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Stick and Rudder: On Star Citizen's so-called 'feature creep'

Jef Reahard

I'm going to address the allegations of "feature creep" in Star Citizen this week before misperceptions get further out of hand. If you haven't been following the sci-fi space sandbox in recent weeks, note that Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium unveiled the title's $20 million stretch goal several days ago. Said goal is FPS combat on select lawless planets, but to hear some armchair developers tell it, Roberts is jumping the shark and gunning for PlanetSide 2 instead of simply adding some instanced bells and whistles onto what's affectionately known as the best damn space sim ever (BDSSE).

If you're a Star Citizen backer or enthusiast, you already know everything I'm about to type. If you're casually lurking on the periphery of the game's fandom, though, join me after the cut for the most complete SC crash course that 1,700 words can buy.

Star Citizen crowdfunding counter
What's a stretch goal?
Before I get too deep into this rant, let's make sure that everyone understands exactly how SC's stretch goals work. In short, they are planned development milestones that CIG budgeted for long ago. Some of the bigger ones, like new ships and now, planetary FPS combat, weren't previously publicized in great detail because there's no sense in telling your audience about something that you may not have the money to build.

When you're designing a virtual world, though, particularly in the early stages, you dream big. Over the past six months, as SC's crowdfunding totals have made a mockery of both traditional publishers and previous crowdfunding records, Roberts realized that not only would he be able to finance, build, and distribute the title without any costly middleman "help," but he'd also be able to develop a bunch of the extensive virtual world features that he'd always intended to include on his prototypical space sim sandbox.

When I interviewed Roberts a few weeks ago, he mentioned how a truly massive persistent world with a ton of features was his ultimate goal as far back as the Freelancer and Privateer days. He's made similar comments in various speeches and to other press outlets. Now, due to the conflux of a moneyed crowdfunding audience and advanced technology, he's actually able to start realizing the dream.

So in a few weeks, when CIG unveils the $25 or $30 million crowdfunding "stretch goal," please understand that even though it may be new to you, it isn't something the dev team just spit-balled while watching the funding ticker on its home page spiral upwards on a Friday night. The stretch goal "unlocks" are CIG's PR-savvy way of throwing a bone to ravenous community members hungry for new and exciting info about a title that is still two years from launch.

Star Citizen forums
For the hardcore
Another thing to keep in mind here is that Star Citizen isn't like other games. At all. That will be interpreted as fanboyism to a certain extent, but it's a crucial fact that those who don't care to follow the game closely often miss.

This AAA indie game is being paid for -- almost entirely at this point -- by its early adopter fanbase. That is both historic and very likely genre-changing. And those early adopter (dare I say hardcore?) fans gave and continue to give their money because they want all of the announced features and many others. They don't want to be told that things can't be done or that XYZ is "feature creep." There's been quite enough of that nonsense in the massive genre over the past nine years and change.

Roberts can and is giving backers what they want because, as he's stated from the beginning, he's making the game that he as a hardcore gamer wants to play. Understand, though, that this hardcore gamer is not a newbie developer who needs SC's profits to make sure his family eats and has insurance. This hardcore gamer is an industry legend who has made some of the most beloved and successful PC titles of all time. And when he decided a number of years ago that the medium and its moneymen were too restrictive for his liking, he took a break and went off to make a handful of successful feature films.

I say this not to engage in any sort of celebrity worship but rather to illustrate that Star Citizen isn't being made to appeal to the masses or to make a lot of money, though that last bit has already happened! SC caters to a very specific audience that is under-served in today's ultra-casual gaming market. The reason Roberts decided to experiment with crowdfunding in the first place was because he could not get a AAA publisher to greenlight his sprawling vision of a space sandbox game based largely on twitch skill. I mean, think about it, folks. This game is a space sim. Sim is short for simulation. If we still had PC retail boxes, Star Citizen would be on the shelf next to Il-2 Sturmovik, Euro Truck Simulator 2, and Farm Simulator 2013.

This is not a mainstream title.

It's garnering mainstream media attention because, as CIG said, its backers have spent a significant amount of money. If you're approaching the game from a mainstream perspective, though, or if you're the kind of person who sees feature creep instead of a proper virtual world, you're not the target audience.

UEE Marine
This isn't PlanetSide 2
When the planetary FPS stretch goal was announced, what wasn't (re)-announced was the fact that a) bipedal combat had already been in development for months as part of SC's ship-boarding mechanics and b) this isn't a Battlefield-, PlanetSide 2-, or Call of Duty-style shooting simulation. My guess is that it will be some sort of instanced minigame at first, possibly even with PvE elements so that the endless and instantaneous killing and respawning that goes along with FPS PvP doesn't dump on the rest of the SC gameworld. It's also worth noting that the underlying CryEngine -- which was in fact designed expressly for first-person shooters -- means that CIG could make this much more than a quality-of-life feature-add if it ever felt the urge.

Philosophically, though, "feature creep" is a phrase that shouldn't even be in an MMO player's vocabulary, and certainly not a designer's. Yes, I know that accountants rule the game industry and that there needs to be a final deliverables list upon the completion of which your MMO is ready for "launch." Think about it logically, though.

An MMO launch is simply the beginning when it comes to a title's life cycle. Launches generally suck, in fact, and it's not entirely down to bugs or server queues. It's also because the games are basically bare-bones combat lobbies in the beginning. EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcraft, and plenty of other well-loved titles got to be well-loved because they added significant features and functionality post-launch. Where were the feature-creep police when RIFT and EQII were adding their sublime and sticky player housing mechanics? How about WoW's pet battling system? Totally superfluous and unnecessary, right?

New York City spaceport
MMOs are feature creep
I truly don't get the mentality of those who use the term feature creep. Complaining about extra features in an MMO makes about as much sense as saying that a sports car has too much horsepower or that a first-class airline seat is too roomy and comes with a steak that's both too juicy and too tender. It's doubly ridiculous when the hand-wringing is directed at one of the game industry's few innovators who has said time and again that he's making the game he wants to play and not another mass market accessibility retread.

The feature creep mentality is a major reason why, prior to 2013, AAA sandboxes were rarer than dinosaurs. They're too hard for today's devs, apparently, even though absurdly deep and feature-rich games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies were made dozens of years ago on a fraction of today's mega-budgets (yes, a fraction, even adjusting for inflation). And no, that's not a nostalgia-drenched love letter to pre-2004 MMOs. It's just a sad and inarguable fact.

Fortunately it's a fact that isn't deterring the developers of Star Citizen, EverQuest Next, ArcheAge, Pathfinder, and a few others brave enough to challenge the feature creep status quo -- which is completely crazy when you think about it.

MMO devs basically decided to travel backward along the evolutionary timeline for years, and not only were mainstream players OK with it, but they lavished praise on games that removed features and "streamlined" functionality!

Why is that?

Why is simplification and lack of ambition not only rewarded but glorified? Is it because of the misguided notion that design is the art of leaving things out? Bollux, frankly.

The phrase "feature creep" is used by players with limited imaginations and devs with limited budgets. Star Citizen has neither of those handicaps, particularly if its crowdfunding totals continue to show no signs of slowing down. The main thing to remember, though, is that proper MMOs are nothing but feature creep! They are living, breathing, growing worlds, and there is always something more to add until the last server goes dark.

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.

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