The Origin of it All

It was the fall of `92.  We had just arrived in the country and needed to buy a PC for my grad school work.  We opted for a mighty 386 computer (and sprang for the 40Mhz rather than the 33) and after considerable soul-searching had a ridiculously excessive 1Mb video card installed (how good was this machine?  When I discovered Doom a couple of years later, much of the game played as a blinking, growling, slideshow accompanied by the occasional delayed weapon blast).  I don’t even remember how we found the particular machine, probably through the newspaper (we were young and stupid).  At any rate, it began having some issues pretty quickly.  So I took it back to the rent-a-box place where we’d bought it, somewhere in the anonymous light industrial depths of the city of Orange.  The sales person wasn’t at all happy to see me but quickly established, as I’d suspected, that the motherboard was defective and offered to replace it for me while I waited.  Then he sat me down in front of another PC with an attached joystick and started up a game called Wing Commander.

It had been out for two years, so the fact that he gave me no instruction whatsoever was probably justified.  I had not heard of it, however.  It had, in fact, had only been a little over a year since we had loaded the first ever games on our even more ancient PC that I’d used throughout college.  But I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I was sitting in the cockpit of a space ship!  I was blowing shit up!  Wait, that was me getting blown up. . .but never mind!  This was awesome!

That game planted a seed that was even more important than I realized.  Every game I had played up until that point (with the singular exception of a brief stint with Wolfenstein 3D, and a fascinating yet bewildering attempt to fly anything on an early verion of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator with only a keyboard) had been an abstracted model of reality: top down, side-scrolling, or manipulating data tables.  This game showed me, however, that games could actually put you there (wherever there was).  And in this game I was in the pilot’s seat of a starfighter, the fantasy that Star Wars had planted many, many years before.

I never went back to that game.  A short while later someone told me about X-Wing and that was all she wrote.  I did end up playing Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, but by that point the franchise had morphed into a big (relatively) budget, interactive (relatively) movie (relatively) with some gratuitous gameplay tacked on (but man, was that gratuitous gameplay good!).  My computers gradually got better (so I could actually play X-Wing, and then Tie-Fighter with the graphics turned up (they were like completely different games).  I progressed to other genres of games, then to full-blown flight sims and MMORPGs which together don’t leave time for much else.

But for me there is nothing quite like a really well done space simulation.  A while ago I wrote about the trouble it took to get the antique X-Wing Alliance up and running, trouble that was ultimately so worth it, for the quality experience that game was still able to provide.  The fact that I needed to perform the equivalent of digital necrophilia on that title, however, testifies to one very sad fact.  There have been no new quality first-person space simulations in recent memory.  (We are not just talking about “recent memory” as defined by gamers, which is to say, “last week;” no, we’re talking about the kind of memory that people with non pixelated brain cells still have).  The last really epic attempt at this genre was Freelancer, back in 2003.  The last really good attempt at this genre was the Jump to Lightspeed expansion of Star Wars Galaxies.

Maybe not for much longer.  After being absent from game development for the better part of a decade, Chris Roberts, the driving force behind both the Wing Commander franchise and Freelancer recently announced the development of a new space simulator project set in a massively multiplayer universe.  In a somewhat unusual move, especially for such a well-known designer, Roberts is seeking crowd-sourced funding to help build the game, and has launched a campaign both on Kickstarter and on the game’s independent site.  The initial target for funding is $2 million; the campaign has only been running since October 10 and has already raised over half that.

The video trailer, which purports to show early builds of in-game assets, is certainly impressive and effectively conveys the kind of atmosphere that fans of space sims would be drawn to like members of Congress are drawn to overseas junkets.  More interesting are the extensive comments from Roberts himself about why he is doing this, what kind of game he wants it to be, etc. Roberts has never been known as a modest man and here he doesn’t mince words.  He positions his development effort against an industry that has largely abandoned the PC in favor of consoles (true).  And now that the bloom is fading from that rose, game publishers are gathering in a giggly circle-jerk over the prospect of tablets and casual mobile gaming (also true).  Even those publishers who have remained loyal to the PC as a gaming platform, he alleges, have shown no interest in funding development of a space simulation game (again, the man does not lie).

