Note: This article originally appeared on MMOGames.com.
Star Citizen is one of those games that everybody has an opinion on. I’d characterize my own as cautiously optimistic. You can’t help but admire the game’s ambition, and the level of depth being added to each of the game’s systems is quite frankly staggering – I mean just look at the complexity of the roles involved in something as historically mundane as a mining operation. While some have criticized the game’s feature creep, the breadth of scope that creep has offered now seems to rather be the point of the game.
But I’m not here to sing the game’s praises.
The Importance of Collaborative Accomplishment
At the primal level, humans love the thrill of the chase. Perhaps it’s our evolutionary inclination towards predation, but whatever the root cause, we are a species that invariably pursues that which retreats from us. Whether it was the primitive hunt for our next meal, or the more contemporary pursuits of a romantic interest playing hard to get, or a game setting a far away goal, our species loves nothing more than rising to meet a challenge.
That’s what keeps us going in games. If there’s a princess in a far off castle or a village under siege by orcs, we want to overcome, to triumph, to assert our superiority in the face of challenge – and so we pursue, ever onward.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, this is perhaps most evident in sandbox games. When placed in a virtual world where we aren’t presented with goals, the first thing we do is invent some for ourselves, because without them we would quickly lose interest. We need that pursuit and if a game doesn’t offer it the boredom sets in quickly.
Getting down to the fundamentals, the primary pursuit in an MMO is large groups of players coming together to accomplish goals. Whether it’s raid progression in World of Warcraft, territorial domination in EVE Online, or running a thriving city in Star Wars Galaxies, the greatest MMO experiences come about from the goals that groups of players set for themselves and work together to achieve. This type of collaborative accomplishment is crucial to the longevity of an MMO, and it’s what worries me most about Star Citizen.
Philophies on Collaborative Accomplishment in the ‘Verse
I’m going to take the annoying route of drawing comparisons to other games here. I know, I know, Star Citizen is its own game, but this is the easiest way to illustrate my concerns. The two biggest space MMOs are EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous, each presenting a drastically different vision of a shared universe.
In EVE Online, the players control absolutely everything. The sovereign control of territory, the means of production, the works. This bestows player organizations with an unparalleled ability to set and pursue collaborative goals, from the waging of wars to the construction of capital ships for their corporations. However, it does come at a cost. Much like in a real economy, the power in EVE has become concentrated among only the largest player corporations. They control most of the game’s production and large swathes of its territory. If you’re a start-up corporation in New Eden, you face a daunting challenge to making an impact in the game’s universe. As much as humanity enjoys the pursuit of a goal, we have to believe that we can actually overcome the challenges that lie before us, and in EVE Online, many do not.
Elite: Dangerous occupies the other end of the spectrum, so much so that I’d hesitate to really even call it an MMO. Players in Elite: Dangerous wield influence, not control. Your trade can influence the economy through fluctuations in a station’s supply and demand levels, but you can never control prices yourself. You can’t trade directly with others. You can’t work to construct anything. It doesn’t even have guilds, though certain NPC factions sort of provide a similar experience. This keeps the game fair for the little guy, who can chase after a variety of personal goals like raising reputation scores and earning enough credits to buy a bigger ship. Without that ability for players to come together to accomplish greater things though, the little guy is all Elite: Dangerous has. There is no collaborative accomplishment in Elite: Dangerous, and the game’s longevity suffers for it.
Collaborative Accomplishment in Star Citizen
Star Citizen aims to find a middle ground and as much as I love EVE Online, that’s probably the sensible thing to do for a game hoping to find broader appeal. As a result, Star Citizen‘s economy, which features the depth and complexity of all of its game systems, will essentially be a hybrid of the two.
For a short run down, Star Citizen‘s economy is a complex web of interrelated nodes governing trade, production, and the rest of the economy in the ‘verse. At first, these will be governed by NPCs, but successful players (and presumably player organizations) will be able to take control of parts it, assuming duties as miners, traders, and managers in the great supply chain of the galaxy.
However, the team at Cloud Imperium Games does not want players taking full control of the economy. They will be implementing 20 million plus NPC agents to participate in the game’s economy in much the same way as the players. If the game has 2 million players, that means we can expect the economy to be over 90% run by NPCs.
While this ensures the protection of the little guys in Star Citizen‘s economy, what does it mean for the game’s player organizations? In a game that already has organizations sporting over 12,000 members, how will those players be able to work together to accomplish shared goals? What will their long-term shared objectives be? How will they mark the face of the universe with their name?
I get all the small systems, of course. I understand the day to day tasks like how players can mine, explore, kill each other, etc… It’s the way those come together to form the bigger picture of a player organizations’ long-term collaborative goals that I still don’t quite get – and that’s important.
The role of NPC agents in the economy is going to be key. If players and NPCs exist fairly interchangeably in the game’s economy, which seems to be the objective, how much social interdependence will there be between players? Will a player running a shop rely on other players to patronize his establishment, or will NPCs step in to fill that role to an extent that makes other players feel superfluous? That logic can be applied to just about every portion of Star Citizen‘s economy, and if the answer is overwhelmingly yes, that would be extremely worrying for anyone concerned with the massively multiplayer side of the title.
Now don’t get me wrong – I fully support the idea of a mixed economy with NPC agents. I don’t think Star Citizen should try to be EVE Online – it just wouldn’t fit in the very different game Cloud Imperium Games is developing. But as the $110 million funded from 1.3 million backers continues to rise, you have to ask yourself how long Star Citizen will keep those players entertained. The role of collaborative achievement is crucial here, and I would like to hear more about it.