|Developer(s)||Toys for Bob|
Paul Reiche III
Tommy V. Dunbar
|Platform(s)||Amiga, MS-DOS, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum|
|Release||July 1990 (Amiga, DOS)|
|Mode(s)||Single player, multiplayer|
Star Control: Famous Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Volume IV or just simply Star Control is a science fiction video game developed by Toys for Bob and published by Accolade in 1990. It was originally released for Amiga and MS-DOS in 1990, followed by ports for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum in 1991. A sequel, Star Control II was released in 1992.
Star Control is a combination of a strategy game and real-time one-on-one ship combat simulator. The ship combat is inspired by the classic game Spacewar!, while the turn-based strategy is inspired by Paul Reiche III's 1983 game Archon.
Players begin the game in one of 15 different scenarios on a rotating star map. The player has up to three actions per turn, which are used to explore new stars and colonize or fortify worlds. These colonies provide resources to the player's ships, like currency and crew. The goal is to move your ships across the galaxy, claim planets along the way, and finally destroy your opponent’s star base.
When two rival ships meet on the battlefield, an arcade-style combat sequence begins. The game offers different ships to pilot, which are deliberately imbalanced in ability. Match-ups between these ships have a major influence over combat. There are 14 different ships, with unique abilities for each. Ships typically have a unique firing attack, as well as some kind of secondary ability. Both actions consume the ship's battery, which recharges automatically (with few exceptions). Ships have a limited amount of crew, representing the total damage a ship can take before being destroyed. This ties into the strategic meta-game between combat, where the crew can be replenished at colonies.
During combat, the screen frames the action between the two ships with an overhead view, zooming in as they approach each other. Players try to outgun and outmaneuver each other. There is a planet in the middle of the battlefield, providing a centre of gravity, which players can either crash into, or glide nearby to gain momentum.
The story framing the gameplay is minimal compared to the sequel, described mostly in the game's scenario introductions. Some background can be found in the manuals about two warring factions. The game can be played by one player against the computer, or two players head to head.
Concept and origins
Star Control is the first collaboration between Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford. Reiche had started his career working for Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR, before developing PC games for Free Fall Associates. After releasing World Tour Golf, Reiche created an advertising mock-up for what would become Star Control, showing a dreadnaught and some ships fighting. He pitched the game to Electronic Arts, before instead securing an agreement with Accolade as a publisher, thanks to Reiche's former producer taking a job there. Meanwhile, Ford had started his career creating games for Japanese personal computers before transitioning to more corporate software development. After a few years working at graphics companies in Silicon Valley, Ford realized he missed working in the game industry. At this point, Reiche needed a programmer-engineer and Ford was seeking a designer-artist, so their mutual friends set up a gaming night to re-introduce them. The meeting was hosted at game designer Greg Johnson's house, and one of the friends who encouraged the meeting was fantasy artist Erol Otus.
Originally called Starcon, the game began as an evolution on concepts that Reiche first created in Archon: The Light and the Dark, as well as Mail Order Monsters. The vision for the game was science-fiction Archon, where asymmetric combatants fight using different abilities in space. According to Ford, "StarCon is really just Archon with an S-T in front of it", pointing to the one-on-one combat and strategic modes of both games. Star Control would base its combat sequences on the classic game Spacewar!, as well as the core experience of space combat game Star Raiders. As Ford and Reiche were still building their workflow as a team, the game took on a more limited scope compared to the sequel.
Design and production
Fred Ford's first prototype was a two-player action game where the VUX and Yehat ships blow up asteroids, which led them to build the entire universe around that simple play experience. The Yehat ship was Ford's crescent-shaped design, and its shield-generator led them to optimize the ship for close combat. They built on the two original ships with many additional ships and character concepts, and playtested them with friends such as Greg Johnson and Robert Leyland. The team preferred to iterate on ship designs rather than plan them, as they discovered different play-styles during testing. The asymmetry between the combatants became essential to the experience. Ford explains, "our ships weren't balanced at all, one on one... but the idea was, your fleet of ships, your selection of ships in total was as strong as someone else's, and then, it came down to which matchup did you find". Still, the ships were still given some balance by having their energy recharge at different rates.
Although the story does not factor heavily into the game, the character concepts were created based on the ship designs. The team would begin with paper illustrations, followed by logical abilities for those ships, and a character concept that suited the ship's look-and-feel. The first ship sketches were based on popular science fiction, such as SpaceWars! or Battlestar Galactica, and slowly evolved into original designs as they discussed why the ships were fighting each other. Paul Reiche III describes their character creation process, "I know it probably sounds weird, but when I design a game like this, I make drawings of the characters and stare at them. I hold little conversations with them. 'What do you guys do?' And they tell me." By the end of this process, they wrote a short summary for each alien, describing their story and personality.
