As mysterious and awe-inspiring as space may be, it tends to be populated primarily by variations of the same distant, detached scenery: flickering stars, looming planets, gossamer nebulae and the like. Even the most majestic depictions of space and its contents have been familiar takes on the same cold, unwelcoming theme. The universe of the space sim may be beautiful, but it's not particularly varied or inviting.
Space's size is also daunting, particularly when encountered in Elite-style games. When you're attempting to find your way across something as huge as literally everything, complex star charts and tangled hyperspace routes make getting from point A to point B challenging. Add to this the perspective-less freedom of movement across the six axes space sims provide, and the universe suddenly seems like the empty, disorienting and unfriendly place that it actually is.
Joysticks have always been the space sims' controllers of choice, but for gamers raised on gamepad and keyboard-and-mouse controls, they're a bit of an anachronism. Most of today's gamers probably don't even own a joystick, and if they do, it's likely been gathering dust since the last time they played X-Wing Alliance. The space sim's persistent focus on ship micromanagement via keyboard controls hasn't helped its popularity either. Constant attention to engines, shields, weapons systems, camera views, repair bots, radar modes, wingmate actions and more requires levels of patience and attention that the majority of gamers no longer seem willing or able to muster.
There's a clear trend in recent game design that focuses on stripping away complex, demanding elements that interfere with an immediately playable experience. Many space sim enthusiasts would argue that it's these very elements that made the genre so unique and rewarding. Unfortunately for those who relish such depth, the space sim's decline over the last several years arguably demonstrates that space simulations with flight-sim mechanics are destined to remain niche titles at best.
A cursory stroll around the internet development, many gamers, including myself, would jump at the chance to explore the universe unfettered by cumbersome control schemes. I'll admit it: Like most of the gaming populace, I've become numb to the novelty of complex realism, especially when it interferes with my ability to play and explore.
I'm heartened by the introduction of new controller designs, adopted thus far by Nintendo and Sony, that seem well-suited for free-form space flight. I'm intrigued by the graphical and processing capabilities of modern hardware that appears more than up to the challenges of rendering complex, beautiful universes with an epic sense of scale. And I'm fascinated by the possibilities provided by widespread connectivity across the internet - arguably a universe in itself.
If the popularity of games like the recent releases of the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls series is any indicator, players are still highly receptive to the idea of huge, explorable worlds. And although space flight itself may not immediately command a huge audience, science-fiction games in general are certainly alive and well.
For millions of gamers, outer-space still holds its mysterious appeal. So I'm not going to completely write off the space sim yet. I'm holding out hope that, one way or another, our games will take us back to the stars.