For more history on space combat sims, check out our Space Sim Timeline.
When I got home from school, I ran up to my room and pressed play on my boombox. The distorted guitar licks of Smashing Pumpkins screamed out as I plopped down and switched on my 386 IBM clone. From the DOS prompt, I loaded the executable file for X-Wing. After a few moments, the cockpit of a starfighter filled the edges of the 15" CRT screen and I grabbed hold of the joystick suction-cupped to my desk. The field of stars blurred as I started tracking the TIE fighter ahead of me and I tried to aim not where the pesky Imperial ship was, but where it would be. The X-Wing I piloted was a bit slower than the TIE, but firing one of its four homing missiles was enough to turn the darting TIE into a mess of orange and yellow pixels. The splotch resembled the explosions from the Star Wars movies I had watched a few thousand times at that point. I smiled, and move on to the next target.
Just when space combat sims were nearly indistinguishable from the movies that inspired them, the audience for such games disappeared.
This exact scenario played out hundreds of times in my youth; even twenty years later, hearing chords from "Cherub Rock" still brings back pixelated images of Star Destroyers. LucasArts' X-Wing, its expansions, and the sequel TIE Fighter cemented my love of PC gaming. Using the joystick to steer and the keyboard to change my starfighter's settings felt exhilaratingly real when compared to jumping over lava pits by pressing red buttons on a grey rectangle.
I wasn't the only one who fell in love with gaming after exposure to space combat sims like X-Wing and Wing Commander. "The genre has always held a special place in my heart," says Chris Stockman from Seamless Entertainment. "I spent countless hours dogfighting Kilrathi, TIEs, and so much more. The immersiveness really illustrated to me that these types of games were for the big boys. I love the feeling of being in space, taking on huge capital ships and dogfighting groups of fighters."
The genre had a sweet run in the early to mid 1990s, honored with multiple Game of the Year awards from the publications of the day and earning respectable profits from sales. But just when graphics processing progressed to the point where space combat sims were nearly indistinguishable from the movies that inspired them, the audience for such games disappeared. Declining sales affected almost all titles, but the commercial flop of two high budget games signaled the end of the genre's golden age. Volition's Descent: Freespace was a modest hit but the sequel did abysmally in stores, selling only 26,000 copies in 1999. Coupled with Wing Commander: Prophecy (1997) not doing much better, large videogame publishers came to view the space sim genre as a substantial risk.
Why exactly did gamers abandon space combat sims? According to Stockman, the audience shifted to burgeoning genres such as first person shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D and real-time strategy games because of a simple peripheral problem. "The main control mechanism for space combat games - and flight sims, in general - has always been joysticks. These completely faded away once FPS and RTS genres became popular. Gamers spent their peripheral money on better mice and keyboards," he says.
But he also believes the flavor of the gameplay shifted too far into the economic sub-game or featured super-realistic physics models that made merely piloting your ship very difficult to master. Both of these problems resulted in games that failed to deliver the kind of visceral action players got out of shooting a nail gun in a first person shooter. "The most recent entries featured large worlds but the nuts-and-bolts gameplay was more about playing the economy and less about creating an intense action experience," he says. "Some of the entries that were more action-oriented featured realistic flight models requiring players to overcome a steep learning curve to play. Either way, I feel both designs end up catering to a super niche player base."