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I can still recall the first time I played Wing Commander. And I most definitely remember moving up the ranks from flying the Hornet to the Rapier and finishing the Winning Ending. The graphics were nothing like today’s photo-realistic games possess, but the cockpit immersion was enough to overlook the game’s faults and simply enjoy first-person dogfighting against the Kilrathi. I have similar warm fuzzies for Privateer. Back then, if it had game designer Chris Roberts’ name on it, I was saving to buy and play.
Now, twelve years later, Chris Roberts has a new game coming out called Star Citizen. It’s a first-person space fighter simulation that promises both single and multiplayer experiences with no subscription fees. It will have dogfighting, trading, exploring, and pirating. It will have cutting edge graphics, a movie-quality soundtrack, and upgrades via micro-updates that bring new campaigns and most likely new weapons, ships, and enemies to fight.
It’s pure Chris Roberts, and it promises to deliver on an experience that players just haven’t had in a space-themed game in some time. It will have ship upgrades, team play, special invite-only squadrons, customizable ship hulls, and character-influenced world complete with commodities market, and physics-based flight control and reactions. It sounds completely awesome, doesn’t it?
One other thing — it’s also raising funds via Kickstarter and its own official website. It’s more than reached its initial Kickstarter funding goal of $500,000, and it’s got 16 days left as I write this. The funding will be released on or after November 19, 2012, and Cloud Imperium Games Corporation will begin putting the game in order for both an alpha and beta release before the game is released to the general public. Backers have multiple options, including access to the alpha and beta releases plus tons of other options such as the class of starship you begin with or the amount of Galactic Credits. If you want in, the minimum backer level to gain access to the alpha and beta (plus a final digital copy of the game) is $30. Not bad. Not bad at all.
So why did I just change my pledge from $30 to $1? Glad you asked.
The Release Date
Let me start with the simplest. The game has a deliverable date of November 2014. Yes, two years from now. Beta testers are promised access two to four months prior to the full version’s complete date (Alpha testing starts twelve months after funding, if I understand the writeup properly). I’ve backed well over 25 projects with Kickstarter, but never one that promised some sort of deliverable that far out. Even as awesome as the game sounds, the thought of dropping $30 today for something I’ll get in twenty-four months? Not so appealing. And that’s one of the lowest funding levels available for early game access — higher pledge values exist, including $125, $250, $1,000, and even $10,000! These levels offer amazing in-game perks plus physical rewards such as ship blueprints, soundtrack CDs, and more.
But let me just jump back to my original pledge of $30. I give Chris Roberts $30 now and in two years time I get a game that will probably be sold on shelves for $60. If this were a stock share, I’d be getting a 100% ROI (return on investment) in two years. Amazing! But we’re talking about a game that, even with Chris Robert’s great record, is still pretty much vaporware. I’m confident the game will exist in two years, and I was okay with pledging $30 and waiting two years for the game… but it turns out that the release date isn’t the only issue I have with this Kickstarter project.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with games that offer in-game purchases. Many of them are simple apps for tablets that offer you the ability to buy more in-game coins to purchase weapons or power-ups that can make the game more enjoyable. Some of these games, however, have a multiplayer element to them; you buy a more powerful weapon or buy more cows or whatever… and suddenly you have an in-game advantage when playing against other players. Well, unless those players ante up and make their own in-game purchases. And there’s always one new weapon… one new super ability… that’s just out of reach with the in-game currency, but a single click of a button and a credit card gives you that out-of-reach game changer immediately. Well, until your opponents make the same purchase. And the race continues.
When I first read the writeup for the Star Citizen game, I was okay with the various reward levels created for the different prices. The only players getting the massive, four-player Constellation-class starship had to pony up a minimum of $250. I was actually quite amazed at the number of people pledging at this level (or higher) which currently sits at 506 backers. And when you think of a multiplayer game like World of Warcraft with its millions of players, 506 players with their own Constellation-class ship doesn’t seem so bad. These high-paying backers do get some serious in-game Galactic Credits to throw around, but more power to them, right?
