We live in an era dominated by the sheer amount of cultural ephemera that passes in and out of our lives. Thirty years ago, four television networks filtered the totality of the American experience. They’ve since blossomed into the hundreds, and the amount of media the average American consumes has grown in tandem. Things inevitably get lost in the deluge. Even the internet, the cultural aggregator of our time, is remarkably present-tense. Sites devoted to little known fads eventually shut down, and with them entire histories disintegrate.
The subculture surrounding ARC (Attack, Retrieve, Capture) is in the midst of such a disintegration. The game and the community it supports are as remarkable for their stubborn survival as they are for their obscurity. ARC is a divergent strand in the videogame evolutionary tree: Out there alone, like a coelacanth, ARC is an example of a successful game fated to be the last of its kind. And though it’s a success story any game developer would be proud of, it’s also a sad case of an extinction in progress.
ARC represents the humble beginnings of the eventual founders of PopCap Games, John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka. Conceived as a college project in 1997, ARC is a 2-D top down multiplayer game whose primary play modes are a standard deathmatch and capture the flag . Players pilot ships armed with lasers and a number of secondary weapons around arenas full of obstacles that affect movement and weapon fire. If the gameplay sounds fairly basic, that’s because it is; but at its heart are the elements present in legendary first person shooters like Counter-Strike and Halo. And like those other shooters, players have developed impossibly complex tactics and play styles over the years.
ARC players break the game’s lifespan up into eras according to the names of its hosting clients. The first was the H-Front era, essentially an extended beta period to address instability, bugs and gameplay balance. It was during this period that Tom Durham (screen name: elDAZo) first started playing ARC. Durham, now a graduate student, has played the game since the age of 14 with few breaks along the way. According to Durham, ARC came into its own when Total Entertainment Network (TEN) purchased and began hosting the game. Under TEN, a full-blown clan system emerged along with it the establishment of the ARC Premier League, the game’s tournament organization. These were relatively heady days, with one tournament, sponsored by Diamond Multimedia, offering free MP3 players to the winning clan. But more importantly, players remember TEN as the period when many of the competitive strategies fundamental to competitive play emerged.
The game that emerged was dominated by a community of savants. “Before name registration was closed, there were a wide variety of skill levels playing the games,” Durham says. “When name registration went down, the influx of new players disappeared.” Earlier in its history, the game featured public games with maps tailored to all skill levels. Cloistered away from newcomers, however, hardcore ARC players refined their skills to the point where games and maps catering to new players no longer existed. What was left were a half dozen or so proven maps requiring enormous amounts of gameplay knowledge in order to be competitive. An insurmountable skill gap emerged. The community became at once highly advanced and deeply out of touch.
Another effect of the Sierra exile was that ARC saw few updates. To this day, the game’s graphics betray its origins as a student project. It’s difficult to describe just how abstract the game looks. The player’s ship, affectionately called a nipple, is just that – a multicolored saucer that looks oddly like a metal nipple. Levels are made of colorless grey tiles and barriers that resemble a prototype Gauntlet level or a half-completed game of Minesweeper. The overall effect is off-puttingly sterile, and watching someone play is initially confounding as you try to make sense of the subtle differences in barriers. It’s not quite the level of visual obfuscation of a game like the ASCII-rendered Dwarf Fortress, but it lacks the color and style of more modern 2-D games.
Not that ARC was ever about the visuals. It’s an example of a perfectly balanced game; a game whose fundamentals are so strong that even the cataclysmic change in the game’s resolution only served to re-balance the gameplay. As an example of community play – testing, it is unrivaled. ARC‘s most popular map, Go, has been the only one used by serious players for over eight years. Using a freely available map editor, ARC players have made constant tweaks to the Go map in an effort to address its sole nagging imbalance: that the red base is too easy to defend. A quick glance over the matchmaking lobby shows various iterations of Go in constant play. Beyond the appeal of obsessing over tournament predictions, play tactics and map tweaks lies the simple fact that every match holds the promise of the unexpected – the knowledge that after all these years, tomorrow’s game might be the best yet.
Because ARC has been so thoroughly balanced and refined by community experimentation alone, it has a distinctive play history with its own legends and innovators. The dominant player in the game, Mage, has been at the top of the heap without any significant challenge for years. “You have a lot of players who will get good and go on a streak for a short period of time and then fall off,” Kozma says. “Mage is kind of like Michael Jordan in that sense. The difference is there were guys who could play with Michael Jordan; no one can play with Mage.” The ARC superstar has taken his past two clans to a combined total of four consecutive titles.
Astrok is ARC‘s other key figure. One of the game’s earliest participants (and preceding Mage by a few years), Astrok was, according to Durham, one of the major innovators in developing some of the strategies seen in the game today. “Astrok wasn’t considered the best because he out-skilled everyone (although he was a talented player in those regards),” Durham says. “His notoriety came from his dominance as a strategic mind and excellent teammate. Nobody made a bigger impact on important games than Astrok. To top it all off, he was a very humble, smart and funny guy which added to his legend.”
In 2007 the inevitable finally occurred when Sierra shut down its ARC servers, leaving the nomadic community to once again move on to new pastures. This time, they did so without the ARC name. Due to complications with Sierra, and despite offers by the community to purchase the rights to the game, they were ultimately forced to recode it from scratch and call it SPARK under the CodeMallet brand. The community, once numbering in the thousands, has diminished to a few hundred – an old guard interested only in the advancement of their own skills.
The tragedy that ARC illustrates is that games, with few exceptions, are mired in the present. As consumable pieces of entertainment, they function fine in that regard. But as games grow in complexity and communities spring up around specific titles, they develop their own cultures that can end abruptly the moment the server is shut down. ARC, as neither the catalyst for a genre nor a touchstone in gaming history, is doomed to this fate. Gamers can only watch with fascination and, one hopes, a twinge of regret, as the ARC community soldiers on toward the final server shutdown.
Tom Endo doesn’t play ARC but, on the advice of Jamie Kozma, he has discovered the pleasures of spectating matches while eating greasy Chinese food.