Why Star Citizen’s Persistent Universe will fail in maturity unless there are strong tools for player-created narrative.
Every winter since 2007 I get the itch to jump back into Eve Online’s unique player-driven sandbox. Opinions vary wildly on the gameplay experience in Eve and there’s a healthy camp who’ll shout about “spreadsheets online” (and they’re not necessarily wrong). While there’s a healthy amount of compare and contrast exercises which can be had in looking at both Eve and Star Citizen’s budding persistent universe, I think the most important lessons can be learned from Eve’s meta-game.
In March, Chicago author and journalist Andrew Groen’s first book, backed by a successful Kickstarter campaign, was published. The book is called Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online and, at the time of writing, has a 4.9 star rating on almost a hundred reviews on Amazon and is the #1 selling book in a handful of subgenres on the Amazon Kindle and Book stores. There are many variables at play here (not the least of which is Groen’s efficacy as an author) but the success of this type of publication seems to capture and promote the most important lesson that CIG can learn from EVE online: meta is king. What Star Citizen needs in order to continue to hold a strong player base and build a foundation for long-term (10+ year) success is similar sandbox elements that provide EVE players with tools by which to create their own narrative.
While EVE’s lore and backstory form the setting and contribute to the universe in their own way, the player narrative is what has enraptured players and spectators alike and is the origin of the loyal player base. It’s remarkable that many of the reviews of Empires of EVE on Amazon are readers who claim that they never have, nor likely ever will play EVE Online but have followed the meta-game and loved reading the history of the player-versus-player conflicts. And while bystanders don’t provide revenue to support the game’s continued life, they do keep the conversation and community alive. In my case, if I weren’t following the EVE subreddit and catching up on the meta-game from time to time, they wouldn’t receive my $15-30 each winter when I re-subscribe to poke around New Eden. Generally speaking, it’s fair to say these narratives contribute to the health of the game as a whole.
In any modern game, especially in the online RPG space, the need for a satisfying endgame gameplay loop (or several) is critical to keeping a mature title alive. In most traditional MMO’s (think WoW, GW2, etc.) this usually takes the form of working towards the best gear or a certain rank in PvP play. In a sandbox, however, the endgame needs to be different. Once players have explored everything that the PU has to offer, what will remain? For how many dozens of hours will players continue to log in to complete the same trade, exploration or mining missions?
What will keep players logging in isn’t missions, revisiting places they’ve already explored before, or amassing wealth – and no game developer, CIG included, has or will ever be able to produce content at a rate that will stay ahead of the rate of consumption of all players. At a certain point (which will, of course, vary by player), the largest contributing factor to someone logging in to play Star Citizen will be the meta-game.
Using EVE’s sandbox mechanics as context, this brings me to the current development plans for Star Citizen’s persistent universe. As currently understood, there will not be the same level of sandbox freedom provided to players in EVE in the Star Citizen persistent universe. However, some level of player-controlled structures have been discussed.
Take the $19M stretch goal, for example, “Manage Space Stations – Players will compete to own and operate a limited number of space stations across the galaxy.” In an answer to a question during 10FTC-39 Chris Roberts stated that organizations wouldn’t necessarily be able to create space stations but that it was a “cool idea” in the long term. He did, however, share that “Definitely organizations will be able to have some sort of real estate” and that they “already talked about having some sort of persistent areas in space, like an asteroid base/derelict station that a group of players can take over and make their headquarters and defend it from other players.” These controllable installations are on top of the typical “guild hall” or organization hangars that you might possess planet-side. Chairman Roberts went on to offer that down the road CIG wants to have real estate for players and organizations to buy and own (such as factories).
This is promising and, in the opinion of this backer, absolutely vital to the long term success of Star Citizen’s persistent universe upon its eventual release. Once we’ve acquired and flown all the ships, once we’ve explored everything, once we’ve blown up a thousand Vanduul ships – what will remain? For CIG and the Star Citizen community, hopefully the answer is not “nothing”. While I admit that reaching a point where one runs out of content may take a long time, it’s about reaching the point where you’ve seen enough that it’s no longer thrilling that is at the crux of what I’m talking about here. Elite: Dangerous is procedurally generated. No Man’s Sky as well, for that matter. Someone might argue that E:D has essentially an endless amount of content. But any reasonable gamer will recognize that there comes a point where a procedurally generated “endless” experience becomes rote and simply isn’t fun anymore.
I would offer, then, that the answer for anyone who reaches the point where the honeymoon-phase has elapsed and that new-M50 smell is long gone and asks “what remains?” that the answer will be very clear: the community. And not just the community, but the community held in symbiosis with a CIG-created toolkit which allows for players to create their own narratives. With any luck, much like EVE Online’s player base, we will provide stories worthy of a book read and celebrated by non-players a decade from now. By the look of it, recent events in EVE have triggered the outbreak of the largest war seen in years. I’d be willing to bet a plethora of new stories are being written which could fill the pages of another book as time wears on.
I believe that Chris Roberts and all of the development team at CIG understand how critical game mechanics like organizations, player owned/controlled spaces, player-influenced economy are to the long term health and success of this venture. As a backer, I encourage other supporters of Star Citizen to continue to emphasize the importance of features which allow for players to tell their own stories, small and large, throughout the ever-present dialogue of open development. Without the tools to create the personal stories we’ve imagined for ourselves in the future PU, Star Citizen can only hope to be as significant as an iridium flare, one of many games whose light shines bright for a moment only to sail on by into irrelevance.