“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it“. Edmund Burke
Disclaimer: I know that a lot of people are passionate about stuff like this. So I feel that I need to point out that this is an opinion based piece. And I ran it through legal, just in case. Nobody wants their liability insurance to spike due to bullshit reasons.
As a veteran game developer who crowd-funded the projects mentioned in this piece, I have the same rights as any other person who may, or may not have done so. I have been watching these projects for quite some time. Seeing all the angst that comes from Early Access games, and seeing how one of these highly anticipated projects has not only experienced significant delays, technological hurdles, key personnel departures, and with a design that has completely breached the realms of what is technologically possible with current technology, I felt that I had to say something. Some people are saying something, but most seemingly aren’t listening.
I have the utmost respect for my many industry friends, colleagues and peers; and I am well known for never—ever—casting any of them in a poor light, nor attacking them or their work. It’s poor form, respect is everything, and I’m old school like that. So if that’s what you think this piece is about, you should probably stop reading.
If you attack me over this, remember, I’m an old school Internet warlord, I’m no pushover, and I won’t take it lightly. Your rights don’t trump mine, and people don’t scare me.
The bottom line is that they had two years to deliver the game that people wanted and paid for. Now we’re 2.8 years in since the original Kickstarter, and 3.8 years in since Chris Roberts said the project started; and the game is still nowhere in sight.
NOBODY asked for what they are doing right now. If they went on crowd-funding and asked for $85m, we’d all just laugh, and go back to our lattes.
The FACTS are as follows:
- In 10/2012, they pitched a game for $500K, and got $2.1m
- They got the money
- They haven’t delivered the game – as pitched – by the Nov 2014 promised date
- They have kept asking for money and more money, based on intangible goods
- They kept increasing the game’s scope, despite having missed the original delivery milestone
- The game now, is beyond the initial scope, and which we backed
I love this industry. An industry that, while brutal, gave me the opportunity to do something that I love, while not making it easy. I take pride in the fact that when I screw up, or fail, and fall down, I can pick myself up – and keep on running. For me, there is no shame in failure; only pride in being able to acknowledge mistakes, and to learn from them.
My article (below) which I wrote, was a result of my observation that there is another industry disaster brewing, and which is, once again, going to not only cast the industry in a poor light if we didn’t do something, but which threatens to make it that much harder for the inbound generation to find their footing, because a bunch of people who came before, pretty much made it FUBAR.
And during my research for the piece, and for which I have hundreds of web articles, forum posts etc in an Evernote notepad, I came across a lot of things that I wasn’t even aware of. And once the article went live, I started hearing from all kinds of people in media, game development, gamers etc. And the more I read, the more I came to the realization that my article, which was merely a technical wake-up call of sorts, hadn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. Which is why I am adding this next paragraph.
If you feel that you have been misled when you backed the Star Citizen project after Oct, 2012, and you want a chance to get your money back, the FTC has setup a special department that deals with crowd-funding complaints. You can fill out this form. Then select “Internet services, online shopping, or computers” then “Online shopping”. You can read more about that overhere.
Space Combat Games: The Evolution
In the beginning, there were only a few space combat “sims” available; and they were mostly for the geeks among us. Most of us grew up with the likes of Elite, which was so ground-breaking at the time, that there simply wasn’t another game like it for a very long time.
Throughout the years, space combat games, while declared, and considered a niche genre, continued to make headway in leaps and bounds. Some of those leaps and bounds came in the form of games ranging from the Star Wars and Wing Commander series, all the way down the line to the likes of the Independence War games, the X and FreeSpace series etc.
Wikipedia has a massive list of space games from all sub-genres, and the fine folks at the Escapist have a “15 Best Space Combat Sims of All-Time” article they compiled almost a year ago this month. As you can see, this genre has been popular among a select group for many years.
Throughout the noise, my own Battlecruiser series, which later evolved to the Universal Combat series once I figured out how to throw in the kitchen sink without breaking my back, continued to carve out its own niche fan base, comprised of very hardcore gamers. Precisely the people I created them for.
Despite their popularity, my games never really did hit the mainstream in a big way like those publisher-backed behemoths that came and went. And this was due to the fact that they were very complex, buggy from early days, and as some would say, unwieldy. When you get to map the entire keyboard with commands, and have a game manual that’s 100+ pages, that’s probably unwieldy.
Then add to the fact that they were so massive, for me it was an on-going battle to make them work within the hardware and software constraints. Simply put, they were ahead of their time and there simply weren’t computers powerful enough to run them. I recall endless days and nights battling with the likes of DOS memory extenders, misbehaving audio and video drivers that hogged all system resources, switching from one compiler and linker environment to the next.
