One of the earliest multiplayer squad-based FPS to find a dedicated community, Starsiege: Tribes was a harbinger of games to come. In Part 1, we looked at the game's early history up to the release of the promising sequel. But with developer Dynamix shutting down, where did that leave Tribes 2? Read on to find out.
Tribes 2 and the Fall of Dynamix
Tribes 2 was, in every sense, an improvement on Starsiege: Tribes. The UX felt more professional, the graphics were truly next-gen, and all the best bits of the Tribes experience had been expanded and enhanced. There were more vehicles on offer, such as the Thundersword bomber and Jericho mobile base, more weapons, and more base-building mechanics. But at Dynamix's parent company Sierra On-Line (soon to become Sierra Entertainment), there were more problems.
Sierra had been founded by Ken and Roberta Williams in 1979, and for over two decades had been a household name in the games industry. In 1996, e-commerce company CUC International offered to purchase Sierra in a phenomenally expensive, and suspiciously generous, deal. As recounted by Ken Williams, and reported by Vice, the deal was in fact too good to be true. CUC had fraudulently overstated its income by hundreds of millions. The whole saga would be an enormous financial strain on Sierra, and they were subsequently acquired by a conglomerate that would eventually morph into Vivendi Universal.
Sierra made several attempts to restructure during this era, but recovering in the midst of the collapsing Dotcom Bubble proved too difficult. Even Dynamix, one of the most successful studios in the Sierra portfolio, couldn't avoid lay-offs. When these budgetary measures proved ineffective, Sierra closed Dynamix entirely and shifted responsibility for Tribes 2 to their in-house Bellevue studio.
There's a good deal more to explore in the tragedies that led to the collapse of Sierra, which was effectively dead in all but name only a few years later. I recommend Vice Waypoint's article "How Sierra Was Captured, Then Killed, by a Massive Accounting Fraud" as a good starting point, as well as Ken Williams' autobiography Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings. Yet, despite all these troubles and the collapse of Dynamix, the Tribes series soldiered on.
Life after Dynamix
In 2002, perhaps in an attempt to get a slice of the lucrative console market, Sierra released Tribes: Aerial Assault for the PlayStation 2. The developer was Inevitable Entertainment (of Area 51 fame), but despite a solid critical response, the game underperformed. As reported by The Adrenaline Vault:
"It will not appeal to the deathmatch crowd (even though there is a deathmatch option), nor will it satisfy anyone without a Network Adapter."
Tribes was a multiplayer console release in an era before the widespread adoption of network-capable consoles - a classic case of a game being ahead of its time.
The Tribes series went quiet for a couple of years, as Tribes 2 continued to chug along with a dedicated player base. Meanwhile, the wider industry had been consolidating around a handful of powerhouse AAA franchises that were themselves offering innovative features. Battlefield 1942 transposed the gameplay of the original Starsiege: Tribes into a World War II setting (a popular setting of the early 2000s), while its sequel Battlefield 2 capitalised on the War on Terror zeitgeist of the day with a modern warfare setting. Epic vastly expanded the Tribes-like "Assault" game mode in Unreal Tournament 2003/2004. Call of Duty had blossomed into what would soon become an enormous franchise, while Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike sent records tumbling.
In October 2004, just as the last remnants of Sierra were being sold off or shut down to leave little more than a name on paper, Tribes: Vengeance was released for PC by Irrational Games, to whom Sierra had licensed the franchise. To generate hype for the release, Sierra even made Starsiege: Tribes and Tribes 2 freeware.
Tribes: Vengeance garnered a positive critical response, but other factors undermined its success. By 2004, PC gaming, as a proportion of the broader games industry, was seeing relatively stale growth. Not only had the console market exploded, eating into PC market share expansion, but the PC gaming tastes of the day leaned steadily away from science-fiction and fantasy themes, and more heavily towards real-world settings. While Halo resisted the trend, this era also saw the falling popularity of other classic sci-fi FPS franchises like Unreal and Quake. There simply wasn't enough room in the market for another off-trend franchise.
