In Spaaaace!

In Spaaaace!
Wing Leader

Allen Varney | 18 Jul 2006 08:00
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Chicago, summer 1990. The quiet aisles of the Consumer Electronics Show grew suddenly loud when Origin Systems turned on its sound system. Stirring music, volume at 11, blared across the trade show hall. The upstart game company, best known for the Ultima series of fantasy roleplaying games, was playing the soundtrack from its forthcoming starfighter simulator, Wing Commander. A bank of monitors showed the demo of a Terran Confederation spaceship cockpit, and its view of beautifully rendered enemy Kilrathi ships diving and swooping with amazing speed.

At the LucasArts booth - or Lucasfilm Games, as it was then - a programmer ambled away from the demos for the imminent Star Wars: X-Wing starfighter game. X-Wing was weeks away from going gold, and would easily make the 1990 Christmas season. Like a stately elk, the coder approached the Origin booth, momentarily surveyed the Wing Commander monitors and ambled on.

A few minutes later, the programmer returned with another stately Lucasfilm coder. They chatted politely (over the deafening music) with the young Origin employees; now and then, they glanced at the Wing Commander monitors; they departed.

Trade show officials asked Origin to reduce the volume. Booth staffers turned it down until the officials left, then gradually amped back to full. Meanwhile, six Lucasfilm staffers gathered before the monitors in silence; in silence they departed.

The next day, companies in the booths near Origin's brought their own sound systems in self-defense. The once-dignified halls of the Consumer Electronics Show turned raucous. That day, the entire Lucasfilm booth staff, including every senior producer at the show, huddled in a tight, silent knot before the Wing Commander monitors. They watched for a long time. They departed.

A former Origin employee recalls, "You could see the fear in their eyes, as they walked by. We joked about how cool they tried to look, the faux nonchalance. You knew they were afraid."

After the trade show ended, Lucasfilm Games unexpectedly announced X-Wing required much more work and would not make Christmas. It finally shipped years later, in 1993.

That was the debut of Wing Commander.

Born in 1968, Chris Roberts had been a professional game designer since he was 13, when he sold small games in BASIC and machine code for the BBC Microcomputer. Origin published Roberts' Commodore 64 RPG, Times of Lore, in 1988 and his post-holocaust RPG, Bad Blood, in 1990. For his next project, Roberts envisioned an Elite-style game, initially called Squadron and then Wing Leader, that would combine arcade-style space-fighting, innovative music, great graphics and a cinematic storyline; he loved movies.

With programmer Paul Isaacs, writer Jeff George, artist Denis Loubet and a team considered large for the time - 11 people! - Roberts pursued his vision with focus and cleverness. He decided to handle each spaceship not as a polygon-based 3-D model, but as a collection of sprites (images) that showed the ship from all angles. These looked better and would run faster, because the computer need not calculate the images in real time. "It took about two months of 16-hour days to come up with the rotation and scale routines for the bit-mapped images," Roberts said in a 1992 interview. "I think the bitmaps were what helped give the game its movie-type feel."

Like every Origin release, Roberts' new game aggressively embraced advanced tech: The DOS version required (required!) EGA graphics and a full 640K of RAM! It would barely run on an 80286 machine; you really needed a cutting-edge 386 with two floppy drives, and you desperately wanted the high-end 256-color VGA chipset.

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