Once PC operating systems started to transition from DOS to Windows, shit hit the proverbial fan, because now I was stuck with a plethora of DOS based bespoke tools, engines, and technologies that needed to be ported to Windows because that’s where we were all headed.
It was a harrowing mess. Lucky for me, I had friends who were helping me out at the time and we slowly made the transition.
Most of those seemingly insurmountable problems were a result of having to build every facet of the game and engine from the ground up. There simply wasn’t anything out there to power the games I wanted to make. And robust third-party middleware were few and far between.
These Battlecruiser games have a massive universe updated in real-time, and which in the beginning featured space, air, and ground vehicle combat. That was back in the nineties. The first game in the series was released back in 1996. Let that sink in.
Interplay (the old guard, led by Brian Fargo, Phil Adam et al) were instrumental in helping me bring the game to a large group when they published the Battlecruiser 3000AD v2.0 update in 1999, over three years after Take Two’s disastrous release of the first game while still in Beta. That led to my taking legal action, which was later settled out of court and the rights reverted back to me.
Battlecruiser Millennium, released in 2001, added a first person infantry mode which allowed you to start the game in your craft, fly around in space, enter a planet, land, exit in FPS mode, do stuff in first person, fly aircraft, drive vehicles etc. The first-person infantry mode was rudimentary at best, but it worked and did what it was designed to do: that being give you a more immersive experience which brought me one step closer to that all-encompassing game.
Universal Combat, released in 2004, was the next evolutionary step for the series. This game added a slew of new technologies and features. It was also the first one to include player controlled naval assets, as well as a more robust first person infantry mode, among other things.
Little known fact: the name change was not my idea. The game was originally called Battlecruiser Generations. In my attempt to continue pushing my games into the mainstream via a publisher (back in the day, you actually needed one), my then publisher, the now-defunct (like so many from back in the day) Dreamcatcher Interactive, insisted that I move away from the “Battlecruiser stigma,” they said.
Their idea was for me to re-brand the name of the game. They came up with Battleforce, which I didn’t like. So, when I thought about the direction that the series was going in, and how it had evolved from being a pure space combat game, I came up with Universal Combat.
By 2009, when I hung up my cape and stopped chasing the whale, the genre was all but dead, save for a few franchise properties which had a dedicated following. Fan favorites such as FreeSpace, Star Wars, Wing Commander et al all disappeared from the limelight as the industry moved forward and away from the niche genres (which included adventure games, by the way).
I still had my games, which I kept updating as derivative works in some form or another. Those efforts spawned the Echo Squad games in 2006, which was a pure space and aerial combat game, completely scaled down from the more advanced and complex Battlecruiser/Universal Combat games.
Later in 2009, I again deviated from the space combat genre by focusing on planetary (air, land, sea) combat in the form of the All Aspects games, which had two titles. All Aspect Warfare and Angle Of Attack.
Are you noticing the pattern?
The Holy Grail
As I’ve said in many interviews, articles and so on, when I first set out to make these games, I had an all-encompassing vision. Being a sci-fi buff, I wanted a game in which one could travel through the stars, meet strange new people, explore, trade, fight, command your crew, and all that. All in space, and on planets, in first person infantry mode, with air, space, and vehicular combat thrown into the mix. I envisioned a mix of Elite with Star Flight, a dash of Sentinel Worlds and Hard Nova, and all the ludicrously complex machinations of the Star Fleet series.
The fact that I actually pulled off the first iteration in 1996, while most were either laughing at me, or saying how it couldn’t be done, is something that has been lost in time.
Through it all, my vision was still not complete because, even though GPU and CPU technologies were progressing at a fast pace, the game engine technologies still weren’t there. As a result, I continued to make sacrifices in order to keep moving things forward. For example, you can’t have high visual fidelity when you’re trying to build a massive game world. So I tended to sacrifice visuals for gameplay, something that was seemingly unheard of back in the day because you just get laughed at. Which is hilarious now that I think about it, when there are so many best-selling but shallow games with sub-par graphics.
The Holy Grail of immersion for me has always been for the player to be able to exist in first person (aka infantry) mode throughout the entire game world. You’d be able to walk around inside your ship. You’d be able to dock that ship with a station, exit, walk around inside that station. You’d be able to fly your ship directly into a planet, land, exit that ship, enter a building, do stuff etc.
Much like back in 1996 whereby nobody had even come close to my vision, as of this writing, nobody has come close to making that game, let alone a capital ship combat game that gives you so much control and freedom.
And it still continues to be a technical challenge of seemingly insurmountable proportions, over twenty-five years later since I first had an idea for the game that was to become Battlecruiser 3000AD.
