Reviving The Past: The History of Space Sims

Continuing our “Reviving the past series” of articles, we are going to now discuss the history of space simulators and how they have evolved over the years. This article is filled with facts but also with personal opinions and if you disagree with any of the information within, feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion. Here at in2gpu there is no right answer, only a lot of possibilities.

1980-1989 – Inception

It’s 1981 and the personal computer is starting to make its way into people’s homes alongside the second generation consoles like the Atari 2600, Odyssey 2 and the ColecoVision. Video games were just starting to become popular into people’s homes and the world was being captivated all over by Pac-Man released in 1980 and the closest game we had to a space simulator was Space Invaders (released in 1978).

The first ever 3D game – 3D Monster Maze – was still one year away and most games revolved around simple concepts, skill-based gameplay, and a play time of at most a few hours, but it is this year that the first ever space simulator was conceived, and it was conceived in 3D.

David Braben’s and Ian Bell’s Elite (1984) was not only the first space simulator, but the first truly 3D game and the first procedurally generated world within a game. Because of the limitations of the storage devices at the time, the world would constantly be generated and regenerated once the player would need to visit it, starting from the same seed number and calculating its characteristics on the fly through an algorithm, guaranteeing always to have the same result thanks to mathematics.

The most advanced graphics of 1984

The most advanced graphics of 1984

The game, originally released just for the BBC Micro and was later ported to a multitude of platforms including PC. If you are feeling adventurous and want a trip back to the 80’s you can download it from this link, together with the necessary emulator.

Fun fact: A whole galaxy was removed purposely from the game because of the algorithm. The names of the planets were also randomly generated starting from the seed number of that galaxy, which lead to one planet in that galaxy to be named “Arse”.

After Elite three more mention-worthy games came out in this era: Starglider  (1986), Starglider 2 (1988) and Space Rogue (1989) with the first being nominated game of the year of it’s time. Space Rogue however surpassed all the games mentioned thus far for adding a RPG element to the experience although it’s not the most renowned space sim for its storyline. That spot is held by Wing Commander.

1990 – 1999 Expansion

The Wing Commander series which started in 1990 was the next evolutionary step from its predecessors in the 80’s. Developed by Chris Roberts (remember this name, it’s important) The games benefited from next generation graphics, surpassing the wireframe models of its predecessors as well as complex trading mechanics, customizable ships, different interfaces for different ship models and even training simulators so you are not thrown into combat without any ideea of what’s happening.

One of the major flaw of these games was the interface design:

One of the many dashboards in Wing Commander.

One of the many dashboards in Wing Commander.

They suffer from the same problem as most rear windows on hatchbacks.

Good thing you have a "go-faster" spoiler on the Honda Civic

Good thing you have a “go-faster” spoiler on the Honda Civic

Not all of them suffered from this problem however. Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters had a much better designed interface giving you plenty of room to admire the outside world:

Great game, but they could have at least made the universe black...

Great game, but they could have at least made the universe black…

Unfortunately there was not much to admire in these games. The graphics for the time were outdated when compared to Wing Commander and they two titles were known for being very bug-prone, especially First Encounters which was released incomplete in 1995 and is believed to be partially responsible for the game publisher GameTek going bankrupt due to the lack of sales.

Finally, we cannot end this era without mentioning X: Beyond the Frontier (people seem to like this word a lot in space games). Developed by Egosoft and published by THQ this game series together with EVE online pretty much carried the genre through the painful years of the 2000’s.

X1 was a fun game but indeed not a pretty one.

X1 was a fun game but indeed not a pretty one.

2000 – 2009 – The silence of space

This is the decade when it all went wrong. Ok I may be over dramatizing the situation but it was not a good time for space simulators. With the complete lack of Elite or Wing Commander all we were left with was X.

Now I am not saying that the X series was a bad one, but it wasn’t excellent either. It was lacking in innovation, at times really buggy and brought nothing worth mentioning to the table.

X3: Way does everything look so dead and lifeless?

X3: Way does everything look so dead and lifeless?

And worst of all it didn’t seem to capture that magic of outer-space. Everything seemed artificial and unappealing in a way hard to describe:

X2 Cockpit View

X2 Cockpit View

I’m sure the X fans reading this will probably feel a little offended but I’m asking you this: were the X series of games as revolutionary in their time as the space sims from the 80’s and 90’s?

A chat window! To talk to people! IN SPACE!

A chat window! To talk to people! IN SPACE!

