The Game Archaeologist: The curious case of Lost Colony

The Game Archaeologist Lost Colony
You know the story of Roanoke, right? That early American settlement that abruptly went missing with only the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree for later colonists to find? It's a big mystery that might not be much of a mystery at all, but I've always been fascinated with it and other similar tales. There's just something about an abruptly vanishing thing or people to arrest the imagination.

So what about an entire MMO that one day just went "poof" and vanished into thin air? And what if it had the ironic name of Lost Colony? And what if I were so bored as to scour the internet for clues as to what happened to it? I think you're going to find out.

Lost Colony came to my attention during a recent trip to Planet Wikipedia, where the natives are interesting if not always fully sourced. I was reading through an article on vaporware when this game caught my eye. An MMO I never heard of that just disappeared? I felt a Scooby Doo mystery coming on!

The Game Archaeologist Lost Colony
The game

As far as I can tell, Lost Colony first entered the sphere of public awareness with a PR release on November 29th, 2006. In it, a company called Red Planet LLC announced that the website for an upcoming MMO, Lost Colony, had gone live. The email also mentioned that there would be a beta in December and a launch in early 2007.

Lost Colony was presented as a Planetside-esque MMOFPS, boasting three factions and an ongoing weekly storyline that evolved from players' actions. It presumed to use the Torque Engine to pull off its combat and visuals. The game took place in the 23rd century, putting players in the shoes of the Insurgents, Survivalists, or Veritas Corporation on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

I found a mention that the game had been in development since 2005, although nobody had heard of it prior to November 2006. In any case, Lost Colony was going to be a self-published title with some connections to an e-distribution network called GameSHOUT.

The website went up as announced and spread out the expected array of goodies: videos, screenshots, game information. The header boasted that it would be available for "Xbox 360, PC, and Mac," and the front page listed a launch date of January 22nd, 2007. Even more promisingly, Red Planet LLC said that it had inked license agreements with Microsoft, Sony, and Unreal Tournament.

Secondhand smoke and mirrors

Players, eager for news on any new MMO, started chatting about the game right away. As December rolled on, the talk started to grow curious, then anxious. Had anyone actually gotten into the beta? What was the game like? Did it play well? Was it really ready for launch the very next month?

And most tellingly, they wondered, "Is this an actual game?"

For all of the questions that were thrown out, nobody came back with an affirmative to any of them. Nobody could report from the beta because it seemed as if nobody was playing it. But that was very odd because the website itself said that if players pre-purchased the $19.95, these "paid players" would be able to get in the game that very week.

Soon, fewer people were asking for beta reports and more were repeating one damning word: Scam.

The Game Archaeologist The curious case of Lost Colony
The war for information

As players started to investigate the heck out of Lost Colony, evidence that something fishy was afoot began to pile up all over the place:
  • The game was unheard of prior to November 2006 but was supposedly launching two months later.
  • The company was asking players to plunk down $20 prior to launch, with a subscription fee following the initial 30 days of play.
  • Nobody was reporting from the beta.
  • The screenshots and videos were extremely basic. No gameplay videos were released.
  • Some players claimed that the visuals were pulled directly from the Torque demo.
  • GameSHOUT (which Red Planet also owned or was associated with) was embroiled in an underhanded lawsuit with Valve over website domains.
  • Players accused the company of faking Lost Colony forum member numbers and accounts.
  • It was proven that the company licensed models from 3DRT and posted them on the Lost Colony website as actual in-game visuals.
  • Red Planet's mailing address and phone number seemingly had nothing to do with the company itself or its location.
  • The studio was developing this for three platforms at the same time? Really?
  • The company was accepting credit card information non-stop.
As December 2006 rolled into January 2007... nothing happened. Lost Colony did not launch, the website remained static, no press releases were issued, and the devs remained silent. From my research, I found extremely few press mentions of this game at all, which is very odd even for the time.

Flame wars

Meanwhile, various forums heated up over the supposed existence of the game and whether or not it was a scam. These forums might have died down if it hadn't been for the appearance of one Andy Hodges, the executive director of IT for Red Planet. Hodges popped up in several locations to defend the legitimacy of the game, all the while claiming that he was not in charge. His posts outright called players a liar in return, and worse.

In his most infamous post
from December 2006, Hodges wrote (and I'm abridging here): "Everyone else in this thread that is talking smack about our game, you should be ashamed of yourselves... The difference between them and our company is, we have been developing Lost Colony for a over a year, and we're actually going to have a nice game for people to play and enjoy... Lost Colony is real, and it's moving forward on the launch without delay... There are a lot of people involved with the Lost Colony project, which means, when you call this project a scam or try to play it down like it's no big deal, you are hurting a lot of other Torque devs that have been involved with this project."

And yet Hodges' claims fell apart over time. Not only did Lost Colony slip its January launch window, it never launched at all. Various members of Red Planet would post on the game's now-defunct forums that there were technical and other reasons for the indefinite delay, but it's important to note that it never stopped taking in money from gullible players.

One poster made the remark that this might just be the first MMO to be fully funded by pre-orders. A more likely scenario is that this was a desperate money grab of a broke operation.

The Game Archaeologist The curious case of Lost Colony
Denouement

No lawsuits or investigations against Red Planet LLC and Lost Colony happened. It's hard to say how many players gave the company $20 for the privilege of early access, but if they did, it was lost to them for good.

In October 2007, Red Planet surfaced one last time to release a statement that it was in talks with a publisher over Lost Colony, but the publisher's name was not mentioned. A mention of a March 2008 release was tucked in at the end. Nevertheless to say, nothing came of any of this. Lost Colony became vaporware, Red Planet dissolved, and Andy Hodges moved on to a weird news site.

What's both intriguing and frustrating about the Lost Colony saga is just how little information there is overall. All of the usual pre-release trappings of an MMO, even a minor one, were simply not present. And, c'mon, that website looked like it was from 1999, not 2006.

So I'm left thinking that one of two things happened here. Lost Colony could've been a legitimate if extremely undeveloped MMO that the devs wanted to fund quickly in order to slap it together for a 2007 release. Maybe they underestimated how hard it would be to do so, and maybe they were incompetent across the board, especially in community relations. Maybe this really was no better than a fan mod with a price tag, and we should leave it at that.

But the scam angle is too juicy to ignore, however. Using the promise of an MMO to lure naive players into handing over their credit card numbers and $20 is something I haven't heard much of in my time with Massively. One wonders just how long the people behind this expected to get away with it, and just why they would schedule a launch date a month or so after announcing the title for the first time.

Like all true mystery stories, it may have a firm solution, but we're unlikely to know of it. All we have left are scraps and whispers of a game that may or may not have ever existed.

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.