And the only way that anyone is ever going to be able to make that game is if they built technologies specifically designed for it, and they have the deep financial pockets to do it with. And after that, it has to be compelling enough for gamers to want to upgrade their rig in order to play it. Unless you’re releasing the next Elder Scrolls, Call Of Duty, Battlefield, GTA or similar, good luck with getting modern-day gamers to bother upgrading to play your game without sufficient evidence of what makes your game so special.
Fact is, these all-encompassing games are exceptionally difficult to make. You can safely take that from someone who has spent over two decades making them. And even if you do manage to get the money to do it, and even manage to pull it off, the genre itself pretty much guarantees that the race to profit is fraught with agony, strife, frustration, and pain.
Getting There From Here
With the genre all but dead—or at least on life support—back in 2010 I decided to take another stab at the Holy Grail: only this time, rather than doing the song and dance of doing a product every few years, then having to do it all over again, I decided to jump into the SaS (Software as Service) fray, commonly known in gaming as MMO gaming.
To that end, I came up with Line of Defense.
As funny as it sounds, when I was designing that game, formulating it in my head etc, I knew, right off the bat, that I wasn’t going back to the complexities of the Battlecruiser/Universal Combat games. I was resigned to the fact that, not only did I not have the time (I am after all, over fifty now) to attempt that again, but I simply wasn’t prepared to risk doing a game for a genre that was seemingly dead. That, and the fact that, even after two decades, the tech is still not there to power the game. As amazing as that sounds, it’s true.
However, I still didn’t want to abandon a lore that I had created, polished, honed, etc over the years. So I decided that, even though this game wasn’t going to be a modern day Universal Combat, the very least that I could do was build it within that lore, and on a smaller scale which could be expanded over the years… without having to start from scratch.
So I carved out a small area of the lore’s universe, and decided to build this game on that framework. To give you an example of this postage stamp vs. football field scope, take a look at the lore’s entire universe, then compare to the section that’s carved out for this game. Note that every single space region, and every single planet in the original game universe, is populated.
Now imagine a game, in a universe of that size, with populated space and planetary areas, complete with internal areas for stations, buildings, ships etc. And with high visual fidelity, great runtime performance… and multiplayer. Then ask yourself this: “How the heck are we going to build that, let alone get it to actually run?”
You can’t. And you’re not.
Welcome to my 1996 dilemma.
For the first time in any of my games—or any game for that matter—in Line of Defense, you exist purely in first person (infantry) mode. You are free to run around inside stations, ships (for now, just one massive multi-deck carrier), and on planets. You have space and planetary (FPS, air, land, sea) immersion, in a relatively large game world.
As this my first game to add the “interior” element to my games, take a look at just how massive the level maps are.
A typical scenario would be you engaged in a space dogfight, you dock at a station, exit the fighter, run (probably engaging in combat) through the station, locate an airlock, use an HAIS device to enter the planet, continue playing in infantry mode, with access to aircraft, vehicles etc. And while there, move from one base to another, or go back to the station, make your way back to the docking bay, grab your craft, and go back into space, and maybe fly back down to the planet you just left via other means.
Technology: The Nightmare Within
How did we do it? Well, having built game engines to power my games, that’s precisely how it all started back in 2010. Almost a year later, it dawned on me that, I was wasting resources building an engine to fit a game which, for all intent and purposes, wasn’t even 25% as complex as my previous games.
I woke up one morning, some days after my initial project review, and deprecated the entire game engine. Totally scrapped every bit of it.
At that point, there was no engine, and certainly no game. Just a bunch of content (art, models, levels, scene data) etc. All of which had to be put back together again. Somehow.
After reviewing various game engines, none of which were flexible enough to power the game, I went with a potpourri of middleware engines, which used Havok Vision Engine (previously known as Trinigy) as the underlining architecture. By the time the dust settled, we’d cobbled together so many engines—all of which had to play nice with each other—that we ended up spending a lot of time writing custom code to make it all work seamlessly.
And all that was on top of the costs lost during the first year of building a custom engine for the game.
Here’s the thing with game engines: no matter what anyone tells you, one size does not fit all. As powerful as the three (UE4, CryEngine3, Unity5) popular game engines are, each one is suited for a specific type and style of game.
For my games, the limitations are not in graphics, they are in scene management and scope. I am going to try and not delve into dev speak at this point, so I will explain it as best I can in layman terms.
If you were to use those engines to build a game with the scene (the game world) scope required by my Battlecruiser/Universal Combat games, or even something like Elite: Dangerous, it won’t work. At all. For one thing, the larger the scene size, the more limitations and calculation anomalies (e.g. the farther you go from the center, the worse it becomes etc.) you will run into.
The only way around all those limitations is to build your own engine, suited specifically to the game world you are building.
