For the common man in the early-to-mid 90s, multiplayer was traditionally limited to LANs, mostly due to cost. You had providers like GEnie, Prodigy, and Compuserve, and those networks had games, but getting hit with around $8-10 an hour from the game, plus charges from the service it was hosted on – potentially on top of per-minute telephone charges for a long distance call – meant that most people weren’t going to be jamming with the console cowboys in cyberspace. That’s not to say there weren’t some fascinating experiments in MMOs and MUDs in those days, because there definitely were, but it is to say that most computer owners (myself included) likely weren’t aware or participating in them.
In the mid-to-later 90s, America Online revolutionized this situation in the States. By setting up nationwide data centers that let you make a local (free) call to connect, the door was opened to staying online for as long you were allowed to tie up your home phone line. This access also allowed specific gaming services to appear and consolidate many of the ongoing MMO experiments under one roof. Enter Kesmai’s Gamestorm service – one of the first to bundle multiple traditional computer games (i.e. not Chess or simple card games) into a flat fee of $10 a month. Playing long-established multiplayer action games like Air Warrior or Island of Kesmai suddenly became very reasonable indeed!
Yet a couple of wizened multiplayer games did not a service make – Gamestorm needed fresh offerings. One of the companies Kesmai partnered with was Mark Jacobs’ Mythic Entertainment, better known today for Dark Age of Camelot. Mythic’s first offering for the service was MageStorm, combining traditional fantasy with area-based deathmatch. Since your character lived on Gamestorm’s server, you could actually level them up persistently, building your stats and keeping a record of your victories – something quite advanced in the world of “one and done” deathmatch matches of Kali, Mpath, or T.E.N. Mythic’s success led to a partnership with Fox, and with a few engine tweaks and lot of spooky, sci-fi art assets, 1998 saw the release of the game we’re talking about today.
Aliens Online pitted player-controlled Colonial Marines against optionally-player-controlled Aliens in a series of maps inspired by the namesake film. Derelict space stations, damaged colonies, and cramped air ducts aplenty all featured. You were free to create three Marine characters and one Alien character per account. Continued play would level each up from buck Private to Master Gunnery Sergeant on the Marine side, and to the enormous, deadly Empress on the Alien side. Though the exact effect of the stats was debatable, you would definitely see improvements to your survivability as you played. You were doing this across thousands of online matches against hundreds of other regular players with persistent characters of their own.
AO’s main screen was an integrated server browser with global and private chat options. Dedicated servers kept a rotating list of about ten games running at any time, with new maps starting up as old ones closed out. Marines could join and respawn into a match as long as there were “billets” left. Once the Marines had exhausted this pool, no more could join or respawn. Progress in each match was updated live at a refresh of about six seconds, so you could reasonably suss out how the battle was going and choose what you were walking into. Did you want to join a game winding down and help with the cleanup, or rush into the fray of a losing battle and try to turn the tide?
Marines were always living players, kitted out with all the fun toys from the film. Pulse rifles with an attached grenade launcher were the standard loadout, along with a “backup” pistol and shotgun on the 3 and 4 keys. Friendly fire was always on, and only the pistol and shotty wouldn’t damage other Marines. If Marines made a private table in the chat lobby, they could join a map as a four-man fireteam. This team could then replace their rifles with the auto-tracking Smart Gun and the instant-kill (but short range) flamethrower – both the bane of many a player Alien. Anyone else had access to the motion tracker. It took the place of a weapon, and never displayed the numerical distance from its closest target (no shouting frantic distances like Hudson), but would pick up and display any nearby Marine and Alien movement. Marines could see all other Marines on their minimap, allowing for a quick cross-check as to whether that motion signal was friendly… or not.
