Q&A: Good Old Space Games

Trevor Longino is the head of marketing and PR at GOG.com, the digital game store that made a name for itself by offering DRM-free “Good Old Games” such as Wing Commander, Fallout, Star Control and FreeSpace to the Steam-dominated PC gaming marketplace. More recently the GOG  range was expanded to include modern releases, but that was long after we contacted Trevor to ask whether good old sci-fi games were a factor in the success of the business and his opinions on the state of the genre. Here’s what he said (way back in December):

PSF: GOG.com has a number of classic space and sci-fi games available, but do you think that the reason games such as FreeSpace are successful on GOG is because almost no big studios are making those kinds of games anymore? Why do you think that is?

Trevor Longino: There are a few reasons why I think these games don’t get made anymore; market pressure and homogenization, how gamers play games, and how we get news about games.

Let me start by explaining what I mean about “market pressure and homogenization”. The games that make the most money appeal to the widest audience. As a result, most of the studios who have the budget to make a AAA release also work hard to make the game widely appealing as well. Why spend two years making a game that will only return okay results if you can make a game that will return excellent ones? As such, you tend to see big-budget games are very similar in many ways: they are spread across a few genres, they tend to have many similar mechanics, and they share a gaming skillset that means that a COD player can jump into Borderlands and feel at home, while a Super Mario fan will grasp the game concepts behind Braid almost immediately. Even complex strategy games like Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Disciples all share many common pieces of gameplay so that you can easily learn to speak that particular game’s “language”. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for complex new game controls, though. Why waste your time fighting to learn how to even control a game? That’s not fun, and if you can’t grok it quickly, you’re likely to look for something else instead.

At some point we left behind the joystick for the dual thumbsticks, and it’s hard to make a game for a controlling device that even people who call themselves gamers don’t have any more.

This takes us to our next point: how gamers play games. The people who want to play games with fantastically complex control schemes (I recall games like TIE Fighter or MechWarrior 2, where I believe I used 20 keys on the keyboard, plus my joystick, to control the game) aren’t nearly as numerous as the people who want to sit on their couch, kick back, and play a game whose controls you can master in five minutes. Take a quick poll of your friends who call themselves gamers: how many own a joystick? The answer will very likely be “not many”. At some point we left behind the joystick for the dual thumbsticks, and it’s hard to make a game for a controlling device that even people who call themselves gamers don’t have any more.

Finally, it’s how we get news about games. There are at least a half-dozen space fighter sims in development right now that I know of. Some are fan based, some are being made by professional studios (albeit small ones) looking to carve a niche. Have you heard about any of them? The people who make these games have small budgets and small sales expectations, so they can’t afford to advertise and get the word out like sim developers used to. Back when gaming was a niche audience, it was easy to scrape together the cash to advertise in the gaming publications. Their circulation was small and they didn’t ask for too much cash. Now? If you want to get on the front page of, say, PCGamer.com, you need to have thousands of dollars to get there, and that’s money you can’t spend on development or packaging. Sim junkies are a niche of a niche; back when most gamers were what we’d call “hardcore” now, they were a large enough niche of the overall market that it was profitable to market to them in broad gamer publications. Now there are more complex sim game players then there were ten years ago, but as a percentage of the absolute number of people who identify as gamers, they’ve shrunken to a tiny percentage of the market.

PSF: GOG is among the most popular digital sales sites in the world, but what is it about old games that makes them so popular – especially when they are probably easier to find, download and start playing from torrent sites than most new games are?

Trevor Longino: Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and many of our games are great sources of positive memories from years ago. The games also hold up technically–their gameplay is solid and they are tons of fun–even if the graphics are a long way from cutting edge these days. So the games are still a great value. And yes, you can get them on torrent sites or abandonware sites, but we’ve priced our games where the value of peace of mind (no malware), ease of installation (updated to run easily on modern Windows OSes), and extra content (soundtracks, avatars, wallpapers, etc.), equals the price that we ask for.

PSF: What are the biggest selling games on GOG.com – I would guess Fallout is one of them? Are space and sci-fi games generally well-represented in the sales lists?

Trevor Longino: Fallout is one of our best sellers. The Atari / Hasbro games (the D&D titles, that is) are also perennially very popular. The new EA games had a very strong launch, which was very rewarding after all of the hard work of signing and remastering the titles. Other than that, it really is a wide variety of things, and it varies widely based off of what we have on sale any given weekend. You can always check out the top sellers on our homepage.

PSF: The release of some old EA games has been particularly exciting, especially seeing Wing Commander and Syndicate again? But why no expansions or speech packs?

Trevor Longino: We’re working on the expansions and speech packs, but the rights are apparently very difficult to secure; progress is going very slowly, so while I won’t say “give up hope”, it won’t happen next week either.

PSF: Most of the DOS games use DOSbox to work on modern PCs. Might you one day offer Amiga or ST games via WinUAE or Steem emulation so that people can enjoy the likes of Sundog, Captive, Speedball or Turrican?

Trevor Longino: We’re currently only signing PC rights for games; in the future that could change, of course, but I don’t believe it’s currently planned for.

PSF: Starflight was a wonderful addition recently, but a very old game. Do you think there’s a case to be answered for games that are perhaps too old?

Trevor Longino: I don’t think so, no. We have Zork I, after all, which first came out in 1984, and Ultima 1, which was released in, what, ’82? ’83? The games are still remarkable examples of what you can do with tiny, tiny memory and storage footprints, they hold up well, and they’re fascinating examples of inspirations for modern games. For example, Mass Effect–a fantastic franchise–their devs have admitted that Starflight was one of their inspirations for the series. No Starflight, and Mass Effect would be a very different property. That’s really interesting, and it’s great that you can still get the games, play them, and see how they’re still informing the gameplay of games released today.

PSF: It would be remiss not to ask about LucasArts’ classics: What are the chances that we’ll one day be able to buy X-Wing from you guys? Likewise, has there been any approach to Frontier to offer the Elite sequels for sale?

Trevor Longino: LucasArts is one of the top companies that we would love to add to GOG.com. When or which titles, I couldn’t say. With the Elite games, well, we’ve talked with virtually every single IP holder in the business, and we’re working with almost anyone holding a classic IP to try and bring it to our catalog. Where we are with any given company or IP, though, isn’t something we can share.

PSF: How does it work when you look to sign up a game? Do you go by what GoG fans are asking for, do you have to approach the publishers or are you sometimes approached by developers?

Trevor Longino: All of the above. We know what the most-wanted games are, and of course we’re extra-interested in adding those to the catalog. But there are fantastic gems that we sign–like Starflight, a favorite of mine from back in the day–that aren’t necessarily top requested titles but which, once we bring them to the catalog, people can discover and enjoy again. We worked hard with the Hasbro D&D classic games–I believe it took us almost two years of hard work to bring them to the catalog. We’ve also had some developers approach us, either in person at gaming conventions or via email or LinkedIn, and get the ball rolling that way.

PSF: If you could magically (or using The Force) arrange for one space/sci-fi game to become available on GoG, which would you choose and why?

Trevor Longino: I could die a happy man if we brought MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries to GOG.com.

Our thanks to Trevor for taking the time to answer our questions and our apologies for taking so long to get his responses out. 

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