To give you a better perspective of scope and scale, think about this. The size of the four space regions (Lyrius, Lennen, Zilon, Sygan are in the Terran quadrant) in Line of Defense, compared to that of the space region in my previous game, is like comparing the size of a grain of sand, sitting at the center of our planet Earth, and viewed from the perspective of someone outside the solar system.
There is no middleware game engine that will make a game that has any scene of that scope, possible. You have to build it yourself.
Building games like this, you have to balance visual fidelity with gameplay and scope. You absolutely cannot have it all, and even if you do have it all, something will suffer. Either visual fidelity, or performance.
What this means is that when you see the visual fidelity in games like Star Citizen, you have to wonder how they are going to make a game of this scope, with that level of visual fidelity, in a persistent game world, with multiplayer and expect decent performance results. If you read my dev blogs, you already have an inkling of precisely what goes into building games like this.
And not everyone has the experience to do it, because unless you’ve done it all before—which they haven’t—since no game of its kind exists, outside of my own games, you’re going to be on a steep, and seemingly insurmountable learning curve, and false starts.
And even when you do build a smaller scope game, as we have done with LOD, you still have to make sacrifices or it simply will not run. In this regard, I went with a minimalist art style which I felt was a good balance between visual fidelity and performance.
And when it’s all said and done, you have to test it. And for a game of this scope, you immediately see why companies big and small run open and closed Beta programs by crowd-sourcing testers.
For an indie team of less than a dozen (a core team of only seven) people on the game, there was no way we were going to be able to test it effectively. So I had a chat with my Valve counterparts, showed them the game, and explained what I wanted to do. In the end, our only option was to integrate a suite of SteamWorks tools and release the game on Steam Early Access. With a year from release, in September 2014, I put the game up. You can read the results in this dev blog post-mortem which I wrote back in March.
Emergence: The Bridge Too Far
In the past years I’ve spent building LOD, some interesting things started happening in the space combat sector. A group of smaller bite-sized games kept coming and going. Some were great: others, not so much. None of the major industry players (publishers and developers) were even thinking about the genre, let alone making any game that catered to it. And no, Star Wars: Battlefront doesn’t count, so go away.
At some point, about three years ago, people started looking to crowdfunding for funding game development games. No way that could go wrong, right? Oh, but it did, and spectacularly so. Yes, of course there are more game funding successes than there are failures, but the fact is that when you have a small pool to sample with, any failure is considered a big one.
So imagine my surprise and excitement when two things happened in the sector, back in 2012.
In Nov 2012, David Braben threw his hat into the ring and announced Elite: Dangerous via Kickstarter.
He was looking to raise $2 million, but ended up with around $2.5 million.
The original pitch was every space combat fan’s wet dream: a spiritual successor to the original Elite game. Yup, funded it.
The delivery schedule was March 2014. It was released on the PC in December 2014. And as of April 2015, it had sold about 500,000 units.
Despite the fact that ED was delivered late, mostly unfinished, very buggy (it still is), and for non-space sim fans is as boring as watching paint dry, they delivered as promised. In fact, they exceeded my expectations because I wasn’t expecting, nor wanting, more than that which they delivered. What most of us wanted was a bigger and better Elite, with modern day tech. And they delivered in spades.
Now, they’re rumored to be considering adding planetary access and such, though it’s anyone’s guess what form that will take. From where I’m sitting, and given my experience in chasing that particular whale, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Previously, in October 2012, Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame, having left the industry back in the 90s for Hollywood, announced Star Citizen via Kickstarter.
He was looking to raise $500,000, but ended up with $2.1 million on Kickstarter. More on this later.
The original pitch was for a game that blended Wing Commander with Privateer with a dose of Freelancer, three of his previous games. And we were all on-board with that, me to the tune of $250 in funding.
The delivery schedule was November 2014. We’re still waiting.
As of this writing, the game’s crowdfunding has not only ballooned to an unprecedented $85 million, but so has the scope.
The entire bulk of the crowdfunding, after sailing past that initial $2.1 million Kickstarter funding, was in selling futures. No, seriously, hear me out. Someone figured out that the hype around this game was so huge that they may as well start selling ice to Eskimos. And they did just that.
Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with that. After all, that’s what raising funds for a project is about: selling. But it’s a double-edged sword. And usually, if you’re dealing with seasoned and experienced investors or even publishers, if they’re not convinced or even interested, you’re not getting the money. And if you do get it, that money comes with strings… usually pretty long and taut strings. With crowdfunding, no such strings exist, and you can pretty much do what you want. And that’s usually where trouble starts.
So they are making concept art for ships, some were actual models, and then selling them at a premium. People keep buying them. This, despite the fact that there is still no “game” to play them with. In short, the result is that you have ships you’ve bought, with no game to play them with.
