The best game you’ve never played,” ran the headline on the website’s main page. And it was most noticeably a non-Microsoft page. I quickly scanned over the game’s history. Was this legal? How had a seemingly independent group of people managed to lay hands on the server-side game components? Were they actually running a playable version of Allegiance, a space-flight simulator once on Microsoft’s Zone service, for free?

I had lost track of Allegiance after Microsoft stopped supporting the game. I talked about the game’s original demise with one of the original members of the Allegiance development team, Matt “MEGA” Alderman. The game was originally divided into two player bases: a pay service called the Allegiance Zone, and a free service called the Free Zone. “The benefits of paying a monthly fee wasn’t clearly marketed,” says Alderman, which confused players. Alderman also cites the monthly fee itself as a major detractor. “[Back then], it was unusual to pay a monthly fee for a game you already bought.”

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The game was a money loser for Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft was diverting marketing dollars and manpower from Allegiance to support another space game, Freelancer. Allegiance was subsequently thrown to the wolves. Understaffed and rife with bugs, cheaters began exploiting issues they knew wouldn’t be fixed. “Microsoft Research and The Zone just got fed up with people ruining it for everyone and always felt one step behind” says Alderman. Eventually, Microsoft gave up and pulled the plug on the game.

Generally when a company stops hosting an online multiplayer game, it’s the end of that game’s story. Allegiance, on the other hand, had drawn a hardcore following that flatly refused to let the game die. Players created their own utilities to enable them to connect to LAN-hosted game servers and continued to play. The community dwindled, but continued to meet nightly. Then, in 2004, Allegiance‘s project lead, Joel Dehlin, convinced Microsoft to release the source code to the public. Once the code was released, the Allegiance community began an impressive comeback. Four years and several community releases later, users have updated the to work in modern C++, built a security and ranking system and made available dedicated game servers. An event staff routinely schedules community events, and squads square off every Sunday in ladder play.

There’s no doubt that the community itself is what keeps Allegiance fresh and exciting. I sat down with two of the community leaders to find out their views on what really makes Allegiance tick. Due to the public nature of their roles I will only use their game call signs.

BlackViper is the head of enforcement and owner of the Allegiance Academy website, where he maintains hundreds of pages of Allegiance-related information. He oversees the daily play of hundreds of users and leads a team of 35 volunteers that monitors games and keeps the peace. When things do get out of hand, one of the enforcement teams is usually present and can set things straight in short order thanks to a wide variety of community-built security utilities. “[Allegiance] is the most complex game ever released,” says BlackViper. “We have two training programs and literally hundreds of pages of material online.” There are an additional 40 members of BlackViper’s training team who guide players through an eight-week training program designed to teach new players the basics. With a game like Allegiance, more players make for better games, and new player retention is one of BlackViper’s primary goals.

Head administrator TigerEye not only oversees day-to-day operation of the Allegiance servers, but also maintains the forums, the Allegiance player security database and authentication applications, and one of the three regional Allegiance game servers. An IT professional based in Toronto, TigerEye keeps a close watch on the game systems and maintains an excellent uptime for a free system. “For the first year and a half after becoming Community Administrator, I concentrated on creating tools to allow others to perform the more mundane administrative duties.” Automation and professionalism are the keys to keeping these complex systems up and running.

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TigerEye and BlackViper personally spend anywhere from eight to 15 hours a week on administrative tasks and, of course, plenty of time playing the game. I asked them what has kept Allegiance fresh eight years and counting. “The massively multiplayer component makes Allegiance’s gameplay more than competitive with any game out there today. The relationships between the commander and the players on his team make the game very different than any other game out there.” says TigerEye. Indeed, commanding a game of Allegiance has been compared to playing StarCraft, the main difference being that your units all hate you. “I no longer play any other game,” says BlackViper. “I have become so hooked to the addiction we call ‘Allegiance.’ The heart-pounding intensity of squad games is beyond description.”

“[Allegiance] has strategy, player skill, surprise tactics, different maps, random placements and player drama all rolled-up into one truly perfect game,” says Alderman. “How many other games can boast a good-sized player base after eight-plus years since release with no major updates?”

Naturally, spending this much time on a project affects the rest of your life. Both TigerEye and BlackViper have used their Allegiance administration to good effect at job interviews. BlackViper also points out that his conflict resolution ability comes from “the skills learned in dealing with people in non-face-to-face situations and handling their anger and issues.”

It’s the community spirit that keeps the game going, and it’s such a deep concept to the gameplay it permeates throughout everything the Allegiance community touches. M.U.L.E. designer Dani Bunten Berry once said, “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!'” With Allegiance, it’s not so much the game you’re enjoying but the people you’re playing with. And that alone makes it worth saving it from the brink of extinction.

Nick Pirocanac is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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