Earth & Beyond may not be a title you’re particularly familiar with – it was a space centric MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) being developed by Westwood and released in September 2002. Sadly, if MMOG charts is any indication (http://www.mmogchart.com/charts/), it didn’t exactly set the world on fire and peaked at around 40,000 players. Its players still hold a certain amount of animosity towards Electronic Arts (which bought Westwood back in 1998) and blame EA for the games lackluster performance.

I have fond memories of this game myself, I would read course materials for an Open University Computer ScienceĀ  Degree (which became an abbortive degree attempt when I realised whilst struggling with a Java programming module that the final project requires you to use Java, a language I was learning I just didn’t have an aptitude for) whilst my space ship would be travelling from sector to sector doing trade runs or perhaps whilst exploring. Eventually the game was shut down (referred to as being ‘sunset’) in Sept 2004 and sadly I was too busy working on Open Uni work to visit for the closing down ceremonies. Earth & Beyond has recently been reborn in the form of an emulator project (http://enb-emulator.com/) and the people behind it are currently running stress tests, funded through donations from folks who have come back for its return. This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit it and I’ve been re-examining the game and seeing what I’m happy with and what I’m unhappy with, I’m going to break this game down into a few pieces and discuss it here…

(Disclaimer: The comments here are not intended as a reflection of the emulation project, but rather as a reflection of the original game itself, many issues will inevitably have carried over to the emulation project but that is not really the fault of the project which seeks to become like the original game as best as possible then expand from that point onwards)

Progression & Skills

One of the primary aspects of any game is in the progression, how does the game change as time goes on, what drives the player forward. In MMOGs the progression tends to centre around the concept of character levels (There are exceptions of course) and Earth & Beyond isn’t an exception to this rule in general terms. It does however take a slightly different approach – sub dividing 1 overall level down into three seperate roles – combat, exploration & trade. This has upsides and downsides, it gives a visible indicator of how you’ve progressed in the game but it also means that if you want to reach maximum overall level (150, at which point all experience goes into a single pool rather than each sub type progressing separately) you’ll have to do tasks that you might not otherwise choose to do. They wisely kept the crafting of equipment out of the equation except in the token way of contributing some points to one of the existing progression sets so analysing an object to work out what its composed of contributes to the exploration pool (your exploring how the device works) and making objects such as ammunition & shields contributes to trade experience. Not all of the character archetypes/classes have a strong manufacture element and not all of them can mine so to put those prominently as their own experience grouping would be problematic. Ultimately, I like this three tiered experience system as it lends the players an additional amount of agency “Shall I work towards exploration experience today, or maybe do some trade or combat, perhaps all three?”, this addition isn’t strictly necessary, you could streamline the whole thing out but the overall game would suffer for it.

I should also mention that each character class has a different selection of skills they start with and can get, theres some cross over especially in the core skills like shield skill, weapon skill and so on. The skills have their own requirements for advancement (in effect this is an alternative to the skill/ability tree system that some other MMOGs use) where missile weapons level 3 might require combat level 21 or 18 (etc) depending on which character class you’re playing. The skills system is a little problematic in that if you make a mistake when upgrading a skill you can’t undo it without the aid of a level 135 Progen Sentinel that has the ‘Call Forward’ ability (currently disabled in the emulator project as far as I’m aware), so for instance if I’ve decided to forgo upgrading beam weapons to focus on projectile weapons instead but accidentally upgrade beam weapons without thinking it through first I have to go through significiant effort to correct a mistake that is rather too easy to make (namely finding and meeting a progen sentinel willing to help out).

Inventory related – Trading, mining, manufacturing

There just isn’t enough cargo hold space, you get more as you increase in character levels, but the increases are small (2-4 cargo spaces every 10-25 levels). When mining if you don’t find resource fields that are of one type you can quickly fill up your cargo hold and be unable to get more minerals without first dumping a stack of ores (or what have you) that you’ve already collected. At a guess, it’s a database issue – that the developers were concerned about the impact of large cargo holds on ships, yet I still wish there were more slots even though it might be necessary to tone down the amount of trade xp earned for each crate of trade goods as a result.

On the subject of trade goods, most of them aren’t even worth bothering with – once you’ve learned about which trade routes are the better onesĀ  you won’t even glance at the lower rated trade goods (level IV/V tend to be the best, there aren’t higher rated ones) and as a result you’ll get a high proportion of players following just 2 or 3 trade routes creating a potential performance issue in the handling of traffic in each sector. The player will rarely feel compelled to pick up trade goods as they travel from place to place even if they have a map to pre-plan routes, instead choosing only to do trade runs when they actually choose to do trading. There are also trade missions, but I haven’t really looked at them as they appear to be more for high level characters generally and it takes a while to reach high levels in the game (Theres a mission system built into the game, where you can get privateer like missions from mission terminals and serves as an extra alternative way of earning cash, experience and positive reputation with the games various factions). By putting in more high level trade routes that run around the outskirts of known space rather than just through the middle to Somerled station and back you spread the load out across the other sectors and reduce the risk of poor performance in one line of sectors.

