Dear Retronauts listener: it’s because LucasArts hates you

[Editor’s note: Kat was mildly inebriated when this entry was written. Please gauge her spite accordingly.]

You might have heard last week’s Retronauts, in which our fearless leader and company sat down to respond to letters courtesy of you, the loyal listeners. Well, I assume that you’re a loyal listener. If you are, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Maybe you remember the letter lamenting the death of space combat simulators. I do, because outside of giant robot and Pocket Monster-collecting genres, space combat is the genre nearest and dearest to my heart. So allow me to do a bit of lamenting of my own.

Over the course of the letter, our anonymous reader (I say anonymous because I don’t know his or her name, and I’m too lazy to go back to the podcast to look it up) wondered aloud why space combat had to go the way of the Pet Rock, CDs, and adventure games. And I think it was Sharkey who responded by positing the theory that space combat died because, outside of a graphical facelift, all of the necessary territory had been covered. With FreeSpace 2 and (urgh) Battlecruiser 3000AD, where else was there to go?

Well, MMOs for one. That territory, of course, has been canvassed pretty thoroughly by EVE Online. But you could also argue that (1) EVE Online’s combat is, in the words of someone or other on the podcast, “boring as shit” and (2) it doesn’t really cover the whole Luke Skywalker angle. You know, taking the controls of an X-wing and blowing up the Death Star kind of stuff. That’s all anybody’s ever wanted to do, and even going back to the original X-Wing, LucasArts has never quite gotten it right. EVE Online only really covers the capital ships, and their idea of an attack on the Death Star is to ram one of the Titan mega cruisers out of their safety bubble while its captain is offline and bombard it to death. So, maybe EVE Online isn’t quite the heir to the space combat throne that we’ve all been looking for.

Jumpgate Evolution, on the other hand, is quite a bit more tantalizing. Not only does it promise full starfighter customization, but it’s offering the chance to join three factions and participate in battles featuring hundreds of ships. Sure, the latency will probably cut into the experience a bit, but sit back and imagine it for a bit. That’s the stuff of dreams. Now imagine if they replaced Jumpgate Evolution with “X-Wing Online.” Even the idea of a new X-Wing or TIE Fighter game is enough to bring the Internet to a screeching halt while eliciting streams of excited punctuation and joyous cursing from every Star Wars fan who has anything resembling a pulse.

The problem, though, is that even as sources public and private positively scream for a new TIE Fighter, LucasArts isn’t biting. They’ve jumped ship and pretty much left PC gaming to Blizzard and Valve. They wouldn’t even bring their multi-million dollar baby Star Wars: The Force Unleashed over to the PC, so why would they ever bother to exhume the corpse of Totally Games and ask them to make another X-Wing? The best we can hope for is that they’ll get Factor 5 to go back and make another Rogue Squadron game for the Wii, or whatever system they decide to develop for. Otherwise, they’re more than happy to leave the pile of money an X-Wing Online would garner on the table and go on making two (count’em: two) lightsaber games for the Wii.

As for the rest of the old-school space combat simulator developers, Origin has long since been assimilated by Electronic Arts, and Interplay is still a shambling corpse. These days, your best bet is downloading Freespace 2 and playing the Battlestar Galactica mod, or checking out the Elite mod that was built using the Vega Strike engine (side note: Why call a space combat game “Vega Strike”? Seriously, I’m betting there were at least a few disappointed video poker players when that game came out). And, of course, there’s always Jumpgate Evolution, which will probably find a very nice little niche next to EVE Online and every other MMO that exists under the shadow of World of Warcraft. The reality, though, is that the major developers aren’t going to be throwing any major money at starfighter combat anytime soon. This is a genre that has always been realized best on the PC, and these days, it seems that market only has enough room for The Sims, World of WarCraft, Half-Life 2, and whatever else Blizzard cooks up. Everything else need not apply.

It’s a shame, too, because I do still think there’s some potential to be squeezed out of this old bird. If nothing else, the advent of the sandbox genre should give Electronic Arts a few ideas on how to retool Privateer for a new generation. And god, why hasn’t anybody made a good starship simulator yet (Star Trek: Captain’s Chair not withstanding?) Why the hell are the Japanese the ones picking up the slack on the Nintendo DS? None of that’s going to happen, though. Not until a lighbulb flashes in some LucasArt’s exec’s head ten years down the line, and they ask, “Say, why don’t we try bringing back those X-wing games, for old times’ sake?”

So there’s your answer, anonymous Retronauts letter-writer. It’s all Lucasart’s fault space combat simulators are dead. Typical.

18 thoughts on “Dear Retronauts listener: it’s because LucasArts hates you

  1. This article has me hankering for a little Rogue Leader replay. I hope that’s okay! Some people get really uppity when I mention I preferred the Rogue Squadron games to the X-Wing franchise.

    Now I’m just wondering if the old Gamecube title is as fun as I remember it.

