Gaming’s Fringe Cults

Ever have a game just stick? One where you grimaced as the credits rolled, knowing you’d never play anything like it again? Imagine it didn’t end there. For some people, those old games to which you’ve said goodbye are just as alive, and in some cases thriving, as they were when you walked away to bigger, newer things.

Gaming’s “fringe cults,” those who’ve elevated a game to the status of a modern deity, exist to make sure other people hear the stories their favorite games tell. Typically insular communities on old-school message boards and WordPress blogs, their ranks rehash gameplay tips, find ways to manage download servers and create mods on old software, all to keep themselves and perspective converts interested in games that, by all rights, would’ve been forgotten by time years ago.

I spoke to representatives from three such “cults,” whose fanatical dedication to the games they love has bloomed into a huge niche mod scene, one of the most feared message boards on the planet and even a player-run massively multiplayer online game. Their stories are different, but the message is the same: It’s the community, stupid.

From Battlestar to Wing Commander: Hard Light Productions
Originally launched in 1998, Volition’s first-person space sim Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War and its 1999 sequel FreeSpace 2 were the spiritual death of games of their ilk. While critics picked up on what the game had to offer, neither game sold especially well. Of the people who did find their way to the Freespace universe, few wanted to leave.

“Aside from the impressive graphics, I really enjoyed the ambience of the game,” says Alex “Kalifreth” Avery, Operations Manager at Hard Light Productions, a bustling FreeSpace fan community based around modding the game. “Volition had clearly put a lot of work into making everything work together nicely, from audio effects to the interface and flight mechanics in game – it all merged together well.”

Hard Light, Avery says, formed in 2001 because they “noticed something of a niche gap in the FreeSpace franchise coverage revolving around a place for modders of the games to congregate and pool resources.” And they’ve filled that niche incredibly well. Hard Light’s community, 4,300 strong, has either participated in or collaborated on three major products – The Babylon Project, based on the Babylon 5 TV series; Wing Commander Saga, a re-imagination of the Origin’s Wing Commander games; and Beyond the Red Line, based on the new Battlestar Galactica series – and a host of other, smaller user-created mods and campaigns. “It’s truly quite incredible to compare the original Freespace 2 engine and what we’ve got available for free download right now.”

What’s most impressive about FreeSpace, though, is the 10-year-old game’s following is growing. “On any one day there’s typically over 150 people stopping through,” he says. And on April 15, 2007, The Babylon Project announced it served over 100,000 downloads of the demo, just two weeks after releasing it to the public.

Of course, they’ve had some help from Volition along the way, albeit indirectly. The company always had a progressive way of doing business: In an age where companies are afraid to release games without crippling malware and online CD key verification, Volition opted to use the “sneakernet” rather than fight it. In FreeSpace 2‘s end-user license agreement, the company stated, “You may make copies of the Software for your personal noncommercial home entertainment use and to give to friends and acquaintances on a no cost noncommercial basis.” And in 2002, they released FreeSpace 2‘s source code, which opened the door to things like The Babylon Project and Beyond the Red Line. Avery believes Volition’s open-mindedness has given the game “fantastic drawing power, as what you can basically get here is a game that’s still seeing a lot of active development from some very talented people. Best of all, it’s free! ”

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It’s also guaranteed the community will be around for the foreseeable future. “If you had asked me a couple of years ago whether I could imagine the community still being together and putting active work into the games, I wouldn’t have been sure,” says Avery. “But things are still going strong and show no signs of stopping. It looks like Volition has created a great set of games for us, as well as the tools and opportunities to make what we want of them, and it’s really a pleasure to be working on that.

“Who knows where we’ll be in five years’ time?”

Internet Curmudgeons with Hearts of Radioactive Gold: No Mutants Allowed
In 1997, the videogame world trembled as a titan was birthed from a nuclear apocalypse, and lo, the legend was named Fallout. The brainchild of Leonard Boyarsky, Jason Anderson and Tim Cain of Interplay, Fallout‘s mix of incredibly dark humor and terrifying wasteland setting captured the heart of everyone who sat in front of a computer in the late ’90s. Its sequel, Fallout 2, though it didn’t quite bear the mark of the first’s creators, enjoyed even more widespread appeal, but the franchise endured nearly a decade of bad cash-ins and worse attempts at humor until recently, now that the storied Bethesda has thrown in its hat to give a true third edition of the game a proper showing.

And through it all, No Mutants Allowed was there.

Started on Geocities nearly a decade ago by a Serbian named “Miroslav” (who only left the site due to the Bosnian War), NMA has built a reputation as the definitive, and most vocal (read: kinda mean), Fallout community on the web. And to hear Thomas “Brother None” Beekers, Sebastian “Silencer” Lenartowicz and Sander Philipse – NMA’s administrators – tell it, they’re not going away any time soon. “With the times, our goals have changed,” Beekers says. “Originally, we were formed to be as supportive as we could be of Fallout, and this was great between Fallout 1 and 2, before Tactics‘ release dashed our hopes of a good spin-off and no new release was forthcoming (there were two Fallout 3 start-ups that were cancelled before Van Buren [Black Isle’s Fallout 3 tech demo, hosted on NMA]).

“Now, we’re mostly evangelists of recreating the original Fallout experience. We try to convince the media and publishers that there is a viable niche market for Fallout-like games that has been under-serviced for years.”

Acting as a non-profit, grass-roots PR and marketing campaign for the better part of a decade speaks to a zeal not often observed outside of holy crusades and message board flame wars. What is it about Fallout that inspires people to continually sing its praises?

