Time sure flies by fast. It feels like it was just yesterday that a little sandbox game with voxel graphics came by and took the whole world by surprise. Notch’s little baby grew to become a sensation all over the world, and with good reason: The simple gameplay hid layers upon layers of complexity (people can make functional calculators. How?) and the procedurally generated engine made sure no two worlds would be the same. Couple that with a creative mode that gives you infinite tools and resources to let your imagination run wild and do whatever the heck you want and some shaders and the game becomes a wallpaper generator.
But with all that success came imitation. Many games tried to capitalize on the Minecraft fever, some being cheap knockoffs, some adding their own spin to it. Others tried to mash up its central premise of building blocky stuff and mix it with other genres instead. Today I wanna take you back in time to revisit one such game that I sank many, many hours into. Meet, Ace of Spaces!
Ace of Spades started as a prototype developed by a man named Ben Aksoy and first released sometime in 2011, which explains its simplicity. A free-to-play, 16 vs 16 team-based shooter where the only mode is Capture the Flag (or in this case, the briefcase). With voxel-based graphics so simple a hamster wheel could render it, and a focus on a destructible battlefield, the game was quickly dubbed Minecraft with guns by the community. And that really is the entire game. Spawn, grab your gun, and go build and shoot. No vehicles, no turrets, no perks, and no loadouts. In Ace of Spades, what you see is what you get. There’s not even music, only sound effects. That's how simple it is.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity, the game soared in popularity, seeing pretty much half a million monthly users in 2012, and ya boy was one of them. So how did a game that for all purposes wasn’t even in Alpha managed to attract and retain such a huge player base? Community. I cannot overstate how amazing the Ace of Spades community was, and still is to this day. They elevated what would otherwise be a simple but repetitive gimmick into something amazing. Don’t get me wrong, the game has a solid base, but without someone to guide it, it would’ve gotten nowhere. And nobody is more suited for that task than the players.
The first order of business: cool maps. In Ace of Spades, there’s no difference between the blocks players can build from the ones that spawn with the map, and except for the “foundation” blocks (the ones that form the basic landmass), they can all be destroyed, from the tiniest of fences to the mightiest of mountains. Although, if you’re planning on taking out something the size of the latter, you got your work cut out for you buddy. The fastest way to destroy things in this game is to disconnect it from the ground. This game has no respect for the laws of physics (the exception being fall damage. Don’t do that), so as long as there is one block holding the whole thing, it won’t fall. Still, you shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming some players won’t go for it. There’s this one map that I believe was called Big Bridge, where two blocks are connected by this huge bridge supported by multiple pillars. The thing literally goes from one end of the map to the other, and it was the hottest spot on the map. Halfway through the match, one very patient bastard from my own team decided he didn’t like that bridge and took the whole thing down. Next thing I knew, 16 “Player died from falling” messages appeared on the log. I noticed cause I was one of them.
Another favorite map of mine is called Pinpoint. The map is composed of two relatively small isosceles triangles (yeah I know geometry) connected by the edges, kinda like an hourglass. It had absolutely nothing pre-built, with no room for tunnels since there were only foundation blocks. To top it off, the water surrounding the land was set to damage players, so there was no flanking. The admins set the game to end only when a two-hour timer (sometimes longer) ends, and off we go. Playing with those settings is amazing. At the start of a round, everyone rushes to try to get a foothold as close to the enemy as possible. It starts with some poor schmucks laying down chest-high walls just to survive another 5 or so seconds, and by the end, both teams have effectively recreated the trench warfare from WWI, with bunkers on both sides and a no man’s land in between.
But customizing map settings wasn’t the only thing the community could do. One function that was pretty popular on large servers for a while was the Squad. It’s pretty much lifted straight from Battlefield: join one and if you die, you can respawn on your squad leader. And boy did we do some funky stuff with that. One of my favorite tactics was to dig a tunnel all the way to the enemy base, sit right under their intel, then have my squadmates dig up, snag the briefcase and hightail outta there, while I bravely held the fort. And by that I mean I hid like a coward, so we can continue to abuse the system. Because of this ease of abuse, not all servers enabled that script, but pretty much all of them enabled Bombardment. Get a killstreak of 10 and type “/airstrike [insert map grid here]” and watch as the server spawns a ridiculous amount of grenades there. In most maps that was almost inconsequential, but in stuff like Pinpoint, it was pretty much essential to break a front line. But it could be countered with a strong enough roof to absorb the grenades, so it wasn’t completely OP.
And it’s these little emerging stories that kept me coming back to this game. Like the time I was digging a tunnel, found the enemy doing the same and engaged them in glorious shovel to shovel combat. Or the time a guy buried our briefcase so deep into the center of the Earth, even he couldn’t find it after the fact. Replaying the same map over and over was always a treat because no two matches played out the same way. And that’s not even counting all the other cool game modes the community came up with, like Tower of Babel, that had players competing for a single briefcase on top of a floating platform, in a race to see who could build a stairway to heaven first. Or how about a classic deathmatch mode akin to Counter-Strike? No building, no digging, no respawn. Only you, your teammates, and your guns. And speaking of weapons, the community improved those too.
