How Fans Revived 'Subspace,' a Forgotten 20-Year-Old Game About Spaceships
An abandoned online gaming pioneer is now playable again on Steam.
SubSpace's original box art. Credit: Wikipedia
Digital distribution platforms like Steam are supporting games that we'd never play if they had to be pressed to a disc, but even in this brave new world of tiny games about building bridges and dating pigeons, Subspace Continuum still stands out as an oddity.
The 2D, multiplayer spaceship combat game, which hit Steam on Friday, was first released in 1997 by Virgin Interactive Entertainment (VIE) as SubSpace. There's no shortage of retro games on Steam, but they always arrive on the platform by way of the original publisher or a new intellectual property holder hoping to make an easy buck off of work that was done years ago.
The difference is that there's no publisher bringing Subspace Continuum to Steam. Instead, it's the result of an organized effort by loyal players who've stuck with the game for 20 years.
"We survive with the help of our players and our own contributions, so we're completely independent when it comes to keeping this game going and the servers it runs on."
If you've played the Atari classic Asteroids, you have a basic understanding of SubSpace. You have an overhead perspective of a spaceship you use to thrust around and shoot. SubSpace innovated by bringing this instantaneous action online, against other people, over 28.8K modems. Subspace was also special in that it allowed players to modify the game, creating their own "zones," with different rules, levels, and art assets.
Rod Humble, who's better known for his work on The Sims franchise, MMO EverQuest, and who was CEO of Second Life creator Linden Lab from 2011-2014, was executive producer and co-designer on SubSpace.
"For the time it was very easy to drop in and out of a game and it could support a decent amount of players at once," Humble told me. "I think it was also immediately understandable in terms of mechanics. Newtonian movement like that is inherently pleasant to control and the simple idea of your shields, turbo, and guns sharing the same energy reserve is pretty powerful."
After a two-year testing period, SubSpace launched in 1997 with 150,000 regular players and privately hosted servers. It was well received, but VIE shut down in 1998. Most of its assets were acquired by giant game publisher Electronic Arts, but not SubSpace, which seemingly became abandonware at that point.
"The fans pretty much took over after Virgin Interactive shut down and put in a huge amount of work," he said. "I have no idea as to the status of the rights, I am just pleased for the community that they are still able to play and grow the game."
It's hard to track its history from there on because it's told by internet communities and amateur historians, not corporations, but here are the broad strokes: players kept the game alive by hosting their own servers after VIE shut down, but it was riddled with technical issues and cheaters. In 2001, a group of programmers including SubSpace enthusiast Priit Kasesalu, best known for his contributions to file sharing software Kazaa and Skype, released Subspace Continuum, a clone of the original game client with new features that brought order to the galaxy by making it harder to cheat.
Subspace Continuum was still divided into different zones, which were maintained and managed by players. In an effort to rekindle interest in a dwindling community, the most popular of these zones, SSCU Trench Wars, organized the effort to get SubSpace Continuum on Steam via Greenlight, a program by which users can vote to add games to the store.
"We are a 100 percent non-profit organization," the head of public relations for SSCU Trench Wars, who goes by the online handle "the block," told me. "We survive with the help of our players and our own contributions, so we're completely independent when it comes to keeping this game going and the servers it runs on."
There are approximately 300 players concurrently in the game at any given moment
According to the block, SSCU Trench Wars is allowed to put Subspace Continuum on Steam as long it's free-to-play, with no monetization hooks of any kind. Nobody's making money here. They just want you to play it.
"It's because of the love for this game that we make these kind of efforts and that we're still alive today," he said. "We will never allow anyone to pay for this game, not through Steam, nor through any other source on the Internet."
The hope is that making Subspace Continuum available on Steam will get more players into the game, because there aren't many left at the moment, dedicated as they may be.
According to a site that tracks Subspace players across different zones, there are approximately 300 players concurrently in the game at any given moment, and the block estimates that the player community overall is between 2,000 to 3,000.
Getting the game on Steam doesn't guarantee anything, and it could even introduce issues the Subspace Continuum community didn't have to deal with until now. For example, some user-made variants are inspired by Mario Kart, which is owned by Nintendo, a company that's known for getting litigious about this kind of thing. The block said Subspace players consider variants like that to be fan art, and that they shouldn't be a problem for that reason.
But being sold through Steam does make the game more visible, and much easier to download and play. Hopefully, it's enough to keep its community going, if only to preserve this weird little part of gaming history.
You can get Subspace Continuum from Steam for free.