And that’s the second sticking point that got me to really thinking about this game long and hard. More power to them. With most PC games in the past decade or more, you buy the game when it’s released and you play it and earn rewards, levels, whatever… as you play. WoW players didn’t start at level 60… they didn’t start at level 20 or even level 10! They started at level 1 like the nice guy across the street or the nice lady across the Atlantic. But those days seem to be over. Now you can buy your way into a game and start a little higher, a little more powerful (or a LOT more powerful) than the other players. While that may sound fun to you, I have a feeling that if it sounds fun to you, then you’ve probably got the extra bucks to actually pay for that higher level of play.
Early in the Star Citizen Kickstarter page, it has a list of six items describing the game, two of which include:
1. Persistent Universe (hosted by US) — (US is Cloud Imperium Games Corporation)
2. No Pay to Win
Let me start with the first one — the Persistent Universe. This is a universe that all players will inhabit. Beginning players and Expert players will most likely be found orbiting the same planets, the same asteroids, the same space stations or carriers. Persistent means it’s always running. I have no problem with players flying by me in much larger and more expensive ships. But did they get that ship with excellent game play? Or did they buy it? And what about the inevitable pirate that attacks my Aurora (the basic fighter-class ship that most of us will start out flying) with his buddies while I’m trying to get a handle on the gameplay? Did they grind for 24 straight hours to earn those ships? Or did they buy them?
And that brings me to the second item above — No Pay to Win. Sure, Star Citizen doesn’t have an endgame or final battle that ends the game for everyone. It’s a persistent universe with micro-updates to keep it fresh and entertaining. No one is buying the role of Emperor of the Universe. But there’s Pay to Win… and then there’s pay to win… as in win battles and campaigns. Paint it whatever color you like, but giving players a way to immediately start ahead in a game by throwing in extra cash is paying to win. So the No Pay to Win is utter baloney.
We play games against others because there’s an implied chance of winning. Yes, skill is often involved and will influence a game, but imagine for a moment if boardgames came with rules that benefited only one player in a game. What if Monopoly gave the banker Boardwalk and Park Place automatically at the start of the game? What if the Ticket to Ride rules gave the owner of the game the ability to draw four game cards per turn, not two? With boardgames, there’s an understanding that all players are on an equal footing and have an equal chance of winning (with skill/strategy providing the only benefits).
(There has been some discussion on the Kickstarter page about a statement by Roberts related to how the power of the ships will balance any purchased advantages — if you start with a small ship, you’ll be fast and nimble but weak armor… a big ship will be slow and not as agile, but be armored to the hilt. I’m not buying it. What’s the point, then, in providing ship upgrades in terms of armor and weapons? If either ship has an equal chance of winning, what is the benefit or fun in customizing ships? Who doesn’t want to be driving the bad boy around the solar system, fending off pirates and surviving? I’m going to push back here and say that if the game is designed so that there is no clear advantage to upgrading to bigger, better ships… that’s not gonna fly with most players.)
Star Citizen is funded, but the fun doesn’t end with backers high-fiving one another and prepping for the long cold winter that waits ahead. Kickstarter disallows modifications to rewards once it has at least one backer, but there are ways around that. They’re called Stretch Goals, and I’m actually quite fond of them! Stretch goals let a project continue to rewards its backers as funding levels go higher. If a Kickstarter only needs $100,000 for funding to be achieved, they’ll post updates such as If we hit $200,000 every backer gets a free pack of stickers! Often the additional rewards for higher funding levels only go to certain backer level tiers, but that’s okay, too — those who chipped in more money at the beginning should be rewarded for their charity and/or loyalty as the funding shoots sky high.