AO took place before the proliferation of voice chat, but fireteams could still manage some reasonable tactics through shorthand (typed) communication – lots of “2f” for 2 incoming signals ahead, or “h” for “hold” sorts of things. One man on the motion tracker could mark out incoming Aliens, while Smart Gunners nuked them from afar and the flamethrower guy flooded vents with deadly fire. Chat defaulted to your fireteam, but you could send messages to all Marines, or even to all players (including Aliens) for taunting purposes. Fireteams could also turn on helmet cams for the other three members of their team and track a choppy copy of their view through tabs to the side. It updated too slowly to be of direct use, but you could make out where in the map someone was, and if they were being attacked.
Aliens were predominately controlled by the AI. Each map would have a total pool of 200+ Aliens, but maybe only 50-75 on the map at once. As Marines slaughtered these generally brain-dead AI drones, new ones would spawn in until the map was cleared (with reinforcement levels tracked by meters on the UI). Though they were stupid, the drones were necessary to give Marines something to shoot at, and to put out the kind of enemy waves you’d expect from a proper Aliens game. It also allowed Marines to actively eat away at the number of respawns Alien players would get. And these drones weren’t totally defenseless – they would chase, slash, and spew acid blood if you got too close, putting out enough damage to kill if someone got careless. They were also a useful distraction for when a player Alien entered the mix.
When a player Alien joined the map, they randomly took over one of the AI drones. Player Aliens were terrifying in the right hands. They could see the position of everything on the minimap at all times, both Marines and Aliens. They could freely leap up into air vents (while lowly humans had to search for sparse ladders) and then drop down at open ports for a perfect ambush. They regenerated health (if they survived an encounter). They made no noise when moving. A Marine could only tell their presence through the motion tracker, or a vague gasp that played when any Alien was close (including AI drones, making it oft-ignored). Their primary weapon was a set of lightning-fast claws that could down a Marine before they knew what hit them, and in later versions, a slower tail strike that could punch out lower ranked Marines in a single hit.
This set up the basic, Space Hulk-ian, asymmetric conflict between the two sides, and why you couldn’t play it as a run-and-gun shooter. Generally, Marine weapons dominated at a distance and prevented mindless suicide charges, forcing Aliens to stay out of sight to stay alive. But if a player Alien closed the distance to you through stealth or distraction, you were dead. God help you if a whole team of proficient Aliens were your opposition, as you could easily find yourself pack hunted like something out of Jurassic Park. Clever girl.
Every map also had one Queen hanging out in the hive. Her high XP value made her the prime target for Marines, while her still brainless AI encouraged them to rush to the hive and knock her out quickly, because – you guessed it – an Alien player of high enough rank could drop in and take her over. A player-controlled Queen was usually only stopped by exploiting level geometry, as she could shrug off an enormous amount of ordinance in an open fight. A single Marine, even three or four, would never be able to kill her before falling to her claws. Yet through coordinated persistence (and a wide distance between them!), Marines could eventually wear the player down.
It’s important to reiterate what was going on here, because there’s never been an Aliens game to this scale since. There were no hard limits on how many players could occupy an instance, and a community-driven Encounter night toward the end of the game’s lifespan would regularly see over 100 players on each side duking it out in a single map. That capability was still pretty rare until recently (Sony’s PlanetSide might be the most similar contemporary), but this was happening in the late 90s, and within the Aliens universe to boot. You were going on bug hunts with your rough-and-ready teammates, using some of cinema’s most iconic firepower to blast away endless copies of one of its most terrifying villains. Or you were the Alien, literally hunting other players and imagining the jolt they must have gotten when you plopped down beside them and started swinging. It’s actually written in the United States Constitution that teenaged me had to be a part of this, and I’m sure many others felt the same way.
You could even get ruthlessly clever. AI Aliens never stopped moving, pinballing off walls in a pattern very recognizable on the motion tracker. I would sometimes try to mimic this movement when I could see a Marine coming, hoping to blend in on their tracker. Standing still was best, as that produced no blips, but this often wasn’t feasible for a species that need to close the distance to kill. A motion blip beelining toward you was an obvious player Alien, but moving erratically just made you look like another weak AI drone offering a routine kill for a lazy Marine.
