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Wing Commander III

Movies and computer games are my two favorite things. If I weren’t doing one I’d be doing the other.

— Chris Roberts

Prior to the release of DOOM in late 1993, Wing Commander I and II and their assorted spinoffs and expansion packs constituted not just the most popular collection of outer-space shoot-em-ups since the heyday of Elite but the most popular computer-gaming franchise of the new decade in any genre.

Upon its release in September of 1990, the first Wing Commander had taken the world by storm by combining spectacular graphics with a secret weapon whose potency surprised even Origin Systems, its Austin, Texas-based developer and publisher: a thin thread of story connected its missions together, being conveyed through the adventure-game style interface that was employed for the scenes taking place on the Tiger’s Claw, the outer-space “aircraft” carrier from which you and your fellow fighter pilots flew in a life-or-death struggle against the Kilrathi, a race of genocidal space cats who regarded humans the same way that Earthbound cats do mice. Having seen what their customers wanted, Origin doubled down on the drama in Wing Commander II, which was released in August of 1991; it told a much more elaborate and ambitious story of betrayal and redemption, complete with plenty of intrigue of both the political and the romantic stripe.

After that, the spinoffs and expansion packs had to carry the franchise’s water for quite some time, while Chris Roberts, its father and mastermind, brought its trademark approach to a near-future techno-thriller called Strike Commander, which was released after considerable delay in the spring of 1993. It was only when gamers proved less receptive to the change in milieu than Roberts and Origin had hoped that the former turned his full attention at last to Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.

At the time, the game that would eventually be released under that name was already in development, but the company’s ambitions for it were much smaller than they would soon become. The project was in the hands of what Robin Todd, a programmer on the project,[1]Robin Todd was living as Chris Todd at the time, and is credited under that name in the game’s manual. today calls a “small and inexperienced team”: “three main programmers with minimal game-dev experience, working cheap.” Their leader was one Frank Savage, an Origin-fan-turned-Origin-programmer so passionate about the Wing Commander franchise that his car bore the personalized license plate “WNGCMDR.” Had the group completed the game according to the original plan, it would likely have been released as yet another spinoff rather than the next numbered title in the series.

As it was, though, the project was about to take on a whole new dimension: Chris Roberts stepped in to become the “director” of what was now to be Wing Commander III. Having been recently acquired by Electronic Arts, Origin felt keenly the need to prove themselves to their new owners by delivering an unequivocal, out-of-the-ballpark home run, and the third major iteration of their biggest franchise seemed as close to a guaranteed commercial winner as one could hope to find in the fickle world of computer gaming.

Roberts had built his reputation on cutting-edge games that pushed the state of the art in personal-computer technology to its absolute limit; the first Wing Commander had been one of the first games to require an 80386 processor to run at all well, while Compaq had used Strike Commander as an advertisement for their latest Pentium-based computer models. Now, he decided that Wing Commander III ought to employ the latest technological development to take the industry by storm: not a new processor but rather the inclusion of live human actors on the monitor screen — as captured on videotape, digitized, overlaid onto conventional computer graphics, and delivered on the magical new storage medium of CD-ROM. From a contemporary interview with Roberts:

If you wanted to show your hot machine off back in 1990, Wing I was the game to do it. I think that right now we are in a phase where CD-ROM is becoming standard and everyone is getting a multimedia machine, but I don’t really think the software is out there yet that truly shows it off. That’s what I think Wing III is going to do.

Everyone’s been talking about interactive movies, but we hadn’t heard of anyone doing it right, so we wanted to go out and do it properly. With Wing III, we tried to apply the production values to an interactive movie that we’d applied on the computer side with the previous Wing Commanders. The goal was, if someone said, “What’s an interactive movie?” we’d just hand them the CDs from Wing Commander III and say, “Here, check this out.”

In keeping with his determination to make his interactive movie “right,” Roberts wanted to involve real film professionals in the production. Through the good offices of the California-based Electronic Arts, Hollywood screenwriters Frank DePalma and Terry Borst were hired; they were a well-established team who had demonstrated their ability to deliver competent work on time on several earlier projects, among them a low-budget feature film entitled Private War. Their assignment now was to turn Roberts’s plot outline into a proper screenplay, with the addition of occasional branch points where the player could make a choice to affect the flow of the narrative. After they did so, a Hollywood-based artist turned their script into a storyboard, the traditional next step in conventional film-making.

The thoroughgoing goal was to make Wing Commander III in just the same way that “real” movies were made. Thus a director of photography, assistant director, and art director as well were brought over from the film industry. And then came the hair and makeup people, the caterers, the Hollywood sound stage itself. Origin even spent some $15,000 trying to figure out how to digitize 35-millimeter film prints before being forced to acknowledge that humdrum videotape was vastly more practical.

The one great exception to the rule of film professionals doing what they did best was Chris Roberts himself, a 25-year-old programmer and game designer who knew precisely nothing about making movies, but who nevertheless sat in the time-honored canvas-backed director’s chair throughout the shoot with a huge how-did-I-get-here grin on his face. And why not? For a kid who had grown up on Star Wars, making his own science-fiction film was a dream come true.

That said, Wing Commander III was dramatically different from Star Wars when it came to the very important question of its budget: Origin anticipated that it would cost $2.8 million in all. This was an astronomical budget for a computer game at the time — the budgets of the most expensive, most high-profile games had begun to break the $1 million barrier only in the last year or two — but a bad joke by the standards of even the cheapest Hollywood production. Origin made up the difference by not building any sets whatsoever; their actors would perform on an empty sound stage in front of an expansive green screen, with all of the scenery to be inserted behind them after the fact by Origin’s computer artists.

Truly sought-after actors would cost far more than Origin had to spend, so they settled for a collection of hopeful up-and-comers mixed with older names whose careers were not exactly going gangbusters at the time, all spiced up with a certain amount of stunt casting designed to appeal to the typical computer-gaming demographic of slightly nerdy young men. At the head of the list, a real catch by this standard, was Mark Hamill — none other than Luke Skywalker himself. If some of his snobby Hollywood peers might have judged his appearance in a computer game as another sign of just how much his post-Star Wars career had failed to live up to popular expectations, Hamill himself, a good egg with both feet planted firmly on the ground, seemed to have long since made peace with that same failure and adopted a “just happy to have work” attitude toward his professional life. Wing Commander III wasn’t even his first computer game; he had previously voice-acted one of the roles in the adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. He was originally recruited to Wing Commander III for the supporting role of Maniac, one of the player’s fellow pilots, who lives up to his name with a rather, shall we say, rambunctious flying style; only late in negotiations did he agree to take the role of Colonel Blair, the player-controlled protagonist of the story.

Joining him were other veteran actors who had lost some of their mojo in recent years, but who likewise preferred working to sitting at home: Malcolm McDowell, best known for his starring roles in the controversial A Clockwork Orange and the even more controversial Caligula during the 1970s; John Rhys-Davies, who had played Indiana Jones’s sidekick Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (he would go on to enjoy something of a late-career renaissance when he was cast as Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings films); Jason Bernard, a perennial supporting actor on 1970s and 1980s television; Tom Wilson, who had played the cretinous bully Biff Tannen in the three Back to the Future movies. (He replaced Hamill in the role of Maniac — a role not that far removed from his most famous one, come to think of it.)

A more eyebrow-raising casting choice was Ginger Lynn Allen, a once and future porn star whose oeuvre may perhaps have been more familiar to more of Origin’s customers than might have admitted that fact to their mothers. (She played Blair’s sexy mechanic, delivering her innuendo with enthusiastic abandon: “Are we going to kick in the afterburners here?”; “There’s a lot more thrust in those jets than I imagined…”)

On the Set with Wing Commander III


Jason Bernard, who played the captain of the Victory, the spaceborne aircraft carrier where Colonel Blair is stationed, is seen here with Mark Hamill, who played Blair himself.

Chris Roberts and Malcolm McDowell. The latter played Admiral Tolwyn, a human who is almost as much of an enemy of Colonel Blair as the Kilrathi.

Chris Roberts and John Rhys-Davies. The latter played Paladin, an old comrade-at-arms of Blair — he appears in the very first Wing Commander as a fellow pilot — whom age has now forced out of the cockpit.

Tom Wilson chats with a member of the film crew. He was by all accounts the life of the party on-set, and brought some of that same exuberance to Maniac, a rambunctious fighter jock. Computer Gaming World magazine gave him an award for “Best Male Onscreen Performance in Multimedia” for 1994 (a sign of the times if ever there was one). And indeed, a few more performances like his would have made for a more entertaining movie…

The actor inside a Kilrathi costume get some much-needed fresh air, courtesy of a portable air-conditioning unit. Just about everyone present at the shoot — even those not ensconced in heavy costumes — has remarked on how hot it was on-set.

Shooting a scene with a Kilrathi. The costumes were provided by a Hollywood special-effects house. Their faces were animatronic creations, complex amalgamations of latex and machinery which could be programmed to run through a sequence of movements and expressions while the cameras rolled.

The 50-year-old John Rhys-Davies was the only cast member who showed any interest in actually playing Wing Commander III. Here he is at a press event, sitting next to the game’s media director Jenni Evans, whose herculean efforts helped to win the project an unprecedented amount of mainstream attention. Behind them stand Chris Roberts and Frank Savage; the latter managed development of the space simulator back in Austin while the former was off in Hollywood chasing his dream of directing his very own science-fiction film.



Computer Gaming World magazine would later reveal how much some of these folks were paid for their performances. As the star, Mark Hamill got $153,000 up-front and a guaranteed 1.75 percent of the game’s net earnings after the first 175,000 copies were sold; Jason Bernard got a lump sum of $60,000; Malcolm McDowell earned $50,000; Ginger Lynn Allen received just $10,000. (The same article reveals that Origin sought Charlton Heston for the game, but balked at his agent’s asking price of $100,000.)

Principal photography lasted most of the month of May 1994, although not all of the actors were present through the whole of filming. “More than 80 experienced film professionals worked up to eighteen-hour days in order to realize Chris Roberts’s vision of the final chapter of the Terran-Kilrathi struggle,” wrote Origin excitedly in their in-house newsletter to commemorate the shoot’s conclusion. “Although always intense and frequently frustrating, the shoot progressed without any major complications, thanks in part to a close monitoring of contracts, budgets, and schedules by resident ‘suits’ in both Austin and San Mateo.” (The latter city was the home of Electronic Arts.) Few to none of the actors and other Hollywood hands understood what the words “interactive movie” actually meant, but they all did their jobs like the professionals they were. In all, some 200 hours of footage was shot, to eventually be edited down to around three hours in the finished game.

The presence of so many recognizable actors on the set, combined with the broader mass-media excitement over multimedia and CD-ROM, brought a parade of mainstream press to the shoot. The Today show, VH-1, the Los Angeles Times, Premiere magazine, the Associated Press, USA Today, Newsweek, Forbes, and Fortune were just some of the media entities that stopped in to take some pictures, shoot some video, and conduct a few interviews. At a time when the likes of DOOM was still well off the mainstream radar, Wing Commander III was widely accepted as the prototype for gaming’s inevitable future. Even many of the industry’s insiders accepted this conventional wisdom about “Siliwood” — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as described by Alex Dunne that year in Game Developer magazine:

Ninety years after it first burst onto the scene, cinema is undergoing a renaissance. More than just a rebirth actually, it’s really a fusion with computer and video games that’s resulting in some cool entertainment: a new breed of interactive, “live-action” games featuring Hollywood movie stars. Such games, like Hell, Under a Killing Moon, and Wing Commander III, are coming out with more frequency, and they’re boosting the acting careers of some people in Tinseltown.

As Siliwood comes into its own, the line between games and movies will rapidly fade. Ads in game magazines already look like blockbuster movie ads, and we’ve begun to see stars’ mug shots alongside blurbs detailing the minimum system requirements. Interactive game drama is here, so forget the theater and renting movies — fire up the Intel nickelodeon.

Amidst all the hype, peculiarly little attention was paid to the other part of Wing Commander III, the ostensible heart of the experience: the actual missions you flew behind the controls of an outer-space fighter plane. This applied perhaps as much inside Origin as it did anywhere else. Chris Roberts was a talented game designer and programmer — he had, after all, been responsible for the original Wing Commander engine which had so wowed gamers back in 1990 — but his attention was now given over almost entirely to script consultations, film shoots, and virtual set design. Tellingly, Origin devoted far more resources to the technology needed to make the full-motion video go than they did to that behind the space simulator.

On the other hand, that choice may have been a perfectly reasonable one, given that they already had what they considered to be a perfectly reasonable 3D-simulation engine, a legacy of Strike Commander. Although that game had used VGA graphics only, at a resolution of 320 X 200, its engine had been designed from the start with the necessary hooks to enable Super VGA graphics, at a resolution of 640 X 480, when the time came. And that time was now. No one would be able to say that Wing Commander III‘s spaceflight sequences didn’t look very nice indeed. For its was a full-fledged 3D engine, complete with texture mapping and all the other bells and whistles. As such, it was a major upgrade over the one found in Wing Commander I and II, which had been forced by the hardware limitations of its time to substitute scaled sprites for real 3D models. With Roberts so busy scripting and filming his interactive movie, most of the responsibility for what happened in the cockpit continued to rest on the shoulders of Frank Savage, whose official title was now “game development director.”

Wing Commander III was a high-risk project for Origin. Since being acquired by Electronic Arts in September of 1992, they had yet to come up with a really big hit: Strike Commander had, as already noted, under-performed relative to expectations upon its release in the spring of 1993, while the launch of Ultima VIII a year later had been an unmitigated disaster. Under the assumption that you have to swing for the fences to hit a home run — or simply that you have to spend money to make money — Origin and their nervous corporate parent didn’t object even when Wing Commander III‘s budget crept up to $4 million, making it the most expensive computer game ever made by a factor of more than two. Their one inflexible requirement was that the game had to ship in time for the Christmas of 1994. And this it did, thanks to the absurdly long hours put in by everyone; not for nothing would Origin go down in history as the company that largely invented crunch time as the industry knows it today. Programmer Robin Todd:

In retrospect the crunch was vicious, but at the time I had nothing else to compare it to. Everything was a blur during the months before we shipped. At whatever time I was too tired to go on programming, I’d go back to my apartment to sleep. And when I woke up, I’d go back to the office. And that was it. What time of day it was didn’t matter. I remember the apartment manager knocking on my door one morning because I was so spaced from working that I’d forgotten to pay my rent for weeks. Sleeping under our desks started as something of a joke, but it quickly became true. There was one designer who wanted to take the evening off for his mom’s birthday, and was told that if he did, then he shouldn’t bother coming back.

