It’s the experience we Trekkies have longed for since the original show first hit the airwaves. Who hasn’t wanted to serve on the bridge of a Federation starship, working with the rest of the bridge crew on a mission where no human has gone before? Star Trek: Bridge Commander was close. You had a 3d view of your starship’s bridge, and had control over all the systems. It wasn’t like Star Trek: Bridge Crew though. Trek alums Jeri Ryan, Levar Burton and Karl Urban join Ubisoft’s David Potypka in a demonstration game. As you can see from the reactions of the stars, it’s a compelling, fully immersive experience unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
Amazing. Just amazing. Technology has finally caught up to where Star Trek fans expectations have been for decades, and a virtual reality “holodeck” experience is now possible using current-day hardware and software. Unfortunately, there’s a catch, and it’s a big one: each player in this simulation needs:
- A Playstation 4, cost: approximately $400
- An HTC Vive headset with hand controllers, cost: approximately $800
- A copy of the game, estimated cost: $65
- A good broadband connection: $30 (per month, and that’s being kind)
- Occulus Rift Touch Controllers (or similar devices): cost unknown, because they’re not out yet
Total estimated cost per person to be able to play this game: somewhere in the neighborhood of $1300-$1400.
Yikes. So what’s a bridge simulation game fan to do? It turns out that there are several viable solutions.
Alternatives to Bridge Crew
To start with, none of these games gives you the immersive virtual reality experience that Star Trek: Bridge Crew will. All these games feature a separate control panel and display screen for each player (meaning each screen has to be driven by a separate computer), all of them allow for multiple crews to play together in the same universe, either cooperatively or against one another, and most of them allow a game master to inject NPC ships into the game to keep the players on their toes.
One good thing they do all have in common with Star Trek: Bridge Crew is that most critical element that makes bridge simulators fun: playing it with a group of friends. They all, however, have the drawback of requiring full on computers or tablets to serve as workstations. There are ways to get them to run on more inexpensive hardware, but this is difficult and beyond the skill of the average gamer. A saving grace is that the computers for the games can be used for other things and taken home by their owners at the end of the night.
The jewel in the crown these days is called Artemis. This game presents a 2D universe, with the more standard euphemisms for shields, phasers, photon torpedoes, all in an effort to avoid legal entanglements from CBS / Paramount over the distribution of unlicensed Trek products. This one is commercial and is cheap in the $6-9 range, and there are versions for Windows, Android and iOS (but not Linux or Mac). It’s scriptable to a point, and can be reskinned and rethemed. One of the first things that happened was that a Star Trek mod pack was created, and this version is the one seen most often in convention game rooms. It’s also closed source, which limits the degree to which it can be adapted and modified, though you can create your own custom scenarios. You can get Artemis on Steam. Among the first into the multi-player bridge simulation game space, Artemis is a commercial product, and will likely stay that way.
Artemis is intensely popular, and has a very, very active forum site. People go to great lengths to build physical instrument consoles for the game, and it is the favorite for LBE (location based entertainment) at sci-fi conventions around the world.
By far the most accessible bridge crew simulation game out there is Empty Epsilon. Like Artemis, this game was developed primarily by one man, though he sought to fix all of what he perceived as problems in the Artemis implementation. If FTL and Guns of Icarus had a love child, it would be Empty Epsilon.
The main developers of Empty Epsilon go by the names of Daid and Nallath, and they spend a lot of time on the Epsilon forums talking about the game and the updates they’re working on. There are already Star Trek mods, with assets ported over from Artemis. Do-it-yourself’er’s are also building their own hardware bridge modules for use with the game. There is even work being done to make the game run on the Raspberry Pi 2, making it the least expensive to implement from a hardware standpoint out of all the simulators presented here. Player control stations would cost potentially as little as $100 per station including the monitor, instead of$400-$500 at minimum.
Graphically, Empty Epsilon looks spare and sparse, and mostly black. “Space is black!” the developers claim, yet that’s only true for the unaided eye for the most part. Macroscopic instruments record interstellar space as being wildly and dramatically colorful, and a visual sphere that’s black in every direction removes vital visual cues that help you orient yourself relative to other objects in space. Fortunately the game is fully open source and released under the GPL 3.0 license, so the clever programmer / artist team could fix this failing in art direction. If this is the only failing the game has, Epsilon belongs near the top of our list.
Space Nerds in Space
At the other end of the spectrum is Space Nerds in Space. While fascinating and very capable, this one runs only on Linux, and then only if you have the skill necessary to configure Linux to support it and then compile the game yourself. It’s a little more complex to fly in this space because it’s a fully 3D navigable environment, and the interfaces are a bit more plain, but it works well once it’s running. The barrier to entry for Space Nerds is mostly the technological skill of the person doing the system builds for it, and because of this you won’t see many installations of it at conventions. There is a version that runs on Raspberry Pi’s called Project Nesmith. It’s a far cry from Ubisoft’s Bridge Crew, but it may qualify as one of the cheapest bridge simulators to run.
This multiplayer bridge simulator differs from the other games listed here in that it has a main server that brings player ships together in a single persistent universe for combat or teamwork. Quintet otherwise it has all the features of Artemis, though unlike Artemis, the universe of Quintet is fully 3D. This makes combat scenarios much more “realistic”, but conceptually tougher for players. While the graphics are more polished than Space Nerds in Space on average, they still feel a bit too overly gritty and complex to work well on smaller screens. All the extra detail doesn’t make the ships feel bigger. It just adds visual clutter and makes your screen feel claustrophobic. You have to work harder to interpret what exactly it is that you’re looking at.
Quintet is also available on Steam, but there are versions for Windows, OSX, iOS, Linux, Android and even web browser. It also supports scripted external interfaces, like custom built control panels dedicated players build themselves out of real world materials, sound and physical effects, and other things that could be driven by a LAN connection and a few well placed Arduinos. It, too, has its limitations in terms of moddability, since it’s also closed source. It is still good enough with scenario scripting and hardware interfacing that it’s popular at conventions and LAN parties. You can play Quintet for free, but some ship configurations are locked until you pay for a license.
This is yet another bridge simulator and appears to function well, but has no features that distinguish itself other than running on older, cheaper hardware and having an out-the-window view that’s a bit easier on the eyes than the stark pixelly white-on-black offered by Quintet, Empty Epsilon and Space Nerds in Space. Starship Horizons, while as ambitious a project as any of the other bridge simulator games, it also features a vastly simpler software model. The game server runs on Windows (requiring Windows XP or greater), but all the player workstations connect through web browsers, meaning anything that can muster a working web browser can connect as a player console. This opens the door to just about any kind of modern computing platform, and for the most part is the only one of the simulators presented here that is operating system agnostic. Starship Horizons is unfortunately still in development, with a release date being vaguely identified as “sometime this year”.
Where to Find More
All of the games listed above are either linked to or mentioned on BridgeSim.Net, a meeting place on the ‘net where like minded sim fans meet and trade knowledge, experiences and promote their software. Star Trek: Bridge Crew may be an impossible dream for most of us, but these games run on systems that could cost as little as $90 per station. These and more like them will fill the gap nicely at a much lower cost.