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Why the Space Genre is Dying!

The Future of Space Games  

12 members have voted

  1. 1. Will space games ever make a mainstream comeback?

    • No, you're nuts! Call of Duty 142 will be more mainstream!
    • What goes around, comes around. Space games will eventually return on their own.
    • Maybe - if some publisher has the balls to invest is something groundbreaking.
    • I don't know. Just give me SOMETHING as my Anti-Drug.

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You know, I've been thinking about my old space games: BC3K, Wing Commander, Freelancer, etc, and I've noticed that there just isn't much in the way of new ideas for the old staple-genre space game. Nor are there any substantial number of new, promising titles on the horizon.

So, what the hell killed my favorite genre? Here are my thoughts:

Space itself is WAY TOO BIG of a concept for publishers. Okay, what I mean by that is simple. Pretty much all traditional ideas of a "space game" has been done, exhaustively. And, to be honest, the sequels and derivatives of those ideas haven't been much to write home about. Space sim? Check. Space shooter? Check. Space RPG? Check. And check. And check. Pretty much any thing that can be categorized in a sort of "sub-genre" has been done ad nauseam.

But see, here's the thing. Space is BIG. No, really. HUGE. Gi-normous. The SCI FI setting of space is looking for something new and refreshing; something big and BOLD. People, quite frankly, are simply tired at looking out of a cockpit at a star background and shooting random "bad" shit. Can we make the explosions bigger and prettier? Yup. Done that. Can we make the scale more impressively massive? Ditto that. How about throwing in some Newtonian physics? Hmm, enter frustrations, boredom, or a dizzying combination of both. Sci-fi and therefore, space games, should depart somewhat from realism, hence the "-fi" part.

Also, I think the consumer is somewhat worn out of the idea in general. Sure, games such as Mass Effect have an appeal, but they don't really explore the full potential of the genre. Space can't just be a backdrop to a story. Likewise, space can't just be a setting for one to blow stuff up.

The one thing about the "space game" that sets it apart from most other genres is that it simply hasn't evolved. In many cases, space is simply a backdrop; an excuse for some developer to not have to implement any kind of ground collision or avoidance mechanism. In other cases, it gives designers a chance to radically alter scenery and characters as the player moves from planet to planet.

Think back: what drew you to Wing Commander? For me, it was the ability to fall into another existance, and go to places I could never go, and blow shit up. What about a game such as BC3K? Same thing, except I could explore those places in more detail, and blow bigger shit up. Remember Starflight? I loved solving that mystery, all the while exploring new worlds seeking out clues, and, of course, blowing shit up.

So the space game is right where it always has been. We've been there and we've blown shit up. A lot of shit. Hell, I could even argue that it's regressed some (remember Starflight?).

Back then, space games worked because we simply didn't have the technology to make the real world as rich of a setting for gaming as we do today. By using space, we were able to unleash our imaginations. It's far easier to "let go" in an environment consisting of black, stars, and ships than it is to try to immerse ourselves in a world of choppy, pixelated trees and off-green grass which serve as constant reminders of the artificial place we're playing in.

This is where I fall back on the publishers. It's just too damned easy to design and polish a new First-Person Shooter these days. The scale is just so limited, but the environment is so ... real. However, no matter how intense and visceral the experience is made to be, what real freedom is there in a FPS? What real WORLD awaits you? Where is your IMAGINATION challenged?

Alright, so where is the space game's salvation? What about this: many worlds, some populated with interactive NPCs. Ships that can be explored, inside and out. Create an economy in relation to the universe. Let the player exist as an alter-ego, in a world as rich as its potential allows for. Let that character interact, fight, and get bloodied with others. Let him explore the unexplored, blaze new trails and solve mysteries.

Publishers, open up your wallets. Don't assign 150-man teams to the next World War II shooter. Find one man with a vision, and assign him a 300-man team to bring it to light. Take us to places where rendering individual blades of grass is irrelevent ... a place where blowing shit up is as fun as exploring our environment just for the hell of it. A place where action, adventure, thrills, mystery, and intrigue all happen at once.

Make the "Space Game" as big as its name implies. Because, the sad fact is, we simply don't need space to make games real for us anymore.

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The space genre has died for the same reason the sim genre has died. All three of the sim companies Jane's, Microprose, and DID, which brought us Total Air War for the F-22, died in the 1990s. Everytime they tried to tone down the realism for accessibility, they get slammed by reviewers-which was a shame for DID in 2001. The development cost required that demand be in the millions.

However, big video game companies like any big companies could for the sake of future innovation sell a few products with low profits, like the car companies selling electric cars or Sony and Microsoft selling low profit game consoles. But Space Combat Sims with any travel time have very small wide appeal. Unfortunately, there is the double standard that travel time in flight simulators is realistic while in space combat it will turn you away. Few are able to accept that looking at a black background is not much different than traveling in the air for five minutes between waypoints. In my opinion, the growing sophistication in space combat that evolved from the instant action Wing Commander to Universal Combat, Terminus, and Starshatter was never widely appealing due to longer travel times. I hope I'm wrong, but it may be many years before we ever see games like Starshatter the Gathering Storm, Terminus, and Universal Combat again.

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The demise of the genre has nothing to do with travel, size, scope etc. It is all about economics. The fanbase dwindled as far back as Freespace2 and I-War2. And because the genre is not as popular as say fps, tps, rts games etc, publishers have very little interest in it.

Most of the companies doing space games these days fund it themselves and just hope that their publishers can actually sell enough copies to keep the devs in business. Which is why the likes of 3000AD and Egosoft are still around, while others like Particle Systems, Volition et al are dead or bought out and move on to more profitable genres. Even the devs of Jumpgate tried their hand at something else over at NC Soft, failed, got canned and are back doing Jumpgate Evolution (another MMO) and some other Lego game I believe.

The future of the genre lies in the MMO space and only for smaller companies. Look at CCP, if Eve were a standalone game, it would be dead and forgotten by now. But given the size of the company, their install base keeps them going and they have nothing to complain about. Nor do they have to do the ridiculous publisher song and dance every couple of years in order to do a new space game.

Trying pitching a space combat game to a publisher these days and you'll just get laughed at.

Which is why, after KnightBlade, our next space combat game (an MMO) will be our final game. Those are goals I've set because anything short of a space combat MMO these days is just a waste of time, effort and resources.

The double edged sword is that to make any space combat game huge, it needs marketing. Lots and lots of it. Since only publishers would dare put that kind of money behind a game, since they're not doing it and devs can't afford it, the genre is as good as dead. Even EA, with all their might, couldn't make it with the likes of Earth & Beyond. But then again, the game was rubbish.

Another recent space combat MMO, Black Prophecy, was canned at NC Soft. Its not like they didn't have the money to market and finish it. And looking at the game, it is more of an fps, than a space combat game and you could see the failure of that premise a mile away. Not to mention the fact that most of the devs came from a space combat background. It just goes to show that it takes a lot more than that to actually do a space game.

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