I generally tend to stay away from potentially inflammatory posts because I do not enjoy conflict; I’m a cooperator, not a competitor. This post is really just me talking to the duck in the hopes that I can make a decision for the short term. It is not an attempt to start a flame war, or to invite allies or opponents to attempt to spar over my opinions…opinions that I am actually annoyed that I have, TBT, but thems the breaks in a situation like this.
I am an OG backer of Star Citizen and have spent many hours (and many dollars) engaging with this project as I have always had high hopes that it would become something not just special for space sim fans, but something special for the video game community as a whole. That is not to say that I allowed myself to gloss over the insane focus on PvP (which I am not a fan of, generally) or the catastrophic fuck-ups in CIG’s career as a company, or in the relentless drumbeat of fundraising that seems to take precedence over promoting the game’s direction and promise to new players. Whereas many nay-sayers throw their feces from the sidelines, I have been knee-deep in the reality of the good parts of the project as well as the bad. Optimism is not a four-letter word, and with the capricious nature of the gaming community as a rule, without optimism no project would ever get the necessary support to make completion worthwhile. I want this game to succeed not just because I like spaceships, but because CIG has, overall, been making good on many promises in theory if not entirely in practice, and I think everyone should want this game to succeed because of what it means for all gamers.
Love it or leave it, Star Citizen is certainly not, nor will it seem to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a game which promotes “risk versus reward” quite handily and is cleaves more to EVE Online’s morals than those of, say, Elite Dangerous, or even World of Warcraft. PvP is always going to be the second largest selling point, after being able to “live and breathe” within a simulated future universe where interstellar flight is a commonplace affair. It’s apparent that Chris Roberts wants to go big into the simulation direction as evidenced by “Death of a Spaceman“, which is the single, most influential document provided by CIG in the project’s history. The most recent CitizenCon showed us videos of how engineering systems will work on board larger ships, encompassing things like power routing for efficiency as well as repair, and replacement of components. We saw early work on fire dynamics, and even life-support systems. More recently, we got additional info on the Engineer crew-member role and what that is planned to look like. Judging from these and other plans and updates, Star Citizen is going to be less of a game, and more of a “life experience”.
I would normally applaud this approach, as it’s one of the reasons I have been optimistic about this project despite its ups and downs. I also think a lot of players are on the lookout for a game they can “lose themselves in” to an almost alternate-reality degree. There are many systems in the game now that were theoretical, which I had supported in concept early on. I supported them even more once they became real — or “tier-0 real” as CIG calls it — which is why, after experiencing several of these “word made flesh” transitions I continued to support the project. Despite rumors to the contrary, Star Citizen is progressing.
I cannot say that it’s progressing well, though, which is why after so many years of getting behind CIG’s efforts, I’m starting to rethink my interest in this project.
I am so much a fan of space simulators that I decided that I would have to make peace with the fact that CR’s and CIG’s approach to this project was built entirely around “risk versus reward”, a rather snobbish way to say “PvP whether you like it or not.”
The plan is very much like the implementation seen in EVE Online, with certain solar systems being “safe” and enjoying a swift and brutal NPC response should one willfully break the law, and others being completely lawless and without any kind of safety except what one brings along. Naturally — at least in game logic if not in real-world logic — the game is structured such that progression of any kind pushes players towards PvP from all angles. Are you a commodity hauler? The best routes require you to pass through crime-ridden systems. A miner or manufacturer? You’ll need to head to lawless space to obtain the best materials. Safe space is safe and bland and is intended to be little more than a tutorial zone that players quickly leave in favor of the lower-security systems where overwhelming bulk of the actual game takes place under constant threat. This is CIG’s definition of “risk versus reward”: if you want to play the game, you have to assume the risk.
CIG claims that this does not apply to only lawful, PvE-minded players, but to PvPers as well. The “risk” for them is — checks notes — that player bounty-hunters may come after them. Considering that the “risk” for criminally minded players is PvP, this is certainly not a deterrent; it’s a feature. In an effort to support PvPRP as well as to make casual griefing unpalatable, CIG implemented a prison game loop. A player with a certain level of “crime stat” who is killed in lawful space will wake up in “space jail” where they have two options: sit around and wait until the timer elapses and they get released with a clean record, or escape through the “dangerous” breaches in security. This “prison system” is even less of a punishment than having a bounty hunter show up at one’s door, because it’s an entirely different set of content that requires players become criminals to experience. That means it’s something that PvE players will never get to experience (assuming the system doesn’t mis-address them as having crime stats), but which is an actual reward for criminally minded players.
