Personally, I prefer science fiction over fantasy nine times out of ten, even though most of the MMOs that grace my desktop (with the exception of Star Trek Online) are fantasy games. Sci-fi has had an awfully difficult time making headway into the field of MMOs, with plenty of underperforming or canceled titles littering the way. I've heard it explained that the fantasy genre is easier for the common person to grasp because it uses elements of our past -- primarily the medieval period -- to provide a familiar baseline, whereas sci-fi's futuristic setting requires world-building from scratch.
Whatever the case may be, Earth & Beyond never really caught on the way that EVE Online did, and its miniscule population (GameSpot reported 20-25K subscribers six months before its shutdown) was not enough for Electronic Arts to keep it running. But between 2002 and 2004, Earth & Beyond reached for the stars and gave its own spin on how a sci-fi MMO could work. Let's take a look today at what made Earth & Beyond unique, what it gave the industry, and how it may help upcoming space MMOs avoid a similar fate.
Back in the day, my friends and I were all nuts about Westwood Studios -- the company that helped put real-time strategy games on the map with Dune II and Command & Conquer. I can't tell you how many hours we sunk into C&C during college, but it was an obscene amount at the very least. But whereas Westwood's RTS contemporary Blizzard would go on to create the smash MMO hit of 2004, Westwood's own MMO project would be the studio's swan song.
Electronic Arts purchased the promising studio in 1998, and while fans had hoped that the larger company would enable the Westwood team to go on to bigger and better things, EA's acquisition was the death knell for the studio. Titles were rushed out before they were ready, and EA aggressively downsized Westwood before closing it entirely in 2003 (although its website from 1997 is still up, including the employment page).
It's important to know this bit of history, because by the time that Earth & Beyond came out in 2002, Westwood had one foot out the door and was hardly in a position to provide the ongoing development and support that an MMO required.
However, Westwood's involvement with E&B began around 1998, just as MMOs as a whole were becoming noticed by the larger gaming community. After four years of development, Westwood announced its space-themed MMO for a 2001 release, although players wouldn't see it until September of 2002. In an interesting move to prevent Day One server crowding, Westwood intentionally sent out limited amounts of copies to retailers on a weekly basis as part of a gradual roll-out of the game. Compare this to today, when studios do everything in their power to ensure the largest possible Day One population, and you can see just how much the industry has changed.
While spaceships and multiplayer games were common bedfellows in the '90s, the 3-D MMO world had yet to see many space contemporaries to the planet-bound Ultima Onlines and EverQuests of the day (NetDevil's Jumpgate, which we'll cover in an upcoming series, was the first in 2001). Westwood planned to change that by putting players into the cockpits of interstellar craft and charging them with a wide variety of activities: trade, PvP, missions and exploration.
Earth & Beyond experimented with random mission generation, similar to Anarchy Online's system, although both would prove to be far less popular than dev-created quests. In 2003, the devs put in a new type of quest called "push missions," which weren't retreived by the player at a specific location but were "pushed" to them in space as an incoming message. While it seems like common sense to do so, only lately have we seen more MMOs utilize this time of on-the-go quest assignment.
While E&B promised to give players a choice of three factions and nine professions (which could be mixed-and-matched to create a class of sorts), the game only launched with six of the nine professions, to the displeasure of some fans.
One of Earth & Beyond's more interesting selling points was its three-part experience system. No matter what their faction or profession, players were ultimately tasked with raising three different kinds of XP: trade, exploration and combat. The three XP bars were combined to form an overall level that was used to access skills and the like, which meant that by focusing only on, say, combat, you'd be severely gimping your character's progress.
In a weird twist on the traditionally harsh death penalties of the early 2000's, Earth & Beyond didn't take away XP (potentially causing you to lose levels) but instead applied an XP debt that caused you to receive only half the experience until it was fully paid off. It's fascinating to look back at an era when these penalties were accepted as matter-of-fact, especially considering how current MMO studios would be torched within days if they tried the same tactics.
One of the reported issues with E&B was a sense of isolation, which was due to the quick travel and immense distances between most players. The game also lacked the internet community -- the fansites and blogs that are so prevalent now -- to bind players together. As a result, one of Earth & Beyond's greatest lessons for future developers was just how important it was to connect players, even dedicated soloers, and form a solid community.
This isn't to say that there was no community whatsoever, just that there were more obstacles to forming it than in other MMOs. Some fans of the game have kept the memories alive for years now with websites and even E&B emulator projects, which tells me that there was something about this MMO that fed a hunger inside players.
Ironically, while at the time of this writing, EVE Online has yet to implement the patch to allow players to exit their ships and walk around in stations, Earth & Beyond had this from the get-go. While it wasn't the core of the game, the ability to see your flesh-and-blood character and explore something other than the inky blackness of space was a relief.
Probably the saddest day for Earth & Beyond pilots came on March 17th, 2004, when EA announced that the game would be closing that September, two years after E&B's launch.
In an anonymous interview with Gamespot, an EA representative shed a bit of light on the company's disillusionment with the game and genre as a whole: "Our most enduring lesson comes from Ultima Online, which has been going strong for eight years now. Ultima taught us that there is an audience for persistent world games. However, we may have overestimated the size of the audience for persistent-state worlds. Games based on medieval fantasy have done very well; other genres have not."
Ironically, two months after Earth & Beyond's closing, World of Warcraft would show companies everywhere how much they may have underestimated the size of the audience for these persistent-state worlds.
As a parting gift to the fans of the game, players were given a free copy of Ultima Online and could play Earth & Beyond from August until the shutdown without a monthly fee. This was dubbed the "Sunset" era of the game by the strangely poetic EA marketing team, and it gave players enough time to say goodbye to their MMO home before moving on to other galaxies.
Of course, this is only half of the story!
As with every featured MMO on The Game Archaeologist, we want to hear what you, the veteran players of this game, have to say about your time in it! To any of the pilots who were there, send in your favorite Earth & Beyond memory to firstname.lastname@example.org and give this game the honor it deserves. Send me any screenshots you might have as well!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.