Classic Game Postmortem: 'Star Wars: TIE Fighter' at GDC 2024 by BUas lecturer David Wessman

Classic Game Postmortem: 'Star Wars: TIE Fighter' at GDC 2024 by BUas lecturer David Wessman

03/01/2024 - 09:38

In this interview with BUas lecturer David Wessman, who has been invited to speak at the prestigious Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2024, we delved into his journey leading up to BUas and what attendees can expect from his talk at GDC.
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Can you share a bit about your journey leading up to BUas? 

David: ‘My journey to BUas has been quite a rollercoaster ride! I’ve always loved games, but it was the discovery of board wargames at age 11 that first made me think about game design as a career. It just didn’t seem like a realistic option, and thanks to the moon landings and a voracious appetite for science fiction, my real dream was to be an astronaut!’  

‘This was all before videogames and home computers, when only mainframe computers existed. In high school, I took my first programming class and attempted to make games, but punch cards and teletype output from a mainframe are just not an ideal gaming platform. Since this was the middle of the Cold War I was also preoccupied with choosing which branch of the military would give me the best shot at the Astronaut Corps, while also offering the greatest chance of surviving a nuclear war with the Soviets. Tough choices! I studied hard and the US Navy offered me a scholarship for nuclear engineering, but I turned it down. I was even more into wargames at this point and serious conflict simulations teach you a lot about history and warfare. It was enough to turn me away from military service.’  

‘As computers rapidly evolved and video games emerged, my interest in games reignited, and I sought out universities that offered game development programmes, but those didn’t exist back then, either. My first attempts at uni didn’t end well, but along the way I discovered hard rock and heavy metal and spent several years pursuing a career as a metal guitar god. Needless to say, that didn’t pan out, but I did tour North America and Europe as a sound man. The main show of that European tour was the Dynamo Festival in Eindhoven in 1989, and that was my first visit to the Netherlands. I really liked it! Ooh… foreshadowing!’ 

‘When I wasn’t doing sound, I was mostly doing temporary office work, and after a particularly disastrous tour, I was uncertain where my life was headed. My childhood friend and fellow wargamer, David Maxwell had gotten a job as a tester a Lucasarts, and through him I was hired, too. I got to work on “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” and “Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe” (SWOTL, for short) and tried to learn everything I could about game development, hoping to eventually become a designer. When I found out that Larry Holland, the man behind SWOTL, was an independent, I decided I wanted to work for him. I did my best to impress him, and Larry hired me as his lead internal tester for his next game, “Star Wars: X-Wing".’  

‘Once we had our first playable build, Larry gave us the opportunity to make missions for the game. Maxwell and I proved to be the most proficient and prolific and soon transitioned from testers to designers. We played a pivotal role in crafting the missions and narrative of “X-Wing” and its expansions and then the game that really cemented my career, “Star Wars: TIE Fighter”. The game was immensely successful and won tons of awards. The most meaningful of which for me was the Honoured Developer Award at that year’s GDC because it’s chosen by your peers in the industry. That was thirty years ago, and I believe it’s one of the reasons I was invited to give a classic game postmortem about it at this year’s GDC! But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?’ 

‘”TIE Fighter” was succeeded by “X-Wing vs TIE Fighter”, our first multiplayer title, and then "X-Wing Alliance” where I had the odd title of Gameplay and Story Lead. Totally Games, as we were now incorporated, was experiencing growing pains and difficulty making the shift to console games, specifically an Xbox launch title with Microsoft as our publishing partner. Despite initial promise, setbacks and restructuring led to my departure from the company. This began a period of serious volatility as I navigated through various roles in different studios, experiencing both successes and setbacks while leading design on “Blood Wake”, “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay”, “Saints Row”, and “Death Jr. 2: Root of Evil”.’  

‘Thanks to a chance encounter at GDC, my path eventually led me to the realm of education, where I found a new passion in teaching game development, first at the University of Advancing Technology in Arizona and then the University of California, Santa Cruz, and what’s now called the University of Silicon Valley. Over the years, I refined my teaching skills while witnessing the evolution of game development education firsthand. It was during this time that I first crossed paths with BUas, thanks to another chance encounter at GDC.’ 

‘Joining BUas in 2015 marked a turning point in my career and a major life change. Drawn by its plans for an innovative approach to game development education that perfectly aligned with my own, I sold my home in California and moved to Breda. As a lecturer, I've had the privilege of helping to structure the programme and collaborating with colleagues who share a wealth of industry experience. Teaching at BUas has been the most fulfilling role of my career so far.’ 

What's your role at BUas? 

David: 'My role at BUas involves teaching design and production across different year levels. Drawing from my industry experience, I aim to shape future talent by providing students with practical insights into the challenges they may face in the field.' 

'In addition to my role as a lecturer, I'm also involved in a passion project called "In The Black" with Impeller Studios, where I serve as a senior producer and principal designer, thanks to yet another chance encounter at GDC. I think we’ve established a theme here. As a hard-core space combat simulator, “In The Black” is sort of a return to my roots, but this time we’re taking the science seriously. This game has been a labour of love over many years, and I'm excited to finally share it with the world soon.' 

Find out more about it via this link:  

What's your talk at GDC going to be about? 

David: ‘At GDC 2024, I'll be delivering a talk on “Star Wars: TIE Fighter” as part of the Classic Game Postmortem series. I will delve into the game's development process from my perspective as a mission builder and writer, highlighting what went well, what didn’t, and what we learned. By sharing these insights, I hope to educate fellow game developers on the challenges we encountered and overcame to deliver a sequel that improved on every aspect of its predecessor while inspiring players to fight for the Empire and destroy the Rebellion!’  

Find out more about GDC and David's session:  

‘GDC holds a special place in my heart, as it's where I've been able to connect with industry professionals and stay updated on the latest trends in game development. It is an excellent opportunity for ongoing professional education. For nearly three decades, I've been a frequent attendee at GDC, gaining fresh insights and networking opportunities every time.’ 

'For those unable to attend GDC, I encourage you to check out their YouTube channel, where many insightful talks are available for free.' 


For more insights into David's journey and to stay updated on his work, you can connect with him on LinkedIn.