There’s long been a stigma surrounding PC gaming and its apparent inaccessibility, which is purportedly due to the high cost of maintaining a rig that has the latest hardware so that you can run the most recent releases on the highest settings possible. There’s a truth in this, but only if you want to play specific games and to a particularly high quality as standard. For those who aren’t as fussed about all of that, you can participate in the world of PC gaming by seeking out less demanding games. Hence, one of the draws of playing indie games is that quite a lot of them can probably run on your grandmother’s toaster.
One such game that has drawn a community due to its very low system requirements, amongst many other things, was Ace of Spades. The “was” in that last sentence being of note as the game’s most recent release has alienated those with older and less capable PCs. But why would the developer do such a thing to their own community, one that is supposedly 2.5 million strong nonetheless? Simple. It’s not the same developer.
Ben Aksoy released Ace of Spades back in April of 2011 to nothing more than a whisper from people who had heard about it and started to play in its servers. It was a simple game, one that could be best described as Minecraft meets Team Fortress, or any online multiplayer FPS really. Therefore it tapped into two popular and community-focused game blueprints and did a neat job at bringing the best of both of these worlds together. Most important of the game’s design was that it was simple through and through. From the graphics, to the gameplay and how the community were able to interact with the game – adding their own content and hosting their own servers – Ace of Spades was friendly to pretty much all. On top of that, it was completely free, so what’s not to love?
“The game itself has a low learning curve, just a quick install and you’re ready to join a server. No registrations, no confirmations, you just play the game. While that design has its disadvantages in some aspects, it’s a great selling point.”
Naturally, word about the game started to spread and at no cost to the developer; this was completely organic growth with not a single dime spent on marketing. Not like that was an option anyway. Ben was unemployed when he released Ace of Spades and continued to remain in a tight spot, financially speaking, for many months after. As interest in the game grew, not only did players see the potential, but so did a large company – Jagex, to be precise. So when Jagex approached him with a monetary offer, it didn’t take much to lure him in.
A little refresher for those who need it: Jagex created and still maintain Runescape which is the world’s largest free MMORPG and the most updated game there is. You’d think that as this development and publishing company has built their own success on the same tenets that made Ace of Spades popular – mostly a game that is free, enjoyable, accessible and very community focused – that they’d have their interests in the right place and know what they were doing with a game such as this. Whether or not they’ve succeeded financially, the community that built up around Ace of Spades since its initial release feel like they have been ignored and are ultimately left completely dissatisfied with how Jagex have handled the game and their treatment of them as its dedicated community.
Way Back in ’75…
“Jagex’s procedures for managing a community probably need a thorough review and audit”, Nathan Shoffner, one of the developers and moderators behind Build And Shoot, tells me.
Build And Shoot is essentially the 0.75 beta version of Ace of Spades, which is the last version to include procedurally generated battlefields, support for custom maps, a map editor, the modifying of models and sounds and the distribution and integration of community-made packs. Since then, the changes made to the game have been dictated by Jagex in the interest of their vision for the game, which turned out to be a more GPU demanding game released on Steam with an entry fee of $9.99. Build And Shoot is the game that originally brought people together and the community and developers behind it continue to build on it so it serves their interests.
“We are a community that aims to provide a safe harbor for the Voxlap version of Ace of Spades,” Nathan explained when I asked what Build And Shoot was all about. “All while giving users a place to be creative, voice their opinions, and of course, enjoy the game that brought them all together. We hope to take it to another level by expanding things both technically and socially as time progresses.”
Nathan first heard of Ace of Spades just a few days after its initial release, and was reluctant to try it out but after a friend of his wouldn’t stop nagging he did so and from there on was hooked to the game. What he found great about Ace of Spades from the very start was its low learning curve and quick install – it was easy to set-up with no registrations or confirmations to encounter so you could jump right on in and start having fun. He soon became an integral part of the game’s development and was very active in building up the game’s community as one of the admins.
“When I first joined, there wasn’t much of a community, at least not in a structured sense,” Nathan reveals. “It was quite loose knit. There were some basic forums in place, but not much else. Danhezee was the other admin at the time and as we started talking a bit more, we began trying to shape the community. We started doing things like events with matches and map/mod competitions to help get people involved.”
So it was due to individuals like Nathan that such a strong community was active within Ace of Spades, putting in the effort so Ben could continue to improve the game based on the feedback they gave him. So when Jagex were introduced into the equation, you’d think that it would be very wise of them to listen very closely to these moderators in the community so that they could help improve the game as it was and towards what the community wanted it to be. As we know, the community existed because Ace of Spades was fun, free and accessible while providing plenty of customization options and community made extras.
“Initially, the original Ace of Spades staff tried to help steer Jagex’s community managers in the right direction, one that would help ease the transition for both themselves and the existing community,” Nathan told me. “Sadly, they didn’t take our advice – instead they did the complete opposite and the community is the one that is suffering because of it. They are quite trigger happy with banning whenever anybody raises any concerns that puts them in a negative light.”