I shared an office with two designers, and during a particularly late evening, one of the them turned to me and said, “If I’m still here when the sun comes up, I quit.” And sure enough, we were still there at dawn. He got up and turned in his resignation.

The day the project went gold I tendered my resignation.

At the last minute, it was discovered that the four CDs which were required to contain the game were packed a little too full; some CD-ROM drives were refusing to read them. A hasty round of cuts resulted in a serious plot hole. But so be it; the show went on.

This wall inside Origin’s offices tracked Wing Commander III‘s progress from genesis to completion for the benefit of employees and visitors alike.

Publicly at least, Chris Roberts himself expressed no concern whatsoever about the game’s commercial prospects. “I have a name brand,” he said, adopting something of the tone of the Hollywood executives with whom he’d recently been spending so much time. “I am not going to lose money on it.” He predicted that Wing Commander III would sell 500,000 copies easily at a suggested list price of $70, enough to bank a tidy profit for everyone — this despite the fact that it required a pricey Pentium-based computer with a fast SVGA graphics card to run optimally, a double-speed CD-ROM drive to run at all.

His confidence was not misplaced. Three major American gaming magazines put Wing Commander III on their covers to commemorate its release in November of 1994, even as features appeared across mainstream media as well to greet the event. Ginger Lynn Allen appeared on Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio show, while Malcolm McDowell turned up on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show. Segments appeared on Entertainment Tonight and CNN; even Japan’s Fuji TV aired a feature story. In short, Wing Commander III married its title of most expensive game ever to that of the most widely covered, most widely hyped computer-game debut in the history of the industry. Within ten months of its release, Next Generation magazine could report that its sales had surpassed Roberts’s predicted half a million copies. Once ported to the Apple Macintosh computer and the 3DO and Sony PlayStation consoles, its total sales likely approached 1 million copies.

It doubtless would have sold even better in its original MS-DOS incarnation if not for those high system requirements and its high price. As it was, though, Origin and Electronic Arts were satisfied. The Hollywood experiment had proved a roaring success; Wing Commander IV was quickly green-lit.



One of my briefs in articles like this one is to place the game in question into its historical context; another is to examine it outside of that context, to ask how it holds up today, what other designers might learn from it, and whether some of you readers might find it worth playing. This is the point in the article where I would normally transition from the one brief to the other. In this case, though, it strikes me as unfair to do so without at least a little bit of preamble.

For, if it’s self-evident that all games are products of their time, it’s also true that some seem more like products of their time than others — and Wing Commander III most definitely belongs in this group. There is a very short window of years, stretching from about 1993 to 1996, from which this game could possibly have sprung; I mean that not so much in terms of technology as in terms of concept. This was the instant when the “Siliwood” approach, as articulated by Alex Dunne above, was considered the necessary, well-nigh inevitable future of gaming writ large. But of course that particular version of the future did not come to pass, and this has left Wing Commander III in an awkward position indeed.

Seen from the perspective of today, a project like this one seems almost surreal. At what other moment in history could a complete neophyte like Chris Roberts have found himself behind the camera directing veteran Hollywood talent who had previously worked under the likes of George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick? It was truly a strange time.

The foregoing is meant to soften the blow of what I have to say next. Because, if you ask me whether Wing Commander III is a good game in the abstract, my answer has to be no, it really is not. It’s best reserved today for those who come to it for nostalgia’s sake, or who are motivated by a deep — not to say morbid! — curiosity about the era which it so thoroughly embodies.

I can hardly emphasize enough the extent to which gaming during the 1990s was a technological arms race. Developers and publishers rushed to take advantage of all the latest affordances of personal computers that were improving with bewildering speed; every year brought faster processors and CD-ROM drives, bigger memories and hard drives, graphics and sound cards of yet higher fidelity. The games that exploited these things to raise the audiovisual bar that much higher dazzled the impressionable young journalists who were assigned to review them so utterly that these earnest scribes often described and evaluated their actual gameplay as little more than an afterthought. Computer Gaming World was the most mature and thoughtful of the major American magazines, and thus less prone to this syndrome than most of its peers. By no means, however, was it entirely immune to it, as Martin E. Cirulis’s five-stars-out-of-five review of Wing Commander III illustrates.

They say that every successful person carries within her the seeds of her own destruction. In the same spirit, many a positive review contains the makings of a negative one. After expounding at length on how “simply incredible” the game is, Cirulis has this to say:

I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that the space-combat aspect of Wing Commander III is almost incidental to playing the thing. The story you are moving through is so interesting and the characters so well-detailed that you almost wish you didn’t have to strap into the fighter just to see what happens next. The story line of a Wing Commander game used to be a gimmick to make what was basically a space-combat game seem more interesting, especially to people who weren’t dedicated sim pilots; but things have come full circle now, and it’s the story that is the point and the flight sim that is the gimmick.

I realize that there will be those who think that I have been blinded by chrome and taken in by pretty pictures and have failed to “critique the game.” Well, more power to them.

Another writer — perhaps even one named Martin E. Cirulis at another moment in time — might frame a review of a game whose cut scenes are its most entertaining part rather differently. Sadly, I’m afraid that I have to become that writer now.



By the standards of most productions of this nature, the game’s cinematic sequences don’t acquit themselves too horribly. If you can look past the inherent cheesiness of pixelated human actors overlaid upon computer-generated backgrounds, you can see some competent directing and acting going on. The game’s eleven-minute opening sequence in particular shows a familiarity with the language of cinema that eludes most other interactive movies. Throughout the game, there is a notable lack of the endless pregnant pauses, the painful periods where the director seems to have no idea where to point the camera, the aura of intense discomfort and vague embarrassment radiating from the actors that was such par for the course during the full-motion-video era. Likewise, the script shows an awareness of how to set up dialog and use it to convey information clearly and concisely.

I give the film-making professionals who helped Chris Roberts to “direct” his first feature film more credit for all of this than I do that young man himself. (Anyone who has seen the later, non-interactive Wing Commander movie knows that Roberts is no natural-born cinematic auteur.) Rather credit him and the rest of Origin for realizing that they needed help and going out and getting it. This unusual degree of self-awareness alone placed them well ahead of most of their peers.

At the same time, though, the production’s competence never translates into goodness. There’s a sort of fecklessness that clings to the thing, of professionals doing a professional job out of professional pride, but never really putting their hearts into it. It’s hard to blame them; the plot outline provided by Roberts was formulaic, derivative stuff, right down to climaxing with a breakneck flight down a long trench. (Star Wars much, Mr. Roberts?) And the less said the better about the inevitable love triangle, in which you must choose between a good girl and a bad girl who both have the hots for you; it’s just awful, on multiple levels.

In cinematic terms, the whole thing is hopelessly stretched in length to boot, a result of the need to give customers their $70 worth. One extended blind alley, involving a secret weapon that’s supposed to end the war with the Kilrathi at a stroke, ends up consuming more than a quarter of the script before it’s on to the next secret weapon and the next last remaining hope for humanity… no, for real this time. The screenwriters noted that their movie wound up having seventeen or eighteen acts instead of the typical three. Putting the best spin they could on things, they said said that scripting Wing Commander III was like scripting “a little miniseries.”

The acting as well is a study in competence without much heart. The actors do their jobs, but never appear to invest much of themselves into their roles; Mark Hamill seems to have had much more fun playing the slovenly Detective Moseley in Gabriel Knight that he did playing the straight-laced Colonel Blair here. Again, though, the script gives the actors so little to work with that it’s hard to blame them. The parade of walking, talking war-movie clichés which they’re forced to play are all surface on the page, so that’s how the actors portray them on the screen. Only Tom Wilson and Ginger Lynn Allen bring any real gusto to their roles. Tellingly, they do so by not taking things very seriously, chewing the (virtual) scenery with a B-movie relish. I don’t know whether more of that sort of thing from the others would have made Wing Commander III a better film under the criteria Chris Roberts was aiming for, but it certainly would have made it a more knowing, entertaining one in my eyes.

Instead, and as usual for a Chris Roberts production, the painful earnestness of the whole affair just drags it down. For all its indebtedness to Star Wars, Wing Commander III lacks those movies’ sense of extravagant fun. Roberts wants us to take all of this seriously, but that’s just impossible to do. The villains are giant cats, for heaven’s sake, who look even more ridiculous here than they do in the earlier games, like some overgrown conglomeration of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and the anthropomorphic chimpanzees from Planet of the Apes.

I’m sorry, but it’s just really, really hard for me to take the Kilrathi seriously.

As is the norm in games of this style, your degree of actual plot agency in all of this is considerably less than advertised. Yes, you can pick the good girl or the bad girl, or reject them both; you can pick your wingman for each mission; you can choose your character’s attitude in dialog, which sometimes has some effect on others’ attitudes toward you later on. But your agency is sharply circumscribed by the inherent limitations of pre-shot, static snippets of video and the amount of storage space said video requires; it was enough of a challenge for Origin to pack one movie onto four CDs, thank you very much. These limitations mean you can’t steer the story in genuinely new directions during the movie segments. The “interactive” script is, in other words, a string of pearls rather than a branching tree; when you make a choice, the developers’ priority is to acknowledge it more or less perfunctorily and then to get you back into the main flow of their pre-ordained plot.

The developers did design a branching mission tree into the game, but your progression down it is dictated by your performance in the cockpit rather than by any conscious choices you make outside your spacecraft. Nevertheless, there are some generous touches here, including a heroic but doomed last stand of a mission if the war goes really badly. But Origin knew well by this point that most players preferred to replay failed missions instead of taking their lumps and continuing down the story’s “losing” branch, and this knowledge understandably influenced the amount of work they were willing to put into crafting missions which most players would never see; the alleged mission tree in this game is really a linear stream with just a few branching tributaries which either end or rejoin the main flow as quickly as possible. Certainly the most obvious problem with the approach — the fact that the branching mission tree gives less skilled players harder missions so that they can fail even worse after failing the first time, while it gives more skilled players easier missions that might well bore them — is not solved by Wing Commander III.

When it comes to its nuts and bolts as a space simulator, Wing Commander III surprises mostly by how little it’s progressed in comparison to the first two games. The 3D engine looks much better than what came before, is smoother and more consistent, and boasts the welcome addition of user-selectable difficulty levels. At bottom, though, the experience in space remains the same; neither the ships you fly nor their weapons load-outs have changed all that much. The engine’s one genuinely new trick is an ability to simulate flight over a terrestrial landscape, a legacy of its origins with the twentieth-century techno-thriller Strike Commander. Yet even this new capability isn’t utilized until quite late in the game.

Wing Commander III runs at a much higher resolution than the first Wing Commander, but the general look of the game is surprisingly little changed, as this direct comparison shows. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course — there’s something to be said for a franchise holding onto its look and feel, as Origin learned all too well when they attempted to foist the misbegotten Ultima VIII upon the world — but the lack of any real gameplay evolution within that look and feel perhaps is.

Each of the 50 or so missions which you have to fly before you get to that bravura climax breaks down into one of just a few types — patrol these waypoints, destroy that target, or protect this vessel — that play out in very similar ways each time. There’s never much sense of a larger unfolding battle, just a shooting gallery of Kilrathi coming at you. The artificial triggers of the mission designs are seldom well-concealed: reaching this waypoint magically spawns a Kilrathi fighter squadron from out of nowhere, reaching that one spawns a corvette. Meanwhile the need to turn on the auto-pilot and slew your way between the widely separated waypoints within most missions does little for your sense of immersion. Wing Commander III isn’t a complete failure as an arcadey space shooter; some players might even prefer its gung-ho, run-and-gun personality to more nuanced approaches. But I would venture to say that even some of them might find that it gets a little samey well before the 50 missions are complete. (Personally, I maintain that the first Wing Commander, which didn’t stretch itself so thin over so many missions and which was developed first and foremost as a compelling action game rather than an interactive movie, remains the best of the series from the standpoint of excitement in the cockpit.)

Looking back on 1994 from the rarefied heights of 2021, I find that Wing Commander III‘s weaknesses as both interactive movie and space simulator are highlighted by the strengths of a contemporary competitor in both categories.

In the former category, we have Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon, which was released almost simultaneously with Wing Commander III; the two games were often mentioned in the same breath by the trade press because each packed four CDs to the bursting point, giving each an equal claim to the title of largest game ever in terms of sheer number of bytes. Under a Killing Moon was a more typical early full-motion-video production than Wing Commander III in many ways, being a home-grown project that utilized the talents of only a few hired guns from Hollywood. But, for all that the actors’ performances and the camera work often betray this, the whole combines infectious enthusiasm — “We’re making a movie, people!” — with that edge of irony and humor that Chris Roberts’s work always seems to lack. If Wing Commander III is the glossy mainstream take on interactive cinema, Under a Killing Moon is the upstart indie version. It remains as endearing as ever today, one of the relatively few games of its ilk that I can unreservedly recommend. But then, I do tend to prefer the ditch to the middle of the road…

In the realm of space simulators, we have LucasArts’s Star Wars: TIE Fighter, which shipped about six months before Wing Commander III. Ironically given its own cinematic pedigree, TIE Fighter had no interest in Hollywood actors, love triangles, or even branching mission trees, but was rather content merely to be the best pure space simulator to date. Here you can’t hope to succeed as the lone hero charging in with guns blazing; instead you have to coordinate with your comrades-in-arms to carry out missions whose goals are far more complex than hitting a set sequence of waypoints, missions where dozens of ships might be pursuing individual agendas at any given time in dynamic unfolding battles of awesome scale. It’s true that TIE Fighter and its slightly less impressive predecessor X-Wing would probably never have come to exist without the example of the Wing Commander franchise — but it’s also true that LucasArts had well and truly bettered their mentors by the time of TIE Fighter, just their second attempt at the genre.



And now, reading back over what I’ve written, I see that I’ve been as unkind to Wing Commander III as I’d feared I would. Therefore let me say clearly now that neither half of the game is irredeemably bad; I’ve enjoyed action and simulation games with much more hackneyed storytelling, just as I’ve enjoyed narrative-oriented games whose writing and aesthetics are more interesting than their mechanics. The problem with Wing Commander III is that neither side of it is strong enough to make up for the failings of the other. Seen in the cold, hard light of 2021, it’s a poorly written low-budget movie without any vim and vinegar, married to an unambitious retread of a space shooter.

