Community Spotlight: Discovery Freelancer

October 4, 2012

So often these days we only look towards the newest of games, but what about those that are back in the past? Sometimes games don’t really die out, hardcore fans keep them alive through modding and tight-knit communities. Even with no hope of a sequel to look forward, they keep on trucking. In this case we have a game that is rapidly approaching it’s tenth anniversary, and yet maintains a vibrant community.

Freelancer was released by Microsoft and the now-defunct Digital Anvil as a sequel to Starlancer, and vaguely similar to Wing Commander, which the studio had also worked on. Right away the game developed a modding community, and while there’s always your Star Trek and Star Wars conversions in any Sci-Fi title, one modding community evolved beyond a ship pack and kept the story alive, and moving forward.

Ten years after Freelancer’s release the Discovery Freelancer Gaming Community or Disco as it’s known to players has kept the story alive and still progressing for the six years or so it’s been around. With a main server that averages 200 players during peak time and several smaller spin-offs, it’s far more alive then one would expect, and easily one of the larger mod communities out there. That’s of course not to mention they gave players the ability to fly capital ships as well as fighters, added a bomber class, and dozens upon dozens of new ships.

To talk about the community, I sat down with a member of the community’s admin team, Corey Williams, aka Gheis. I found it to be well organized with player running every facet of the game from story line development to guild/faction management and modelling. With games like these do we even need professional developers? Yes, but it’s still amazing what a bunch of unpaid fans can put together.

Miranda: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. Discovery seems to be a relic of sorts that still has a strong community. Can you tell our readers a bit more about Discovery Freelancer and has let it stand the test of time?

Corey (Gheis): Really, it’s a testament to the engine Digital Anvil and Microsoft built for the game. Even without the source, our code wizards have been able to do pretty amazing things with a game that’s nearing a decade old.

The entire Freelancer community, not just Discovery, has really done some innovative things. DiscoveryGC itself likely maintains its momentum from its community interaction and the ever-evolving shape of the mod, and it’s been that way for half a dozen years now.

M: Discovery is completley player-made and you’ve had no help from Microsoft correct? Can you give us an idea of just how many people have worked on this and the sort of hours they’ve put in?

C: That’s correct, it’s an independent player mod, as are most, if not all the Freelancer Mods that have been made available. Discovery’s been around since sometime in 2006. Igiss was the original lead, and he and his team kept things moving and growing. I’ve only been involved for a little over two years as a player, less as staff, but the dev and administration teams have been constantly evolving. Right now we’ve got eight active admins and a couple dozen developers, each who put in a dozen hours a week at the very least. It might as well be a part-time job for some of us. Discussion, balance, implementation, and we’re still figuring things out about the way Freelancer operates.


M: Speaking of how things operate, what are your limitations without the source code? Have you ever “hit a wall” so to speak? After six years how much else is there you can still do to Freelancer?

C: Yep, we’re having to fight the engine sometimes. Population has become somewhat of an issue, unfortunately. Peak server pop is about 225, and that’s a limitation placed on the system via stability – more and we start crashing. Cannon’s been a wizard with his player base Hook plugin, but as an unintended side effect, it’s caused players to group up and start sieging bases.

While it’s nice to see people working together, you get more than ten or twelve battleships in the same system firing at the same base, and the single-thread nature of the game becomes readily apparent – so much happens at once that FLServer just can’t keep up.

Never mind that the software hasn’t even the slightest clue what a multi-core processor is. We’re grateful as ever for the size of the playerbase, but when they start all grouping up, it puts a lot of strain on things, and that’s provided some interesting puzzles for our development team to sort through.

As far as what we can do, I imagine that’ll be dictated by what sort of triggers we can pull from the game and what we can do with Hook in so much as communicating between it and the server. The Hook code’s pretty flexible, it’s the input/output of the server and how much information it can move that’ll determine how much more we can do.

M: Well lets talk about that content for a moment. These bases are a fairly recent addition, and something completley outside the scope of the vanilla game. How is it that you’re able to keep such a large playerbase engaged with such a small team?

