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The Game Archaeologist: Four online sci-fi titles no one remembers

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In the MMO industry, science fiction has always taken the role of the overlooked little brother to big sister fantasy's popularity. Sure, there have been several online games that eschewed dungeons and dragons for spaceships and solar radiation poisoning, but even today the fantasy genre continues to be the dominant one in the genre.

So not only have we had fewer online sci-fi games, but the ones that have attempted to make in-roads are all too soon forgotten. Over the years that I've been researching and writing The Game Archaeologist, I continue to come across these little games that have been all but forgotten by modern gamers, and many of these titles are indeed of a sci-fi bent. This week I'll be taking a look at four such games, including one that never even made it to launch, in an attempt to acknowledge their place at the family dinner table.


Seed

For the very longest of time, I thought my mind had made up this game. I remember reading about it in a magazine and then promptly forgetting the name and never hearing of it again. But the concept of an actual roleplaying MMO that prized cooperation and community projects while completely eschewing combat was notable enough so that I wanted to dig it back up.

That game was Seed by Runestone Game Development, and the reason you probably have never heard of it is that it went into beta, launched, and was shut down all over the span of a few short months in 2006. Even so, it was an intriguing title in which players were "seeded" colonists who awake to discover that their station's terraformer isn't working properly and that they need to band together to help make this place livable. Crafting, projects, and political maneuvering were the cornerstones of the game instead of combat, and all of this took place in an environment that was portrayed with lush cel-shaded graphics.

Seed never received a proper publisher and certainly needed more testing to be a fully polished experience. Even so, Runestone CEO Kroll Kristensen maintained that the idea of the game has merit in this combat-happy industry: "I am still fully convinced that a role play-centric game is not only a good idea: It's a great idea. It just needs to be better executed. Seed has many of the right qualities for such a game, and I still firmly believe that, given sufficient funding, we could have created a great game. Unfortunately, we will never know."

Terra: Battle for the Outlands

First-person shooters were all the rage back in the 1990s, and when the technology started to get good enough to connect more than four players at a time online, games like Terra happened. Terra married the vehicle FPS to a persistent post-apocalyptic online world in which players could forever duke it out over territory and fortresses. It wasn't statistically complex or narratively deep, but the joys of blasting friends with tanks is sometimes all a player really needs.

Terra was developed by Kaon Interactive and came out in 1996. After some time, Kaon lost interest in the game, leaving it to volunteers to add more content and keep it running. While Terra ended up shutting down in 2003, it was brought back up under new leadership in 2005 and continues to operate to this day.

SubSpace

"Meet people from all over the world... and then kill them."

So states the tagline to this insanely long-running massive deathmatch that's been trundling along in various formats since the mid-'90s. SubSpace originally began as Sniper, a 1995 program that was designed to test lag and multiplayer functionality. It was so fun, in fact, that the devs made it into an online 2-D PvP space shooter called SubSpace, which was then released by Virgin Interactive Entertainment in 1997. SubSpace was widely pirated, which led to both its financial downfall (it made no money, and VIE went under in 1998) and its long-running success (as players kept it alive on their own servers).

SubSpace's impressive technical accomplishments, in particular handling scads of players in a constantly running online environment, made it one of the earlier MMOs even if it doesn't always get credit for it. In 2001, SubSpace Continuum (or just Continuum) was created and released by volunteers to meet the needs for a more secure client. Today, SubSpace is still running and players are still duking it out, fulfilling the tagline's edict millions of times over.

Sovereign

If Sovereign could have looked forward in time to see that even in 2014, studios are still struggling to put out a successful MMORTS, then it might have felt better about getting canned back in 2003.

Sovereign was one of Verant's follow-ups to EverQuest, making an appearance at E3 2000. The idea was to add persistence to the then-popular RTS genre. Players would be able to build up armies on a safe home world and then venture out to battle over other planets in wars that could involve up to a theoretical 50,000 units. It wouldn't have been just mindless tank pile-ons, either; Sovereign had planned sieges, espionage, and a complex web of player clans and alliances.

Unfortunately, Sovereign's development dragged on for a rocky four-and-a-half years, at the end of which SOE decided to pull the plug rather than pour more resources in attempting to get this game to work. Unlike the other titles on this list, it never did see the light of day, but it is notable for what it attempted and who was behind it.

Do you remember?

OK, I'll admit that today's column title isn't exactly accurate because chances are that there are some of you who actually do remember these games and have stories about them. If so, please share in the comments and help pass on these memories to those who weren't even aware these titles 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.

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