The Game Archaeologist goes to Earth & Beyond: A talk with Rade Stojsavljevic

I have to admit, it's bizarrely fascinating to cover a deceased MMO. The effort produces a bag of mixed emotions: fond memories, bitter resentment, wistful longing, and casual disinterest by those who weren't there. These games truly matter to some players, even though they're already in danger of being covered by the sands of history.

In these events, our monthly expeditions into these games becomes a rescue operation of sorts as we try to preserve the past by digging it up. I found it a welcome challenge to hunt down former Earth & Beyond developers who were willing to talk about their time with the game (and who hadn't forgotten it entirely -- 2004 is, like, sooo long ago!). Fortunately, I got a few nibbles for my efforts, and this week I reeled in Jet Set Games President Rade Stojsavljevic, who took time out of his schedule to hand us a long-lost piece of the Earth & Beyond treasure map.

Hit the jump to hear Stojsavljevic reminisce about the best -- and, yes, the worst -- that Earth & Beyond had to offer!

The Game Archaeologist: Please introduce yourself and your role with Earth & Beyond.

Rade Stojsavljevic: Hi everyone, I'm Rade Stojsavljevic, and I was one of the executive producers for Earth & Beyond during the development cycle and for the first several months after the project went live.

Everyone loves a good origin story -- how did Earth & Beyond come about?

Right around the time that Ultima Online came out, there were a lot of folks at Westwood Studios playing around with online games. Brett Sperry, co-founder and CEO of Westwood, felt there was a market for a space-based online game. There were a lot of fans of older space adventure games like TradeWars on old style BBS systems, Starflight, Wing Commander, and X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter.

How was the studio angling to make E&B different than the other MMOs of the day?

The first, and most obvious, difference was to break out of the fantasy genre. Ultima Online and EverQuest were already out and had control of that setting, plus there were a ton of other similar games coming out at the same time. Second, we wanted to build a game that was a lot more accessible to players. We tried very hard to build an intuitive and clean user interface, avoid a lot of insider gaming jargon, and provide a smooth progression of difficulty for first-time users.

What did the dev team do right from day one?

The first thing the team did was to clearly set up the project to have both client- and server-side development groups. This development split was done so that experts in network code, server hardware, etc. were working on building robust technology, while we had another team strictly focused on the user experience, writing and designing levels and systems.

In hindsight, what would you wish the team had done differently?

It retrospect, it's really obvious that players have a much stronger attachment to a humanoid avatar than a spaceship. By having so much of the gameplay be about the ships and space combat, we inadvertently made it harder for people to develop strong bonds with their character and to group with other people. The distances between players made it a lot harder to tell who was who and whether or not they were pulling their weight in a fight against a harder enemy.

What was the community like in Earth & Beyond?

It was great. We received so many great suggestions from players during the beta and after the project went live. After the servers were shut down, a group of players took it upon themselves to reverse engineer the systems and build their own servers so they could keep playing. That's some serious dedication, and I know everyone on the team I spoke to about it was in awe of their effort.

What is one of your favorite behind-the-scenes stories about E&B?

The game was in development for a while, and there were so many great stories. I remember at some point we were having problems making the ships feel really cool and unique. The new Star Wars movies were just coming out, and someone mentioned how the ships had really good silhouettes, which we needed so players could recognize the ship types, no matter what the lighting situation. One of the EA execs working with us said he knew Doug Chiang, the art director who designed the ships for Star Wars, and he offered to introduce us. We met Doug, he was interested, and he worked with us to redesign all of the player faction ships.

What did you personally enjoy about the game?

I really liked the themes we came up with for the factions. I still crack up at all the crazy stuff the team came up with for Tada-O and the Bogerils.

What would've prevented E&B from cancelation? Did EA hobble it from the start, or was the shutdown purely a numbers problem?

EA was really supportive of the project. When Westwood was closed, they moved a sizable portion of the development team to San Francisco to continue development.

In the end, it all came down to the numbers. MMOs are expensive to maintain, and the number of subscribers the game had just didn't make it profitable enough. EA could have let the game continue with a skeleton team and eked out a small profit, but there weren't enough subscribers to retain enough developers to add new content and features. No new content would have made for a slow death, so I'm actually glad they chose to shut it down.

How do you feel about fansites keeping the game alive with emulators?

I think it's amazing and it's a testament to how great the Westwood and E&B fans are.

What would you say is Earth & Beyond's greatest legacy to the MMO genre?

I think there's two things that E&B did more than anything else to advance the MMO genre. The first thing was our new-user experience with the tutorial and gradual progression of difficulty. I didn't see any other MMO spend time on this until World of Warcraft came out. The second thing was E&B's focus on entertaining the user and providing multiple different ways to play the game. If you'd rather play by exploring the world, we gave you experience for that. Same thing for trade/crafting or combat. Until E&B, the only way to advance in an MMO was to kill monsters.

What company are you with these days? Working on anything exciting?

Brett Sperry and I started a new company called Jet Set Games, and we have a few ex-Westwood folks on board who worked on Command & Conquer and Earth & Beyond. We have released a strategy game for mobile devices called Highborn; built a spy based game called Conspiracy for Playstation Home, which is sort of like a lightweight MMO; and are working on some new really cool stuff we're not ready to talk about just yet.

Thanks for sharing with us!

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 justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.