Elite: Dangerous is out in a month. And it was announced over the weekend that it won't have an offline mode.
Understandably, a fair few people have not taken this news too well.
The ideal way of playing Elite: Dangerous, as outlined in the original Kickstarter pitch, was always intended to encourage online connectivity, with Frontier realising right from the start that the only real way to create the vast, expansive vision they had for the game was to create a "living, breathing galaxy" that could be added to long after release:
The galaxy for Elite: Dangerous is a shared universe maintained by a central server. All of the meta data for the galaxy is shared between players. This includes the galaxy itself as well as transient information like economies. The aim here is that a player's actions will influence the development of the galaxy, without necessarily having to play multiplayer.
The other important aspect for us is that we can seed the galaxy with events, often these events will be triggered by player actions. With a living breathing galaxy players can discover new and interesting things long after they have started playing.
Originally, that was that. However, an update to the pitch back in December 2012 saw Frontier reassure backers that there'd also be a dedicated offline mode. It wouldn't have the dynamic perks of the connected galaxy, but players wouldn't need to go online. "It will be possible to have a single player game without connecting to the galaxy server," Frontier wrote. "You won't get the features of the evolving galaxy (although we will investigate minimising those differences) and you probably won't be able to sync between server and non-server (again we'll investigate)."
Noting the date is important. Elite: Dangerous was officially crowd-funded on January 3rd, 2013.
It's also worth noting that at the end of December, David Braben did a Reddit AMA to boost the game's profile, and reiterated that the game would have a dedicated offline mode, although he again suggested that "the richness of multiplayer" would be lost.
There are two points to be made here: one is that Elite: Dangerous has always been clearly geared towards a connected, online experience. The other is that the offline mode had been a promised feature since halfway through the Kickstarter campaign.
One of those points is pertinent to the consumer backlash, and one is not.
On Friday, Braben announced that the offline mode wasn't happening, issuing the following statement on Frontier's website:
"Going forwards, being online lets us constantly both curate and evolve the galaxy, with stories unfolding according to the actions of commanders. Exploration is also a key factor, too, and it is important that what a single player explores matches what other players explore whether single or multiplayer – a complex, coherent world – something we have achieved. Galaxy, story, missions, have to match, and it does mean the single player has to connect to the server from time to time, but this has the added advantage that everyone can participate in the activities that can happen in the galaxy. A fully offline experience would be unacceptably limited and static compared to the dynamic, ever unfolding experience we are delivering."
Up until that last sentence, this is nothing new. In fact, given the warning that Frontier had given over the offline mode from its announcement, that last sentence is actually old news too. To look over the Kickstarter pitch and Frontier's comments is to fully understand that the offline mode would not and could not have hoped to capture the expansive vision of what Fronter were hoping to achieve with Elite: Dangerous.
But that's not the point.
Frontier's removal of the offline mode completely, rather than giving their consumer audience (many of whom might well have invested as a result of the offline mode's original announcement) the choice, is something of a slap in the face at best. At its worst, it's the removal of a significant feature promised during the early days of the game's conception. It is a selling point that has been nixed a mere month ahead of launch, and that is completely unacceptable. Put simply, the product that will be released next month will not be the product that many signed up for.
What is clear is that Frontier knew that this might well be the case all along, which makes their timing of the announcement that they've killed the offline mode all the more outrageous. Elite: Dangerous has been smoothly moving from build to build, and it is only now, a month before the game is due to be released, that the consumer base is informed that the game we're getting will only partially resemble what was promised on January 3rd as funding closed. That, David, is unacceptable.
When Braben calls the offline mode "unacceptably limiting" and says that "if you were able to offer me on the 3rd January 2013 what we will deliver on the 16th December 2014, I would have grabbed it with both hands" he's rather missing the point. Moreover, he's even sort of admitting to a bit of a bait and switch, albeit one that he has no problems with. And that's sort of it, really. It's another version of #dealwithit and one that could really have been avoided. Frontier never promised a stellar offline mode, and anyone expecting that off of the back of the original pitch would have had only themselves to blame. But they laudably moved the goalposts to accommodate the wishes of their fanbase during the funding period. Moving them back again a month before launch is frankly insulting. It doesn't matter that crowd funding only accounted for a quarter or so of the original budget -- people paid money. That money is gone, and the product they thought they were getting has had a key bit lopped off. They have every right to be angry.
The waters muddy, of course, because Kickstarter is not a shop. Crowd funding is not the same as pre-ordering. As someone participating in crowd funding, you are basically throwing your money at a project and hoping for the best. Though many projects fail to meet their backer goals, many more fail in the months beyond that first hurdle. Projects shift and change and sometimes die, and it's important as a backer to know and understand that. At the same time, crowd funding as a concept is based upon worthy pitches and the establishment of trust. Communication is key, and when that fails, there's precious little that consumers can do. When it comes to Kickstarter, the best advice is really to only pledge what you can afford to lose. As creatively -engaging as the platform might seem, as a consumer you're only ever really tossing money into the void and hoping for the best.
Braben attempted to expand upon Frontier's reasoning for canning the offline mode in an exchange with Eurogamer yesterday, but he actually only really served to repeat the lame excuses of before, re-outlining what Elite: Dangerous' mission statement has actually always been, and failing to address the issue at hand:
"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 only the first step in the mountain of work required. We do plan to take regular archives of the game and the servers, to preserve the game for the future."
"[...]The offline experience we could deliver now is unacceptable to us. To make this acceptable would be close to a whole new game development, so with heavy hearts we have made this decision."
Whether or not it's unacceptable to Braben and co. is actually not the point. It should be left up to the consumer audience to decide. Frontier promised an offline mode, explaining heavily at the time that it wouldn't match up to the connected experience. Pulling the plug at the last minute rather than giving consumers the freedom to choose and make their own playing decisions is an insult to their intelligence.
To remove the crowd funding element from the situation for a moment, though, and to consider Elite: Dangerous simply as a game in development, the bottom line is that you can't play the always-online card a month before release and think everything will be okay. Fanbases won't, and shouldn't, stand for it, and given the long list of controversies in this area over the past few years, Frontier really ought to have known better. Don't promise something concrete that you can't deliver. Sadly, there's not much consumers can do at this point aside from complaining loudly, and that's the hugely frustrating, borderline-obnoxious part of this: there's no time. In leaving it so late to make the announcement, Frontier have (whether they intended to or not) given the finger to a part of their eager fanbase and told them to like it or lump it. Refunds are unlikely, Frontier's digital policy is very clear in that regard, but the disgruntled should keep making noise as much as they can. Call for boycotts, fill the airwaves and user reviews with negative feedback wherever possible if you feel strongly about the matter, and demonstrate to Frontier that this is what is actually unacceptable.
In short, there are really no excuses to be had here for Frontier's sloppy communication and poor planning in this regard. Don't promise features you can't deliver (and it sounds to me like regular archiving could be a way of engineering updates for an offline mode) and make the game you've told your backers that you're going to make, Frontier.