Transparency and Star Citizen

Transparency and Star Citizen

Posted by on Apr 17, 2017 in Editorial, Star Citizen

Transparency and Star Citizen

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Star Citizen backer. At the writing of this post, I am in for about $300 over the course of the entire campaign. I had started out with one of the entry level packages and then upgraded over time, folding better and better ships into even better ones until I reached the present pledge-configuration of a Constellation Andromeda and Dragonfly hover-bike. I’m sure there might be a few folks who are reading this and are nodding, having bought into the development of Star Citizen at various levels and it’s single player companion Squadron 42; they know what this process entails. I’m absolutely sure there are others who are reading this with less charitable reactions: what a fucking idiot. Must be nice to have money to throw into a black hole.

Star Citizen is ambitious which is undeniable no matter which side of the table you sit on. The closest analog is probably…well, nothing, really. EVE Online comes to mind because both allow you to jump into different ships and fly around a living persistent universe, but SC has personal avatars that can disembark their ships and participate in entirely different gameplay. There are also games like Mass Effect which will allow you to land on planets and explore with a team, but that’s not right either since ME is a scripted single player game with limited scope. SC is probably most like Elite Dangerous, except that Elite locks you into your ship like it’s afraid you’ll wander off and never return…something that’s possible and even required in SC as you will need to visit NPCs on space stations, planetside, or even between ships docked together in deep space. Even though I’m not a game developer, I can appreciate how difficult making this game must be. It’s been tried before and has failed spectacularly, and I’m sure that everyone working for RSI reminds themselves of this every day. Nevermind the fact that they have taken in several millions of dollars from people who really want this game enough to gamble on one of the most ambitious projects that the games industry has birthed. It’s not a project for the squeamish or the half-hearted, especially since we’re talking about an industry that frequently plays its cards close to the vest when it comes to progress reporting, treating each PR push as a “warm fuzzy” or “hype” opportunity. There are a lot of eyes on this project, and a lot of those eyes are extremely critical for two reasons: the amount of money they’ve taken in, and how long the development is taking.

SC has had a rough road which we didn’t learn about until after it started abating. Their initial attempts were hampered by a crisis of leadership, which isn’t all that hard to believe when you view Chris Roberts as one part visionary, one part eccentric, and several parts rampant ego. Although Roberts occupies a very respectable place in the pantheon of game development for his Wing Commander series, it had been quite some time since he’d done any development work that mattered and I would think that this hiatus helped contribute to the confusion involving different studios orbiting the core team working on a project that would dwarf the largest MMO to date. Add to that Robert’s “top-down management style” (putting it kindly), and the choice of CryEngine which turned out to be another hamstring when the engine couldn’t accommodate the design and then when CryTek ran into serious financial trouble. The project was apparently spinning out of control, and it’s documented in the Kotaku article “Inside the Troubled Development of Star Citizen” which I urge you to read for an investigation into the project, circa 2016.

After reading that article, then, you’ll either come away with a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to create a game of any scale, or it’ll solidify your belief that SC is nothing but a scam that no one has caught on to yet — well, except for Derek Smart. Smart has no compulsion against getting his foot wedged up people’s asses, and there’s got to be some kind of bad blood between Smart and Roberts. From an outsider’s perspective, it could be related to Smart’s own attempts at a massive open world ground-and-space simulation, Battlecruiser 3000AD. Back in the early 1990s, Smart attempted to create what was at the time one of the most ambitious gaming products ever seen, but due to bugs, wild claims of capability of the product, and good old fashioned legal combat between Smart and publisher Take-Two, the game quickly earned a reputation as one of the largest failures in video game history at the time. Smart would go on to pop up like Whack-A-Mole from time to time, even forming a new studio to work on modern MMOs, but Star Citizen seemed to call to him like a proverbial moth to a flame. I don’t know why, although it could very well be because SC was looking to do what he couldn’t: make a massive space sim game, and was already flush with millions of dollars signaling votes of confidence that BC3000AD never enjoyed.

