The Game Archaeologist: Terra, SubSpace, and Sovereign


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 three such games, including one that never even made it to launch, in an attempt to acknowledge their place at the family dinner table.

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.


“Meet people from all over the world… and then kill them.”

Thus 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.

The popularity of this game proved to be its biggest struggle. Because of the interest, SubSpace was widely pirated. Initially, this led to its financial downfall, as the game made no money, which in turned caused the closure of VIE. However, fanatical players ended up keeping the game 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.


If Sovereign could have looked forward in time to see that even in our era 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 its first 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 two 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.

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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Oleg Chebeneev

Looks like those games were pioneers in their genre. Terra is basically early World of Tanks. SubSpace gave inspiration to many 2d space shooters that Ive seen but never remembered their names (btw, the game looks fun even now. I can totally imagine playing it). And Sovereign – was it the first MMORTS?

If anyone wonders how Sovereign looked, here is screenshot:


I agree with your notice on Sci-Fi games in general but got to say they also hadnt been helping themselves, thinking just by being sci-fi with little competition was enough.

That said there one category that is more overlooked in the mmorpgs at least – the steampunk games. Maybe you could do a “themed” collumn about steampunk mmos of the past too