Moon Chases Sun

Moon Chases Sun
Gaming's Fringe Cults

Joe Blancato | 19 Jun 2007 08:02
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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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