CIG’s position over the past several months has been to talk about or to release updates which heavily favor PvP players which, if you’ve gotten the gist of this post thus far, is keeping true to the stated goal of the game. Despite every fiber of my being saying the opposite, I cannot fault them for that. However, I get the feeling that even when they implement a feature or outline a plan that wholly benefits non-combat, non-PvP players, there’s always a follow-up component or a sentiment that features how to exploit those non-combat, non-PvP systems for the purpose of PvP. For example, patch 3.18, “The World Breaker”, added “physicalized cargo” where previously ship-inventory was all virtual. This is another simulation perk that checked many boxes for players who really like moving commodities around…a generally chill and benign gameplay loop. While this feature was hyped and mentioned ahead of the patch, what really got the facetime was how that, with cargo being physical, destroying a ship meant that the cargo would spill out into space, allowing pirates to collect it for themselves (previously it would vaporize in the wreckage behind the scenes). So sure, physical cargo is something haulers have been waiting for, but discussion around it was constantly overshadowed by the focus on how it will provide incentive for PvPers to attack the larger, slower, less-armed-and-armored ships as a rule on the off-chance they could score some free trade goods for themselves.
Space jail is kind of a joke as well. Right now, players are describing their time in prison as “fun”, although not as “fun” as it should be in their estimation. 3.18 has increased the time a player must spend in jail, which players are complaining about. They also say that for players who frequently end up in prison, it becomes super-easy to escape, as players can easily memorize the route and obstacles. One player laid out how easy it really is to exploit the current crime stat system at a time when there’s no long-lasting “reputation” system in place.
There had been a time when I wasn’t completely on board with the PvP-centric focus of Star Citizen but was at least doing what I could to counter it as effectively as I possibly could under my own power. Now, however, I get the impression that there will never be any system in this project that solely benefits non-PvP players, as every single system will have a showcased way for other players to come in and fuck shit up. That includes but is not limited to the point where we get purely non-combat systems like crafting and homesteading. Crafting as a concept is already on a razor’s edge since CIG hasn’t ever talked about it (aside from alluding to or outright saying that it wouldn’t happen, I don’t remember the sources), but if it does, we know it will certainly require forays into unlawful space to be anywhere close to being effective, even at a base level. Homesteading has received even less comment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if for every single building we deploy, we are encouraged to install an automated defense system in a weak attempt to deter other players from just carpet bombing our stuff back to the Stone Age when we’re not present.
A Part-Time Job
I’ve mentioned the simulation aspects of the game, and how I’m pretty pleased with the desire to make every aspect of this game trend towards a sense of realism. Based on the simulated systems that have been discussed, I have high hopes that when/if we get systems like crafting and homesteading, they will look nothing like the lame versions we had seen in online gaming up to that point. If you want to get a sense of the proposed scope of something like landownership and homesteading that has been talked about (CIG does a lot of talking that may or may not be considered official), check out this thread in which community member Eschatos has compiled a treasure-trove of sources and quotes about the subject. I’ll highlight this one bullet point in particular, as it speaks to the depths of concepts that have been mentioned:
That gives me goosebumps just re-reading it even for the third time.
But this is just one system. If you’re the sort who likes videos, check out this presentation from CitizenCon (2022) where Dan Trufin gets giddy over suffocating players and NPCs.
And for a more concrete example, this video from last week’s Inside Star Citizen regarding the “Engineer” role, the second targeted player role in an otherwise classless, statsless game (the first inarguably being “Miner”).
I am 100% on board with the sentiment behind these levels of simulation…in isolation. What concerns me is that when everything is simulated down to the fuse level, Star Citizen is going to be less of a game, less of a “future life simulator”, and literally more like a second job.
I have anxiety around the idea of being a ship-borne engineer. I can only imagine what it would be like when, in a combat situation where everything is on fire, alarms are going off, and sparks are shooting everywhere, you as the engineer could be the only thing standing between becoming space dust, losing valuable cargo, or being boarded by air-quote pirates air-quote who post videos of themselves tea bagging your corpse on YT under the title “More Easy Prey For [Insert Their Org Name Here]”. I don’t play games to A) be someone else’s content, surely, nor do I play B) to stress out more than I do in real life.