Having designed a larger ship that launches fighters on command, Reiche and Ford decided this would be a dominating race. These antagonists would be called the Ur-Quan, with a motivation to dominate the galaxy to hunt for slaves, and an appearance based on a National Geographic image of a predatory caterpillar dangling over its prey. They decided to organize the characters into nominally "good and bad" factions, each with seven unique races and ships, with the humans on the good side. The cowardly personality of the Spathi were inspired by their backwards-shooting missiles. After deciding that the game would need more humanoid characters, they created the Syreen as a powerful and attractive humanoid female race. A more robotic ship inspired an alien race called the Androsynth, whose appearance was imagined as Devo flying a spaceship. The Shofixti were inspired by concepts in David Brin's The Uplift War. Reiche and Ford asked themselves who might be uplifted by the Yehat, a fierce warrior race, and decided upon the Shofixti as a ferocious super rodent.
Porting and technology
A technological limitation at the time was the limited number of colors, which required that they create settings for CGA, EGA, and VGA monitors. A separate team ported a stripped down version of the game to the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Amstrad, which meant reducing the number of ships to 8, not to mention the introduction of new bugs and balance issues. Additional problems were caused by the number of simultaneous key-presses required for a multiplayer game, which required Ford to code a solution that would work across multiple different computer keyboards.
The game was ultimately ported to the Sega Genesis, in a team led by Fred Ford. Because the Genesis port was a cartridge-based game with no battery backup, it lacked the scenario-creator of its PC cousin, but it came pre-loaded with a few additional scenarios not originally in the game. Whereas the Star Control initially featured synthesized audio, they discovered the digital MOD file format to help port the music to console, which would later become the core music format for their sequel. It took nearly 5 months to convert the code and color palates, leaving little time to optimize the game under Accolade's tight schedule, leading to slowdown issues. Also, the port was not authorized by Sega, which led led to a lawsuit between Accolade and Sega of America. Sega v. Accolade became an important legal case, creating a precedent to allow reverse engineering under fair use. This led Sega to settle the lawsuit in Accolade's favor, making them a licensed Sega developer. Released under Accolade's new "Ballistic" label for high quality games, the game was touted as the first 12-megabit cartridge created for the system. The box art for the Sega version was adapted from the original PC version, this time re-painted by famed artist Boris Vallejo.
|CVG||68% (Amiga) 90% (Sega)|
|Videogame & Computer World||8/10 (PC/C64) 9/10 (Amiga)|
|Entertainment Weekly||B (Sega)|
|The Games Machine||88% (PC)|
|Raze Magazine||70/100 (Sega)|
Star Control was a commercial success at the time, reaching the top 5 on the sales charts by September 1990. According to a retrospective by Finnish gaming magazine Pelit, the game would go on to sell 120,000 copies, leading Accolade to request a sequel from creators Reiche and Ford.
The game was also well-received critically. Entertainment Weekly gave the game a B and wrote that "if wreaking havoc in distant galaxies is what you do best, I can think of no better game for you." Digital Press also praised the game for its two-player action, as well as the game's personality in both its artistic detail and the lore in the instruction manual. After initially giving the Amiga version a 68% rating, Computer and Video Games eventually gave the Sega version a 90% rating, awarding it as a "CVG Hit" for its two-player replayability. MegaTech gave the Sega version a 90% rating and their editorial Hyper Game Award, calling it "one of the best two-player Mega Drive games ever". In contrast, Raze Magazine rated the Sega version at 70/100 for lacking the depth of the PC version. Advanced Computer Entertainment called the Amiga version "disappointing", criticizing the load times and "tacky two-dimensional combat sequences that look as if they've been borrowed from an early Eighties coin-op". Computer Gaming World rated the PC version 3.5 stars out of 5, praising the arcade combat in spite of the thin strategic layer. Nonetheless, Italian publication The Games Machine rated the game 88%, describing it as a modern re-invention of Spacewar! with many entertaining artistic details. Similarly, Videogame & Computer World praised the game's unique animations and replayable arcade mode, giving a rating of 8/10 on the PC, 8/10 on the Commodore 64, and 9/10 on the Amiga. In France, Joystick rated the game 75%, with strongest praise for the game's sound design.
