Stellar Relic

Category - Feature

Long Form Pieces

Submission Sunday: Writing for Stellar Relic

sub-sunday

The response so far to Stellar Relic’s launch has been staggering – thank you to everyone reading, tweeting, and posting about the site! Your excitement helped accelerate some of our plans, including starting up our submissions program.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, though, we wanted to explain some things.

First and foremost, the site isn’t making any money and neither are we. In fact, we’re in the negative right now. As such, we’re unable to pay for any submitted work. This sucks, but we want to be up front. We do intend to pay for freelance work as soon as we’re able to – now is just not that time.

Second, we really care about what goes up on the site and as such we won’t be posting anything and everything. We hope to be able to post up 1 submission piece every Sunday, but we won’t be compromising our editorial standards to meet that goal. If we don’t have anything of sufficient quality on a given Sunday, we won’t publish anything. Conversely, if we are inundated with quality pieces, more than 1 piece will go up on Sundays.

Third, we really love to read about things from perspectives other than our own. We want to stand as a great place for new writers and writers from a variety of backgrounds, social communities, and viewpoints to have their work featured. The quickest way to our hearts (and by virtue of our hearts, the frontpage) is to present us with a compelling, evocative, fresh angle.

Finally, we have some guidelines for anyone wishing to submit their work to us:

How To Submit

  1. Send your piece to admin@stellarrelic.com, with the subject “[SUBMISSION] Name of Piece
  2. Please send us a pitch, which is a basic outline of what you’d like to write, whether you’ve already written the piece or not. We won’t have the time to read full submissions and pitches are a good test of your ability to hook us. (Here’s some information on writing pitches.)
  3. There is no pay. This, much like Stellar Relic in general, is volunteer-based. Submit if you want to work with good editors and writers.
  4. We will usually only run one submission per week, although this can change based on extenuating circumstances.
  5. Your piece will be pored over by the Stellar Relic staff, which means you’ll get plenty of critique and editing. If you want your piece to run as-is, this isn’t the place.
  6. We will not accept a piece you have already posted elsewhere.

What We’re Looking For

While you can submit a piece on anything, we are more likely to accept pieces on certain topics. Right now, we’re looking for pieces on:

  • EVE Online, especially anything related to the current state of the game, its politics, or its economy. Really, any EVE piece will do, as long as it has context, history, and great analysis.
  • Tabletop games, especially the new rework to Warhammer Fantasy Battle – titled, appropriately, Age of Sigmar. We want to hear about how Age of Sigmar has impacted existing Warhammer players, the general state of Games Workshop’s treasured tabletop IP, and what this means for the long-term health of Warhammer.

These two topics will catch our eye, as they are things we want to cover but have neither the time nor knowledge to do so well. However, we’re always open to new angles and niches that we have previously left uncovered – feel free to surprise us! Just keep it to games, though.

Happy writing!

Screenshot Saturday: Flights of Fancy

Rocket League_20150802223434

Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.

War Thunder

Thomas: As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been dipping my toes into the War Thunder pond. I’m still figuring things out. Biplanes can pick up quite a bit of speed in a swooping dive, you know! I was pretty proud of myself for the maneuver, coming down right on this Ki-10’s ass, before I realized I didn’t have any brakes to pump. About a millisecond after this screenshot, the two of us were tumbling towards the ground in burning chunks. War Thunder Is Good.

Elite: Dangerous

James: Despite all of my frustrations with it (which I hope Horizons will help with), the exploration profession in Elite: Dangerous is still my favorite. Once you get good at it, you can skip across the galaxy extremely quickly, picking up some great screenshots while making a buck on the side. It may not be the best-paying way to play Elite: Dangerous, but it’s certainly the prettiest. I recently found that you can disconnect your camera from the ship as well, which led to screenshots like this one.

Rocket League_20150802223434

Twisted Metal anyone?

Dave: I now officially own every car there is in Rocket League. Turns out that if you win a match with each of the standard unlockable cars, you get a bonus vehicle: Sweet Tooth from the Twisted Metal series. I’m not sure if this is a nod specifically to Rocket League’s genesis (which you can read about in this great Kotaku article) or what – but it looks pretty sweet. Unfortunately, it lacks full customization options (for somewhat understandable reasons) and I ended up not using it a bunch: but still pretty cool. Now all I need is to drive 18 million miles or whatever it is to get the Platinum for Rocket League!

War Thunder: Newbie Diaries

War Thunder

I played War Thunder for the first time on Monday.

I’d always looked askance at the Gaijin title as a false claimant to the Wargaming.net throne, particularly when Ground Forces was announced as a competitor to World of Tanks. WoT has always been close to my heart, despite being terrible at it. I remember playing in the Beta days, when the premium Hotchkiss was an invulnerable killing machine in the lower tiers. It’s hard to shake the affection, even after realizing that without a crutch I am truly terrible.

Still. War Thunder is looking better and a clean slate has its advantages. Maybe I won’t tank (ha ha ha ha!) my win rate as I have in World of Tanks? I played the tutorial ages ago. Let’s see how this game is nowadays.

