The Truth about X-Wing and Wing Commander
I wasn't at CES in 1990, but I have to question the veracity of some of the statements in Allen Varney's article on Wing Leader. I entered the industry as a tester at Lucasfilm Games in 1991 and at that time Larry Holland was working non-stop on completing Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (which shipped that year.) SWotL was the 3rd in a highly successful series of flight combat games. Work on X-Wing did not begin until December 1991. I left Lucasarts and joined Larry's team in August of 1992 when X-Wing was still pre-Alpha.
The timeline is this:
" Battlehawks 1942 (work began in 1987, DOS release in 1988, Atari ST in 1989.)
" Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain (work began in 1988, DOS release in 1989, Atari ST and Amiga in 1990.)
" Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (work began in 1990, DOS release in 1991, with two expansions in 1991 and two more in 1992.)
There's a somewhat misleading history on Lucasarts' site: http://www.lucasarts.com/20th/history_1.htm (Misleading because they make statements attributing these games to the "the simulation team inside Lucasarts" when the fact is Larry was an independent contractor who assembled his own independent team. We incorporated as Totally Games in 1994.)
Now the story I've heard from a few different sources is that Chris Roberts pitched a Star Wars flight combat game to Lucasfilm and was turned down. It's not surprising - he had no experience with flight combat games, while Lucasfilm already had a partnership with Larry Holland that resulted in 3 very successful World War II flight combat games. Since George Lucas has said he based the dogfighting sequences in Star Wars on movies like Battle of Britain, it stands to reason that if they were going to go ahead with a Star Wars flight combat game they would naturally choose to work with Larry.
As for the technology in Wing Commander, Chris Roberts openly boasted to Larry that he had reverse-engineered the code from Battlehawks 1942. I've heard from former Origin coders that this was not actually true, that the engine code was original - just that Chris didn't write any of it. Either way, it's not a terribly flattering picture of Mr. Roberts.
Roberts' "focus and cleverness" in deciding to use sprites for the ships was nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that he wasn't actually the principal coder for the graphics engine, Battlehawks 1942 was using this method in 1988, as indeed were most "3D" action games. It should be pointed out that there were very few fully 3D games at the time. This was before 3D accelerator cards were commonplace. Hardware acceleration didn't take off until the early to mid 1990s.
In spite of this, I do have respect for the great commercial success that the Wing Commander series achieved. I never cared much for the actual games, though. The stories were hackneyed and derivative (the Kilrathi were clearly ripped off from Larry Niven's Kzin - Roberts even had the gall to put a "Niven Sector" in WCII, so I guess we could give him the benefit of the doubt and call it "homage.") The arcade-style gameplay was too simplistic and repetitive, and the AI was awful.
The Wing Commander series was great at allowing players to indulge the fantasy of being a starfighter pilot without actually requiring them to have anything resembling real flight combat skills. True aficionados of [simulated] dogfighting turned to games like X-Wing for that challenge.
As Allen Varney's article seems to make clear, the real goal of the Wing Commander series was about indulging Chris Roberts' dream of becoming a filmmaker. The dreadful result of his achievement of that dream is a movie that rivals Battlefield Earth as one of the worst science fiction films to ever see wide release.
X-Wing owes nothing to Wing Commander. We were building on a successful engine that predated Chris Roberts' efforts by 3 years. I think it is pretty clear who influenced who.
Thanks for reading,
Mission designer, chief writer and lead tester on X-Wing. I was to become the Gameplay and Story Lead for the rest of the series.