Children Of Starflight
Take a moment to listen to this mp3. For many (sadly, probably most) it will simply be a series of bleeps and bloops from a horridly primitive era of PC gaming. There are some among you, though, who for a moment found yourselves in the depths of unexplored space, far from your home port and surrounded by deadly aliens and ancient mysteries. For a moment, you remembered the thrill of being alone in a vast universe, terrifying but full of wonders, teeming with vibrant civilizations living amongst the ruins of ancient empires. That is because you played Starflight, back when its graphics were cutting edge.
For those less fortunate, it becomes harder to explain that feeling (those of you who’ve played get to nod sagely throughout the article as I attempt to convey it). Playing Starflight was like discovering a pocket universe living in a pair of low density floppy diskettes. The whole thing literally could not have been much more than a megabyte in size, yet there were literally hundreds of solar systems to explore and planets to land on. Beyond that size and scope, there was a real sense of mystery. There were exotic aliens to interact with, artifacts to collect, and a deep, ancient mystery to uncover (with a heck of a plot twist!). I refuse to spoil it even today, two-and-a-half decades later, in case some curious soul decides to swing by gog and give the game a try.
Starflight would get a single sequel, arguably as good as the original; in fact, thinking now, it had the first example of a “parallel reality” that I can remember, years before Zelda: Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. There would also be a number of spiritual successors, though none as successful as the original, with the exception of Star Control 2; I am ashamed to say I missed that one, though I know full well that it’s held in nearly as much reverence as Starflight.
And then it ended. The space exploration genre as defined by Starflight and Star Control 2 has been dormant for ages. That is not to say, however, that these games have not cast a long shadow; aspects and echoes of them have propagated throughout the game design world for years. The best and most obvious modern example of this influence is Mass Effect; the first game in the trilogy in particular was riddled with nods and game design decisions taken straight from Starflight; Casey Hudson himself has confirmed this. I also briefly felt stirrings of that old Starflight feeling while exploring the farthest corners of the Freelancer universe. But neither Mass Effect nor Freelancer is a direct Starflight successor.
I also know there have been several fan attempts at resurrecting the series. I hear Starflight: Lost Colony is actually a solid attempt, and I myself was all-too-briefly part if the team working on the fan-made Starflight 3 several years ago. I’m sorry to say that back then I wasn’t really ready to take part in such a team yet, and added little to what has been a stalled project for many years. I do not mean to disrespect such fan attempts; they’re worthy efforts in their own right. However, as I look at them I find a wonderful treat for old fans, but not much to attract new, younger players. Perhaps they simply cleave too closely to the now 25-year-old classic. I have yet to see a game that feels like a true modern, high-quality successor to the genre. But what would that even mean? What makes a game a space exploration game, and what would a modern version even look like? Is it possible to resurrect that genre at all?
I am sorry to say I have no definite answers. But these are questions that, as a budding game designer, I’ve been asking myself for some time, and I wanted to share some of my ideas with the sci-fi gaming community. Maybe someday I’ll get to make a game like this, but if not, maybe I can provide a bit of insight to someone who will.
First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way. The interface and game mechanics are not what make Starflight great. Almost all of the game’s specific interaction and control systems are now horribly dated and will not hold up in today’s gaming world. Some of the ideas were never that great, and others were fantastic for the time but are, at best, passable now. In making a Starflight successor, we’ll need to stick to our guns on a few things that will seem like industry throwbacks, so we need to give up a lot of aspects we don’t need. I’ll go over these one by one as they come up, but for now be aware that the more that we hold up the overall design as holy and untouchable, the more we miss the point of what made the game great. This game type is one of those things that has always been greater than a simple sum of its parts.
So what did make the game great? What must we absolutely keep? The first and most obvious is that it needs to be a BIG universe out there. Somewhat less obvious, but almost as important, is that it has to be lonely. I can think of some ways that cooperative multiplayer might work, but the core game experience needs to see the player alone in a vast, dangerous universe with only his ship and crew to rely on. Third, and this one is hard in today’s gaming climate, handholding must be kept to a minimum. Maybe you give the player a brief tutorial mission or two, but then all kinds of direct intervention by the game to tell the player where to go must stop. You feed the player clues through a dozen or two different ways, sure; but a game like this succeeds on the player’s sense of discovery and achievement as he begins to connect the dots in his mind. For modernity’s sake I would advocate for systems that allow the player to keep all kinds of notes in a sophisticated journal (for example, with direct links to the starmap), but let the player make those entries himself.
One does not simply fly into Mor— … er… Uhlek Space with class 1 engines and no shields
Next thing that has to happen is for the universe to feel alive, and old. Chatty aliens are a must. This is one thing Mass Effect learned well from its distant predecessor. Unlike that game though, a true space exploration game must be less linear. Let the plots, artifacts, and mysteries be out there to be discovered; provide some structure by simply making some areas much harder to access than others. In the first Starflight, for example, the Black Eggs, cloaking devices, etc. were sitting right there from the beginning; we didn’t go straight for them for a couple of reasons. One was that the universe was so impossibly vast that we would have never found them without knowing where to look. But another was simply that they were far, and surrounded by terrifyingly powerful enemies. One does not simply fly into Mor— … er… Uhlek Space with class 1 engines and no shields. On the other hand, do include a somewhat non-linear plot. I’ve seen too many games simply generate random universes. That’s neat, but it misses the point. The Starflight games had a deep plot that went back eons; the designers carefully hand-crafted a thin trail of clues for the player to find that ultimately led to a greater understanding of the game’s setting and how to defeat the ultimate threat. This was not some bland, unfeeling computer-created playground for the player to repeatedly grind on; the Starflight universe was vast and cold but ultimately it felt like a place where great and terrible deeds had happened, inhabited by beings both mighty and meek.
