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The History of Wing Commander: Part One

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Posted August 10, 2011 - By Guest Writer


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  • Previews
  • Review
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  • Cheats and Walkthroughs

  • News
  • Previews
  • Review
  • Videos
  • Screenshots
  • Cheats and Walkthroughs

  • News
    (1)
  • Previews
  • Review
  • Videos
  • Screenshots
  • Cheats and Walkthroughs

The History of Wing Commander

Wing Commander’s revolutionary approach to narrative presentation helped pave the way to the modern video game industry, and its design continues to influence game development to the present day. In order to help us celebrate the legacy of this famed franchise, creator Chris Roberts granted us his first games-related interview in over a decade. G4 is proud to present: The History of Wing Commander.

The original Wing Commander was published in 1990. It was the Crysis of its day, a killer app that often required PC gamers to upgrade their rigs just to play it, and to soup them up to push the game to its limits. “The amount of people I ran into that said ‘I had to buy a new PC to play Wing Commander,’ you know, I should have [had] Intel stock or something,” Roberts told me. Keep reading to see what else he had to say about this iconic franchise.

The original Wing Commander introduced players to a vicious, decades-long war between the human Terran Confederation, and the genocidal Kilrathi Empire. Roberts drew upon a wide variety of sources to craft his vision of the Wing Commander universe like Star Wars, the original Battlestar Galactica, the novel The Forever War by Joe Halderman, and the history of the American campaign in the Pacific during World War II.

“The Terran Confederation is the U.S. Navy and Marines, and the Kilrathi are the Japanese,” Roberts said. “That’s one of the reasons why the Kilrathi are meant to be this warrior, superior race, [with] their very sort of bushido code: don’t take prisoners, [and] it’s more honorable to die fighting than to surrender.”

For the design of the Kilrathi, Roberts drew inspiration from a warrior feline race called the Kzin, in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series. “I liked the idea of the power and the aggression of big cats,” said Roberts. “And then I started to come up with the name and it was like, ‘Okay, well, they kill a lot, and you know, there’s a lot of wrath to them,’ so that’s where ‘Kilrathi’ came from.”

Wing Commander cast players in the role of a new starfighter pilot on board the Terran Confederation carrier Tiger’s Claw. The Claw was a mission hub where players could admire their awards, commendations and kill count, practice on a flight simulator, and talk to fellow crew members. To help immerse players in the world of Wing Commander, the game included a detailed set of starfighter blueprints, and an issue of the Tiger Claw’s shipboard magazine, Claw Marks.

The magazine contained the game’s play guide, tactical advice, run downs of Terran and Kilrathi ships reprinted from “Joan’s Fighting Spacecraft,” and profiles of famous Terran and Kilrathi pilots. “Claw Marks sort of came from [co-Producer] Warren [Spector],” Roberts told me. “He came out of the pen and paper world…and we had Aaron Allston, who was a writer who did a bunch of stuff for Steve Jackson.”

Wing Commander’s space combat was quite challenging. Dogfights required quick thinking and tactical awareness. Guns drew power from a slow-to-charge capacitor and thus shots had to count, and missiles and fuel were extremely limited. Kilrathi fighters and capital ships were also not the only hazards in space. Minefields and asteroid fields could be deadly if navigated haphazardly.

The History of Wing Commander

The player was always in command of their wingmen on missions, and orders had to be considered carefully. The wingmen varied greatly in style. Some followed orders and some didn’t, some were excellent escorts while others were proficient at flying solo on the attack. Failure to give the correct orders or keep a wingman in line could easily lead to their being killed, which bore serious consequences on game difficulty.

Wing Commander also had branching mission paths. A string of victories would lead to a victorious strike on a Kilrathi starbase at the end of the game, and continuing losses would end with the Tiger’s Claw running for her life out of the battle zone. “I just thought it was very important…[that] you felt like your actions had some impact on the story. You weren’t just on a predetermined path that was only one way,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t about a high score. It was completely about how you played and flew would affect the storyline, and my theory was that would give you a natural level of immersion into the world.”

Wing Commander was one of the first games to feature a reactive soundtrack. “In the past, most of the games just had one default piece of music, or maybe there’d be different music for each level but it definitely wasn’t music that was adapting to what was happening in gameplay,” Roberts said. “That was one of the key things I was very proud of with Wing Commander…and that definitely is something you see in today’s games.”

For all the power of Wing Commander’s visuals and audio, Roberts was always more concerned about the storytelling. “I never wanted to make you feel like you were playing a computer game,” he told me. “When you’re aboard the ship on the Tiger’s Claw, there’s not a traditional interface. If you’re going to save the game you click on a bunk bed in the barracks. If you’re going to exit to DOS you click on the airlock door. Everything was inside the view in the fiction. When you’re flying your fighter out in space you can see your hands and arms. You can see the damage to the ship as opposed to having a damage meter. Everything was all in the pursuit of making it as immersive as possible.”

