The View From Orbit: 100 Million Wookies Can't Be Wrong

Published: December 14, 2015 11:00 AM /



100 Million dollars can’t be wrong:

Star Citizen finally crossed the 100 Million mark.  Whether you think this is profound success, or profound proof of idiocracy, I think we can all agree that what Star Citizen is promising is what a lot of people desire.

What is that, really?

  • Fly a spaceship in a Star Wars style fictional setting. Enough realism to make it satisfying, and enough fantasy to make it approachable to the non-physicist or fighter pilot.
  • Sandbox setting. We want stories to be found, but we want to make our own as well.  Sometimes I want to be the central hero of my own personal tale, and other times I want to just be a participant in the simulation of daily life in the sandbox.  Ultimately I want a choice about what I want to engage with, and when.
  • Human interaction. We want to play cooperatively with friends.  Some of us want to test our skill against other humans because the AI won’t ever deliver a “fair” contest like another human can.  And, for me, I want to just see other ships going about their business and know there’s another person there and not just some decorative scripting.
  • A simulation of vehicles that allows you to exit the vehicle, and do non-vehicular things but without sacrificing the depth and fidelity of the primary simulation mode. We want to fly the ship, but also experience the environment outside the cockpit because we’re the pilot and not the vehicle.
  • If I do something, it’s in the state I put it in for everybody else to witness.  We’re tired of MMOs that reset slain dragons and render our heroic effort meaningless.  We want persistent meaning to our actions and our creations. 

We’ve seen this trend in games developing over the recent years.  Grand Theft Auto is the #1 example of a sandbox with a story arc that comes to mind.  Then we got the ability to take that online and play cooperatively and adversarially with other people.  Jump in any vehicle, or run around on foot.  Minecraft, Terraria, Space Engineers, etc. have proven the gameplay of a persistent “builder” game.  ARK, H1-Z1, Rust and friends have shown that people crave crafting for purposes of contesting with others, or just surviving the hostility inherent in the environment.

ARK in particular, I have some experience with at great length in PVE cooperation with my wife and friends.  What does she derive from the game?  We started out being bottom of the food chain, figured out how to build simple tools and a grass hut.  Constant discovery and refinement of player skill led to that hut becoming a massive stone fortress with iron gates, and the wild killer beasts that we used to flee in terror from are now our servants.  This reward is amplified because every time we log into our server there’s our glorious creation PERSISTENTLY in the living world around it.  And we can watch out the window as the circle of digital dinosaur life “just happens” around us.  We’re just no longer on the menu.  But we know we’re just at the beginning, and there’s so much more discovery awaiting us.  So, you have your sandbox, persistent creation, persistent rewards, and the carrot on the stick of more unknowns to be discovered.

People love that reward cycle.  It’s made all the sweeter by being able to invite other players into our world and let them see what we’ve accomplished—then go to their world and see how their own emergent story is completely different than our own, even though the world was the same.  It’s fun, and endlessly interesting to see what other people do.  Look at how popular “let’s play” video series are.  This is specifically where Elite Dangerous fails to satisfy, because we don’t create anything persistent.  In fact, Braben’s game is intentionally hostile to persistency, despite how engaging the momentary experience of the simulation is.  They tried to bolt this on with community goals and political border flux, but it’s not personal enough.  We want to make something and point to it and say “that’s mine.”

I would say that the audience for this sort of experience in a sci-fi setting is enormous.  And they’ve proven that by shoveling money at a promise of it, just on the chance that it will happen.  We’ll look back with hindsight on how this thing turns out, and we’ll judge our expectations and the degree to which they were fulfilled, but one certainty is that I can tell you here and now that we want this specific list of things with such fervor that it can build quite a pile of “wishes expressed as dollars” and the rest of the industry is indeed looking at this closely.  I want to encourage those observers to consider the key points here, because there is certainly room for more than one of these worlds.  The traditional MMO model is largely unsatisfactory, yet we have Star Trek and Star Wars MMOs. 

Dear Disney:  Have you considered the pile of money you would make if there were a Star Wars version of Star Citizen?  What about you, Paramount?  Have you considered a Star Trek sandbox that is free of the questing and leveling bunk of an MMO formula?  Are you now convinced that people will pay real money in spades to buy cosmetic things to express their personality in that sandbox?  Think long and hard about this.  You’re both in the story telling business.  Tell stories IN HERE and we’ll pay you to be participants in them and not just the audience – in fact, we will pay you to let us write them for you.


On Star Wars:

This coming Friday is Episode VII’s release. Star Wars has been a big deal to me since I was seven years old, and first saw it on the IMAX of its day—the massive screen at the local drive-in theater.   My parents weren’t huge sci-fi nerds but they liked it well enough to keep coming back.  I’m certain I saw Star Wars no less than TEN TIMES in the summer of 1977.  Grandma used to send in “box tops” from various products to get the reward trinkets Campbells or Kellogs would offer to consumers who could be bothered.  That was an interesting consumer loyalty scheme, now that I think about it. General Mills owned Kenner, and she got a package of four action figures from them.  Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2D2 as I recall.  Santa Claus dropped off an X-Wing later, bless him.

