One of the first computer games I ever played was called Elite. It was about being a spaceship commander in a vast universe. You could add more weapons to your ship and be a bounty hunter, or you could load it with cargo to be a trader, or - if you were like me - you could be that guy who crashed into every space station that he ever tried to dock with. It turns out that six-year-olds don’t make good spaceship pilots, but it gave me a taste for the genre that remains with me still.
Over the years other games, including Elite’s own sequels, would offer their own takes on the theme of space ships doing space ship stuff and run off in different directions with it. While Elite established the sandbox spaceship game, others would approach the genre differently. Some would focus on a narrative built up over a series of tightly-scripted missions; others on multiplayer dogfighting; and others on more of a thoughtful, flight simulator approach. Things were going fine, different tastes were being catered for, and with the arrival and implementation of things like 3D graphics it looked like the space game was all set to live long and prosperously as a staple of PC gaming. This all came to a somewhat abrupt halt around the turn of the century. Over a comparatively short period, the Wing Commanders, X-Wings and Freespaces stopped being made. Some ended sooner, some later, but the lights went out on many of the big space game series.
There are exceptions of course. EVE: Online still continues to defy the many exaggerated rumours of its own demise, while the X series - especially X3 and its various expansions - represents perhaps the pinnacle of the old wave of space games. (Especially as the recent sequel, X-Rebirth, was a complete load of dingo’s kidneys.)
The return of the space game was hinted at here and there, but it was when Star Citizen’s crowd funding project took off that things really went up a gear. Star Citizen itself didn’t appear, of course, but it didn’t have to - suddenly, interest in the space genre was rekindled. Even people who dismiss Star Citizen as a cynical experiment in whale milking can’t ignore that it has helped to bring life to a genre that had seemed lost.
From heroic solo projects such as Limit Theory and early access games like Space Engineers, to more mainstream projects like No Man’s Sky and the return of the venerable ancestor itself in the form of Elite: Dangerous, the list of incoming space games is growing - and it looks like it will to continue to do so, if this new wave of games succeeds critically and commercially. That may not be as easy as it first seems, however, and fans should not get cocky.
The problem for space games is that in many ways the things that they used to do are being done in other games in other ways and sometimes better.
For example, the sort of combat common to space games isn’t as unique and amazing as it used to be. Typically space game combat was based on the Star Wars style, or sometimes, in the better games like I-War, some additional tricks were thrown in so players could take advantage of better physics. In its day that kind of combat was fun and exciting, but competition from conventional aircraft simulators was severely limited back then. The comparison now for space games is against games like the DCS modular simulators, or for fans of less-realistic flight systems there are games like War Thunder. Space, being space, can be a somewhat drab backdrop compared to swooping around mountains and dodging power lines.
Secondly, many of the tropes of the sandbox space games have been picked up by other genres - for example, the cargo-transporting element that the Elite series always included. Comparisons between the trading side of Elite: Dangerous and Euro Truck Simulator 2 might seem a little unflattering but they are not too far off the mark. Pick up cargo, go to a place, unload cargo, make profit, buy better hauler to carry more cargo, repeat. You might be able to make the Kessel Run so fast you have to measure your speed using a unit of distance, but do it often enough and it will get old.
One factor that we need to consider is that Elite: Dangerous can be played multiplayer. In theory you can lead a group of ships, but only if you can find other human players to follow you. This presence of other players also means that if you do choose to spend your time hauling cargo there’s a possibility somebody might blow up your ship just because it’s there, which isn’t always as fun as it sounds.
Getting the systems right to protect players from acts of malicious violence while not making the game utterly toothless is incredibly difficult. One side will be end up feeling alienated from being pushed to the margins, and, potentially, losing either side completely could ruin the experience for both. This is a problem that both Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen will face, the latter also having to deal with the inherent problems of balancing the pay-to-win elements of its business model. While space games like these are not unfamiliar ground for their developers, the multiplayer element is. The addition of other players has the capacity to ruin anything or make it the best thing ever, or even both at the same time.
Of course it is easy and unnecessary to knock games that haven’t been completed yet for flaws which they might not eventually have, but that is not my intent. Video game fans like to follow a pattern of building expectation to dizzying levels and then hating games for failing to meet those inflated expectations rather than valuing them for what they are. Sometimes we all need to dial back those expectations somewhat.
Take Star Citizen. It’s making a lot of money, but its budget is still a long way below that of a typical AAA game, such as Halo 3 or Watch_Dogs, while its ambition is far greater. As a result it is likely that it will not be the second coming of the Great Prophet Zarquan, instead it will tickle fans of the genre in ways they have not been tickled for a long time and maybe win over some new players. This ought to be enough. Nobody except the most diehard fans of Chris Roberts’s earlier work should be expecting some miraculous super game.
Similarly, Elite: Dangerous - while visually very striking and as good an advert for the Oculus Rift as has ever been made - is not the sort of game that everybody can just dive into. It’s a simulator and a slow burner; an uncompromisingly old school game in almost every way, and it offers very little of itself at all to casual players looking to dip in for a bit of interstellar ultraviolence. This will likely lead to misunderstanding, frustration and anger among many players, but there will probably also be thousands of more patient, contemplative players methodically enjoying the hell out of it.
The future is bright for the next generation of space games and brighter for the genre as a whole than at any point in over a decade. We just need to keep in mind that we’re still talking about a small cluster of indie games and while they look very promising they might not be the droids we are looking for.