Imperial stormtroopers mill through the crowd. Kids armed with plastic lightsabers duel their friends, their parents, and armies of imaginary opponents. Nerds share pizza deliveries with strangers, and the whole enterprise is steeped in an air of electric expectation more akin to a championship football game than an evening at the cinema.
And then my buddy turns to me and says, "What if it sucks?"
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace did suck, of course. Royally. I know some of you probably liked it. Hell, I did too, for reasons that I'll get into later. But the objective fact of the matter is that it was and is a spectacularly bad film on almost every level.
I won't get into proving how objectively bad it is because this is a column about Star Citizen. You can take my word for it, though, or better yet, go read a couple of books on cinematic form and basic narrative structure.
But wait, don't go away mad; liking bad films is OK! Everyone does at some point, even those damn dirty film snoberati elitists. Plus, Michael Bay's got kids to feed. Anyway, my response to my mate's ill-timed but prescient comment was basically, "How could it possibly suck? It's got spaceships, an alien demolition derby, a huge budget, and John Williams!"
I bring all this up because as much as I'm on board the Chris Roberts express, Star Citizen -- for me -- is approaching Episode I levels of hype and expectation.
Now, before any of you snarkanauts informs me that Star Citizen is a game and Star Wars is a movie, I get it. But hear me out because there are more similarities than there are differences. In fact, it's more than fair to say that Star Citizen, and the rest of Roberts' game catalogue, is heavily influenced by the Jedi-free portions of the Star Wars IP (i.e., the best portions, amirite? Yes, I'm right).
You've got space rogues and their lived-in spaceships. You've got dogfighting that's more about aesthetic value than hard sci-fi realism. You've got sweeping orchestral scores, deep lore that fleshes out an entire universe in excruciating detail, and a couple of well-loved auteurs who took extended breaks from the medium that made them famous before returning when they deemed technology advanced enough to realize the full extent of their magnum opus.
Oh, and let's not forget the fact that Episode I is basically the most expensive indie film in history. Yeah, it was distributed and marketed by Fox, but it was produced in its entirety via George Lucas' personal fortune. That sounds an awful lot like Star Citizen, which is the most expensive indie game in history and which is entirely produced via the collective fortune of its hardcore fanbase.
The point I'm slowly getting around to making is that I, as a recovering Star Wars addict, have lived through a Star Citizen-style hype cycle before. And I'd like to think that I learned something as a result.
Surely Star Citizen is going to be profitable, and there's a very good chance that it's going to turn out to be a swell game, but let's pretend for the sake of argument that it doesn't. Let's pretend that it ends up sucking, and that Chris Roberts ends up surrounded by a cadre of Lucasian yes-men who never challenge terribad ideas and who never summon the intestinal fortitude to do what was necessary to make something on par with
What's a heavily invested fan to do at that point?
The sensible thing would be to move along. But MMO players don't often do that, including me on occasion. If and when MMO players do move along, it's typically less than graceful. There are dramatic I-quit posts, lengthy letters to the devs, and plenty of emails to the Massively tipline suggesting foul play, illegalities, "failure," and the like.
See, we're all sort of gluttons for punishment after a fashion, due mainly to the amount of time that's commonly invested into titles of this type. Collectively, we put up with repetitive gameplay that fans of others genres do not, and while some people no doubt enjoy the MMO grind, some people suffer through it because they keep hoping that a dev outfit will prove that Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies were not flukes but rather carefully considered maximizations of the MMO artform.
Maybe Star Citizen is that title, and maybe it isn't, but believing that it is at this early stage is a recipe for gaming heartbreak. That certainly wasn't the game's original goal, if Chris Roberts' recent livestream comments are any indication. During the Thanksgiving week broadcast, he said that he's surprised by the number of people who want to exist in a fully fleshed out universe and trade, craft, or salvage as opposed to pew pew all the live-long day in a dogfighting sim. And to his credit, he's deliberately expanding Star Citizen's scope to cater to those folks.
But there's still a lot that can change between now and release. Personally I don't believe that Roberts will stub his toe as spectacularly as Lucas did, but that's just it. It's a personal, subjective assessment on something that's fluid and ill-defined, so there's always a chance.
Crucially, though, if Star Citizen does fail to meet my expectations, I won't be doing the equivalent of what I did in 1999. See, because of all the Episode I buildup and the amount of time and money that my friends and I invested in being fans, I had a really hard time admitting that it was wasted on a terrible product. So I paid to see it in the theater again, and again, and a couple more times after that, contenting myself with the podracing and Ray Park's gravity-defying performance and deliberately shelving the other hour-and-45-minutes worth of awful in the deepest, darkest closet of my fan brain. To be frank it was pretty pathetic behavior that's only partially excused by the fact that I was young, dumb, and free of responsibility.
Anyway, yep. Star Citizen. The Phantom Menace. I'm just going to leave that here for you to make of it what you will.