There’s no shortage of essays and rants that lament the decline of the space combat genre after the masterpiece that is Freespace 2. That said, Monday’s post got me thinking about the cause of said decline. After playing a bit of mental kick-ball, I think I have a working theory. I call said theory, The Wing Commander Regression.
Not to bag on Chris Roberts, because I can give you ten reasons why Wing Commander is a seminal work, but Wing Commander is both the best and the worst thing to happen to the space combat genre. Here I mean both the main plot Wing Commander games and the Privateer games. While these are glorious games in their own right, they’re also the standard by which the industry measured all other space combat games ad absurdum. I dare you to find a review of a space combat game that doesn’t make some comparison to Wing Commander.
On the other side of the coin, I can’t imagine a developer pitching a space combat game to a publisher without bringing up either Wing Commander or Tie Fighter as a point of comparison. And why not? Wing Commander made money, lots of money. The kind of money where spending twelve million dollars (a then unheard of amount of money in game development) on producing Wing Commander IV was a sure thing. In turn, fans and critics alike ate up each successive Wing Commander chapter. It was a known quantity and a proven success.
When Chris Roberts left Origin to form Digital Anvil his first game was Starlancer, a Cold War clone of Wing Commander that pitted West against East in a battle for the solar system. Naturally, the Eastern Coalition was evil incarnate compared to the liberal democracy of the Western Alliance. What was the next game we saw from Digital Anvil? Freelancer, the Wing Commander: Privateer of the Starlancer universe. Then came the copycats, most notably Tachyon: The Fringe, a game that gamerevolution.com called “a cross between Privateer and Starlancer.” And what was the big difference between Freelancer and Tachyon? The latter had Bruce Campbell doing the voice acting. In terms of game play and narrative structure, both games were cut from stone pulled from the exact same quarry.
Again, given the financial success of Wing Commander, it’s hard to blame publishers for not wanting to deviate from a winning model. Be that as it may, space combat games were stuck in a situation where publishers and fans, alike, were demanding replication rather than iteration.
As new space combat games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen prepare to invade our PCs, I question if we’re looking at a renaissance, in the strictest sense of the word, or an evolution. Is there something, anything new to either of these games, or is it first rate catering to what the fans – including myself at some points – have wanted for the last 20 years: a prettier Wing Commander: Privateer. What I’ve seen of Elite: Dangerous suggests that the main innovations are going to be to the graphics and AI. Granted, you can get a lot of mileage out of jaw-dropping graphics and good ship AI – and E:D seems about as sexy as they come – but if it’s nothing more than a space sandbox, then I fear we won’t see this genre make a long-term return.
Bearing that in mind, I’m asking game developers intent upon making a space combat game to give us what we can’t ask for on our own. Give us something that evolves the genre beyond pretty graphics and more/less Newtonian physics. Do something crazy with the narrative. Come up with a variation on the single pilot who commands a squadron formula. Do anything but fall back on letting a player fly a cargo ship filled with space turds from planet X to planet Y. I’ve been flying ships filled with space turds for longer than I’ve been driving an automobile. It’s time for a change.
I’m asking, in all sincerity and with boundless esteem for the space combat genre, for current and future developers to think about what they want this genre to be. If there’s no effort to move past variations on the Wing Commander theme, then we will likely see this genre lost to oblivion for another decade.