But in the context of 1994, of course, it was a very different story. The nerdy kitsch that most of us see when we look at the game today in no way invalidates the contemporary experiences of those who, like Computer Gaming World‘s Martin E. Cirulis, looked at it and decided that “we are witnessing the birth of something new.” The mid-1990s were a period of tremendous ferment in the world of computing, with new possibilities seeming to open up by the month. Wing Commander III is, whatever else it may be, a reflection of that optimistic time, as it is of the spirit of its wide-eyed creator and its hundreds of thousands of players who were not all that different from him, who came to it ready and willing to be wowed by it. Its unprecedented budget alone made a powerful statement, being tangible proof that computer gaming was becoming a big business that everyone in media had to take seriously.

Created in the best of faith and with the noblest of intentions to move gaming forward, Wing Commander III seemed like a dispatch from the future for a brief window of time. In the long run, though, the possible future it came from was not the one that its medium would wind up embracing, leaving it stranded today on an island of its own making. Such is sometimes the fate of pioneers.

Some Scenes from the Film


Malcolm McDowell plays Admiral Tolwyn. With commanding officers like these, who needs Kilrathi?

Courtney Gains plays Lieutenant “Radio” Rollins; imagine Radar from M*A*S*H with an attitude problem.

Tom Wilson, the only comic actor in the troupe, plays Maniac with a weirdly endearing mixture of bravura and insecurity.

Jason Bernard plays Captain Eisen. Like many of the performances, his is neither really good nor really bad. It’s just kind of there.

Ginger Lynn Allen plays Rachel, Blair’s mechanic and potential love interest. The scriptwriters love to sprinkle her dialog with not-so-subtle innuendo, and the actress loves to deliver it.

B.J. Jefferson plays Cobra, a character who’s even more one-note than most of them. She really, really hates Kilrathi. (The Hobbes who’s being discussed is a Kilrathi defector who now flies for the human side.)


(Sources: The books Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander III and Wing Commander III: Authorized Combat Guide; Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, and February 1995; Game Developer of February/March 1005 and June/July 1995; CD-ROM Today of August/September 1994; Next Generation of November 1995; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 6 1994, June 3 1994, July 15 1994, September 9 1994, October 7 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, April 7 1995, and May 3 1995. Online sources include the Wing Commander Combat Information Center‘s treasure trove of information on the game. And thank you to Robin Todd for sharing with me her memories of working on Wing Commander III, crunch time included.

Wing Commander III is available today as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)

References

References
1 Robin Todd was living as Chris Todd at the time, and is credited under that name in the game’s manual.
 

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Origin Sells Out

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focus-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Wing Commander II

If there was ever any doubt inside Origin Systems that Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander was destined to join Ultima as the company’s second great franchise, it was banished the moment the first game in the new series was released on September 26, 1990, and promptly sold by some accounts 100,000 copies in its first month on the market. Previously known as a maker of highly demanding CRPGs that were devoured by an exclusive audience of loyalists, Origin was suddenly the proud publisher of the game that absolutely everybody was talking about, regardless of what genre they usually favored. It was a strange turn of events, one that surprised Origin almost as much as it did the rest of their industry. Nevertheless, the company wouldn’t be shy about exploiting the buzz.

The first dribble in what would become a flood of additional Wing Commander product was born out of a planned “special edition” of the original game, to be sold only via direct mail order. Each numbered copy of the special edition was to be signed by Roberts and would include a baseball cap sporting the Wing Commander logo. To sweeten the deal, Roberts proposed that they also pull together some of the missions and spaceships lying around the office that hadn’t made the cut for the original game, string some story bits between them using existing tools and graphic assets, and throw that into the special-edition box as well.

But the commercial potential for the “mission disk” just kept growing as customers bought the original game, churned through the forty or so missions included therein, and came clamoring for more. Roberts, for one, was certain that mission disks should be cranked out in quantity and made available as widely as possible, likening them to all of the “adventure modules” he had purchased for tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. And so the profile of the so-called Secret Missions project kept growing, becoming first a standalone product available by direct order from Origin, and then a regular boxed product that was sold at retail, just like all their other games. “When I make the decision to purchase a product,” Roberts noted in his commonsense way, “I want to go to the store and buy it immediately. I don’t want to make a phone call and wait for someone to ship it to me.”

The add-on disk’s mission design wasn’t as good as that of the original game, which had already done a pretty good job of digging all of the potential out of the space-combat engine’s fairly limited bag of tricks. With no way of making the missions more interesting, the add-on settled for making them more difficult, throwing well-nigh absurd quantities of enemy spacecraft at the player. But it didn’t matter: players ate it up and kept right on begging for more. Origin obliged them again with Secret Missions 2, a somewhat more impressive outing that employed the engine which was in development for a standalone Wing Commander II, and was thereby able to add at least a few new wrinkles to the mission formula along with a more developed plot.

It was Wing Commander II itself, however, that everyone — not least among them Origin’s accountants — was really waiting for. Origin hoped to get the sequel out by June of 1991, just nine months after the first game. Chris Roberts, now installed as Origin’s “Director of New Technologies,” had been placed in charge of developing a true next-generation engine from scratch for use in the eventual Wing Commander III, and thus had a limited role in this interim step. Day-to-day responsibility for Wing Commander II passed into the hands of its “director” Stephen Beeman, [1]Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical … Continue reading who had just finished filling the same role on Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire.

Beeman’s team of coders improved the space-combat engine in welcome ways. They properly accounted for the speed of the computer running the game, thus mostly fixing the speed issues which have dogged the first Wing Commander to this day. They added an innovative layer of adaptive artificial intelligence on the part of enemy ships, so that if the player flew and shot better the enemy did as well and vice versa, in an effort to remedy one of the primary complaints players had made about the Secret Missions disks in particular: that too many of the missions were just too darn hard. And they also created a whole new slate of ships to fight and to fly; most notable among them was the Broadsword, a lumbering torpedo bomber of a spaceship with rear- and side-facing gun turrets which the player could jump into and control.

Wing Commander II‘s most obvious new gameplay wrinkle is the Broadsword torpedo bomber, in which you can control gun turrets that shoot to the sides and behind. But it doesn’t work out all that well because your ship just keeps flying straight ahead, a clay pigeon for the Kilrathi, while you’re busy in the turret. I tend to ignore the existence of the turrets, and I suspect I’m not alone.

With Wing Commander II, Origin’s artists began using Autodesk 3D Studio. Jake Rodgers, the first 3D artist they hired to work with the new tool, had learned how to do so at an architecture firm. “After talking with Origin, I decided that creating spaceships sounded a lot more interesting than working on buildings,” he remembers. The actual game engine remained only pseudo-3D, but Rodgers and the artists he trained were able to use 3D Studio to make the sprites which represented the ships more detailed than ever, both in the game proper and in some very impressive animated cut scenes. The 3D revolution that was destined to have as huge an impact on the aesthetics of games as it would on the way they played was still a couple of years away from starting in earnest, but with the arrival of 3D Studio in Origin’s toolbox the first tentative steps were already being taken.

Wing Commander II introduces the possibility of good Kilrathi, thus softening some of xenophobia of the first game. And yes, it remains completely impossible to take these flying Tony the Tigers seriously.

Most of all, though, Origin poured their energy into the story layer of the game — into all the stuff that happened when you weren’t actually sitting in the cockpit blowing up the evil Kilrathi. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi took an approach to game design that could best be summed up as “give the people what they want.” With barely six months to bring the project to completion, Origin combed through all of the feedback they had received on the first game, looking to punch up the stuff that people had liked and to minimize or excise entirely the stuff they seemingly didn’t care so much about.

And they found out that what the people had really liked, alongside the spectacular graphics and sound, had been the feeling of playing the starring role in a rollicking science-fiction film. The people liked the interactions in the bar with their fellow pilots, the briefing scenes before each mission, and the debriefs afterward. They liked the characters of their fellow pilots, to whom they claimed an emotional bond that surprised even Chris Roberts. And they liked the idea of all of the missions they flew finding their context within a larger unfolding narrative of interstellar war — even if, taken on its own terms, the story of the first game was so vague as to barely exist at all. Faced with such a sketchy story, alongside a collection of characters that were often little more than ethnic stereotypes, players had happily spun more elaborate fictions in their minds, reading between lines the game’s developers had never drawn in the first place. For instance, some of them were convinced that Angel, the female Belgian pilot, secretly had the hots for the hero, something that came as news to everyone at Origin.

But there were other innovative aspects of the first game which, equally to Origin’s surprise, their customers were less keen on. The most noteworthy of these, and a consistent sore point with Chris Roberts in particular, was the lovingly crafted branching mission tree, in which the player’s success or failure affected the course of the war and thus what later missions she would be assigned. Despite all of Origin’s admonitions to the contrary, overwhelming evidence suggested that the vast majority of players replayed each mission until they’d managed to complete it successfully rather than taking their lumps and moving on. Roberts and his colleagues found this so frustrating not least because they had poured a lot of energy and money into missions which the majority of players were never even seeing. Yes, one might argue that this state of affairs was to a large extent Origin’s own fault, the natural byproduct of a design which assigned harder rather than easier missions as a consequence of failure, thus sending the honest but not terribly proficient player into a downward spiral of ever-increasing futility. Still, rather than remedy that failing Origin chose to prune their mission tree; while limited branching would still be possible, the success and failure paths would be merely slightly modified versions of the same narrative arc, and failing two mission series in a row would abruptly end the game. Origin wanted to tell a real story this time around, and that would be hard enough; they didn’t have time to make a bunch of branching stories.

Who would ever have guessed that the black pilot would be the one named Downtown?

Given the new emphasis on story, Stephen Beeman was fortunate to have at his disposal Ellen Guon, the very first professional writer ever to be hired by Origin. Guon came to the company from Sierra, where she had polished up the text in remakes of the first King’s Quest game and the educational title Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Before that, she had written for Saturday-morning cartoons, working for a time with Christy Marx, another cartoon veteran who would later wind up at Sierra, on Jem and the Holograms. She’d also seen some of her science-fiction and fantasy stories published in magazines and anthologies, and her first novel, a collaboration with the more established fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey, was being published just as she was settling in at Origin. Beeman and Guon developed the initial script for Wing Commander II together, learning in the process that they had more in common than game development; Ellen Guon would eventually become Ellen Beeman.

Chris Roberts badly wanted not just a more developed story for the second game but a darker one, an Empire Strikes Back to contrast with the original game’s Star Wars. Beeman and Guon obliged him with a script that sees the Tiger’s Claw, the ship from which the player had flown and fought in the first game, destroyed in the opening moments of the second one by a Kilrathi strike force that, thanks to the secret stealth technology the flying tigers have developed, seems to come out of nowhere. The hero of the original game, who sported whatever name the player chose to give him but was universally known to the developers as “Bluehair” after the tint Origin’s artists gave to his coiffure, is flying a mission when it happens, and through a not-entirely-sensical chain of logic winds up being blamed for the tragedy. But the prosecution fails to prove his negligence or treasonous intent beyond a reasonable doubt at the court martial, and instead of winding up in prison he gets demoted and assigned to fly routine patrols with “Insystem Security” from a station way out in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after years of this boring duty, the Kilrathi unexpectedly come to his quiet little corner of the galaxy, and the “Coward of K’Tithrak Mang” — that being Bluehair — gets his shot at redemption, under circumstances that see him reunited with many of his old comrades-in-arms from Wing Commander I and its mission disks.

A rule of war movies applies here. If someone starts talking about her family…

The increased emphasis on storytelling — on cinematic storytelling — is all-pervasive. The original game played out in a predictable sequence: conversations in the bar would be followed by a mission briefing, which would be followed by the actual mission, which would be followed by the debrief. Now, the “movie” takes place anywhere and everywhere. In order to inject some cinematic drama into the mission themselves, Origin introduced cut scenes that can play at literally any time as they unfold.

Wing Commander II really is all about the story. It doesn’t want you to spend a lot of time working out how to beat each of the missions; it just wants to keep the plot train chugging down the track. Thus the new adaptive artificial intelligence, which keeps you from ever getting stuck on a mission you just can’t crack. At the same time, however, the selfsame artificial intelligence contrives to make sure that none of your victories are ever routine. “If you meet eight enemies and manage to take out the first seven,” noted Beeman, “the last ship’s intelligence is increased by a few notches. Engaging the last ship results in a really tough dogfight.” Wing Commander II is meant to be a relentless thrill ride like the movies that inspired it, and is always willing to put a thumb on either side of the scale to make sure it meets that ideal.

…and then starts talking about her impending retirement…

From a business standpoint — from that of making games that make money — Wing Commander II could serve as something of a role model even today. There was no trace of the indecision, over-ambition, and bets-hedging that so often lead projects astray. Stephen Beeman had a crystal-clear brief, and he achieved his goals with the same degree of clarity, bringing the project in only slightly over time and over budget — not a huge sin, considering that Origin’s original timing and budget had both been wildly overoptimistic. The important thing was that the game was done in plenty of time for Christmas, shipping on August 30, 1991, whereupon Origin was immediately rewarded with smashing reviews. Writing for Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich optimistically said that the plot had begun “bridging the chasm from ‘genre pulp fiction’ to something that could be more accurately regarded as ‘art.'” Even more importantly, Wing Commander II became another smash hit. It sold its first 100,000 units in the United States in less than two months, and a truly remarkable 500,000 copies worldwide in its first six months.

…it can only end one way for her.

Yet in my opinion Wing Commander II hasn’t aged nearly as well as its predecessor. Today, the two games stand together as an object lesson in the ever-present conflict between narrative and interactivity. In gaining so much of the former, Wing Commander II loses far too much of the latter. Speaking at the time of the game’s release, Origin’s Warren Spector noted that “we’re still learning how to tell stories on the computer. We’re figuring out where we can be cinematic, and where trying to be cinematic just flat doesn’t work. We’re finding out where you want interaction, and where you want the player to sit back and watch the action.” It’s at these intersections between “being cinematic” and not being cinematic, between interaction and “sitting back and watching the action,” that Wing Commander II kind of falls apart for me.

I’m no fan of bloated, shaggy game designs, and generally think that a keen editor’s eye is one of the best attributes a designer can possess, yet I would hardly describe the original Wing Commander as over-complicated. In the second game, I miss the many things that have been excised as superfluous. I miss the little ersatz arcade game that lets you practice your skills; I miss winning medals and promotions as a result of my performance in the missions; I miss climbing the squadron leader board as I collect more and more kills. In the first game, your wingman could get killed in battle if you didn’t watch out for him properly, resulting in a funeral ceremony, a “KIA” next to his name on the leader board, and your having to fly all by yourself those subsequent missions that should have been earmarked for the two of you. This caused you, for both emotional and practical reasons, to care about the person you were flying with like any good wing leader should. In the second game, however, this too has been carved away. Your wingmen will now always bail out and be rescued if they get too badly shot up. They die only when the railroaded plot demands that they do so, accompanied by a suitably heroic cut scene, and there’s isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Wing Commander II thus robs you of any real agency in what is supposed to be your story. Even the idea of a branching narrative, though poorly executed in the first game, could have been done better here instead of being tossed aside as just one more extraneous triviality.

