The internet has turned into the Wild West of a generation. Bullies and gang leaders rule with an iron fist while Good Guys try to stick together. Unfortunately, the Good Guys usually end up having to use their arsenal of bansticks liberally when trying to clean up a message board.

In addition to the struggle between Good and Evil, snake oil salesmen and evangelists roll into town and convert hundreds and thousands of followers before disappearing in the middle of the night, leaving behind bewildered good people. This is a story of one of those flashes in the pan. What happened to this flash? The answer rode off into the sunset.

Headed up by Peter Baumann, Jr., a 15-year-old wunderkind, and his father, Red Dragon Software set out to create the holy grail of MMOGs. Announced when Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron’s Call began losing their luster, Rune Conquest promised fast paced combat, interesting crafting and skill gain that made sense.

Back in the dark ages of MMOG development, the concept of a two man team building the foundation of a game engine, along with designing the aesthetic and promoting the game, was eminently more believable. Even EQ‘s team was relatively small by today’s standards, and Meridian 59‘s development team was just a handful of talented guys working in cramped quarters. Besides, the Baumanns never planned on going it alone; as soon as they acquired more funding, they’d hire an entire development team. But they planned on getting funded in an avant garde manner: players could pay $50 to guarantee entrance to an online beta, as well as receive special God powers once the game went live.

Money from hopefuls poured in. Here it was, a chance to be a part of something, to have a financial stake in an idea you believed in. And hey, God powers. Red Dragon was able to play on hope and greed, and the powerful combination got people talking, which only drew in more interested gamers. As more people grew interested, more people began wondering exactly what it was they were buying into; the scheduled public beta was fast approaching, but Red Dragon had yet to hire any new developers, aside from a web designer named Chris Anderson.

The Baumanns defended themselves by claiming one of the programmers they were planning to hire was a corporate spy from another firm, and they nixed the entire group in a fit of xenophobia. Red Dragon was in a bad spot: They were still a three man company without a game to show people, whose money they were holding.

Red Dragon disintegrated into panic. The Baumanns became extremely aggressive on their message boards, taunting members who questioned the game’s development. The actual website went through turmoil, as Chris Anderson took it down after a dispute between he and Baumann, Sr. The drama came to a head when Anderson declared he and his wife felt their lives were threatened by Baumann. Anderson later retracted his statement and transferred ownership of the website and its content to Baumann, but the episode shook many of the beta testers’ resolves.

In a bid to keep people interested, Red Dragon finally released preliminary screen shots, a tidbit of the great things to come from a company who finally overcame their growing pains. Unfortunately, the screen shots weren’t even theirs. They were stock footage from developers of a middleware engine used to promote their software.

As the realization that even preliminary art hadn’t yet been created, discussion began flying, and testers started yelling “scam.” Some asked for refunds on their investment, which took weeks to arrive. Others remained hopeful, and stayed with the game until it fizzled away, never to be heard from again. By the time screen shots actually eked their way out of Red Dragon Studios, anyone with an outside view could easily say the game wasn’t going to materialize.

The hiring episode was what piqued my attention. Call it a love of corporate espionage, or perhaps I’m just some sort of drama vampire, but I had to jump into the Rune Conquest fray, just to see what made these fanatics tick. When I got there, it was just a message board full of upbeat people who wanted desperately to enjoy something. But things became so haywire by the end, the only people who remained were the ones who were there at the beginning.

What kept people there? To hear them talk, it was the emotional investment. Try spending months or years believing in something, only to resolve yourself to the fact the dream isn’t coming true. Some people can’t handle the strain, and prefer to continue on, eventually turning into evangelists for their ideal. But it’s not a flaw, it’s just a byproduct of hope.

Despite the cloud of apparent cynicism, gamers do enjoy liking stuff. Questing after a comfortable niche can catapult anyone into psychoville, be it the manic high point that is the super fan, or the overly aggressive burnout who remembers the last time he reached out for something, but drew back a bloody stump – and won’t let anyone forget about it.

It’s easy to criticize with a bird’s eye view. Everyone has been a fanatic at some point or another. They’ve also been the abused dog too afraid to come out from under the porch. Find someone who hasn’t, and you’ll find someone who can’t embrace their own humanity. There’s no sense resisting the urge to believe; it’s eventually going to get you. I only hope you don’t wind up chasing a phantom.

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.

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