The Day the Space Sim Died
I’ve always felt that if a PC game has a spaceship in it, I’ll play it, no question. One of my earliest memories involving video games was Lunar Lander on the Radio Shack TRS-80. I had been fascinated with space and science fiction for many years thanks to the original Star Trek, and recall jumping at the chance to play a game set in space. When I received my first DOS-based computer some time later, I dove into games like Elite, Starflight, Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic and many more.
Things went well for a while, and in the early 1990’s especially, a new era of space combat games began with the release of Wing Commander and then X-Wing. The 1990’s saw a deluge of space combat games from a wide variety of developers, including developers like SSI (Renegade: Battle for Jacob’s Star) and Team 17 (Phoenix) who didn’t usually make such games. For a while PC gaming was full of spaceships and laser beams…until 1999.
On September 30th, 1999, the greatest space combat simulation ever released, Freespace 2, hit store shelves…and inadvertently killed the mainstream space sim genre forever. For some reason, the game only sold roughly 27,000 copies in its first six months, a very disappointing figure given the success of its predecessor, Descent: Freespace.
There are many theories as to why Freespace 2 sold so poorly. During the heyday of space simulations, the joystick was a very common gaming accessory, but it was slowly losing favor to the mouse and keyboard thanks to games like Quake and Unreal Tournament and could have caused a waning interest in the genre. The increasing “consolification” of gaming, and the shortening attention span of gamers along with it, meant that fewer players had the desire to go through the training and learn the controls of modern space simulations, which also could have been a contributing factor.
Whatever the case, the low sales of Freespace 2 basically killed any interest other major publishers had in creating top of the line, mainstream space sims. “But what about Freelancer or the X games?” I hear you asking. “Freelancer was released by Microsoft in 2003, years after Freespace 2, and the X games are still being released.” I love Freelancer as much as anyone, but a space sim it’s not. It’s basically a role-playing-game like Diablo wherein your avatar happens to be a spaceship, so it really doesn’t count. The X games…they’re more economic simulators wherein you just happen to fly a spaceship.
The space sim genre isn’t dead, thankfully due to indie titles such as the Starshatter series or the Evochron series, and we can thank those awesome Eastern Europeans for keeping the genre alive in their own small way with games like Parkan II, Darkstar One, Tarr Chronicles and so on. These games vary in quality, but they at least scratch that space combat itch in some small way. Sadly, if we want exceptional space combat with big budget graphics and excellent stories, we have to return to old favorites such as Freespace 2 and TIE Fighter.
Thankfully these games are being kept alive by energetic and vibrant communities, such as the Freespace Open Project and Hard Light Productions, who have taken the source code Volition released from Freespace 2 in 2003 and have constantly updated the game with better graphics, sound and other enhancements. Being a space combat simulation fan isn’t as easy as it once was, and for nearly twelve years fans such as myself have been taking whatever we can get. I know I speak for many fans, however, when I say we all miss those days when we could look forward to the next big budget space sim release, because right now, days like that no longer exist.