No one cares about your glory days
From one point of view, the absence of this genre is difficult to explain.  After all, publishers have otherwise shown themselves willing to remake remakes of remakes of every other type of genre and especially classic titles of yesteryear to the point of exhaustion. . .and beyond.  Space Sims were also once highly profitable; Origin Studios largely made its name and (temporary) fortune on the back of the Wing Commander franchise.

We do have games that involve space and even spaceship combat.  EveStar Trek Online, and The Old Republic, all feature spaceships that allow you to hoon around the universe putting photon torpedoes up the jacksy of dastardly enemies.  But these are all rendered as 3rd person experiences and therefore are not starship simulators in the sense that Roberts means.

In fact, the absence of a space simulation component is one of the chief things that defines the hollow, barely beating heart of The Old Republic.  Now you could understand if the basic objective was to get the core game systems functioning and the decision was made to hold off on a space component.  In that light TOR one-upped its predecessor, Star Wars Galaxies, by actually including a space element at launch, something that was an announced and then deferred feature of SWG, to considerable fan disappointment.  When SWG did provide the space component, however, it was a full-blown first-person space simulation.  They understood very clearly that the dream of living in the Star Wars universe, of actually being present in that universe, was inherently bound up with the idea of sitting in the cockpit of a starfighter.

The morning after my brother and I saw Star Wars for the first time, we woke up, still glassy-eyed and immediately reached for his box of what-you-think-we’re-made-of-money-Lego-substitutes.  Did we start to build Ben Kenobi’s hut, a sandcrawler, the Death Star conference room, an R2D2?  No.  We started trying to assemble, from our fuzzy, fragmented, completely-blown-away-by-nothing-we’d-ever-seen-before memories, Tie fighters and X-wings.  SWG knew those kids, and from the first moment I played the space component it felt right.  Moreover, it fit right into the SWG universe in a way that made me fit right in.  I spent large amounts of time roaming the galaxy, shopping for components for my various star-fighters like a boy racer obsesses over the components to pimp his ride.  You could name your ships (a seemingly basic function that the mighty Bioware has apparently not figured out how to implement).  You could play cooperatively.  A couple of the later ships could also be crewed.  In all cases you were there, in person, surrounded by blinking lights and with a thin-layer of perspex between you and the icy nothingness of the Big Black.  This is as far away from the arcade-style nonsense of TOR, or the combat-as-spreadsheet-manipulation of Eve as you can possibly get.

Cautiously Pessimistic
You can probably tell that I have been jonesing for this kind of game.  And make no mistake, I will support Roberts’ enterprise, and when the game comes out I will buy it.  However a common theme on this blog has been the ridiculously inflated expectations that gamers bring to games that are still under development and that no one outside the PR department has actually laid hands on.  I’ve long argued that gamers would enjoy their games much more, and would in fact continue to enjoy games for longer periods of time if they didn’t approach games like a blue-balled adolescent who has been tied to a chair for six weeks with his hands behind his back.  Ridiculously inflated expectations lead to Red Bull-fueled 24/7 gameplay which leads inevitably to burn-out and an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach when this orgiastic digital immersion doesn’t result in you finding a cure for cancer or becoming the CEO of Apple.  This project, because of what it is and who is at the helm, has all the hallmarks of a game that will whip fans into a frenzy of impossible to realize expectations.  So although I know that what I saw will not make a blind bit of difference, I’m going to point out some pretty obvious warning flags about this project.

