Chris Robert’s ‘Star Citizen’ – Supernova or Black Hole?

I have always been a big fan of simulators, this encompasses such games as Flight Sim X, Sim City, Elite Dangerous & Arma 3 to name but a few. I have also felt that multiplayer games are much, much more engaging than single player games. When you put these two elements together its a very appealing mix indeed and if you have read my blog before you know I’m an Elite Dangerous fan boy.  ED an open play MMO was funded via Kickstarter in November 2012 making approx £1.6 million from backers and was released in December 2014. The man behind this is a veteran on the genre David Braben. He has been making these space sim games since the 1980’s! Then I heard of another project called Star Citizen.

Star Citizen

Star Citizen LogoWing CommanderIn October 2012 Star Citizen, also on Kickstarter, was launched from Cloud Imperium Games , one month before ED. The game is another space sim MMO and is also from a veteran in the industry, this time Chris Roberts who made the great Wing Commander series which was groundbreaking back in it’s day. Remarkable the resemblance from these two giants if the industry, many parallels between the two projects.

Star Citizen has made a truly staggering $116 million as of July 2016 from it’s backers. Like Elite I also had Wing Commander on my Amiga and loved playing both games. They were quite similar in game play, perhaps the main difference was that Elite was more open world and Wing Commander was more story driven.

A Tale of Two Sims

SC is seen as a spiritual successor to Wing Commander but has adopted more of an open world approach and persistent universe. There is also a single player version of the game which is more story driven called Squadron 42. Neither the single player or multiplayer games have been released yet. Now a big game will take time to develop, Elite Dangerous came out with a game in two years, it was very basic and lacked a lot of features that was sorely needed, however even at it’s core the game is extremely enjoyable. ED is slowly getting the depth it so badly needs being added each season. With Star Citizen it looks like they are trying to release a fully fleshed out product, so I can forgive the long development time. It’s two different approaches to releasing a major game, both systems have advantages and disadvantages.

To hear that there were two space sims in development was of great interest to me and I bought Elite Dangerous the day it came out in December 2014. Star Citizen is still in development at this time, it’s expected release date was originally going to be November 2014, but is now listed as sometime in 2016. From the previews I have seen Star Citizen looks better than ED for graphics and also looks much more fleshed out. You are even able, in Star Citizen, to get out of your ships chair and walk around, something that ED lacks, it is coming in some future season release of Elite but probably not for a year or more. From what I have seen of SC it could very well be a better game than ED, unfortunately I would never consider buying it.

Pay to Win

That may sound a bit harsh, especially as the game is not finished yet and I have not played it. The reason for me being so against playing Star Citizen is simple, Pay to Win.

Elite Dangerous cost me £35 at launch and then each season of updates will probably be around the same price. As Frontier, who make ED, have a 10 year plan for the game and each season will probably be once a year then if you are in for the long haul it would cost you approx £350 for a decades worth of ED. Frontier did recently offer a lifetime pack for about £140 that will get you all future season passes for free, I purchased this straight away. If Frontier don’t go bust or stop development for ED I should get my decades worth of gaming fun for a total of £175. An extremely good price for the entertainment it provides.

Star Citizen will also probably be around the £35 price point for release, depending on the package you buy. I’m guessing they will have future updates giving more functionality and game play at an additional cost. You can already buy extras such as ships, more on this later. As with ED this game has in game currency, the more you grind away at the game the more money you make and can then purchase better equipment, ships and modifications in the game. The major difference, and as far as I’m concerned, deal breaking issue with Chris Roberts Star Citizen you are able to transfer your real world money into game currency, this enables you to rank up faster in the game. This model appears to be very popular with most phone games and is often called ‘In App Purchases‘. Instead of you putting the time & effort in to buy that new ship you can instead transfer some money into the game for an instant purchase. I have never paid for any of these IAPs and very rarely download these sorts of games. On the occasions I have you usually get to a level or position where it’s impossible to progress unless you purchase a power up. These purchases are often pretty small amounts of just a few pence, however it all adds up. I would much rather purchase the game outright and have an even play field.

If you are playing a single player game I guess it’s less game breaking to submit to some IAPs, however in a multiplayer game you and your opponent could have comparable skills, however he would win any PvP encounter just because he paid for that extra power up or faster ship etc. This is why these sorts of games are called Pay to Win. At this point it becomes less of a contest of skill and more of a contest of who has the more disposable income. Its not fair game play for a multiplayer environment and totally destroys the balance. It does of course make perfect sense for the company making the game as a revenue stream. Even ED has some in game purchases, however these are cosmetic items such as paint jobs, bobbleheads or ship kits. None of them help you progress in the game, this has to be achieved with time and skill.

Because of the nature of MMOs they require expensive servers to host the game world on and engineering staff to go with it etc. This is an expensive business, the games companies need to make money to keep all this back end stuff working. some do it via a monthly subscription like World of Warcraft, others with In App Purchases of season passes. Season passes are generally a flat rate fee per year for the game. All will have secondary income streams via merchandising.