After I published my articles on the first Wing Commander, commenter Jakub Stribrny described his experience with that game:

I decided to do one true honest playthrough. Just one life. If I got shot down, there was no loading the state. I had to start from the very beginning.

And that was when I discovered what the simulator was good for. Since I had only one life I had to make sure I was really prepared before each mission. So I devised a training plan for myself. An hour in the simulator before even attempting the first mission and then two simulator sessions between each subsequent mission. This proved very effective and I was able to clear almost the whole game. In the end I died just a few missions from the end when attempting to attack a group of Jalthi – fighters with extreme firepower – head-on. Stupid.

But I never got so much fun from gaming as when I really had to focus on what’s happening around me, cooperate with my wingman, carefully manage missile use, plan optimal routes between navigation points, and choose whether it’s still safe to ignore the blinking EJECT! light or it’s time to call it a day and survive to fight the battles of tomorrow. Or when I was limping to the home base with both cannons shot up and anxiously awaiting whether the badly damaged and glitching comms system would hold at least long enough for me to ask the carrier for landing clearance. My fighter failed me then and I had to eject in the end, but boy was that an experience.

Wing Commander II obviously pleased many players in its day, but it could never deliver an experience quite like this one. Nor, of course, was it meant to.

In the years that followed Wing Commander II‘s release, a cadre of designers and theorists would unite under the “games are not movies” banner, using this game and its successors as some of their favorite examples of offenders against all that is good and holy in ludology. But we need not become overly strident or pedantic, as so many of them have been prone to do. Rather than continuing to dwell on what was lost, we can try to judge Wing Commander II on its own terms, as the modestly interactive cinematic thrill ride it wants to be. I’m by no means willing to reject the notion that a game can succeed on these terms, provided that the story is indeed catching.

This is hands-down the funniest picture in Wing Commander II, almost as good as the Kilrathi helmets with the ears on top from the first game.

The problem for Wing Commander II from this perspective is that the story winds up being more Plan 9 from Outer Space than The Empire Strikes Back. No one — with, I suppose, the possible exception of Computer Gaming World‘s Mr. Emrich — is looking for deathless cinematic art from a videogame called Wing Commander II. Yet there is a level of craftsmanship that we ought to be able to expect from a game with this one’s stated ambitions, and Wing Commander II fails to clear even that bar.

Put bluntly, the story we get just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What exactly did Bluehair do to cause the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, a tragedy for which only he among the carrier’s entire air group was blamed? Why was everyone so quick to believe that a decorated war hero had suddenly switched sides? Why on earth — excuse me, on Terra — would the Terran Confederation reassign someone widely suspected of high treason to even an out-of-the-way posting? And once the game proper gets going, why does Bluehair’s commander persist in believing that he’s a traitor even after he’s saved the life of said commander and everyone aboard his ship half a dozen times? And if the commander does still believe Bluehair is a traitor, why does he keep assigning him to vital missions in between bitching about what a traitor he is and how much it sucks to have him on his ship? Etc., etc.

Now, you could accuse me of over-analyzing the game’s action-movie screenplay, and you’d perhaps have a point. After all, Wing Commander‘s inspiration of Star Wars is hardly the most grounded narrative in the world. What I would also say in response, however, is that there’s a craft — a sleight of hand, if you will — to keeping the reader or viewer from focusing too much on a story’s incongruities. The writer or screenwriter accomplishes this by offering up compelling characters that are easy to root for or against and by keeping the excitement ever on the boil.

This game’s story makes me feel like Bluehair looks in this picture.

And here too Wing Commander II drops the ball. At the center of the action is the charisma vacuum that is Bluehair. The first game held back on characterizing him, letting the player imagine him to be the person she wished him to be. That can no longer work in the more developed narrative of the second game, but Origin still seems reluctant to fill in the lines of his character, with the result that he falls smack into an uncanny valley between the two classic models of the adventure-game protagonist: the fully fleshed-out individual whose personality the player is expected to assume, and the proverbial “nameless, faceless adventurer” that she can imagine to be herself. Bluehair becomes what my dear old dad would call a “lunk,” a monosyllabic non-presence who rarely has much to say beyond “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir.” It feels like a veritable soliloquy when he can manage to muster up an “I’m not guilty, sir. I won’t sign it!” or a “Go to hell, Jazz!” And when the romance subplot kicks in — duly following the stated desires of their players in this as in all things, Origin made Angel the love interest — it starts to get really painful. One does have to wonder why everyone is getting so hot and bothered over this guy of all people. Luke Skywalker — much less Han Solo — he definitely ain’t.

So, we might ask, how did we wind up here? How did one of the first Origin games to take advantage of real, professional writers not turn out at least a little bit better? A strong clue lives in a document that’s been made public by the website Wing Commander Combat Information Center. It’s the initial script for the game, as prepared by Ellen Guon and Stephen Beeman and completed on November 29, 1990, before production got underway in earnest. The version of the story found herein differs considerably from that found in the completed game. The story is more detailed, better explained, and richer all the way around, including a much more dynamic and assertive Bluehair. It might be instructive to compare the opening of the story as it was originally conceived with what that of the finished game. Here’s how things started back in November of 1990:

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw floating in space.

Narration: CSS Tiger’s Claw, six months after the Vega Sector Campaign…

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw briefing room. We can’t tell yet who the commander is.

Bluehair: Okay, everyone, settle down…

Cut to Bluehair. Now we see that Bluehair is in Colonel Halcyon’s familiar position.

Bluehair: Pilots, I’d like to welcome you to the Tiger’s Claw. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Bluehair Ourhero, your new commanding officer. I hope everyone’s recovered from the farewell party for Paladin, Angel, Spirit, Iceman, and General Halcyon.

Hunter: An’ don’t forget that bloody lunatic, Maniac! They finally transferred ‘im to the psych ‘ospital.

Bluehair: Sad but true, Hunter. Now, pay close attention, pilots. We’ve just been assigned a top-priority mission, to spearhead a major raid deep into Kilrathi space to their sector command post in the K’Tithrak Mang system. The plan is to jump in with a few carriers and Marine transports, hit the starbase hard, then jump out.

Hunter: ‘nother bleedin’ starbase, eh?

Bluehair: (smiles) You got it, mate. Let’s just hope it’s as easy as the last one. Now, listen close, everyone. Knight and Bossman are Alpha Wing — check for enemy fighters at Nav 2 and 3. Kilroy and Sabra are Beta Wing…

Narration: You assign all the wings. All but one.

Bluehair: I saved the most important wing for last. Computer, display Kappa. On our way to the starbase, the Claw will pass close to the asteroid field at Nav 1. We don’t know what’s out there, so Hunter and I are going to sweep the rocks as the Claw begins its approach. We’ll either take out whatever we find or hightail it back here to warn the Claw. Any questions, pilots? Good. The Claw will complete her last jump in approximately seven minutes. Get ready for immediate launch. Dismissed.

Animation of crowd rising — different backs! Animation of Tiger’s Claw jumping.

Narration: K’Tithrak Mang system, deep within Kilrathi space.

Animation of launch-tube sequence.

Mission 0. This really should be a basically easy mission. However, just as Bluehair is returning to the action sphere that contains the Claw, we cut to a canned scene.

Bluehair: No!

The Tiger’s Claw floats in the medium distance. Close to us, three Kilrathi stealth fighters in a chevron uncloak, launch missiles, then peel off in different directions. The missiles impact the Claw and blow it to kingdom come.

Dust motes are zooming past us, as if we were headed into the starfield. Now a space station appears in the far distance, rapidly getting closer. We zoom in on this until we start moving around the station. As we do so, the planet Earth comes into view on one edge of the screen. The station itself remains center frame.

Narration: Confederation High Command, Terra system, six months after the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw.

Admiral Tolwyn presides over Bluehair’s court martial. A very formal-looking bench with seven dress-uniformed figures, Tolwyn in the middle, is in the back pane. Bluehair and his counsel are sitting at a table. Spot animations of camera drones with Klieg lights will help convey the information that this trial is based more on media image than justice.

Tolwyn: Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, stand at attention. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, you stand accused of negligence, incompetence, and cowardice under fire. Your actions resulted in the death of 61,000 Confederation defenders. Despite your plea of not guilty and your ridiculous claim that the Kilrathi used some non-existent stealth technology, flying invisible ships past your position…

Bluehair: It’s true, sir.

Tolwyn: …you are obviously guilty of these crimes against the Confederation. But, fortunately for you, this court cannot prove your guilt. Our primary evidence, your black-box flight recorder, is missing from the Confed Security offices. Because of the lack of physical evidence, this court is required by law to dismiss your case. We find you not guilty of crimes against the Confederation. This court is adjourned. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, report to my office at once.

Establishing shot — Tolwyn’s office

Tolwyn: I wanted to talk to you in private, Bluehair. The court couldn’t convict you because of a technicality, but we all know the truth, Ourhero. You’re a coward and a traitor, and I’ll personally guarantee that you’ll never fly again. Your career with the Navy is over. As I assumed that you have some small amount of honor left, my secretary has drawn up your resignation papers…

Bluehair: I won’t resign, Admiral.

Tolwyn: What??

Bluehair: I’m not guilty, sir. I refuse to resign.

Tolwyn: Then I’ll offer you one more option, just because I never want to see your face again. I have a request from Insystem Security for a mid-ranked pilot. If you’ll accept a demotion to captain, it’s yours. Otherwise, pilot, you’re grounded for life.

Bluehair: I’ll accept the demotion, sir.

Tolwyn: Very well. Get out of here… and you’d better hope we never meet again, traitor.

Below you can see the finished game’s interpretation of the story’s opening beats.


Some of the choices made by the finished game, such as the decision to introduce the villain of the piece from the beginning rather than wait until some eight missions in, are valid enough in the name of punching up the anticipation and excitement. (One could, of course, still wish that said introduction had been written a bit better: “Speak of your plans, not of your toys.” What does that even mean?) In other place, however, the cuts made to the story have, even during this opening sequence, already gone deeper than trimming fat. Note, for instance, how the off-hand epithet of “traitor” which Admiral Tolwyn hurls at Bluehair in the initial script is taken to mean literal treason by the final game. And note how the shot showing the court martial to be a media circus, thus providing the beginning of an explanation as to why the powers that be have chosen to scapegoat one decorated pilot for a disastrous failure of a military operation, gets excised. Much more of that sort of subtlety — the sort of subtly that makes the story told by the first draft a credible yarn within its action-movie template — will continue to be lost as the game progresses.

There’s no single villain we can point to who decided that Wing Commander II should be gutted, much less a smoking gun we can identify in the form of a single decision that made all the difference. The closest we can come to a money quote is this one from Chris Roberts, made just after the game’s release: “We learned some lessons. We tried to do too much in too little time. None of us had any idea that the game had grown so large.” Like politics, commercial game development has always been the art of the possible. Origin did the best they could with the time and money they had, and if what they came up with wasn’t quite the second coming of The Empire Strikes Back which Roberts had so wished for, it served its purpose well enough from a business perspective, giving gamers a much more concentrated dose of what they had found so entrancing in the first game and giving Origin the big hit which they needed in order to stay solvent.

Origin, you see, had a lot going on while Wing Commander II was in production, and this provides an explanation for the pressure to get it out so quickly. Much of the money the series generated was being poured into Ultima VII, a CRPG of a scale and scope the likes of which had never been attempted before, a project which became the first game at Origin — and possibly the first computer game ever — with a development budget that hit $1 million. Origin’s two series made for a telling study in contrasts. While Wing Commander II saw its scope of interactivity pared back dramatically from that of its predecessor, Ultima VII remained as formally as it was audiovisually ambitious. Wing Commander had become the cash cow, but it seemed that, for some at Origin anyway, the heart and soul of the company was still Ultima.

Origin thus continued to monetize Wing Commander like crazy to pay for their latest Ultima. In a cash grab that feels almost unbelievably blatant today, they shipped a separate “Speech Accessory Pack” simultaneously with the core game. It added digitized voices to a few cut scenes, such as the opening movie above, and let your wingmen and your Kilrathi enemies shout occasional canned phrases during missions. “You want to buy our new game?” said Origin. “Okay, that will be $50. Oh… you want to play the game with all of the sound? Well, that will cost you another $25.” Like so much else about Wing Commander II, the speech, voiced by members of the development team, is terminally cheesy today, but in its day the Speech Pack drove the purchase of the latest Sound Blaster cards, which were adept at handling such samples, just as the core game drove the purchase of the hottest new 80386-based computers. And then two more add-on mission disks, known this time as Special Operations 1 and 2, joined the core Wing Commander II and the Speech Pack on store shelves. Well before the second anniversary of the first game’s release, Origin had no fewer than seven boxes sporting the Wing Commander logo on said shelves: the two core games, the four add-on mission packs, and the Speech Pack. Few new gaming franchises have ever generated quite so much product quite so quickly.

Where it really counted, Wing Commander II delivered.

Of course, all this product was being generated for one reason only: because it sold. In 1991, with no new mainline Ultima game appearing and with the Worlds of Ultima spin-offs having flopped, the Wing Commander product line alone accounted for an astonishing 90 percent of Origin’s total revenue. Through that year and the one that followed, it remained undisputed as the biggest franchise in computer gaming, still the only games out there scratching an itch most publishers had never even realized that their customers had. The lessons Origin’s rivals would draw from all this success wouldn’t always be the best ones from the standpoint of games as a form of creative expression, but the first Wing Commander had, for better or for worse, changed the conversation around games forever. Now, Wing Commander II was piling on still more proof for the thesis that a sizable percentage of gamers really, really loved a story to provide context for game play — even if it was a really, really bad story. After plenty of false starts, the marriage of games and movies was now well and truly underway, and a divorce didn’t look likely anytime soon.

(Sources: the book Wing Commander I & II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 21 1991, August 7 1991, October 11 1991, October 25 1991, November 8 1991, January 17 1992, March 13 1992, and May 22 1992; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of November 1991. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and an interview with Richard Garriott that was posted to Usenet in 1992.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)

References

References
1 Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.
 