Ki-10

This machine doesn’t look exactly sturdy.

Looks like I picked the Japanese tree when I was doing my tutorial run. That’s Japan’s entry-level fighter, the Ki-10. It makes sense – when I think of Japanese aircraft, I think of the Zero and Oscar – relatively light aircraft with extreme maneuverability. In flight sims I’m typically pretty bad at boom-and-zoom, so nimble dogfighters appeal to me.

Anyways. Let’s hit the “To Battle!” button and see what happens.

Red or Blue?

Friends? Friends??

Maybe I should have given the tutorials another playthrough. I’m not sure what side I’m on: Red or Blue. Is Red always the enemy? That’s how it is in WoT, but this game is different in a lot of subtle ways. I make a snap decision. The Reds must be friendly, because there’s so many more of them visible.

This is the wrong choice.

I chase a Blue airplane around, slowly acclimating to the controls and missing a lot of shots. Then a Red Russian I-15 biplane opens fire and relieves me of my misconception about who the bad guys are. After a few minutes of dogfighting, he kills my pilot and the Ki-10 drifts into the ground. Scratch one me.

In my second action, I dive from high altitude and put a few bullets into an OS2U seaplane before misjudging my speed, smashing into it and killing us both. I do not get any screenshots of this shameful display. Scratch two mes.

Third life. I stay at medium altitude and speed this time, looking for targets of opportunity. Target spotted! It’s another I-15, maybe the same one. My Ki-10 manages to slip behind him and score a few hits with my 7.7mm machine guns. The I-15 dives to escape me, cutting it very close to the ground – too close. There’s an unusually tall treebank in the way. The I-15’s ailerons twitch as it tries to pull left for just an instant before it smashes through the branches and into the ground. It’s credited to me; I may have damaged his control surfaces. Who cares! I have my first kill!

I-15 Crash

You can just barely see the wreck.

And the match ends. I spend a moment idly thinking about how planes with radial engines look like normal aircraft with condoms on as the score screen comes up.

I click on a bunch of research and unlock things. I think I might have screwed up – I use almost all of my “Golden Eagles”, which are apparently the premium currency. I started with about 100. I now have 10. Oh well!

I use my research points to unlock the next tier of Japanese fighter, the A5M. I’m very excited to try my new baby out! Next battle, please!

Burning A5M

Toasty.

My new baby burns merrily about thirty seconds into the new battle. Good night, sweet prince. It’s back to the Ki-10s with me. But with a little bit of experience under my belt…

buuurn!!

Turnabout!

… things are getting…

kapow

The Ki-10 is really quite decent down at the treetops here.

…somewhat easier.

I have to take an aside here and praise the control scheme and realism level in Arcade mode. The aircraft all have individual flight characteristics without a punishing level of realism. There are no flat spins or unpredictable stalls, just balls-to-the-wall dogfighting. I can appreciate an absurdly realistic flight model as much as the next dork, but this is straight fun.

Well, that’s settled. I like the planes. Let’s try tanks.

Tutorial For Me, A Baby

What is a “tank”

Now, as mentioned, I have been playing a decent amount of World of Tanks lately (I just reached the T-43 on the Russian medium tree). I’d heard that some aspects of War Thunder’s simulation were more realistic and fleshed out and that the playstyle was more deliberate. This turned me off a bit, honestly. I enjoy my slow games (look for a review of Rule The Waves coming soon!) but I enjoy these F2P windowed-mode games because I can dip in for a bit of twitchy action and move on. “World of Tanks, but slower” seems, well, worse.

Thankfully, War Thunder robbed me of my preconceptions. After playing through the surprisingly-decent tutorial and being wowed by the physics, gunnery and overall feel, I take my dinky BT-5 into my first Arcade Tank battle.

BT-5

Duriftu.

I crank her up to full speed, travelling across a grassy field from our spawn to the town in the center of the map, and… oh my god. My tank can drift. This is fucking hot. I’m starting to see the appeal of this physics model. A couple of minutes are spent driving in circles and seeing if I can roll my Russian tin can.

Eventually, I slalom into town like a jackass and take up position north of what I think is some kind of capture point. A panzer shows up and shoots the hell out of me.

I'm in trouble.

I’m in trouble.

The Panzer IV knocks me out and I am subjected to some Disturbing Imagery.

When you’re knocked out in War Thunder, you get an “instant replay” cam that follows the enemy shell in slow motion as it impacts your tank. The camera then gives you an “xray” view of the inner workings of your tank, showing the shell’s penetration point and the damage it does to individual components and crew members.

Xray 1Xray 2

There is something gruesomely enjoyable about the x-ray cam, seeing those shell fragments rip through the crew. I remember reading, years ago, about Italian tanks in WWII. Their crews called them “iron coffins.” They were built with rivets instead of welding. When the tank took a hit, even a nonpenetrating one, the rivets would shear off the plates and bounce around inside the crew compartment like bullets. After the battle, someone would open up one of these apparently “abandoned” machines, which might have little or no visible external damage, and find the crew inside turned into ground beef.