Action figures were very important.  In this pre-VCR era, you never saw a movie again once it was gone from theaters.  That was it, so I hope you saw it sufficiently during your window of opportunity.  Star Wars was different.  I had it (abridged) on 8-track audio cassette.  There were comic books, magazines, and most importantly those wonderful toys to keep it alive.  (And yes, the “Holiday Special.")  I remember having a deep discussion on the playground at school with another Jedi philosopher friend of mine as to the nature of “clone wars” and what “Oh Bee One” might mean if there was an “Oh Bee Two” and so on.  Clearly, cloning Jedi would be the way to go if you were cloning an army in Star Wars, right?  (RIGHT GEORGE?! Damn your stupid “roger roger” droids to hell.)

We didn’t have video games beyond Pong and Space Invaders at the time, so it’s not like we’d have a strong narrative game to indulge our Star Wars obsession.  Also, movie sequels were a damn rare thing back then, unlike today where it seems any movie that isn’t a potential trilogy franchise simply can’t get green-lit.  It was a stupefying and ecstatic shock to find out that The Empire Strikes Back was coming out in 1980.  I reacted in the only way a ten year old can—whooping and dancing.  Mom gave me my birthday present early that year: the original Kenner TIE Fighter.  The one-two-punch of joys was, I assure you, so far surpassing of anything I’d experience for the next 35 years of my life, that I’d declare it “all downhill from there.” 

In fact, this kind of messed me up for life, because as you can see that TIE Fighter begat an obsession with all thing TIE Fighter.  When Lucasarts announced they were making a TIE Fighter flight sim in 1994 I did the only reasonable thing—I bought a PC using every dime I had, and I have probably put well over 2,000 hours into that game.  Here’s photographic evidence of my obsession:

tie-fighter-shelfIgnore that Rebel trash - they're captured trophies.  Palpatine #1!

We’ll talk about TIE Fighter and other Lucasarts games another day.  Right now the important thing is that Star Wars has been a presence in my life for 38 years.  It has been relevant every day, because it has shaped what the world is around me.  Star Wars and Star Trek are the twin pillars of sci-fi that have colored the world ever since.  Pull out your phone and take a good look at it.  Thanks Captain Kirk.  Now look at the computer monitor in front of you.  Did you ever notice that flat panel display on the kitchen counter in the Star Wars Holiday Special

holiday-special-lcdLooks like the monitor on my desk right now.

I have been very outspoken about how much I don’t trust JJ Abrams.  Lens flare, KHAAAAAAAN! and immortal tribbles.  You do realize that by putting Khan’s blood in a tribble they made it immortal, right?  And it’s going to reproduce exponentially into a tribble master race that cannot die.  Eventually you’ll have the entire galaxy turned into a tribble singularity.  Why is this?  Because JJ does stuff in the moment because it looks cool, but he doesn’t care about outcomes or long term consequences of his momentary whimsy.  I pray we don’t have to write off Episode VII as an alternate Star Wars timeline or something so our brains don’t explode.   If he screws this up, the polar ice caps will be completely gone by February due to all the heat radiating off the angry fans. 

Anyway, here’s to hoping that we all love this new movie as much as the originals, and that no new Gungan horrors are spawned.  Be safe, have a good time, and don’t burn down the cinemaplex if things go foul.   I am, oddly, totally devoid of hype about this thing.  I want it to be soooooo good, but I refuse to get emotionally invested the outcome too soon.

And that brings us back to $100 Million dollars of Star Citizen over-investment and emotional charge from the sci-fi sim community.  It’s why I’m a no-investment backer.  I fully support the project but I’m not getting emotionally or financially invested in the outcome.  Like JJ Abrams, Chris Roberts has been a mixed-results creator, but his intentions are to deliver what he thinks we want.  I hope his vision is our vision, and I hope the budget holds long enough to sustain it—but if it doesn’t, I won’t be jumping off any bridges.


Releases Dec 7th-13th:

  • Axion [$2] – Indie action survival RPG FPS.  Eh… looks like $2.
  • Mechwarrior Online [Freemium] – It’s like this game is almost finally out of Alpha, though it’s been released for years. Steadily improving, but still not where anybody wants it to arrive yet.  Nice to have a bunch of fresh players and hopefully increased pressure to add more maps and features, perhaps less emphasis on wallet milking of the founders.
  • Robo Rumble [$6] – Necromancy of a 1998 RTS game about assembling robots and blowing them up. I’m not impressed.
  • Warhammer 40k: Dark Nexus Arena [Freemium] – Early access of this 40k MOBA. This is going to be pay-to-win hell.  I can feel it.  But at least it’s free to take a peek at.  The “starter pack” is $30 alone.    This might not survive early access.
  • Galactic Civilizations 3: Precursor Worlds DLC [$5] – The third $5 DLC for GC3. Adds in precursor planets which amount to random planet bonuses.  Colonization event choices and survey ships can discover new anomalies.  Hopefully this amounts to more than “Planet 6 has +2 research bonus”, but that’s how it sounds.  The 1.5 patch that coincides with this makes big alterations to diplomacy, planetary spending, and AI behavior about starbases – and is part of the base game, not the DLC specifically.

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