In 1998, Interplay decided to leap in with the confusingly named Descent: Freespace. The name was a curious marketing ploy, considering that Descent was a niche series that played like a corridor-based first-person shooter on three axes, offering only the faint whiff of crossover appeal for space combat fans. But it came at a perfect time, arriving on the heels of the disappointing Wing Commander: Prophecy, which marked EA’s attempt to relaunch the series without the input of creator Chris Roberts. Freespace received enough positive word-of-mouth to warrant a sequel, which would be released the following year.
The release of Freespace 2 alongside X-Wing Alliance was part of a confluence of events that would ultimately mark the end of what had been one of the preeminent genres of the 1990s. Roberts had long since left Origin, leaving the series dead in the water after the lukewarm reception given Wing Commander: Prophecy. Interplay was in the process of hemorrhaging money, and X-Wing Alliance marked the end of a trilogy. The stage was set for the genre’s demise.
Privateer 3 (more, more, more, more, more, more and more) and Wing Commander Strike Team / Shadow Force should have continued the series as everyone expected. But then we got to those changing market conditions, unsustainable FMV budgets and rising costs. Games like Freespace 2, X:BTF and Starlancer did not sell as well as the last crop of Wing Commanders and Star Wars games. New formats such as the massively multiplayer Ultima Online were booming, and so there was a big shift in direction. Wing Commander development transitioned into Privateer Online (more), Wing Commander Online and then Privateer Online again. Electronic Arts also acquired Westwood Studios, which was further along on their space MMO Earth & Beyond. With competing products in the pipeline and a market quickly becoming saturated, the decision was made to launch E&B instead. Wing Commander Online and Ultima Online 2 were sidelined, and Origin didn't recover from the tailspin.
That hasn't kept the powers that be from attempting to pull everything back together, but so far only smaller scale projects (Prophecy Advance, Wing Commander Arena, various ports/rereleases) have made it to see the light of day. Hopefully you find this history fascinating, and someday we'll all be able to look back at this time period and see how it built up into a great relaunch of the series. It's only a matter of time until the next Wing Commander game!