For this story, I was zipping through an air vent on LV-426B when a Marine appeared at the edge of my minimap. If he was walking with his tracker out, then he’s spotted me for sure. I ducked over to a tight group of AI drones and started dancing. He comes closer, my camouflage apparently working. The drones and I shuffled at the bottom of a vertical air shaft, where Marines loved to toss grenades down for easy kills. I knew you couldn’t have weapons and the motion tracker up at the same time, so when the grenades started falling, I stepped back from the blasts. The drones died, there was a pause as he presumably checked his tracker, and he must have been suspicious because more grenades came down. Maybe he saw me rush in after all? When Aliens die, they give a shriek – you could make this identical shriek yourself with the Y key, often for fun or to taunt nearby Marines. This time, I used it when the second grenade blew up just out of range. Apparently satisfied that the way was clear, the Marine hopped down – right into my loving, razor claws.
He messaged me privately to let me know that he had pissed himself.
Despite never leaving beta, AO would see three levels and a handful of game modes added a few years into its service. The original mission type was a standard deathmatch called Eradication. Later modes added Alien eggs that Marines needed to bring back to the level start, that Aliens could also pick up and hide in defensible spots around the level. Similar modes involving demo charges (that the Aliens couldn’t move) and a computer core (that a defenseless Marine would have to lug back to start) were also added, but felt less popular. Eradication always remained the most populated game type.
The standout addition, by far, was the Survival mode. Marines began in a locked starting room. Aliens were free to position themselves at the ready. When a short starting timer ran out, the doors opened and Marines had to hoof it to a designated “landing zone” platform. There were fewer billets in this mode, while respawning players appeared all the way back at the starting room – well behind the initial push of fellow Marines. Anyone who made it to the LZ platform had to wait for any active Marines to catch up before they could extract, defending it to their last breath. It was about as intense as you can imagine.
It’s still kind of amazing to me that it all mostly worked, even on creaky old dial-up. The biggest flaw was that the dedicated servers were presumably in Virginia, and “lag bombs” (where the damage a high-ping player did to you finally caught up to your client) were common – especially with the perpetually-buggy tail attack or the Smart Gun. If your ping fluctuated, you were also prone to snapping many steps back, sometimes multiple times in a row, as your client synced back up with the server and gave a message that you had been “F-Yanked.” None of us knew what the “F” really stood for, but we would readily tell you our best guess. However, cable modems started becoming a thing during the game’s lifespan, so the experience in early 2000 was even better than at the start.
Technical limitations also meant it was a fairly sluggish game. I imagine Aliens ran as fast as the engine allowed, but had little precision. Attacking a Marine was basically a whole lot of close-range flailing. Marines were slowed way down by comparison, both in forward speed and turning. Running the client for screenshots, I was amazed at how shit I was at controlling the game. Mouse movement is present, but barely, and life-saving strafing moves asked for a level of keyboard gymnastics that has been made totally obsolete by the WASD standard. I don’t remember what my custom layouts were back then, and I clearly adapted as a regular player, but I can easily see how people could get frustrated by the way the game handles and just not come back for more.
Still, the biggest flaws were design issues. The most vocal and persistent complaint regarded the structure of Marine ranks. Simply put, Marines got a little more deadly and a lot harder to kill as they ranked up, offering obvious incentives to hit higher ranks. These ranks had enormous XP requirements designed toward months of play for advancement, plus losing XP (and rank, once you fell below a minimum!) for deaths. The intent seems to be that a player wouldn’t see Gunnery Sergeant for years and would be rewarded accordingly for such an achievement. The result, of course, was players gaming the system.