I worry that CR and CIG are leaning a bit too hard into simulating everything a real-world star citizen would experience in 295x. This is kind of counter to my earlier pat-on-the-back of potentially in-depth crafting systems, but I can envision a not-so-serious littany of tasks that a single player faces upon logging in each day:
- Watering their plants
- Repairing their house
- Walking their [insert some kind of domesticated NPC animal they keep as a pet]
- Checking on harvesters and refineries
- Reloading defenses with power cells or ammo
- Bussing boxes of food and water onto their ship by hand-held tractor beam or gravlev cart
- Repairing their ship
- Upgrading the their ship
- Patching their ship where repairs or upgrades aren’t possible
- Take off, flying across several star systems, landing
- Forgetting to change out of your clothes and into a space suit, thankfully before you opened the airlock
- Avoiding or engaging combat
- Dealing with damaged system in situ
- Watering plants that we put on the ship because we could but now make us question why, since we have to take care of them
- Tracking down items to buy, where to buy them, and where to get the best price.
- Taking the tram, and waiting for elevators
- More travling between pick-up points, more combat avoidance or engagement
- Hell, none of this actually earns money so…
- Find a job
- Travel to that job, either to pick up, engage, steal, or whatever
- Complete job without getting killed
- Drop of items from the job without getting killed as part of the mission arc
- Wonder why you did that job that pays so little
- Take too much “risk” for too little “reward” and get killed, waking up back at home while your ship and most of you possessions are either destroyed, under the control of other players, or on the other side of the universe
- Alt-F4, uninstall
One Step Forward, One Bullet-Train Backwards
Lastly, I want to complain about CIG’s ever-increasing appearance of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks approach to development. Of course, I have to add the disclaimers that I have never done game development, nor have I ever worked on any development project of the size or the scope of Star Citizen. That we as a community have made it to 3.18 with a game that, until this past weekend, has been pretty playable for an alpha product, is testament to the fact that CIG is working hard and successfully to move the ball down the field. I’m not going to lay into them with accusations like those you hear from armchair analysts who have some deep-rooted hatred of things that other folks seem to like just because other people like them, and I will end this paragraph by also reminding myself and you, hopefully, that perception is reality in a lot of cases.
SC’s development used to be terrible. Prior to version 3.0 or thereabouts, I had never touched the game. It wasn’t even playable on my system. There was little to no content, no game loops, and it wasn’t something worth engaging with. I think this had to do with their few years of Bad Business Decisions which caused them to restructure the company. Then there was the lawsuit brought by Crytek who claimed CIG was unlawfully using and modifying the CryEngine; the suit was dismissed, and the project had already moved to Amazon’s Lumberyard. There were also a lot of bumps throughout the years, from bad-mouthing by Derek Smart (who seems to have vanished in the ensuing years, making me think there some kind of restraining order against him or something) to a large swath of backers demanding refunds (including a well-publicized hoax that made several greasy rounds through the game news sites).
The result of all of this turned out to be the best kind of beneficial. The company was restructured — I suspect that CR got his hand slapped, as he vanished from the public eye for a suspicious amount of time — and the company became stupidly transparent by today’s game development standards. They now maintain a public roadmap, development tracker, a list of issues raised by the community, and, most importantly, a page where we can view the funding stats over time.
Add to that, we get regularly weekly videos and live streams like Star Citizen Live (interviews with CIG employees about what they do and how they do it) and Inside Star Citizen (produced featurettes about upcoming game systems and content). No one can say that there’s anything shady about the official development of Star Citizen these days without doing so completely and overtly in bad-faith.
But CIG is still a corporation, and a software corporation at that. They are not immune to missed target dates and revised expectations. Patches are always breathlessly awaited; there’s a consistent pattern among players where everyone plays when patches are released, and then drift away over time until the next patch releases. But it often seems that for every “patch” we get to add content and improve the experience, we lose a whole lot more.
The most recent patch, 3.18, has been the project’s most disastrous update in my memory. I accept the driving narrative reason, though: persistent entity streaming, a technology which allows a dropped item to remain in place indefinitely, meaning that an empty can I drop in a crater on Yela could be found by another player in an hour, a day, a month, or even five years later. No other game of this scale has that kind of tech, and while it means that SC will have the ability to leave destroyed ships littering the universe, it also means that it has no template to build from, and it shows. 3.18 was supposed to have been released at the end of 2022; it’s now March of 2023 and it’s only been in the wild a few days, having made the game pretty much unplayable for what seems to be the majority of players.
