Well, now we know that Elite: Dangerous can compete with AAA titles: any self-respecting game release has to have its own controversy and ours follows Frontier’s announcement that E: D will be online only. No internet, no game.
Note: the option to play alone in solo mode remains unaffected, but every in-game transaction (marketplace, outfitting, missions, ship purchasing) needs an internet connection to the server (source: forum posts by Michael Brookes). The ability to play offline is no more and there are no current plans to reinstate it. The reasons for the decision are many and varied and are being dissected endlessly on the Frontier forums. I won’t repeat the discussion here. Drew Wagar has written a useful summary covering the most of the pertinent points in his latest blog post, here.
The reasons for the announcement are also subject to much debate and conspiracy theories abound. I’m not going to repeat those here either, but I will chip in with a little personal experience. Frontier, David Braben and Michael Brookes are mad—madly passionate about the game and the Elite universe. I’m not Frontier’s sockpuppet, I’m simply speaking from my experience of exchanging emails with both of these men: the less-than-charitable conspiracy theories circulating just don’t hold water. Going net-lynch-mob crazy with accusations of dark and dirty dealings isn’t going to help anyone.
However, many players are very upset and, looking in from outside, there seems to have been issues with both the timing and the tone with which the announcement was made. Both are these are a matter of record: Frontier Newsletter 49 came out a month before the game is scheduled for final release and dropping this bombshell so close to D-Day seems like PR suicide—just before the games press gets their sticky paws on E: D and there is potentially the largest influx of new players the game will ever see. It’s not that new players necessarily hold offline mode to be important as most are used to online only titles (the Elite Old Guard are a different demographic entirely), it’s more that they look for stability and dependability from a game developer before parting with their cash. An MMO is a big financial and time investment and after so many high profile franchise failures over the last few years gamers are wary. It’s hard not to think that Frontier have shot themselves in the foot with this one.
From an established buyer/backer perspective, Frontier consistently promised an offline mode from the Kickstarter onward, continuing to refer to it in communications with the community and on their online store until just recently. This is a more complex issue in that it’s tied to the technical development of the game which has seen a progressive transfer from local to server hosting. Frontier seems to have pushed for offline and really wanted to make it happen, but not keeping players in the loop about how difficult it was to implement has left many feeling deceived and cheated. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I have to wonder how this came about. Forum exchanges have mostly been:
Frontier: ‘We plan to do this.’
Players: ‘Yes to that bit, no to that, maybe with modifications to those.’
Frontier: ‘It’s our game, but we’ll take your suggestions on board.’
Players: ‘Hmmm… okay, it may not be exactly what we asked for, but there’s plenty of awesome and I can live with this and that…’
It’s sometimes been a bumpy ride, but broadly speaking the synergy between Frontier and the community has worked well, creating an overall better game. Given the open lines of communication, failure to disclose the magnitude of the problems facing offline implementation earlier on seems to me to be a lapse. Letting people down gently isn’t only one of the oldest PR tricks in the book, it’s just good old fashioned politeness which can go a surprisingly long way, even wiv da kidz. Players are still not happy, but fewer feel cheated because open communication throughout dispels perceptions of a cloak-and-dagger agenda.
Which brings us to the tone of the announcement. As others have pointed out, it’s couched like PR double-speak. Political parties do it. Corporations and service providers do it. ‘We are ‘updating’ our policies / service to give you a better user experience. Oh, and we’re taking something away, even though it’s something you really want, but you don’t really need that, do you? Instead, look at all this new shiny stuff.’
I’m not debating the necessity or validity of the decision: Frontier can’t do offline with the time or resources they have because it would mean effectively producing two games. I get that. But. Communication theory advocates assertiveness: tell people what you are doing and why, preferably with a little warning. Apologise sincerely to those it affects, and don’t sell the removal of a feature as a positive. Gloss over and people will tend to react negatively, and they have.
So what next?
As it stands, a significant minority of players will not be able to enjoy the game due to poor or non-existent internet connections. For many, trying to deliver gold worth a 150,000 credit reward within a ten minute window only to have your net connection drop is a deal breaker. You’re left with a 150K fine and a criminal record that takes several hours of play to put right if funds are tight. Imagine that happening every couple of days. For those with even an intermittent connection, a lack of offline play means that the game’s broken.
Through unavoidable circumstance or oversight, some players and backers feel badly let down. This is the point where my personal hackles started to rise and we’re faced with legalistic apologetics. There have been comments made and things written discussing whether or not an offline mode had been legally promised. There’s been discussions about consumer rights law in different countries. There’s been discussions about whether or not Elite: Dangerous with no offline mode is ‘fit for purpose’, or not. There’s been comments about players’ attitudes and what they should expect from games in 2014; after all, E: D has always been advertised as primarily an online game, so what do people expect?
To me, this is complete bottom slurry. Legal or not should not be an issue. A promise was made in good faith. That promise cannot, now, be fulfilled. Fine. But a promise was made and repeated until just recently. That this affects a minority isn’t the issue, either. That minority invested substantially, both time and money, in this game in good faith. Their feelings should not be rationalised, minimised, or marginalised. They should not have to change their viewpoint or take it on the chin after being let down just because most of us aren’t affected.
Morally, ethically, and from a PR standpoint there is only one equitable and sensible way forward: a full refund available on request, regardless of whether the game was purchased through Frontier’s online store or backed through the Kickstarter. Anything less reflects badly on the developer and the future of the game.
The latest statement on refunds from Frontier was made today by David Braben in his Eurogamer interview (link in updates below):