The Firing Line: Star Citizen shouldn't be EVE with joysticks

The Firing Line 15
I've been spending a lot of time on Star Citizen's forums of late. And when I'm not doing that, I'm replaying Wing Commander, Wing Commander II, and Privateer (thanks GoG) and generally wetting myself with excitement for Chris Roberts' newest space sim. The one thing that gives me pause, though, is the unsavory player type that SC is already attracting.

You know the guys I mean. They're PvPers, which is great, but they can't type a sentence on a message board without using the word carebear a minimum of three times while making sweeping generalizations about the playstyles, sexual orientation, and parentage of any and all who dare to disagree with them about what makes gaming fun.

That said, I like PvP and plan to engage in Star Citizen's version of it. I'm not naive enough to think that the no-holds barred nonsense being advocated by some in the game's pre-release community will result in anything other than a niche title, though.

Squadron 42 - carrier
Before we move on, let's clarify the fact that most of what we're talking about here is entirely theoretical. Star Citizen isn't even finished with its crowd-funding drive yet, and a playable alpha is at least a year away, according to Roberts' statements on the game's website.

We don't even know what form that alpha's going to take, either, as the dev team has thus far shown off early versions of the single-player Squadron 42 portion of the project. Maybe we'll get to log in to a test client that's nothing more than a co-op version of Wing Commander with bleeding-edge graphics. Or maybe we'll get to log in to the full-blown Privateer-style persistent universe that Roberts has been making us all drool over for the last six weeks.

In any event, whatever we log into is going to be very different from the space sim utopia that we're all recalling from our youth. Yes, the production values and the fidelity are going to be one part of that difference, but the major part of it will stem from the fact that we're sharing the game with other people. The Wing Commander and Privateer titles were so compelling because they allowed us to live the Rogue Squadron and Firefly fantasies on our own terms (never mind the fact that this was before we even knew what Firefly was).

Freelancer had a multiplayer component, but I'll wager that most of the folks who played it spent much of their time in the meat of the single-player experience. How that experience translates to a persistent shard with thousands of other players is anyone's guess, and managing that transition for 50,000-plus space sim fans who have vastly different sets of expectations is going to be a major challenge for Roberts and company to overcome.

As much as I respect Roberts and adore his body of work, he's never made a game that focuses on PvP, and my hope is that he doesn't listen to the loudest forum voices (or surround himself with like-minded developers) who advocate a consequence-free FFA implementation. We've already got one of those, and it would be a shame for something as promising as Star Citizen to devolve into another space-based troll simulator.

Squadron 42 - demo reel
And again, I'm not saying this as someone who hates PvP. I do, however, think that SC will end up being yet another in a long line of sparsely populated FFA sandbox retreads if it doesn't implement some consequences with teeth.

I've written about this before in a different context, but it's worth repeating because some developers and players still don't get it: MMO PvP is utterly pointless without potentially severe consequences for engaging in it.

If you don't have potentially severe consequences for engaging in PvP, then you have Call of Duty in all its meaningless, zerg-filled respawning glory, and what in the hell is the point of spending millions of dollars on a persistent sandbox if all you really want to do is kill or climb a leaderboard?

Now, notice that I said "potentially severe consequences" above. Some players (few, in a well-designed system) will have the skills to avoid the severe consequences and get away with it for a time. And those guys are more than welcome in my ideal version of Star Citizen because they'll be the pirates, the bad guys, or whatever you want to call them. Every game, story, or sandbox worth your time needs a handful of those folks. But when the entire population of the game is those folks, it's pointless.

And this is what every PvP-centric MMO from Ultima to EVE Online has failed at right on down the line. But wait! EVE is hardcore PvP done right, right? You can lose your ship, permanently! Well, sure, you can lose your ship in EVE, even if it's a valuable ship that took you years (or thousands of real-world dollars) to obtain. But the folks who can afford to even outfit one of those valuable ships have so much ISK that losing one is like losing a nickel. And the folks who don't have that much money simply don't undock in their good ships. Don't fly what you can't afford to lose, after all (which is quite a carebearish sentiment, when you get right down to it).

Squadron 42 - salute
Anyhow, EVE's "hardcore" ship-loss mechanics don't amount to much beyond a mirage or a talking point that may or may not impress the uninitiated. This is because the mechanics lack real, lasting consequences and are quite easily overcome or avoided altogether.

See, CCP isn't really interested in making a sandbox with consequences as much as it is interested in providing a semi-anonymous social networking fight club. Trust me, I've met several high-ranking EVE devs, and I've talked gameplay and design with them at length. To a man, these guys just enjoy messing with people. It's who they are, both personally and as a company, and as a result, EVE is as much a safe outlet for base impulses as it is a sci-fi sandbox MMO.

And hey, that's perfectly OK, and even funny on occasion. I expect more from a Chris Roberts game, though, and it would be an awful waste if Star Citizen were to end up being EVE Online with joysticks.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.

This article was originally published on Massively.