The Game Archaeologist: Earth and Beyond

Personally, I prefer science fiction over fantasy nine times out of ten, even though most of the MMOs that grace my desktop 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 just a couple of years later, and its miniscule population 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 space-faring 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.

Westwood’s final hurrah

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 and moving part of the team to San Francisco to continue the project.

It’s important to know this bit of history, because by the time that Earth & Beyond came out in 2002, Westwood already had one foot out the door and was hardly in a position to provide the ongoing development and support that an MMO required.

Going back a bit, Westwood’s involvement with E&B began around 1998. It was at this time that MMOs as a whole were becoming noticed by the larger gaming community. After four years of development, Westwood announced its space-themed MMO as a 2001 release, although players wouldn’t see it until September of 2002.

Executive Producer Rade Stojsavljevic elaborated on the origin story of this project: “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.”

In an interesting move to prevent Day One server crowding, Westwood intentionally sent out limited 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.

Players… in… spaaaaace!

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 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.

“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,” Stojsavljevic said.

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 community was disappointed to discover that only six of the classes would be implemented on launch day.

Experience, experience, experience

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 limiting 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.

In space, no one can hear you mutter to yourself

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 a robust internet community 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 continued to keep the memories alive for years now with websites and even emulator projects, which tells me that there was something about this MMO that fed a hunger inside players.

As a funny side note, while EVE Online found it so hard to allow players to exit their ships and walk around, 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.

Riding off into the sunset

The sad day arrived for Earth & Beyond pilots on March 17th, 2004, when EA announced that the game would be closing that September, a mere two years after E&B’s launch. GameSpot reported that the title was down to just 20,000 to 25,000 subscribers six months before its shutdown.

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.”

Stojsavljevic gave his own post-mortem, saying, “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.”

As a parting gift to the fans of the game, players were given a free copy of Ultima Online and were allowed to play Earth & Beyond from August 2004 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.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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24 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Earth and Beyond"

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Sean Newboy

That was my first mmo, and still a lost love.

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Anthony Clark

I miss EnB so much.

Hate EA for closing it down, and the dungeon keeper series. Also destroying Wing Commander.
They killed the Command and Conquer franchise too. Warhammer Online seemed doomed once EA got involved it seems, and it did get shutdown. Let’s not all forget about the Mass Effect 3 ending that sucked, and the DLC that addressed NOTHING in that horrible ending really.

Man, EA seems like they just take awesome things, and make them suck.

Star Wars Battlefront much? Wish I had never bought that one. The Star Wars: The Old Republic ‘free to play’ restrictions that are terrible.

The list just goes on. Horrible company.

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Scratches

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKK9m3zF1Yk

The joy I felt when I found this cannot be overstated, lol

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PepinoCantador

I didn’t end up playing this one for long… Too much EverQuesting at the time.

However, I’ll never forget it because of the weird move to get me back as a subscriber. In the game, your ship’s computer was voiced. Anyway, I was sitting at home one day, when I got a phone call on my home phone… From the ship’s computer. It was talking about how I hadn’t flown in a while, wondered when I was coming back, and so on.

This marketing move came off so weird though; like the computer from 2001, or a jilted ex.

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John Mynard

I think I would’ve probably needed my brown pants after that call though…

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Lateris Ablon

This was my very first MMO. I remember walking around a station and seeing how other players looked so cool in their outfits and I felt so dumb with my choices, heh. I loved the sense of unknown. It is amazing to see how the tech has evolved all these years. But this game really made me a supporter of avatar and ship based game play in space MMO’s. Yep, I play Eve as a solo Explorer and love my CQ’s. It will happen. Miss you E&B.

ihatevnecks
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ihatevnecks

I really wanted to love this game at the time, but so much of it felt like EQ in space from what I remember. Flying a ship on a flat plane didn’t really feel any different from running an EQ character on a flat plane.. except EQ had some verticality that I don’t even think was in this game?

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Mystyrys .

Banish Want!

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Bryan Correll

Big! Strong! Wow! Tada-O!

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Scratches

That jingle is the stuff of legends… I can still hear it when I reminisce about this game, lol

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mysecretid

I was in the beta for Earth & Beyond, and I loved it.

Not long before release, however, aspects of the game graphics (interior environments and character models) were substantially changed.

I heard later that this was the result of some sort of “power struggle” within the development team.

Suddenly ,the game was much darker (as in, less lit) and the interiors had a moodier, more stylized quasi-cyberpunk (?) look.

And our character avatars? In my opinion they became hideous grotesques — humans and aliens alike — thanks to a new, heavily stylized approach. Those quasi-heroic faces in the title image above? We weren’t that any more.

I remember clearly sitting in space, joking with other beta players in-game, about how our characters were now far uglier than any of us could possibly be in real life. It might have been funnier, if it weren’t also true.

It was the first time during the beta process that I distinctly got the feeling that “something’s not right here”. and that big decisions were being made about the nature of the game which ignored the beta test process entirely.

The game had a much more “market friendly” look before the changes — I remember idly wondering if they were actively trying to limit the game’s appeal.

After launch, the game didn’t last long, but it didn’t feel like EA was fully behind the project by that time.

It’s been claimed that EA wanted the E&B servers for its upcoming The Sims Online project — true or not, I really did get the feeling in late beta that E&B had somehow lost its “A-list project” status internally with the publisher, and was no longer considered a true gaming contender.

My take, anyway, for whatever it might be worth,

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Stiqman

I liked all of it. triple EXP paths was cool

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Jeff

Thanks for bringing up such a painful memory, next time why don’t you just give me a paper cut and squirt lemon juice on it. :-(

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Castagere Shaikura

Played this and Anarchy Online at the same time back then. Had a blast in mmo’s back then. Not so much anymore. E&B was i great game that got nothing from EA when they brought Westwood. They just weren’t interested in it. It just came with the buyout. Still have my disc and game box with galaxy map. And i also have the Primus strategy guide. Speaking of emulators its really a great one. Has all the missing classes too.

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Alexandre Bertrand

I really miss this game

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Chad Fenwick

If you want to try the game, play on a private server. One is available.

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mysecretid

If it’s the one I tried, I didn’t stay long because the people who were running it kept changing and adding to the game’s code.

That’s their right, of course, but I came to play Earth & Beyond, not the private dev team’s homebrew version of the original game.

Thanks for letting people know that it’s out there, though. For younger players, they won’t know that the differences are indeed differences. :-)

Cheers,

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Mystyrys .

I still have my E&B beta discs. It was my first MMO. I loved it.

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Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

Weirdly, I have a log-in and password for Earth and Beyond in an old notebook I used back then but I have absolutely no memory of ever playing it…

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MrSaxon

I could never play the game because I wrote my log-in and password in a notebook and then misplaced the notebook……

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cerement

Watching the sunset, there was a lot of speculation on the official forum that the only reason EA acquired E&B was that they needed the servers for Sims Online …

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Wendigo Runner

They actively diverted funds and people from E&B from the beginning which made it impossible to address issues or add the features that the players wanted. Near the end of the game’s life the devs… what was left of them… were surprisingly frank about the situation, especially in-game. Not like it mattered at that point.

They slaughtered E&B for Sims Online, which flopped spectacularly. A very bitter poetic justice, I suppose.

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starbuck1771

Yeah the diverted because they acquired DICE and wanted to focus on the Battlefield franchise and the SIMS. The SIMS Online was a failure and they should have stuck with E&B.

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starbuck1771

You forgot another issue. Nine months after E&B launched SOE released SWG which people had already known about for a couple of years then Jump to Lightspeed – Boom Death Nail.

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