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Totally Games veteran David Wessman breaks down key facts about the making of Star Wars: TIE Fighter and the rest of the X-Wing series.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 27, 2024

14 Min Read
The key art for Star Wars: TIE Fighter against a black background.
Image via Totally Games, LucasArts, LucasFilm, and Disney.

At a Glance

  • 20 years after its release, Star Wars: TIE Fighter is still regarded as a seminal spaceship combat simulator.
  • Game designer Dave Wessman shared stories from the making of the X-Wing series at GDC 2024.
  • The most incredible facts include the game's tiny budget, amusing notes from LucasFilm, and a sadly familiar story of crunch.

Former Totally Games game designer Dave Wessman has plenty to say about the many Star Wars: X-Wing games published by LucasArts in the 1990s. The series was greenlit after the success of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe in an era where flight simulation games were at the peak of their commercial power.

Wessman is so passionate about the project that, to this day, he's toiling away on a spiritual successor called In the Black, which he dubbed "the true spiritual successor" to the X-Wing series in a Classic Games Postmortem session at GDC 2024.

Wessman was at the conference to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars: TIE Fighter. Though the series began with 1993's Star Wars: X-Wing (the first Star Wars game on PC and an early adopter of polygonal 3D graphics), TIE Fighter is fondly remembered for building on the prior games' spaceflight simulation mechanics with improved combat, better visuals, and a first-of-its-kind story that cast the player as a villainous Imperial pilot.

It would set a high bar for the following games in the series: Star Wars: X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter and Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance.

The stories and artifacts that Wessman has held on to capture a key moment in the history of game development. It was a time when computer graphics were rapidly improving, but developers were still learning the basic fundamentals of what games you could make with them.

The tales from that era (like those documented by PC Gamer in 2022) are a delight for Star Wars fans and game developers alike (especially for those who fall into both categories). Here are some of the most memorable moments from Wessman's talk.

The third X-Wing game was originally going to be a Millennium Falcon game

The legendary YT-1300 freighter piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca became a playable ship in Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, but it was originally going to be the star of the show in the planned third game in the X-Wing series. Wessman explained that the game was also due to have "traditional run-and-gun" first-person shooter combat inside larger ships and space stations.

But the unnamed Millennium Falcon game was going to be too expensive. "We spent about four or five months and a lot of money acquiring expensive workstations for 3D animation, only to come to the conclusion that there was no way we were going to meet expectations and reach the same quality bar we had set with TIE Fighter," Wessman explained, a hint of regret in his voice.

Totally Games still needed to deliver a third X-Wing game by a specific date per its contract with LucasArts. Canceling the Falcon game led the team to pursue a long-requested feature for X-Wing and TIE Fighter: multiplayer. That would lead to Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.

The X-Wing series was dirt cheap and quick to make by today's standards

As Wessman rattled off how long it took to make each game in the X-Wing series, the room rustled with recognition at how short a development cycle each game took to make and, consequently, how small the budgets were.

Star Wars: X-Wing took 12 months to develop on a budget of roughly $500,000 (about $1 million in today's dollars). TIE Fighter took 11 months and came in cheaper at about $465,000 (under $1 million today). Wessman said that X-Wing Alliance took about 14 months to develop (no budget was shared for this project).

A GDC slide showing

Expansions for each game only took around four months to create.

In the Q&A session after Wessman's talk, someone asked what it would take to bring video game development back down to this development time and costs. Wessman admitted he wasn't sure, noting that this took place in an era before high-quality 3D graphics. With how much work can go into even the simplest of assets, he wasn't sure such games could be made under the same production model.

But coming in so cheap and quick came with a high price.

Crunch at Totally Games was intense

"I put myself in the hospital," Wessman said somberly when describing lessons he learned from working on the series. "I woke up in the middle of the night one day in excruciating pain. And when I decided that I could actually get out of bed and go to the hospital, I did, and the doctor said, 'Well there's really nothing wrong with you.'"

His doctor would go on to ask about his line of work and quality of life. Wessman replied that he had a wonderful life making Star Wars space combat simulators, working 10-14 hour days six or seven days a week. "This is stress," the doctor replied.

Wessman didn't think he was stressed because he loved the work so much, but his doctor explained he was ignoring his body's warnings, and the pain was its way of saying "lie down." Wessman said he regularly shares this story with his students at Breda University of Applied Sciences, where he lectures on the topic of game design and production.

