Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 4, 2013
When I was a kid, first learning to program games on the Commodore 64, I used to dream about making a 3D space combat game. I was in love with Star Wars (what geeky kid wasn’t?), and I really wanted to make a game (or games) where I got to be in the pilot seat of an X-Wing. Oh, I’d played games in the arcade where I got to do just that, even before I started programming (starting with Exidy’s Starfire, and of course there was the still-awesome Star Wars arcade game).
I wanted to fight with big ol’ Imperial Star Destroyers. In my mind’s eye, there were kind pixellated, as I was imposing technical restrictions from around 1983 on my vision. While I made some attempts at 3D arcade-style shooters, nothing worked very well. I mean, it was a C-64. The best I ever got – with a different programming language that had some nice line-drawing routines – was something that would draw simple 3D shapes in wireframe mode.
A few years later, I played Wing Commander. In a battle against a Ralari, with Paladin as my wingman, I saw my dream game take form. The Ralari destroyer, sorta reminiscent of Star Wars’ star destroyers, was even pixellated, as I’d imagined. That alone would have made Wing Commander an all-time favorite with me, but it went much further than that. Fundamentally, it was still just an arcade game, with simulator trappings. But the story and characters – as simple and archetypical as they were – sucked me into that world. I memorized the schematics and data that shipped with the game (primarily included for copy protection purposes, I believe). I came really close to writing fanfic for that universe.
A big part of my learning about game design came from that game. Some days I wish I could apply those lessons better in my own work.
I’m one of the few people who actually preferred Wing Commander 1 to the sequel, which is generally considered the best of the series. For me, the main difference was that you were in control in WC1, and in WC2 you merely followed a linear storyline. In WC1, your wingmen could die, and you could lose missions and could find the story and style of missions change based on your success. The winning and losing tracks frequently crossed over themselves, with similarities in the missions. The final set of missions had you either kicking the Kilrathi out of the sector, or fighting a delaying action while the Kilrathi kicked you out of the sector.
The lesson that Origin learned in the original was that very few players explored the ‘losing’ missions – they’d reload and replay until they were successful in each mission. Therefore, roughly 1/3rd of the missions – the ‘failure’ mission sets – went unseen by 90% of the players. I guess the math that went into WC2 was that by eliminating that option, they could make the game 1/3rd bigger with no additional cost.
While that perhaps dampened my enjoyment of what was otherwise a clear improvement over the original, Wing Commander 2 was nevertheless a wonderful, wonderful game that I’m still in love with 20 years later.
Alexander Freed goes into some detail about the magic of the Wing Commander series – particularly Wing Commander 2 – in this article:
Freed focuses mainly on the narrative aspects of the game – which IMO got a little over-emphasized as the series progressed. Still, I have to agree, all the little narrative elements were what sucked me into the game – or more particularly, into the game world (or universe). While the later games X-Wing and TIE Fighter, taking place in the honest-to-goodness Star Wars universe, were far superior in terms of gameplay (not to mention the excellent Freespace series), they weren’t as compelling to play – because they lacked that stronger narrative element. More particularly, while they had reasonable storylines explaining what was going on, the games never made it personal. There were no relationships between people. Your wingmen were simply mission-dependent callsigns, not people.
It may have been an accident with the first game, but if so, Wing Commander stumbled into a winning formula in their combination of gameplay and narrative. I fear that today, many developers have learned the wrong lesson – simply declaring narrative to be good and throwing more and more of it at the player.
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