So the other day, we were reminded that Squadron 42 – which was supposed to be released back in 2014, if you can believe that – is still likely a couple years away from release, which at this point means anywhere from two years to seven to forever. And that’s the single-player spinoff from Star Citizen that was originally supposed to be the main game but has slowly morphed into being this weird vestigial thing. Not that the main game is any closer to being released, as the exact same source points to that as being even further from completion.
And, well… folks, it’s time to acknowledge something: Star Citizen is not going to live up to your dreams at this point.
I don’t usually make these columns about one specific game, but in this case, it feels kind of important. The point here isn’t that you’re bad for having wanted the game or supporting it; rather, it’s about looking at the reality of this particular game’s development cycle and monetization and accepting the reality that eventually it’s not about ambition or ideas but the simple reality of what can be delivered on a given budget and within a certain framework.
So let’s start with a simple, value-neutral statement of fact. Star Citizen has, at this point, been in some state of development for roughly 11 years. That is, by any standard of development, a very long time.
You can, of course, adjust the timeframe a little bit in either direction if you really want to. Pre-production started back in 2010, so that makes the timeframe a little longer; full production didn’t start on January 1st, 2011, so that makes the timeframe a little bit shorter. These things do not matter and we’re splitting the difference here, in no small part because rounding off to a nice even 11 years also means that splitting hairs no longer matters. Once your development has been going this long, you can be off by a whole year and it’s still been in development for a shamefully long time.
Heck, even if we go by just the launch of the Kickstarter, that’ll be a decade in the rear-view mirror in October, and we’re still a possible five (or more) years out from an actual release. That’s a potential 15-year development cycle. If not for Star Citizen’s crowdfunding business model, it would have imploded ages ago based on that fact alone.
Here’s a reality of game development: No game takes that long to develop when things are going well. In fact, it’s more likely over the course of that much development time that your game has switched engines more than once because the stuff that you were developing no longer looked up to par with modern games… and that usually means that work that was already done has to be re-done as you bring the rest of the game up to a certain standard, which is exactly what we’ve seen with Star Citizen and other in-production MMOs as well. A lot changes over the course of a decade.
This also, presumably, includes the backers.
If you were 25 when you backed Star Citizen during its initial Kickstarter, you will be 35 this year. I can say without a shred of shame or recrimination that I changed a lot on the path from 25 to 35, and I expect to change a lot going from 35 to 45. The stuff that you were seeking out at one point is not necessarily what you value any longer. You have, presumably, grown as a person, had new experiences, learned new ways of looking at the world, and so forth. As much as it’s a joke to say that past a certain age you’re mostly just tired, there’s a sliver of truth in there.
“Ah,” you say, arguing in good faith like the comment section of this particular article will most decidedly not, “but Star Citizen has also changed over the years! It’s expanded in scope and size and system complexity, which means that I want it more now than I did at first!” And I’m glad you brought that up because it means we get to talk about bloat and feature creep.
Looking at games purely as collections of systems requires ignoring the fact that video games are not simple holding boxes where adding more systems simply makes everything better. Every new system that’s added to a game requires not just more development time to make it work better but more development time to make sure it integrates with the rest of the game. Failing to do this properly results in your game being an unpolished mess, but doing this properly means that as the scope of the game increases, the systems get exponentially more complicated, so each new system added in means everyone has to do more work.
This is almost inarguably the case when it comes to Star Citizen. As time has gone by, the game has gotten more complicated, bringing in more systems, expanding in scale over and over again. That means redoing more work to bring all the systems together, and then more work to keep everything up to date, and at a certain point the game is just treading water trying to add in new elements while moving backwards in design.
Ideally, this is where publishers come in. Speaking as someone who works in a creative field, I think it’s a very good thing that I have someone looking over my work and giving me a deadline that I need to work around, someone who can theoretically fire me if I miss deadlines without explanation. By making the person who has the last word on whether or not the product launches also the person who keeps having new creative ideas that he wants to incorporate into the game, you wind up with a constantly ballooning scope and no one to pull things back or declare “no, you’ve added enough, time to get everything working and launch-ready.”
This is, ultimately, the problem of Star Citizen. It has ballooned over the course of more than a decade of work into being a game that’s supposed to be the most innovative thing ever, neglecting the fact that other games have already offered much of what it has in various forms. (Elite: Dangerous is a hot mess in a lot of ways, but it’s also actually launched, and it has its own problems with complexity to boot.)
It’s not that Star Citizen is going to be a bad game. There are a lot of things that certainly sound bad to me, like the part where the game allows players to heal people to death in areas that are supposed to be safe from PvP, but maybe that sounds fun to you. And just like always, my hope is for games to be fun and for their fans to be happy.
No, the problem is that whatever the game manages to be when it launches, it’s not going to live up to more than a decade of development because it simply cannot. It has spent too much time building expectations and promising more as development continues to slump onward, until at this point it would need to be the greatest game of all time just to break even with the expectations its raised for itself. And that’s just not something you can will your way into, however much you might want to.
If you’re still looking forward to the game? Hey, that’s great. I hope you have fun with it. But it’s not going to live up to being your dream version back when you initially backed.