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Remembering the forgotten "Aliens MMO" created by the devs behind Dark Age Of Camelot and Elder Scrolls Online

Did latency just drop sharply while I was away?

The team selection screen in Aliens Online with aliens on the right and gun-toting marines on the left
Image credit: Fox Interactive / namcos

The internet doesn't exist in the world depicted by the film Aliens, though variations of it crop up in the expanded universe. Nor does the idea of a digital society. There's networked communications tech, but it consists of signals between bodies in deepest space, light years apart, of lonely video terminals in cramped dockloader apartments, and of maniacally collaged CCTV feeds of Marines getting their asses kicked, man. There's no ocean of online interactions, corroding the everyday from all directions, just 1-to-1s through boxy, retro-futurist screens that are so dingy and inadequate it feels like Ripley and Burke are peering at each other through a letterbox. Small wonder, given that Aliens was released in 1986, when what would become the internet was still mostly the province of universities and the military.

I've been mulling over the idea of the internet in Aliens because shortly before GDC 2024, I stumbled upon an "Aliens MMO" of sorts, Aliens Online. Live from 1998 to 2000, it was one of many licensed adaptations cranked out by Washington-based Mythic Entertainment in the run-up to 2001's Dark Age Of Camelot, the MMO that would set the beat for the genre for decades to come. "We did like 13-14 games which nobody remembers," Aliens Online producer and nowadays ZeniMax Online president Matt Firor told me on the GDC show floor. "And that is one of them, so I'm glad you remember. But we also did a Starship Troopers game. We did an Independence Day game. We did Godzilla."

Aliens Online is not, in practice, anything like what we now call an MMO. It's a team-based shooter in which marine squads descend to ravaged bunkers and derelicts to flush out the dastardly xenomorphs. You get to play as both the Marines, who have shotguns, pulse rifles and motion trackers, and the Aliens, who can leap into vents and enjoy map-wide "hive awareness". But it tilts in the direction of an online society or at least, hangout space, with a space station menu that anticipates the hub towns of later MMOs, and some primordial RPG progression systems to keep people invested.

"It had voice chat, which in 1998 was crazy," Firor recalled. "And it had the little screens, like in the movies where you could see what your squad mates were looking at, if you looked down in the corner. Which again, 1998 right? That's crazy technology." The game's asymmetrical design anticipates Rebellion's polygonal 3D shooter Aliens vs Predator, which released just a year later in a powerful show of how quickly 3D graphics tech was changing at the time.

A map of a level in Aliens Online represented as a blue, green and white lines on a black background with a lot of descriptive text
Image credit: Fox Interactive / MobyGames
A player fighting Aliens with a shotgun in online shooter Aliens Online, with a squad headcam feed and chatbox
Image credit: Fox Interactive / Moby Games

As for the game's networking, it ran over Kesmai's Gamestorm service - one of many bespoke "before-mass-internet, Steam-type things", in Firor's words, which sold access to several online games for a flat fee of $10 per month. Kesmai were owned by Fox at the time, which was the "tie in" for Mythic getting access to the Aliens license.

26 years on, Firor's memories of Aliens Online's development are fading, but he has a few highlights, not least the spectacle of an actor donning a rubber outfit to mo-cap the game's Alien sprites. "I remember working a lot with the audio guys, who had got access to the soundtrack and all the sound effects libraries from the movie," he said. "So it's very authentic when you go in." Among the audio design's nastier tricks is that your Marine character sucks in their breath when they scry something alarming, often panicking you before you actually work out what they've seen. I dug up a build of Aliens Online on a game preservation site after interviewing Firor, and found the single player experience to be an entertainingly creepy variation on Doom. Still, I'd have liked to play Aliens Online at its height, for the sake of those nested squad-cam feeds.

Firor also looks back on the development of Aliens Online as a "magic" era in budding online gaming, when the internet was still a fantasy for many, and interactions we take for granted today had to be unpacked at length - not least in conversation with journalists.

"I can't overstate this enough, and you're almost old enough to remember this, but it was magic, right?" he told me. "The whole concept just blew people's minds - that you could log in and play together or against other people online. And then the fact that you could do something other than shooting them, when Everquest and Ultima came out, right? This whole virtual life thing, it was just considered magic.

"It was hard to explain to press just what we were doing, because they just couldn't understand the concept. It's like wait, can we see other people? No, you don't see the people, you see their avatars, right? To get the concept across was just very difficult to people who didn't even understand what the internet was, because back then it was still dial-up. You know, 2400 baud modems, maybe 56.6k, right?"

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Did Firor himself anticipate the current enormity and ubiquity of the internet while peering out from that pixellated Marine starbase, back in 1998? "No one had broadband back then, so it was a different time, but we could see the possibilities. I don't think we saw the consequences of having everybody online all the time and having so many of them. But absolutely, games like Elder Scrolls Online - we could see that from 1996. Maybe not at that graphical fidelity, but certainly the technology."

While Firor regards Aliens Online as a piece of "Stone Age technology", it and Mythic's other late 90s adaptations were formative in all sorts of ways. "The technology that we used for all of those games rolled forward to the next game, the next game, and that eventually became Dark Age Of Camelot, because we already had a client server, we already had multiplayer," he said. "And then of course, many of the people that made Dark Age Of Camelot then came with me and worked on Elder Scrolls Online. You can definitely draw a path between all of those games."

Echoing many an older game developer, Firor misses 90s development because teams were smaller, and development less of a marathon. "I would love to make a game like Dark Age of Camelot, again, that we did with 28 people in 18 months," he said. "Because that's what it took." By way of comparison, The Elder Scrolls Online was in the works for seven years, before launching in 2014. "Right now, it obviously [takes a lot more], just because the fidelity is so much higher," Firor went on. "And the content expertise and expectations are so much higher, using much bigger teams." Firor is heartened by the success of Palworld among other smaller projects, "because it shows that small teams can still make a great - not an MMO, but [a work of] online connected entertainment."

While writing this piece I discovered that there is or was another Aliens MMO or "MMO-like" in development. It's the work of Cold Iron Studios, them wot did Aliens: Fireteam Elite, who announced that they were switching over to their "next major project" back in October 2023. I say "was" because it's possible that the MMO-like was contingent on Cold Iron being acquired by Daybreak Games Company - that arrangement quietly fell through a few months later, and Cold Iron haven't revealed much about their activities since.

After poring over Aliens Online's prototypical MMO fixtures from the late 90s, I'm curious to see how an MMO developer today might adapt James Cameron and Ridley Scott's best-known brainchildren. My recommendation would be to resist the desire to sprawl, eschew the transparency and slickness and griftiness of latter-day always-online service games, and contrive to make things feel as claustrophobic and disjointed and isolated as the Nostromo's farthest corners. Give us an MMO that feels like the product of the same universe as Lieutenant Gorman's APC helmetcam display, and Ripley's worn-out apartment videophone. Give us an MMO that feels like it belongs in a world where the concept of the internet is science fiction.

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