusing not on the art but on the ways it falls short of perfection.”

Sketching and painting are different skills – like game design and filmmaking.

The 1999 Wing Commander movie starred Freddie Prinze, Jr. Filmed in Luxembourg at a cost of $30 million, it grossed $11.6 million domestically, drew poor audience reaction and suffered merciless reviews. (Rotten Tomatoes score: 7%, Metacritic 21%). His directorial career stillborn, Roberts returned to Austin and worked (slowly) on an ambitious open-ended space sim in the Privateer mold, Freelancer.

In 2002, two and a half years behind schedule, Roberts left Digital Anvil, citing creative differences with Microsoft. (Microsoft released Freelancer later that year to mildly favorable response.) Roberts co-founded a Beverly Hills production company, Ascendant Pictures. His partners’ production credits included The Watcher, starring Keanu Reaves (Rotten Tomatoes score 12%); Half Past Dead, with Steven Seagal (3%); and the first Dungeons & Dragons movie.

Ascendant’s website claims involvement in the production and/or financing of 16 feature films; nine of these have now been released. The eight released films with known budgets had a total cost of $202 million; the aggregate world box office gross for all nine films was about $189 million. Review scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic range between 25% and 73%; the average score, if that means anything, is 48.5%.

The Wing Commander game series predates these review sites, but you can make book: Every one of Roberts’ Wing games would score over 73%.

Wing Commander Today
In the years after Roberts left game design, Electronic Arts discarded the Wing Commander property during its prolonged exsanguination of Origin. The last release was Prophecy Advance for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Microsoft assimilated Digital Anvil in 2005.

But fandom lives on. A few hundred fans have sheltered in the copious Wing Commander Combat Information Center and the German site WCRevival. Multiple daily news stories, lively forums, an active mod scene – you’d think the ship was still flying. In addition to an online encyclopedia and scads of fan fiction, CIC modders have created Wing spacecraft for Homeworld, X-Wing Alliance, Star Trek: Armada and the Macintosh game Escape Velocity: Nova. Most interesting are the new games and expansions. Among many:

  • Unknown Enemy, a 2003 mod using the engine from Prophecy.
  • Standoff, an ongoing set of mods based on the Secret Ops online expansion for Prophecy. Includes a global ranking system.
  • Flight Commander, a full-featured space engine created by NASA programmer Ed Benowitz.
  • Privateer Gemini Gold, a cross-platform fan remake of the original Privateer with updated graphics.

Roberts’ Freelancer also has an active modding community at Lancers Reactor. Turn down your speakers before you visit.

The Price of Freedom
Sad is the mismatch of aptness and desire. With the Wing Commander series, Chris Roberts the game designer repeatedly pushed the field forward on several fronts, achieved unprecedented success and defined a genre. He proved a spectacularly gifted creator. Few designers of comparable stature have simply walked away at the height of their powers – and to so little purpose. After seven years in the field he loves most, the movie business, Roberts the filmmaker has proven – at best – by the friendliest, most forgiving standard, an incidental figure. Yet, though he remains fond of the Wing Commander universe, he has expressed no plans to resume game design.

Possibly, this is for the best. Possibly, gaming has evolved so far, Roberts would have nothing more to contribute. Given his record, that’s extremely doubtful. We may never know. But ongoing fan efforts signify Wing Commander‘s lasting hold over players’ imaginations. They testify to the vision of the designer who transformed computer gaming, and then abandoned it.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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