Erp, better stop there before I begin infringing on the Captain's Log's territory! In any event, we at The Game Archaeologist Institute for Fuzzy Nostalgia continue to forge ahead with the Earth & Beyond dig, carefully dusting off memories and screenshots to preserve in a blog-shaped museum.
It's one thing to talk of a game, but another to speak with one who was there at the time, so I went on a hunt through the dark recesses of the internet to find seasoned Earth & Beyonders. This search took me about two minutes before one of my associates practically opened the floodgates of fanboy gushing to drown me in his enthusiasm for this title. One interview, hundreds of screenshots and an Electronic Arts dev bible later, and we at the institute knew that we hit the motherlode.
Join us for a civilized discussion with an Earth & Beyond vet as he shares with us crumpets and recollections.
Jonathan: My name is Jonathan. Most people refer to me as Ardua or Ardy nowadays. I occasionally blog over on Echoes of Nonsense and was originally inspired to do so by one Justin Olivetti and WAAAGH! Fancy that!
So how did you first hear about Earth & Beyond? Did you play any MMOs before it? What attracted you to it?
I love wargames, and I'm a sci-fi geek. No two ways about either of them. Naturally, I adored the Command & Conquer series, and I found out about Earth & Beyond through the Westwood site. At the start, if memory serves, there were just teaser images, but eventually they launched a beta board. I had a name for my ship right away as it was the name I used on the beta boards in response to the Westwood/E&B tagline of "How far will you go?" Well... imagination's end. Cheesy, I know.
Earth & Beyond was my first MMO in any way, shape or form. Spaceships? Online game? Always online? I was so hooked on the idea. I couldn't wait. It was reinforced by the fact that this was (for me and for the time) a big installation. So Westwood won my loyalty when they sent me a beta disc in the post. It seemed so silly, but... living in Ireland all my life, and then being sent, personally, a copy of the game to help test, sent by the games company itself? I was in love. Also, I was on a modem still at that stage as the country didn't have broadband.
What did you enjoy doing the most in the game: combat, trading or exploration?
Personally, I adored exploring. I decided to play a Jenquai Explorer, a Sha'ha'dem. The explorer class of an explorer race? Sign me right up. Of course, space was limited, but even so, I loved my ship, and I loved what I could do with it. Eventually, because my particular class could wormhole an entire team from one area to another, I got into the trade scene and found it really enjoyable. Even though I wasn't huge on combat and was originally sold on exploration, even that turned out to be good fun.
How did it stack up? In some ways, I'm not sure it did. EVE is still going strong now. Star Wars Galaxies had its own issues. Jump To Lightspeed never really registered on my radar as something to be concerned about, but EVE certainly was. In fact, if I remember correctly (and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I am wrong), the first Titan in EVE was built by a group ultimately founded by Celestial Horizon, a group of Earth & Beyond players who went to EVE.
If I had to pick one thing that I personally think E&B did better, it was likely the community feeling I had there compared to EVE, which was completely new to me and felt overwhelming and dangerous. EVE didn't click for me then, but I did come around to it much later on.
What was the community like?
My playing MMOs is pretty much the community's fault. Earth & Beyond Portal was a fansite run by a few names (Albino_eatpod and Munky spring to mind), and to my mind at least, it was filled with fantastic people.
People in the community could engage with the devs. There were people who through whatever means made names for themselves in the community and were recognised. I was always jealous of Dr_Zoidberg's Net7 shield. I understand such "favouritism" isn't feasible in some games due to
massive communities and may still occur in smaller games where people can still reach the powers-that-be easily, but it always stuck with me.
The other community memory that pops out was the Columbia disaster. There was a system in Beta Hydri sector, either Cooper or Glenn. Anyway, wherever it was, there were navigation points for various real-life and in-game astronomical history points. After the Columbia shuttle disaster, Westwood added in a new point to commemorate those who died, and there was a community gathering for a two-minute silence at the waypoint.
What are some of your favorite memories from the game?
Without a doubt, the day I saved a newbie. Ships had different slots available to them dependant upon your class. As a Jenquai explorer, I could, at very best with all unlocked, have three weapons -- the fewest in the game, but still, I made the most of it. Also, as an explorer class, I could "jumpstart" disabled players.
It was just a standard trade run when I was passing out of the Saturn system and found a guy who had gotten in over his head with V'rix ships. Massive, massive spawns of them. Still, they were much lower level than I was, so I thought I'd go for it.
The thanks of that guy who, up until that point, had never seen anyone fight so hard (I had to retreat twice and got disabled myself once if I remember right) just to get him back on
track have always been my favourite MMO memory.
I played E&B for the best part of a year and only stopped when I moved to Canada for a while. I did, however, come back for a brief visit for the Sunset.
If EA hadn't pulled the plug, how do you envision the ways Earth & Beyond would've developed?
To be honest, I'm not sure. Westwood was fond of mysteries and story. I honestly think that, given a fair shake, Earth & Beyond would never have rivalled EVE in size, complexity or playerbase, but it would have possibly set a standard on storytelling and engagement.
It actually was a pity that the budget (this is a wild guess) took a hit when Westwood finally shut up shop. I could have happily listened to many years of Claudia Christian as one of the NPC leads. Who knows how far they may have developed the voice work?
What did Earth & Beyond leave behind as its legacy to the MMO genre?
It left behind passionate people. Not necessarily about Earth & Beyond, though there are plenty of those in the emulator projects. I like to think that a few parts of EVE history owe themselves to people who were first gathered together in Earth & Beyond.
Do you think MMO gamers will ever embrace science fiction as much as fantasy?
I don't think so. Personally, I think it is an acceptance thing. It's perfectly fine to read The Lord of the Rings or pretty much any fantasy because we all grow up with monsters and magic and shining heroes in our popular culture, but if they're in Federation uniforms, it suddenly takes on a whole different tone. Or is an awful fanfic -- I'm sure one exists.
Science fiction can tell the stories just as well as fantasy can, but anyone can engage with fantasy. Sci-fi, however, is apparently shunned because it's that much more geeky. Why? I don't know. Hopefully one day there will be an epic sci-fi MMO out there. Though I think if they
really want one to launch and to survive, it has to be at least somewhat familiar to people. Sci-fi also seems to be a byword for "I think we'll try this random MMO concept and see if it works; laser guns means it's OK."
Thank you Jonathan! And for other Earth & Beyond vets, we'd love to hear YOUR stories -- send them in to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.