Expanding the Final Frontier – Part Two

After years of lying in a subdued state of near-hibernation, space games are finally going into full bloom again. It would take me ages to write about all the good-looking games that have either come out recently, or are in development. Homeworld: Shipbreakers, Strike Suit Zero, Elite: Dangerous, and FTL are just a few of the incredible titles we’ve been privileged to see come into being over the last handful of years. However, for me, there are two standouts for their inspiring, overwhelming ambition. No Man’s Sky, the procedurally generated beauty by Hello Games, shows us a whole new way to use technology to create content for us, and forges an incredible path toward smaller teams being able to tackle games of truly colossal scope. It’s a game that could very well change game development forever. The other title is Star Citizen, and it is one of the most mindblowing things that could have happened to gaming.

I don’t think I’ve seen anything happen in this industry that is so fascinatingly crazy as Star Citizen. Researching it is like diving into the ocean- you get deeper and deeper, and it just gets bigger and stranger. Crowdfunding has made some incredible things possible, and also made it impossible to be sure exactly what we’re getting until it’s done.

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As a Kickstarter, the ambitious new space game from Chris Roberts (creator of Wing Commander) asked for five hundred thousand dollars. Before the campaign closed, the studio had received over two million. That, however, was only the beginning. Upon setting up the game’s website, they added the ability to buy ships for the game with real money- the pricing on these ships ranging from twenty-five dollars for a basic rookie ship to fifteen thousand dollars for the staggering “The Completionist” fourteen ship package. These ship sales have been wildly successful, and with a budget of forty-seven million dollars and counting, it is clear that Star Citizen aims to be more than your average crowdfunded indie game.

Assuming no more massive increases in scope- and with this unbelievably strange beast, anything is possible- the current design document for Star Citizen includes the single player campaign Squadron 42, first person shooting combat for ship boarding action (and perhaps more? It is currently unclear), freely explorable space stations and planetside spaceports all owned and operated by players. A player-influenced (made stable by NPCs, but swayed by player action) economy powered by products bought with the Almighty Dollar.

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The number of things you can purchase with real world currency is terrifyingly extensive. You can buy ships, you can buy upgrades for your ships, but if those ships get destroyed they stay scrapped, and the money you invested along with them. So of course, you can buy insurance! The in-game companies won’t insure a stolen ship, though… but the black market has its own insurers and they will cover your illegal vessel for a further premium. So you’ve got your ship (stolen or legit), you’ve upgraded it with better parts… but it doesn’t stop there. You can trick out your cockpit with cosmetics, nab player titles like Bounty Hunter or Rear Admiral, you can buy a little buggy to drive around your hangar if it gets to be too big to walk around. You can pay for a kit to hand-tune your ship like a Gran Turismo race car- without this tool, you won’t have the feedback and data on your engine necessary to make modifications. In game posters. Star Citizen gift cards for your friends. A straight-up stack of in-game currency- United Earth Credits, at a rate of one thousand for a dollar. If you can dream it, you can buy it for Star Citizen… and people are, for a game that isn’t even out (or even close to it)!

Technically, all money given for in-game goods is not an actual purchase- their website still refers to them as “pledges.” These are in the strictest sense donations, with an understanding that developer Cloud Imperium Games will give you a matching gift according to the size of your donation and personal preference. However, looking through forums and fan sites it is clear that backers consider their pledges a purchase rather than a donation, and expect a level of bang for their buck. Cloud Imperium, in turn, provides a serious hard sell- beyond discounts for people buying multi-ship packages rather than a la carte, they also occasionally offer limited time only ships with special abilities, and even commercials advertising in-game space ships as though they were the latest model of Chevy truck, as seen below:

They’ve got their own reality show where community modders compete to design a ship for the game, with lucrative cash prizes as well as free computers and software licenses awarded to first, second, and third place teams. The stretch goals present exquisitely detailed descriptions of features and items either already backed or on the near horizon, driving donations onward. This is crowdfunding taken to its most extreme, most intense form… and quite possibly, most dark and manipulative.

