Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.
Term used to denote a form of Videogame in which the player is commander or (typically) pilot and sole crew of their own Spaceship. The behaviour of the spacecraft generally resembles that of a World War Two era fighter aircraft more closely than it does that of any likely actual space vehicle; as in the Star Wars films, accuracy in this area does not necessarily add to the enjoyment. Two main variants exist: the space combat game and the space exploration game. There are also a limited number of pure spaceflight simulators which model the control of actual or credibly fictional spacecraft, as in Microsoft Space Simulator (1994); these are considered under Toy Games.
To be effective, a space combat game of this kind must be played in real time, with a three-dimensional display representing the pilot's eye view. One significant precursor to the form is the appropriately named Spasim (1974 Mainframe) designed by Jim Bowery, in which up to 32 players could attack each other in three-dimensional interplanetary space. However, this game updated the positions of spacecraft once a second, and hence cannot be regarded as real time. Early games with similar themes on home machines and in Videogame arcades concentrated entirely on the reflex and coordination-based gameplay of shooting enemy spacecraft and dodging incoming attacks, as in Starship 1 (1977 Atari, Arcade; 1977 rev vt Star Ship AtariVCS) designed by Steve Mayer, Dave Shepperd, Dennis Koble. Star Raiders (1979) added strategic elements by incorporating a larger universe within which the player could travel and the need to conserve limited energy resources. All of the fundamental features seen in later space combat games are already present in Star Raiders; from this point on, the form developed by adding linear storylines (see Interactive Narrative) while gradually improving the visuals and the sophistication of the gameplay. Important members of the school include Wing Commander (1990), Star Wars: X-Wing (1993), the UK's Independence War: The Starship Simulator (1997) – notable for its use of realistic physics – and Freespace (1998). Few new space combat games have been released since Freespace, and the form seems largely extinct. One possible reason for its demise is that, as the gameplay was progressively refined in order to appeal to owners of previous titles, the games simply became too difficult for casual players to enjoy.
Space exploration games depend on the simulation of a universe which allows the player considerable freedom of action, a personal sandbox built on a galactic scale. While games such as the text-based Star Trader (1974, Mainframe, Others) – designed by Dave Kaufman and later published by the People's Computer Company in the book What to Do After You Hit RETURN (1975) – the UK developed Trader Trilogy (1982 Pixel Productions, ZX81; 1983 Spectrum) designed by Joe Gillespie, Universe (1983) and Sundog: Frozen Legacy (1984) can be seen as precursors of the form, its true prototype is the UK game Elite (1984). That game's fusion of three-dimensional real-time space travel and combat with exploration of a large universe within which many activities are possible, from trading and mining to piracy and bounty-hunting, established a shape for the form which has remained essentially the same ever since. Refinements have been made, as improving technology allowed for better graphics and enhancements to the quality of the simulation, but the core concepts are unchanged. Significant examples of the school include Space Rogue (1989 Origin Systems, AppleII, C64, DOS, Mac; 1990 Amiga, AtariST, FMT, PC98, X68K) designed by Paul Neurath, Wing Commander: Privateer (1993) (see Wing Commander), the less than successful Battlecruiser 3000 AD (1996), Freelancer (2003) and the German X Series (from 1999). A related line of development can be seen in Starflight (1986), Star Control II (1992) (see Star Control) and the Russian Space Rangers (2002). These latter games, while generally considered to be members of separate forms, share many features with Elite. They are, however, distinguished by their largely two-dimensional graphics and their focus on story and character beyond the environmental narrative elements which predominate in many space exploration games (see Interactive Narrative). While the descendants of Elite have proved to be less popular with players in the twenty-first century than they were in the 1990s, the Icelandic game EVE Online (2003) has achieved considerable commercial success by transposing the form into a Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Arguably, this work represents a kind of apotheosis for the form, in which its historical weaknesses – notably a certain dryness of tone and lack of human interest – are resolved by the transformation of its simulated space into a shared galaxy. [NT]
- Francis Spufford. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin (London: Faber and Faber, 2003) [nonfiction: Chapter 3 explores the origins of Elite: hb/Andy Bridge]
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