Basically, they went from a baseline space combat with trading game with these bullet points:
- A rich universe focused on epic space adventure, trading and dogfighting in first person.
- Single-player: offline or online (drop in/drop out co-op play)
- Persistent Universe (hosted by US)
- Modable multiplayer (hosted by YOU)
- Rich, persistent universe with 100 (!) populated star systems
- Dynamic economy with millions (!) of entities
- Newtonian physics
- Space combat
- Ship upgrades (engines, weapons, etc.) and customization
- Multi-crew ships (your friends can exist in your ship)
- Activities including mining, harvesting raw materials, factories, and so on
- First person inside ships with combat
- First person inside stations with combat
- First person on level-based planetary hubs with combat
- Career based progression with stats
- Single player and co-op mode (Squadron 42)
- Multiplayer (Star Citizen)
It has been designed in a modular fashion, which has led to some confusion. Here is an excerpt that breaks it down further.
The core concept of Star Citizen is that it’s a destination, not a one-off story. It’s a complete universe where any number of stories can take place. Players will have the opportunity to decide their own game experience. Pick up jobs as a smuggler, pirate, merchant, bounty hunter, or soldier. It’s a universe we’ve always wanted to create. We want to build a huge sandbox with a complex and deep lore that allows the players to explore in whatever capacity they want.
The project also includes Squadron 42, a single player campaign that takes place within the Star Citizen universe. Able to be played off-line or with friends, you essentially sign up to fly for the UEE fleet, manning the front lines, protecting settlements from Vanduul warbands. If you prove yourself, you might get asked to join the legendary 42nd Squadron. Set up like the French Foreign Legion, they can always be found in the toughest war zones and always manage to come out on top. Once you complete your tour however, you re-enter the persistent Star Citizen universe with some money in your pocket and Citizenship to find your way.
Open World Architecture
The great thing about this is that you don’t have to do Squadron 42.
You can basically decide that you’re going to be a merchant or pirate and never join the military. Having that choice for the player is fantastic. What we’re talking about here is a combination of everything that made Wing Commander great along with everything that made Privateer great. The single-player military campaign sits inside this open world architecture in a holistic fashion.
While you will probably spend a majority of time in the cockpit there will be first-person mechanics built into the game. When you are flying on some of the bigger ships (transports, carriers, etc.), you will be able to wander the halls of the ship while a friend pilots, jump on a turret if you get attacked, even repel attempted boarders if needed.
I am not even going to touch on what can go wrong when you have different studios, in different states and countries, working on various aspects of the same massive game. If you know a producer who has ever worked with external contractors and/or studios on a project, have a chat with him or her, listen to the horror stories; then multiply that by a factor of ten. Only then will you begin to get the full picture of what could go horribly wrong here.
As of this writing, having sailed past the original November 2014 delivery date, in over three (Chris indicated that they started the project one year before the Kickstarter crowdfunding) years of development, they’ve thus far delivered the following:
- A hangar where you can see and walk around the ships you’ve bought
- A combat training simulator, yandere simulator, Arena Commander, where you can dogfight with some—not all—of the ships you’ve bought thus far in the game. And there’s racing. Not to mention the fact that, as of this writing, that module still can’t even handle 8 vs. 8 combat engagements without terrible issues.
And they’ve made a lot of impressive videos, some pre-rendered (?), and some using the power of the CryEngine3 cinematics profile. More on this later.
Without disrespect to anyone, I’m just going to say it: it is my opinion that, this game, as has been pitched, will never get made. Ever.
There isn’t a single publisher or developer on this planet who could build this game as pitched, let alone for anything less than $150 million.
The original vision which I backed in 2012? Yes, that was totally doable. This new vision? Not a chance.
The technical scope of this game surpasses GTAV, not to mention the likes of Halo.
Do you have any idea what those games cost to make and how long they took?
Do you know how many games which cost $50 million to make took almost five years to release? And they were nowhere in scope as Star Citizen?
And whatever it is you’re thinking about right now, stop. Let me give you something else to think about as a segue.
I started to make this game, first in 1989, released in 1999. Then again in 2003, again in 2004. Again, and again, and again. Each time making progress as tech caught up with my ideas.
Finally, in 2009 I gave up and released the culmination of my works as a Collector’s Edition. To mark the 25th year anniversary of the Battlecruiser series back in August 2014, earlier this year, I updated and released that CE edition for free on Steam.
Go play (or read the complete docs) it if you’re up to it. If the 97 page tutorial doesn’t make your heart stop, check your pulse: you may already be dead. It remains the only game of its kind ever made. And the only all-encompassing capital ship combat game there is. You’re welcome.