Looking too long at the list of additions brings up  some deeply troubling questions.Take the insurance, for instance- if you’re adding it, and charging real money for it, there is a real and plausible danger that the ship someone paid real money for will be smashed into a million pieces and lost forever. You don’t add insurance if it will never be needed, and if said insurance isn’t nearly essential, the people who bought it will feel cheated. Thus, you have to make your world a scary place, full of the constant threat of loss.

The engine tuning kit makes me raise an eyebrow- I have to pay for this piece of equipment if I want to read my engine’s output in an “easy and comprehensible way?” Is the default interface for reading what your engine is doing intentionally complex and opaque to encourage sales of the kit? Shortly after announcing the ship boarding feature, they also declared that anyone who had backed to that point would get a free laser pistol to “keep [their] ship safe from boarders.” Just how much use will a pistol be against a gang of raiding pirates? Am I going to have to shell out extra cash for a weapon that might actually plausibly defend me?

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It’s a terrifying thing to see a developer given so, so much money while it’s constantly inventing ways to get more and still saying “trust me.” I have the utmost respect for Chris Roberts and the Wing Commander series, but that was nearly two decades ago, and while 2003 saw the release of Freelancer, that quite excellent game still fell short of the lofty promises Mr. Roberts made about what that game would be. After twelve years of producing minor, underwhelming movie games, he’s back, and it’s hard to know if he’s still the man he once was. Even if he is, it’s also hard to know how much he’s in control anymore- this project has gotten so much bigger than the California-born, Manchester-raised developer with stars in his eyes. With so many people involved, ten different studios, and so much damn money, it’s nigh impossible to compare this to what Roberts has done before… and no way to know what will happen with so much on the line. If anything could inspire a team to single-minded greed, it would be a fanbase who seems willing to offer dozens of millions of dollars on the mere promise of something cool.

That’s perhaps the worst part of it- it does sound so cool. Star Citizen promises one hundred and twenty-five star systems to explore, from the belly of dozens of lovingly rendered ships. Ship-to-ship combat designed by the man who revolutionized the genre, with dogfighting, capital ships, and everything inbetween. Quests are intelligently generated based on the needs of the economy, and then assigned to NPCs to take care of if the players show no interest. An AI system will automatically make you flee for safety and even return fire on attackers and evade their attacks if you accidentally lose your connection while playing online. Fighting, mining, trading, scouting… there’s so much to do, and it’s all simply beautiful in motion. I dearly want it to all work out, to be the life-changing experience they are promising.

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At this point, there’s no way to know how it will turn out. The possibility for this incredible project to be ruined by greed, ambition, or any number of factors is almost overwhelming… but the dream that it could all work out exists as well. There’s no precedent for this- for a team working on a game with seemingly as much money as they want, no strings attached other than the ones they tied on themselves with promised features, and no investors to report to. No matter what happens, it will be a fascinating ride… but perhaps one best observed from the outside. My advice: don’t throw any of your money into this project until it’s out. God only knows what it will become, and whatever its fate, your fifty bucks won’t be the thing that makes or breaks this project. Wait and see- because win or lose, you’re going to see a watershed moment in the history of gaming. Either the biggest crowdfunding flop ever… or its greatest, wildest success.

In either case- glorious triumph or spectacular failure- the industry will never be the same after Star Citizen. A project of its size and scope, purely funded by fans, is going to define what crowdfunding can achieve for the foreseeable future. No Man’s Sky, too, is bearing the torch of procedural generation- it’s pushing the limits of what content a machine can build, and the whole industry is watching with baited breath to see how well it will work. This is what makes these games so incredible- while not always stretching innovation, there is something about space games that pushes developer ambition and courage to try incredible new things. After years of waiting for triple A development to push real change, the indies are taking matters into their own hands, with bold proposals as to where the future might lead us. It’s a hell of a time to be in the industry.