Bytes & Pieces: EA’s Spaced Out Space Hulk

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This month, we’re going to turn this column on its head. This month, we’re going to look at what happens when you turn a board game into a video game. Our subject is Electronic Arts’s 1993 adaptation of Space Hulk.

Most readers will be familiar with the recent version of the game from Full Control. It’s a direct port of the board game, which is what you’d expect a developer to do with the license. Especially given that writing AI routines for Genestealers ought to be a doddle. (There was even a simple algorithm for it in the Deathwing expansion to the tabletop game, that players could use to play a solo version of the game.) That, however, is not what EA chose to do.

What EA created instead was a monstrous hybrid of action and strategy. A bizarre stop/start affair where you tried to control a full squad in real time, pausing to issue orders.

It was incredibly ambitious for its time, which was before Doom even hit the shelves. The game still managed to deliver an experience where you had to watch five first-person windows at once, with graphics and sound that were top quality for the era.

Yet for all the skill that went into making the game, it ended up being something of a flop. I’d been looking forward to the game for months but when I installed and played it, sticky with anticipation, I hated it. It was far too odd. It was far too difficult.

In retrospect, all these years later, it’s obvious where the problem lay. EA had tried to do what too many board game designers, faced with a video game franchise, try to do—they’d tried to create something very true to the source material but in a wildly different media format.

Take the way your marines move. They’re Terminators, encased in impossibly bulky suits of power armor, almost literal tanks of the infantry world. The board game chooses to communicate this by making them cumbersome and inflexible. It costs them an action point to turn ninety degrees or to move forward one step. Negotiating corners with a whole squad becomes a nightmare of plodding behemoths.

The video game version reflects this in the most logical way possible. Your terminators respond slowly to commands. Even in 1993, tapping a key and waiting while your lumbering charge rotated in space was frustrating. Repeating it for a squad of five would tax the patience of Buddha.

In the board game your enemy—the alien Genestealers—have more action points and can turn for free. By the same logic their video game counterparts were fast and nimble beyond belief.

The result of combining the two was a train wreck. You’d hear something coming, switch to the appropriate marine’s view and slowly turn to face the threat. Just in time to see the thing leap and tear your face off.

If this was an overly literal way of interpreting the board game, the combat took things even further. All the weapons from the original board game were available. The standard storm bolters, heavy flamers, even close combat weapons like lightning claws. You controlled them all in the same way: click to attack.

It seemed odd to have such a wide variety of armament hooked up to such a simple control. The reason was that all the details we’ve come to associate with combat in action-strategy games just weren’t around yet—there was no aiming, no strafing, no dual-fire modes.

Instead, there was only virtual dice.

It wasn’t anything as crass as actual bones rolling across the screen. It was more a case of it becoming obvious as the game progressed that was what’s happening under the hood. Why, otherwise, would some shots hit and others miss when there was no aiming or dodging?

This approach could have worked in a much more tactics-oriented game. It could even have worked in a game that allowed you to save mid-mission (which Space Hulk did not). As it was, it just heaped misery upon misery. You could spend an hour inching your squad through the claustrophobic corridors. Pausing and shuffling meticulously. Covering every angle and junction. Then the game would suddenly kill you just because it rolled an invisible one.

The video game world seemed to learn from the mistakes of Space Hulk. In future, when it came to tackling board games, developers either did a straight port with a few additions, or they used the source material as a starting point to build a brand-new game suitable for the new medium. For all the resulting ups and downs, there hasn’t been anything quite as bad since.

My question is: Why have designers in the board game industry had such a hard time learning those same lessons in reverse?

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