Not all of Wessman's lessons were so brutal, thankfully. At least, for him.

Star Wars: X-Wing was so difficult because it was tuned to the developers' skill level

The development team for Star Wars: X-Wing made something of a mistake when it came to tuning the game's difficulty. Because everyone on the project had become so skilled hunting TIE Fighters after months of play, the difficulty settings were cranked up to match their skill level. Wessman referred to this as a "rookie mistake."

The team received many angry letters about the experience, though the worst was one that contained chopped-up floppy discs the game shipped on. Wessman still has copies of a magazine preview of TIE Fighter in which an editor mused that "make players live' hell by setting parameters for impossible missions" was part of his and designer Dave Maxwell's job description.

A GDC slide showing off an old magazine article about Dave Maxwell and Dave Wessman.

"There must be a sadistic streak in these two," the unnamed editor mused.

Wessman noted there was an unusual economic knock-on effect of improving the difficulty in TIE Fighter. With X-Wing, the official Prima Games guide was an essential purpose for players trying to climb the notorious difficulty curve. TIE Fighter's improved settings cratered sales of its corresponding Prima Games guide. They dropped so low that the publisher would later come back to them demanding their money back.

The notes from LucasArts and Star Wars creator George Lucas could be finicky

Wessman had mostly great things to say about how LucasArts and parent company LucasFilm Ltd. supported Totally Games across development and story decisions for the series. Keyword: mostly.

He occasionally had to contend with notes from the notoriously protective company that would seem trivial in many other games. A difficult one to grapple with was a note saying that Darth Vader's dialogue was "too dark" and needed to be toned down.

"But...he's evil," he remembered thinking, saying he wished he could remember which lines provoked such feedback.

George Lucas himself occasionally dropped notes for the team that sent them scrambling. One early note was derived from Wessman's study of the early Star Wars RPG sourcebook published by West End Games (considered so authoritative Lucasfilm would rely on them as a resource for future publishing projects).

"Huh, I've actually never used the words 'Imperial Navy,'" Lucas reportedly remarked at one point.

Another amusing note had to do with the upcoming Star Wars prequel films that were in development. He relayed another anecdote that Lucas, at one point, ordered the team to cut all mention of droid-controlled spaceships (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace would employ the idea in 1999). The team explained that cutting them out of the game would undo months of work. Explaining the financial cost led Lucas to let it slide (as he had a few years earlier, when droid-piloted TIE fighters appeared in the 1992 Dark Horse comic series Dark Empire).

Research for the series went beyond the Star Wars sourcebooks

Wessman described throwing himself not just into the Star Wars Expanded Universe material that had been released (he joked about having to read every single Star Wars book and comic, and said that Timothy Zahn's Star Wars trilogy was "absolutely the best") but also into the world of fighter jet operations and other asymmetric combat games—including tabletop RPGs. He remembered playing PanzerBlitz, a World War II armored warfare game set on the Eastern Front that proved too complicated to play at 11 years old. But he remembered it was the first game he'd ever played with asymmetrical game design. German (re: Nazi) tanks had one set of game mechanics, while Soviet tanks had another.

The Star Wars films actually only portray a handful of space battles, and there's only so far you can get with "destroy the Death Star," "evacuate Hoth," and "destroy the Death Star again." Wessman dove into books about flight combat and naval operation manuals to create the more "ordinary" missions that you would find in a years-long galactic war.

He described this process on X-Wing as being very "seat of the pants" and that the team took more time to plan out the many scenarios that would define the single-player experience of TIE Fighter.

LucasArts and Totally Games (rightly) prioritized improved graphics over expanded gameplay

Wessman recalled that one of the biggest challenges he faced as a designer on X-Wing was selling the illusion that players were battling in massive dogfights as epic as those on the silver screen. In reality, the limited computing power they had available meant only a small number of ships could be present in the game space, and it took additional crafty thinking to conjure the illusion of a larger battle around the environments.

He wasn't thrilled about repeating that process. So when development spun up on TIE Fighter, and advances in computing power meant the game could handle more ships on screen, he lobbied for the ability to render more ships to sell that epic battle fantasy.

A sample Mission Design sheet from TIE Fighter.

That idea was shot down. The team chose to invest the extra computing power in juicing up the graphics. "We could have doubled or tripled the number of craft flying around, and we could do those big battles," he said. "But in retrospect I recognize that was probably the better choice, because people like pretty things. Tool support wasn't a top priority."