At the end of 1990, Video Games & Computer Entertainment gave Star Control the award for "Best Computer Science Fiction Game", noting that "Paul Reiche II and Fred Ford, the two creators, have put together a game that is great either as a full simulation or an action-combat contest". They later highlighted the game in a list of science fiction releases, proclaiming "Reiche and Ford's action-strategy tour de force is one of the most absorbing and challenging science fiction games of all-time."
Legacy and impact
Star Control has earned a legacy for combining different kinds of gameplay into an artistically detailed space setting. Retro Gamer described it as "a textbook example of good game design", where "two genres were brilliantly combined, making for a finely balanced and well-rounded game experience". Sega-16 also called the game "superb in its simplicity", noting that "Star Control graphically does borrow from existing concepts, the design and presentation is so impeccably done that it stands well on its own." In 1996, Video Games & Computer Entertainment ranked it as the 127th best game of all time, describing it as "Space War enters the 90s with a touch of humor." In 2017, Polygon mentioned it in their top 500 games of all time, with its flexibility "as a melee or strategic game, it helped define the idea that games can be malleable and dynamic and players can make an experience wholly their own". The game is also celebrated for the debut of the Ur-Quan, as "one of the all-time villainous races in the history of computer games".
The legacy of the original Star Control is also its foundation for future games, including the critically acclaimed sequel Star Control II. Retro Gamer highlighted the numerous "elements that gave Star Control 'soul'", describing it as "the seed from which the vastly expanded narrative found in Star Control 2 grew". Sega-16 explains that "Star Control remains a fantastic game and a blueprint for what many would call one of if not the best game ever, Star Control II." Founder of BioWare, Ray Muzyka, cites the Star Control series as an inspiration for the Mass Effect series of games, stating that "the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect comes from imagining what a freely explorable universe would be like inside a very realistic next-gen game."
Sequels and open-source remake
Star Control II
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters was written by Toys for Bob (Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III) and originally published by Accolade in 1992 for MS-DOS; it was later ported to the 3DO with an enhanced multimedia presentation, allowed by the CD technology. When the original creators released the source code of the 3DO version as open-source under the GPL in 2002, an open-source project was created aiming to create an embellished remake called The Ur-Quan Masters.
Star Control 3
Star Control 3 is an adventure science fiction video game developed by Legend Entertainment, and published by Accolade in 1996. The story takes place after the events of Star Control II, when the player must travel deeper into the galaxy to investigate the mysterious collapse of hyperspace. Several game systems from Star Control II are changed. Hyperspace navigation is replaced with instant fast travel, and planet landing is replaced with a colony system inspired by the first Star Control game. Accolade hired Legend Entertainment to develop the game after original creators Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford decided to pursue other projects. Though the game was considered a critical and commercial success upon release, it would receive unfavourable comparisons to the award-winning Star Control II.
Accolade planned to release StarCon in late 1998, designed as a 3D space combat game. By this time, Electronic Arts had agreed to become the distributor for all games developed by Accolade. Accolade producer George MacDonald announced that "we want to move away from the adventure element and concentrate on what it seems the players really want – action!" Though heavier on combat than previous titles, players would still have the opportunity to fly to planets and communicate with different aliens. The team also created a Star Control History Compendium, to help them resolve storylines from the previous games. In a playable alpha version of the game, players could control a fleet carrier, with the ability to launch a fighter that could be controlled by either the same player or a second player. The game was later announced for the Sony PlayStation with plans for release in 1999, featuring a 40-hour variable storyline, and both competitive and co-operative multiplayer. Electronic Arts and Accolade promoted the choice of playing as "one of two alliances (Hyperium or Crux)", with the option of operating a fighter, carrier, or turrets. Another publication described the ability to select from three different alien races, with different missions that impact the storyline, and the ability to destroy entire planets.
Development was halted at the end of 1998. Not happy with the progress on the game, Accolade put the project on hold with intentions to re-evaluate their plans for the Star Control license. In 1999, Accolade was acquired by Infogrames SA for $50 million, as one of many corporate restructurings that eventually led to Infogrames merging with Atari and re-branding under a revived Atari brand. Star Control 3 thus marked the last official instalment to the series.
The Ur-Quan Masters
By the early 2000s, Accolade's copyright license for Star Control expired, triggered by a contractual clause when the games were no longer generating royalties. As the games were no longer available in stores, Reiche and Ford wanted to keep their work in the public eye, to maintain an audience for a potential sequel. Reiche and Ford still owned the copyrights in Star Control I and II, but they could not successfully purchase the Star Control trademark from Accolade, leading them to consider a new title for a potential follow-up. This led them to remake Star Control II as The Ur-Quan Masters, which they released in 2002 as a free download under an open source copyright license. The official free release prevented the game from becoming abandonware.