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From Wingleader to Wing Commander

No one at Origin had much time to bask in the rapturous reception accorded to Wingleader at the 1990 Summer Consumer Electronics Show. Their end-of-September deadline for shipping the game was now barely three months away, and there remained a daunting amount of work to be done.

At the beginning of July, executive producer Dallas Snell called the troops together to tell them that crunch time was beginning in earnest; everyone would need to work at least 55 hours per week from now on. Most of the people on the project only smiled bemusedly at the alleged news flash. They were already working those kinds of hours, and knew all too well that a 55-hour work week would probably seem like a part-timer’s schedule before all was said and done.

Dallas Snell

At the beginning of August, Snell unceremoniously booted Chris Roberts, the project’s founder, from his role as co-producer, leaving him with only the title of director. Manifesting a tendency anyone familiar with his more recent projects will immediately recognize, Roberts had been causing chaos on the team by approving seemingly every suggested addition or enhancement that crossed his desk. Snell, the brutal pragmatist in this company full of dreamers, appointed himself as Warren Spector’s new co-producer. His first action was to place a freeze on new features in favor of getting the game that currently existed finished and out the door. Snell:

The individuals in Product Development are an extremely passionate group of people, and I love that. Everyone is here because, for the most part, they love what they’re doing. This is what they want to do with their lives, and they’re very intense about it and very sensitive to your messing around with what they’re trying to accomplish. They don’t live for getting it done on time or having it make money. They live to see this effect or that effect, their visions, accomplished.

It’s always a continual antagonistic relationship between the executive producer and the development teams. I’m always the ice man, the ogre, or something. It’s not fun, but it gets the products done and out. I guess that’s why I have the room with the view. Anyway, at the end of the project, all of Product Development asked me not to get that involved again.

One problem complicating Origin’s life enormously was the open architecture of MS-DOS, this brave new world they’d leaped into the previous year. Back in the Apple II days, they’d been able to write their games for a relatively static set of hardware requirements, give or take an Apple IIGS running in fast mode or a Mockingboard sound card. The world of MS-DOS, by contrast, encompassed a bewildering array of potential hardware configurations: different processors, different graphics and sound cards, different mice and game controllers, different amounts and types of memory, different floppy-disk formats, different hard-disk capacities. For a game like Wingleader, surfing the bleeding edge of all this technology but trying at the same time to offer at least a modicum of playability on older setups, all of this variance was the stuff of nightmares. Origin’s testing department was working 80-hour weeks by the end, and, as we’ll soon see, the final result would still leave plenty to be desired from a quality-control perspective.

As the clock was ticking down toward release, Origin’s legal team delivered the news that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea after all to call the game Wingleader — already the company’s second choice for a name — thanks to a number of existing trademarks on the similar “Wingman.” With little time to devote to yet another naming debate, Origin went with their consensus third choice of Wing Commander, which had lost only narrowly to Wingleader in the last vote. This name finally stuck. Indeed, today it’s hard to imagine Wing Commander under any other name.

The game was finished in a mad frenzy that stretched right up to the end; the “installation guide” telling how to get it running was written and typeset from scratch in literally the last five hours before the whole project had to be packed into a box and shipped off for duplication. That accomplished, everyone donned their new Wing Commander baseball caps and headed out to the front lawn for Origin’s traditional ship-day beer bash. There Robert Garriott climbed onto a picnic table to announce that all of Chris Roberts’s efforts in creating by far the most elaborate multimedia production Origin had ever released had been enough to secure him, at long last, an actual fast job at the company. “As of 5 P.M. this afternoon,” said Garriott, “Chris is Origin’s Director of New Technologies. Congratulations, Chris, and welcome to the Origin team.” The welcome was, everyone had to agree, more than a little belated.

We’ll turn back to Roberts’s later career at Origin in future articles. At this point, though, this history of the original Wing Commander must become the story of the people who played it rather than that of the people who created it. And, make no mistake, play it the people did. Gamers rushed to embrace what had ever since that Summer CES show been the most anticipated title in the industry. Roberts has claimed that Wing Commander sold 100,000 copies in its first month, a figure that would stand as ridiculous if applied to just about any other computer game of the era, but which might just be ridiculous enough to be true in the case of Wing Commander. While hard sales figures for the game or the franchise it would spawn have never to my knowledge been made public, I can feel confident enough in saying that sales of the first Wing Commander soared into the many, many hundreds of thousands of units. The curse of Ultima was broken; Origin now had a game which had not just become a hit in spite of Ultima‘s long shadow, they had a game which threatened to do the unthinkable — to overshadow Ultima in their product catalog. Certainly all indications are that Wing Commander massively outsold Ultima VI, possibly by a factor of two to one or more. It would take a few years, until the release of Doom in 1993, for any other name to begin to challenge that of Wing Commander as the most consistent money spinner in American computer gaming.

But why should that have been? Why should this particular game of all others have become such a sensation? Part of the reason must be serendipitous timing. During the 1990s as in no decade before or since, the latest developments in hardware would drive sales of games that could show them off to best effect, and Wing Commander set the stage for this trend. Released at a time when 80386-based machines with expanded memory, sound cards, and VGA graphics were just beginning to enter American homes in numbers, Wing Commander took advantage of all those things like no other game on the market. It benefited enormously from this singularity among those who already owned the latest hardware setups, while causing yet many more jealous gamers who hadn’t heretofore seen a need to upgrade to invest in hot machines of their own — the kind of virtuous circle to warm any capitalist’s heart.

Yet there was also something more going on with Wing Commander than just a cool-looking game for showing off the latest hardware, else it would have suffered the fate of the slightly later bestseller Myst: that of being widely purchased, but very rarely actually, seriously played. Unlike the coolly cerebral Myst, Wing Commander was a crowd-pleaser from top to bottom, with huge appeal, even beyond its spectacular audiovisuals, to anyone who had ever thrilled to the likes of a Star Wars film. It was, in other words, computerized entertainment for the mainstream rather than for a select cognoscenti. Just as all but the most incorrigible snobs could have a good time at a Star Wars showing, few gamers of any stripe could resist the call of Wing Commander. In an era when the lines of genre were being drawn more and more indelibly, one of the most remarkable aspects of Wing Commander‘s reception is the number of genre lines it was able to cross. Whether they normally preferred strategy games or flight simulators, CRPGs or adventures, everybody wanted to play Wing Commander.

At a glance, Chris Roberts’s gung-ho action movie of a game would seem to be rather unsuited for the readership of Computer Gaming World, a magazine that had been born out of the ashes of the tabletop-wargaming culture of the 1970s and was still beholden most of all to computer games in the old slow-paced, strategic grognard tradition. Yet the magazine and its readers loved Wing Commander. In fact, they loved Wing Commander as they had never loved any other game before. After reaching the number-one position in Computer Gaming World‘s readers’ poll in February of 1991, it remained there for an unprecedented eleven straight months, attaining already in its second month on top the highest aggregate score ever recorded for a game. When it was finally replaced at number one in January of 1992, the replacement was none other than the new Wing Commander II. Wing Commander I then remained planted right there behind its successor at number two until April, when the magazine’s editors, needing to make room for other games, felt compelled to “retire” it to their Hall of Fame.

In other places, the huge genre-blurring success of Wing Commander prompted an identity crisis. Shay Addams, adventure-game solver extraordinaire, publisher of the Questbusters newsletter and the Quest for Clues series of books, received so many requests to cover Wing Commander that he reported he had been “on the verge of scheduling a brief look” at it. But in the end, he had decided a little petulantly, it “is just a shoot-em-up-in-space game in which the skills necessary are vastly different from those required for completing a quest. (Then again, there is always the possibility of publishing Simulationbusters.)” The parenthetical may have sounded like a joke, but Addams apparently meant it seriously – or, at least, came to mean it seriously. The following year, he started publishing a sister newsletter to Questbusters called Simulations!. It’s hard to imagine him making such a decision absent the phenomenon that was Wing Commander.

So, there was obviously much more to Wing Commander than a glorified tech demo. If we hope to understand what its secret sauce might have been, we need to look at the game itself again, this time from the perspective of a player rather than a developer.

One possibility can be excised immediately. The “space combat simulation” part of the game — i.e., the game part of the game — is fun today and was graphically spectacular back in 1990, but it’s possessed of neither huge complexity nor the sort of tactical or strategic interest that would seem to be required of a title that hoped to spend eleven months at the top of the Computer Gaming World readers’ charts. Better graphics and embodied approach aside, it’s a fairly commonsense evolution of Elite‘s combat engine, complete with inertia and sounds in the vacuum of space and all the other space-fantasy trappings of Star Wars. If we hope to find the real heart of the game’s appeal, it isn’t here that we should look, but rather to the game’s fiction — to the movie Origin Systems built around Chris Roberts’s little shoot-em-up-in-space game.

Wing Commander casts you as an unnamed young pilot, square-jawed and patriotic, who has just been assigned to the strike carrier Tiger’s Claw, out on the front lines of humanity’s war against the vicious Kilrathi, a race of space-faring felines. (Cat lovers should approach this game with caution!) Over the course of the game, you fly a variety of missions in a variety of star systems, affecting the course of the wider war as you do so in very simple, hard-branching ways. Each mission is introduced via a briefing scene, and concluded, if you make it back alive, with a debriefing. (If you don’t make it back alive, you at least get the rare pleasure of watching your own funeral.) Between missions, you can chat with your fellow pilots and a friendly bartender in the Tiger’s Claw‘s officers lounge, play on a simulator in the lounge that serves as the game’s training mode, and keep track of your kill count along with that of the other pilots on the squadron blackboard. As you fly missions and your kill count piles up, you rise through the Tiger’s Claw‘s hierarchy from an untested rookie to the steely-eyed veteran on which everyone else in your squadron depends. You also get the chance to fly several models of space-borne fighters, each with its own flight characteristics and weapons loadouts.

A mission briefing.

The inspirations for Wing Commander as a piece of fiction aren’t hard to find in either the game itself or the many interviews Chris Roberts has given about it over the years. Leaving aside the obvious influence of Star Wars on the game’s cinematic visuals, Wing Commander fits most comfortably into the largely book-bound sub-genre of so-called “military science fiction.” A tradition which has Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers as its arguable urtext, military science fiction is less interested in the exploration of strange new worlds, etc., than it is in the exploration of possible futures of warfare in space.

There isn’t much doubt where Wing Commander‘s historical inspiration lies.

Because worldbuilding is hard and extrapolating the nitty-gritty details of future modes of warfare is even harder, much military science fiction is built out of thinly veiled stand-ins for the military and political history of our own little planet. So, for example, David Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series transports the Napoleonic Wars into space, while Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War — probably the sub-genre’s best claim to a work of real, lasting literary merit — is based largely on the author’s own experiences in Vietnam. Hewing to this tradition, Wing Commander presents a space-borne version of the grand carrier battles which took place in the Pacific during World War II — entirely unique events in the history of human warfare and, as this author can well attest, sheer catnip to any young fellow with a love of ships and airplanes and heroic deeds and things that go boom. Wing Commander shares this historical inspiration with another of its obvious fictional inspirations, the fun if terminally cheesy 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica. (Come to think of it, much the same description can be applied to Wing Commander.)

Sparkling conversationalists these folks aren’t.

Wing Commander is also like Battlestar Galactica in another respect: it’s not so much interested in constructing a detailed technological and tactical framework for its vision of futuristic warfare — leave that stuff to the books! — as it is in choosing whatever thing seems coolest at any given juncture. We know nothing really about how or why any of the stuff in the game works, just that’s it’s our job to go out and blow stuff up with it. Nowhere is that failing, if failing it be, more evident than in the very name of the game. “Wing Commander” is a rank in the Royal Air Force and those of Commonwealth nations denoting an officer in charge of several squadrons of aircraft. It’s certainly not an appropriate designation for the role you play here, that of a rookie fighter pilot who commands only a single wingman. This Wing Commander is called Wing Commander strictly because it sounds cool.

In time, Origin’s decision to start hiring people to serve specifically in the role of writer would have a profound effect on the company’s games, but few would accuse this game, one of Origin’s first with an actual, dedicated “lead writer,” of being deathless fiction. To be fair to David George, it does appear that he spent the majority of his time drawing up the game’s 40 missions, serving in a role that would probably be dubbed “scenario designer” or “level designer” today rather than “writer.” And  it’s not as if Chris Roberts’s original brief gave him a whole lot to work with. This is, after all, a game where you’re going to war against a bunch of anthropomorphic house cats. (Our cat told me she thought about conquering the galaxy once or twice, but she wasn’t sure she could fit it into the three hours per day she spends awake.) The Kilrathi are kind of… well, there’s just no getting around it, is there? The whole Kilrathi thing is pretty stupid, although it does allow your fellow pilots to pile on epithets like “fur balls,” “fleabags,” and, my personal favorite, “Killie-cats.”

Said fellow pilots are themselves a collection of ethnic stereotypes so over-the-top as to verge on the offensive if it wasn’t so obvious that Origin just didn’t have a clue. Spirit is Japanese, so of course she suffixes every name with “-san” or “-sama” even when speaking English, right? And Angel is French, so of course she says “bonjour” a lot, right? Right?

My second favorite Wing Commander picture comes from the manual rather than the game proper. Our cat would look precisely this bitchy if I shoved her into a spacesuit.

Despite Chris Roberts’s obvious and oft-stated desire to put you into an interactive movie, there’s little coherent narrative arc to Wing Commander, even by action-movie standards. Every two to four missions, the Tiger’s Claw jumps to some other star system and some vague allusion is made to the latest offensive or defensive operation, but there’s nothing to really hang your hat on in terms of a clear unfolding narrative of the war. A couple of cut scenes do show good or bad events taking place elsewhere, based on your performance in battle — who knew one fighter pilot could have so much effect on the course of a war? — but, again, there’s just not enough detail to give a sense of the strategic situation. One has to suspect that Origin didn’t know what was really going on any better than the rest of us.

My favorite Wing Commander pictures, bar none. What I love best about these and the picture above is the ears on the helmets. And what I love best about the ears on the helmets is that there’s no apparent attempt to be cheeky or funny in placing them there. (One thing this game is totally devoid of is deliberate humor. Luckily, there’s plenty of non-deliberate humor to enjoy.) Someone at Origin said, “Well, they’re cats, so they have to have space in their helmets for their ears, right?” and everyone just nodded solemnly and went with it. If you ask me, nothing illustrates Wing Commander‘s charming naivete better than this.