Since only Marines had dumb enemy AI to grind out XP on, “drone chasing” became a cottage industry. Solo or like-minded fireteams would enter a map and safely whack drones. If a player Alien arrived, they’d leave immediately for a different map rather than risk losing XP to a death. This led to the Alien team having fewer matches to participate in and fewer chances to earn XP, which led to fewer Aliens being willing to play. Likewise, drone chasers’ target was the XP-rich Queen. Once she was dead, they usually vacated, leaving an open map with no Queen for high-ranked Aliens to take advantage of, stuck there until the timer ran out and a new map replaced it. Aliens didn’t get stat boosts for leveling – if the Queen was gone or taken, you were statistically no better than an Alien player who had just installed the game.
Through maximizing gains and eliminating risk, drone chasers would walk away with a high-level “rank tank” much sooner than the devs must have intended. Lowly Privates would fall to 1 or 2 claw swipes. Gunnys could eat about 10 – by no means invincible, but enough to turn around, find the attacking Alien, crouch, blast him, and use a medkit to heal back up. Marines were restricted to 4 medkits and limited ammo magazines, but both could be restocked by searching dead Marines. A rank tank could thus extend his life far longer than he should and put up a – not impossible, but certainly unfair – challenge to any player Alien.
This imbalance ruffled a lot of Alien feathers (slimed a lot of chitin?), especially as anything but peak hours were probably stocked with drone chasers who fled at your entrance and denied you both XP and the gameplay you were paying for. Meanwhile, your attacks were more of an nuisance to a rank tank, other Aliens either weren’t in the map or not interested in coordinating attacks, and actually killing the motherfucker through sheer persistence just meant he respawned with full medkits and ammo. Like bullies, rank tanks would run and hide until they were sufficiently invincible, then proceed to punish any Alien that dared challenge them with significant XP losses on repeated deaths.
Aliens’ revenge came through drop zone attacks. For reasons that defied logic, versions of the game prior to 2.12 had air vents that deposited Aliens right on top of Marine spawns. These were the bygone days of frequent lag, while Marines had no protection in the period between when they appeared in the game world and when their client synced up with everyone else. “DZing” was simply slaughtering defenseless Marines as they loaded. Players would randomly cycle through a few possible spawn points within the DZ, but it was easy enough for a group of Aliens to hustle between them and shut everyone down. Sometimes a brave Marine would live long enough to “secure the DZ,” but it wasn’t long before motivated Aliens could overwhelm any intended defense and establish dominance again.
The eventual “solution” was three-fold. First, these vents were plugged in map redesigns – awesome, and also lessened the later Alien tactic of hiding capture eggs in places the Marines were physically unable get to (like the Coronado bridge vents). Second, a “grace period” of invulnerability was given to Marines as they loaded – perfect, and long overdue. Finally, Marines were granted the infamous land mine. The idea was to help Marines secure entrances to the drop zone in a thematic way. However, as every Marine got four of them every time they respawned, it wasn’t uncommon to see the entire area become a literal minefield.
Soon, someone realized that you didn’t have to be too high a rank to survive a mine blast, while an Alien of any level died reliably every time. Enter “Gormaning” – named after Lt. Gorman’s decision in Aliens to blow himself up rather than be dragged off to the hive. As soon as an Alien attacked, you simply popped a squat and planted a mine. Kablooey – your attacker was dead, you eat a medkit and walk away. Combine this with a rank tank and you had a world-class asshole on your hands, with literally no way to defeat this other than (maybe) numbers.
The game shut down before there was ever a resolution to this, and even today, it seems like a flaw so ingrained in the design that it couldn’t be fixed without changing too much that actually worked. In short, Aliens Online was my early lesson that no matter what your intent is behind your game design, players in competitive multiplayer are most interested in the shortcut that makes them better than everyone, sooner than everyone.
So why wasn’t AO more recognized? Well, part of it was the limited availability. Though Gamestorm’s games were always teased as being available on AOL “soon,” most, including this one, never made the jump to the U.S.’s largest ISP. I know there were players who at least claimed to be from Europe, but I don’t know what the international Gamestorm situation was (or ISPs and lag overseas, for that matter). Aliens Online itself infamously never left beta. Though it certainly worked, and content was definitely added, I think this was Kesmai choosing to play it safe with expectations.