In any case, I don’t ruminate on this for long. Taking a more cautious approach into town, I sidescrape alongside one of the buildings, leaving just my turret and a bit of angled armor visible to the avenue of approach of the enemy.

Dead PzIv

Panzer IV goes down.

A Panzer IV and a Panzer 35(t) start peeking over the hill facing the town. Their shots bounce, mostly. The Panzer IV gets close and engages me from behind a pile of rubble. My driver is knocked unconcious: I have to stand and fight. I’ve figured out my gun handling a little better. First the IV, then the 35(t) go down.

I feel like a hero. Eventually, an M2A4 infiltrates the town and takes me out, ending the battle. Not bad for a first engagement, right?

Hooray!

If it wasn’t obvious, I very much enjoyed my first few bouts in War Thunder. The air and ground Arcade modes were easy to pick up and genuinely rewarding, with quick progress through the research trees. The community seems less toxic than World of Tanks’, as well. Give it a shot, if you haven’t, and make sure to join the discussion in our Game of the Month thread.

The Iron Chalice, Part One

ironchalice

Massive Chalice is a ‘tactical strategy game’ developed by Double Fine and released on Steam Early Access way back on November 11, 2014. On June 1, 2015, it hit launch on both PC and Xbox One. To learn more about Massive Chalice, check out our roundtable on it (coming soon). For this AAR, I’ll be playing on Hard difficulty with Iron Mode enabled – meaning every choice is saved immediately.

Behold, I am the Lord thy…uh..demigod?

Truth be told, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be. I know there is some lip service about how I am some sort of immortal demigod emperor of whatever this place is, but I have no idea who I was before this came to be. Was I a King? A tribal chieftain? A baker? No clue. All I know for sure is now that Massive Chalice has begun, I’m going to be the God Emperor this place needs. Whatever it’s called. For the next 300 years I will command my soldiers and researchers in order to hold out against The Evil Bad Guys Cadence in what is essentially a centuries-long rearguard action. We’re all that is left and salvation is right around the corner and now we need to make babies. Yes, babies.

Before we get to that though, we need to assemble our noble heroes! These are men and women who have but a drop of the Chalice-y good stuff I do, making them pretty powerful – but not so powerful as to prohibit them leaving their chair (like me). After some quick randomizing, this is what I end up with:

that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them

My early favorite? The House Jett – they get me. Jaaksi seems a bit too upbeat, what with their positive and proactive house words, but at least they aren’t the super-downer Fireshaper clan. Strength among the ashes? Seriously? Anyways, with that sorted we can get down to the business of running this place, which since it lacks a name I’m gonna call Davelandia.

Davelandia is divided into five parts: The Pale Sea (that has no sea); The Augurs; Ebott Marsh; The Salt Stacks; and The Cinterlands. Each has an inner and outer realm, or put another way: places that are relatively safe and places that are going to be destroyed in the next 300 years. I, of course, elect to build Davelandia’s first Keep (we were ranked 273rd in country infrastructure prior to the Cadence showing up, sorry) in the latter place, out in The Augurs, which grants me more XP per kill for all heroes of the Vanguard.

"how many birds do you see?" "I dunno, six?"

In a scant five years (Davelandians are quite hard workers when they have an immortal Emperor threatening death on one side and weird alien bad guys threatening death on the other) the first Keep is built and a decision must be made: who shall sit as its regent and found the first Heroic Dynasty of Davelandia? Massive Chalice is a game of genetics as much as it is a game of blowing up enemies, and having completed one (failed) play through previously, I now know exactly what I want from my bloodlines. Thus, anyone who is puny, a dullard, a drunk, or asthmatic is immediately disqualified. Unfortunately, this reduces my options down to two: Clotoric Jett or Eochaidh O Nuallain.

Davelandia needs some help in the given name rankings too, if we're honest

Jett is perhaps the better choice, but is younger and slightly higher level, useful in the Vanguard for the next 20+ years (as long as he doesn’t get himself killed); O Nuallain is a solid pick in the genetics department but relatively replaceable on the Vanguard, and so:

FUCKING BLOODY BEAR HOW CAN I NOT PICK THIS SHE DEVIL

All Hail House O Nuallain (the house of a thousand pronunciations)! And for his partner I have picked the very demure Lady Bloody Boar. Take notice as well, for their children will be a class (I’ve) never before seen: the Brewtalist! I have no idea what I’m doing but hopefully they can make some not-terrible children.

With research renewed on something called a ‘health potion’ (which I’m pretty sure involves whiskey) Davelandia seems well prepared for the next onslaught. By which I mean probably totally fucked.

 

EVE Sovereignty At The Brink

EVE Online

Two years into its second decade, EVE Online is in serious trouble.

This is a game that, at its best, is about politics – influence, war, territory, diplomacy, tribal gangs flinging spaceships and slurs at each other. Lately, it’s about different things. Things that other games do better. And the playerbase is shrinking as a result.

