Star Citizen: Developing for Success
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. Theyre
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 were
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
its natural for us to wonder, Whats in it for me? And, when youre the
consumer, theres 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.
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; weve all seen this cycle time and again. And whats 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...theyre all there to stay. Its 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, heres 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 CIGs 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
Our ability, as gamers and fans, to have real impact on the developing
game isnt the only win. Star Citizen is going for a more modular design
to how the game is developed. Weve seen this with games like Minecraft
and Black Prophecy, but I cant 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 games development and beyond. Secondly
and along the same lines, it will allow the game to be easily modded,
which has been one of CIGs 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,
youd 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 shouldnt
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
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 youd never get with any other AAA title. Were going to have an
opportunity to understand how games happen, which cant help but make us
more discriminating consumers. By becoming more discriminating, we improve
the industrys 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. Thats something many fans have already taken
a dive into.
The Challenge of Change
Its not all roses, however. As with anything new, there are challenges
to overcome and mistakes that will be made. I dont 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 CIGs recent crossbow reward for supporting Richard
Garriotts Shroud of the Avatar.) There are always going to be times when
fans will hate any resolution to the problem at hand. Its a true
Kobayashi Maru (a no-win scenario, for the non-Trekkers out there.)
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
The Lasting Impact
One of the reasons Im 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
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 cant. A more discriminating player base cant help but be good
for the industry as a whole.
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. Itll 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. Its certainly not completely new, but its 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 cant just fire people as they wrap up their piece of the
game, but you cant let them continue changing things as youre
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 companys 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. Itll 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
Ad Astra, per Aspera
While there are bumps in the road ahead for Star Citizen, I suspect they
wont 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, Im excited to see how their
close ties to the community help produce a fantastic game.
Then theres another guy in me who takes a lot of interest in the
industry itself. Im 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 dont 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
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 Ill see you
in the verse!
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