Mmmm I Like to Watch Mmmmm
The first obvious problem is the marketplace itself.  I mentioned earlier my sense that SWG really saw those two kids trying to build X-wings in their bedroom and designed a game accordingly.  And in that light the pathetic arcade-style combat of TOR is a big miss.  However, I suspect Bioware wasn’t interested in those kids; they were seeing a completely different set of kids, and they understand that those kids see differently.  In the past I’ve examined the place of the Star Wars movies in movie history, and Lucas’s singular inability to understand the nature of his own cinematic achievement.  When a really great movie comes along, a movie that changes us and our culture in some way, it is often great in ways that don’t have anything to do with the standard categories of “great.”  No one would claim that Star Wars was a masterpiece of plotting or characterization.  But such films enable us to, often quite literally, see differently.  Who doesn’t remember the impact, on a big screen, of that lurching first-person belly flop into the Death Star Trench?  Who doesn’t remember the first-person view from Darth Vader’s fighter as he progressively waxed the members of Gold and Red squadrons, one by one?  Hell, we hadn’t even seen this kind of thing from WWII air war movies up to that point.  Watching those scenes now, there is still a beauty and a purity of vision; it is all about putting you there.

Lucas ultimately loses faith in that vision, however, and in the prequel movies that are rumored to be somehow related to the three Star Wars movies, you rarely get those moments of the pure beauty of first-person immersion.  Immersion in the later films is no longer equated with the quality of seeing, it is about giving you lots of stuff to see.  You can see him beginning to flirt with this even in the third of the real movies, The Annoying Recurrence of the Ewoks.  But the elephantiasis of the digital is largely complete even in The Phantom Menace (with the singular exception of the pod-race sequence, the last sequence that even comes close to the quality of the experience in the originals).  Lucas moves inexorably away from the “you are here” first-person experience to the “watch all this” experience of a third-person.  And it is that third-person experience that is so perfectly exemplified in the way in which the TOR space combat element has been designed.

The marketplace at the moment is defined by gamers who are used to approaching “space” as a third-person experience, a grand spectacle (and no one gets this better than EvE).  I’m not even sure that people would know what to do with a first-person space sim.  You could argue that this is, then, a golden opportunity to introduce a modern audience to a new kind of gaming experience.  But if people really wanted new gaming experiences the gaming marketplace wouldn’t look the way it does.  If people really wanted something different, then TOR, for example, would have been designed as something different instead of WoWin Space with better storytelling.  So I’m worried that there are enough people to get this game made, but not enough to ensure that it remains viable (especially since Roberts seems to want to adopt the Guildwars model of no monthly subscriptions).

Is there an Easy Mode?
Roberts uses a lot of terms like “challenging” to describe the kind of gameplay he’s after.  But it will be interesting to see if he means challenging for real, or if he means videogame challenging.  One of the core problems with much of current game development is that many games are hard but they are hard in an easy way.  It is one of the things that I’m not loving at all about TOR, but this is not really the game’s fault; Bioware is simply following the lead of Blizzard and most other MMOG developers (even POTBS gave me this feeling by the end).  In even the toughest games, the community quickly learns the optimum strategies for clearing rooms or taking down particular bosses and those methods typically become Holy Writ.  Success depends on your ability to learn, memorize, and repeat exactly the same sequence of actions.  In your spare time you pull up your numerous spreadsheets you have constructed to help you track your armor stats.  Oddly enough, many modern games have returned us to those long-ago games that were all abstracted models of reality rather than fully realized participatory environments.  Yet this is the world the modern gamer is used to.

Simulators, real simulators, are a different beast.  Flight simulators are the ones I’m most familiar with, and they are not fake gaming difficult.  They are genuinely difficult.  I’ve played them for years and I’m still not that great a virtual pilot.  Yet the difficulty is one of the reasons hardly anyone plays these games.  Because these games require you to have some skill in a participatory environment that isn’t the skill of repetitive routine, button mashing, or playing via actuarial tables.  Few younger players especially, even those interested in space and sci-fi, have played a genuine space sim.  And I’m not at all confident that once they have done, that they will want to keep on playing.  Most mainstream games do a fabulous job faking the idea of progress and mastery, layering your activities with experience points and upgrade so that your avatar gradually becomes more powerful.  As long as you stick to a few basic techniques, your more powerful character should always beat the living crap out of a less powerful one.  The world of simulators, by contrast, is one where even though a more experienced pilot will usually have the edge, it is entirely possible for a noob in an inferior craft to get lucky or take advantage of a mistake or momentary lapse of judgment in a more experienced player and take a bite out of their virtual tuckus.