C: New features drive activity. Player bases in particular give something to do that’s fairly open-ended, and are a gateway to more of the new 4.86 features such as cloaking and docking modules. They add a dynamic nature to a game that’s otherwise fairly static without routine updates and give players some control over the landscape and require maintenance that keep the users playing if they want to obtain the product of their efforts. Having some control and an effect on the space you play in is an incredibly attractive prospect.

M: With that said, do you plan to keep radical changes like the bases coming? Or has Discovery matured now to where you’re going to be focusing more now on fine tuning and fixes.

C: For now, yep, we’re probably going to be doing some fine tuning. A lot of our idea guys are focusing on solving some of our balance and stability issues as best we can, and refining what’s been put in game. That’s not to say there’s not things in the pipeline to further enhance the versatility, but those sort of ideas are in a very early stage of development.

M: Ok let’s switch gears a bit then. DiscoveryGC is a roleplaying server, but it has completley open PvP. How on earth do you manage to cram two hundred or more people onto one server without it turning into wanton slaughter?

C: For the most part, the rules are tailored to encourage player interaction and conversation. Especially the one that requires roleplay before engagement, I suspect. Most players who play understand that when they step on the server, they step into character, and that goes a long way as well.

Our veterans and official factions do a very good job of keeping the interaction going in a sensible context, and anyone who’s just looking for a fight can head to a separate system designed for a more combat-oriented experience. Even though the rules are there to keep the environment at a certain standard, being able to drop into the seat as another character and immerse yourself is something that all of us share in common, and there’s a multitude of avenues for all of our users to act out the character they want to be.

M: Now when people think of roleplay they usually think of two characters face to face. Roleplayers in EVE Online face similar challenges, but how do players on DiscoveryGC adapt? How has the mod fostered roleplay without resorting to monocle sales?

C: There’s a few different approaches to roleplay in the community. Some prefer to just play their role as what they do. They’ve got a character, and he’s a priate or trader or military officer, and he just does his thing. They get into their jobs and provide framework and a basis for interaction.

Other players really get into character development and telling a good story. We’ve got some who’ve been building short novels over the span of a couple years. Some keep journals reflecing on thoughts. Although roleplay’s mandatory on the server, there’s certainly varying standards, one extreme, the other, or somewhere in between. That sort of choice is entirely player-driven.

M: Can you give our readers one example of a situation you were involved with that has stuck with you? One good example of roleplay on the DiscoveryGC server?

C: One of my favorites has to be what ensued after a small group mining operation. Myself and a couple friends were happily mining on our ships in inter-house space when a few Nomads popped by. The mining faction we were apart of, the Gallic Metal Service, had a bit of a “religious” thing going on just for some color.

We’d built up this backstory for the faction over many months and so when we saw the Nomad players approaching, a generally hostile-to-everything alien species, we took a different approach than most – instead of running away and saving our behinds, we began making that the players were incarnations of the icons belonging to the “religion” practiced by the faction.

When usually would end up in either a chase or death for the miners turned into us giving the Nomad players a “tour” of our home space, showing them around, the twist being that Nomds can only communicate via emotion. It really exercised our imaginations and was a couple of the most fun hours I’ve had while playing. Lots of laughs and good feelings all around.

M: Sounds like a lot of fun, it’s no wonder people can stay that interested in a game that’s almost a decade old. I think that’s about it for my questions, is there anything else you want to say about DiscoveryGC?

C: I imagine I’m a bit biased, given that I’m part of the staff for the server, but we’ve got a pretty unique player base, and that’s what makes what we have work. Although the staff and developers maintain things, we wouldn’t have anything to maintain if it weren’t for our players.

They’re fantastic people, give the community and server the character it has and keep the entire system of interaction working as well as it does. The work we put in is for them, and often the ideas from the playerbase shape what we do, so I can’t thank them enough for being the foundation of the mod.

Miranda Quillen

Star Wars fangirl and general geekette with a passion for roleplaying and strategy games, space and all things Sci-Fi.

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