This is the largest, but not the worst situation we’ve seen, though. Bugs that have been around for several patch cycles still exist. One of the most notorious was how elevators could zip through a landing zone or station and basically mow down players. People fall through floors and planets all the time. There are high-profile, “weird” bugs like these that make players sigh in frustration, and there are systemic bugs which wreak havoc with key game systems, like NPC desync that made it so NPC ships could target and kill players, but players could never hit an NPC as it “teleported” around the battlefield.
CIG’s strategy is to release features in a “tier-0” state, meaning that the feature is available, but should be expected to break often and in the hardest ways imaginable. Players are asked to test it nonetheless and to report back on its feel and its potential impact on the game, after which CIG will eventually iterate it through other tiers until it’s blessed and considered to be the “gold standard” of itself.
I think we’re looking at a phase in development where CIG is pumping out so many “tier-0” features that we’re not getting a lot of traction on previous releases. We are not getting refinements on some of the longest, most core gameplay loops in the game, and that is degrading the overall experience system by system. I’m going to refer back to Spectrum, the game’s social media-slash-forum system, and this feedback thread on updates to commodity trading in 3.18. Generally, the sentiment seems to be that commodity trading is completely worthless endeavor, in part because of CIG’s dogged adherence to “risk versus reward gameplay at all costs”, and in part because it’s simply not financially lucrative compared to every other gameplay loop in the game right now. Considering a key add of 3.18 was “physicalized cargo” — which could consider commodity trading to be the bellwether of the system — it seems like a massive oversight to have this elder system being so off-kilter when using it for testing is required. Now, there are reasons, namely that the Holy Grail of the “Quantum System” has yet to get integrated into the project. This system is a simulation which will see goods moved around the universe by “NPCs”, triggering interference from NPC pirates along popular trade routes and UEE lawful intervention, the generation of ad hoc missions for players to help or hinder, and the implementation of supply and demand around the Stanton system (and later, the universe as a whole). It doesn’t make sense to balance commodity trading when it’ll get upended in a massive way later on, but I do feel for hauler-players who can’t be bothered to spend time testing a system which only serves to put them into debt, or worse.
One often forgotten reason for the dragged-foot of the “persistent universe” (PU) is the studio’s focus on Squadron 42, a stand-alone game set in the Star Citizen universe. SQ42 was always part of the Star Citizen package, but it’s never been at the forefront of discussion, no doubt in part because it wasn’t possible to milk it for perpetual crowdfunding the way the online version could be. CR stated that he wouldn’t talk about SQ42 nor release content from the game until it was ready, which seemed to be background noise when every news outlet was consistently focused on the PU funding milestones and its inability to, you know, release. SQ42 has since been elevated to the company’s priority, which means that systems are designed to support that product and are then ported and modified to work with Star Citizen. I guess it should be “easier” to create these systems in isolation, when they don’t have to interact with one, a dozen, or dozens of dozens of players at the same time, and if they can get SQ42 out the door, it’s another source of funding they can turn around and invest in the development of Star Citizen. With all hands on SQ42’s deck, there are resources who won’t be allocated to fix issues with the PU, as crappy a reality as that is. I feel that the precedence of SQ42 over SC is always overlooked — I even forgot about it until I had to look up info for stuff for this post — which at least means that something is moving forward while it seems that the PU is always falling behind, but the lack of transparency into SQ42 like we have with the PU makes forgetting its existence easy to do, a situation that CR might actually encourage.
The Future, My Future
I love seeing progress and new systems as much as the next backer, but I would love to see the existing game get shored up as well. There are a lot of systems already in place, and if those systems could at least be reliable and somewhat fun — even if they all pay windfalls and everyone can afford to buy Hammerheads and Connies and every armor and weapon in the game — then I absolutely believe that backers would be incredibly pleased. Just as CIG moved towards a more transparent operating environment that helped to quiet the braying of the “Star Citizen is a scam” crowd, fixing long suffering issues and giving players the in-game resources to test all systems, all the time would probably help CIG’s efforts to not just fix future bugs, but to easily on-board the next set of “tier-0” inclusions. Right now, we just seem to get more bugs on top of existing bugs that never seem to go away.