By the time Smart arrived on the scene, there were strongly encamped supporters and detractors. While I don’t know if anyone would consider throwing their lot in with a firebrand like Smart just to support their position, he certainly made it easier and popular for detractors to voice their opinions on SC. Many people were demanding pledge refunds because they felt the project was a scam, or that it was taking far longer than they believed that it should. Truth be told, they weren’t wrong on the development cycle complaint: SC has been in production for about six years. According to its Wikipedia articleWorld of Warcraft took 4-5 years to develop, which included rigorous testing. Back in those days — the early days of MMOs, mind you when no one really knew what they were doing — 4-5 years was certainly a long time. These days, games can come to market in half the time thanks to experienced developers working on established knowledge, engines, and concepts, but look at what such a cycle churns out. How many MMOs have fallen by the wayside or been derided because they just don’t seem to have done much to step outside the box created by WoW?

In the development world, we have a saying: When you want me to build you a product, you can have it good, fast, or cheap; pick any two. Star Citizen has chosen “good” but has opted to stick with just “good”. Their rationale is that the money paid to them is in the form of a “pledge”, not a purchase. People are naturally wary of this kind of doublespeak, and it may very well be a way for RSI to avoid certain pitfalls involving a purchase of something that hasn’t yet been delivered. We are, after all, getting access to the game in its alpha state, will get finished products, and can choose the amount of money we wish to part with by selecting starships of different size and ability to represent the level of buy-in. For all intents and purposes, it looks like we are buying something (ships) for our pledge…just something without a definitive, final due date. Because RSI has opted to go with just the “good” option, and because they are sitting on top of a pile of money that is still rolling in, they are doubling down on the promise of “good”, and that takes time. Companies like Blizzard always throw out the “it’ll be done when it’s done” and people get antsy but understand that this is Blizzard’s M.O.; they create quality products and people are willing to give them time to ensure that the products live up to the company’s legacy. RSI doesn’t have any previous products to vouch for them; just their words, which is partly why Derek Smart started legal action against them a few years back, claiming that Roberts was mismanaging the revenue and that RSI would never get their product to market.

That kind of brings us to today. Although the Smart sideshow was a nail-biting distraction, RSI has basically used it as an opportunity to give Smart what he wanted withing agreeing that they were doing what he demanded. He wanted to know where the money was going, and what RSI was working on as proof that something was being done, so RSI has opened its doors to the public.

  • Funding ladder which lays out how much they have collected, and what each tier “unlocks”
  • Monthly studio report which explains what got done and is pulled directly from their internal work-tracking systems. The report is broken down by sub-studio and details work both accomplished and what’s setting them back (Note: link was to the report current at the time of posting).
  • Production schedule report lists the next steps in development which will eventually become the subject of a future month’s studio report.
  • Letter from the Chairman which is Robert’s platform to talk about what got done and what’s still left to do.

As consumers, many of us still operate under the belief that we are in a “partnership” with game developers. We give companies money, and therefore they are beholden to us in whatever way we wish to collect. Most of the time we’re content with a simple product/service-for-cash transaction but a lot of people believe that if they’re supporting a company financially then they deserve a window into the operations at least, a seat at the design and development table at best. In a lot of ways companies themselves are to blame for empowering this entitlement when they run campaigns to let consumers be the “fifth Beatle” in choosing from options that are probably of no consequence to the developers themselves; they would just assume do all options, but in the interest of “good, fast, or cheap” they’re allowing the consumers to make the choice and by extension are making the customers feel like they’re invested in their product instead of looking elsewhere at a competing product.

To me, it seems that RSI has taken the criticism it has endured and has agreed with many of their detractors. “Want to know what we’re up to with your money? Here’s what we did, and what we’re going to do next,” is essentially the goal of their monthly reports. In addition, they have several video series each week which gather special interest stories from around the company. They’ll talk about the procedural generation of planets in one series, and talk about dealing with troubleshooting bugs in another. If you really want to know what’s going on with Star Citizen then you don’t really need to wonder, but you do need to have a shitload of time to consume it all, and the stomach to endure the nitty-gritty of technical insight into the esoteric world of game engines, physics, audio, server technology, rigging and texturing and modeling and all of the complex systems that people forget are the foundations of the products that we bitch about like they dropped into our hands from a magical vending machine.