When I joined, they had just added two new guns if memory serves. In keeping with the spirit of simplicity, the choices you have are limited, but they never feel redundant or meaningless as a result. The first one is the rifle. Perfect for fans of point and click, who stay at long distances trying to connect bullets to the right faces. It’s the only gun that can kill in one shot, and for a while, it was the only one in the game. Soon it was joined by two other equally specialized tools: the SMG, for people with too much time but not enough patience, with big recoil but terrific griefing potential. And for those creepy stalkers out there, the shotgun will serve you right, delivering death at the first pull of a trigger, provided you invade their personal spaces without asking for permission first. Everyone also spawns with 3 grenades that do grenade things. Very effective in teaching the enemy a lesson about spacing and making craters on the ground.
Now, admittedly, the base models for these guns are… Not so great. The rifle looks like an M1 Garland and that’s fine, but you try to connect headshots with that sorry excuse of a scope. This is where mods come into play! Pretty much any aspect you can imagine could be modified. Don’t like the Garland? Swap it for the Dragunov model. Shotgun doesn’t sound meaty enough? Put a SPAS-12 over it. What made this even better was the fact you could mix and match. Personally, I used the aforementioned Dragunov model with the SFX from the mighty AWP from CS 1.6 (holy be its name) for maximum impact. Player models, footsteps, grenades, not even the splash screen was safe from modders. This freedom of customization meant that you could tailor the experience to be just right for you, and that definitely improved the experience tenfold.
On the other side of the block, there’s the building. Along with the grenade, everyone also spawns with a shovel and 50 blocks. The shovel can either dig a single block or remove a column of 3 in front of you with the secondary fire, very handy to dig tunnels or holes. There used to be a pickaxe that did the single block digging, but it was later removed and replaced with the shovel as I just described it. Building things in Ace of Spades requires a certain degree of finesse since you can only lay one block at a time (later updates allow you to place multiples in a line) it takes skill to not only build fast, but efficiently. Because every player can only carry so many blocks and the only ways to refill it are either by dying, returning to your spawn tent, or digging other blocks, in order to build anything bigger than a small bunker, you’re gonna need to that sweet teamwork to make the dream work. It’s also surprisingly complex at times and there are a ton of little tricks you’ll pick up as you play, like building peepholes in high places so no one walks in front of one by accident, or covering tunnel entrances with blocks of the same color as the surrounding terrain. Just little things that can make all the difference.
With such a thriving community and a solid gameplay loop, Ace of Spades was on track to become a huge hit. The developer was constantly working on the game, releasing balancing patches and improving mod support. There were even going to be mounted machine gun nests! The possibilities seemed endless.
And then this happened...
Around the end of November 2012, Jagex announced they had bought Ace of Spades and that a new version was to hit Steam later in December. There was excitement among the community! Just imagine what the game could be with a full team behind it! 10 dollars was a small price to pay to support a game we loved! Then the trailer dropped and reactions were… Mixed, to say the least. It looked nothing like the game we loved: there were full-blown classes like in Team Fortress, with some being so exceedingly good at digging/building that there was no point in using the others for that task. Everyone now had access to templates that would instantly pop a building into place, instead of having to build it brick by brick. Everything we loved about the original was gone, replaced with a clone of any other shooter you’d find on the market at the time. No mod support, missing game modes, broken balance. I mean, for fuck's sake, one of the classes literally had a drill straight outta Gurren Lagan that would dig giant tunnels for you. This was no longer the game we knew and loved.
Jagex messed up, and they knew. Around February 2013, they tried to bring back the feeling of classic Ace of Spades with Classic mode, but the damage was already done. All it took for it all to break was one paid DLC later that same month, and boom. The remaining players left en masse, and by the end of 2013, this version of Ace of Spades was finally dead. Jagex would try again to replicate the formula with another game called Block N Load that, unsurprisingly, met the same fate.
But, this wasn’t the end. Because this community is awesome, they continue to support the classic Ace of Spades to this day. While Jagex continued to bastardize the game, they created Build & Shoot, a community to keep the game alive. More skins were created, new creative game modes were implemented, forums were created, and launchers were made for ease of play. There’s even an open-source clone of the classic 0.76 version called OpenSpades, with better graphics and full support for cross-play. Hopping into a game of Ace of Spades in 2020 is as easy as it was in 2012, and we owe it all to these guys.
It’s a shame Ace of Spades was never able to achieve its full potential, and instead suffered a slow and painful death at the hands of a company that had no idea what made it tick. But it’s okay. The game left its mark. The player base might not be as huge as it once was, but the ones that remain are still loyal. Still building, shooting, dying and repeating.
That’s really all we need.