I’m encouraged by the online success of World of Tanks, but even that is a very dumbed-down kind of simulation, more arcadey than I’m really interested in.  Roberts mentions that Space Citizen will definitely not be a “click to kill” game.  I hope that remains true.  But for most players, “space simulation” is synonymous with exactly this kind of game (anyone watching me play Eve without being able to see the screen would swear that I was actually playing Bejeweled).  I’m sure the game will start out as a decent sim.  But I just have this horrible feeling that when the player whining about it being too difficult starts, everything will get dumbed down in pretty short order.

What is that Burning Smell?
I’ve been playing flight simulators for years, and with that experience in mind, listening to Roberts talk about the game is sending up warning rockets all over the place.  As soon as someone starts talking about Moore’s law and the kind of polygon counts that he tosses around so casually, you know that you are in for a particular kind of experience.  It is one that we players of flight simulators are all too accustomed to enduring.  It is not, however, the norm for most gamers, so let me just explain how Star Citizen will probably play out for Joe and Jane Gamer.

You have a pretty high end PC rig of which you are justifiably proud.  It is overclocked to the max, you have adjusted all the timings on your RAM yourself, carefully monitor the temperature of various components and individually adjust all the speeds of the dozen individual fans in your machine.  Your rig comfortably runs pretty much every game out there, including many of the bleeding edge shooter titles that have now evolved to the point of virtual photorealism, with nary a slowdown.  You purchase the latest flight simulator, eagerly boot it up. . .and watch as your frame rate drops into the single digits.  At the same time, your PC begins making noises like an emphysemic pug forced to run a marathon, accompanied by a smell eerily reminiscent of the time you left your flip flops too long on the radiator in your college dorm.  To get the game to run at all you dial all the graphics down to minimum settings, reduce the number of sound channels to two and end up staring at objects that are little more substantial than wire frames and a landscape that looks like the painting your daughter once gave you after she’d forgotten to take her Adderall.

This, my friends, is what you should expect.  Roberts is clearly setting this up as a game that is going to mercilessly hunt down the graphical bleeding edge and squeeze it until it howls for mercy.  He also seems to want to chase down every gaming gimmick out there, hence his support for the new Occulus Rift technology (billed as the first viable VR headset for gamers).  Sounds like unnecessary gimmcrackery to me (I can’t believe we are still thrashing this VR thing long after we’ve proved that it really isn’t that necessary for immersion for anyone with half a brain. . .oh, wait, I see the problem), but as long as the code implementation is relatively straightforward and doesn’t take time away from actually building a game, then my concerns would be allayed.  What was odd though was that in among all the peripherals that Roberts mentioned, he didn’t mention TrackIR, which is currently the go-to technology to do exactly the kind of thing that the Occulus is supposed to do (except more cheaply, elegantly, and in a way that works with more games).  Which does raise one troubling issue. . .

This will be a simulation, right?
It is rather disconcerting to watch Roberts in the video, talking large about immersion and fidelity and the like. . .and then see him manipulating his spaceship with a console-style game pad.  Seriously, man, grow a set and pick up a joystick!  Luke Skywalker didn’t fly his X-wing with a console controller.  And you never saw Darth Vader frantically flailing his gamepad with all ten fingers, manipulating the secondary joystick with a foot slung behind his ear while trying in vain to hit the B button with his pecker.

