Star Citizen: Developing for Success

Star Citizen just reached an impressive crowd-funding milestone of $9 million. We take a look at some of the ways its unique development process might be good for games and gamers, as well as some of the challenges Cloud Imperium Games faces.

On a recent trip to Austin I had the chance to set down with Chris Roberts, the man behind Star Citizen. The conversation was protracted and complex because Star Citizen is shrugging off the molds of old standards like some great angry dog ridding itself of unwanted muddy water. They’re changing the way everything is done, and while there are bound to be some growing pains, there are also sure to be great opportunities. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the ways this might be good for us gamers, some of the challenges Cloud Imperium Games has faced and will face, and what this could mean for the industry in the long run.

Where We Win

Greed is one of the most prevalent components of the human condition, so it’s natural for us to wonder, “What’s in it for me?” And, when you’re the consumer, there’s nothing wrong with that attitude; it gives you all sorts of pull. This leads us into the first win when it comes to how CIG is developing Star Citizen.

Star Citizen: Developing for Success

Community input has already impacted things like art and mechanics in the developing game.

As most games go into development the dev team hides itself away from the world for a few years only to emerge back into the light around the start of closed beta; we’ve all seen this cycle time and again. And what’s the one thing you find as you get into beta every time? All those little problems you spot even as early as closed beta, all the little quirks...they’re all there to stay. It’s too late to change anything major during closed beta because by then the product is close to being the finished game--its primary systems are in place and the focus is on bug fixes and minor tweaks.

Star Citizen is taking a new route after being crowd funded. Because you the players had such impact in getting the game started, CIG wants to treat you as they would any other investor. That means regular reports, early access to information and, here’s the important bit, they intend to listen to your feedback. Chris talks about how, even during the campaign, the community had an impact on the game. As an example, he pointed out CIG’s initial plan for the lifetime ship insurance. When it was released, the team quickly received community feedback on how it could be abused. The result was an immediate initiative to cover those potential exploits and make sure the system is designed to prevent it.

Our ability, as gamers and fans, to have real impact on the developing game isn’t the only win. Star Citizen is going for a more modular design to how the game is developed. We’ve seen this with games like Minecraft and Black Prophecy, but I can’t think of any game with this much force or attention behind it to have taken the same route.

There are a few advantages to designing a game this way. First, and looking long term, it will allow for new mechanics, systems and content to be added quickly, even late in the game’s development and beyond. Secondly and along the same lines, it will allow the game to be easily modded, which has been one of CIG’s stated goals from the beginning. With a modular design, you only need to learn the aspect of the game you care about to create cool new twists on the mechanics and content. Otherwise, you’d have to know what you wanted to mod, and all the other bits of the game that might impact. A friend of mine runs an emulated EQ server, and he describes a nightmare of interdependencies, something which shouldn’t be a problem with Star Citizen.

The short-term win with the modular design concept is that we players get to see the game in bits as they get parts done, and even get to play around with them. The hanger module for tinkering around with ships should be along pretty soon, and in the next year or so we should also have the dogfighting capability. As each component of the game gets completed, parts of it will be handed over to the players to test and give feedback on.

Star Citizen: Developing for Success

Sure you may not be able to launch out of it just yet, but getting access to the hanger module in a few months will be a great chance to start digging in and understanding the bones of Star Citizen.

But there are two other things that make what CIG is doing with Star Citizen really awesome: education and recognition. You, the gamer, get to see a game being developed and interact with the individual developers on a level you’d never get with any other AAA title. We’re going to have an opportunity to understand how games happen, which can’t help but make us more discriminating consumers. By becoming more discriminating, we improve the industry’s direction as a whole.

The secondary benefit will be that all these developers who would have been unnamed shadows before will become people we know and care about. They get their names out and around the industry in a way they never would have otherwise, and we have the opportunity to show appreciation to the people that build our games. That’s something many fans have already taken a dive into.

The Challenge of Change

It’s not all roses, however. As with anything new, there are challenges to overcome and mistakes that will be made. I don’t think we should look at it as anything to be bummed over, however. The challenge of doing something is what makes victory worth achieving, and by taking a real look at potential problems, we mitigate them. Besides, there are certainly things we as fans can do to help smooth the road.

