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 (I wound up with much more material than is presented here; also read our separate interview piece).
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 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.
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.”
Due to the success of the previous Wing Commander games, Roberts was able to succeed with full motion video where others had fallen short. “It cost four to five million to do Wing Commander III which, at the time, was probably one of the biggest budgets ever,” Roberts said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why Wing Commander III on the movie side was successful. You [need] good actors, you [need] good production values, or else it’s just going to look sort of cheap and chintzy and people [will] disconnect, which is I think what happened on some other interactive movies.”
Wing Commander III was published in 1994. Players controlled the role of Colonel Christopher Blair, depicted by Mark Hamill. They were stationed on the TCS Victory, an outdated but dependable carrier taking the war to the Kilrathi. The game included a high-quality fold-out of the game’s starfighters called “Warbirds,” and another shipboard magazine, titled “Victory Streak.”
Maintaining Origin System’s penchant for elaborate pack-ins to aid player immersion required some negotiations. “We used to fight some battles because EA…had a different mentality about all the bits you’d have in boxes. They were more cost-driven,” Roberts said. “But we fought really hard on Wing Commander III because we thought it was really important.”
Player choices in Wing Commander III’s dialogue sequences could affect relationships with other characters or the morale of the crew, and the branching mission system from the first game returned. It was possible to lose Wing Commander III, with a final cinematic depicting a Kilrathi massacre of the human race on Earth.
Players could choose their own wingmen, ships, and ordnance loadouts. They also had more fine control over their starfighters with variable power systems and the option for manual carrier landings. The biggest changes were the huge capital ships that felt more properly scaled to the starfighters. Players could actually fly into enemy hangar bays and destroy capital ships from the inside, where their shields could not protect them.
Wing Commander III and Myst were two of the biggest games to popularize the CD format. “When we were deciding to do Wing Commander III, it was a big deal that we were going to be CD-ROM,” Roberts said. “At the time, people weren’t sure whether we could justify being CD only. Obviously it was the right choice because Wing Commander III became the first EA PC game ever to sell a million units.”
Wing Commander III wrapped up the war with the Kilrathi, and Roberts intended it to be the end of the series. “Maybe I was subconsciously viewing [Wing Commander] as a trilogy because, you know, Star Wars was a trilogy, or at least it was back then, anyway,” Roberts said. Then Electronic Arts asked for another game in the series, as a console transition was threatening a shortfall in their revenues and Wing Commander was their largest-grossing title that wasn’t a console game.
According to Roberts they wanted the sequel in a year. “I said, ‘Okay, but I can’t build a brand new engine from scratch because we don’t have the time,” Roberts said. “So what we’re going to have to do, to justify a proper sequel and charge full price for it, [is] push it on the polish and the content and the storytelling side.”
Wing Commander IV had a budget of $12 million, was shot on film instead of video, used real sets, and had a 400-page script. Hamill, McDowell, Rhys-Davies and Wilson reprised their roles from Wing Commander III, and were joined by John Spencer of The West Wing fame, and character actor Peter Jason.
“We polished the spaceflight more, we upgraded the resolution, we did better with the textures…there was a lot more polish on Wing Commander IV than there was on Wing Commander III,” Roberts told me. “Then we had to come up with a storyline because the war [with the Kilrathi] was over.”
Wing Commander IV was released in 1996, and pitted Hamill’s Christopher Blair against a plot to inspire a civil war within the Terran Confederation, in order to toughen up humanity in case they ever encountered a race like the Kilrathi again. “I thought [that] was pretty interesting, more adult and a little more gray than the traditional Wing Commander storyline,” Roberts said.
Wing Commander IV again gave players control over choices like wingmen, ships, and loadouts, and in the latter half of the game included command of a carrier and the ability to make broad strategic decisions about which mission to pursue or strategy to employ. The actual spaceflight combat mechanics were largely unchanged.
Chris Roberts left Origin Systems after the release of Wing Commander IV. A compilation of the first three Wing Commander games updated to run on Windows ’95 called The Kilrathi Saga was also released in 1996, and Electronic Arts would publish two more games in the series.
Wing Commander: Prophecy was released in 1997. It continued the use of full motion video cutscenes, and had an updated engine for the space combat. Mark Hamill reprised his role as Blair, and Tom Wilson returned as Maniac, but players took the part of Second Lieutenant Lance Casey, a new pilot for the Terran Confederation. The story involved a Kilrathi-prophesized invasion by a race of insectoid aliens piloting organic ships.
An expansion pack for Prophecy called Special Operations was released in 1998, and would be the last Wing Commander game produced by Origin Systems, which was shut down by EA in 2004.
The final game in the series was Wing Commander Arena, an Xbox Live Arcade title developed by Gaia Industries and released in the summer of 2007. It had very little to do with the other games in the franchise besides borrowing some ship designs and names. Arena was drawn in three dimensions but was actually a 2D action shooter controlled from a third-person perspective, which was a far cry from the original in-the-cockpit experiences.
The influence of Wing Commander on the video game industry cannot be denied. It inspired an entire genre of PC games that would include the X-Wing, Independence War, and Freespace series. Blizzard’s Dustin Browder recently cited Wing Commander as the inspiration for Starcraft 2’s mission hub system. Wing Commander’s style of interactive dialogue is part and parcel of modern Bioware games, and Wing Commander’s presentation of epic, cinematic narrative is pervasive throughout present-day gaming.
We can even see the influence of Wing Commander in establishing the camera perspective of the first person shooter genre that would, in the eyes of many critics, eventually lead to the death of the 3D space combat genre by providing a similar gaming experience.
As testament to the lasting power of this franchise, the gameplay and graphics of the original Wing Commander from 1990 still hold up in the present day. We should not find this surprising, as one of the characteristics of a masterful work in any art form is timelessness.