Category: Articles

Avoiding Incarna: How Elite: Dangerous could be in trouble

It is no small secret amongst friends that I am a huge fan of science fiction. Some of the first books I read were from Asimov and Clarke, I grew up watching the various Star Trek series in the home, and I am currently doing a personal re-cut of Silent Running to include the 65daysofstatic re-score simply because I canLet’s be fair, I don’t know anyone who’s a fan of the original soundtrack.

Naturally, this lends itself to games. Homeworld is one of my top titles of all time, I played Eve Online for more than a decade, and own almost every X release.

No surprise then that I’m a massive fan of Elite: Dangerous. Essentially “Elite 4” as known for years before a rather successful Kickstarter gave it both the name we know and the funds to prove its market, Dangerous offers a multiplayer sandbox literally the size of our galaxyThanks to the wonderful world of procgen filled with interesting sights to see, sites to visit, and slights to perform.

Yet if you listen to the vocal community, the game may be in trouble.

It could be argued that there are many faults with Elite: Dangerous’ game design. Entire systems are built around the concept of “grind as depth” and this has resulted in a lot of criticism from the community. However, said faults are not the focus of this post.

I must also point out that below is in no way an attack or commentary on individual employees of Frontier (the developer), more the general view of how some things are seemingly done from an outsider’s perspective. When talking about dev time, remember that I am referring to the time that is given to specific tasks as dictated by a schedule that is often if not always outside the control of the developers themselves in most commercial software houses.

The Incarna Problem

In the modern world of large-scale online games, there has emerged multiple instances of what I have coined The Incarna Problem. The concept is that over time, the producers and managers responsible for the maintenance of a long-term online game choose to focus on expansion rather than refinement, to the ultimate detriment of the game itself.

To explain this in detail involves speaking some of Eve Online and its troubled development history.

After many years of following bi-annual “expansion release” schedules, lots of issues with Eve‘s core gameplay were simply left to flounder, and the vast majority of the new gameplay additions contained within these expansions were left to drown.

For example, Empyrean Age was released mid-2008 with their first-ever CG enhanced trailer, several in game events and even their first tie-in novel. But the gameplayWhich was unfinished and in many ways functionally broken was essentially ignored even in the late-08 expansion and left to flounder right up until late-2011.

By the end of 2010, “unfinished additions” became an accepted, but annoying, fact of Eve and the player base as a whole was actually having enough. The vast majority of “top level” players just accepted that each expansion was used to sell the game to more people, rather than encouraging the enjoyment of those who were already giving money.

Incarna, an expansion that was to introduce out-of-ship interaction, was touted as this massive new frontier for Eve – and marketed as such since the original preview videos in 2008. However, come release in 2011, it was barely in an alpha state – broken, crap performance, had a single room with barely any interactivity, and wasn’t even optional, meaning some people couldn’t actually log in due to the performance or crash bugs. Top this off with a brand new cash shop infamously featuring a $70 vanity item and the straw finally broke the back of the camel.

This monocle, worth $70, became a symbol of the greed of the developer.

The result? CCP lost a lot of money. Like all MMOs launched in the early 00’s, Eve actually relied on monthly subscriptions and the resulting player protests resulted in these dropping away like a cliff. The sudden reduction in income meant they had to reduce their staff by a few hundred, stop working on their World of Darkness MMOThey essentially purchased White Wolf in 2006 explicitly to work on it, and actually start listening to their existing player baseAnd paying attention to the devs in the mines.

Eve itself, however, benefited. The late-2011 “expansion” Crucible was barely more than a giant fix for hundreds of bugs and various other missing components, many of which had been standing since 2007 or earlier. These days CCP is in reasonably good standing, and while the running trope of “Eve is shit, but the community is great!” still runs, the game would simply not exist in its current state if the management didn’t pull their heads out of their arse and listen.


Repeating history

Bringing it back to Elite: Dangerous, a game that is approaching two and a half years of lifetime, and a lot of the above rings surprisingly true.

Since the release of the game, there have been several feature updates, many of which have been sold through trailers and related press releases to the wide world as a massive new addition. Like Eve, a player is required to download these updatesIn a stripped-down form if they do not own the Horizons season pass if they wish to continue to play the game. Like Eve before the Incarna incident, each addition is unfortunately left in an unfinished state.

In software development you have the concept of a “Minimum Viable Product.” This is true for pretty much all manufacturing and media industries as well. Essentially, what is the minimum you can get away with while still being able to provide something at least some customers will be happy with. The original intent of the MVP in software is to build upon it through user feedback, yet is often used as a “get out clause” for releasing and then dropping content that is beginning to exceed its allocated development budget.