In its day, Wing Commander was hugely impressive as a technological tour de force, but it’s not hard to spot the places where it really suffered from the compressed development schedule. There’s at least one place, for example, where your fellow pilots talk about an event that hasn’t actually happened yet, presumably due to last minute juggling of the mission order. More serious are the many and varied glitches that occur during combat, from sound drop-outs to the occasional complete lock-up. Most bizarrely of all to our modern sensibilities, Origin didn’t take the time to account for the speed of the computer running the game. Wing Commander simply runs flat-out all the time, as fast as the hosting computer can manage. This delivered a speed that was just about perfect on a top-of-the-line 80386-based machine of 1990, but that made it effectively unplayable on the next generation of 80486-based machines that started becoming popular just a couple of years later; this game was definitely not built with any eye to posterity. Wing Commander would wind up driving the development of so-called “slowdown” programs that throttled back later hardware to keep games like this one playable.

Still, even today Wing Commander remains a weirdly hard nut to crack in this respect. For some reason, presumably involving subtle differences between real and emulated hardware, it’s impossible to find an entirely satisfactory speed setting for the game in the DOSBox emulator. A setting which seems perfect when flying in open space slows down to a crawl in a dogfight; a setting which delivers a good frame rate in a dogfight is absurdly fast when fewer other ships surround you. The only apparent solution to the problem is to adjust the DOSBox speed settings on the fly as you’re trying not to get shot out of space by the Kilrathi — or, perhaps more practically, to just find something close to a happy medium and live with it. One quickly notices when reading about Wing Commander the wide variety of opinions about its overall difficulty, from those who say it’s too easy to those who say it’s way too hard to those who say it’s just right. I wonder whether this disparity is down to the fact that, thanks to the lack of built-in throttling, everyone is playing a slightly different version of the game.

The only thing worse than being a cat lover in this game is being a pacifist. And everyone knows cats don’t like water, Shotglass… sheesh.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that the missions are only of a few broad types, encompassing patrols, seek-and-destroy missions, and escort missions (the worst!), but the context provided by the briefings keeps things more interesting than they might otherwise be, as do the variety of spacecraft you get to fly and fight against. The mission design is pretty good, although the difficulty does ebb and spike a bit more than it ideally might. In particular, one mission found right in the middle of the game — the second Kurosawa mission, for those who know the game already — is notorious for being all but impossible. Chris Roberts has bragged that the missions in the finished game “were exactly the ones that Jeff George designed on paper — we didn’t need to do any balancing at all!” In truth, I’m not sure the lack of balancing isn’t a bug rather than a feature.

Um, yes. I’m standing here, aren’t I? Should this really be a judgment call?

Roberts’s decision to allow you to take your lumps and go on even when you fail at a mission was groundbreaking at the time. Yet, having made this very progressive decision, he then proceeded to implement it in the most regressive way imaginable. When you fail in Wing Commander, the war as a whole goes badly, thanks again to that outsize effect you have upon it, and you get punished by being forced to fly against even more overwhelming odds in inferior fighters. Imagine, then, what it’s like to play Wing Commander honestly, without recourse to save games, as a brand new player. Still trying to get your bearings as a rookie pilot, you don’t perform terribly well in the first two or three missions. In response, your commanding officer delivers a constant drumbeat of negative feedback, while the missions just keep getting harder and harder at what feels like an almost exponential pace, ensuring that you continue to suck every time you fly. By the time you’ve failed at 30 missions and your ineptitude has led to the Tiger’s Claw being chased out of the sector with its (striped?) tail between its legs, you might just need therapy to recover from the experience.

What ought to happen, of course, is that failing at the early missions should see you assigned to easier rather than harder ones — no matter the excuse; Origin could make something up on the fly, as they so obviously did so much of the game’s fiction — that give you a chance to practice your skills. Experienced, hardcore players could still have their fun by trying to complete the game in as few missions as possible, while newcomers wouldn’t have to feel like battered spouses. Or, if such an elegant solution wasn’t possible, Origin could at least have given us player-selectable difficulty levels.

As it is, the only practical way to play as a newcomer is to ignore all of Origin’s exhortations to play honestly and just keep reloading until you successfully complete each mission; only in this way can you keep the escalating difficulty manageable. (The one place where I would recommend that you take your lumps and continue is in the aforementioned second Kurosawa mission. Losing here will throw you briefly off-track, but the missions that follow aren’t too difficult, and it’s easier to play your way to victory through them than to try to beat Mission Impossible.) This approach, it should be noted, drove Chris Roberts crazy; he considered it nothing less than a betrayal of the entire premise around which he’d designed his game. Yet he had only himself to blame. Like much in Wing Commander, the discrepancy between the game Roberts wants to have designed and the one he’s actually designed speaks to the lack of time to play it extensively before its release, and thereby to shake all these problems out.

And yet. And yet…

Having complained at such length about Wing Commander, I find myself at something of an impasse, in that my overall verdict on the game is nowhere near as negative as these complaints would imply. It’s not even a case of Wing Commander being, like, say, most of the Ultima games, a groundbreaking work in its day that’s a hard sell today. No, Wing Commander is a game I continue to genuinely enjoy despite all its obvious problems.

In writing about all these old games over the years, I’ve noticed that those titles I’d broadly brand as classics and gladly recommend to contemporary players tend to fall into two categories. There are games like, say, The Secret of Monkey Island that know exactly what they’re trying to do and proceed to do it all almost perfectly, making all the right choices; it’s hard to imagine how to improve these games in any but the tiniest of ways within the context of the technology available to their developers. And then there are games like Wing Commander that are riddled with flaws, yet still manage to be hugely engaging, hugely fun, almost in spite of themselves. Who knows, perhaps trying to correct all the problems I’ve spent so many words detailing would kill something ineffably important in the game. Certainly the many sequels and spinoffs to the original Wing Commander correct many of the failings I’ve described in this article, yet I’m not sure any of them manage to be a comprehensively better game. Like so many creative endeavors, game design isn’t a zero-sum game. Much as I loathe the lazy critic’s cliche “more than the sum of its parts,” it feels hard to avoid it here.

It’s true that many of my specific criticisms have an upside to serve as a counterpoint. The fiction may be giddy and ridiculous, but it winds up being fun precisely because it’s so giddy and ridiculous. This isn’t a self-conscious homage to comic-book storytelling of the sort we see so often in more recent games from this Age of Irony of ours. No, this game really does think this stuff it’s got to share with you is the coolest stuff in the world, and it can’t wait to get on with it; it lacks any form of guile just as much as it does any self-awareness. In this as in so many other senses, Wing Commander exudes the personality of its creator, helps you to understand why it was that everyone at Origin Systems so liked to have this high-strung, enthusiastic kid around them. There’s an innocence about the game that leaves one feeling happy that Chris Roberts was steered away from his original plans for a “gritty” story full of moral ambivalence; one senses that he wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere near as well as he does this. Even the Kilrathi enemies, silly as they are, take some of the sting out of war; speciesist though the sentiment may be, at least it isn’t people you’re killing out there. Darned if the fiction doesn’t win me over in the end with its sheer exuberance, all bright primary emotions to match the bright primary colors of the VGA palette. Sometimes you’re cheering along with it, sometimes you’re laughing at it, but you’re always having a good time. The whole thing is just too gosh-darned earnest to annoy me like most bad writing does.

Even the rogue’s gallery of ethnic stereotypes that is your fellow pilots doesn’t grate as much as it might. Indeed, Origin’s decision to include lots of strong, capable women and people of color among the pilots should be applauded. Whatever else you can say about Wing Commander, its heart is almost always in the right place.

Winning a Golden Sun for “surviving the destruction of my ship.” I’m not sure, though, that “sacrificing my vessel” was really an act of bravery, under the circumstances. Oh, well, I’ll take whatever hardware they care to give me.

One thing Wing Commander understands very well is the value of positive reinforcement — the importance of, as Sid Meier puts it, making sure the player is always the star of the show. In that spirit, the kill count of even the most average player will always advance much faster on the squadron’s leader board than that of anyone else in the squadron. As you play through the missions, you’re given promotions and occasionally medals, the latter delivered amidst the deafening applause of your peers in a scene lifted straight from the end of the first Star Wars film (which was in turn aping the Nuremberg Rally shown in Triumph of the Will, but no need to think too much about that in this giddy context). You know at some level that you’re being manipulated, just as you know the story is ridiculous, but you don’t really care. Isn’t this feeling of achievement a substantial part of the reason that we play games?

Another thing Wing Commander understands — or perhaps stumbled into accidentally thanks to the compressed development schedule — is the value of brevity. Thanks to the tree structure that makes it impossible to play all 40 missions on any given run-through, a typical Wing Commander career spans no more than 25 or 30 missions, most of which can be completed in half an hour or so, especially if you use the handy auto-pilot function to skip past all the point-to-point flying and just get to the places where the shooting starts. (Personally, I prefer the more organic feel of doing all the flying myself, but I suspect I’m a weirdo in this as in so many other respects.) The relative shortness of the campaign means that the game never threatens to run into the ground the flight engine’s rather limited box of tricks. It winds up leaving you wanting more rather than trying your patience. For all these reasons, and even with all its obvious problems technical and otherwise, Wing Commander remains good fun today.

Which doesn’t of course mean that any self-respecting digital antiquarian can afford to neglect its importance to gaming history. The first blockbuster of the 1990s and the most commercially dominant franchise in computer gaming until the arrival of Doom in 1993 shook everything up yet again, Wing Commander can be read as cause or symptom of the changing times. There was a sense even in 1990 that Wing Commander‘s arrival, coming so appropriately at the beginning of a new decade, marked a watershed moment, and time has only strengthened that impression. Chris Crawford, this medium’s eternal curmudgeon — every creative field needs one of them to serve as a corrective to the hype-merchants — has accused Wing Commander of nothing less than ruining the culture of gaming for all time. By raising the bar so high on ludic audiovisuals, runs his argument, Wing Commander dramatically raised the financial investment necessary to produce a competitive game. This in turn made publishers, reluctant to risk all that capital on anything but a sure bet, more conservative in the sorts of projects they were willing to approve, causing more experimental games with only niche appeal to disappear from the market. “It became a hit-driven industry,” Crawford says. “The whole marketing strategy, economics, and everything changed, in my opinion, much for the worse.”

There’s some truth to this assertion, but it’s also true that publishers had been growing more conservative and budgets had been creeping upward for years before Wing Commander. By 1990, Infocom’s literary peak was years in the past, as were Activison’s experimental period and Electronic Arts’s speculations on whether computers could make you cry. In this sense, then, Wing Commander can be seen as just one more point on a trend line, not the dramatic break which Crawford would claim it to be. Had it not come along when it did to raise the audiovisual bar, something else would have.

Where Wing Commander does feel like a cleaner break with the past is in its popularizing of the use of narrative in a traditionally non-narrative-driven genre. This, I would assert, is the real source of the game’s appeal, then and now. The shock and awe of seeing the graphics and hearing the sound and music for the first time inevitably faded even back in the day, and today of course the whole thing looks garish and a little kitschy with those absurdly big pixels. And certainly the space-combat game alone wasn’t enough to sustain obsessive devotion back in the day, while today the speed issues can at times make it more than a little exasperating to actually play Wing Commander at all. But the appeal of, to borrow from Infocom’s old catch-phrase, waking up inside a story — waking up inside a Star Wars movie, if you like — and being swept along on a rollicking, semi-interactive ride is, it would seem, eternal. It may not have been the reason most people bought Wing Commander in the early 1990s — that had everything to do with those aforementioned spectacular audiovisuals — but it was the reason they kept playing it, the reason it remained the best single computer game in the country according to Computer Gaming World‘s readers for all those months. Come for the graphics and sound, stay for the story. The ironic aspect of all this is that, as I’ve already noted, Wing Commander‘s story barely qualified as a story at all by the standards of conventional fiction. Yet, underwhelming though it was on its own merits, it worked more than well enough in providing structure and motivation for the individual missions.

The clearest historical antecedent to Wing Commander must be the interactive movies of Cinemaware, which had struggled to combine cinematic storytelling with modes of play that departed from traditional adventure-game norms throughout the second half of the 1980s, albeit with somewhat mixed success. John Cutter, a designer at Cinemaware, has described how Bob Jacob, the company’s founder and president, reacted to his first glimpse of Wing Commander: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so sad.” With his company beginning to fall apart around him, Jacob had good reason to feel sad. He least of all would have imagined Origin Systems — they of the aesthetically indifferent CRPG epics — as the company that would carry the flag of cinematic computer gaming forward into the new decade, but the proof was right there on the screen in front of him.

There are two accounts, both of them true in their way, to explain how the adventure game, a genre that in the early 1990s was perhaps the most vibrant and popular in computer gaming, ended the decade an irrelevancy to gamers and publishers alike. One explanation, which I’ve gone into a number of times already on this blog, focuses on a lack of innovation and, most of all, a lack of good design practices among far too many adventures developers; these lacks left the genre identified primarily with unfun pixel hunts and illogical puzzles in the minds of far too many players. But another, more positive take on the subject says that adventure games never really went away at all: their best attributes were rather merged into other genres. Did adventure games disappear or did they take over the world? As in so many cases, the answer depends on your perspective. If you focus on the traditional mechanics of adventure games — exploring landscapes and solving puzzles, usually non-violently — as their defining attributes, the genre did indeed go from thriving to all but dying in the course of about five years. If, on the other hand, you choose to see adventure games more broadly as games where you wake up inside a story, it can sometimes seem like almost every game out there today has become, whatever else it is, an adventure game.

Wing Commander was the first great proof that many more players than just adventure-game fans love story. Players love the way a story can make them feel a part of something bigger as they play, and, more prosaically but no less importantly, they love the structure it can give to their play. One of the dominant themes of games in the 1990s would be the injection of story into genres which had never had much use for it before: the unfolding narrative of discovery built into the grand-strategy game X-Com, the campaign modes of the real-time-strategy pioneers Warcraft and Starcraft, the plot that gave meaning to all the shooting in Half-Life. All of these are among the most beloved titles of the decade, spawning franchises that remain more than viable to this day. One has to assume this isn’t a coincidence. “The games I made were always about narrative because I felt that was missing for me,” says Chris Roberts. “I wanted that sense of story and progression. I felt like I wasn’t getting that in games. That was one of my bigger drives when I was making games, was to get that, that I felt like I really wanted and liked from other media.” Clearly many others agreed.

