What if you made a game, and no one played it?

Obviously that’s really too broad of a question – I can write a tic-tac-toe game for Windows and perhaps no one would download or play it and so the concept of this happening is not all that improbable.

But what if you were a software development house, spent years and years and thousands of dollars on a game, actually enticed a publisher into publishing said game, and no one bought it?

Or rather, no one played it.

Prior to the introduction of 1996’s Quake, game modification was pretty limited – some levels, some graphics, perhaps new monsters if you could replace all the graphics correctly, but it wasn’t until Quake‘s QuakeC-based source code for rules modification was released that what we currently call game modification came into being. Suddenly people could modify the games they play.

Some took this on to great fame and fortune. Dave “Zoid” Kirch’s Capture the Flag modification for Quake was so popular it won him a contract to work for id Software to make a CTF mod for Quake II. He continued to work for id, helping to port their titles to Linux and doing level design and programming until he took a job with Retro Studios in Austin. He was the lead engineer on Metroid Prime.

And of course there’s the Counter-Strike team, who made a terrorist/anti-terrorist modification for Half-Life that was so popular, Valve hired the team full time to make standalone Counter-Strike titles. They did this same thing to the Day of Defeat team, and pre-emptively hired the Team Fortress team from the Quake days.

But not all teams or individuals were lucky enough to be courted by a game developer. Most go on to normal lives. A few, though, try and make a go at it themselves.

At the outset of the Quake, tons of people latched on to the idea of a “Total Conversion”. Since Quake allowed for more or less entirely different games, a number of people decided that that is what they would do. The flaw in this plan of course is that a TC required a ton of work, and more time than most people have to spare. Most TC’s were never finished.

The other problem TC’s had was that of copyright infringement. Many TC’s were based off of existing commercial properties. For some reason, most gamers didn’t stop to think that this was perhaps a bad idea, though this has something to do with the fact that the game industry wasn’t nearly as big in 1996 as it is today. The most famous example was when Aliens Quake was released – within 24 hours the site was taken down by lawyers from 20th Century Fox, and the term “foxing”a project was born. Today it makes perfect sense – there have been a slew of Alien-related games released and this project was threatening to those titles.

Another TC based off of a commercial property was a Wheel of Time modification. The Wheel Of Time is a series of sci-fi/fantasy novels by Robert Jordan. Jordan and TOR’s lawyers put the axe on using the WoT name in the modification (and the further reasoning why was made clear when a Wheel of Time game was released by Legend in 1999), but by that point the designers of the modification had different ideas anyway.

They called themselves Freeform Interactive and changed the name of their mod to Future Vs. Fantasy Quake. The game was slower paced, and there were specific teams and specific roles on each team. One team had a medieval fantasy twist, the other a futuristic science fiction bent. It was, along with Capture The Flag and Team Fortress, the beginnings of team based online gameplay.

FvF had a fairly hardcore following, albiet niche-based. Obviously, with mods like CTF and TF becoming popular, the fact that FvF was team-based wasn’t the problem. The problem with FvF catching on was that it wasn’t free. In their first effort to become a commercial software developer, Freeform Interactive created “shareware” and “registered” versions of the modification, the latter of which cost money. It made a sort of sense since id Software, developer of Quake, had used this model to make their fortune. However, it ultimately reflects a more innocent time – today id would never allow such a thing to happen without the involvement of lawyers.

Consequently, FvF could not catch on as quickly as its higher profile comrade modifications, though the niche following it developed was fairly hardcore about it. So much so that the modification group continued their efforts.

The path gets somewhat murky from there to here, but at some point within the last five years, Freeform acquired the rights to the LithTech engine to make a new game. LithTech an engine used by Monolith for their own games, but maintaned by a separate sister company to Monolith for the purpose of licensing out to third parties. Freeform decided to license the engine and make a sequel to FvF. The game would be called Purge, named after one of the game modes in FvF.

The game was released in April, 2003. Some time before, they released a demo. What followed thereafter was a flurry of patches to the demo, to the point that many felt that the demo was being used as a beta test. This, coupled with the built-in jokes the title had, didn’t bode well for Purge. The game was being published by Tri-Synergy, a newcomer with strong ties to Electronics Boutique, but little experience in game publishing.

The game debuted at $29.99 but before too long wound up going for $9.99. The critics didn’t care for the game too much, and the general public was ambivalent. GameStop.com dropped the product and most mainstream retailers either didn’t hold it in high volume or passed on it entirely.

Then about a month ago I noticed on Blue’s News that the game had dropped to $2.99 at EB. That’s less than a meal at a fast food restaraunt.