Also, I think Gamestorm’s lineup diversity might have been a small hinderance. Aliens Online was enough by itself for me to part with $10/mo, but I never touched any of the other marquee titles. Some players I knew also played Air Warrior, but I didn’t know anyone who played Magestorm or Legends of Kesmai, while similar games like Starship Troopers (a basic starfighter game – not what I was expecting) and Godzilla Online just didn’t impress. If you weren’t all-in invested in Aliens, there might not be much value here to justify the cost – especially if your internet speed or any of the frustrations above were hindering your experience.
There was also general bitching about the graphics. While AO’s mechanics felt novel, it was graphically similar enough to Doom (a nearly 6 year old game by then) that what it offered wasn’t too far off from what had come before. You could see the graphical and gameplay progression, which made this more of an expected step forward than a revolutionary, genre-defining, must-play vision of the future. Plus, it was competing against full 3D games like Quake II or Half-Life. Even though it never could have offered the player numbers and gameplay it did while also pushing advanced polys, we gamers are a petty bunch. There were talks toward the end of moving to a new voxel engine (inspired by Godzilla Online), but alas, time caught up to Gamestorm first.
In 2000, Gamestorm was bought out wholesale by EA. There were initial promises of maintaining and updating the service, which, of course, didn’t last long. Aliens Online was shut down May 29th, 2000, and Gamestorm as a service would soon follow in 2001. To this day, I’m still not sure if EA bought Gamestorm expressly to shut down a competitor, or if they had good intentions that soured when they got a look at the company’s operating costs and projections. And to be fair, regular players were noticeably diminishing toward the end – fed up with the balance issues, lured away by shiny new games, or simply having felt they had their fill. Either way, my favorite game was unceremoniously shut down, and I got a free CD of Ultima Online that I never even opened.
I know from traveling the lonely Internet alleyways since, looking with my slowly dissolving guild for a replacement game (Hi, Team [K]indred!), that there hasn’t been another game like Aliens Online. The Natural Selection mod for Half-Life (now a proper game in its own right) was the closest, but it was always more interested in merging Starcraft-style RTS with FPS – something that was not an element of AO. Many guild members went over to Starsiege: Tribes, but it never had the tight quartered maps and beautiful faction asymmetry. And you could certainly stalk a Marine or two in deathmatch games of AvP or AvP2, but never on the level of running roughshod over an entire map like you could as a stalky, bastard Player Controlled Alien.
So no matter how cool it sounds, your shot at conquering the hallways of Station Zeta or the U.S.S. Coronado is long gone. The licensed material and relative obscurity mean Aliens Online has stayed immune to any “rogue servers” or similar attempts at revival. If someone actually does get one running, I hope this article inspires you to hop on the dropship and sign up for yourself before
Fox The Mouse gets wind of it. You’ll find a game a little ahead of its time that nails faction asymmetry, the tension of its source film, and is ripe for spontaneous teamwork. If not, then at least know that this concept was tried, it mostly worked, and it was very, very cool.
‘Dja like Aliens? Here’s one of the best games based off it. Excellent possibilities for strategy. Marines have everything in the arsenal you’d want to see. Player Aliens are deadly and scary. Leveling up encouraged you to play your best, and teamwork came naturally.
Many systems open to abuse, especially the lopsided way of earning XP between Aliens and Marines. The network infrastructure at the time was there, but not always at all times, so the game frequently didn’t work as intended. Lag bombs aplenty, and sluggish controls. Graphically “last-gen,” which probably kept new subscribers away.
“Outer doors have OUTERDOORSHAVEOUTERDOORSOUTERDOORSOUTERDOORSHAVEBEENLOCKEDANDSEALEDnow unlocked.” – Agro Colony speakers whenever some shitbird would go to the command room and jam on the door lock button.