Set in the year 2654 and characterized by Chris Roberts as "World War II in space", it features a multinational cast of pilots from the "Terran Confederation" flying missions against the predatory, aggressive Kilrathi, a feline warrior race.
Immersion was important and little visceral touches were being incorporated into Squadron, such as the pilot’s hand moving the joystick around in time with what the player was doing with his own joystick in front of the computer screen. As the player’s ship got shot up, the damage was depicted visually directly in the cockpit via sparks and smoke rather than as a percentage number. The typical UI at the time showing lives and high score was purposefully avoided. To save the game the player had to go to the barracks and clink on the bunk. To exit the game, the player had to click on the airlock.
Since every action-movie hero needs a sidekick, Chris Roberts added a wingman to the game, another pilot who would fly and fight at the player’s side. The player could communicate with the wingman in the midst of battle, passing him orders, and the wingman in turn would communicate back, showing his own personality; he might even refuse to obey orders on occasion.
There was no speech in games at the time, everything was subtitled.
Development started in early 1989. It was initially a proposal called Squadron.
Chris Roberts had the idea of doing a more tactical top down “space-conquest game where you take over star systems, move battleships around, and invade planets. It was going to be more strategic than my earlier games.” But he was tinkering with the idea and gradually moved from strategic battles between slow-moving dreadnoughts in space to more visceral dogfights between fighter planes in space that would put the player in the cockpit.
The first year of development was pretty much just Chris Roberts, with Paul Isaac coming towards the end and Denis Loubet doing most of the graphics early on, Glen Johnson and Bourbonnais joining as well. Then the team grew as Origin granted more funding and finally to get the game out in time for Christmas season. At the time games had to be boxed out and shipped to stores and couldn't just be downloaded.
Inspired by the graphics of the Lucasfilm Games flight simulator Battlehawks 1942, he used pre-rendered bitmap images showing ships from several different sides and angles, which could then be scaled to suit the player’s out-the-cockpit view, rather than making a proper, mathematically rigorous 3D engine built out of polygons.
Despite the lack of time at their disposal, the artists were determined to fit the movements of the characters’ mouths to the words of dialog that appeared on the screen, using techniques dating back to classic Disney animation.
Among other efforts towards immersion, the game’s manual itself took the form of the in-universe Claw Marks magazine of the carrier crew.
Origin was particularly proud of the music that played in the background when the player was flying in space; the various themes changed dynamically in response to the events taking place on the screen, and while it wasn’t the first time this had been done, no one had managed to do it in quite this sophisticated way.
The game was first released for MS-DOS on September 26, 1990.
It had cost 100 000 $US to make.
The game was considered a major step forward for space dogfight games, featuring graphics, audio, and a story campaign that invited comparison to the Star Wars films.
A lot of assets were created but there wasn't enough disc space for some of the ships so they had to be shelved. The Secret Missions add on was based and priced on the idea of D&D campaign modules for ships that didn't make it into the main game and ended up as a mission and story pack on sale thanks to the success of the main game.
There were space combat simulation games before Wing Commander, but it raised the bar for the whole industry in terms of production value and realistic simulation.
"I took the approach that I didn’t want to sacrifice that reality due to the game dynamics. If you would see wires hanging down after an explosion, then I wanted to include it, even if it would make it harder to figure out how to include all the instruments and readouts. I want what’s taking place inside the cockpit to be as real as what I’m trying to show outside it, in space. I’d rather show you damage as if you were there than just display something like “damage = 20 percent.” That’s abstract. I want to see it." -Chris Roberts
- During ininitial playtests, testers would fall out of their chairs trying to dodge incoming spaceships
- The beds in the barracks fill up with people according to the number of saves.
- It was one of the last Origin games that could be played directly from the floppy disks.
- The funeral sequence inspires Star Citizen's death mechanic.
- It was originally named Squadron, then due to trademark issues it got renamed Wingleader, before finally becoming WIng Commander.
- Once the game was done and got shipped off for duplication, Robert Garriott climbed onto a picnic table on the front lawn at Origin’s traditional ship-day beer bash and announced that as of 5 P.M. that afternoon Chris Roberts was now Origin’s Director of New Technologies rather than a contracted outside developer.
- From Squadron to Wingleader, The Digital Antiquarian, April 21, 2017
- The forgotten interview with Chris Roberts by Paul Dean, March 11, 2016
- Let's Play: Wing Commander 25th Anniversary Livestream, Youtube, 27 Sept 2015
- Around the Verse: Episode 1.62 (2015.09.24), Youtube
- Star Citizen Chris Roberts at BAFTA LA Januari 2015, Youtube, 21 Jan 2015
- Combat Information Center Chris Roberts interview by Hadrian, 1999
- 35 Years Of Influence - A Look Back at Origin Systems, Creators of Ultima and More, TechRaptor, April 19, 2018
- The iconic funeral sequence from Wing Commander inspires Star Citizen's death mechanic.. Engineering - Comm-Link. Retrieved 2013-02-05
- From Wingleader to Wing Commander, The Digital Antiquarian, April 28, 2017