In all seriousness, I can appreciate the decision to make this simulation device-agnostic with support for a wide variety of peripherals; it definitely broadens the prospective audience for the title.  At the same time, however, the more kinds of devices you have to support, the more complex an already very (and possibly overly-) complex game has to become.  Moreover, just how device agnostic are you prepared to be?  Because it isn’t simply the case that any old device can be plugged into the same game.  The input devices help define the game.  No serious flight sim player would dream of picking up a title where a player can “fly” solely by using the keyboard.  Nor would any serious flight sim designer craft such a game (the keyboard controls are usually there, but as modern flight sim games have become better at modeling realistic physics and flight dynamics, using a keyboard is virtually impossible).

So this, and the seeming lack of awareness of the go-to technology for sim immersion (TrackIR) already has me wondering.  Moreover, while Roberts talks a good game and presents himself as a man of uncompromising vision, the support for various non sim peripherals is already the first whiff of compromise.  Which leads me to another concern. . .

The Past is Prologue
The big selling point for this project is that it is created by Chris Roberts.

The big drawback to this project is that it is created by Chris Roberts.

There is no dispute that Roberts is a visionary designer that has been responsible for a couple of the most innovative and influential games of all time.  Yet his track record is definitely spotty, marked by a singular failure of vision to keep up with the practical realities necessary to get a game made.  He has not always made the smartest game design decisions (he has had a taste for overkill cinematics for example; sometimes these became the basis of the game (as in the later WC games) and sometimes they were merely annoyances (as in the endless cut-scenes in Freelancer that could not be skipped).  He has ability to actually get games made has been compromised by overly-ambitious feature-sets, scheduling delays, questionable business decisions (selling Digital Anvil to Microsoft halfway through production of Freelancer, in the naive belief that the company that messes with everything wouldn’t mess with his game).  By all accounts Roberts started conceptual work on Freelancer in 1997, more formal work in 1999, expected to have it done the following year, then pushed it back to 2001. . .  By this time most people considered the project to be vapourware, until the game finally appeared two years later. . .gutted of its most promising and innovative features.  None of this bodes particularly well for this title.

There is also a lot more to creating an excellent MMOG than simply a fantastic design vision (and Roberts’ vision is intoxicating, no argument).  You need first-class customer support.  You need first-class logistical support.  With regard to the latter, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that Roberts’ own crowd-sourcing site crashed a short while after going live.  Cutting out the middle-man is all very well, and such rhetoric plays well to those who fancy themselves to be sticking it to the man simply by playing a videogame (ooh, you rebel, you!).  But when you are creating an epic game and you ditch the publisher. . .?  Sure, the Interwebs are now a fabulous tool for garnering money and support for your cause and for keeping people informed about the progress of your project.  But you are now solely responsible for all that customer support and technical logistics.  Doing that side of things well is not easy, and not cheap, which is a big part of the reason why developers usually are pretty glad to turn that over to publishers.

Given all these factors, the gaming industry is justifiably cagey about declaring release dates when the project is in the early stages.  Not Roberts.  He has boldly declared the project will be delivered in November of 2014.  Now either the project is further along than it seems to be and he has a strong plan to get it to the finish line, or he is overly optimistic about just what it will take to finish this puppy. My money is on the latter, so I’m going to apply my standard MMOG math: take the furthest release date estimate and add a year.  So I’m betting this probably won’t see the light of day before November of 2015.

Shelling Out or Selling Out?
The crowd-source approach to this is intriguing, but I have reservations.  Make no mistake, I love Kickstarter; I think it is one of the few really innovative things to happen on the Interwebs recently.  But, as with so many other aspects associated with the almost messianic worship directed at the idea of the clowd, there is a lot of crap talked about crowd-sourcing.  People often describe these endeavours as if they are tapping into some giant fund of popular will, leading “the people” en masse into the promised land.  But the name is deceptive.  What Kickstarter and its ilk are really enabling is not crowd-sourcing but niche-sourcing.  It is a mechanism for putting select groups of people in touch with the projects that correspond with their own highly selective and specialized interests.  It is not as if the heaving masses are all queuing up to fund a space sim, for example, or toilet roll holders shaped like Mittens Romney.