“We would have liked for them to take the community’s feedback into consideration while developing the Steam version, which includes slower-paced gameplay balances, modding, and privately managed servers to name a few hot topics. We also would have liked for the original community managers to continue maintaining the relationship we had developed with the community over a year’s worth of time, or at the very least been given the “stamp of approval” by Jagex.”
So things started spiralling when the Jagex community managers decided to go against the wishes of the original community and take the game where they thought it would serve them best. Perhaps it was the release on Steam that drove them in this direction, as they figured that the majority of players using this service would want better graphics for starters. In many ways, taking away the customization and making the game more similar to other mutliplayer FPS experiences with only a selection of maps and other options available probably does appeal to the mainstream player. But this was not what Ace of Spades was about – it didn’t exist to serve that community, but Jagex seemed determined to ensure that it did.
“The judgement of the community managers has been clouded by pre-existing differences between the old Ace of Spades staff and themselves. Even mentioning buildandshoot.com on the “official” forums has resulted in many people being banned.”
The original developer, Ben, couldn’t be relied on either as the deal he struck with Jagex “apparently wasn’t that good”, according to Nathan. “We know of two occasions when bcoolface [Ben] tried to buy the rights back,” Nathan continued, “And finally he just had enough and quit leading up to the 1.0 release.” So, at this point, the idea for Build and Shoot started to form.
“It was easy to see Jagex had no intentions in steering this game in a direction that would thrive or satisfy its existing userbase. While seeing this, danhezee, izzy, and myself (StackOverflow) decided to create a new community called Build and Shoot. We kept it secretive at first, mainly to resolve some legalities. By the time Jagex was ready to drop the free version, we were ready with our community.”
When One Become Two
It’s a pretty simple tale overall, and one that doesn’t paint Jagex in a particularly good tone. They’ve completely distanced themselves from the original community surrounding Ace of Spades and, in truth, there doesn’t seem to be much logic in this. Surely the intelligent thing to do would be to work with the community to build a better game from the one that they were already playing. At the very least you’d expect them to do what they’ve done for Runescape and that is to provide a “Classic” version of the game, which is essentially the beta version and is still free for anyone who wants to jump in. But no, Jagex didn’t do that. Instead they went off on their own accord and left the pretty huge player base quite unhappy. Then, when they start to ask them why they were doing it or making suggestions of how to handle the community they abandoned, they decide to issue bans. All in all, it seems to be an appalling way to handle a fan base.
As to the game they finally ended up releasing, the entire staff behind Build And Shoot agree that it’s “watered down” and exists as “more of a “spray and pray” game rather than a tactical one”. Nathan tells me that there were early versions of the OpenGL client that were tested a few months back and that these were more in-line with how they wanted Jagex to approach the development of the game. He says that they had the same feel as the beta versions but came with improved OpenGL rendering and capabilities. That’s all in the past now, though.
So the question is: now that Ace of Spades 1.0 has been released on Steam, how is Build And Shoot faring? The answer shouldn’t surprise you all that much.
“The response has been great so far. Traffic has been steadily increasing since our launch and we’ve experienced a boost since Jagex officially launched their game on Steam. It’s not uncommon for our player count to exceed that of the Steam version. Sadly, the same can’t be said on the Jagex front. The judgement of the community managers has been clouded by pre-existing differences between the old Ace of Spades staff and themselves. Even mentioning buildandshoot.com on the “official” forums has resulted in many people being banned. That doesn’t stop people from sharing it via other means though. If anything, them trying to censor the site has only made it more popular through some sort of “Voldemort effect.”
So generally things have been quite victorious for the original community, which is continuing to grow even now, and the great thing is that both versions of the game remain available. Jagex seem to be sticking with the same approach, and judging by their planned updates, there’s going to be no further effort to serve the beta community, most likely because they view them as not being a source of income. It may be the right thing to do as a business, but I have to say once again that not even considering to solve concerns amongst the original community is so foolish, and then to ban anyone who even mentions Build And Shoot is just outright ridiculous. I’d even entertain using the word ‘disgusting’ regarding that, actually.
To end on a more positive note, Build And Shoot is being built per the suggestions by the community as the focus is on improving the game experience without modifying the client. Objectives planned and already reached were to create an independent community, master server and game server. With that out of the way, the Build And Shoot team are working on “Ace Servers” which come with added functionality and protection. In the near future they’ll be releasing versions which contain better ways to interact with friends with a “friend system”, have new game modes and in-game functionality, and they’ll of course be continuing to host their official and user-driven events that made Ace of Spades so popular in the first place. They do all this while being aware of intellectual property rights and are trying their best to respect them.
Meanwhile, Jagex is trying to work their community on Steam by improving performance issues and adding new servers. They also reveal in this update that they’re acknowledging the call out for the more tactical gameplay of the beta versions of Ace of Spades and will be adding larger maps in January. This might be the first time they’ve actually spoken about the way the game used to be and making an effort to bring back some of its appeal. Hopefully the two games and player bases can continue to exist separately, which would make everyone happy, it would seem.