The actual number of subscribed accounts is hard to determine. We do know that it is significantly lower than the 500,000 subscribers figure trumpeted by CCP in February 2013, and that number included their relaunched Chinese server. Two posts by EVE blogger The Nosy Gamer dig into the exact numbers, though he believes that subscriptions don’t matter so much in an age of microtransactions and cash shops. He may be right; subscription numbers aren’t the best measurement of EVE’s vitality, given the number of players with multiple accounts. The most accurate metric we have is the number of accounts actually logged in and, thanks to EVE-Offline.net, that data is available.

It doesn’t look great.

peep that slope

2013 was a very strong year for EVE. After a brief slump at the end of 2013, the PCU (number of concurrent players) was spurred to what would become 2014’s high point by the famous Bloodbath of B-5RB, netting CCP a massive publicity win. It has been almost all downhill from there, with the huge activity gains of B-5RB wiped out within months. (I’m not cherry-picking data here – if anything, the 5-year graph looks worse.) From 2011 through 2014, EVE averaged nearly 50,000 concurrent players. For the past few months, New Eden has struggled to draw 30,000 – a drop of roughly 40%. How did we get here?

Let’s dispense with some oft-repeated untruths. No, CCP’s anti-botting/RMT efforts haven’t driven away nearly half the playerbase. That is silly for reasons of proportionality alone. No, the banning of ISBoxer and other automation tools is not responsible for the situation. The idea that a relative handful of multiboxers and ISBoxer users was inflating EVE’s PCU by tens of thousands is laughable. Players are leaving EVE because EVE isn’t interesting anymore and what makes EVE interesting is the political narrative.

To know why EVE is struggling, we must understand the political history of the game.

Influence.png

First, let’s clarify this “politics” idea. There are of course many things that EVE does decently enough and a few things that EVE is fantastic at. But EVE’s most unique feature (and its greatest draw) is the political narrative in nullsec space, the territory conquerable by players and unpoliced by NPC do-gooders. In this space, unique among MMOs for its particular brand of lawlessness, groups of players can forge political bonds, control and exploit territory, and strive for dominance unfettered. This is the arena that produced B-5RB, Asakai, the Goon/BoB conflict (known by its participants as the Great War), spies and commanders, heroes and villains, and the vast majority of the stories about EVE worth reading. It’s what makes the Verite Rendition Player Influence map so magical – every entity on that map is composed of hundreds or thousands of people, and they all have stories.

Take any major EVE battle of the sort that occasionally leaks into the broader media. The actual fighting itself is usually only interesting in a narrow technical sense; the actual experience of a player combatant may not be particularly exciting or even enjoyable. I’ve participated in my fair share of big fights. I remember high points like magnificent bombing runs and Doomsday beams flashing across the starfield. Mostly, I remember low points: interminable waiting, time dilation, my client stuttering and choking, tediously following the fleet commander’s orders, boredom and frustration. This is not interesting. What is interesting is the battle’s consequences; in New Eden, the battles have consequences – or at least, they should.

EVE doesn’t seem to produce many meaningful struggles anymore. B-5RB is, once again, illustrative: the battle occurred only as a result of a series of mistakes and uncharacteristic moves on both sides. Players without an obscenely expensive supercapital-class ship were directed away from the battle proper by their commanders, to preserve server resources for the more useful Titans and Supercarriers. Finally, the battle’s actual strategic consequences were muted, as both sides had sufficiently deep war-chests to replace their losses in a matter of weeks. The war itself was a passionless thing, driven mostly by the need to give players something to do. No righteous fury or struggle for survival animated B-5RB.

These are symptoms of the game’s political ossification.

Shuffling the Deck

In December 2009, EVE’s 12th expansion (Dominion) was released. Dominion came with a new sovereignty system – a complete overhaul of the mechanics determining player control of space in nullsec.

It was not a good overhaul. The pre-Dominion sovereignty system wasn’t good, exactly, but it lacked the more pernicious and damaging flaws that Dominion carried. Dominion-era sov warfare was a grinding, oddly-designed mess that heavily favored the defender. The complexity of the system discouraged new blood from attempting to enter the nullsec game and conferred further power to the veterans who already held space.

The number of new alliances moving into nullsec plummeted and even alliances with terrible leadership were able to hold their space indefinitely, simply because grinding through Dominion’s legion of timers and other obstacles was not worth it. Even the conquest of uncontested space was a chore. To successfully attack, alliances needed more members. They began to merge and grow. Coalitions became less “alliances of alliances” and more autocratic.

Dotlan

As alliances bloated in size, their culture and identity became diluted. As they became richer and more well-established, leaders were less inclined to risk their hard-won gains on wars or other failure-prone ventures. The Verite Influence map started to have mostly the same names on it. For years.