But stretch goals are funny. Projects will either tell you up-front what the stretch rewards are… or they won’t. Star Citizen is hiding its stretch goals — they’re locked. Now, these are considered bonuses… additional things that backers weren’t going to get in the first place. Fine. But one of the key reasons to offer stretch goals is to ask your backers to either increase their pledge a little (or a lot) or ask them to reach out to friends and co-workers and share the news about the Kickstarter project so more backers are brought into the mix. And that’s where Star Citizen is really bugging me — they’ve got the funding, so why not release the future stretch goals so backers can see what the possibilities are? If they’re sufficiently awesome, backers will tweet and email to the corners of the globe to try to get that funding amount to shoot up.
Stretch goals have a purpose in Kickstarter, but they shouldn’t be used to tease. Star Citizen isn’t the only project to hide their stretch goals, so Cloud Imperium Games Corporation (CIGC) isn’t to blame for this method of increasing funding. While I’m happy to see that much of the rewards the company is offering for the higher funding is expanding the game by including additional planets or derelict ships to explore, I’d challenge CIGC to pull back the covers and let its backers see everything it has planned.
(And there’s always the argument that stretch goals are being made up as they go — that’s fine. But say so. Don’t show five additional levels with LOCKED unless you actually HAVE five additional levels already planned and ready to go.)
And now we come to the final straw that made me reduce my backing from $30 to $1 — the Digital Add-Ons. Posted yesterday, CIGC posted a shopping list of items that backers at any level could purchase to upgrade their pledge. For example, for an additional $5 I could get a Star Map, giving me what I assume to be complete knowledge of all the planets in Star Citizen without the fog of war or needing to explore. Not bad for $5, but shouldn’t that be included for all backers at $0 to keep it fair? In all fairness, I don’t know what the Star Map will provide to players — it may just be eye candy, but what if it shows dangerous trade routes, areas of strong pirate forces, and that special planet that sells Artificial Diamonds for next to nothing and another planet that is experiencing an extreme Artificial Diamond shortage at the moment? It just sounds to me like the $5 Star Map is a Must-Buy item for backers. Ante up!
But let’s move down the list — look at that! For $225 I can get the bad boy Constellation-class ship on Day 1. Boom! Add that to my $30 initial pledge, plus the $5 Star Map… carry the 1… $260 for the game, a Star Map, and what seems to be the most powerful ship in the game. What a bargain!
Uh… wait a minute. But I can pledge $250 and get the same stuff PLUS:
* 10,000 Galactic Credits
* Spaceship USB stick loaded with all the digital goodies
* CD soundtrack
* Full-color map (Star Map?) in print form, suitable for hanging
* Set of 5 ship blueprints
* 3 inch model of my in-game ship
* Hardcopy book covering making of the game
* Silver citizens card (whatever that is)
So… why should I pay $225 for the Constellation-class ship as a Digital Add-on when I can just increase my pledge to $250 and get the ship PLUS all that cool stuff? It would make more sense if I didn’t want all the other stuff on that list, just the ship, and could pay maybe $30 or $50 for it… but that would REALLY irritate those $250 backers who might not care about the CD soundtrack, blueprints, book, and other stuff.
Now, CIGC is offering some physical add-ons such as books and soundtrack CD for smaller amounts — great for those who want those things but don’t have $250 or more to pledge for the more treasure-laden backer levels. But I’m guessing that for most players, it’s the in-game content that is king, and that means weapons, armor, and ships. Big ships. Powerful ships.
For the life of me, I cannot imagine why someone at a sub-$250 backer level would add $225 for the Constellation ship and not just increase their pledge to $250. This makes me feel like the Digital Add-Ons are nothing more than window dressing to push me to increase my pledge to a higher backer level. I may be wrong about the motives for these add-ons, but it doesn’t change the feeling that these add-ons are way overpriced. I mean, $10 for a digital (PDF) 42-page book titled The Making of Star Citizen? That book ought to be provided to every backer, but if not… $2 or $3 is more reasonable for a 42-page book that’s certain to include a ton of screenshots and artwork and very little text content.
(Oh, and I’m having trouble confirming this, but it rings of truth: apparently buying these ships via a Kickstarter pledge insures them for life — so if you save your coin and buy the Constellation in-game rather than via Kickstarter and it’s attacked by pirates and destroyed? Too bad… bye bye, Constellation. So… I guess the solution is Buy Buy Constellation so if it’s destroyed you get a bright, shiny new one to go attack those poor souls who bought the game on release.)
