"The best game you've never played," ran the headline on the website's main page. And it was most noticeably a non-Microsoft page. I quickly scanned over the game's history. Was this legal? How had a seemingly independent group of people managed to lay hands on the server-side game components? Were they actually running a playable version of Allegiance, a space-flight simulator once on Microsoft's Zone service, for free?
I had lost track of Allegiance after Microsoft stopped supporting the game. I talked about the game's original demise with one of the original members of the Allegiance development team, Matt "MEGA" Alderman. The game was originally divided into two player bases: a pay service called the Allegiance Zone, and a free service called the Free Zone. "The benefits of paying a monthly fee wasn't clearly marketed," says Alderman, which confused players. Alderman also cites the monthly fee itself as a major detractor. "[Back then], it was unusual to pay a monthly fee for a game you already bought."
The game was a money loser for Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft was diverting marketing dollars and manpower from Allegiance to support another space game, Freelancer. Allegiance was subsequently thrown to the wolves. Understaffed and rife with bugs, cheaters began exploiting issues they knew wouldn't be fixed. "Microsoft Research and The Zone just got fed up with people ruining it for everyone and always felt one step behind" says Alderman. Eventually, Microsoft gave up and pulled the plug on the game.
Generally when a company stops hosting an online multiplayer game, it's the end of that game's story. Allegiance, on the other hand, had drawn a hardcore following that flatly refused to let the game die. Players created their own utilities to enable them to connect to LAN-hosted game servers and continued to play. The community dwindled, but continued to meet nightly. Then, in 2004, Allegiance's project lead, Joel Dehlin, convinced Microsoft to release the source code to the public. Once the code was released, the Allegiance community began an impressive comeback. Four years and several community releases later, users have updated the to work in modern C++, built a security and ranking system and made available dedicated game servers. An event staff routinely schedules community events, and squads square off every Sunday in ladder play.
There's no doubt that the community itself is what keeps Allegiance fresh and exciting. I sat down with two of the community leaders to find out their views on what really makes Allegiance tick. Due to the public nature of their roles I will only use their game call signs.