Virtual Items for Real Money

CompletionistAs I mentioned earlier ‘In App Purchases’ are generally for very small amounts of money, just a few pennies, Star Citizen seems to have taken this IAP system to the extreme. In the game some of the items you can purchase for real world money are the ships. The cheapest one, an Aurora goes for $20. That’s the cheapest one. There are various other ships ranging up to a Javeline for $2,500! There are also various packages to purchase for the game itself , they range from a £35 single player version to a bells and whistles version at £11,700! These prices are insane. I’m not sure what happens if you take the ship into battle and have it destroyed, do you get another one free? Is there some insurance re-buy deal? Is the money lost? At these prices you would have to be extremely serious to play this game. Of course you could still probably grind up that money in game but I’m guessing, and it is a guess, that this would take months or years to get enough for the larger items. In Elite Dangerous it took me a year to grind up to a position where I could buy the biggest baddest ship in the game. With it came a great amount of accomplishment and other players would see that you were a serous player to have such an expensive ship.

Inequality

In the Star Citizen universe little Johnny who saved all his pocket money for many months to get the basic game purchases it on day one. Spoiled brat Biff gets a spare 12k from his parents and gets the Completionist package with all the ships and weapons beefed up to 11. Johnny & Biff start playing on the same day, launch day, and meet up in the same part of space and get into a scrap. Biff is flying his uber starship battle-cruiser with enough firepower to make a deathstar shudder in it’s presence, Johnny is in his starter runabout with laser pointers for weapons. The outcome of this battle is obvious and has nothing to do with skill.

Making it a tiered system because of the pay to win nature is going to create two classes. One class will try and play by grinding the other by throwing money at it. Ultimately the rich will win and that’s in no way fair. This is going to cheese off the grinders who will leave, this then leaves the rich to out pay each other. Good news for CIG. Not good news for game play and at the end of the day a game should be about game play and skill, not money.

Criticality

To make an MMO popular you need lots of humans playing, with these high prices I would have thought that Cloud Imperium Games would scare off lots of potential players. If they don’t get enough people playing the vast world they created will become a wilderness and die. They need to ensure the game reaches critical mass, they need to entice enough people in at the early stages to build a big player base.

If you have enough real world disposable income and you get that much entertainment out of the game then I guess you should be free to continue. Just wondering if it would work better if you separated the two groups, one universe for grinders, another for pay to win people.

Apocalypse When?

Currently we are still waiting for the full release of Star Citizen. There are the ongoing slips in release date, the original release was set for November 2014. Most large projects get delayed, this is in no way unusual. Roberts has said that as he received so much more money than he expected he wanted to make the best product possible so these new funds have been channelled back into making the game better. Meanwhile he has been making more money by selling virtual ships for real money. People are spending thousands on virtual ships for a game that is not even out yet! If the company should fold none of these people will see any of their money back.

star-citizen-ac-3

Now I’m pretty sure the game will finally get released, but how good will it be? It certainly looks like a triple A game, it even has motion capture from people like Gary Oldman, Gillian Anderson & Mark Hamill, but what about the all so important game play? As I have said earlier I believe the Pay to Win nature of CIGs model is a poor choice and breaks the game play for me.

That aside, I have played some glorious looking games with fantastic sound that has been let down by the game play, Star Wars Battlefront is a perfect example of this style of game, it looks and sounds gorgeous and has had a shed load of money thrown at it, but after a few hours of play it starts to get very, very tedious. As a result people stop playing and servers go mostly idle, less people buy the game because of poor reviews and even if you where to buy it you may not find someone to play with. Therefore it’s now entered a sort of limbo, there will probably be no future development because there is no money in it. Game play has to be key, all the shiny, shiny eye candy of a game should be the icing on the cake, not it’s base.

As Star Citizen is an online multiplayer game it requires a big pool of real players to make it feel like a living breathing universe, no amount of NPCs will help it if the humans do not come. This is one big problem with MMOs, although the game runs on your computer it needs an internet connection to report back to the game servers to track everything happening in the world. This costs the developer a lot of money. If only a few people play the game then the money coming in to the developers could be too low to run the servers and it’s shut down. Therefore you do want to make as good a game as you can and keep it fresh to keep people playing. I get the feeling that many people who have invested their money into this game expected it to be out and playable by now. If CIG lose the good will of their backers they run the great risk of losing these people and the game will be a wasteland.

This Deal’s Getting Worse all the Time

As the game was originally supposed to be released in November 2014 and we are now half way through 2016 with no show, some people are getting vocal about the delays. For people who have backed the game, which can be from £35 to £11,000+ and probably have bought some virtual ships which can be from $20 to $2.5k, then it’s not surprising that these folks want to see a return for their investment.

CIG have dropped Star Marine, this was to be an FPS shooter subgame of SC in a Counter Strike style of PvP game that was promised to backers in earlier development. It has not been delivered. Star Citizen was originally advertised as having a Co-Op mode and to support Virtual Reality from the start, these features have now been dropped or scheduled for later updates. To some these where major buying decisions for some early backers. Now the delays and broken promises are too much and many have requested a refund. One backer called Arthur, game name Streetroller, had enough and did get most of his money back in June of 2016. He had invested $3,300 into the game and got back something like $2,560. To get his money back was not a simple case of asking for it and getting a credit into his bank account, he had to fight Cloud Imperium Games for weeks and involved the LA district attorney, FTC, and DCBA. Some of the letters from this battle can be found here.