Philipse says, Fallout‘s world felt more, well, worldly than anything that’s come before or since. “There are many games today that offer you sandbox-like gameplay, but very few of them also make you feel the consequences of the choices you are offered. If you muck something up, you’ll have to play with it. Most games either stop your game, or offer you an odd explanation as to why things did work out anyway. Fallout offered you the choices, and had the game world react to those choices.”

“Also,” says Lenartowicz, “the character creation and development system was friggin’ sweet.”

In terms of the NMA community, all three admit that while it has grown every year, it does suffer some pitfalls of age: Primarily, the folks there have refined arguing down to a brutal science. “I dislike a bit that this sometimes means there’s too much (sometimes enforced) consensus on anything concerning Fallout, and not always enough freedom for creative thought,” Beekers says. “What I dislike a lot more is that our often abusive attitude always attracts a lot of ne’er-do-wells and ill-thinking pre-adolescents. … I think those types also contribute disproportionally to [our] bad reputation.”

However, the good far outweighs the bad, according to Lenartowicz. “Our visitors are an educated and wholesome bunch, [that makes] this community worth our time. There’s a lot of expertise to be gained here, I should know first hand. Having joined the community fairly late (around the time Van Buren was cancelled), I have really benefited from it in terms of Fallout and gaming lore.”

In terms of the future, all three share reservations about Bethesda picking up Interplay’s ball. “Part of me is happy that the franchise didn’t die with Black Isle Studios,” says Beekers, “but for the most part I realize Fallout is only a name, and the fact that Bethesda’s Fallout 3 is called Fallout 3 doesn’t mean anything unless they make it a Fallout game. If they don’t, I’m guessing I and other fans will be about as upset as we were with the release of Fallout: BoS [Brotherhood of Steel].”

However, regardless of what the future holds, Beekers remains optimistic for NMA: “Considering we’re still that active on a set of decade-old games that were never enormous hits, I don’t think we’re going anywhere, anytime soon.”

Heirs to an Empty Kingdom: The Continuum Team
Released in ’97, Virgin Interactive Entertainment’s (VIE) SubSpace was a victim of its novelty. Just barely scraping the traditional MMOG qualifier (64 or more players on one server), the top-down space combat game – along with Meridian 59 and Ultima Online – laid the foundation for online gaming. The game played a bit like Counter-Strike or Team Fortress, only with spaceships: Players battled over flag capture points and for bragging rights, and thanks to a robust chat system, people didn’t even need to log out to torment their victims.

However, in 1997, those ancient times Before Broadband, back when some people were still paying by the hour for flaky internet access, the idea of paying an additional fee to log into a virtually non-persistent world with little record of your existence beyond a name and a win-loss record just didn’t take. By 1998, VIE had lost its funding from parent company Virgin, and the SubSpace license went un-purchased, leaving the remaining community with little support.

Players were able to create their own servers, but without a unified developer to patch the game in an official capacity, cheating ran rampant, which pushed the game even further underground. If SubSpace was going to survive, it needed something bold to happen. Enter Priit “PriitK” Kasesalu. Kasesalu, who would later go on to design Kazaa and Skype, reverse-engineered SubSpace and renamed it Continuum, the version of the game most people play today. Since then, Kasesalu maintains a few servers, but has handed over the day-to-day responsibilities to the community he saved.

One of the leaders in the community is Scott “PoLiX” Binford. A nine-year SubSpace vet, Binford runs and acts, in a way, as the game’s publicist. “I am a lone man in some ways … keeping what I can together while trying to get a new face and grow the site again.” Binford says he, like many other of the game’s diehard fans, grew up playing SubSpace. “I’ve known many of the players I consider friends since the time I began, and some I have worked with for years now building the websites.”

Sometimes, all the work he and the rest of the team does can be exhausting and frustrating. Binford admits he’s thought about giving up his responsibilities “a few times. It has gotten frustrating being the last general site for the game … But I still keep the sites up and running and keep my active user base happy. I know I am the media for the game, and without our websites, we would slowly die.”

But the death of SubSpace is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Even they were hit hard by World of Warcraft‘s arrival, but the team plans on rolling out the PR wagon to draw new people to the game. They intend to focus on how varied the game can be – “In what other game can you go from playing an Unreal Tournament-style game to an Infantry-style game?” – as well as how working on a collaborative development can lead to paying jobs within the industry. “Many of our players … have now gotten jobs in programming, or designing,” he says, “and have said they found Continuum an easier jumping leap than any other game, as so much more programming is needed, and you’re starting literally from bare scratch in many places.”

Whatever the marketing outcome, Binford is extremely confident in the team’s lasting survival. “Honestly, this game will never die as long as we keep playing it and enjoying it, so I see it lasting until our 20-year anniversary and beyond.”

Go Tell It on the Mountain
The one question I had when I first reached out to these community spokespeople was, “Why?” In a medium where anything is a dinosaur after its fifth birthday, dedicated, hardcore gamers are spending huge amounts of time on something most people won’t be able to run on a modern computer in a few years. What keeps them so committed?

Everyone’s answer settled on three things: The game resonated on a special, nostalgic frequency; overwhelming confidence in the game’s staying power; and they’ve grown close to the people who feel the same way. “There is no alternative if you love this kind of game,” says NMA’s Philipse. Hard Light’s Avery does put emphasis on the game, but “on the verge of sounding quite sappy now, but it honestly has to be the people. I’ve not seen any other community where so many people have put so much hard work into a game that – in all honesty – isn’t likely to see a sequel.”

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne’s World and Dr. Strangelove too much. But someday, it will be funny. Oh yes, it will be funny.

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