First off I would like to take a moment to be clear about something. I am a fan of Star Citizen and I believe in the project. You might think that is obvious but it's also relevant.
Today, September 23rd, Kotaku published an article titled, "Inside the Troubled Development of Star Citizen".
First off I would like to express some irritation with Kotaku's continued insistence on clickbait titles. A much better, more accurate title would have been "Star Citizen: Inside the Development of the World's Most Ambitious Game" or simply "A View Inside the Development of Star Citizen".
Regardless, I am much more interested in discussing the content of the article.
The Kotaku article is long, well researched, and balanced. It certainly has a skeptical spin but not in a way that was unfair. They had plenty of comments from Chris Roberts, Erin Roberts, Tony Zurovec, Paul Jones, and others.
When you drill down through the article you find some key, condensed, conclusions that can be drawn:
- CIG took time to become properly formed as a global group of well-operating studios since the company had to be built from scratch.
- CryEngine has taken a lot of work to take it from FPS engine to an engine that can actually work for Star Citizen.
- Chris Roberts is a demanding leader who expects the best from the people working with him.
- CIG has assembled an incredibly talented and driven group of developers.
- Star Citizen's development has been full of fits and starts but appears to be going consistently in the right direction now.
- Building Star Citizen is hard and things haven't always gone to plan.
Some comments I would like to make about the article's content:
- I give Kotaku a lot of credit for taking what could have been a biased article and balancing it with quotes from the leadership at CIG and current CIG employees.
- Using former employees as sources leads to getting a very specific type of answer. Those employees are no longer working for the company and are very likely to be negative on it, often in unfair or undeserved ways, because of the circumstances of their departure.
- A lot of effort is expended in the Kotaku article to go through things that are pretty well understood by the majority of the Star Citizen community:
- CryEngine is not ideal but no other suitable engine existed at the time Star Citizen was born.
- Global production and the formation of a new gaming studio are difficult things that have taken time to get into a good state.
- Star Citizen is not other games. Elite: Dangerous is mentioned as a success in the article and it is suggested that Star Citizen should have followed its development route.
- Elite: Dangerous has been criticized by its player base and some in the gaming media for its lack of content and gameplay. I believe that this deficiency resulted from the development process that Kotaku praises.
- Kotaku also praised Frontier for getting a game out and for patching and improving it as time went on. However, it should be noted that the base game for Elite was expensive, as were the betas, and the ongoing expansions are each expensive as well. Often this patching and expansion is to add features that the game should have had in the beginning, and many players are upset that they are being charged an exorbitant cost to get what they should have had in the beginning.
- Star Citizen is constantly criticized for its business model but at the heart of it, it's still just $45 USD for the game.
- A lot of criticism is leveled at CIG in the article for trying to build a singleplayer game, a massive online universe, and operate a live product demoing the project all at once.
- The fact is that Star Citizen couldn't be built any other way. There are suggestions in the article that the singleplayer part should have been built first, released, and then used to build the online universe. This would have created a game that was built very specifically and narrowly for singleplayer and would have led to its own set of massive headaches trying to fix everything that was specifically built to work in singleplayer but would never work in multiplayer, and would likely have limited the long term scope of the online universe.
- The other main topic being the live product. Yes, it is difficult having a live product and full scale development simultaneously. However, that $124 million doesn't exist without it. This is a massive crowdfunded project but Kotaku seems to gloss over this. The money, this huge amount of money that no publisher would ever have given for this project, is contingent on a community that needs to be kept in the loop - just like a publisher would be. The benefits to this being a constant income that supports development without needing to take on significant debt, a large group of fans who will thoroughly play test for you allowing your QA resources to go further, a group of people who act somewhat as a publisher but also actually understand what you are trying to do and want to help.
- A lot of criticism is leveled at Chris Roberts in this article for being overbearing, difficult to work with, and stubborn. Remember when I mentioned the issues with using former employees as sources?
- My view of Chris Roberts is that of a visionary. Not a saint. He is an incredibly talented game developer and director with a clear and unwavering vision of the universe he wants to create. His insistence on high quality, pushing the boundaries, and getting the most from people has led to groups of people, such as former employees, who view him as a tyrant.
- I would much prefer someone who pushes people to do their best work, and often to try to accomplish things no one else has, over someone who gets along well with everyone but also accepts a lower standard of work.
- This is addressed in the article but it needs to be reiterated: Star Citizen is a project being done not because it is easy but because it is hard. Star Citizen is attempting to do things other games have never done, or never all in the same game. This is difficult, it causes tension and stress among the people doing the work. It leads to a long process of weeding out those people who can not or will not strive to consistently raise the bar for the quality of their work, or will not work with others effectively.
As an aside, I have noticed a lot of parallels between Chris Roberts and Elon Musk.
- For the uninitiated, Elon Musk is the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. He is often criticized by those in the industries his companies serve (automobiles and rockets) for trying to do things in ways that are new/foreign or difficult. His companies tend to have an atmosphere of incredibly talented people working incredibly hard to do amazing things that no one else has done. There are also lots of former employees who complain that Tesla or SpaceX are too high pressure, too demanding. Seem familiar?
- I can already hear people telling me, "But SpaceX and Tesla have actually done things! They have launched rockets, landed rockets, and produced incredible electric cars." SpaceX formed in 2002 and Tesla in 2003. Both companies nearly collapsed entirely in the interim.
- Elon Musk is involved in basically every design and engineering decision for Tesla's vehicles and SpaceX's rockets and spacecraft. Again, seem familiar?
- Amazing things are hard and take time.
I would like to say, to sort of cap off my ramblings, that I am 100% confident that Star Citizen is possible to build. Will it be easy? Will it be done quickly? Will things always go smoothly? No, no, and no.
What Star Citizen promises to be, if it even comes somewhat close to its goals, is a universe whose like has never before been seen in gaming. The really cool thing is that we get to watch it happen.