Midair is a passionate love letter by Seattle-based Archetype Studios to Starsiege: Tribes, an often overlooked and forgotten PC classic FPS (First Person Shooter) first published by Sierra Entertainment in 1998.
Although Tribes is still technically alive courtesy of Hi-Rez Studios 2012 incarnation Tribes: Ascend, it has been largely on life support for more than a year, with a declining player base and little to no support from Hi-Rez Studios.
So why ‘revive’ a game that isn’t quite dead yet?
Tribes: A legacy of innovation
The original (1998) Starsiege: Tribes introduced numerous ‘firsts’ in the online multiplayer FPS genre, many of which are still used today. Key among its innovations were 1) jet packs, which enabled short bursts of controlled flight; 2) seamless indoor and outdoor environments; 3) class-and-team-based play that included vehicles and bases; and 4) a unique, aerial dog-fighting-style of FPS play.
And Tribes‘ signature game play characteristic is a simple physics bug that came to define the core game play of the entire franchise: skiing. (More on that below.)
When Tribes was released in 1998, many of its these innovations were largely new concepts to the genre. Most of its contemporary multiplayer FPS games were still largely Quake and Unreal Tournament style games based exclusively on indoor maps and deathmatch style game modes.
Tribes was ahead of its time. So what the hell happened?
The ‘cursed’ legacy
Despite its many contributions to FPS game play, Tribes is often overlooked or forgotten entirely. Many, if not most, of the current (i.,e. younger) generation of FPS gamers have never even heard of it.
And while there have been many ‘spiritual successors’ and ‘Tribes-inspired’ games released over the last 15 years, most faded and died. Consider the following examples…
- In 2007, Garage Games developed Legions: Overdrive (originally Fallen Empires: Legions), which was published through InstantAction.
- In 2009, InstantAction showcased a browser-based version of the original Tribes (1998) at PAX 2009. It was ultimately canceled and never came to market.
And thern InstantAction ultimately collapsed, taking Legions and the Tribes IP with it for a time.
- In 2009, TimeGate Studios developed Section 8 (published through Southpeak Interactive), an FPS game clearly inspired by numerous Tribes game mechanics. It never found a strong enough player base to keep it afloat unfortunately.
- In 2012, Hi-Rez Studios actually resurrected Tribes with Tribes: Ascend. But despite launching to strong critical and fan acclaim, it has since been all but abandoned by Hi-Rez Studios in favor of their more lucrative MOBA game, SMITE. Although Tribes: Ascend is still ‘alive’(and ran strong for its first 2 years or so), it has since been reduced to a relatively small player base with few updates. And Hi-Rez has all but abandoned it.
Skiing: The bug that became the defining gameplay feature
Core to Tribes game play (more so than many of its features that were actually made on purpose) is the movement mechanic known as skiing.
If you want to make a true successor (or clone) to Tribes, you have to get the skiing right.
Skiing started as a physics bug discovered and exploited by Tribes players to achieve ludicrous speeds in the game. Here’s how you did in Tribes:
Jump off a high peak (there were many in Tribes‘ outdoor environments), and then hit the jets to soar as high as possible. Then fall in a semi-controlled manner onto a downward slope, but jump rapidly (i.e. mash the spacebar repeatedly) to minimize friction and maintain velocity.
Just as you begin to ascend the upward slope, hit your jets again—and maybe add a well-timed rocket shot (Spinfusor in Tribes parlance) into the ground as well—to catapult high into the air at higher velocities than the Tribes developers ever imagined possible.
In later Tribes games (such as Tribes: Ascend) you need only hold the spacebar to ‘ski’ (no mashing required). And skiing works exactly the same in Midair as it does in Tribes: Ascend.
One Midair developer started to describe “skiing” to an onlooker using Blizzard’s Overwatch characters: “Imagine if Lucio and Pharah had a baby…”
Skiing was quickly embraced by the Tribes player community, and became an essential skill for playing the game (particularly for flag runners). So it was never ‘fixed’.
Skiing, vast battlefields, and the general aerial nature of Tribes all combined to create the game play unique to the series. ‘Tribal warfare’ is based more on speed, timing, and dog-fighting (e.g. leading a target to hit it) with explosives (i.e. splash damage weapons), in addition to team-based battlefield tactics.
