The golden age of big budget space sims is over. Publishers like LucasArts, Origin, Electronic Arts, Interplay, THQ, Microsoft used to make space sims. Now they don't. The space sim fanbase, once a major audience, hasn't grown large enough to support modern AAA game budgets.
Some indie/small developers have taken up the slack. There's an opportunity for us to create a game we love for a niche audience, without having to compete against big budget studios.
screenshot: Salvation Prophecy
This was my mindset when I set out developing my space sim, Salvation Prophecy. I've learned a bit about the challenge of designing space sims along the way.
1. Many Opposing "Deal Breaker" Features
If you read up on space-sim reviews, fan sites, or forums, you'll see widely opposing opinions about what space sim fans want to see. Such as:
- cockpit view vs. external ship view
- joystick vs mouse vs gamepad
- realistic Newtonian physics vs "arcadey" controls
- single player vs multi-player
- story/mission based vs free roaming
- fantastic space (bright nebulae, dense asteroid fields, etc) vs. realism (black star-fields)
Sometimes the developer can cover both - maybe you manage to pull off both cockpit and ship view. But the combinatorial explosion of features gets very limiting very fast. There's almost no way you can cover everything, and still make a good game.
This really segments the space sim audience, and this is a big problem for the genre. Space sim fans tend to be very particular about what they like and dislike. So if you've created the almost perfect game (in the eyes of one fan), but you happen to use ship view instead of cock-pit view, it can be a deal breaker.
2. Massive Feature Wish-List
Most genres have a pretty big list of features players would love to see. But the Space Sim wish-list is insane. This is partially because the space sim genre draws from some pretty divergent sources. Take Star Trek and Star Wars - they have pretty different visions of what life in future space is like, and players seem to want both. The space sim genre itself is fragmented too, from combat dog-fights, to trading, to fleet command, to 4X empire building.
So again, the niche space sim fan-base is segmented. This time, along divergent wish lists of dream features, like:
- ship crews
- planet landings
- seamless transitions across galaxies and planets
- space station interiors
- huge/infinite universe
- modular ship customization
- trading and economy
- a "live", "busy" open world design with lots of space traffic
- capital ship command
- huge variety of pilotable ships
- sci-fi interactions with aliens
- action space "dog fights"
- empire building
- complex faction diplomacy
- varying play styles: trader, mercenary, pirate, bounty hunter, ...
- ship boarding
- asteroid mining
- fleet command
It's a tough crowd to please. No matter what you do, a lot of people are going to be unimpressed. The most you can hope for is a segment of the space sim crowd who dig the particular features of your game, or a niche within a niche.
Don't get me wrong - I'm super pumped to be making a Space Sim. But it's a tough gig.