Space sims are getting a nice profile boost in the MMO market these days, thanks to titles like Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, Dual Universe, and the like. I think this is fantastic and shows that there’s a huge market for players who would be happy to trade in swords and staffs for spaceships and laser guns. I’m all for having alternatives to EVE Online’s particular style and focus.
But as much as I really would love to jump into an online space sim — and hope to do so, especially since I bought Elite in the winter Steam sale — I am not quite as enthused about this crop as I should be as a sci-fi and space sim fan. And I think it comes down to these games’ personalities — or lack thereof.
In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time diving into pretty much any sci-fi game I could find, from Star Trek 25th Anniversary to the Wing Commander series to the wacky Space Quest franchise. And thanks to the vibrant EVGA graphics and more light-hearted tone of the era, I kind of fell in love the idea that space could be “colorful.” That aliens could have really strange and memorable attributes and designs. That locales could be chock-full of branding and things to see and generally make me want to be there — or at least imagine that I was.
Even having gone through Star Control 2 for the first time last year, I was struck by just how… fun that game universe was. It could have been incredibly grim and dark with the themes, but the game designers put a premium on developing really bizarre and funny races with all sorts of personalities. I couldn’t wait to explore that galaxy and meet more of them as I grew my ship and fought the bad guys.
So if you were to ask me what pie-in-the-sky MMORPG idea I would love to see come to fruition, it’s the notion of a very colorful, very personality-rich space MMO with both ship and avatar components that carry this tradition forward. I’m tired of looking at the sleek and sterile designs of these Mass Effect-looking ships in 2018 and am feeling more and more nostalgic for the visuals and concepts of yesteryear.
This look and feel is what I chase in very stylized games like World of Warcraft and WildStar. Lately in WoW, I’ve been paying attention to all sorts of artistic details, and I continue to marvel at how much the devs were able to get out of rather simple shapes overlaid with exaggerated designs, lighting, and placement.
In other words, for me, it’s not the polygon count and high fidelity that matters, it’s the art and atmosphere. It’s the difference between going to Disney World and your average amusement park; both may have similar types of rides, but the former puts a lot more of a premium on the full sensory experience and whimsy of design.
I’m not necessarily advocating for a space MMO to be made with retro pixel art and 2-D sprites (although I would not complain), just that I would love to see a studio, somewhere, to see space as a platform for humanity, for humor, and for exaggerated imagination. We’re already getting our realistic games — maybe it’s time for a title that cuts loose a little, takes inspiration from the past, and injects some actual color (in all senses of that word) into its ships, its avatars, and its locations.