Honestly, I can’t think of another company that goes to these lengths to keep consumers in the loop. A lot of companies don’t have to, though. Blizzard doesn’t. Neither Bethesda nor Bioware does. For them, it’s enough to announce, mete out occasional details punctuated by scripted trailers and scripted developer interviews and press junkets, and people give them the pass (antsy, baited-breath passes, but passes nonetheless). Because of their mountain of cash, because of the length of their development cycle, and because so many people have been beating on their door demanding accountability, RSI is doing all this to provide accountability. I suspect that they are going to these lengths not just because people demand it, but because they can; whereas Blizzard wouldn’t tip its hat in such a radical fashion when working on something new, RSI knows that there’s no way anyone could match their efforts at this scope and with the quality targets they are aiming for in a timeframe that would steal their thunder.

Sadly, almost 2000 words into this post, and with all of the material that RSI is putting out to show people that they’re not all just partying in Cabo with the money, people are still going to be angry and accuse them of shady dealing. These people don’t like RSI’s funding method. They don’t appreciate the fact that stupid amounts of money can’t dilate time and make things happen faster (remember, RSI tried to bring tons of people on board to move quickly early on, and it was a disaster). I suspect a lot of people are upset because the game is too ambitious, and these people think that RSI is just throwing more features onto the pile as they accomplish previous milestones. These people will readily point to Elite Dangerous as how to get a space sim game out the door on schedule and without rampant feature creep, although really this is a false equivalency considering what little Elite does in release and what SC does already in alpha. Maybe some people are even just pissed that this system seems to be working despite people’s best efforts to stay mad at it. They can’t back down now lest they lose face in their communities.

This is the nature of the Internet, circa 2017. Progress is being made on Star Citizen, full stop. Its there on their website in several forms, on YouTube each week, and is something everyone who pledges can get their hands on in the form of the alpha client. As someone who is in for a pound I’m in the group that would really love to have the game right now, of course, but as someone who is in for a pound I don’t want the game as is; I want the game as promised. That being said I’m also flexible; I know that Roberts and team(s) have a massive amount of knowledge on game design and development, and have been learning more as they go. If they say they can’t do something that was promised, I’m OK with that. I’d rather they focus on what they can accomplish or what they think they can accomplish rather than holding things up as they stumble through possible solutions just to tick boxes on someone’s contract. The good news is that they seem to be accomplishing a lot of what they did promise, even when they admit that it was a difficult problem to solve. Even better, once this project is done and their studios disband (as all game studios seem to do), this knowledge will disseminate into the larger development pool so that other teams won’t have to struggle with the problems that RSI is working on. A “good” Star Citizen is certainly not cheap, and it’s certainly not fast, and I’m OK with that especially now in light of their frequent updates being made available to everyone — not just those who have backed the project.

I’m sorry if you can’t understand where I’m coming from. I’m not using 2500 words to try and convince myself that I didn’t waste money. I check in on their progress every week and because of it, I feel the momentum of the project which can’t be felt by those who stopped paying attention once they had made up their mind that the project is a failure or a scam. If you’re on the fence, dig through the RSI website; unlike a lot of game company sites their front page is filled with updates, behind the scenes, and lore entries. There is literally a ton of information from behind the screen doors of the company being put out there for anyone who wants to look at it. I do urge you to look at it, especially with an open mind, if you are skeptical or otherwise have no horse in the race. I can’t predict the future, of course; this project may absolutely crash and burn, but that’s the same risk any company takes and none of them are bulletproof. Most, however, go down in flames without the kind of transparency that RSI has adopted, and if you want to understand where the company is going, do your own due dillgence and don’t rely on groupthink. Read the articles. Watch the videos..