Manufacturing meanwhile has significant usability issues, where information about what is required to build a component or equipment is only actively visible whilst the player is viewing the manufacturing interface. If the player then decides to build that device, it is necessary to walk to a vendor to buy the equipment, because the manufacture interface is now closed (it only opens when you use it, and places the avatar in a ‘busy’ state so you’re stuck there until you exit it) it becomes necessary to either write the components needed on paper or in a captains log facility (basically, think of it as a multi-paged version of notepad.exe that is built into the game itself). This is a waste of the players time and the game could do a much better job of supporting manufacture, perhaps by allowing the player to purchase the components required through the manufacture interface itself on condition that there is a vendor on the station that sells each of the required components.

Edit: Also, I can’t help but wonder if there’s really any harm in having a the ability to transfer stuff between characters through an extra slot of storage spaces in the players vault that is maintained between all the characters on an account. If the player wants to put in the effort of having multiple characters and having one of these characters be an object builder, then they should be able to without needing a second account or a helpful other player to move built devices between one players characters. /End edit.

On the subject of vendors, the games equivalent of shops, there is no at a glance indicator of what level(s) of objects are being sold by a vendor. This is especially proplematic in the case of component sellers where you might have to go up and speak to each vendor until you find the one selling the level 3 components you need to make that ammunition, again, wasting the players precious time unnecessarily. Some of the vendors will tell you the level of equipment being sold during the “hi, I’m shop vendor x and I sell items type y & z” but not all – the emulator project folks are addressing that to some extent by updating the shop intro texts to more clearly state what they’re selling but I think the situation could be improved further by putting numbers on the storeholders ‘shop type’ flags that hang from the vendor stalls as below. This isn’t an attempt to streamline the game, but rather a matter of not wasting the players time with weak handling of information.

Missions

This area is a little bit problematic as well, often times a mission will have requirements which may or may not be explained to the player, a mission that gives the player a ‘build shields’ skill might require Combat Level 14 but until you actually reach combat level 14 the non-player-character won’t acknowledge the possibility of the mission at all. There are several instances where an NPC does tell the player that he/she is not experienced enough to take on the task, but then does not tell the player what those requirements are – this can lead to the player running around looking to see if the missions have actually become available on occasion, wasting their time yet again. This is basically a case of poor feedback, not telling the player what is required to progress and shouldn’t really be allowed. I suspect some people would try to claim this is ‘dumbing the game down’ whatever that is actually supposed to mean and whilst I agree that sometimes games seem too streamlined often times ultimately it was right for the game and possibly also right for the target audience.

Combat

I hate to say it, but the combat was lacklustre and doesn’t really give you the sense of being in a spaceship flying about shooting at things. Whilst you can fly around a fair bit with missile weapons which will automatically wind their way to a targetted hostile regardless of your position or facing, the beam and projectile weapons require you to be looking in the general direction of the enemy and you inevitably end up with two turrets sitting almost perfectly still in space firing at eachother until one of the two combatants is dead, combat skills try to liven up things a bit but really only serve to provide you with a few extra buttons to press whilst your ship sits there turreting the opponent. Depending on which character class you play, fighting monsters and villians can be very unforgiving or almost comically easy, particularly with the use of a tactic called ‘kiting’ where you stay out of the range of an enemy by flying directly away from it whilst firing missiles to the aft, the only thing that slows you down with this tactic is running out of reactor energy. More could be done to make movement a stronger part of the combat, perhaps monsters have weaker armour on the sides or back so that players are encouraged to try and outmaneuvre opponents instead of just sitting there watching health bars slowly empty and occasionally pressing a button.

Overall

However, despite the games few weaknesses, it remains a compelling game – the 3 tiered levelling system gives the player a feeling of a greater degree of control over what to focus on with their character and despite being many years old the game still looks fantastic. There are some slight issues with the animations on certain player characters (at the avatars waistline) but this is only a problem if you’re looking for it. Its strongest aspect is the sense of place, of being there – space stations (the busier ones at least) regularly get the hustle and bustle of people going about their business whilst audio adverts for companies and other factions in the game world play in the background and theres plenty to explore. If you’ve played the game before and missed it, it’s worth revisiting and donating a bit to help the emulator project staff do their thing.

http://www.enb-emulator.com/