  2. Kat, have you heard of Dark Horizon? I don’t know how good it is, but it might be at least partially what you’re looking for. It’s a Paradox Interactive game. It’s very, uh, purple.

  3. Vega is Spanish for “star.” Sure, they could’ve used the Spanish for “strike” as well, but I bet it’s not as cool as the English word.

  4. 1) I played the original Jumpgate. It wasn’t very good; ran into the same asshole gate pirates that EVE’s littered with, except without the benefit of highsec space. I have little hope for Evolution.

    2) I’m hoping there’s spacemeat on the Star Trek MMO’s bones.

    3) There was a Sylpheed game (which was odd to me, since I bought and played the original Sylpheed that was published by Sierra and it was.. nothin’ like the new one) for 360 that looked okay? But that’s console.

    4) I am okay with blaming LucasArts, but let’s not forget Origins and the messes that were WC 3 and 4 (Prophecy was also pretty bad story-wise BUT the ships and weapons were fun). We need a console game that’s also GOOD and not just trying to tweak nostalgia buttons or dumb it down to LCD.

    5) Earth & Beyond died a messy death, also.

  5. I read “Vega” as “Vegas.” Vega makes a bit more sense because it’s a star. :P What I get for writing a post after three glasses of wine.

  6. “That’s all anybody’s ever wanted to do, and even going back to the original X-Wing, LucasArts has never quite gotten it right.”

    Naw – LucasArts figured out that it’d be a lot more fun to *shoot down* Luke Skywalker while he tried to blow up the Death Star. :)

    (Lesson #4792: Gamers like to play as the bad guy)

    Of course, TIE Fighter being so perfect hurt everything that came after it; nothing’s ever really stood up to that combination of atmosphere and gameplay (esp. the CD version). Unfortunately, I think the problem’s also down to the death of the flight sim as a marquee PC genre – space combat sims were the more fun, accessible version of those games, and with the death of the flight sim people lost the “you know, I’d love to play a version of this that was actually fun!” outlook.

  7. nunix, take away the overblown green-screened cinematics and the spaceflight parts of WC3 and 4 were pretty good. They improved upon the earlier WCs, anyway.

  8. EVE Online is not the substitute for Freespace 2. Same thing with Freelancer. Why? Well it’s one of the same reasons why the genre died out, something Sharky completely glossed over: Joystick support.

    With the advent of first-person shooters starting to support mouse control and becoming more “readily accessible” to PC gamers without needing to buy additional hardware (other than have high-end specs), it became apparent that the days of people wanting to get th best of a game could worry for one less accessory. The joystick eventually became an optional commodity until eventually most developers didn’t even care what kind of joystick was on. Graphics cards and tech specs became the only concern for support and eventually the PC game community bgan to standardize.

  9. I’ve unfortunately resigned myself to the fact that seeing a new space sim in the vein of a Freespace or an I-War is about as likely as seeing Mechwarrior 5 or Heavy Gear 3 announced. With that in mind, I’ve been playing a lot of Freelancer lately, a game which isn’t much of a space sim per se, and is almost more of an offline MMO when I think about it. Still, playing it was kind of a tease. There are a lot of unique RPG elements, particularly with regards to faction alignments etc. that you can see rudimentary signs of in the game, though they were never fleshed out for whatever reason. I think that a traditional space sim, like a Wing Commander or whatnot could be successful if it wasn’t marketed as such, but rather as an RPG (imagine being a double agent who has “defected” to the Kilrathi or something)/sandbox game. In other words, build a great flight/combat model (one superior to Freelancer etc.) but market the various factional alignments, open ended story etc. as the game’s key components. Add a lot of time spent outside the ship, not fighting, but interacting with other characters (optionally of course) and branching questlines. I think a lot of the people who play RPGs and other story-centric games would be willing to give the game a shot, and learn space sim conventions if lured in by other game elements. Essentially, as great as space sims are, I think they’re too intimidating to the average modern gamer and they need to be rethought if they are to succeed beyond a niche like ours.

  10. I was pretty heavily into the space sim genre, which I think encompasses both fighter combat like X-Wing and ground-based like Mechwarrior. I remember the days when I would walk into Software Etc (back when it still existed) and there would be a stand specifically set up to display joysticks and all their accompanying accessories, like throttles, pedals, all of that.

    I think what killed the space sim, though, was first person shooters. The genre provided all of the visceral thrill of going around and blowing stuff up in a 3D environment while not having the player worry about complicated things like throttling speed, pitch and yaw, and so on. Plus, the genre came almost equipped from the start with multiplayer, and space sims had to try to graft it on with sloppy results. X Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X Wing Alliance made valiant efforts to bring multiplayer into the space sim genre, but in the end, it was much easier to join a server for a game of CTF Quake than to get 8 people together in the notoriously pokey Internet Gaming Zone for a FFA TIE Fighter melee.

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