Fans continued to demand a new Star Control game well into the late 2000s. In the early 2000s, thousands of fans signed a petition in hopes of a sequel. Toys for Bob producer Alex Ness responded in April 2006 with an article on the company website, stating that "if enough of you people out there send me emails requesting that Toys For Bob do a legitimate sequel to Star Control 2, I'll be able to show them to Activision, along with a loaded handgun, and they will finally be convinced to roll the dice on this thing." In the months that followed, Ness announced the petition's impact, reporting that "there did honestly seem to be some real live interest on [Activision's] part. At least on the prototype and concept-test level. This is something we may in fact get to do when we finish our current game". In a 2011 interview about their next game Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Paul Reiche declared "one day we will make the real sequel".
Intellectual property split
By the early 2000s, the Star Control trademark was held by Infogrames Entertainment. Star Control publisher Accolade had sold their company to Infogrames in 1999, who merged with Atari and re-branded under the Atari name in 2003. In September 2007, Atari released an online flash game with the name "Star Control", created by independent game developer Iocaine Studios. Atari ordered the game to be delivered in just four days, which Iocaine produced in two days. Also in September, Atari applied to renew the Star Control trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, citing images of Iocaine's flash game to demonstrate their Declaration of Use in Commerce.
Atari declared bankruptcy in 2013, and their assets were listed for auction. When Stardock became the top bidder Atari's Star Control assets, Paul Reiche indicated that he still owned the copyrighted materials from the first two Star Control games, which implied that Stardock must have purchased the Star Control trademark and the copyright in any original elements of Star Control 3. Stardock confirmed this intellectual property split soon after. As Stardock began developing their new Star Control game, they re-iterated that they did not acquire the copyright to the first two games, and that they would need a license from Reiche and Ford to use their content and lore. Reiche and Ford echoed this understanding in their 2015 Game Developer Conference interview, stating that Stardock's game would use the Star Control trademark only. After a lawsuit, the parties ultimately agreed on the same intellectual property split.
Notes and references
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Fred Ford: Star Control II, well and Star Control I have always been near and dear to our hearts. It's the first things we worked on, the first things we poured our passion in together. We have some diehard fans as a result of those two games and we wanted to service them and lay the groundwork for a return and keep the games in the fronts of their minds as much as possible so that when we were finally able to return to it we would still have a living audience.
Paul Reiche: There was a confluence of events that helped this. One was Accolade stopped selling the game and we stopped earning royalties right around your 2000 and that triggered the termination of their exclusive right to sell our game. So we got our game back. What we didn't have was the name Star Control. That was a trademark that the publisher owned and we negotiated back and forth with them, but ultimately we weren't able to come to terms for the name. So we decided, well we can't use that name, let's give it a new name, so we used the Ur-Quan Masters ... So the "Ur-Quan Masters" project, the open-source release of the game we created as Star Control II, that really kept our game alive in the doldrums between say 2001 or 2002 and then 2011 when our games began to be sold again through Good Old Games, known as GOG, which is an electronic distributor of classic games.
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Fred Ford: [Accolade] owe us another payment for our portion of the property. They have told us they are going to default on this payment which means we are back to owning the characters and settings. They still own the trademark/name and continue to look for someone to buy it from them.
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When the original developers of Star Control 2 contacted the online Star Control fan community, they presented an enticing question: if they released the source to the 3DO version of Star Control 2 under GPL, would anybody be interested in porting it to modern-day computers? Michael Martin, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at Stanford University, answered the call. After removing proprietary 3DO-specific components from the code, the developers released the source for Star Control 2 to the public.
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Alex Ness: Star Control Sequel Update: Here comes that update. Well, we have talked to our parent company Activision about doing a Star Control sequel, quite seriously, and there did honestly seem to be some real live interest on their part. At least on the prototype and concept-test level. This is something we may in fact get to do when we finish our current game and clean our room. Again, I will continue to say that I really appreciate everybody's email and petition support. Believe me, it helps. Publishers are generally very scared to release original console games or in this case, a franchise game but the franchise is so old it might as well be original. ... So the more we show them that there is a sizeable, as well as wonderful and passionate, fan base out there, the less frightened they'll be.
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Paul Reiche III: 22 years ago we founded Toys for Bob -- Fred Ford and myself -- making Star Control 1 and II, science fiction games which to this day have a bizarrely-dedicated fan following. And we promise someday we will make the real sequel.
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... my position is that Stardock doesn't have the legal rights to the original lore either. Or, if we did, we have long since refuted those rights. The Star Control classic lore are the copyright of Paul Reiche and Fred Ford.
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