Growing up in the early days of gaming afforded me quite a few different space combat sims. As a fan of movies like Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, and shows like Battlestar Galactica, I was always instantly drawn to any game that put me in the cockpit.
Space combat sims had their shine for a while as classics like the Wing Commander series, the PC based X-Wing franchise (which includes Tie Fighter), Star Wars Rogue Squadron, Colony Wars, and more quenched my space jockey thirst.
Lately, there've been a number of games that have attempted to reign in that feeling of being Star Buck or Luke Skywalker, but few have succeeded. Instead, we've a lot of games that leech in the ability to mine, salvage, and survive in order to mask the fact that their combat isn't skill based. In a way, gamers are looking for a challenge, whether it is PvP or PvE where your reflexes and knowledge of your tech can get you into and out of a spacefight.
Nowadays, there are a few contestants but few have seized the imagination of the masses. Games like Elite Dangerous, Rebel Galaxy, No Man's Sky, and Star Citizen all are technically great games. However, the lore surrounding them doesn't really pull a crowd outside of the core fanbase. I truly believe that gamers are craving that next Star Wars game (or something similar) that has that intriguing lore to pull people in and never let go. Back in my day, that game was Wing Commander.
Wing Commander was an epic space combat sim franchise that surprisingly hasn't made a comeback. As a longstanding fan of Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, Wing Commander was a legendary generic space opera game. As a hotshot pilot for the TCS Tiger Claw, you were expected to take on missions to fight the Kilrathi. In the early 90's, this was THE quintessential PC game and is probably considered one of the greatest video games of all time.
I fondly remember callsigns of AI pilots like Maverick, Pilgrim, Maniac, Spirit, Angel, and Paladin. While I don't remember what callsign I would often pick during my playthru's, I remember the rush of excitement when the pre-mission cutscene had you running to the hanger. Wing Commander did an excellent job of pushing the storyline by giving every squadmate personality. You would chat with them in between missions and they'd sound off during missions as well.
Wing Commander's interaction with wingmen and the idea that your carrier was alone trying to survive in enemy territory wove quite the intense storyline. The missions felt like they had weight and purpose as you did just enough to strike and then return to your carrier. Somehow their must be a way to harness that.
So, let's take a look at what it would take to create a buzz-worthy space combat sim.
Arcade To Simulation Balance
The biggest key to a good space combat sim is finding that correct balance between an arcade game and a simulator.
Games like X-Wing, Wing Commander, and even Star Wars: Squadrons were able to find that sweet spot between making you feel like the greatest pilot ever and still have enough depth for actual skill to shine through.
Oftentimes that balance shines through when multiplayer modes are used as more than just a "deathmatch" styled dogfight. Probably the simplest way for this to take place is by having a healthy roster of ship types. Another way to achieve this is to take the Battletech route of having a wide variety of weapon types so each ship can use different loadouts.
As with most new IP or games, becoming buzz-worthy is hard to do. You essentially need to have an iconic art style, an amazing single player story featuring great characters, a movie or show property, and/or have such an innovative game feature that the whole genre is changed/evolved.
While hanging your hat on a movie license is typically the move, games like Mass Effect or The Witcher have shown that if you have a robust character based story, players will want to immerse themselves in your universe.
Character Based Story Mode
Games like Star Citizen and No Man's Sky have leaned into the space combat sim genre by having innovative features within their sandbox style games to draw their crowds. Still, another way could be by having a great character based story.
Writing a character based story for fighter pilots to demonstrate their personalities can be as simple as what was done in Star Fox to something as complex as Wing Commander. Whichever way is taken, this would certainly add a bit of flair to the genre as there are few space combat sims that do so.
This could be achieved by scripting missions with decision branches. Just like games that have multiple endings, space combat sims could use a bit more of player choice. Maybe your fighter pilot decides not to follow orders and take out a civilian ship that is thought to be taken over by terrorists. Maybe your ace decides to chase after a curious enemy ship that branches off from the main battle. Maybe your squad leader decides to turn a simple scouting mission into an assault on an enemy supply fleet.
Inserting decisions into typically one and done styled missions seen in games like Star Wars Rogue Squadron or Colony Wars may be just the innovation needed.
Let's face it. Games that have some kind of built in streamer to chat/audience interactivity usually make some kind of buzz. Doing so allows for streamers to be more entertaining and interactive with those that watch them. Since games today get a ton of free advertising when lots of streamers decide to play their game, building in stream interactivity is a win/win feature to have.
Maybe wingmen in the player's fleet or even their enemies can have chat viewer callnames. Maybe random friendly or enemy capital ships can be named after channel subscribers. Maybe the story decisions can have poll based results. Maybe tips and donations can make your R2 unit repair systems faster in story mode.
However it is done, features like this should be more common place.
Dynamic Fleet AI
Probably hardest thing for a fighter based game to get or incorporate is AI for everything on the battlefield. Almost like having an RTS playing in the background (think StarSector or something similar), most space combat sims simply have capital ships fly straight towards each other.
It would be nice if a game could allow a player to pilot their fighter in larger battles where the larger scale fleet vs fleet combat wasn't scripted and was different each time based upon numbers, types of ships, and so forth. Then, the cream of the crop layer could be either another player or AI could issue commands to squadrons within the missions. That way each mission you played could be different or play out in an ever-changing way. Realtime commands coming from someone or AI that know what they are doing could really shake things up.
If done correctly, then multiplayer battles could play out more like a Battlefield game!
While there are a ton of good space combat sims out there, it seems like none have truly grabbed the attention of the masses. Star Citizen and No Man's Sky are great games but feel more like space sandbox games than something that has truly deep space combat. Of course you have your games like Elite Dangerous, Avroch Alliance, Hunternet Starfighter, Drox Operative, Armada (Dreamcast), Fusion:Genesis, Rebel Galaxy, House of the Dying Sun, and others.
Who knows, maybe that next space sim on the horizon will be a classic!