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COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

Matt Gardner
Always-on internet, Crowd Funding, Elite: Dangerous, Kickstarter, PC games

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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)."

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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.

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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.

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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.

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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.

COMMENT | Frontier's Elite: Dangerous 11th hour offline mode U-turn is an anti-consumer insult

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.

Add a comment10 comments
roberttaylor8273  Nov. 19, 2014 at 14:18

totally agree, this is very underhanded just smells fishy being so close to release date something like this they would of knowing for months, if they had put there hand up earlier it wouldn't be so bad, but a month before release when they have gotten money of backers because of offline mode? glad i didn't decide to pre order last week or become a backer, its underhanded stuff like this that stops me backing stuff.

to all of those who say most people have a good internet and it doesn't matter. thats not the point they have lied it clearly said it would include on offline mode. also what happens when they have problems with the servers, problems with your connection or they go bankrupt, that's right you cant play the game. a offline mode should of been a given especially for those with poor connections or the day they have to shut the servers down. i just hope that those who backed wanting this feature will get some sort of refund. for me it wouldn't effect me, but with this tactic i have no interest in this game or this company

GreatGadfly  Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:13

I see no evidence that "they would have known for months". Such an accusation is based on nothing but speculation, with no knowledge of what has changed through the development process.
They have said themselves that they have been trying to make it work but in the end had to make the decision to drop the feature. That's not to say they couldn't have been more transparent and communicated to the community that they were having problems; but there is no evidence to indicate that they are lying.

Sure, the timing sucks and people are certainly entitled to be upset that a feature they thought was going to be included will not be. However, all the talk of fraud, deception, "DRM via the back door" are just knee-jerk reactions that are more akin to conspiracy theories than facts (with some ignorance thrown in for good measure).

There are two groups who have embraced the petulant and immature gamer stereotype (which we so need to lose): those who accuse the developers of deception or illegal behaviour, with no basis in fact, and those who are telling legitimately disgruntled customers that they "should just STFU" or "get over it".

GreatGadfly  Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:25

And also, this article is straight-up click-bait and encourages nothing except flame wars. Another "news" website which is nothing of the sort.

Ilium  Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:37

I've been enjoying Elite Dangerous so far, it's just a really nice game to be in. But I understand why people would be annoyed. Kickstarter is a funny thing, and I think you're right, Matt. The waters are really muddy. I don't think Frontier should have to refund players (it's important for backers to understand the nature of crowd funding and so on) but this is a big deal for some people (that comment thread is HUGE!). As you say, give consumers as much info as possible and then let players decide.

JonLester  Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:45

Tough one. As a backer I know the risks of Kickstarter and in fairness ED's campaign has been better, timelier and more up-front than most. And yet...

Am I disappointed? Definitely. All I really want to do is fly around a galaxy, trading and killing, all by myself, as a massive fan of the original games.

But in fairness the game's always been targeting the multiplayer interactions and groups etc, and Braben wanted to create a different kind of Elite experience. So long as I don't get immediately booted from a singleplayer game if my terrible Sky connection cuts out for a second -- and, you know, the finished product measures up -- I'll probably be alright with it.

Still, as Illium says, it's yet another wakeup call for people who don't understand that Kickstarter isn't a shop, I suppose.

And does that excuse the lacking communication here? Ugh. My brain hurts. Ambivalence is painful!

Last edited by JonLester, Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:50
MattGardner  Nov. 19, 2014 at 15:46

And also, this article is straight-up click-bait and encourages nothing except flame wars. Another "news" website which is nothing of the sort.

I think you need to look up the definition of clickbait. There's no curiosity gap here, the headline is pretty blunt, sure, but hardly controversial given that it's an opinion piece on a divisive topic. We took a stance that you disagreed with, that's all.

Your assumption that this is a "news" website is fallacious. Take the time to look around and you'd see that we're a consumer-oriented blog, with a large emphasis on deals and gaming commentary and critical writing.

With that in mind, the black and white of this situation (i.e. the game lacking significant features promised during the crowd funding campaign) is open to question. We are not in the habit of blindly accepting the placatory statements of companies when it comes to anti-consumer decisions.

Frontier have made a cracking game, but they've also made some rather poor decisions, and (wilfully or not) misled their backers in this regard -- this situation is a mess that could have been avoided.

Tsung  Nov. 19, 2014 at 16:21

My 2p's worth.

I cannot help to think a LOT of people complaining wanted a DRM Free, copy of the game to do with how they please. Either for copying amongst their friends or receiving a copy without paying for it.

However, let's just assume we're not all pirates.

The biggest disappointment this announcement for me is the fact I know there will be players who have the time to play the game to death. Obtaining massive wealth, get bored, then start trolling the other players. There are plenty of them already on the forums wanting solo mode dropped to offer more targets for them to pirate (in the game sense).

The solo offline mode offered a stability that online games cannot compete with. Sure the game wouldn't change, so what? it wouldn't hurt anyone. It's for the players who have a life, who might need to pause the game with a moments notice. They don't have time to spend working out the best deals of the day, they just want to chill and play. Hell I'd used it to practice flying a ship, maybe practice dogfighting, or doing stuff for fun (aka. shooting space station).

The game hasn't perfected any co-op mode, so playing on-line is already a solo-experience. They need to go play Freelancer, I need to be able to play this game with my friends where I can say "this ship here is in charge, follow them until I say otherwise (or need to dock)". Aka. safety in numbers, a convoy so to speak.

I just hope the servers can cope, I doubt they will. When an update turns up in Beta the servers are ropey as hell. Even with bugs ironed out the number of new players arriving soon will strain the servers.

A changing world in Solo-Mode, isn't what people wanted, it's funny they were able to squeeze an entire game into a 32k bbc over 30 years ago but now are unwilling to offer an offline mode for those players who don't care for the online verse. Truth is, they can't advertise ingame or sell skins and other digital ass-ets to people who are playing the game offline. I also suspect in the future, area's might be locked out with no access unless a permit is bought (more sales). (aka. Pre-orders get a "sol" permit)

So the vision is complete, Anti-Piracy login's and an persistant online universe setup to turn players into products.

Wooloomooloo  Nov. 20, 2014 at 00:00

My TL;DR version of this whole incredibly insulting affair: Offline is non-negotiable, asked for refund immediately, may DB & co. burn in hell for all I care - I certainly won't be touching anything of his with a ten mile pole ever again. That is all.

Thegirlthatsaidhi  Nov. 20, 2014 at 00:28

At first this artcile started off very balanced, but it didn't take the author long to descend in righteous rage and to start preaching before the choir.


Bothand  Dec. 21, 2014 at 18:17

As somebody that 1st played this I.P. almost 28 years ago,
& as somebody that bought the game after crowdfunding closed,

-I am less & less motivated to crowdfund one thing & end up with another.

This Game has potential, based on what was promised.
But it has not done so as of yet.

We will probably look back on this period of
"crowdfunding" with mixed emotions.

Elite: Dangerous released £4 million ($5.9 million US) worth of shares to the public on the London Stock Exchange,

& this is perhaps reflected in the Company's development trajectory & release date.

The Game will be great when they finish it, but that has clearly not happened yet.

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