Dangerous is filled with these. Since release, there have been multiple major additions to the game, and each one betrays a pattern as seen in Eve‘s own release backstory. Each one of the major patches were pushed hard in the media and generated plenty of sales, but left those who were playing already a little sour taste in their mouth.

Powerplay for example was sold as a massive game changer, allowing players to affect vast empire politics. The result was more of a numbers game many easily ignore. Wings allowed players to play together, but was seemingly released in spite of the game’s own networking code, and its buggy unfinished social frameworks were not even remotely finished.

That was until the most recent patch, The Commanders, leaving a gap of more than two years where this feature was rather incomplete.

CQC was supposed to be the developer’s entrance into esports, but even their own official tournament was cancelled as they didn’t have the development time allowance to make it what it needed to be. Even Horizons, the game’s fabled “planetary landings” patch, suffered.

EngineersGuardians and The Commanders were all sold to the greater public as massive improvements to the game, designed to bring in as many new players as possible. But for those already playing, each update added further content that was expected to not see any real improvement or changes for many years to come. If you ignore the design decisionsEach update’s core design hook so far has been based on the easy get-out clause of RNG-based time sinks, the fact that the update cycle is unfinished (or unrefined) content stacking on unfinished content is leaving current players of Dangerous feeling much the same way as players of Eve did in the years before Incarna.

Elite: Dangerous is very much suffering from its own version of The Incarna Problem. It has even been put forward that the next major release, 2.4, may well be the direct analogue.


The issues of money

There is a lot that could be said about the content that has been added. One of the key criticisms made by the vocal aspects of the community is that the content that is mostly bug-free on release is the content that is designed to make the developers Frontier the most amount of money.

A prime example of this being The Commanders, which introduced plenty of micro-transaction items to buy for your in-game pilot avatar, but featured some game-breaking bugs that were known before release. However, they were not fixed as development time was commanded to be spent on this aspect of the gameNot forgetting the almost bug-free improved external camera, such that players could show just how pretty the game is to the world… to perfect it.

Elite Monocle Parody

The crux of the issue is that this content is stacking and is often unfinishedElite: Dangerous today is very similar to Eve in late 2010 in that there are loads of potentially great systems that are being held back by the lack of time to really flesh them out. Yet, and this is important, nothing is going to change. This could mean Elite is in trouble.

As that, as mentioned before, Eve is a subscription based game. When players decided they’d had enough with the developer’s collective shits, they voted with their wallets, and for a subscription based gameAs well as a company that has built its entire financial model on it this is a very dangerous thing to do. Eve losing a thousand accounts results in CCP Games losing $15,000 a month revenue. Incarna resulted in ten times that.

Elite: Dangerous however, is not, and I would argue on consideration that running costs are nowhere near as high.

The lack of subscription fee for Elite: Dangerous means that ultimately, if half the player base quit overnight, Frontier may note it down in their journal, but they’re unlikely to be too worried about it. The game is funded by aesthetic micro-transactions and press bumps from patch releases, and as long as they both still bear fruit there is little need to worry about the majority of player contribution, or even much about what they are saying.

On top of this, using P2P connectivity means that while players get a subpar experience in some multiplayer situations (someone with low bandwidth is going to cause hell to everyone else), the costs of running the servers for the game are comparatively low to hosted connectivity, simply requiring players to be linked together and the most basic of checks to be carried out. Frontier likely do not need a large number of players to keep the servers running at all, as long as those that are playing still buying skins for their ships and suits for their avatars.


Avoiding Incarna

If the developers want to avoid a catastrophic loss of their core players, they’ll have to do something about the mounting pile of unfinished features, known bugs and game play annoyances sooner rather than later, especially after The Commanders created so much negative community opinion.

However, it’s possible that Elite: Dangerous is already on its way to avoiding a similar final straw like what Eve saw with Incarna. Or that they simply don’t care if it happens.

Recently Zac Antonaci put out a statement over what is coming to the game within the next year or so, with mention of coming updates designed around cleaning up the core gameplay loops once the 2.4 update cycle is complete. This could mean two things, I feel:

Either they are finally in a state where it makes sense to do this before moving forward or else be faced with an insurmountable task;

Or the developer, having reached the end of term with the product, is aiming to wrap up the game’s main development come the end of 2018 (now that they have other guaranteed incomes in the forms of Planet Coaster and an unannounced movie tie-in) and would rather do it with a product they don’t have to sink much more in the way of development time into.

After all if you clear the lawn before ignoring it for a while, you’ll have an easier time clearing it again when your neighbours complain about the leaves.