And in every interview, every article, every dev blog, I’ve said the same thing: these are the most complex, difficult, and technologically challenging games to make. And being an indie—and for the most part media—whipping boy, there are those who vilified me for chasing my dreams and for trying to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal. All because they didn’t understand what exactly it is I was dealing with, or trying to make. Even mad scientists have it easier than I did.
Here we are. And it’s 2015.
And since it’s not Derek Smart or some low hanging gamedev fruit who has gone out and crowd-funded $85 million of someone else’s money to make a game that’s all but impossible to make, the mainstream media have remained largely mum about the whole thing, other than doing article after article after article about the game, the funding etc. Nobody has asked the tough questions as to how on Earth they’re going to pull off something this unprecedented.
But if this fails, the media are going to be the same ones to tear into them. I have seen it happen time and time again. It’s a very vicious cycle.
The RSI devs have all the same insurmountable problems that I have encountered over two decades of chasing this whale, and which have not only led to their delays, but also the recent announcement that the first person module was on hold came as no surprise to me.
I have it on good authority that it’s not even on hold, but that they’re probably not going to finish it both because it won’t work within the current framework and it wasn’t in the original design as spec’ed, since it has ballooned to what it is today. So naturally, it’s the first thing to go, or put on indefinite hold while they figure things out.
Remember: the game, first and foremost, is a space combat game, not a first person combat game.
At least you will still have your hangar (which is completely and 100 percent detached from the game framework, by the way), in which you can still walk around in first person mode to look at your ships. And Arena Commander.
Why wasn’t I surprised that they’ve started cutting things out, starting with this? Well, because after spending over two decades making a game like this, you pretty much know what to expect.
Right from the start in 2012 when they said that they were using CryEngine3 as their baseline, I was skeptical. But if they kept the scope, and scene sizes manageable, I felt that it was totally doable.
Once the feature creep and increased scope started to unfold, I knew they were in trouble.
Remember what I said earlier that there is no game engine on the planet that would power the game I wanted to build, and that I’d have to build it? Yes, same thing here. That is precisely why all the top-tier developers build their game engines around the game they’re making. And even those who end up licensing middleware game engines do so based on the fact that they are making a game that fits within the framework of the engine they’re licensing. Nobody is going to license UE4 to develop a flight sim.
That CE3 engine is, first and foremost, a first-person engine. Second, it is geared toward small scale session-based games. Now imagine using a level-based engine, suited for first-person games, and trying to build an open persistent world with it. That’s like me trying to outfit my Tesla with the engine from a Prius. Bad things can and will happen.
Don’t take my word for it: here is a list of games using all three generations of the CryEngine. See what I mean?
RSI decided to build this massive, all-encompassing game using an FPS engine as the baseline.
Using an excerpt from my “In Pursuit of Awesomeness” dev blog, let me list a subset of all what they have to cobble together in that CryEngine3 based custom game engine.
- First-person. This also includes the various animations, all of which have to be tweaked for each of the characters in the game. They also have to match the weapons, items etc.
- Player character physics, inventory and weapons handling.
- Aircraft physics and dynamics.
- Space combat environment.
- Planetside base landing, which has to handle transition from player craft, to first person to planetside base… seamlessly. Oh, and combat there as well.
- Interior rendering for the various ships, stations, planetside bases etc. Again, with support for combat.
- Everything seamlessly updated, synchronized, processed in real-time for a persistent universe in which, at any one time, players and NPC entities will be traveling, trading, fighting, exploring.
And no, having the source code doesn’t help much because you get to a point whereby you’ve made so many changes, and branched off the middleware developers base engine, that you can’t go back without problems. So they have their version, and you have yours. Good luck with those merges which can and often break everything.
Again, don’t take my word for it. Here is a technical excerpt from the Frankfurt team’s June 2015 engineering report.
In June, Frankfurt Engineering deployed to the main codebase some major items that were planned for this month. As mentioned in the last monthly report, the Large World (moving the codebase to 64 bit coordinates), Camera Relative (rendering coordinates relative to the camera thus allowing galaxy size rendering without loss of precision), Zone system (the new Star Citizen spatial partitioning scheme, replacing Cryengine Octree) were close to hit the Star Citizen code mainline and have now been deployed, and will find their way into the various Star Citizen game modules soon.
The integration of relevant CryEngine 3.7 SDK parts, combined with our new changes, is being deployed into our codebase as we are writing this. Additionally a large effort this month was spent on supporting multi-crew vehicle ships: local physics grid, physics debugger, entities and prefabs, support for new 3D VisArea shapes, all this combined with the Zone System, are being worked on in the context of operating moveable ships. Amongst the other things, the multi-crew development process exposed a few bugs and incorrect functionalities that have been living in the CryEngine codebase for years …
We too had technical issues with Havok Vision Engine, and we don’t even have the source. We’ve written so much custom code for LOD that we don’t even pay any attention to the Havok engine point releases anymore. The only time we actually get to do a code merge (much to Jon’s chagrin), is if they have serious bug fixes or performance tweaks which we must have. Then it’s like a week of no progress during that merge. And usually, all hell breaks loose and most things fall apart.
