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.