“Sometimes it can get frustrating when you announce something that some players hate, but others love,” says Roberts. (He was explaining some of the trouble over CIG’s recent crossbow reward for supporting Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar.) There are always going to be times when fans will hate any resolution to the problem at hand. It’s a true Kobayashi Maru (a no-win scenario, for the non-Trekkers out there.)

Star Citizen: Developing for Success

Apparently, crossbows are not allowed in this establishment!.

We players can help by being careful to put thought into our feedback, and by trying to suggested solutions rather than just raging over something we see as being wrong or broken. Trolls and the innately irrational will always be a problem, but if those who are capable take extra care in posting feedback, it could impact the game. That potential to impact the game is why we should be cognizant of our ability to side-track the team. With great power, comes great responsibility.

Another problem that could arise from this more open method of development is bad press from mistakes and set-backs. Bad news is always good news, and we in the media do have a nasty habit of focusing on the negative far more often than the positive. CIG is going to have to be careful to handle setbacks softly, while still being honest about them. With this much transparency, being overly sensitive to a problem would just be blood in the water to the community.

The last potential issue I can see on the horizon is the sheer volume of fan involvement in the process. By attempting to listen to the community more closely and take some direction from them, the developers and designers will have to be careful not to become bogged down in trying to satisfy everyone.

The Lasting Impact

One of the reasons I’m so interested in what CIG is doing, and how they make each step, is that I foresee a serious impact on the future of the industry as they break with tradition. The impact of their changes can already be felt, as I mentioned in my article on the crowd funding phenomenon.

I suspect their development model may have similar ripples moving forward. Crowd funding and indie development has started giving gamers a much deeper look into how games are created, and given them a voice much earlier in the development cycle. Developers could find it increasingly difficult to explain away bad mechanics and poor design in their betas. Players may ask why a game like Star Citizen can accept and adjust based on their feedback while the latest Dubsteb Call of Battlefield or World of RaidCraft can’t. A more discriminating player base can’t help but be good for the industry as a whole.

Star Citizen: Developing for Success

New technologies such as the Oculus Rift could redefine sims, and SC looks to be the first to embrace it.

Additionally, Star Citizen is proving that players want to care about their games and want to be involved more. Getting players involved early means free publicity and greater retention numbers. It’ll be interesting to see how many players stay around from announcement to release with Star Citizen. From reading forums and observing community interaction, I suspect the number will be significant. Larger developers would be wise to pay particular attention to those statistics in order to figure out how to take advantage of the idea with their next game.

One of the biggest impacts I think could be this concept of modular design. It’s certainly not completely new, but it’s never really been applied this way in any major game that I know of. As Chris pointed out while we were discussing it, one of the big costs of larger games is developers being paid to sit around after finishing their part of the projects. You can’t just fire people as they wrap up their piece of the game, but you can’t let them continue changing things as you’re approaching launch either. That creates overhead. Modular designs could be a way of either bringing those costs down by staging development, or at least allowing continued development on some component without breaking the rest of the game.

The other advantage from a company’s standpoint with that development model is that it allows them to periodically offer something significant and new to the community before release, or even beta. That should help maintain higher interest in the game over time, and not have the typical massive drop in interest that tends to follow a month after the game is announced. It’ll be somewhat hard to tell how effective it is with Star Citizen because the game has such a solid following anyway, but when it comes to other games without that established base, it could make a significant difference.

I've never heard of a game where fans send dev teams gifts, but CIG has them pouring in almost daily.

Ad Astra, per Aspera

While there are bumps in the road ahead for Star Citizen, I suspect they won’t kick the game off its track towards success. The guys at Cloud Imperium Games are already making a name for themselves as innovators and people who can produce results. As a gamer, I’m excited to see how their close ties to the community help produce a fantastic game.

Then there’s another guy in me who takes a lot of interest in the industry itself. I’m really interested in seeing how they over-come the obstacles along the way and seeing just how the industry shifts in response over the next few years. I don’t think SC will flip the industry on its head, but rather think of it more as some gravity well adjusting the course of another celestial body just slightly as they pass each other by.

Regardless of your point of view, I think Star Citizen is a game to watch and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their future. Hopefully you find it as fascinating as I do, but either way… I’ll see you in the ‘verse!

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