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Tribes: Ascend Community Develops and Releases SDK

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Every PC gamer likely knows how important modding tools can be after developers have officially dropped support or moved on to other projects, especially multiplayer games.  Over the last decade or so modding has started to take a back-seat of sorts, with only a handful of AAA developers who fully support user-made content.  So when Hi-Rez Studios revealed Tribes: Ascend during PAX East 2011, one the first things Tribes enthusiasts asked was if it would support modding.  Even casual Tribes players came out of the woodwork after hearing about Tribes: Ascend to express the joy they had with previous Tribes mods such as Construction, Shifter, Annihilation, Renegades and more.  In an interview with TribesNetwork a few months after the PAX announcement, the chances of Hi-Rez providing these tools weren’t sounding too good.

 

 Interview with TribesNetwork

 

While not completely downplaying the idea of eventually releasing mod tools, Todd Harris’ (HiRezTodd) response certainly wasn’t anything to get excited about.  Nearly every developer who says mod tools are a low priority rarely ever make it priority.  When Ascend was finally revealed during QuakeCon 2011, only then did the community find out that the title would be Free2Play, signalling that modding would essentially be a thing of the past as the company adopted the League of Legends model.  Still, the community continued to bring up the importance of modding on Hi-Rez’s forums and unofficial subreddit (which is now the official forum, oddly enough).  When brought up during the very first Tribal Council in late May 2012, a meeting between eSports manager Bart Koenigsberg (HiRezBart) and competitive players, HiRezBart flat-out admitted that their Free2Play model was the reason why community tools shouldn’t be expected.

 

Tribal Council

 

In June 2012 Hi-Rez Studios sent out a C&D letter after someone started to replace textures within the game, another sign of Hi-Rez’s stance on modding.  Despite what HiRezBart had to say and the company sending out a C&D letter, the community still continued to request modding tools throughout both Ascend’s beta and after its release.  During a November 2012 Raptr Q&A with HiRezTodd and Adam Mierzejewski (HiRezAPC), the topic of modding came up yet again, to which HiRezTodd offered a slightly conflicting response compared to HiRezBart’s.  According to Harris, the F2P model wasn’t causing any issues with regards to modding, but instead correctly implementing said tools was.  Around this same time a small team of community members had already started their attempts at modifying the game, getting so far as to porting over a map from Tribes 2 into the game, modifying physics and other values, as well as hosting their own servers and conducting playtests.

 

 

While certainly exciting, the team was small and ran into several roadblocks until the group went seemingly dormant.  In February 2013 Ascend received a Game of the Year edition, which unlocked all classes, weapons and perks with a single-purchase.  One month later the game received its final update from Hi-Rez Studios.  It’s worth noting that since the company started development on SMITE, updates to Tribes: Ascend took a noticeable decline.  To date Tribes: Ascend has received a total of 34 updates, compared to SMITE’s 79 and counting.  Keep in mind that those updates to Tribes: Ascend were during its closed and open beta, along with every update after its release, while SMITE is still in its open beta stage.

Hi-Rez Studios continues to host servers for Tribes: Ascend, and allows community members to stream competitive matches on their official Twitch channel along with handing out cash prizes for tournaments ($2500 each for recent EUTL and NATL games).  However, the company has essentially confirmed that they are done with the game from a development standpoint.  In an open letter to the community, HiRezTodd responded to questions regarding their current development plans:

There are no major dev updates planned for Tribes: Ascend in the next six months.

For the next six months our primary development focus is SMITE. Beyond that it is GA2.

And beyond that a TA2 would be more likely than a major update to TA; but to be clear no devs are currently working toward TA2.

Shortly after this response, Harris revealed in an interview with RockPaperShotgun that the next thing the company would be working on was a path for users to “basically add their own maps.”

We just feel like it’s at a good point to have users maintain it. We feel that it’s a complete experience, and we want to give users the tools to add their own maps – versus, say, us adding more guns that wouldn’t benefit [the experience].

At this point the community really didn’t know what to think or who to believe.  Since before launch the community had witnessed a roller coaster of responses regarding the topic of modding, ranging from maybe, never, to possibly.  Now they’re being told that map-making tools are on the way…eventually.  By now work had started again on the community-built SDK, with Altimor taking the helm and asking those with C++ experience to join him (though he eventually ended up switching to D).

Sadly, just 2 months after claiming map-making tools were on the way, Hi-Rez Studios CEO Erez Goren squashed every last bit of hope the community had in the company eventually releasing these tools within a letter to the SMITE community regarding Tribes:

Some people have asked for us to provide more tools for community content creation, but our infrastructure and development platform does not support that ability well and the cost and time to develop those features is extremely high. Contrary to the belief that we were ‘milking’ tribes to support the development of Smite, if we didn’t develop another game that could support the studios the company and the Tribe servers would have closed down.

Fortunately development on the community SDK continued forward, and was released to the public on Tuesday (December 10).  Details regarding just what you can do with this are somewhat unclear since there’s no real documentation, though it appears it’ll essentially open the floodgates to user-made maps, mods, and player-hosted servers.  That last feature is quite important, since players will no longer need to rely on Hi-Rez’s authentication service or servers should they go down.

How Hi-Rez will respond to this is anyone’s guess.  Todd Harris mentioned the existence of a community SDK during his interview with RockPaperShotgun, and seemed neutral about it.  Hi-Rez employees involved with creating the official maps and art assets have always been in favor of modding it seems, particularly Kate Pitstick (HiRezKate), who put together a blog detailing the process of creating maps, along with responding to questions regarding mapping.

In response to the community SDK being released publicly, the community has formed a ‘council’ of representatives from previous Tribes games to mold Tribes: Ascend into something better.  There are also plans to create a way for users to add their own servers to a community-run master server.  The decision to allow the remaining Tribes community to open up the game is ultimately in the hands of Hi-Rez Studios at this point.  Certainly from a legality standpoint the SDK isn’t in the favor of the community, and is a considerably larger breach than playing around with a few textures.  Hopefully a response from Hi-Rez will be given relatively soon, one of which is in favor of the players, longevity of Tribes: Ascend, and PC gaming in general.

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