Space combat sim numbers decline at the turn of the millennium

So FreeSpace 2 was the last “big” space sim that I had gotten into. But how did it really do? As much as I was disappointed in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, how did that pan out for Lucasarts and Totally Games?

The impressions that I had at the time led me to believe that the space sim genre was running out of steam. It was getting harder to find new ways in which to amaze jaded pilots like myself that had been flying with ol’ Blue Hair since 1990. I loved FreeSpace 2, but I had a creeping suspicion that participation in the genre by big name publishers and developers was beginning to wane…that I was staring at the end of one story in gaming.

In poking around for sales figures on how Freespace did, I ran into a post by 3000 AD’s Derek Smart pointing to a post in comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.space-sim by Desslock that had a few numbers that were quite interesting. Desslock’s a game journalist that’s particularly well known as an old school CRPGer and has written for a number of mags including the venerable CGW. Following Derek’s breadcrumb trail onto Google’s vast archive, I took a snapshot of the post though it’s also posted in the above link.

Freespace did respectably well and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter sold in numbers that were considered, back then at least, incredibly good in the 300k range. That was a shocker for me. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the Star Wars name or not, but it was successful.

Here’s a snapshot of the post in case you didn’t want to click on the links above:

Space sim numbers 2002

Here’s a snapshot of the Usenet post linked above. Despite how low the numbers look in comparison to “blockbuster millions” today, these were really good for space sims on the PC.

Freespace 1 also did really well for a new game along with the expansion, Silent Threat. But as we hit 1999 with X-Wing: Alliance and Freespace 2, the numbers show a decline. In Freespace 2’s case, it’s a significantly dramatic drop from its debut that probably sealed its fate.

Even X-Wing: Alliance as an amazing and long awaited story-based continuation of the franchise in the spirit of the first X-Wing and TIE Fighter came up almost a third short of sales compared to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and its expansion.

The year 2000 was also disappointing when it came to new space sim IP with low sales across the board, none of which helped the space sim genre continue on as it did during the nineties. And it’s not because the games were terrible. People were no longer buying into them as they did when Wing Commander and Star Wars were co-emperors over a space sim empire.

At the same time, other genres such as first-person shooters in the form of Half-Life and Quake III (and the multitude of licensed games from id’s new engine behind it) were asserting themselves in the game space and the console wars were in full swing with Microsoft about to enter the game with their own dedicated box.

From what was going on at the time, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that some genres like space combat sims and adventure titles were being shoved into the background as other important moments in the game space took center stage. But completely dying off? Not a chance thanks to a number of developers taking the risk to revisit the stars and a few die-hard fans and indie developers. The genres still live on even if their Gilded Age was long over.

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