I love Kickstarter. I’ve backed a LOT of projects over the past few years, and I will continue to back projects that I feel strongly about and wish to show my support via my wallet.
And I have a ton of respect and admiration for Chris Roberts. I mentioned before my love of Wing Commander and Privateer, but these are only two of the many games from Roberts and his game design teams that I’ve played over the years. He knows games… that fact is not in dispute.
But I have this strong concern about the future of PC games (and maybe boardgames, too!) when they’re being developed via funding from Kickstarter or any other fundraising service. When game designers can pitch their ideas and then start ramping up the add-ons and new features and extras as they see the $$$ ticking up and away, it just smells of something going wrong. We’ve all seen games break with new rules or expansion sets. It’s too easy to take a well-balanced game and upset it with over-powered changes. Opening the doors to the world and letting anyone with the money vote with their wallet on how your game is developed seems to me to be welcoming disaster.
I’m not a World of Warcraft player, but I know that those millions of players didn’t grow overnight. Time and word of mouth were big factors, not just the gameplay and expansions. But I have a strong feeling that WoW would not be the success it is today if players could have purchased their levels and started wherever they wished to in the game. Grinding or not, they earned their levels (okay, some bought characters on eBay, but that’s a different discussion) just as anyone else who purchased WoW did. The game was NOT broken with imbalance or unfair advantages, and that’s why it’s got the millions of players it has today.
Star Citizen has (right now, November 3, 2012) under 20,000 backers. I may be the only person who has pulled his/her funding from Star Citizen, and the remaining thousands of backers may be looking forward to the day in November 2014 when they launch in their new ship and begin their adventure with whatever advantages they have purchased. But that’s the way I see it right now — purchased advantage in a game. And that’s just not the game I want to play.
Will Star Citizen swell in numbers to equal or rival other multiplayer games? Maybe. It’s certainly got all the elements of a space game that I’d want to play. But I’ve demoted myself to someone who may or may not purchase the game in November 2014 (I’m assuming no setbacks or delays) — when that times comes, I’ll wait a little bit and see what the overall word on the street is about the game. Will those who begin the game with more advanced standing take advantage of that fact and ruin the gameplay for the others? Will griefers be swarming the newbies and forcing them back to saving Galactic Pennies so they can try to leave the space dock again? It’s happened in other games… and I don’t think Star Citizen is immune to the conditions that would allow this type of abuse.
I don’t know what kinds of numbers a game needs these days to be considered successful. And I don’t know what kinds of numbers are needed to ensure that servers are kept up and running for years to come. But I can guarantee you that it isn’t 20,000 players. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak — CIGC can’t pull out on the add-ons or any of the rewards at this point… backers would be relentless in their complaints to whoever would listen, including potential new players. So all that’s left is for CIGC to figure out a way to make certain the game is fair, from the start, to any player. It shouldn’t matter if that player came to Star Citizen from Kickstarter or if they purchased a boxed version at Best Buy or Wal-Mart — CIGC is raising funds to create a game for everyone, not just backers.
I don’t know if I’ll end up buying this game in 2014. There may very well be something I want to play more in two years. Two years is a LONG time to wait for a game (and not just in terms of hardware and technology). But I can guarantee you that if I want to purchase and I get one whiff that the game has imbalance issues or griefing or exclusive (Kickstarter backer only) content or areas of the game that I’m not allowed to enter or play or enjoy… it’s game over before it even starts.
Note: I reduced my pledge to $1 in order to gain access to the updates and discussions. I will pull my pledge before the funding period ends, but wish to monitor the project to see where CIGC takes the project over the last days. I welcome all comments, and I’m certainly open to polite and civil discussion on this issue. Star Citizen fanboys looking to troll, don’t expect any response if you’re looking for a fight over a non-existent game that is unable have its gameplay or features validated.