Right, so since I’ve got half an hour left of work today, I’ve been putting out fires all day long, and I don’t feel like starting the gargantuan project I’ve been handed just yet, I’ll go ahead and post here again.

I’m sure I’ll get a lot of comments about this post, but here goes…

Step into the Wayback Machine. Wayback to March, 2001. The game Tribes 2 is released. This after being delayed from its “ship or die” release date of Christmas 2000. And that was delayed from earlier dates. The original Tribes game from Dynamix, an offshoot from a Mech universe Sierra owned, was a fluke hit. Sierra had tasted unprecedented success with Half-Life and decided it wanted more. Specifically it wanted another runaway hit. They had given Valve free reign to do whatever they wanted to do, which came back to haunt them as they recieved no further games from Valve, just repackagings of their lone hit. Dynamix brass convinced Sierra execs that, given the proper funding and support, Tribes 2 could be the next Half-Life. The proof, they said, was from their ravenous fan base. They got the green light.

A bit further back, the Starsiege universe offshoot game Tribes had become a fluke hit, with a fanbase that contained the sort of ravenous fervor that only comic books and sci-fi movies can hope to command. These individuals hoped only for a bigger and more improved version of the original game. However, like the person who grew up on Star Wars and was inevitably disappointed by The Phantom Menace, these individuals were livid over the release of Tribes 2.

Bad enough that the game missed many shipping deadlines, but numerous problems existed with the game. This title was amongst the first to partake what is become such a part of the PC game experience that no one bats an eye anymore – the first day patch. For Tribes 2 however, one patch wasn’t enough. Nor was two. All told 22 patches were released in the flurry of time that Dynamix was still in operation, some of which existed to undo the changes for the previous version. Another wrench in the form of Windows XP surfaced – Tribes 2 was originally best suited for the Windows 9x line of operating systems, but Windows XP suddenly brought legions of users into the Windows NT/2K codebase. The term “Unhandled Exception” suddenly became part of every Tribes gamers vocabulary.

The other big problem was a shift in the focus of the game. Tribes, whether by accident or design, was mostly a “sports” game. There was no single player element to speak of, and every game variant was itself a variant of Capture the Flag. The vast open environments and the inclusion of a jet pack made this a vastly different monster from the old Quake variants. However, sensing that the Starship Trooper-style of paramilitary science fiction was more profitable, Tribes 2 focused more on the politics of its futurisic universe than the competitive nature of the original game (Dynamix even drafted rules for creating fan fiction – something more akin to a MMORPG).

Since the release of Tribes 2 was mostly botched and Sierra lacked any other hits, they posted a loss that year. Since Sierra is a publicly owned company, the investors demanded blood and got it in the form of a “restructuring” at Sierra, the key element of which was the axing of Dynamix as a developer. However some at Dynamix saw the writing on the wall early, including the lead programmer on Tribes 2. They left to form their own company, GarageGames, whose mandate of “independent games and game makers” was ambiguous until they announced their alliance with the Tribes 2 engine – they licensed it from Sierra and modified it to sublicense to independent developers (average people) for $100 each. The publishing terms are restrictive (though recently relaxed a bit) but the price, especially once the engine got up to speed, was a steal.

And yet, Tribes 2 as a game was not complete. Certian issues had never been worked out, certian bugs had never been fixed, and Sierra now had the PR debacle of having a engine-only offshoot working correctly on multiple plaftorms (Windows, Linux and Mac) and a game they’re still trying to sell. And even after 200,000 sales they still haven’t recouped their investment. They could get the original programmers to fix it but they shitcanned them. So over a year after the initial game release Sierra decided there might be potential in this franchise yet so they started shopping around for a development team. They went with GarageGames, since they were in possession of a more stable version of the engine and consisted of the original programmers. Luckily for Sierra the business model of GarageGames hasn’t had too much in the way of results yet so they needed some income.

I stand as one of a few individuals who had a license to the Torque engine (the modified Tribes 2 engine, formerly referred to as the V12 Engine) before ever owning Tribes 2. It was an interesting irony that the original game was designed for Voodoo and Voodoo 2 cards and my Voodoo3 card couldn’t run it too well. A GeForce3 fixed that. I had no plans to purchase Tribes 2 until my Cousin-In-Law persuaded me and others in her merry band to buy the game so we could play online together. I knew she was probably on to something when my Wife also expressed interest in the game. Due to impending plans to reissue the game, it was fantastically difficult to get in stores. Of course once she had us all with copies of the game she decided the time was right to get a copy herself.

Right off the bat, I was farily impressed with some of the ambitions of the game. Your CD key is not specific to your installation, it’s specific to your username. The client has integrated buddy lists, forums, browser, the works. Of course actually playing the game is challenging. It’s instantly obvious that the servers are populated be people who are seriously hardcore about this game, and you’re more concerned about being kicked off for sheer newbieness rather than being killed. Also since I’m from the Quake/Unreal/et al school of FPS, I had (and still have) a lot to learn about how to play this game.

Another thing I noticed is server loyalty. With most FPS games you fire up GameSpy 3D, The All-Seeing Eye or the internal browser and find the fastest servers with the amount of players you want and you go. WIth Tribes 2 however people speak affectionately of servers as if they were bars down the street. Also, clans have always been something cute some FPS players are into, but in Tribes clans (err, tribes) are seen as much more important. And this is just the people who “switched” to Tribes 2 – many people simply refuse to leave Tribes. This is somewhat akin to the large number of people who refuse to stop playing Civilization II for Civilization III – most pick one feature that the previous game had which the successor lost and refuse to switch. I’m not sure how people effectively play a Glide game on modern accellerators, but I’m sure there’s a way.

Sierra contracted GarageGames to bring Tribes 2 up to a certian speed, and they planned on releasing Tribes: Fast Attack, a $40 repackaging of Tribes 2 with the original game and additional content. The patch to fix the original game was to be free but the additional content was at cost (with a $20 rebate for existing owners). They decided to ditch this idea and instead are now re-issuing the original game, patched with a subset of the planned new content for $10 in a jewel case, the additional content being in a free download for existing owners. This patch was released last week.

But in this situation we have the same problem of a rabid fan base becoming a possible liability. This $10 release will undoubtedly become more popular than the original game, leading to more users online. Much like the barflies disliking too many people within a pub, the hardcore Tribes 2 players will no doubt hate newbies (like me) screwing up their game. Even this patch is seen as a bad thing – inevitably the people who had no problems before and only now will have them are the most vocal (with good reason). And of course, as with every Counter-Strike release ever, there are those who liked the game as it was and hate whatever changes to the balance the patch made. And then there’s the casual observers who will never play Tribes 2 but rather merely point and laugh since it has such a tattered history. These are the same people who never played Daikatana or Battlecruiser 3000AD either.

I’ll be curious to see how the final shakedown treats Tribes 2. I think it’s a fine game that’s ambitious as a team based online FPS and I’m fascinated by it as an example of the best and worst of what’s possible in this industry.