(Sources: the books Wing Commander I and II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison and Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Retro Gamer 59 and 123; Questbusters of July 1989, August 1990, and April 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1989 and November 1992; Amiga Computing of December 1988. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and Matt Barton’s interview with George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)

 
 

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From Squadron to Wingleader

Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott, 1988

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989, Origin Systems and Brøderbund Software announced that they wouldn’t be renewing the distribution contract the former had signed with the latter two years before. It was about as amicable a divorce as has ever been seen in the history of business; in this respect, it could hardly have stood in greater contrast to the dust-up that had ended Origin’s relationship with Electronic Arts, their previous distributor, in 1987. Each company was full of rosy praise and warm wishes for the other at a special “graduation party” Brøderbund threw for Origin at the show. “Brøderbund has been one of the few affiliated-label programs that truly helps a small company grow to a size where it can stand on its own and enter the real world,” said Origin’s Robert Garriott, making oblique reference to the more predatory approach of Electronic Arts. In response, Brøderbund’s Gary Carlston toasted that “it’s been rewarding to have helped Origin pursue its growth, and it’s exciting to see the company take this step,” confirming yet one more time Brøderbund’s well-earned reputation as the nice guys of their industry who somehow kept managing to finish first. And so, with a last slap on the rump and a final chorus of “Kumbaya,” Brøderbund sent Origin off to face the scary “world of full-service software publishing” alone.

It was a bold step for Origin, especially given that they still hadn’t solved a serious problem that had dogged them since their founding in the Garriott brothers’ family garage six years earlier. The first two games released by the young company back in 1983 had been Ultima III, the latest installment in Richard Garriott’s genre-defining CRPG series, and Caverns of Callisto, an action game written by Richard’s high-school buddy Chuck Bueche. Setting the frustrating pattern for what was to come, Ultima III soared up the bestseller charts, while Caverns of Callisto disappeared without a trace. In the years that followed, Origin released some non-Ultima games that were moderately successful, but never came close to managing a full-on hit outside of their signature franchise. This failure left them entirely dependent for their survival on Richard Garriott coming up with a new and groundbreaking Ultima game every couple of years, and on that game then proceeding to sell over 200,000 copies. Robert Garriott, as shrewd a businessman as any in his industry, knew that staking his company’s entire future on a single game every two years was at best a risky way to run things. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t seem to break the pattern.

Origin had a number of factors working against them in their efforts to diversify, but the first and most ironic among them must be the very outsize success of Ultima itself. The company had become so identified with Ultima that many gamers barely realized that they did anything else. As for other folks working in the industry, they had long jokingly referred to Origin Systems as “Ultima Systems.” Everyone knew that the creator of Ultima was also the co-founder of Origin, and the brother of the man who directed its day-to-day operations. In such a situation, there must be a real question of whether any other game project, even a potentially great one, could avoid being overshadowed by the signature franchise, could find enough oxygen to thrive. Added to these concerns, which would be applicable to any company in such a situation, must be the unique nature of the cast of characters at Origin. Richard Garriott’s habit of marching around trade-show floors in full Lord British regalia, his entourage in tow, didn’t always endear him to the rest of the industry. There were, it sometimes seemed, grounds to question whether Richard himself knew that he wasn’t actually a monarch, just a talented kid from suburban Houston with nary a drop of royal blood coursing through his veins. At times, Origin Systems could feel perilously close to a cult of personality. Throw in the company’s out-of-the-way location in Austin, Texas, and attracting really top-flight projects became quite a challenge for them.

So, when it came to games that weren’t Ultima Origin had had to content themselves with projects one notch down from the top tier — projects which, whether because they weren’t flashy enough or were just too nichey, weren’t of huge interest to the bigger publishers. Those brought in enough revenue to justify their existence but not much more, and thus Robert Garriott continued to bet the company every two years on his brother’s latest Ultima. It was a nerve-wracking way to live.

And then, in 1990, all that changed practically overnight. This article and the one that follows will tell the story of how the house that Ultima built found itself with an even bigger franchise on its hands.


Chris Roberts

By the end of the 1980s, the North American and European computer-game industries, which had heretofore existed in almost total isolation from one another, were becoming slowly but steadily more interconnected. The major American publishers were setting up distribution arms in Europe, and the smaller ones were often distributing their wares through the British importer U.S. Gold. Likewise, the British Firebird and Rainbird labels had set up offices in the United States, and American publishers like Cinemaware were doing good business importing British games for American owners of the Commodore Amiga, a platform that was a bit neglected by domestic developers. But despite these changes, the industry as a whole remained a stubbornly bifurcated place. European developers remained European, American developers remained American, and the days of a truly globalized games industry remained far in the future. The exceptions to these rules stand out all the more thanks to their rarity. And one of these notable exceptions was Chris Roberts, the young man who would change Origin Systems forever.

With a British father and an American mother, Chris Roberts had been a trans-Atlantic sort of fellow right from the start. His father, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, went with his wife to Guatemala to do research shortly after marrying, and it was there that Chris was conceived in 1967. The mother-to-be elected to give birth near her family in Silicon Valley. (From the first, it seems, computers were in the baby’s blood.) After returning for a time to Guatemala, where Chris’s father was finishing his research, the little Roberts clan settled back in Manchester, England. A second son arrived to round out the family in 1970.

His first international adventure behind him, Chris Roberts grew up as a native son of Manchester, developing the distinct Mancunian intonation he retains to this day along with his love of Manchester United football. When first exposed to computers thanks to his father’s position at Manchester University, the boy was immediately smitten. In 1982, when Chris was 14, his father signed him up for his first class in BASIC programming and bought a BBC Micro for him to practice on at home. As it happened, the teacher of that first programming class became a founding editor of the new magazine BBC Micro User. Hungry for content, the magazine bought two of young Chris’s first simple BASIC games to publish as type-in listings. Just like that, he was a published game developer.

Britain at the time was going absolutely crazy for computers and computer games, and many of the new industry’s rising stars were as young or younger than Roberts. It thus wasn’t overly difficult for him to make the leap to designing and coding boxed games to be sold in stores. Imagine Software published his first such, a platformer called Wizadore, in 1985; Superior Software published a second, a side-scrolling shooter called Stryker’s Run, in 1986. But the commercial success these titles could hope to enjoy was limited by the fact that they ran on the BBC Micro, a platform which was virtually unknown outside of Britain and even inside of its home country was much less popular than the Sinclair Spectrum as a gaming machine. Being amply possessed of the contempt most BBC Micro owners felt toward the cheap and toy-like “Speccy,” Roberts decided to shift his attention instead to the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform in the world at the time. This decision, combined with another major decision made by his parents, set him on his unlikely collision course with Origin Systems in far-off Austin, Texas.

In early 1986, Roberts’s father got an offer he couldn’t refuse in the form of a tenured professorship at the University of Texas. After finishing the spring semester that year, he, his wife, and his younger son thus traded the gray skies of Manchester for the sunnier climes of Austin. Chris was just finishing his A-Levels at the time. Proud Mancunian that he was, he declared that he had no intention of leaving England — and certainly not for a hick town in the middle of Texas. But he had been planning all along to take a year off before starting at the University of Manchester, and his parents convinced him to at least join the rest of the family in Austin for the summer. He agreed, figuring that it would give him a chance to work free of distractions on a new action/adventure game he had planned as his first project for the Commodore 64. Yet what he actually found in Austin was lots of distractions — eye-opening distractions to warm any young man’s heart. Roberts:

The weather was a little nicer in Austin. The American girls seemed to like the English accent, which wasn’t bad, and there was definitely a lot… everything seemed like it was cheaper and there was more of it, especially back then. Now, the world’s become more homogenized so there’s not things you can only get in America that you don’t get in England as well. Back then it was like, the big American movies would come out in America and then they would come out in England a year later and stuff. So I came over and was like, “Ah, you know, this is pretty cool.”

There were also the American computers to consider; these tended to be much more advanced than their British counterparts, sporting disk drives as universal standard equipment at a time when most British games — including both of Roberts’s previous games — were still published on cassette tapes. In light of all these attractions, it seems doubtful whether Roberts would have kept his resolution to return to Manchester in any circumstances. But there soon came along the craziest of coincidences to seal the deal.

Roberts had decided that he really needed to find an artist to help him with his Commodore 64 game-in-progress. Entering an Austin tabletop-gaming shop one day, he saw a beautiful picture of a gladiator hanging on the wall. The owner of the shop told him the picture had been drawn by a local artist, and offered to call the artist for him right then and there if Roberts was really interested in working with him. Roberts said yes, please do. The artist in question was none other than Denis Loubet, whose professional association with Richard Garriott stretched back to well before Origin Systems had existed, to when he’d drawn the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth in 1980.

Denis Loubet

After years of working as a contractor, Loubet was just about to be hired as Origin’s first regular in-house artist. Nevertheless, he liked Roberts and thought his game had potential, and agreed to do the art for it as a moonlighting venture. Loubet soon showed what he was working on to Richard Garriott and Dallas Snell, the latter of whom tended to serve as a sort of liaison between the business side of the company, in the person of Robert Garriott, and the creative side, in the person of Richard. All three parties were as impressed by the work-in-progress as Loubet had been, and they invited Chris to Origin’s offices to ask if he’d be interested in publishing it through them. Prior to this point, Roberts had never even heard of Origin Systems or the Ultima series; he’d grown up immersed in the British gaming scene, where neither had any presence whatsoever. But he liked the people at Origin, liked the atmosphere around the place, and perhaps wasn’t aware enough of what the company represented to be leery of it in the way of other developers who were peddling promising projects around the industry. “After my experiences in England, which is like swimming in a big pool of sharks,” he remembers, “I felt comfortable dealing with Origin.”

Times of Lore

All thoughts of returning to England had now disappeared. Working from Origin’s offices, albeit still as a contracted outside developer rather than an employee, Roberts finished his game, which came to be called Times of Lore. In the course of its development, the game grew considerably in scope and ambition, and, as seemed only appropriate given the company that was to publish it, took on some light CRPG elements as well. In much of this, Roberts was inspired by David Joiner’s 1987 action/CRPG The Faery Tale Adventure. American influences aside, though, Times of Lore still fit best of all into the grand British tradition of free-scrolling, free-roaming 8-bit action/adventures, a sub-genre that verged on completely unknown to American computer gamers. Roberts made sure the whole game could fit into the Commodore 64’s memory at once to facilitate a cassette-based version for the European market.

Unfortunately, his game got to enjoy only a middling level of sales success in return for all his efforts. As if determined to confirm the conventional wisdom that had caused so many developers to steer clear of them, Origin released Times of Lore almost simultaneously with the Commodore 64 port of Ultima V in 1988, leaving Roberts’s game overshadowed by Lord British’s latest. And in addition to all the baggage that came with the Origin logo in the United States, Times of Lore suffered all the disadvantages of being a pioneer of sorts in Europe, the first Origin title to be pushed aggressively there via a new European distribution contract with MicroProse. While that market would undoubtedly have understood the game much better had they given it a chance, no one there yet knew what to make of the company whose logo was on the box. Despite its strengths, Times of Lore thus failed to break the pattern that had held true for Origin for so long. It turned into yet another non-Ultima that was also a non-hit.

Times of Lore

But whatever the relative disappointments, Times of Lore at least wasn’t a flop, and Chris Roberts stayed around as a valued member of the little Origin family. Part of the reason the Origin people wanted to keep him around was simply because they liked him so much. He nursed the same passions for fantasy and science fiction as most of them, with just enough of a skew provided by his British upbringing to make him interesting. And he positively radiated energy and enthusiasm. He’s never hard to find in Origin group shots of the time. His face stands out like that of a nerdy cherub — he had never lost his facial baby fat, making him look pudgier in pictures than he was in real life — as he beams his thousand-kilowatt smile at all and sundry. Still, it was hardly his personality alone that made him such a valued colleague; the folks at Origin also came to have a healthy respect for his abilities. Indeed, and as we’ve already seen in an earlier article, the interface of Times of Lore had a huge influence on that of no less vital an Origin game than Ultima VI.

Alas, Roberts’s own next game for Origin would be far less influential. After flirting for a while with the idea of doing a straightforward sequel to Times of Lore, he decided to adapt the engine to an even more action-oriented post-apocalyptic scenario. Roberts’s first game for MS-DOS, Bad Blood was created in desultory fits and starts, one of those projects that limps to completion more out of inertia than passion. Released at last in 1990, it was an ugly flop on both sides of the Atlantic. Roberts blames marketplace confusion at least partially for its failure: “People who liked arcade-style games didn’t buy it because they thought Bad Blood would be another fantasy-role-play-style game. It was the worst of both worlds, a combination of factors that contributed to its lack of success.” In reality, though, the most telling factor of said combination was just that Bad Blood wasn’t very good, evincing little of the care that so obviously went into Times of Lore. Reviewers roundly panned it, and buyers gave it a wide berth. Thankfully for Chris Roberts’s future in the industry, the game that would make his name was already well along at Origin by the time Bad Blood finally trickled out the door.

Bad Blood

Had it come to fruition in its original form, Roberts’s third game for Origin would have marked even more of a departure for him than the actual end result would wind up being. Perhaps trying to fit in better with Origin’s established image, he had the idea of doing, as he puts it, “a space-conquest game where you take over star systems, move battleships around, and invade planets. It was going to be more strategic than my earlier games.” But Roberts always craved a little more adrenaline in his designs than such a description would imply, and it didn’t take him long to start tinkering with the formula. The game moved gradually from strategic battles between slow-moving dreadnoughts in space to manic dogfights between fighter planes in space. In other words, to frame the shift the way the science-fiction-obsessed Roberts might well have chosen, his inspiration for his space battles changed from Star Trek to Star Wars. He decided “it would be more fun flying around in a fighter than moving battleships around the screen”; note the (unconscious?) shift in this statement from the player as a disembodied hand “moving” battleships around to the player as an embodied direct participant “flying around” herself in fighters. Roberts took to calling his work-in-progress Squadron.

To bring off his idea for an embodied space-combat experience, Roberts would have to abandon the overhead views used by all his games to date in favor of a first-person out-the-cockpit view, like that used by a game he and every other BBC Micro veteran knew well, Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite. “It was the first space game in which I piloted a ship in combat,” says Roberts of Elite, “and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of where it could go.” On the plus side, Roberts knew that this and any other prospective future games he might make for Origin would be developed on an MS-DOS machine with many times the processing power of the little BBC Micro (or, for that matter, the Commodore 64). On the negative side, Roberts wasn’t a veritable mathematics genius like Ian Bell, the mastermind behind Elite‘s 3D graphics. Nor could he get away in the current marketplace with the wire-frame graphics of Elite. So, he decided to cheat a bit, both to simplify his life and to up the graphics ante. Inspired by the graphics of the Lucasfilm Games flight simulator Battlehawks 1942, he used pre-rendered bitmap images showing ships from several different sides and angles, which could then be scaled to suit the player’s out-the-cockpit view, rather than making a proper, mathematically rigorous 3D engine built out of polygons. As becomes clear all too quickly to anyone who plays the finished game, the results could be a little wonky, with views of the ships suddenly popping into place rather than smoothly rotating. Nevertheless, the ships themselves looked far better than anything Roberts could possibly have hoped to achieve on the technology of the time using a more honest 3D engine.

