With their recent rise to popularity once more, Karl Quigley charts the space simulator’s downfall and rebirth.
Space: the final frontier. Until about the late 90s, that is. In the days before modern gaming, space simulators were a large part of the electronic world. Games based on film franchises such as Star Wars: X-Wing were hugely popular, offering players the choice to pilot iconic ships throughout tours of duty in the film universe.
This was just the tip of the iceberg, with Lylat Wars, Wing Commander, and half a dozen Star Trek games. Space simulators, however, were not limited to simple combat. Titles like Elite, Freelancer and Wing Commander: Privateer offered so much more. These games fell under the category of space trading as well as combat, allowing players to advance in rank and standing by means of trading, exploration and combat if they wished.
From the 1980s to the late 90s, space simulators were the cornerstone on which many gamers relied. Their open-ended worlds, complicated controls, and ambitious systems intrigued many. Plenty of these titles offered an attention to detail that almost no other genre could boast of. Unfortunately though, the very aspects that made the genre special also played a key role in its regrettable fall from popularity.
At the end of the 90s, coinciding with the rise of first person shooters, real time strategies and role-playing games; space simulators fell out of what was considered at the time to be main stream of popular gaming. Notable titles such as Doom, Warcraft and Diablo, the final frontier suddenly didn’t seem so attractive anymore as the gritty realism of fantasy and real worlds took over instead.
The genre didn’t disappear entirely though, limping onwards with EVE Online and the X Series. EVE Online was not the first predominantly multiplayer game based around space combat and trading, but it was the first to achieve lasting success. Released originally in 2003, it remains active today with an impressive amount of players.
As does the X Series, which attained popularity due to its open world and the option to disable plot entirely and opt instead for the game’s sandbox mode. The freedom offered by these games allowed the genre to survive in the background, hiding in deep space from the triple-A titles that currently dominate the gaming market.
Their open-ended worlds, complicated controls, and ambitious systems intrigued many. Plenty of these titles offered an attention to detail that almost no other genre could boast of.
In 2007, with the release of Mass Effect, some critical attention was drawn back into the space genre. While not a space simulator, Mass Effect offered the possibility of a revival for space simulators. In recent years, starting from around 2011, crowdfunding has become a realistic option and as a result several space-based projects have sprung up.
Titles that are now quite well-known such as Strike Suit Zero, Star Citizen, No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous, which is a direct revival of its namesake, all appeared from a hyperspace jump into the spotlight.
Further projects like Kerbal Space Program, which launched its first official alpha in 2011, proved to be a success, reaching the top five games on Steam for both sales and playtime. Offering not only a full-fledged quasi-realistic space launch experience, the player must also design and build his or her own craft. The complex controls and open-ended world, aspects which defined the original space simulators, had begun to return.
Elite: Dangerous sought to fund itself with £1,250,000 and currently sits with £2,268,556. Elite encourages players to “take a ship and a hundred credits” and go make a living for themselves, legally or not. Strike Suit Zero, launched in early 2013 after successful funding, is a level-based never ending space combat simulator with players striving simply to survive longer and achieve a higher score than others.
Star Citizen began with a goal of $500,000. It’s expected to release in early 2015 with funding currently at a mind blowing $37,357,728. Star Citizen very much emulates its predecessors in every way, with a minimal plot to begin with in the form of an extended learning section, followed by the typical fashion of being thrown immediately into the deep end after.
As shown by its current and exponentially growing fan base, it offers what most believe to be the best chance at a fully-fledged revival of the beloved space simulator.
While information is currently limited, No Man’s Sky has the makings of something that could be special, offering a completely uncharted universe to explore, one which is entirely procedurally generated. Mainly branding itself as a multiplayer game, the possible potential for this idea is huge, but it remains to be seen if it will stay true to the original principle of space simulators and indeed, its own vision.
With the current state of the gaming world, where indie developers are free to create their ideas and where crowd funding is a more than viable option to attain funding, it is a healthy atmosphere for these simulators to make their return and show the universe what they have to offer.