CitizenCon is a hell of a thing. It's not unusual for developers to use game conventions and expos to showcase upcoming, unfinished games, of course; but a day-long game convention entirely dedicated to an upcoming, unfinished game, whose whole raison d'être is to show off development progress? That's unusual, to say the least. This anomaly on the gaming landscape has been around in one form or another since 2013 (though in its first year it was a livestream, and only became a ticketed event in 2014); that we barely raise an eyebrow at its existence is a testament to just what an unusual phenomenon Star Citizen itself is.
The most heavily crowdfunded game in history is a huge experiment in many ways. It's a game development experiment, a design experiment, a funding experiment and a business model experiment. Not all of those experiments appear to be going quite according to plan, or to schedule. The game as a whole is running late (which is why it's had no fewer than four annual events to show off its development progress) and milestones for its individual components are regularly missed. The big news from CitizenCon 2016 was that Squadron 42, the single-player component of the game, has been delayed again; Star Marine, a first-person shooter component, appears to have gone through yet another design iteration after widespread reports of being stuck in development hell.
All these delays and changes have led to an air of mistrust around Star Citizen as a whole. Many people who follow the games business dismiss the game as being a borderline scam; the competency and ability of Chris Roberts and his team to deliver the game they've taken $110 million from customers to develop is openly and aggressively questioned. Almost any discussion of Star Citizen quickly leads to scathing criticism of Roberts' supposed inability to rein in his own huge ambitions and promise something actually achievable, rather than a sprawling enormity of a game that often seems to claim to be all things to all men. The undercurrent has become all the more blatant since the controversy around the launch of No Man's Sky. This too, detractors say, is a game that over-promises and will inevitably under-deliver - except this time, the developers had pocketed over a hundred million bucks from consumers on the way.
"As well as rewriting the textbook on how games are funded and created, Roberts and his team are also trying out a bold experiment that rewrites the fundamental rules of how game developers communicate with their fans and consumers"
On the other side of the fence entirely are the true believers - Star Citizen's fans, and often its funders, who believe passionately in what Roberts is doing and fully expect the game to live up to its promises. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even next year; but some time, Star Citizen will be the game they dream of. There's not a whole lot of common ground between Star Citizen's believers and its skeptics, and to a skeptic, the position of the believers is tough to understand. Can't they see the same delays, the same development problems, the same cracks in the firmament that generally indicate a project going awry? Are they blinded by the dream of a game that they were sold, or perhaps wilfully refusing to believe that they backed a losing horse?
I confess to being on the skeptical side of things for quite a long time; though I'm a long-standing fan of Chris Roberts' games, I've always had a sense that he bit off more than he could chew with Star Citizen. Watching the live streams from CitizenCon 2016, though, I felt like I could understand the perspective of the game's true believers much more clearly - and I realised that there's another experiment Star Citizen is attempting. As well as rewriting the textbook on how games are funded and created, Roberts and his team are also trying out a bold experiment that rewrites the fundamental rules of how game developers communicate with their fans and consumers.
This year's CitizenCon was a remarkable event in many ways, but one of the aspects of it I found most interesting was just how open the Star Citizen team is about their development process - and just how technical they're willing to get along the way. Fans who tuned in to the event learned that Squadron 42 has been delayed and Star Marine is being reworked, yes; but where almost any other developer would have hand-waved away these changes with some carefully PR-approved lines about "polishing it as much as possible to ensure you get the best game we can make" or "spending the time it takes to meet our own exacting standards", Star Citizen's developers put up blunt, technical slides explaining which bits of the code and design needed work. Fans didn't just learn that Squadron 42 is going to be late, they learned that it's late because it still needs work on the implementation of things like its pathfinding logic. Do gamers care about pathfinding logic, above and beyond the simple question of "does it work"? Perhaps not, but it was right up there on screen, in a bulleted list with multiple other technical issues, giving a real sense of the nitty gritty of what's going on with Star Citizen's development.
This is really unusual, to say the least. The closest analog I can think of is the .plan files which staff at id Software used to update during the development of games like Quake, which often included detailed technical insights into building the engine and creating the game. That was twenty years ago, though; since then, it's become far more commonplace for the nuts and bolts of development to be tucked away from sight, with stylish trailers and carefully worded platitudes being fed to consumers instead.
That makes perfect sense, of course - most consumers don't know about, or care about, the technicalities of game creation. On the other hand, though, hiding all of that detail away from consumers may have actually hurt the industry in some ways. The extremely demanding and sometimes unreasonable nature of modern game consumers is something that's often bemoaned; explanations for this behaviour commonly come down to a question of Internet community cultures or the rising cost of games proportional to average incomes, both of which are definitely important factors. Might there be another factor, though; the lack of understanding of what's actually involved in game development? Could it be that by hiding away the technical details, we've left consumers with a skewed idea of what goes into a game, or a sense that game development is much easier and less involved than it actually is? Just think of how many people, after the launch of No Man's Sky, insisted that multiplayer could have been added to it in "a week or two"; or the regular requests that are made for complex added features in any online game, usually accompanied by slightly incredulous statements that boil down to "I can't understand why you guys didn't add this already, it would be so easy."
"By talking about problems early and explaining delays and issues, they've ensured that anyone following the development of the game knows what to expect and when to expect it. That's a radically different model of developer communication"
Now, I'm not saying for a second that Star Citizen's developers aren't sugar coating their messages somewhat; but compared to almost any other major developer, they are being incredibly open and honest about what's happening in their creative process, where they've hit stumbling blocks and what they're putting into their game right now. That takes guts; there's a good reason people don't build sausage factories with glass walls (also related to guts, as it happens), and many game developers would recoil at the notion of sharing as much with their consumers as Star Citizen's creators are. But far from exposing the team, might this sharing of development insights actually be insulating them from criticism and attack? Star Citizen's fans, the true believers, feel like they're part of the process, along for the ride. They're more understanding of delays and problems, because they can see why they happen, and see how much work is being done, how involved and complex the creation of new features and elements of the game actually is.
This model won't work for everyone, of course. Star Citizen's target audience is by its nature fairly geeky and more likely to be interested in the details of development than the audience for a lot of other types of game. But by their openness, Star Citizen's creators have managed to cultivate a loyal audience of people who feel well-informed and in touch with the game, and they've earned forgiveness for any number of delays and problems that might have soured the fans of any other game. Moreover, they've taken nasty surprises out of the process; by talking about problems early and explaining delays and issues, they've ensured that anyone following the development of the game knows what to expect and when to expect it. That's a radically different model of developer communication; but it seems to be one that works. It might be worthwhile for other developers to ponder whether their audiences might not respond equally well to a little more openness.