Pray I Don’t Change it Further

The problem Streetroller had was that Cloud Imperium Games changed the contract recently making it very much harder to get a refund. The original contract stated that if CIG did not deliver the game within 18 months of the original delivery date, which would be May 2016 then you could get a refund. Now, because CIG have failed to deliver by that date they have changed the terms. In the new terms I believe it’s a case that nobody will get a refund as long as the game is ‘In Development’. So there is no longer a clause to get your cash back if the game is never released. As long as CIG are seen to continue development you will not be entitled to a refund. At the end of the day what warrants development? It could be the case that one solitary person would be employed to work on the game, who would never finish it. I don’t believe this will be the case, but it is rather an open ended agreement. So although CIG are desperately trying to stop people get their money back with this change in the contract it is possible, although a lot of work. Streetroller says he was told to encourage others to file complaints against CIG with the DCBA. An interview with Streetroller can be found here.

Show me the Money

CIG is still vigouresly promoting the game and asking for more Backers & ultimately money. The backers are still continuing to place money into the hands of CIG despite this rather worrying change of terms in the contract, the huge pot of development money never stops growing. With that huge resource great things should certainly be achievable. Star Citizens fans are true fans, they are extremely passionate about what happens with the game, I guess the whole crowdfunding process makes people much more a part of the company. This creates a very tight knit community of like minded people, all keen to see their project realised. As a consequence anyone seen backing out from funding the game is often attacked and ridiculed, this happened to the aforementioned Streetroller. The whole faith and venomous belief they have in the game being the greatest game ever is astonishing. It’s very reminiscent to me of the Apple effect, borderline cult behaviour.

I guess if you have invested a lot of money into a project you would be very motivated to sing it’s praises to maximise it’s chance of being realised, especially considering that if the project were to fail you would be left with nothing.

Stay Tuned

Over the next few months I will continue, with great interest, to follow Chris Roberts, Cloud Imperium Games & Star Citizen to see what develops. I honestly hope it’s a huge success. Having another top notch space sim game to keep other games of this genre worried and developing more is good for the players. With so much promise, reputation, years of development and hordes of backers money at stake when the game is finally released it will be fascinating to see if Chris Roberts has created a supernova or black hole.

Update on Wednesday, 7 Sep 2016

Star Citizen made an appearance at this years Gamescon to show off a live play through of one of the missions. They had a couple of players working together on a mission to retrieve an item from a derelict ship in space, then an extra mission to loot a base on a planet. It was a very impressive demo indeed and did show the entire mission without breaks or major issues. There were a few minor things going wrong, most noticeably one of the ships disappearing when docking inside a mother-ship. However these are things that will get fixed, it’s still in development.

Talking about development, CIG had scheduled a release this year, 2016, however it now looks like it’s going to be a late 2017. Investors are going to have to suck it up for another year.

No Mans Sky

nomansskyMeanwhile in the space sim genre we had the release of Sean Murray’sNo Mans Sky’. This much anticipated game launched on August 9th. Initially it got great reviews and people were loving it’s amazing procedurally generated worlds. After a week however the player base dropped off by 90% and people were trying to get refunds. What went so horribly wrong?

Lots of things that the developers of No Mans Sky, Hello Games, had promised were missing in the game. It was touted as a multiplayer game but it’s not, it was supposed to have wars you could pick a side in and fight, you can’t, You were supposed to be able to meet up with other players, you can’t. There were supposed to be different classes of ships all with different handling styles, although they may look different they all handle the same. Battles in space are mundane and everything feels incredibly dumbed down. Also the flight system is ultra simple, you can’t crash or even get close to the ground without pressing a single key to auto land. Ultimately the game play is terribly repetitive and simple. It’s like the game has training wheels on that never come off.

Although the planets are different, they are all in the same vein. There is a difference in general shapes of rocks and foliage & animals, changes in colours, however they are all essentially the same. Promises of desert planets has not materialised. One of the biggest issues is what lies at the centre of the galaxy, the endgame, I won’t spoil it here however if you are interested google it, it’s a shocker. There are also lots of issues with the game crashing regularly on all platforms.

It’s a real sad state of affairs and has to be one of the biggest disappointments in games ever. Sean Murray has vanished from the media shortly after it’s launch in early August and Sony seems to have disowned him. Possibly Hello games will address these issues and fix it, however they are a very small team and this will take a long time. Perhaps the modding community is No Mans Sky only hope. It certainly shows how such a popular game can go South so quick, last time we saw something like this was in 2008 with Spore. Perhaps if the game was cheaper it’s flaws and omissions (lies?) would be more palatable, however at £60 it’s not cheap.

The No Mans Sky story is certainly a classic cautionary tale of why you should not over hype a game and release it before it’s ready.

We were expecting a great triad of space sims with Elite Dangerous, Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, now it’s firmly a two horse race.

Entropy1024

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