Imagine a real-time strategy game that took place in full three-dimensional space, where your units weren’t just AI-controlled automatons, but real people. Those people were playing a beautifully rendered space combat simulator. You could give them orders, but their ability to carry them out was based on their skill as a pilot. Unlike in StarCraft or Command & Conquer where all units of the same type were created equal, here the best dogfighters could decimate half of the other team before being banished to an escape pod. Such a game came out ten years ago, and its name was Allegiance.

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The game had everything – a fully realized RTS game, complete with tech trees and resource gathering, and a space combat simulator with (for the most part) accurate zero-G physics. But less than a year and a half after the game’s launch, the number of active players had dropped to the point where Allegiance‘s publisher had dropped support, and the community had dwindled to almost nothing. What went wrong?

The origin of Allegiance is one of the more fascinating tales of game development; it wasn’t developed by a gaming studio powerhouse, or by a big name in game design. Instead, it was developed by a group that had never shipped an actual product, let alone a videogame.

Microsoft Research was the skunkworks of the software giant, a place where cool and forward-looking technologies and concepts were developed to later be rolled into Microsoft products. This was the team that developed such technologies as Digital Ink for Tablet PC and Microsoft ClearType. What were they doing making a videogame?

“It turns out that computer games usually lead other product categories in using cutting edge technologies,” says Joel “Solap” Dehlin, executive producer on Allegiance. One of the VPs of MSR, Rick Rashid, who had developed a multiplayer networked game for the Xerox Alto called Alto Trek, had been keeping the code alive in his own time for close to twenty years, and thought it would make a cool project for MSR. Rashid, along with Dehlin and Rob Girling (who would become Lead Game Designer), hashed out their ideas. “Rob and I would spend hours talking through ideas. We’d go out to a pier on Lake Washington or over to my house or wherever. Then we’d come back and talk to David [Pugh, one of the head programmers], who would tell us which ideas were impractical or why they wouldn’t be fun,” Explains Dehlin.

But shipping an actual product, especially a videogame, was an insane undertaking for the small group. “At the time, MSR wasn’t accustomed to shipping products so we had to discover nearly everything we did: staffing, budgeting, marketing, project management, QA, community management, content pipeline and management. It was incredibly fun – like starting a business from scratch,” says Dehlin. And this was at a time when Microsoft, outside of Solitaire and the like, had never actually developed a game internally from the ground up, and the Xbox was still more than a year away from release.

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Internally, the project became known as Oblivion. It was ambitious – a 3rd person MMO RPG with space combat. “Think EVE Online meets Tribes,” says lead designer Girling. “We showed it to the Games group and they smiled encouragingly and said more or less ‘good luck with that.’ The vision was pretty insanely ambitious so after we hired [Joel] we focused on making a great large scale multiplayer ‘space combat’ game cutting all the RPG ideas.”

Allegiance shipped to great reviews in March of 2000. The space combat was deep – ships had complete free range of motion, with a main engine in the back and omni-directional thrusters. But initial sales were bad – by the end of the year it had sold less than 30,000 copies. For a title published and promoted by Microsoft, this was a huge disappointment. And sadly, when a multiplayer-only title starts losing its player base, the effect begins to snowball. What happened?

“First, the spacecraft action game genre was in decline, there had not been (and still arguably has not been) a commercially successful space shooter game since the mid 90’s,” explains Girling. “Secondly, ‘multiplayer only’ action games appealed to the hardest of the hardcore gamer, which further reduced the potential appeal. In addition, the game required a subscription to the [Allegiance] Zone to play in the big games, which at that time was still an experimental business model and only worked … with RPG titles.”

The last problem, relates Dehlin, was one the team had little control over. “Right before we shipped, the games division inked a $100M deal with Digital Anvil, who happened to have a game in the same category: space. Microsoft put all of the marketing behind Starlancer and hardly any behind Allegiance. Most of our marketing was word of mouth and great reviews. That year, Allegiance dominated Starlancer in game reviews, but sales were awful.”

“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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