One small step for games, one giant leap for strategy gaming. PC Zone looks back at one of the most epic, intense and evolutionary RTS games of the space age
Some would say space games have had their day. What started with Elite, exploded with Wing Commander and lived on through Privateer, X-Wing, Freespace and a galaxy of other lesser-known stars has now virtually imploded on itself. The genre that gave us our first proper 3D worlds and would later usher in a decade of PC dominance is in sharp and irreversible decline. Were it not for the efforts of a rag-tag crew of independent developers and a couple of niche hits like X: Beyond The Frontier and its recent sequel, we'd probably be drawing a crisp white sheet over the face of the genre, sealing it in a hollowed-out torpedo tube and propelling it out into the infinite black beyond.
But if you think about it, it's only the simulation side of the genre that's died out (and in truth that never had much life anyway). Space combat, on the other hand - now that's another story. We may have swapped our joysticks for mice and our lone star-fighters for entire fleets of cruisers and fighters, but otherwise it's business as usual. Space is still very much the place, and if there's one game we should be thanking, it's deep-space masterpiece Homeworld.
While at its core Homeworld was a real-time strategy game, replete with harvesting, resource management, research and the command of vast fleets of ships, its single most obvious influence was the epic space battles of Star Wars.
The Final Frontier
The 'thread' of its conception, as Alex Garden terms the original idea, evolved quickly from a night of friendly discussion over the lack of epic-scale space battles in current games. At the time, early in 1997, X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter was high on the young programmer's playlist, and being a huge fan of all things Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, it wasn't long before the seed of a game began to germinate. In May the same year, Alex maxed out his credit cards, roped in a couple of mates and formed a new development studio above a rowdy nightclub in Vancouver, Canada. He dubbed his new project 'Relic Entertainment'.
"The first year of Relic's life was a huge struggle," says Alex. "It was chaotic. We were all young, inexperienced and naive. Since there weren't really any games we could look at and say 'oh, that's how you do 3D RTS games', we really had to invent everything from scratch. If we'd known from the start how hard it was going to be, I seriously doubt that we would've had the courage to try in the first place."
"Inexperience is a double-edged sword," chips in Erin Daly, lead designer on Homeworld who had the then-dubious honour of being Relic's first employee. "It brings passion, exuberance, zeal and many other things that make a great game. The prevailing attitude among the founders of Relic was 'if we can't do something amazing, let's not do it at all'. We were never interested in doing something that would be an incremental improvement over the other RTS games. It was this attitude and Alex's extremely persuasive personality that convinced many talented people to leave their secure jobs for a start-up company making a high-risk game."
Command And Control
Aside from issues of non-existent funding, inexperience and lofty ambition, Relic's most telling problem was how to implement a control system that would enable players to control dozens of ships in a dynamic, seemingly boundless and potentially confusing 3D universe. The solution created was brilliant in its simplicity: whatever unit or item you clicked on became your focal point, and your point of view became fixed to an imaginary sphere around that object. You could rotate your camera anywhere around the surface of that sphere, as well as shrinking or enlarging the sphere to zoom in and out.