These player organizations, mostly safe behind the high walls of Dominion sovereignty, evolved, becoming more Byzantine and bureaucratic. Familiarity with the mechanics bred the ability to exploit them. Coalitions developed unified communications platforms, reimbursement and welfare programs, and a whole system of internal management. Groups that were once autocracies now insulated the leader behind a wall of fleet commanders, diplomats, metagamers, and a dozen other kinds of functionaries and specialists. Some of this was happening before Dominion and would have happened without it, of course – players evolve. Dominion just reinforced the stifling effect that the sovereignty mechanics sparked.

After a few years of adjustment, EVE’s political narratives stopped being as interesting or dynamic as they once were. Everyone had fought everyone before, usually many times.  Just as a first-past-the-post, all-or-nothing electoral system discourages third parties and narrows the field of viable candidates and parties, the all-or-nothing sovereignty system discouraged smaller alliances, eventually forcing the vast majority of nullsec players into a trinary, and then a binary, galaxy.

As a member of one of EVE’s most long-lived and influential alliances, Goonswarm Federation, I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. The first half-decade of EVE was a time of consequences – dramatic upsets, narrative, clashing ideologies, space opera made real. After half a decade of Dominion all we had left was the core gameplay, and it’s not a secret that much of EVE’s core gameplay isn’t actually very good.

 

influencecropped

Fozziesov

To CCP’s credit, after more than five years of Dominion stagnation, they have finally come around to replacing the Dominion sovereignty system. Developed under the aegis of Game Designer CCP Fozzie, the new mechanics are almost universally referred to by the community as “Fozziesov.”

The way Fozziesov actually functions isn’t that important; it follows the EVE Online tradition of taking already-complex game mechanics and obscuring them further behind weird terminology. Activity Defense Multiplier? Entosis Link? Ugh. The question is: will it work? If it does work, will it be enough to revitalize the nullsec political game? Ideally, Fozziesov would shake up or break up EVE’s coalitions and lower the stakes of conflict. Many prominent coalition and alliance leaders have in fact stated that they’d welcome to a return to the freewheeling, balkanized EVE landscape of old.

It’s an extraordinarily difficult task for CCP to attempt, akin to reversing a historical process – taking EVE from coalitions down to nation-states down to tribal groups. However it is an extraordinarily difficult task worth doing; revitalizing the nullsec game is probably the only way to reverse EVE’s declining numbers.

Respected EVE politicians and alliance leaders are skeptical. Reaction to Fozziesov in action has largely been neutral or negative. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything; EVE players will gleefully attack CCP for any action they take or propose to take and it’s too early to make a definitive judgement of Fozziesov. Still, it is worrying. A failure to return dynamism and fun to nullsec could be fatal. One experienced fleet commander hits the nail on the head:

Mechanics might change, but the general vibe around Eve is that most people have been around the block so many times that they don’t want to put much effort into it anymore. Content creators of olde are largely inactive. Apathy from the old guard isn’t a bad thing – as long as there is a fresh generation to take over. But does that exist?

I hope that new generation does exist because this game is worth saving. Let’s not underrate what CCP has accomplished: more than a decade after launch, despite everything, EVE Online is unique. Games that pitch themselves as competitors to EVE tend to fail (see also: ArcheAge, Perpetuum, Darkfall, etc). Figuring out how to make PvP territorial control work within an MMO is terrifically difficult. MechWarrior Online has been putting it off for three years now.

EVE is not dying. I suspect that New Eden will be around for another decade, if not longer. It’s just becoming less and less interesting – which could be worse than death.

Point/Counterpoint: The Legacy of MMOs

World of Warcraft

MMOs are destined to die. It’s a fact of life that we as MMO players don’t often like to acknowledge, but at some point every company will either a) crash and burn and take the servers down with them or b) transition to other genres and take the servers down with them. The question isn’t ‘what if EVE Online or The Secret World were to go down forever?’ – it is instead ‘what should happen to MMOs when their parents need to pull the plug?’ Some, like Mr. Murff, believe MMOS should be archived so that players can still experience them after closure; others, like Mr. Andrews, believe intellectual property rights should remain intact. 

James Murff

I’m very much a big proponent of games as historical artifacts (in the same way as painting, or books, or music, or what have you), so I am, of course, a damn dirty liberal hippie. Here’s how.

MMOs are an essential part of the gaming landscape, and offer people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Games like Warhammer, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies left an indelible mark not only on the MMO genre, but also the people who played them, some of whom did so for almost a decade.

By allowing companies to wholly control these games to the point that they can shutter them, forever, never release the source or software to the community, and generally freeze all attempts at historical archival, it creates entire sections of gaming history that are arbitrarily “lost.” This is unique to games-as-service too; in books, movies, and even non-MMO games like Halo, archival is always an option, because there will always be a copy somewhere that can be backed up. Not so much for the religiously-guarded servers of MMOs.

I think it’s fully within a company’s right to shutter an MMO if it’s not performing. That’s fine! But I think that there should be a legal mechanism or organization in place to gracefully transition those games into “archival”; that is, they are no longer subscription-based or require purchases (except the clients, much like a normal game purchase) and the original company no longer maintains or updates the game in any way, but you can still play them.