With each feature announcement and release, and the way that CIG presents every feature — even joyfall and calm features — in light of how it improves the experience of PvP-minded players, I’m concerned that Star Citizen — and CR specifically — has its head in the sand. PvP-centric games similar in size and scope to SC have not done well in the market in the past few years. I’m thinking of Crowfall which was sold off only months after launch and is now in offline while it reconsiders its design decisions, and games such as Camelot Unchained which has been in development almost as long as Star Citizen, possibly hoping for a day when the market is more hospitable to PvP-centric games. I don’t begrudge PvP-centric players for wanting to have a game that caters to them, considering how most MMOs have and still do focus mainly on PvE. I know the argumentative sort will drag EVE into the discussion on “successful PvP games”, but I’ll submit that EVE, like WoW, is a product of timing rather than intrinsic design excellence; like how no one could replicate WoW’s stellar success over the past few decades, simply copying EVE’s feature set but with first person views and deep simulation will not make Star Citizen a hit.
If a PvP-centric game wants to appeal to PvP players, then PvP players have to appeal to PvE players, full stop. If games insist on funneling players from safe, tutorial zones in to more dangerous, competitive zones, then the value of PvE gameplay must outweigh the cost of the PvP gameplay, full stop. PvEers have too many other options with which to spend their time — and their money — than a game that lures them in with weak and ephemeral PvE systems, only to feed them to a PvP wood-chipper, full fucking stop.
Even if those simulation systems get deep, no one wants to leave one job at 5PM and take up another under duress, especially not if those simulations replicate stressful situations. Yes, some people really want the adrenaline rush of running full tilt through a burning starship in order to redirect power and get the shields back online, and even I think it’d be cool to experience that kind of gameplay…once, maybe twice. As a regular occurrence, I think I’d start losing my hair. Add to that sim on sim on sim, so that after our ship limps back to port, I get notification that my house is under attack, and my harvesters are full and out of fuel, and an earthquake has destroyed my workshop, and the rent on my apartment on the other side of the galaxy is due, and my own ship needs fuel, I might not be so inclined to give a shit about any of it.
I don’t even know if or when we’ll get to the point where I get to care about any of this, as CIG seems to have gotten locked into a spiral of releasing features-over-function. In addition to a seemingly endless supply of previously unannounced and unassumed ship concept sales that pop up several times a year, each quarterly patch carries with it at least one tier-0 system. Other existing systems are forced to look on from their hospital beds as the new patient limps into an already overcrowded ward. Meanwhile, players are growing increasingly frustrated when long-suffered bugs remain, key game loop systems remain shoddy or broken, and only certain systems get updated in order to facilitate the inclusion of new systems, or to support the ever-present “risk versus reward” mandate.
As the game coalesces around its original core through patches and announcements, events and videos, we get to see what kind of a game Star Citizen really sees itself as. It’s always been a PvP centric game on paper, but that’s a design brief, not a comprehensive litany of features no matter how much we consumers assume it to be. With more concrete updates — even the broken ones — we can get a better idea of what “Death of a Spaceman” really means. For me, right now at this point in time, it might mean that the game is veering hard into territory that doesn’t interest me; I mean, PvP never really interested me, but it was something that “just happened” in a game that I otherwise really, really wanted to play. Even if a new feature isn’t actually designed for supporting PvP, presenting every feature in a way that showcases how it can be exploited for PvP means that CIG can never give a purely PvE system a fair shake. I am not OK with that, and I don’t think all of the unsold, potential players out there who will (hopefully) someday be faced with a choice to buy into Star Citizen or give it a pass will be OK with it either. I hope that right now, with so few working in-game systems, that CIG is actually laser focused on providing and supporting systems which allow players to generate their own content specifically because there’s no other reliable content in the game to get people to play. Maybe someday the gleeful inclusion of exploitable examples will fade into the background and CIG will start talking about systems on their own merits or, gawd help us, mention systems which have nothing to do with PvP. I cannot help but think that all of this is really going to end up shooting the game in the virtual foot, as PvP-centric games that aren’t lobby-shooters have come and gone without leaving so much as a footprint in the sand of the online game marketplace. When — if — Star Citizen releases, if the market retains its status quo, then it might actually end up known not only as the most successful crowdfunded project in history, but also one that completely misread the room. How’s that for “risk versus reward”?