Compounding all this was the fact that Tribes 2 had only been released a few years earlier. Speaking from personal experience, Tribes 2 not only had everything that many players wanted, but it was also familiar and still going relatively strong. To throw that all away for a new and unproven game was a risk many players weren't ready to take, especially given that the gameplay innovations on offer were nowhere near as extensive as the move from the original game to Tribes 2 had been.
Multiplayer games, particularly those that host large numbers of players, rely on what is known as the Network Effect. The more users of a service, the greater inherent value that service has. Multiplayer shooters like Unreal Tournament, Quake, or Call of Duty typically had smaller counts per match, in the range of 6 - 12 players. Tribes, with its large maps, numerous player roles, vehicles, and objectives, typically relied on no less than 16 players in a match, but ideally, that number was much closer to 32 players. Tribes: Vengeance split the player base, and as a result, all three games suffered (Starsiege: Tribes itself still had a relatively healthy player base).
Things weren't looking great for Vengeance, yet further catastrophe followed, in the form of a busy release schedule of titles that offered similar gameplay. Sandwiched between Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, Half-Life 2, and Counter-Strike: Source, not to mention the omnipresent juggernaut that was World of Warcraft, Vengeance had an uphill fight just to get noticed.
All this, unsurprisingly, translated to poor sales. A few months after release, Irrational's parent studio Vivendi Universal Games (owner of the Sierra label) dropped support for Vengeance entirely and cancelled an upcoming patch. According to Ken Levine, the head of Irrational Games, the poor performance of Tribes: Vengeance negatively impacted the studio's relationship with Vivendi, something that not even the success of SWAT 4 could fix. Irrational began to move away from Vivendi, and would be acquired by Take-Two Interactive soon after, where they went on to produce the wildly successful Bio-Shock. One thing Vivendi did hold on to was the remnants of Sierra, and with it, their intellectual property.
With all support dropped and very few players to begin with, Tribes: Vengeance soon faded from the fringes of the spotlight it had only briefly glimpsed. Though the genre's faithful carried on playing the first two titles in the series, the rest of the gaming world lurched onwards towards the era of indies and crowdfunded games that would soon appear on the horizon.
Gamers are faithful to a fault, and like many other Tribes fans, I never gave up hope that Tribes would return one day, even if I had very little evidence to support that assertion. But, inevitably, I was eventually swept up by the other blockbusters of the day, and Tribes was relegated to little more than a happy memory.
Surprisingly, in 2009, it was announced that the Tribes IP had been acquired by GarageGames, and the original Starsiege: Tribes would return as a browser-based game on their web-based gaming platform InstantAction. This appeared to be a way to promote the upcoming Fallen Empire: Legions, a game with clear Tribes influences based on the GDC 2008 trailer.
The "Tribes" moniker was gone of course, but all the other ingredients were there, and hope returned for Tribes fans. Of course, as we all know, game development is a fickle beast. For whatever reason, Fallen Empire was cancelled. This was a kick in the guts for Tribes fans, but news soon followed that the Tribes IP (and indeed the rest of the Metaltech IP, including Earthsiege) had been acquired from GarageGames by another developer - Hi-Rez Studios.
I'll admit, by this time I was fairly skeptical of potential Tribes games. It seemed increasingly evident that nobody would be able to capture the essence of the series, and even if they did, players who could remember playing it were dwindling compared with a new generation of multiplayer shooter fans. But, as with many other Tribes fans, the seed of hope remained.
Tribes: Ascend was released on 12 April 2012, after a short beta period, and the response was almost unanimously positive. It was eminently clear that Hi-Rez Studios understood the core gameplay loop of Tribes, and they treated their source material with the utmost respect. Tribes: Ascend refined and modernised all the best bits of Tribes, while all the new content (maps, weapons, and game modes) felt as if they belonged. It was obvious that the developers at Hi-Rez Studios were fans of the Tribes series, because they had created a sequel that clearly understood the essence of what makes the series so unique.