And unfortunately for us, if we miss merging a point release, by the time we get around to it, we have to pay support (yearly) fees in order to get the latest version.
We as game devs, can go for days without a solid build, let alone one that actually, you know, works. We all go through this sort of thing consistently. It’s a rite of passage.
It doesn’t matter that you have an “open” development process with feedback loop to backers. Plus, from what I know, it’s not that open anyway, because there’s only so much that you can tell the public without inciting panic which is likely to turn off the money spigot. It’s no different from not coming clean with your investors, or publisher, because you don’t want to deal with the drama or lose funding. Or you’re just being dishonest.
The average gamer has no clue that game development is not as glamorous as it seems. Even when they have nothing invested in a game, they’ll have an opinion on it. Imagine what happens if they’ve got money in it. Which is precisely why Early Access gets such a bad rap.
The End Game… Wait! What End Game?
The problem that RSI is now faced with is something that us vets all saw coming a mile away. This level of exposure, all the press, the promises, the hype, the glorious anti-establishment chanting and rhetoric etc.: all of it has a very bad downside.
And it’s not like the rumblings haven’t been there. Every time there is new press about a funding milestone or yet another ship concept cash grab, there is some derogatory rhetoric associated with it because most backers are fed up and just want the game they were promised back in 2012.
Others are just waiting for the day when it all comes crashing down, so they can point, chuckle, and say they saw it coming.
And last I checked, some people had spent over $5,000 on this game. Even if you don’t want to believe that, believe this: they’ve raised about $85 million from 918,806 backers. That is an average of $92 per gamer.
A couple of weeks ago last month, when there was news about the FTC going after failed promises made by someone who crowdfunded a game, there were various discussions about the terrible precedent which would be set if this game failed to deliver and if a bunch of people reported it. And that’s no joke. We’re talking $85 million. That’s a lot of cash. Other people’s money.
If you spend $30 and get a generic game, you’ll post a bad review, tell all your friends etc. Eventually, you will move on. It happens. But in this instance, given all what has transpired, and all this money, gamers aren’t going to let it slide. Even if they lost $19.
No; they’re going to ask WTF happened to “all that money?“ because now it’s their money, not some faceless investor’s, or even a publisher.
And they’re going to be pissed because they expected more than a hangar and a largely buggy Arena Commander module which isn’t representative of the game they were pitched back in 2012, and which has to have been delivered two years later in Nov 2014.
As I’ve said before, I want this game to succeed for a lot of selfish reasons, least of all being that I funded it. I mostly want it to succeed because we don’t have any games like this in the genre, and not even my games can fill that void because they are super complex, pretty old, don’t look as pretty etc. You know, different budgets, different production values etc. And I really don’t care who makes it. All I know is that before I die, I want to play it. Is that too much to ask?
I also want it to succeed in whatever form because if it doesn’t, it’s going to be another massive gamedev and videogame crowdfunding black eye. I know people who are already rumbling that if this fails that it is going to be more epic than the collapse of 38 Studios in the Summer of 2012. And that $75 million was mostly tax-payer money. And almost three years now, that one is still playing out in the courts.
What I mean by this comparison is related to the following, all of which happened to 38 Studios, it’s creators, primary execs, politicians etc. and how the media handled it:
- The amount of public money raised is not something to ignore. Like that studio’s sudden implosion in 2012, it’s a lot of money. The kind of money that makes every lawyer, politician, analyst etc., perk up their ears and try to get involved in the fray.
- Given the number of studios working on this project worldwide, the sudden loss of jobs would be catastrophic for some people, most of whom had to relocate to get their jobs.
- The hype surrounding this project since its 2012 inception is going to guarantee that every media outlet is going to want a piece of the action, and most of that is going to be based on sheer speculation, wanton conjecture, bullshit anonymous “sources” etc., because the focus would be on vilifying Chris and crew, rather than focusing on what mistakes were made.
And I need not even mention APB as another example.
To add to the noise, there are reports that people (Travis Day, a senior producer left recently) at RSI have been leaving, the executive producer (!) (UPDATE. It has been confirmed to me that Alex Mayberry, the Exec Producer, hired a year ago, is no longer at the company) is on his way out, and they’re spending more than they’re bringing in because crowdfunding has peaked etc.
The understated economics of game development is quite simple. For as long as I’ve been around, and seen so many projects fail because they ran out of funds, you’d think that by now this is something every developer and publisher would be aware of, and plan for it:
- If you’re spending $2 and bringing in $1, you’re in trouble.