So that’s the core, I think. That’s what you absolutely must hit if you’re going to have an experience that captures the “feel” of Starflight. But what about the actual details of gameplay? Well, that’s the tough one, isn’t it? I’ve already said that we can’t rely too much on the original as a guide here. What is clear, though, is that it has to be a series of interlocking systems; Starflight is, after all, not a space combat game, though it has space combat. It’s not a planetary exploration game, though you must explore planets. It has a starmap, interstellar navigation, a basic economy and upgrade system, individual characters with skills and multiple races, and more. All of these systems must be good and fun; have any one of them be less an acceptable and the whole thing can fall apart. On the other hand, no single system has to be too revolutionary; it all just has to feel right, and connected; again, the game works best when you see it as a sum of its parts.
Surprisingly, there is a game out there right now that has the right idea in most of these regards; Star Trek Online. On the other hand, that is perhaps not so surprising; Starflight was very heavily influenced by Trek. STO has a ship and crew, interstellar navigation and pitched space battles. A lot of it integrates well together. Yet by its episodic and MMO nature, a lot of the core pillars I discussed above are lost. There isn’t much real discovery in STO, and a lot of the missions quickly become scripted events. Even the franchise works against the feeling of exploration a little; finding Bajor is very cool for the fan, but we know this story already.
Eve Online is another interesting example; but strangely in its wide-openness and in relying so completely on player-driven storytelling, my impression of the game is that it is pretty barren plot-wise. Note that I’m not criticizing either game, I’m only suggesting where they differ from Starflight and what lessons we might learn from these more modern titles.
For my part, I like the Trek-style ship combat of STO, itself a descendant of the Starfleet Command and Bridge Commander games. It does a good job of making me feel in command of a large, space-faring ship of the line engaging in combat. I like it so much that I’ve used it as inspiration for my own mobile game, Darkdawn: Encounters. It harkens back to the primitive, tactical top down combat system of the original Starflights, while still feeling modern and allowing for some flashy 3D graphics while requiring some skill and strategy. At any rate, this is another place where a fine line must be tread. The original ship combat was too simple and too reliant on stats; it was also difficult to activate ship equipment through the in-game menu. On the other hand, we do have to resist the temptation to turn it into something like Nexus, or the full version of Starfleet Command; that would quickly take over the game and render it unplayable for many who are not interested in such in-depth simulation.
The Starmap is one area where I think modern interface design can work wonders. I’m thinking here of the map in Sins of a Solar Empire, with its amazing ability to scale from planetary orbit to entire star clusters. I’m also thinking that it’s 2012, and when I think of a map interface I think of something that is a cross between Minority Report and the Enterprise D’s Stellar Cartography. I remember even in the 80s playing the original games I thought to myself, as I jotted down yet another set of coordinates on loose leaf paper, that I was pretty sure Captain Kirk didn’t use post-its. A well designed starmap/interface could work wonders in making a new Starflight seem modern and accessible. Let us go back and check out the scans we have on file. Have icons for systems and planets that we have recommended for colonization. And while I am against fast-travel in a game like this, let me set an autopilot or at the very least custom waypoints that appear on my navigation screen. Let me pick a set of coordinates and put a color-coded note on them, whether I’ve been there or not. Above all, do NOT underestimate the impact a great feeling UI can have on making a player feel comfortable and in control. The player should wrestle with the mysteries, battle with dangerous aliens, and grapple with moral decisions. He should not, however, have to fight the game itself as well.
Now as I’ve discussed all this so far, I’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room. As un-intuitive as it might seem, as our technology has improved in leaps and bounds, it has become far more difficult to create a large universe of worlds to explore. The reason is simple: the more we get used to graphical fidelity, the harder it becomes for procedurally generated content to match our expectations. Also, as gamers these days we are less tolerant of endless repetition, and let’s face it, exploring individual worlds in Starflight could be a little monotonous. Of all the aspects of the game, it has aged the most poorly. To their credit, I think Binary Systems (Starflight’s developers) realized this even then; the second game of the series required less mining, and more collecting and trading of lifeforms and other items. This meant that, rather than simply move from place to place, the player had to risk getting close to dangerous creatures; it also broke up the tedious encounters with a basic-but-welcome haggling mini-game. Even this progress, however, seems to be too little these days. The makers of Infinity: Quest for Earth are tackling procedurally generated planets in a big way and they have my admiration for it; they’ve certainly proven it can be done to an impressive quality level. But what kind of gameplay would an on-land mission in a game like this have? Mass Effect tried very hard to give us a fun take on an updated Terrain Vehicle, and the results were mixed at best. Yet, removing this land aspect entirely seems to require losing a huge part of the experience; iffy as it was I missed it in ME2. When exploring brave new worlds, I want to see what I’ve discovered! There is no single solution here. As with the starship combat, I think the wisest course would see us make a streamlined tactical game. I have some ideas in this regard, but I’m hesitant to blurt them out without at least doing some prototyping first. And after all, who knows, someday I might have the opportunity to create a game like this after all.
Actually, I think I’d better wrap this up before it spontaneously evolves from opinion piece to Game Design Document. If I was to sum up my thoughts on the space exploration genre’s viability, I’d say this: there is a core there, and idea that is just as valid and relevant today as it was when Starflight launched. Maybe even more so, as the market endlessly iterates on a few tired genres. But we as players and as designers must be willing to rethink how these games work; to let go of a bit of that nostalgia and realize how dated they are in their execution, if not in the brilliance of their main guiding concept. Updating them will require more than a bump in resolution and a quick coat of paint, but I think it’s past time we see a return to the genre. I’m eagerly awaiting venturing out once more to explore strange, new worlds.
Oh, and if you love Starflight and have a spare million dollars or two… we seriously need to talk.