Denis Loubet, Roberts’s old partner in crime from the early days of Times of Lore, agreed to draw a cockpit as part of what must become yet another moonlighting gig for both of them; Roberts was officially still supposed to be spending his days at Origin on Bad Blood, while Loubet was up to his eyebrows in Ultima VI. Even at this stage, they were incorporating little visceral touches into Squadron, like the pilot’s hand moving the joystick around in time with what the player was doing with her own joystick in front of the computer screen. As the player’s ship got shot up, the damage was depicted visually there in the cockpit. Like the sparks and smoke that used to burst from the bridge controls on the old Star Trek episodes, it might not have made much logical sense — haven’t any of these space-faring societies invented fuses? — but it served the purpose of creating an embodied, visceral experience. Roberts:

It really comes from wanting to put the player in the game. I don’t want you to think you’re playing a simulation, I want you to think you’re really in that cockpit. When I visualized what it would be like to sit in a cockpit, those are the things I thought of.

I took the approach that I didn’t want to sacrifice that reality due to the game dynamics. If you would see wires hanging down after an explosion, then I wanted to include it, even if it would make it harder to figure out how to include all the instruments and readouts. I want what’s taking place inside the cockpit to be as real as what I’m trying to show outside it, in space. I’d rather show you damage as if you were there than just display something like “damage = 20 percent.” That’s abstract. I want to see it.

Squadron, then, was already becoming an unusually cinematic space-combat “simulation.” Because every action-movie hero needs a sidekick, Roberts added a wingman to the game, another pilot who would fly and fight at the player’s side. The player could communicate with the wingman in the midst of battle, passing him orders, and the wingman in turn would communicate back, showing his own personality; he might even refuse to obey orders on occasion.

As a cinematic experience, Squadron felt very much in tune with the way things in general were trending at Origin, to such an extent that one might well ask who was influencing whom. Like so many publishers in this era in which CD-ROM and full-motion video hovered alluringly just out of view on the horizon, Origin had begun thinking of themselves more and more in the terms of Hollywood. The official “product development structure” that was put in place around this time by Dallas Snell demanded an executive producer, a producer, an assistant producer, a director, an assistant director, and a lead writer for every game; of all the positions on the upper rungs of the chart, only that of lead artist and lead programmer wouldn’t have been listed in the credits of a typical Hollywood film. Meanwhile Origin’s recent hire Warren Spector, who came to them with a Masters in film studies, brought his own ideas about games as interactive dramas that were less literal than Snell’s, but that would if anything prove even more of an influence on his colleagues’ developing views of just what it was Origin Systems really ought to be about. Just the previous year, Origin had released a game called Space Rogue, another of that long line of non-Ultima middling sellers, that had preceded Squadron in attempting to do Elite one better. A free-form player-directed game of space combat and trading, Space Rogue was in some ways much more ambitious than the more railroaded experience Roberts was now proposing. Yet there was little question of which game fit better with the current zeitgeist at Origin.

All of which does much to explain the warm reception accorded to Squadron when Chris Roberts, with Bad Blood finally off his plate, pitched it to Origin’s management formally in very early 1990. Thanks to all those moonlighting hours — as well as, one suspects, more than a few regular working hours — Roberts already had a 3D space-combat game that looked and played pretty great. A year or two earlier, that likely would have been that; Origin would have simply polished it up a little and shipped it. But now Roberts had the vision of building a movie around the game. Between flying a series of scripted missions, you would get to know your fellow pilots and follow the progress of a larger war between humanity and the Kilrathi, a race of savage cats in space.

Having finally made the hard decision to abandon the 8-bit market at the beginning of 1989, Origin was now pushing aggressively in the opposite direction from their old technological conservatism, being determined to create games that showed what the very latest MS-DOS machines could really do. Like Sierra before them, they had decided that if the only way to advance the technological state of the art among ordinary consumers was to release games whose hardware requirements were ahead of the curve — a reversal of the usual approach among game publishers, who had heretofore almost universally gone where the largest existing user base already was — then that’s what they would do. Squadron could become the first full expression of this new philosophy, being unapologetically designed to run well only on a cutting-edge 80386-based machine. In what would be a first for the industry, Chris Roberts even proposed demanding expanded memory beyond the traditional 640 K for the full audiovisual experience. For Roberts, stepping up from a Commodore 64, it was a major philosophical shift indeed. “Sod this, trying to make it work for the lowest common denominator—I’m just going to try and push it,” he said, and Origin was happy to hear it.

Ultima VI had just been completed, freeing personnel for another major project. Suspecting that Squadron might be the marketplace game changer he had sought for so long for Origin, Robert Garriott ordered a full-court press in March of 1990. He wanted his people to help Chris Roberts build his movie around his game, and he wanted them to do it in less than three months. They should have a preview ready to go for the Summer Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of June, with the final product to ship very shortly thereafter.

Jeff George

Responsibility for the movie’s script was handed to Jeff George, one of the first of a number of fellow alumni of the Austin tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games who followed Warren Spector to Origin. George was the first Origin employee hired explicitly to fill the role of “writer.” This development, also attributable largely to the influence of Spector, would have a major impact on Origin’s future games.

Obviously inspired by the ethical quandaries the Ultima series had become so known for over its last few installments, Chris Roberts had imagined a similarly gray-shaded world for his game, with scenarios that would cause the player to question whether the human empire she was fighting for was really any better than that of the Kilrathi. But George, to once again frame the issue in terms Roberts would have appreciated, pushed the game’s fiction toward the clear-cut good guys and bad guys of Star Wars, away from the more complicated moral universe of Star Trek. All talk of a human “empire,” for one thing, would have to go; everyone at Origin knew what their players thought of first when they thought of empires in space. Jeff George:

In the context of a space opera, empire had a bad connotation that would make people think they were fighting for the bad guys. The biggest influence I had on the story was to make it a little more black and white, where Chris had envisioned something grittier, with more shades of gray. I didn’t want people to worry about moral dilemmas while they were flying missions. That’s part of why it worked so well. You knew what you were doing, and knew why you were doing it. The good guys were really good, the bad guys were really bad.

The decision to simplify the political situation and sand away the thorny moral dilemmas demonstrates, paradoxical though it may first seem, a more sophisticated approach to narrative rather than the opposite. Some interactive narratives, like some non-interactive ones, are suited to exploring moral ambiguity. In others, though, the player just wants to fight the bad guys. While one can certainly argue that gaming has historically had far too many of the latter type and far too few of the former, there nevertheless remains an art to deciding which games are best suited for which.

Glen Johnson

Five more programmers and four more artists would eventually join what had been Chris Roberts and Denis Loubet’s little two-man band. With the timetable so tight, the artists were left to improvise large chunks of the narrative along with the game’s visuals. By imagining and drawing the “talking head” portraits of the various other pilots with which the player would interact, artist Glen Johnson wound up playing almost as big a role as Jeff George in crafting the fictional context for the game’s dogfights in space. Johnson:

I worked on paper first, producing eleven black-and-white illustrations. In most games, I would work from a written description of the character’s likes, dislikes, and personality. In this case, I just came up with the characters out of thin air, although I realized they wanted a mixture of men and women pilots. I assigned a call sign to each portrait.

Despite the lack of time at their disposal, the artists were determined to fit the movements of the characters’ mouths to the words of dialog that appeared on the screen, using techniques dating back to classic Disney animation. Said techniques demanded that all dialog be translated into its phonetic equivalent, something that could only be done by hand. Soon seemingly half the company was doing these translations during snatches of free time. Given that many or most players never even noticed the synchronized speech in the finished game, whether it was all worth it is perhaps a valid question, but the determination to go that extra mile in this regard does say much about the project’s priorities.

The music wound up being farmed out to a tiny studio specializing in videogame audio, one of vanishingly few of its kind at the time, which was run by a garrulous fellow named George Sanger, better known as “The Fat Man.” (No, he wasn’t terribly corpulent; that was sort of the joke.) Ever true to his influences, Chris Roberts’s brief to Sanger was to deliver something “between Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Sanger and his deputy Dave Govett delivered in spades. Hugely derivative of John Williams’s work though the soundtrack was — at times it threatens to segue right into Williams’s famous Star Wars theme — it contributed hugely to the cinematic feel of the game. Origin was particularly proud of the music that played in the background when the player was actually flying in space; the various themes ebbed and swelled dynamically in response to the events taking place on the computer screen. It wasn’t quite the first time anyone had done something like this in a game, but no one had ever managed to do it in quite this sophisticated a way.

The guiding theme of the project remained the determination to create an embodied experience for the player. Chris Roberts cites the interactive movies of Cinemaware, which could be seen as the prototypes for the sort of game he was now trying to perfect, as huge influences in this respect as in many others. Roberts:

I didn’t want anything that made you sort of… pulled you out of being in this world. I didn’t want that typical game UI, or “Here’s how many lives you’ve got, here’s what high score you’ve got.” I always felt that broke the immersion. If you wanted to save the game you’d go to the barracks and you’d click on the bunk. If you wanted to exit, you’d click on the airlock. It was all meant to be in that world and so that was what the drive was. I love story and narrative and I think you can use that story and narrative to tie your action together and that will give your action meaning and context in a game. That was my idea and that was what really drove what I was doing.

The approach extended to the game’s manual. Harking back to the beloved scene-setting packaging of Infocom, the manual, which was written by freelancer Aaron Allston, took the form of Claw Marks, “The Onboard Magazine of TCS Tiger’s Claw” — the Tiger’s Claw being the name of the spaceborne aircraft carrier from which the player would be flying all of the missions. Like the artists, Allston would wind up almost inadvertently creating vital pieces of the game as a byproduct of the compressed schedule. “I couldn’t really determine everything at that point in development,” he remembers, “so, in some cases, specifically for the tactics information, we made some of it up and then retrofitted it and adjusted the code in the game to make it work.”

Once again in the spirit of creating a cohesive, embodied experience for the player, Roberts wanted to get away from the save-and-restore dance that was so typical of ludic narratives of the era. Therefore, instead of structuring the game’s 40 missions as a win-or-go-home linear stream, he created a branching mission tree in which the player’s course through the narrative would be dictated by her own performance. There would, in other words, be no way to definitively lose other than by getting killed. Roberts would always beg players to play the game “honestly,” beg them not to reload and replay each mission until they flew it perfectly. Only in this way would they get the experience he had intended for them to have.

Warren Spector

As the man responsible for tying all of the elements together to create the final experience, Roberts bore the titles of director and producer under Origin’s new cinematic nomenclature. He worked under the watchful eye of Squadron‘s co-producer Warren Spector, who, being older and in certain respects wiser, was equipped to handle the day-to-day administrative tasks that Roberts wasn’t. Spector:

When I came on as producer, Chris was really focused on the direction he wanted to take with the game. He knew exactly where he was going, and it would have been hard to deflect him from that course. It would have been crazy to even want to, so Chris and I co-produced the game. Where his talent dropped out, mine started, and vice versa. We did a task breakdown, and I ended up updating, adjusting, and tracking scheduling and preparing all the documentation. He handled the creative and qualitative issues. We both juggled the resources.

In implying that his own talent “dropped out” when it came to creative issues, Spector is selling himself about a million dollars short. He was a whirling dervish of creative energy throughout the seven years he spent with Origin, if anything even more responsible than Richard Garriott for the work that came out of the company under the Ultima label during this, the franchise’s most prolific period. But another of the virtues which allowed him to leave such a mark on the company was an ability to back off, to defer to the creative visions of others when it was appropriate. Recognizing that no one knew Chris Roberts’s vision like Chris Roberts, he was content in the case of Squadron to act strictly as the facilitator of that vision. In other words, he wasn’t too proud to just play the role of organizer when it was appropriate.

Still, it became clear early on that no combination of good organization and long hours would allow Squadron to ship in June. The timetable slipped to an end-of-September ship date, perfect to capitalize on the Christmas rush.

Although Squadron wouldn’t ship in June, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show loomed with as much importance as ever as a chance to show off the game-to-be and to drum up excitement that might finally end the sniggering about Ultima Systems. Just before the big show, Origin’s lawyers delivered the sad news that calling the game Squadron would be a bad idea thanks to some existing trademarks on the name. After several meetings, Wingleader emerged as the consensus choice for a new name, narrowly beating out Wing Commander. It was thus under the former title that the world at large got its first glimpse of what would turn into one of computer gaming’s most iconic franchises. Martin Davies, Origin’s Vice President of Sales:

I kicked hard to have a demo completed for the show. It was just a gut reaction, but I knew I needed to flood retail and distribution channels with the demo. Before the release of the game, I wanted the excitement to grow so that the confidence level would be extremely high. If we could get consumers beating a path in and out of the door, asking whether the game was out, distribution would respond.

With Wingleader still just a bunch of art and sound assets not yet wired up to the core game they were meant to complement, an interactive demo was impossible. Instead Chris Roberts put together a demo on videotape, alternating clips of the battles in space with clips of whatever other audiovisual elements he could assemble from what the artists and composers had managed to complete. Origin brought a big screen and a booming sound system out to Chicago for the show; the latter prompted constant complaints from other exhibitors. The noise pollution was perfect for showing the world that there was now more to Origin Systems than intricate quests and ethical dilemmas — that they could do aesthetic maximalism as well as anyone in their industry, pushing all of the latest hardware to its absolute limit in the process. It was a remarkable transformation for a company that just eighteen months before had been doing all development on the humble little 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64. Cobbled together though it was, the Wingleader demo created a sensation at CES.

Indeed, one can hardly imagine a better demonstration of how the computer-game industry as a whole was changing than the game that had once been known as Squadron, was now known as Wingleader, and would soon go onto fame as Wing Commander. In my next article, I’ll tell the story of how the game would come to be finished and sold, along with the even more important story of what it would mean for the future of digital entertainment.

(Sources: the books Wing Commander I and II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison and Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Retro Gamer 59 and 123; Questbusters of July 1989, August 1990, and April 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1989 and November 1992; Amiga Computing of December 1988. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and Matt Barton’s interview with George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)

 
 

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