Whether this is done through a full transference of property rights, or via negotiated licenses (such as Creative Commons) is a valid point of contention, as is which games should be selected for archival. But I don’t think it can be said that these games shouldn’t be saved in some capacity. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing them? All MMOs die eventually, after all.

I do think it’s fair to say that the source shouldn’t be released, or released under a limited license. However, it’s not like companies haven’t been sued for source theft before; Dennis Dyack’s company was destroyed because Epic sued them over the unauthorized use of Unreal Engine’s source code.

This isn’t an emotional response, it’s a historic one. We have a duty to preserve gaming culture and history. Archival is an important aspect of any creative medium, and games are a creative medium. Imagine if we didn’t strive to preserve books, or movies, or paintings; many classics would be lost to time. This is no Library of Alexandria, of course, but the preservation of games should be an important aspect of contributing to the medium. MMOs are the only games with this unique problem – all other games can be archived, either digitally or physically – so I think it’s only fair that we put measures in place to give them a measure of archival as well.

I absolutely believe it is the right of a company to shut down and no longer support an MMO. But I also believe we have a duty to preserve games – or at least the games that had such a huge impact on our medium – and MMOs fall under that category.

As for intellectual copyright, there’s all sorts of problems with how companies and the government handles copyright in the United States. The foremost, though, is that we give people and companies copyrights to their products for almost 100 years after the dissolution or death of either. If you have an estate, you retain the copyright forever. There’s a reason why alternative rights contracts – such as Creative Commons – have sprung up over the years in the wake of modern copyright law.

Part of a creative medium’s value is in how we transition the concept of private creation into public creation. Many beloved characters and stories exist within this public domain – Sherlock Holmes, the Cthulhu Mythos, Dracula, etc – and the stories that have resulted are some of the best we’ve seen.

Companies should have the right to protect the software they create and a right to shut down a service they are providing. What I don’t think they have the right to do, though, is forever lock off chunks of history for the sake of a profit margin.

We have a historical imperative to preserve these games, just as we do to preserve other creative mediums. That means a graceful transition (how? I’m not entirely sure, the details have to be hammered out, and it will be expensive) into a state where the company is no longer supporting the game, but either players or a non-profit (non-profit is my personal favorite option) are running the server. Players should be able to play, understand, and enjoy these important dead games, without infringing upon the company’s copyrights.

MMOs are small societies, experiential games that pull together people in interesting and even studiable ways. EVE Online is considered a good avenue of study for economists, and the infamous plague in World of Warcraft led to research in how disease is spread in a society. They are indeed a product of their time, and as time goes on, these MMOs change. Saying that the experience of EVE now is fundamentally different than EVE of 2005 is not disputable.

Still, though, we shouldn’t be so quick to let the tangible aspect of these MMOs disappear. YouTube and the like only gets us so far; in order to truly understand and appreciate a society that developed and is now dead, you need access to more than just their media. You need their monuments, their cities, their real and approachable spaces. The death of an MMO is the destruction of these monuments, the dismantling of the tangible, and all that’s left are second-hand accounts.

There is a wonder in wandering these spaces, empty or full, and seeing the legacy left by both players and developers. A book without a monument lacks impact; a monument without a book lacks context. They are inextricable, and to deprive us of one is to deprive us of the whole experience. That’s why we should preserve these spaces, and perhaps even some of these societies.

Dave Andrews

This is a pretty cut-and-dried case in my mind. The companies who construct MMOs do (and should) hold all rights to their work. It is their property, paid for in the labor and infrastructure costs associated with the teams who build them, and to suggest that we are merely ‘allowing’ companies to wholly own something they made is a ludicrous argument. The only entity entitled to the ownership (in whole) is the entity who created it (or to whom the product is sold). To argue otherwise would be to argue for the dissolution of the concept of private property.

Being a long time MMO player – and having spent time with almost all of the titles mentioned above and a fair few others – I totally get the emotional response to a hobby effectively being killed by something beyond your control. It sucks, but at the end of the day you simply have to respect the rights of the intellectual property owners. If they can no longer maintain and operate an MMO and the infrastructure involved (which can be quite expensive), or no longer find it in their best interest, then they have the right to shut it all down and move on.

The other thing to keep in mind is that in the vast majority of cases, MMOs are not shut down arbitrarily. MMOs are a product/service and gaming studios are businesses. When they start consistently going into the red and the choice is either appeasing a handful of players or trying to keep your employees fed and clothed.. well, I know which option I’d pick.

Where most of this argument exists is in a very emotional place and there really is no arguing with emotion at the end of the day. However, the fact remains that source code is no less an asset than a building or an iPhone or anything else – and players are very much not entitled to that asset. As we should all know by now, when you subscribe to an MMO you are purchasing the rights to use a service and a client. You are categorically not buying the source code, server code, or anything else.