Wing Commander was a huge financial success for Origin Systems, and won multiple Game of the Year awards. Two Secret Missions add-ons introduced new ships, characters, and storylines. “I made the game, and there was some content I just couldn’t put in,” Roberts said. “Having in my younger years played Dungeons & Dragons [which had] campaign expansion packs, I said ‘Why don’t we do a mission pack?’ And we did Secret Missions 1, and it turned into a massive hit, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and then at that point we said ‘All right, I guess we’re making Secret Missions!’ and went from there. It’s kind of interesting because it’s sort of the precursor of DLC that you get nowadays.”

A sequel was a foregone conclusion, and Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi was released the following year in 1991. “Wing Commander II was much more about pushing the story side than it was with pushing the technology,” Roberts said. The story took place ten years after the first game, with the main character disgraced and transferred to a backwater space station after being blamed for the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw. The war catches up to Caernarvon Station, and the main character is reunited with his old wingmates on a new carrier, the Concordia.

Wing Commander II lacked the branching paths and heavy consequences of the first game, as the goal was an even more cinematic experience. “In Wing Commander II, because it was trying to be more of a movie-like story…you didn’t have as much freedom,” Roberts said. “Certain characters couldn’t die. They had to stay around for a certain period.”

Wing Commander II used the same engine as the first game but with improved art, and a new slate of starfighters and capital ships. Torpedo runs and bomber-class ships with turrets that the player could man were the chief additions to gameplay. Origin released two Special Operations packs with additional missions, and the Speech Accessory Pack broke barriers by introducing digitized speech. Wing Commander II became the killer app for Sound Blaster sound cards.

Roberts next went to work on a modern jet-fighter combat simulator called Strike Commander, and at the same time co-created Wing Commander: Privateer with his brother Erin. Privateer was released in 1993 andallowed players to take the role of a civilian pilot in the Wing Commander universe.

Elite, [which was] built quite a while earlier, was one of the very first [games] that did that, and the idea was to take the Wing Commander sort of action and the universe and then allow people to do what they want to do, whether they’re a space trader or a pirate or a bounty hunter or whatever it would be.” Privateer featured an extensive amount of digitized speech, and an expansion pack called Righteous Fire was released in 1994. 

NOTE: Cut to 1:10 to get past the intro and see the game in action

Wing Commander: Academy was a spin-off title, also released in 1993, that allowed players to create their own combat scenarios. “Origin was a fairly small company…and we were always looking for ways to generate a little extra revenue to smooth out the big spikes when we had our main titles come out,” Roberts said. “One of the ideas was to have a smaller, cheaper [game] instead of a full price Wing Commander. [Academy] was just the combat side of [Wing Commander]. It wasn’t really integral to the main thrust of the Wing Commander franchise.”

Origin Systems had been purchased by Electronic Arts in 1992, which provided Roberts a larger set of resources, and allowed the Wing Commander projects to become more ambitious. Wing Commander: Armada, published in 1994, was a test bed for multiplayer gaming. “A number of us at Origin [were] intrigued at the possibility of playing other people versus AI,” Roberts said. “And so we [did] it in a limited fashion with not a lot of risk.”

Armada used the new Strike Commander engine designed by Roberts, which provided superior graphics to all the prior Wing Commander games. Sprite-based 3D was replaced with polygon graphics. While Armada featured a head-to-head duel mode, the primary offering was a turn-based strategy game, available in both single- and multiplayer. Players built resource mine facilities, produced fighters and capital ships, and cut to traditional Wing Commander-style flight sim combat when their forces met in space.

While Armada pushed the graphics and introduced new mechanics, Roberts turned his attention to the narrative side. Electronic Arts had provided Origin Systems with Silicon Graphics workstations, some of the most powerful computer technology available to game designers at the time.

“We were looking at them and [saying], ‘Well, we could probably film a bunch of actors against blue and green screen, and put them against digital backgrounds and make a much more compelling story,” Roberts said. “’And we’ll combine it with the 3D real time engine we built for Strike Commander, [upgrade] it to Super VGA, and hopefully make a Wing Commander that feels more immersive, and realistic, and more like you really are the star of a big budget science fiction action movie.’”

Wing Commander III featured a true Hollywood cast. Interactive movies were still very new at the time, but that didn’t get in the way of the casting process. “I basically said ‘Look, it’s going to be just like making a film except we’re going to do different version[s] of the scene[s], and the player will get to choose those as the editor, and that’s kind of how we pitched it,” Roberts said.

Roberts ended up signing some notable talent. “It wasn’t like there was a master plan and we said ‘Okay, we’re going to hire Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies and Malcolm McDowell,’” he said. Tom Wilson (“Biff” from Back to the Future) also joined the cast, providing comic relief as the arrogant pilot Maniac, a character who had appeared in the first two Wing Commander games. “I think maybe they just thought it was cool,” Roberts said. “When you get the opportunity to work on something that’s sort of new…it’s kind of fun to be doing some trailblazing.”

Now you can also read Part Two of The History of Wing Commander, and you can read our entire interview with series creator Chris Roberts.

Special thanks to journalist James Fudge for his assistance with this feature, and to Wing Commander fansite Combat Information Center for curating the legacy of the series.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

The History of Wing Commander: Part One
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