Yet, little over a year later, Hi-Rez Studios announced that all development on Tribes: Ascend had ceased. By September 2013, CEO of Hi-Rez Erez Goren admitted, "Tribes: Ascend ended up being break-even at best". So, what went wrong this time? The answer, I think, is in the second part of that quote from Eurogamer. Goren went on to say, "It's very possible we made some mistakes in how we monetised it, but our priority was to get as many people to play as possible (without losing too much money in the process)".
Like many freemium games of its generation, immense portions of Tribes: Ascend content was locked behind microtransactions. On the one hand, a free game would lower the barrier of entry, and there was not necessarily any need to engage with these microtransactions. However, the grind to get access to those items without paying money was brutal, and that old "gamer FOMO" of knowing you may never see some content left a hollow feeling. It's also important to look at the broader context of the time. The microtransaction-supported free-to-play model had well and truly saturated the games market by 2012, and while the model offered an easy way to capture an audience, market saturation ultimately diluted the effect.
Tribes: Ascend also faced immense competition during the early 2010s. 2011's biggest FPS blockbusters were still dominating the market (Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3), and the broadly appealing juggernaut that is Skyrim no doubt pulled some players away. In its release year, Tribes: Ascend faced competition from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and later in the year, PlanetSide 2. One might argue that PlanetSide 2 nailed the Tribes formula better than Tribes itself, and it too was a free-to-play game.
Following the halt on development in 2013, Tribes: Ascend entered a fast decline. With no active support, Ascend had little chance of competing against the steady stream of major releases over the following years. Hi-Rez finally capitulated in 2016 with the release of a final patch appropriately entitled "Parting Gifts". Talking to PC Gamer in 2015, Tribes: Ascend creative director Sean McBride said:
“We made a lot of mistakes in a lot of different places...Pricing definitely was off. Way too expensive in the beginning. Both for XP, our earned currency in the game, and gold."
"It’s death by a thousand cuts, right? ...I think at our biggest we were like 15 [developers], but it didn’t stay at 15 for very long... It was a passion project from the beginning. I think there were many weeks where I pulled over 100 hours just to try to get Tribes done. That wasn’t just me. That was people I was working with as well.”
McBride's quote I think demonstrates that, despite their failings, Hi-Rez had made Tribes: Ascend happen because they were fans that loved the series and wanted it to succeed. The fact that the developers sunk so much of themselves into a game that was well-received, yet still failed, is one of the great tragedies we often see in game development.
The Future of Tribes
Though the Tribes series has been effectively dead since 2016, its legacy lives on. To Hi-Rez's credit, they aren't hoarding the IP, and all of the core Metaltech and Tribes games are available for free on Tribes Universe, hosted by Hi-Rez Studios. Unfortunately, Tribes: Ascend was delisted from Steam, so unless it's already in your library, you'll have to turn to the Tribes community to track that release down.
Thanks to this commitment to releasing the games as freeware, the game's community remains small but active. The Tribes subreddit remains the go-to place for engaging with the community, while fans have released versions of Starsiege: Tribes and Tribes 2 modified to operate seamlessly on modern operating systems at PlayT1.com and PlayT2.com. You can usually find a few players on the servers - mostly playing the popular Starsiege: Tribes LT Mod - but be aware that Tribes is unlike any other FPS, and the small community of diehard players is very good.
Elsewhere, the Tribes legacy continues to live on. I personally think that PlanetSide 2 captures some of the essence of Tribes, and as a free-to-play game there's little reason not to give it a try. 2018 saw another developer make an attempt at a spiritual successor with Midair. The response to Midair on Steam is "Mixed", but digging into the comments, one can easily find several accolades from Tribes fans. Though Midair didn't seem to attain major success, that hasn't stopped a second attempt at the series with Midair 2 currently in early access, while the first game is now free-to-play.
The Tribes series is one of the great underdogs of the games industry. When it first appeared in 1998, the game was going up against the great juggernauts of the FPS genre, and it did so with a unique take on the multiplayer shooter that would transform FPS game design. Time and again, Tribes faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet the series has endured. Even today, 25 years after the release of Starsiege: Tribes, the dogged determination of the Tribes community to survive is no less tenacious. Like many other fans of the series, my faith in Tribes has been shaken, but it will not be broken.
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