EVE online however deserves some praise in this decade however. It both pushed the genre along through the 2000’s but it also took away a little from it. Through EVE space became interconnected, players could interact, you were no longer alone in the universe surrounded by AI. It also made the immensity of space noticeable, giving you control over ships that would vary grately in size, firepower and cargo space.

The universe was also heavily influenced by the community. The market would fluctuate, supply and demand was variable, EVE as a game was alive! Not to mention that the whole market system in EVE was excellently crafted. CCP (the creator of EVE) never would intervene in the market, the prices were set organically, so was the demand and supply.

One of the best trading systems ever made.

One of the best trading systems ever made.

But for all it’s praises EVE did something that I personally cannot forgive it for. It transformed the space pilate experience of controlling your ship through direct input and reflex-based dog-fighting into a point and click.

This game handles like any other MMO and that is a terrible shame. However CCP are making up for this “sin” of theirs in 2010’s and I’ll explain how when in a minute.

2010 – Present – Rebirth

History is being rewritten. The 80’s the 90’s and the 2000’s are refreshing their games and revisiting their ideas in a grandiose way.

David Braben, Christ Roberts and CCP have stepped out of the shadows with some pretty remarkable games and I will attempt my best at covering them but for now, let’s take a quick look at each.

Since Elite was the first let’s start just with it. Elite: Dangerous, the 4th in the series is currently in development at Frontier Developments which is being run by David Braben himself. Let’s have a side by side comparison of 1984 and 2014:

30 years bring on a big change

30 years bring on a big change

And I would like to list a few of the key features of E:D that make it appealing:

  • Full, 400 billion star galaxy, fully explorable by the player and mapped to represent the Milky Way as close as possible. You will also be able to visit the Solar system
  • Sandbox game, with story elements but no central storyline
  • 25 flyable and customizable ships
  • Fly by wire or full newtonian flight at the flick of a button
  • Support for virtual reality headsets (Currently just Oculus)
  • Support for head-tracking (Currently just TrackIR)
  • Full joystick support
  • Choice between single player and multiplayer (full multiplayer, private multiplayer, single player universe influenced by multiplayer stock market trends)
  • Fully organic stock market
  • Mining, Trading, Missions, Escorts.

I’ll just leave you with a video for now. Release date is late 2014 (speculatory).

Then there is Star Citizen, made by Cloud Imperium Games Corporation head by non other than, you guessed it, Chris Roberts.

This one is a little trickier to explain: Star Citizen is, much like Elite, a space combat and trading simulator set in a fictional universe with storyline elements. The difference between the two is that SC also has a branching single-player campaign called “Squadron 42” which will be released in the future.

While appearing similar at first the games are significantly different. Star Citizen will be more combat-focused and reflexed based (a lot like a shooter) while Elite is gearing towards realism, with careful thought put into every aspect of the game which means players will be a lot less willing to engage in combat (the price of death being quite high).

Credits to Scott Manley for the video.

And finally there is EVE Valkyrie. Developed by CCP, the same lovely people that bought us EVE Online. Not much is known about this game so I’ll try and list what we do know about it:

  • It’s set in the EVE universe but how it integrates with it is still unknown.
  • It is for virtual reality only, offering Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus support.
  • There is no trading or exploring, only Dogfighting
  • It looks damn good

And finally, since we are on in2gpu and this will be discussed in detail, which engines do the games use?

  • EVE Valkyrie = Unreal 4 (Released late 2014 early 2015. Launch title for Oculus Rift)
  • Star Citizen = Cryengine 3 (Released sometime 2015)
  • Elite Dangerous = Proprietary Engine (Released late 2014. Speculated 24/09/2014)

Hope you have enjoyed the read and stay tuned for our next articles which will go into detail about each of the 3 upcoming games.

EDIT: Just to address something that has been brought up by a few of our readers. Games like X-wing, Starlancer, Freelancer although were a part of the space simulation genre were not mentioned as they did not have a continuation into the current day. The series is called reviving the past and thus has focused on the games and creators that are actively trying to revive the past.

There are a multitude of other games presently doing this as well in early access on Steam. We’ve focused on the ones that seem  to hold the most promise, biggest market attention and highest chances to thrive. Freelancer you could argue that was wrongly omitted since it was made by Chris Roberts but for example Starlancer was made and never heard of again.


Howdy y'all! I'm a Systems Engineer working day (and sometimes night) to fix all of your VoIP communications problems but my heart resides with the over-captivating world of gaming. Although I can't say too much about gaming engines and raw usage of the GPU, when it comes to multiplayer LAN, WAN, MMO or CO-OP (local or otherwise) I'm your guy. Follow me on : Google + , Twitter, Facebook

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