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Vendetta and the Life and Hard Times of the Space Sim
The genre is enjoying a renaissance, but a Milwaukee developer has kept the flame alive for well over a decade.

Wing Commander 1, flying the Rapier.

Wing Commander 1 got too many things right. You could talk to the enemies. The friendly NPCs fighting alongside you had personalities that weren’t cartoonish or repellent. Your actions mattered, first in the debriefings delivered by your commanding officer guy and then in the branching campaign that even affected what ships you got to fly. If your wingman died during a mission, the commander guy would look crestfallen yet so tough. We have to defeat those Kilrathi bastards, because a future ruled by ruthless lion men is unacceptable. This game released in 1990 even had strong, believable female characters.

Other titles carried the Wing Commander name, but none recaptured the dramatic panache of WC 1 and 2. Freespace 2 enjoyed the genre’s last mainstream success in 1999, then keeping the space sim alive fell largely to player-made mods. Lead designer Chris Roberts, Mr. Wing Commander himself, launched a new career as a movie producer (though he’s gotten back into games with the hugely ambitious Star Citizen project, a runaway success on Kickstarter).

WC 1 lived on as an object of nostalgia for a new generation of game designers, including John Bergman, who grew up on a sailboat and knows something about watching as worlds slide by: the Chesapeake Bay, the Caribbean, finally Milwaukee. When he was 15, his family moved off the boat and into a house in the Wisconsin city, resulting in a difficult transition from homeschooling (his father and home school teacher held a PhD from M.I.T.) to a public high school. Once the family got a PC, he fell hard for WC 1 and Tie Fighter, the Star Wars space sim that cast players as grunt-level pilots for the Empire.

Bergman founded Guild Software some eight years after WC 1’s release and put out his first commercial game in 2002, Vendetta Online, which is akin to a massively multiplayer WC. Whereas most MMOs (such as World of Warcraft or the space-based Eve Online) rely on controls that are delayed or otherwise imprecise, Vendetta hinges on “twitch”-based input. Players don’t order a spaceship to go somewhere, they fly it there, the sort of fly-by-wire philosophy that puts the “sim” in “space sim.”

Guild more or less stands alone in having run a small, independent, subscription-based MMO for more than a decade. Small, B-grade MMOs on a “free-to-play” model – games that only charge for special items or added content – are almost a cliché. AAA MMOs, such as World Warcraft or the space-based Eve Online, have budgets that run into the tens of millions of dollars, and they generally stake their hopes on subscription revenue. Vendetta breaks the mold by sustaining such a model on a shoestring.

Vendetta Online footage by The Viper Guild.

Launching in an age before widespread broadband, Bergman and the small group of friends with whom he’d founded the company struggled to make combat responsive on the dial-up connections of the day (broadband is about 100 times faster). They needed to push lag under 300 milliseconds, but the old 28.8 kilobytes-per-second connections meant starting out at an average of 200, leaving not a lot of leeway.

“We really had to crunch the hell out of our protocol to deliver this kind of content,” Bergman says.

Otherwise “control lag” would have doomed the game, project, everything. There couldn’t be a significant delay between input – moving the mouse or punching a key – and a response on-screen. Vendetta’s servers (now located in the Miller Valley)
  track thousands of sectors of game space (the universe’s current tally is 7,681) populated by hundreds of thousands of computer-controlled characters engaged in political, economic and combat simulations. In the absence of a player, each sector runs “light” versions of these systems, but once a player warps onto a grid – which then becomes an “instance” in MMO lingo – “Everything has to come up and be perfect,” says Bergman, like actors scrambling to their marks.

The end result was a “highly resilient” base of server code, in Bergman’s words. Guild built practically everything from scratch, in languages like C++, Lua (for scripting) and Erlang, a language developed by Ericsson that’s often used in web applications. One of its features is “hot swapping,” which allows developers to change code in a program
that’s still running. Bergman was boasting this summer that the Vendetta servers had been live and hosting continuous play for more than 2,000 days – some five and a half years. Other MMOs have regularly scheduled downtime, and Eve sets aside an hour every day for maintenance, and to wipe away a low level of entropy from its imaginary star systems.

But its Icelandic developer, CCP, is hosting as many as 60,000 pilots on the same server, a monster that’s one of the largest supercomputers in gaming. Vendetta, by comparison, has fewer than 10,000 subscribers (Bergman didn’t give an exact number), not all of which are likely to be online at the same time. Lag times are down to 20 or 30 milliseconds – you can’t beat the speed of light, after all – in the U.S., and Bergman is looking into markets in China and Korea, an expansion that would necessitate a new cloud-based server in Asia.

Cruising through an asteroid field in Vendetta.

The company’s immediate plans call for adding new content that will figure dramatically in player vs. player combat, structures such as “stations, fleets, whole families of player-owned, persistent objects that other players interact with as people conquer territory.” A major graphical overhaul – preparation for launching Vendetta 2.0 – is also in the works, with a new graphic designer perched in Guild’s office suite at the Milwaukee County Research Park.

The business incubator and former tuberculosis asylum on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa looks like a college residence hall from the outside, but inside, most tenants were sealed up this summer behind locked doors. Guild had to hide some “proprietary” assets before I could enter, and Bergman and I left after a short time to sit in the vacant office across the hall.

Few games as advanced as Vendetta are also as portable. The software runs in iOS, Android, Linux, Max OS and Windows, and Motorola featured the game in a 2011 television ad for its Android-based Xoom tablet. The shoot and trade sim from Guild remains one of the most graphically intense applications you can run on a tablet, though PC remains its core audience – the base of diehards Bergman and co. count on to push the limits of possibility. Recently, a player operating on his own defeated a boss normally destroyed only by a guild that has planned out attacks over a number of days.

Before this lone wolf could fire a single shot at the “Leviathan,” he had to bring down “an entire force” of ships, according to Bergman, and that “was borderline stunning.”

And so the feat has become a legend, not unlike the legend Wing Commander allowed players to inhabit in 1990.

“Players are so good at self-organizing to do what they want,” Bergman says. “Any time you give players a goal, they’re going to find a way to hyper-optimize that goal.”

 (photo by Adam Ryan Morris)

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