In addition, there are costs to consider. How would such an ‘archival’ solution that involves legislation be funded? In my personal experience running MMOs (backend server work, etc), I would estimate the cost of running an MMO of three thousand or fewer players to be around 27,000 USD (2015 dollars). This covers things like rackspace at a semi-decent datacenter, labor for a semi-competent engineer (who can do database, network, and system engineer work), and all the miscellaneous things that go into serving up MMO content. That doesn’t sound like a lot – but how many MMOs have had the plug pulled on them over the years? How many more can we expect to die in the next 10? Is this really something we want government funding to go towards? I realize I’m asking a lot of questions, here, but I truly don’t understand my colleague’s obsession with keeping dead things alive.

Setting aside the copyright argument (I can’t really argue with someone who believes copyrights are culture killers) and the realities of cost (it would cost around 27,000 USD per month to run a barebones MMO from my experience), this is the most important argument I think I can make against a forced method of maintenance mode for MMO properties: the game you are trying to preserve has already died by the time maintenance mode would be an option. Think of an EVE Online with 10% of its current playerbase – how fun is that game even? If you were a newcomer looking to experience EVE Online in 25 years, you wouldn’t be able to. Hell, if you are a newcomer right now you wouldn’t gain any understanding of the previous 10 years of the game, even if you put 10 years into it.

Can anyone understand the “many whelps” of Onyxia or the context of Leeroy Jenkins even today? MMOs are an experiential piece of entertainment that is constantly shifting and requires, uniquely, a base number of players to really understand. The reason MMOs live (and die) in ways that other genres of video game do not is this simple fact. Social and cultural context are what define MMO experiences, more so than the code or the quests or the mechanics of gameplay.

MMOs are about people; it is the only real draw of the genre. How those people come together, the bonds that are built from shared experiences, the competition of being better than the other guild, or team, or realm, those are what make MMOs worth preserving – and it is also why they cannot be preserved in the manner James describes. We don’t need to preserve the ‘approachable spaces’ of a game by keeping the servers on. Comparing YouTube to the dusty scrolls of yester-millenia is facetious at best, not to mention the fact that the reason for the emphasis on preserving spaces in the real world is that those spaces often functioned as media (read: statues, plinths, triumphal arches, pillars, and columns all serve as media upon which information is written).

The digital media of the modern era is perfectly suited to record the digital spaces that function as MMOs. Without the context of actually having been there, having been a part of the zeitgeist of World of Warcraft or Star Wars: Galaxies or EVE Online, future players will be fundamentally unable to understand what made those games great. The experiences that those communities share are the only thing worth saving – and keeping the server lights on isn’t the way to save them.

There is, however, a method of preserving these experiences that exists right now. Everyone can (and many do) engage in this archival process already. It not only relates systems, art, and level design; it relates the actual experience of playing. It is called YouTube and it is free of cost to the developer. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City famously included EVE Online in their initial slate of video game inductions in 2013 and they didn’t do it by running a small server version of the game; they did it by putting together a video presentation. Game experiences change in MMOs, more so than any other category of video game. They are fluid in nature and the joy of them exists not in code, but in the people you play with and against. Better to document and record those experiences than to put up an empty shell of what used to be a video game.

To reiterate: it sucks to realize that a part of your life is now gone and can never be retrieved. That is as true for childhood as it is for a player’s alternate life in MMOs. Part of growing up and maturing as an adult is the realization that you can never, ever recreate old magic. You’ll never down Onyxia for the first time again; you’ll never win your first 1v1 in EVE Online again either. Instead, you should focus on looking forward, to making new magic and new memories and new friends in new spaces and new communities and new contexts. It is important to know and respect the legacy that past MMOs have delivered to us, but that doesn’t mean we should wallow around in their graves in a sad attempt at paying respects.

Game of the Month Club: August 2015 – War Thunder

Fly some planes with Stellar Relic in War Thunder!

Every month, the masterminds behind Stellar Relic collaborate in their secret lairs to decide which game will get a special highlight on the site. We tell you, our faithful readers, which game it is, and invite you to share your thoughts about it throughout the month. At the end of the month, we post up a collaborative post in which we reflect on our month with the game. In the future, we hope to reward you with prizes like giveaways relating to the titles we pick, discount codes, and more – but for now, we’re just going to be picking a game for us all to play and then reflect on. It’s a Book of the Month Club, but for games. Game of the Month Club. Simple!

For August, we’ve selected War Thunder. This decision was made in the wee hours of July 31st, as we had originally intended to return to Space Engineers for our first selection – but War Thunder was a last minute consensus opinion that I think we’re all happy with. Our experiences with War Thunder range from none (Thomas) to 30+ hours (James), allowing us to represent an array of experience going into it. It’s also important for us to select titles that are widely accessible – both to us and to our readers – and War Thunder is free to play. Finally, we all nerd out to varying degrees over World War II stuff (Thomas in particular), so it was a title we were all really happy to select.