People also need to recognize that while their financial support for these “independent” projects is often valuable, with some projects all those early supporters are also acting as bait.  In this regard Roberts is refreshingly honest.  He admits that he received some angel funding to get the project to this stage; the crowd-source funding will enable work to proceed but will, more importantly, serve as a demonstration to other prospective backers that there is a market for this title.

Before we get too carried away by the “we’re supporting a new game development model, power to the Indies!” rhetoric, it is also important to realize just what this revolution in games means.  Gamers who fund these kinds of projects are, in general, going to be paying more, sometimes a lot more for their game.  In the case of Star Citizen, Roberts has announced an anticipated price of $60.  And some of the early backer slots do allow you to eventually gain access to the game for about half that.  But a lot of backers are kicking in substantially more cash.  This is true of many of the Kickstarter projects I’ve seen.  A lot of people are willing to contribute more than they would if they were asked to simply pay for a retail package.

So are gamers being fleeced?  And why is it that players seem so willing to part with more money when gamers as a whole are constantly whining about the cost of games?  What the Kickstarter/crowd-source funding model for gaming is in fact asking us to consider is whether or not games have in fact been priced too low for some time.  What?  I hear you say?  WHAAAAAAT?!!!!  Defining how much enjoyment you get from a game relative to the amount you spent is probably an impossible task (although I’m willing to bet that deep down a lot of gamers enjoy many games a lot less than they say they do or even that they tell themselves they do).  But we can talk about how much game time you are typically purchasing relative to your outlay.  So let’s say that you buy a first-person shooter and you get about 15 hours of gameplay from it, a number that isn’t far from the average.  Now if you are an idiot you buy this as a full-price console game and pay around $60.  If you are a little less of an idiot and buy the full price PC version it will be about $10 less.  If you are not sucked in by manufactured consumer desperation and are prepared to wait a while, the game shows up on Steam eventually for $20.   Therefore, you are getting your gameplay at the rate of anything from $1.33 to $4 per hour.  Compare that with a couple of hours at the local multiplex and you will see that gaming is pretty cheap fun.  This holds true even for subscription-based games.  So maybe what is happening with crowd-sourcing is that gaming is beginning to find its true financial level.  Of course, you can also see why companies would feel that it is in their interest to help gaming find this new level!

But the thing that is really driving the entire crowd-funding model is the fact that people like to feel useful, they like to feel that they are contributing something and they like to feel a part of something bigger than themselves.  People also seem to have an strong desire to build things.  It is this very desire that is twisted or, more usually, thwarted more completely in most people’s everyday lives.  This is the reason why so many people turn this desire inward, on their kids, constituting them as a project to be developed and maximized.  Game developers have been leveraging this desire for self-affirmation through involvement and building quite shamelessly for some time: drawing on players as tester, free advertisers (fan site development kits) and even unpaid content developers.  This crowd-sourced funding model therefore puts things on a contractual footing, as it were, and while gamers are being asked to pay more, in many cases they seem to get (or are at least promised. . .and game developer promises are only slightly less evanescent than those of politicians) more.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Unshackle Your Wallets and Prepare to Fire
All that said, let me repeat that I think this is a worthy endeavour to support and I’d encourage you to support it too.  Just do me a favor and this once be realistic in your expectations.  This is an incredibly ambitious game that is trying to couple some innovative gameplay ideas with a massive scale and high-end graphics, all while finishing, promoting, publishing, supporting and maintaining this game as an independent entity.  No, I can’t see anything that might go wrong either!  Expect the development process to be messy, probably delayed, the final product to be minus several of the currently anticipated features, and buggy as all get out for quite some time after launch.

Fundamentally, however, Roberts is right.  There are no games out there like this.  And there need to be.  So if you are a fan of this genre, then help make it happen.