This intrigued me. So I did some research. It used to be a given that every game had some sort of small community surrounding it, but this is no longer the case due to the size of the industry, the tendency of people to latch onto certian titles (see Counter-Strike abd Battlefield 1942), and the failure of certian higher profile titles (like Daikatana). Still, there’s a community for Purge, most notably PurgeWorld, whose forum regulars include the now three developers at Freeform. Next thing I did was to fire up The All-Seeing Eye, which has far surpassed GameSpy 3D as the best server browser. Purge had between four and five servers listed. Games like Daikatana or KISS: Psycho Circus, whose popularity either never materialized or faded completely away, had zero servers. Games like Battlefield 1942 and Half-Life had craploads of servers – even more than free games like Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. Purge‘s bigger problem though was the players – at any given time there were maybe three players on one server. Puge is an online-only team-based game, but with three players on a server, things weren’t looking good for the game. More intriguing is that my research seemed to indicate that Purge had no real copy protection – anyone with a CD of it (however obtained) could play it online. There was no SecuROM or CD Key system in place. So people could play this online for free if they wanted to, but yet no one was.

Still, $2.99? I could get the game and still have enough cash to hit up McDonald’s on the way home. Super sized even.

So I roll into the local EB at the Stonebriar Mall. It occurs to me how stupid this is – going to a mall to find a $3 game that I was almost ensured was virtually unplayable. But sure enough, they had one copy left. It was in a sorta beat-up box and the $9.99 had been marked down to $2.99 with a red marker (I had read that some people on the PurgeWorld forums were mad that their local EB still wanted $10 for it – perhaps their local EB was really just too lazy to break out the pen). I picked it up and took it home.

Actually, I went to have dinner at a friend’s house first. He has a massive HDTV and before the night was out we played some Metroid Prime on it. I was sitting there thinking about how Zoid was some guy at an ISP who made a dinky CTF mod for Quake eight years ago, and now he was the lead engineer on this title which blew everyone away. Meanwhile the guys at Freeform, who also made an initially dinky mod for Quake had to lay down $250,000 for the Lithtech engine and now watched as their publisher lowered the price to $2.99 to get rid of it – a price which would ensure that they could never make back their investment. And still, on the forums they encouraged people to go out and buy the game at that price – at least it had a better chance of being played. I kinda felt like, by waiting for the price to drop 90% I was hurting their cause – and yet I felt better than if I had pirated the game.

So I install the game, patch it, and fire up TASE. I see one server has three people on it, so I go there. The Internet is full of assholes, but everyone on this server (all three) made it a point to say hello to me and be polite. That was kinda a nice change. Of course I don’t know how to play the game or anything, but that’s ok, I get killed nonetheless. They probably all know each other by name from previous nights and realize I’m new since they haven’t seen me before. I actually felt it neccessary to excuse myself before leaving the server. It was weird.

The graphics of the game won’t be winning any awards, but they’re fine. It’s the gameplay that’s odd. The game didn’t come with much of a manual – you’re supposed to read the one online at their web site – it’s synched with the latest patch anyway. Still, a PDF would have been nice. Plus, as is par for the course now – no CD case.

Getting back to what I said earlier about quiet demises – a game like this is multiplayer only. Quake 3 was multiplayer only as well, but Quake 3 had a couple of things going for it. For one thing it did have an attempt at a single player mode – you played up a ladder against bots. Purge has no bots. I guess this is the other side of the extreme – you never have to worry about bots filling out servers. When you filter out how many Unreal Tournament 2003 servers aren’t using bots, you’re not left with many. This isn’t to say there aren’t also human players on those servers, just that you can be guaranteed that someone on that server is fake.

The other thing Quake 3 had going for it – and this is key – is a more or less guaranteed user base. It seems like every post I make has to dig up id Software’s history, but the fact that they were so successful with the DOOM and Quake series to that point that Quake 3 had 50,000 copies sold in its first weekend alone. Purge will probably never sell that many copies ever, and even the copies it does sell will only ever have a small percentage actually play the game.

And the cycle is vicious – no one wants to buy the game because it’s unpopular – but it’s unpopular because no one bought the game. It didn’t have a big marketing push behind it (the Purge banners on fan sites are homemade), it didn’t have the name of an established developer on it, and really there wasn’t anything outstanding about it. It was a FPS with roleplaying elements. It has a plot, but it’s like the plot of Quake – a tacked on afterthought. It was doomed on retail shelves and now you’re more likely to find it on the shelves at Half-Price Books than you are at GameStop. In fact, you can’t even find it on GameStop’s website anymore.

But is it worth $2.99? I say so. That same day I downloaded a copy of Bejeweled for my cell phone for $4.99. If I change cell phone providers I can’t take it with me and it drains the hell out of my battery. This game licks it for value, hands down. I wonder how many people picked it up at $2.99 and continued to play? I haven’t played it much, but I rarely have time to play as it is.

As many strikes as it has against it, I must say – Freeform pretty much hauled off and did what many just thought about. They made a shareware modification and instead of independently making a mod for a publically available game, they made a commercial title. Of course, a group like Splash Damage made Q3F for Quake 3 for free and now they’re the ones who did Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and the multiplayer mode for DOOM 3, so perhaps this wasn’t the best course of action. Still, you have to admire the gusto.

Freeform is currently working on Purge Jihad. Jihad was one of the modes in FvF, so it makes a logical choice for their next title. For people who own Purge, Purge Jihad will be a free download. It looks like they’re not bothering with having this published as a boxed retail product (or perhaps are unable to) but it looks like they’re going to venture forth undaunted and try to make this project of theirs work under a new title and with a new upgrade.