- If your studio is burning through $2 million a month, then you need $24 million a year in funding. If you’re selling less than $2 million a month, you’re in trouble.
- If your studio has $24 million to make a game over a period of two years, and you’re burning more than $1 million per month, you’re in trouble.
- If your budget is down to the wire, in that you don’t have a buffer of at least 15% of your funds in reserve, and which you can use for unforeseen expenses during development, you’re asking for trouble.
None of the departures, delays etc. should necessarily be regarded as a sign of trouble for the project. When you start to scale back or hunker down, people leaving, delays, stuff getting cut etc. is all par for the course. What you can expect though, for something of this scope, is that it’s going to get scaled back. That’s assuming that it ever sees the light of day.
And if they scale it back, that’s going back on promises. And when that happens, it’s going to be a complete disaster. Guaranteed.
So to those of you who don’t know how this works, it doesn’t make any sense to scream “failure” when you have no clue just what (a lot) goes into developing these games.
It may succeed, it may fail; but for now, all we can do is watch how it plays out. But given the fiasco surrounding Freelancer—the other very ambitious game that Chris tried to make, and the disappointment that was the final game as delivered versus what was promised, after which Chris left the industry—we should all be worried. Especially this time around, there’s no Electronic Arts and no Microsoft to act as a tether, or for us to point the finger at and to hold accountable.
For me, I already know—for a fact—that they can’t build this game they’ve pitched, and which I was looking forward to someone making. So all I’m looking forward to now is getting my $250 worth of gaming. And right now, a hangar and Arena Commander, after three years of development and now eight months late, is not something that inspires confidence in me.
To the rest of you, I only have this to say:
stop buying virtual items for a goddamn game you don’t have. What in the holy phuck is the matter with you?!? You know how many indie games you could’ve bought and supported and been PLAYING by now?!?
A Vision Out Of Scope, A Man Out Of Time
Knowing that the time for me to build that massive all-encompassing game within a reasonable amount of time and with my indie level resources had come and gone, I made a similar decision to reduce the scope. That was the plan around Line of Defense.
Even so, the only reason why you don’t get to fly capital (cruisers, carriers, transports) ships in the game, as you could in Battlecruiser/Universal Combat, is because:
- There are no playable capital ships in the game.
- The game world is too small for them.
- It’s a different kind of game.
Though it is smaller, we still needed to build a custom engine to power the immense scope of the game.
Even the single capital ship in the game, an Engstrom class carrier, is only in the game because I was clinging onto the notion that one day, the game would evolve via DLC which would allow me to not only continue expanding the world (though it would still be smaller in scale), but also add all the capital ships from the lore. So for now, my gamers running around inside the Starguard carrier in LOD, though unable to fly it, can well imagine what could’ve been.
Right now, even with that carrier, it’s not player-controlled because it’s not enabled. It’s just like any other aircraft or vehicle in the LOD game: it can be flown, if the mechanics for it are enabled. Which means that, even with that massive multi-deck behemoth, you could have 255 players in it, and one person flying it. Yeah. We built that.
Now imagine if, back in 2010, I had set out to make a new game in the Battlecruiser/Universal Combat series with that level of fidelity. First, there won’t be a single machine powerful enough to run it reasonably well, even if each of the habitable planets only had one planetary base the size of the one in LOD. Second, the costs would be insurmountable for my small indie company.
The thing is, if I had $85 million to spend developing a game, regardless of whose money it was, I probably wouldn’t do it. But that’s just me.
In 2012, I did an interview with Russ Pitts for Polygon in which I stated the following:
I’ve learned from everything I’ve done over the years and I’m still the same person who started out in the 80’s. When I’m gone, my games will be out there. Those who like them will be out there. Those who don’t like them will still be out there. But one thing I know is I’m still going to sleep at night because if I lost money, it was my own money. If I earned money, it was my own money. I never took advantage of anyone. I never caused anyone’s company to go under. I never put anyone out of work because of mistakes I’ve made. Every mistake I’ve made I’ve owned and I’ve always held myself accountable and I’m OK with that.
I have come to terms with the fact that, at my age, I will never be able to realize my dreams of building that awesome all-encompassing space and planetary combat game that I envisioned decades ago. And it wasn’t from my lack of trying, let alone expertise.
So I really do hope and pray that RSI can pull this off, because if someone like me, with all my experience and expertise on this very same subject and who has spent half a lifetime trying can’t do it without sacrificing something (visual fidelity, performance, scope etc) in the process, and they, with all this money and star talent can’t do it either, then it’s safe to say that it simply can’t be done. At least not in our lifetime.
That is all.