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E3 2016: The New Gaming Space Race Heats Up
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E3 2016: The New Gaming Space Race Heats Up

Don’t Panic! A galaxy of intergalactic games prove space is the place to be at this year’s E3.

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There was a variety of exciting titles to check out at E3 2016, of course, but it’s always interesting to take a closer look at trends emerging within the industry. One of those, of course, is the rise of VR; pricey headsets could make for big revenues for any company with the savvy to help the tech take off, so that one was easy to see coming. Another trend, perhaps almost as significant, has been the push toward making new space-themed video games. They were all over the place at this year’s E3, and you couldn’t turn a corner without falling out of an airlock. Why is that, though?

I believe we can attribute the rocket of space games to E3 stardom to two primary factors. The first, of course, is the triumphant return of the Star Wars film franchise with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen it, now’s the time to fix that; it’s excellent. Audiences and critics alike (ours included) agreed with this assessment; $2 billion-plus in box-office receipts is no joke.

It’s not just about that single movie, either; Star Wars as a franchise has turned space adventures into big business with films, video games, toys and an endless array of other merchandise.

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Naturally, the entertainment industry as a whole recognizes when this kind of hit occurs, and that includes gaming. As a theme attracts attention, we’re going to see more media take advantage of that theme. We saw a similar situation occur with the release of last year’s Jurassic World and an associated wave of dinosaur-flavored media; what, did you think the announcements of the prehistoric-flavored Far Cry Primal and Horizon: Zero Dawn were just coincidences? That one only grossed $1.6 billion, so with a $2 billion juggernaut shattering box office records we shouldn’t be surprised when we see a fresh tide of games that offer the chance to explore a galaxy far, far away…if in concept only.

The other, perhaps less obvious, factor would be the rampant success of space games in the crowdfunding space. Crowdfunding is an obvious cash cow for any developer (and, lately, publisher) with the chops to run a successful campaign, even if those chops include nothing more than “having made a popular game at some point in the last two decades.” Crowdfunded cash is essentially free money and there’s no obligation to direct that money to any particular facet of a project; there’s also no accountability associated with crowdfunded money, so for all intents and purposes it’s a donation.

It’s clear, then, that when Cloud Imperium Games’ Star Citizen rakes in over $100 million simply because Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame asked for money, the industry is going to perk up. That kind of income can be attributed to some degree to Roberts’ name being attached to the project. Having a recognizable face that nerds want to heedlessly throw money at for potentially no return is a significant benefit for a successful large-scale crowdfunding campaign, as projects like Broken Age and Mighty No. 9 show us.

More importantly, it also tells us that people really, really want space; they want it so badly that they’re willing to pay millions for a game that doesn’t yet exist and doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. That’s $115 million in risk-free funds in exchange for the possibility of maybe making a space game one day. Imagine the kind of revenue one could bring in by selling a finished product and it’s plain to see why space is big; it also raises questions about why Cloud Imperium Games backed out of showing Star Citizen at this year’s E3 at the last second given how much they had to gain from a well-received demo, but that’s a piece for another day.

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With those factors in mind, it’s easy to see why we’re seeing a space race in the games industry at the moment. Elite: Dangerous was critically acclaimed and continues to lead the way as one of the few games with VR support intended for the core demographic; having tried Elite in VR at this year’s E3, I can say that it opened my eyes to the potential of the platform as more than just a gimmick. Elite was one of the games that headed up the new wave of space-themed titles, allowing it to get in early and start staking its claim before anyone else could start their own colonization. That’s clearly paying off, as we can see from the continued release of expansions and features for Elite that further expand the game’s scope.

Elite isn’t the only space game out there, of course. We’re seeing the return of Mass Effect with Andromeda, for instance. With a new hero and a completely new galaxy to explore, Mass Effect Andromeda is offering a new lease on life for the classic space opera series. No Man’s Sky is banking on people’s rabid desire for space exploration, offering an endless procedural universe to plumb for discoveries.

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Other games are combining the VR trend with the space trend to form some sort of uber-trend, PlayStation VR adventure game Farpoint is further exploring the possibilities of VR in space. Smaller studios like Klei and Daedalic Entertainment are hopping on the shuttle with games like No Oxygen Included and The Long Journey Home. Even Call of Duty is getting into the mix with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, a space-themed take on the series’ run-and-gun gameplay that looks like it just might be what the series needs to start gaining traction with the sci-fi demographic.

As the late, great Douglas Adams wrote in his legendary Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” it seems like that’s never been more true than at E3 2016, where companies both tiny and massive are hoping that space is big enough for everyone. If you’ve ever wanted to go where no man has gone before, well, it’s looking like 2016 and 2017 are going to make your dreams come true.


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About the Author: Cory Galliher