Elite: Offline – David Braben responds to community anger

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Head of Frontier Developments and man-who-co-created-Elite, David Braben, has finally responded to a week long backlash from players who backed Elite: Dangerous in one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date.

The issue over which Frontier has been taken to task is simple. Back at the Kickstarter phase, when Braben announced he wanted to resurrect the classic Elite as a huge, massively multiplayer game “with billions of star systems, planets, moons and asteroid fields just waiting to be explored, and exploited”, a lot of players asked for an offline mode to be addded. Which Frontier then added to a list of planned features on the Kickstarter page.

Then last week, with just a month to go before the game launches, Braben’s regular column in the weekly Elite: Dangerous newsletter dropped a subtle bombshell. While the single player mode is still in the game, it requires a near-constant low bandwidth connection to the Frontier servers to check for updates and in-game events and basically sync your universe with the master one.

On the one hand, this has the positive effect of meaning you can switch between multiplayer and single player and keep your ship loadouts and experience across the two. On the other hand… well last time I checked there were 50 pages of outrage (at least) on the Frontier forums.

Personally, I’m ambivalent. I still love the game and want to play online anyway. Professionally, it’s a shocker not just from the point of view of people who’ve supported the game specifically for offline mode, but also because the fact a major developer was committing to DRM-free gaming was fantastic. Also, online-only games are a disaster for people living in countries like South Africa where internet connectivity isn’t exactly up to Korean or even Kenyan standards.

After a week of bad press (and apologies for not writing about this before, it’s only because I’ve been really busy) Braben has responded through this week’s email newsletter in the form of a Q&A which we’ve  reprinted below. Perhaps the key – and sad – point is that the refund mechanism for those unhappy with the decision has been made clear. If you’ve played it, you’ll be charged, basically.

Feel free to add your thoughts below.

** Elite: Dangerous Offline Mode – Q&A
From David Braben:

Each of the “Elite” games pushed the boundaries of the technology available. With Elite: Dangerous a major new feature is playing online, and we are pushing that hard now. Offline support was not one of our original aims, though we did believe we could support it at the start of the project. We do a great deal of processing in the cloud, and this benefits everyone playing. We had considered that an online connection is a reasonable pre-requisite for a game delivered online. I am really sorry this has upset people, but we have a strong, consistent vision that we do not want to compromise.

Below we have collected common questions from backers and the press and our answers so we can be clear about the situation.

Can I still play in single player mode?
Yes. Some people have thought that dropping 100% offline play means there wouldn’t be a single-player mode – to be clear, the single-player game is already there, but it requires a low bandwidth online connection for the reasons we explained. I’ve even played on a laptop using a tethered connection on the train.

When was the offline mode dropped?
The decision was made recently, and was not made lightly as we have been looking for ways to satisfy everyone. We announced shortly after we concluded that it wasn’t possible to create an offline mode without unacceptably compromising the game.

Offline-only support was a requested feature during the Kickstarter – why was it dropped?
Back during the Kickstarter, we were clear about the vision, to make a phenomenal new sequel to Elite in an online world, which we believe we are about to deliver. At the time we believed we could also offer a good single player experience, and base an acceptable offline-only experience off that. As development has progressed, it has become clear that this last assumption is not the case.

Why wait so long to announce this?
In retrospect we should have shared the fact that we were struggling with this aspect with the community, but we were still trying to find a solution. As features were implemented, for the best results we chose to prioritise delivery of the online single and multiplayer experiences, with a view to providing the offline version later in development. We had to make a decision for the good of the game, and that is what we did.

What would you lose in offline mode?
We have developed a multi-player game with an unfolding story involving the players, and groups collaborating with specific objectives and taking account of all players’ behaviour. This is what the game is about. Without this it would not be the rich gaming experience that we will deliver, and would be a great disappointment to all players.

Any offline experience would be fundamentally empty. We could write a separate mission system to allow a limited series of fixed missions, but that would still not be a compelling game, and is just the first step in the mountain of work that would be required.

Do you now consider Elite: Dangerous to be an MMO?
Technically, it has always been. There are already over 100,000 people playing in the same world. We believe that always-online entertainment is already a reality for the majority. We are delivering a truly huge game using the best technology and designed to stand the test of time, played for many years to come and still be relevant.

What do you say to people who backed Elite with an offline experience in mind?
Many of the conversations we have had during development focussed on backers wanting to play the game without the downside of online – griefing especially – ie a single player experience. We considered this to be the main issue and focussed on making sure we had a great single player offering. We have also ensured that the solo play mode has a minimal network requirement(about 10 kbps).

Are you confident the servers will be stable come launch day?
Yes, as confident as we can be, because we have been testing our servers throughout the development process, and continue to do so. Our servers are the same ones that Amazon uses, and can (and have) scaled up quickly to deal with demand when needed.

What is Frontier’s plan for when the servers shut down?
We do not plan to shut the servers down, but understand it is a reasonable question. We are at the beginning of the game not the end and are focused on creating a game that we hope will be played for many years in the future. We do plan to take regular archives of the game and the servers, to preserve the game for the future.

Could the server code be released publicly some day when the servers are shut down?
Yes. This is something we would do if for whatever reason we cannot keep the game going.

Will offline mode ever be implemented? Why not create a second “offline galaxy” with different secrets than the online one?
It is not out of the question we will create a cut-down game that is offline only, but this is not currently in our plan. It would still be a big undertaking to do well.

Will you give people refunds?
We have started responding to requests where there is a clear outcome:
– Those who have pre-ordered an Elite: Dangerous release version from our online store and have therefore not yet played the game are eligible for a refund.
– Those who have already been playing the game online in the Alpha and/or Beta phases, regardless of whether they backed the project via Kickstarter or purchased access to Alpha and/or Beta through our online store, are not eligible for a refund.

We want to make sure we treat each person’s situation with the thoroughness it deserves, and have contacted each of them to ask that they bear with us over the next few working days if their circumstances do not fit either criteria above as we look into individual requests.

Is offline mode an impossible problem, or just unfeasible?
It is a creative decision, not wanting to produce an empty game. It is technically possible, but it would be a largely separate game development.

Why not delay the decisions and put extra resources on this after the release?
We will review the decision after release, but our priority is moving the game forwards for the great majority of players, and are wary of producing a sub-standard game.

Was this because offline players are less likely to get involved in microtransactions? Is this just about the money?
No. We have been clear and consistent. This is about the game experience. I have always been against ‘pay to win’ – in a game like Elite: Dangerous there are a great many opportunities we could have taken already that would have amounted to ‘pay to win’ but we have chosen not to.

This whole issue comes down to what the vision is of the game we are making, and whether people trust us to make the right decisions. We made this decision with heavy hearts but for the right reasons.

David Braben

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.