Reviving tribal magic: Archetype Studios’ Midair
Archetype Studios is a group of developers that love Tribes and want to keep it alive, even if it isn’t quite dead yet.
Although Hi-Rez Studios still owns the official Tribes IP and continues to (minimally) support Tribes: Ascend, Hi-Rez are no longer actively developing or updating the game. It’s essentially alive, but in limbo. The Tribes: Ascend player base has been in decline for more than a year.
Even if Hi-Rez Studios’ Tribes: Ascend doesn’t die completely, it’s largely on life support at this point.
Thus Archetype Studios’ Midair was born.
Hands-on with Midair
Although still early in development, Archetype Studios showed off Midair at PAX West 2016, showcasing an early pre-alpha build.
Midair is truly a labor of love, being developed by a global and mostly volunteer development team.
Midair is built using the Unreal 4 Engine, with graphics that are less gritty and far more vibrant and colorful than typical Tribes games. Midair‘s graphics are very reminiscent of Tribes (1998), with relatively simple but sprawling landscapes, clean lines, and an almost cartoon-like quality.
Based on what I played at PAX West 2016, the developers have pretty much nailed the skiing mechanics. I was able to ski effortlessly (with disc jumps as well) as if I never quit playing the game. (OK, I never completely quit and I still play an occasional game of Tribes: Ascend. But I hadn’t played in 3-6 months prior to trying Midair.)
There aren’t any vehicles in-game yet but they are planned. There are turrets, ATM’s (for changing loadouts), and generators. Midair will be designed for 16v16 multiplayer (which is the same as Tribes: Ascend), although we were limited to 2v2 at PAX.
Basically, Archetype Studios plans to implement all the ‘classic’ elements of Starsiege: Tribes in a modern game engine, and then build from there. Even if Archetype can’t use the Tribes name, they can hit all the notes.)
Rabbit will also be an included game mode. Rabbit games in Tribes involved grabbing a flag and staying alive as long as possible while all the other players try to knock you out and take the flag. The winner is whoever can hold the flag the longest in the allotted match time.
I noticed in my own play time that many of the ‘staple’ weapons were in place, including a mortar, a disc launcher, a plasma rifle, and a chaingun. Aside from vehicles, the skiing and many core elements seem to be in place. But there’s still a long ways to go, too.
Keeping Midair aloft
So, what’s the plan for selling Midair, and keeping it alive in the long term? And when can you play it?
The short answer is that Archetype Studios plans to release Midair as F2P (free to play) in November 2017. But please hold the facepalm / disgruntled groan at the mention of F2P for a second.
First of all, you can buy Midair right now for $20 as a one-time purchase, which will include all of the base content, i.e. all game modes, classes, weapons, etc.
“It essentially allows you to buy the complete game as a one-time purchase,” Archetype Studios CEO Chris Mathews explains. “Everything will be unlocked and available to you. If you’re already an experienced Tribes player, then this will unlock every mode, weapon, and so forth. This one-time purchase option unlocks all future gameplay that we add to the game through our progression system, so players will get new content as we add it.”
You can also read more on Archetype’s monetization plans here.
Midair’s F2P aspects will be managed by your level. As your player level increases, more of the weapons, game modes, etc. will unlock for you. This is designed help new players get started without overwhelming them, and enable matchmaking to help create a level playing field — especially for new players.
But if you’re an old hand at Tribes, you opt to just buy the full game outright. If you wait until Midair officially launches in November 2017 (a projected date, mind you), the price will go to $30.
There won’t be any ‘pay to win’ aspects in Midair.
Beyond the launch date, Archetype plans to follow fairly common models for selling additional content, i.e. selling special skins, voice packs, etc. (These won’t be part of the full game $20/$30 price tag mentioned above.)
Of course, with a November 2017 projected launch date and a team of volunteer developers, Archetype Studios has a long ways to go, and many obstacles to overcome.
Even if Midair launches successfully, Archetype must successfully build, grow, and support a large enough player community to sustain the game. Tribes games are/were built on multiplayer and multiplayer alone, so attracting and keeping a strong player base is critical to Midair’s success.
This is no mean feat for a game that is relatively more difficult to learn and play than other FPS games, and in an era crowded with so many bigger alternatives — Battlefield, Call of Duty, Overwatch, etc.
The road is long and the challenges are many, but on the back of a successful Kickstarter, Midair seems to be off to a good start.