Wessman still will die on the hill that creating better tools would have let content creators iterate faster on game content and helped the company make a more polished game, but his telling of the tale shows how decisions that seem obvious during development look very different in the years after. Wessman was invested in selling a larger starfighter fantasy—but someone further up on the chain of command gambled correctly that a more graphically advanced game than X-Wing could sell more copies.

Wessman really, really wanted to implement a real-time strategy mode in TIE Fighter

The mission design of the X-Wing series grew so elaborate that Wessman caught himself looking at the flight map in TIE Fighter for the game and thinking that they resembled the design of real-time strategy games. He and 3D flight engine lead Peter Lincroft had been playing plenty of Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer, and they began dreaming of implementing real-time strategy mechanics in TIE Fighter that would let players play the game as a mission commander, not an individual pilot.

The idea, like so many Imperial TIEs, was shot down. He pitched the idea again when making X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance. Shot down again and again. "And then Homeworld came out. Hmmm..." he muttered.

Turnabout was fair play, however. An audience member at Wessman's talk asked if In the Black would have a real-time strategy mode. "No," Wessman sheepishly replied.

The lack of story mode in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter came from enthusiasm for player-led storytelling

As noted above, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter's development was impacted by the canceled, unnamed Millennium Falcon game. When the team rapidly pivoted to a multiplayer-based successor to X-Wing and TIE Fighter, they needed to figure out what kind of story mode would work well for the game.

Wessman and his colleagues thought they wouldn't need one. "Based on our personal experience, when we would play multiplayer games in the office, we got super excited about having this intense gaming session, and then we would stop and have an exciting conversation about what just happened," he recalled. "So in my mind—and I'm telling the team—'we're giving [players] a storytelling kit, so we don't need to tell them a story.'"

"Guess what happened?" he deadpanned to audience laughter. Reviews praised the multiplayer design but lamented the lack of a story mode. "The biggest design mistake I've ever made in my life was underestimating the insatiable maw Star Wars fans have for more story." Totally Games would ship two expansions for X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter in a bid to fill that maw.

He's still proud that in 1997, Totally Games had managed to implement eight-player co-op that was "ahead of its time." Of course, most players didn't have broadband, only 56k modems, so players on the internet could only do four-player co-op. But at LAN parties, full eight-person squads could assemble.

The TIE Defender's origins are still clouded in mystery

Star Wars: TIE Fighter marked the first appearance of the TIE Defender, a fan-favorite starfighter that would stick around in Star Wars canon, eventually being reintroduced in the TV series Star Wars Rebels as part of a secret weapons program orchestrated by Grand Admiral Thrawn. It recently returned to the video game world in 2021's Star Wars: Squadrons from EA subsidiary Motive Studio.

One would think that such a long-lasting ship would feature prominently in Wessman's storytelling, but he had an easier time talking about the origins of the Alpha-Class Gunboat, another fan-favorite vessel from the game that he said was "totally overpowered." The Gunboat's still floating around in Lucasfilm's merchandising, but it hasn't enjoyed the same resurgence as the Defender.

When a member of the audience asked during the Q&A session about the ship's origins, Wessman simply said he couldn't remember, so he wasn't going to take credit for its creation. "I know I wasn't the only person involved in that," he said. He was only able to recall that the thinking was that if the Empire were regularly "getting its ass kicked" by the Rebel X-Wings and A-Wings, they would absolutely create a fighter that outclassed them.

"And it looks cool," he said. Like many elements of Star Wars, it seems like another creation whose authors wouldn't know would become so beloved by fans.

Wessman's limited memory of the Star Wars: X-Wing series was another topic of his talk. He did his best to document and preserve artifacts from that time period, but some, like a series of floppy discs that should contain a version of the games' mission editor, aren't accessible anymore.

A GDC slide showing the floppy discs holding the X-Wing mission builder.

He still has scans of design documents and other resources from the time, but like much of video game history, it's at risk of being lost.

Preserving those memories is important. The little tales of how the games of yesteryear were made arm game developers to make better games today. And when a company like Disney is so dedicated to guarding the secrets of Star Wars production so closely, the little details that slip through its fingers become all the more precious.

Correction: A previous version of this story said it was the 20th anniversary of Star Wars: TIE Fighter. The story has been updated with the correct date.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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