Learning From Failure

Learning From Failure
The Greatest Game Never Played

Justin Emerson | 21 Dec 2010 12:33
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"We had been pretty much ready to ship the game for the Christmas season of 1999," Girling adds, "but were told that Starlancer was going to take the Christmas marketing spot so we decided to add a bunch of polish and extra features. They ended up missing their ship date and pushing out to March which made the two games direct competitors." These factors, combined with technical problems around launch, managed to really hurt Allegiance's initial player base. "So if you did like space games, and enjoyed multiplayer-only titles with no [single-player] campaign, and you heard about the title somehow, and were prepared to pay a subscription fee, and managed to connect to our servers for more than 5 minutes at a time, you would have had a chance to experience one of the most scary learning curves in gaming history."

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Allegiance began to die a slow death. In the year-end gaming awards season, GameSpot awarded it the "Best Game No One Played" award. By May of 2001, Microsoft had eliminated the paid subscription zone, ended additional support for the game, closed its own servers to rely on a community hosting model, and basically set the playerbase adrift. From GameSpot's award text: "[Allegiance's] dedicated and experienced online community is a testament to the game's great potential, and if there is any justice in the gaming heavens, Allegiance's popularity will someday grow to the proportions it deserves."

Justice was served in late 2001, when a player named Vencain wrote a tool called SOVRoute, which allowed players to bypass Microsoft's systems entirely and join servers just by their IP. Other community-written tools followed, eventually culminating in a separate authentication and lobby system. The dedicated player base soldiered on, recruiting more players, arranging training sessions for cadets, and evangelizing the game. Fans even reverse engineered the code, adding new factions and ships. And then something amazing happened: On February 10th, 2004, Microsoft released the source code for Allegiance.

"I was feeling nostalgic one day and was surfing one of the Allegiance web sites where guys were trying to hack new art and sounds into Allegiance, since Microsoft had effectively given up on it," says Dehlin. "I just thought, 'Man, I wish we could give the code to these guys.' So I just asked Rick, and Rick loved the idea; he didn't even hesitate. We talked to the legal and IP folks and got clearances fairly quickly. It's been amazing to see the community extend the game."

More than ten years after its release, Allegiance lives on. Of course, its player base is smaller than it used to be, and like any community-developed project, sometimes politics and ego get in the way. The history of open-source Allegiance is paved with the bodies of dead code branches, forum flame wars, and personal vendettas. But a community remains because people still love the game.

"The [development] team recently had a 10 year reunion, and as part of it we all played a game and got hopelessly beaten," says Girling. "I feel very happy that people continue to get something out of the experience."

You can download Allegiance for free at FreeAllegiance.org.

Justin Emerson is a freelance blogger and IT professional who wonders where all the good space games have gone.

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