Back in the early 1990s, Origin Systems had forged itself an enviable reputation among PC gamers, producing some of the most iconic and technologically advanced video games of the era. Richard Garriott’s Ultima series established the company as one of the premiere developers of the day, and Chris Roberts’ 3D space opera, Wing Commander, was about to take gamers beyond the boundaries of the known universe.
A unique blend of arcade-style shooting and adventure game, Wing Commander put the player in the jumpsuit of hotshot rookie pilot, fighting a do-or-die campaign against a race of 8-feet tall alien felines, the Kilrathi. Its advanced (for the time) combat engine and 256-colour VGA graphics made it one of the best-looking games at the time, and the dynamic campaign system and camaraderie between the cast of characters earned itself a special place in the hearts of an entire generation of gamers.
One individual clearly inspired by the series is Howie Day (@howieeday), art director at Double Damage Games. When not working on Rebel Galaxy Outlaw (itself a fine-looking space-based blaster/trade ’em up), Howie has been beavering away on Wing Leader, a re-envisioning of Wing Commander for modern times.
So impressed were we with the gameplay footage showcased on Howie’s Twitter feed, we just had to reach out and find out more about this project!
ViTNO: Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions today Howie! Can you tell our readers a little bit more about yourself and your professional background?
Howie Day: Well, I’ve been working in the VG industry since 2003, so I’ve been at it a while. I’ve worked on a pretty wide variety of games over that time, everything from Tomb Raider to Tony Hawk to Farmville.
I joined up with Travis and Erich at Double Damage in 2016 when they made me the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse.
ViTNO: What inspired you to create a remake/tribute of the original Wing Commander?
Howie Day: I’ve been a fan of Wing commander since I was 10. I love the game, the feel of the world, the sounds, the music, the ships; it was a huge influence on me when I was young.
I set out to mostly just play around and see if I could program a similar game in Unity. This was mostly inspired after seeing a conversation on Twitter between Ben Lesnick and one of the original devs on WC, Siobhan Beeman. The Art style was directly inspired by the work of Arne on re-imagining Wing Commander.
ViTNO: What’s the scope of the project and what are you hoping to achieve – is this a full remake of the game, an homage, or something else?
Howie Day: That’s a gooood question. Right now, I’d like to release a small single player campaign – a Secret Missions 3, so to speak.
I’m also interested in investigating Unity’s multiplayer component. If I can get something going there, I have some multi-mission deathmatch multiplayer game design I’d like to try and implement.
At the very least, if I don’t complete either of those tasks, I do plan on releasing the project source publicly so other people can carry the work forward if the want.
ViTNO: Is this a solo project, or are you collaborating with others?
Howie Day: So far it’s just me. I have a few other people interested in helping out, and I’d love to hear from anyone else with an interest, especially musicians.
ViTNO: Are players still fighting the iconic alien cat race, the Kilrathi?
Howie Day: They are!
ViTNO: Will Wing Leader have a campaign narrative with branching win/fail conditions like the original game?
Howie Day: That’s the plan, to create a short single player campaign with win/loss paths. As I mentioned earlier, I also have an idea for multiplayer multi-mission win loss gameplay as well…
ViTNO: The art direction based on the video clips we’ve seen so far is remarkably faithful to the original game, even down to the jerkiness of the ship rotations. Can you tell us a little about the process of recreating the look and feel of the original game?
Howie Day: My goal artistically has been to recreate WC1 *as I remember it*. Since it made such a huge impact on me at a young age, it looms large in my memory as being significantly better than it actually ever was, so my efforts are towards making a game that feels as awesome as I remember.
That means using similar rendering tech for the ships: pre-rendered images from multiple angles, but instead of the original 32 images per ship I use 544. This smooths out the rotations massively, and makes the whole game feel cleaner.
For the ship art itself I’m working pretty closely with Arne’s concepts, with a little bit of my own stuff in the same style thrown in. For the rendering style, I’m using the original Wing commander 1 palette of 256 colours, which really helps the look.
To get artwork out of 3dsMAX in that style, I’ve implemented a method called index painting, originally developed by Dan Fessler, into the material pipeline of Max. The basic idea is that the brightness of a object is mapped directly to a limited set of colours; combine that with some dithering overlays mapped in screen-space, and you get convincing pixel art that you’ve spent like 1/100th the time it would normally take.
ViTNO: A big appeal of the series was the creativity and design of the ships from the original game – how many of the original ship/corvette/carrier classes from the original game do you envisage appearing in your remake?
Howie Day: Quite a few!
There are some designs that I’m not a huge fan of – looking at you, Krant – and I might replace with other ships from WC2 or Super Wing Commander. For instance, I’d like to see both the Bloodfang and the Stralkha Sealth fighter in this mini campaign, and if I’m doing them I might as well do the cockpits as well!
At this point I’m thinking I’m going to need to take a approach that uses both 2D sprites for fighters and 3D objects for bigger ships. I used something similar with my other side project, Wings of Saint Nazaire (currently on hold); if you’re interested you can see screenshots from that game at http://www.wingsofstnazaire.com, and there’re some further examples of me trying to do capital ships with sprites (like the TCS Tigers Claw), available over at wcnews.com.
ViTNO: Any time frames for when fans can get hands-on with this impressive creation?
Howie Day: Well, it’s totally playable now (take a look at a fairly recent rolling demo), but I’m only a month into development! So far I’ve only spent free time in the evenings working on this.
However, my current goal is to release a player-controlled version in time for the Wing Commander CIC’s 21st birthday, which is in 5 weeks. Will I make it? NO CLUE, but fingers crossed!
ViTNO: Finally, will players need to modify their config.sys to free up as much EMS/XMS as possible to play the game?
Howie Day: Absolutely not! This one will run on just about everything! I’ve even gotten consistent 60 FPS on 5 year old phones; if people are curious, check out that live demo!
Huge thanks to Howie once again for taking time out to answer our questions, and be sure to follow @howieeday on Twitter for all the latest updates and news regarding Wing Leader, as well as info regarding other projects!