Before there was EVE Online, before Planetside, before even the amazing steadfastness of Anarchy Online there was a little known MMO called Jumpgate. I remember it. I worked at the WarCry network when we launched a small but fiercely loyal fansite. At the time, the game was unique: a player run economy, regular live events, tri-factional PvP play...sound familiar? But an RPG it was not. I know...I crashed my ship attempting to dock, well every time I played.
Trying to describe what Jumpgate was/is would take pages. A massively multiplayer online flight simulator with a detailed back story, ongoing lore, intense political squabbles, player and developer run events...oh, and you can use a joystick to fly. I found it was one of the few ways I could dock. (I'm not so good with flight sims). The graphics were good for its time but it was part of the 3DO mess which means like other MMOs (Meridian 59) it simply didn't get the exposure it should have.
To hear the principals of NetDevil talk of how Jumpgate came to be, you'd wonder that it still runs. Apparently, Scott Brown and Peter Grundy thought it would be "fun" to make an online space game. Scott knew nothing of code and Peter knew nothing about art. They convinced Ryan and a few others to join them until they reached the unbelievable team size of six. A few years later, they launched Jumpgate.
But, this was 10 years ago and Louisville, Colorado hadn't yet entered the 20th Century. You see, high speed internet access was still creeping across the state and only Ryan had the needed access in Boulder. The servers had to be run from somewhere. So, they taped together the servers, set them on a board across a sink with the faucet in-between and the rest, as they say, is history.
An inherent problem in being the first to create something is that the lessons learned by previous successes and failures simply aren't available to guide you. Add to that the infancy of the genre at the time, the failure of the game's publisher and Jumpgate had more than its share of hurdles to overcome.
One of the more glaring was a clunky and unresponsive control system (yes, I often crashed because I suck but it wasn't entirely my fault). Unfamiliarity with flight simulators put you at an immediate disadvantage; the game was advertised as being based upon skill, not stats, but this precluded many from ever leaving the space station. Jumpgate Evolution is a simple tap of a key and you're out in space, flying. Keyboard controls are simple and intuitive. (And yes, I asked, joystick support is still available.) Flight feels fluid, easy and immediate. No feeling of "what do I do?" Simple motions. They built their space flight sim.
Remember "back in the day" when we thought it would be cool to play games like "real life"? Yeah...because real life is so much fun we want to escape it to play more of it. *sigh* Space is big. Space is vast. Space is...empty, really really empty. Flying in empty space with little point of reference feels like you're going nowhere fast. Seriously, you're going fast, but it doesn't feel like it. Ever wonder why there were so many stars in Star Trek: Next Generation? Stars make excellent points of reference for movement.
The original had lots of space. It didn't matter that you were mining asteroids or in battles or near stations or any number of satellites. There was space between them, a lot of it. Through the simple act of including debris and adding NPC miners/haulers/pirates to the game, those reference points that were so sorely needed now exist. The addition of an "afterburner" that gets you there that much more quickly (and now allows you to chat!) only increases the feeling of actually crossing vast distances.
Player run economies are fantastic, as long as you have players. The bane of any game design for a large audience is not just a small audience, but an audience that is continually diminishing. The factional imbalance that was to keep the gameplay interesting dissipates as the subscriber base wanes and competition becomes less about competing and more about socializing. Ten years ago the technology to "fix" this was only a wish penciled on a notepad.
The most significant improvement that Jumpgate Evolutions brings to the original game is the artificial intelligence (AI) built into the entire game. From the moment your ship leaves space dock you encounter any number of haulers, miners and pirates. These could be actual players; if the population on the server at that moment requires it, they could be NPC ships. The game will auto-balance according to server population to ensure that the economy is always working, albeit imperfectly. A perfect economy model would leave little for a player to do upon logging in.
Feel the need to just, blow something up? You can do that within your first 60 seconds of entering the game. The same factional combat that existed in the original exists in Evolution with the added dimension of NPC enemies. At the beginning they sit there like domesticated cattle waiting for you to slaughter them. Later on? Not so much. Only players own and build space stations with modules (and they're huge!). The addition of the AI is only to perform mundane tasks and it scales its activity with the population. More activity usually means more people. One can only hope.
Make sure you put solar shielding on your monitor; ten years requires a graphics upgrade and there were times I had to turn my head away due to lens flare. Granted, we were viewing it on a 30-inch screen, but it was bright. Fancy new graphics requiring video cards with shaders (this game will not) could be a problem as keeping the current subscribers is terribly important to the developers. The result of balancing the two are big, bright effects with a lot of saturation. At first (and second and third) glance it is rather astonishing. The jumpgate itself felt like passing through gel.
For me, the true measure of a game is how much fun it is - not how it looks or sounds. The original, when populated, was great fun. Evolution in alpha has me excited. As I sat at the studio talking with the developers, a member from another team came into the room; he walked up to the chair of the person running the demo, pushed him out of the way , sat down and proceeded to play. An hour later, he was still there, blowing up ships in the same small sector of space prepared for the night's presentation. Nothing that was said that evening spoke louder to me than that hour he spent playing.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.