To grab War Thunder, you can either go direct to the source or you can download the game via Steam. I would personally encourage everyone to log a couple hours solo in the title, just to get your bearings, but then find a friend to play with you; War Thunder is a ton of fun solo, and even more so when flying with friends.

Feel free to share your relevant IDs in the comments below if you need someone to fly with – and don’t forget to post your impressions of the game over the course of the month!

Screenshot Saturday: Wide Open Spaces

far-cry-4

Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.

WoW is not a dirty word dammit

Dave: A few weeks ago, my wife decided to restart her World of Warcraft subscription. We have both played WoW since 2005 (off and on) and both have fond memories, particularly of vanilla WoW and The Burning Crusade. Our constant return to (and subsequent departure from) the game speaks volumes of its nostalgic power. This time, I didn’t resubscribe along with my wife – instead I decided to hop on her account and make a character to run through Elwynn Forest and Westfall. It may be 10 years since we started playing, and the visuals are a bit different now, but those old spaces still hold a certain comfort.

Rule the Waves

Thomas: My current addiction is Rule The Waves. It’s June 1919; France and Austria-Hungary are at war, with French troops on the defensive in Tunisia as a naval war rages in the Mediterranean. Just west of Corfu, the French battlecruiser Duquesne spots and engages the Austro-Hungarian Taurus-class battlecruiser ArethusaDuquesne takes a 12 inch shell to the engine room early in the battle, slowing her, and the destruction of her aft turret makes attempting to escape futile. She turns and fights, and the war hangs in the balance.

All this fantastic narrative and technical complexity springing forth from a game that looks like it was designed 20 years ago. I love it.

far-cry-4

James: Far Cry 4 has a lot of problems. The overall structure of the game is unsatisfying, the sidequests are repetitive, and the balance is thrown out the window the moment you get a silenced sniper rifle. Despite it all, though, there is one thing Far Cry 4 does extremely well: beautiful wide-open landscapes. The nation of Kyrat is extraordinarily beautiful, with lush vegetation, towering mountains, and clear blue lakes. It may be difficult to recommend Far Cry 4 on the strength of its mechanics, but it’s (almost) worth playing for the vistas alone.

Welcome!

welcome

Stellar Relic is the result of three people who liked working with each other at another outlet being slowly (but inexorably) let go for ‘business reasons’ – pesky things like requesting actual pay or pushing back against business decisions in editorial. James, Dave, and Thomas all love games, particularly obscure titles that don’t get a ton of mainstream coverage. Our old gigs allowed us to explore some of this, but here at Stellar Relic we’re creating the opportunity for ourselves (and hopefully others!) to spread our wings.

We want to bring together the serious and the silly in a way that makes sense to intelligent readers. We’re not here to capture the latest triple-A trailer teaser traffic; we’re here because we love games and want to understand them on a fundamentally deeper level than most gaming media. We want our readers to feel edified by reading a piece, to feel enlightened in some small way, and ultimately to share in our love of games that often don’t get much of it.

The Team

James Murff is a veteran of multiple gaming publications, including Joystiq, PC Gamer, Gamefront, and more. He likes sentient machines, obscure indie games, and dissecting game mechanics.

David Andrews used to work at Sony Online Entertainment (back when that was a company that existed) and ran a gaming media site for a couple years before his soul was crushed.

Thomas Howell is an undercredentialed dork who plays games and writes about them. He’s passionate about the intersections between gaming and history, identity, politics, and the future.

The Goal

The first and foremost goal of Stellar Relic is to give complexity a chance to shine.

We love complex games here. Whether they are dense grand strategy games put out by Paradox, or deceptively simple indie fighting games such as Nidhogg, our goal is to showcase how games can be subtle and nuanced. Whether that nuance is a number buried in a spreadsheet or a mindgame played with an opponent doesn’t matter; we want games that challenge you and push you in new directions.

This also means that we won’t be dropping old titles to focus on new ones. If a game is being covered here, it will be covered as long as the writer is interested. So many sites rely on the eternal churn of new games, new content. We would rather enrich your experience with an existing game than try to tell you about every new release. Don’t worry, though; we’ll still tell you about upcoming titles that catch our eye.

The Community

As you can see below, we have comments on every article! While so many sites suffer for this, we won’t. Here’s why:

Our comments will be heavily moderated. There is no illusion of free speech here; if you say something repugnant, whether ironic or not, we will delete your comment and ban you. There is a line here, and being overly aggressive, personal, or bigoted will guarantee a deletion and ban. We want comments to be a place where people can express themselves safely and without others coming in to ruin their good time. If you come here to do that, we won’t let your comment stand. It’s as simple as that.

As long as you abide by this simple rule, have fun! We read every comment and we love to respond to readers, whether it’s to clarify a point, encourage deeper discussions, or just make jokes.

The Fun

Above all, we here at Stellar Relic do this to enjoy ourselves, and we want you to enjoy our work and community as well. We will always strive to cover new and interesting games and media, join with you to play and talk about games, and create opportunities for you to share in our journey.

Welcome to Stellar Relic!