Stick and Rudder On Star Citizen's cash shop
Remember last time when I said that Cloud Imperium's decision to release a playable pre-alpha Star Citizen module was a risky move?

Forget that.

I mean, it still kinda was, but this particular story had a happy ending. Star Citizen's first public-facing in-game deliverable has been live for over a week now, and for all intents and purposes it was a smashing success.

Star Citizen 300i
The Hangar module
I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the hangar this week, mainly because you can either log into it and form your own impressions or take a gander at the thousands of YouTube videos showing off each of the three variants. I would like to note that with very few exceptions, the SC community responded enthusiastically to the release.

Thus far the SC community is the most grounded pre-release bunch I've ever been part of, though that will certainly change as we get closer to an actual game release and as larger segments of the gaming community become aware of CIG's creation. As it stands now, though, there was hardly any bellyaching about the hangar module's server issues and in-game hiccups. There were a few question threads, and probably a few that irritated the no-repeat-questions guys, but overall I was impressed with the level of civility and restraint, especially now that the community is starting to expand past the hardcore early adopters.

Then CIG released its Voyager Direct cash shop, and the forums became markedly less civil.

Voyager Direct laser cannons
ZOMG a cash shop!
You had to know this was coming, too, even if some forum denizens reacted with surprise. It was long ago established that Star Citizen would be a buy-to-play game with a client cost and some sort of fluff-powered cash shop. But when CIG soft-launched the Voyager Direct store, there was quite an uproar. "We deliberately kept it back from the weekly email so we could roll it to get feedback and see how to integrate what is a tricky thing into Star Citizen at such an early stage of development," Chris Roberts explained.

As it turns out, Roberts' intention with VD was to grease the skids for what will eventually be an optional item store that sells some of the same items you can earn in-game. Also, like the pre-alpha subscription packages, VD is designed to give those backers willing and able to continue contributing to SC's development another way to do so.

All that said, I admit to a bit of an oh no moment when I first saw the headline. I'm no fan of F2P and the way it forces game designers to think like accountants instead of thinking about what's fun for players. Fortunately for me and other old school gaming fans, though, Chris Roberts doesn't appear to like F2P either.

His Voyager Direct explanation letter was music to my ears, and if there was any doubt as to where he stands on cash shops and pay-to-win, it was erased courtesy of this particular sentence. "I'm very opposed to having a game where any of the items, outside of your initial game/ship package, can be only purchased with cash. I hate the bifurcation of items in most online games, even when they are just for flair items. I want Star Citizen to allow players to earn everything they need in-game for ships, upgrades and even flair," he wrote.

In other words, SC will have a client cost and an optional cash shop. And it's the best kind of optional cash shop, i.e., one that is actually optional because there are no store-exclusive items.

Voyager Direct logo
Truly optional
I can't overstate how fantastic this is. It's what I asked Funcom to do back when I still cared about Age of Conan, and it's what I'd hoped SOE would do back when I still cared about EverQuest II. Both of those games are technically "free-to-play," but they're also heavily weighted in favor of paying customers when it comes to content and features accessibility -- as they should be. The problem was that even as a subscriber, I had to shell out an extra five or 10 bucks for spiffy cash shop armor and other items. That's simply unacceptable since, prior to the "free" games movement, the monthly sub bought you unrestricted access to everything a particular title had to offer.

While we're still a ways off from SC's release, Roberts seems to think that it's economically feasible to make a truly optional cash shop, and not the disingenuous sort of "optional" that the rest of the MMO space uses. And frankly this is yet another in an ever-expanding list of reasons to support Cloud Imperium.

How, though, is SC going to make enough money to both keep the servers running and generate a profit if everything can be earned in-game? Roberts says that "the ongoing purchase of new game packages as well as the money the game will earn by some of the players choosing to buy some UEC credits with real money" will ultimately keep the title afloat.

But what if the client costs and the impatient whales' cash-shop purchases aren't enough to sustain Star Citizen over the long haul? I suspect that Roberts could get away with making a monthly sub mandatory if it comes down to that, and while it would immediately remove the game from freeloader playlists, I doubt it would be a significant issue for many in the game's 250,000-strong early adopter group. See, a good chunk of these people are paying a sub right now, pre-alpha, simply to further the game's development.

A conservative bet would be that a little less than half of those backers would be willing to sub up post-launch. Given Roberts' small development team and its ability to do more with less, not to mention the non-existent middleman costs, 100,000-plus subs every month could very easily equal a content-rich persistent world that sails along smoothly for decades.



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Whether it's interviews with Chris Roberts and the Cloud Imperium team or tips and guides for pushing your ship's performance envelope, Stick and Rudder is your inside source for news and commentary on the world of Star Citizen. Join Jef Reahard every other week during the run-up to alpha, beta, and beyond.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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