"Minecraft with guns." This is the description that team-based shooter Ace of Spades is still unable to escape from, although it's not difficult to see why thanks to its blocky environments.
But for Ace of Spades players, there's far more at stake than simply defending the origins of their pastime. The Ben Aksoy-developed game, first released as an alpha build in 2011, was bought out by Jagex (seemingly in 2012, when Jagex announced its involvement), and released as a paid game last month -- and veteran AoSers aren't exactly happy about the switch.
For one, the World War I-based title was free to download until Jagex came along. Then there's the smoothing of the visuals, the (current) removal of procedurally generated maps, and various elements that have been disabled including the ability to modify the models in the game.
Rob Kinder, Jagex's brand director for Ace of Spades, explains to Gamasutra that it's a rather sticky situation that hasn't been handled all that well. You see, Jagex has actually been working on Ace of Spades for around 18 months now -- however, it was not ready to publicly announce this until recently.
"One of the problems of taking on a project at such an early stage is that you aren't necessarily ready to announce your involvement the minute you start work on it," he says.
"The other problem with this is that, nowadays, it's almost impossible to hide your involvement in something because of publicly listed trademarks, URL ownership etc." he continues. "So it's a balancing act. On the one hand we wanted to wait until we were absolutely ready to announce Jagex's involvement, with assets, video and locked features; something we could excite the community with, but on the other hand we wanted to let the community know what was going on early without going wide with an official announcement."
As a result of keeping its involvement a secret for so long, Jagex has accidentally managed to split the Ace of Spades community somewhat.
"In hindsight I think we straddled an awkward line somewhere in-between these two approaches," notes Kinder. "We had some of the key contributors working in-house, or contracted from other parts of the world and their involvement was known. Some of our artwork, graphics and UI were shown exclusively through community channels and we even spoke to a couple of key community members on the phone to get their input."
He admits, "The community is much bigger than its key representatives though, and I have to take responsibility for not communicating effectively with that wider player base.
Jagex is now looking to right this wrong, and make sure the Ace of Spades community is always kept in the loop.
"Our goal now is to make sure we involve the community as much as possible in everything we do," he tells us. "For starters, we're launching a community built, community voted map to the game, for free; we've launched an extensive update based on balancing and gameplay suggestions made by the community, and we're looking to involve them heavily in future content updates, starting with our World War update in January, which will bring back some of the more slow-paced, tactical gameplay that was so prevalent in the prototype build, but something we acknowledge has been underrepresented in the full release."
And what of all the changes to the original core concept? Do veteran players have the right to be angry at how much Jagex has molded the game to its whim?
"Jagex has been working on Ace of Spades for around eighteen months now, but I think the core concept behind the game has largely remained intact in the final release," answers Kinder. "The freedom to build or destroy anything you want is still fundamental to the experience, but we've added several new layers to the game that we think enhances the experience for a wider range of players."
Apart from the new classes and weapon loadouts, Jagex also introduced a number of new game types to Ace of Spades, including Zombies and Diamond Mine - both of which are proving most popular among players.
"The biggest change - and for reasons I'll explain - is the absence of mods and player-created levels," says Kinder.
"Firstly, we are absolutely dedicated to bringing user-generated content to Ace of Spades. We have already communicated our intention to use Steam Workshop as a way to allow users to create and share their own content.The reason for the delay is that we need to create our own dedicated game editor so it's easy for newcomers to create awesome content, but complex enough that experienced players can be more detailed and complex with their creations."
This was one of the barriers for entry when it came to the original prototype -- there was no proprietary editing tool, which meant that players had to use a number of third-party tools instead, none of which work with the current build of the game.
"The engine has changed to the point where we really need to create something bespoke and user friendly, but as soon as we've done this we will be distributing it to the wider community," Kinder assures us.
The existing fanbase double-edged sword
As you can probably tell from the mess that Jagex is currently trying to clear up, the lead-up to Ace of Spades' release has been rather different for Jagex as a company. Never before has it had the opportunity to release a title that already has such a huge and dedicated fanbase.
"Having a big fan base is great - they already know the product, they love it, they want more of it. What more could you want?" notes Kinder.
"On the other hand, there's no telling how receptive that audience is going to be to change. You see that same problem occur with established franchise sequels. There's no doubting that we want to bring the game to an even wider audience, but at the same time we have an important responsibility to the existing community; we need to make sure that we don't lose sight of what made this game so popular in the first place."
"The way we do that is by working with the players - the people that play and love the game - and being receptive to feedback from all areas of the community."
Kinder is hugely keen to stress that Jagex is in this for the long haul, and that making the game's existing fans happy is a big part its upcoming plans.
"We're incredibly passionate about Ace of Spades," he says. "As our first standalone product release it's been a learning curve, but an incredibly exciting one that we're taking a lot of positives from."
And as for those Minecraft comparisons, how does Jagex feel about being constantly judged alongside one of the biggest indie games of all time?
"I don't have a problem being compared to a game which has made such a significant impact on the industry, but of course that kind of comparison inevitably brings its own challenges," says the Jagex exec. "For example, while the game is set within a block-based sandbox, the objectives and core gameplay mechanics are very different. Ultimately though, I think the game stands out on its own without the need to justify the similarities it shares with other titles."
Kinder hopes that the openness of Ace of Spades -- with its constructive manipulation and huge freedom for players -- will set it apart from other first-person shooters in the long run.
"We've also tried to style the game in such a way that gives it its own unique look," he adds. We've tried to play to our engine's strengths, embracing its low-fi heritage but using more modern graphical techniques like ambient occlusion and whole-block texturing to make the game look great on a high end rig, but also be playable and visually distinct on a five year old machine."