Elite Kickstarter: I Thought I Wanted This

November 6, 2012 in Editorial

Something strange happened today. Being a sentimental sort, I’m ordinarily quite an easy target for Kickstarter campaigns that try to push my nostalgia buttons. In fact, on more than one occasion since the Double Fine funding campaign have I backed a project before even watching the pitch video. So it seemed only logical that when a new installment of a game that defined a huge part of my childhood came along, I’d be all over it. The game, of course, is Elite, created by David Braben and Ian Bell. Today, Braben launched a funding drive to collect the equivalent of nearly $2 mil to make a new Elite game. I’ve imagined this day happening, and in my mind it seemed so grand. And yet, here it is, and I don’t feel anything even close to ecstatic. Quite the opposite. Cynicism and mistrust kicked in almost immediately, irrationally perhaps, but I know where it all comes from.

Elite was a leap in gaming that happens quite seldom these days. It was a technological marvel of its time. The first truly 3D game. An open-world game with a persistent player profile at a time when publishers demanded a short playtime, three lives and a score. They also managed to cram a huge universe of planets, each with an economy and political system, into computers with as little as 32KB of RAM. Ki-lo-bytes. At its heart it was basically a reputation grinding game, with no real goals beyond that. You got a universe to play in, things that you could do in that universe, and the stories you experienced beyond that point were your own.

For me, a kid in his early teens, the game had a certain cozy vibe to it. I was taken away from being an awkward kid in school and got to escape to this other place where I got to be frickin’ Han Solo. I sucked at trading, and hell I still am clueless with money, but damn was I good at blasting pirates. And those Thargoids, man. Scary things at first, but eventually I got a cocky grin every time my hyperdrive failed and I got dumped in witch-space, because I knew I’d get to pop a few of them.

Some years later, Elite II: Frontier landed. It was bigger-better-more, but ultimately could never hope to achieve that same leap that the original gave us. Arguably, few games ever have.

So today rolls along, and suddenly we hear that Braben is Kickstartering a new Elite game. Why am I not happier?

The immediate culprit was the lack of a pitch video. Even in cases where I have backed before watching the pitch, the video was there for me to watch after. On top of that, the blurb on the front did a poor job of telling us what was to be so great about a new Elite. Sure there’s mention of the procedural generation techniques going “further”, but not much of value beyond that. What does “further” mean? What details will star systems have? What’s the extent of the supporting economic and political simulation? Will it be Dwarf Fortress with space ships? (my ideal game, if you must know – give me $2 mil. and hell I’ll make that ma’ dayum self)

It’s easy to dismiss the lack of a sales pitch, perhaps that one would follow later. But it feels as if instead of working to sell this to us as a thing we should want, instead it’s a call-out to all suckers. It seems lazy, and as one of the aforementioned suckers, I feel a bit insulted.

The size of the funding target is also a concern. Elsewhere was stated that the money they are asking for would not be nearly enough to cover development of the game. If true, then this ups the chance of non-delivery. The cynic in me, which I fear today is the entire me, says that it’s just a passive statement to encourage people to pledge more. The game supposedly has been in development in some way or another for over a decade. One would think there’d be more to show for it by now. It’s making Duke Nukem Forever look downright dandy by comparison.

Then there is the company. Frontier Developments have not produced a single thing worth crowing about. The last game that might have been worthwhile, was The Outsider, a game that never made it out the door. The company is also burning through absurd amounts of money, and likely to go belly-up in a year or two unless they could come up with a bail-out plan. This Kickstarter pitch seems to be that bail-out. So why don’t we all just band together and help those folks out in the same way we did for Double Fine? Go to this link and click on the “Key Financials” tab. £1.25 mil. is not going to fund a game at that company that’s only going to be released in 2014. If that downward trend continues, the company will be bankrupt before the end of next year, even with the Kickstarter funding.

If you suck at managing money, just shoot a few pirates.

My other concerns about what the game might be, whether it could live up to its name, my feelings about how David Braben might have possibly screwed over Ian Bell, or anything else is moot. Heck I might be wrong about all this, what do I know? They might pull it off in the end, but right now my confidence in this is low.

Of the UK Kickstaters so far, I have backed Simon Roth’s promising-looking Maia and will soon throw a few coppers at Big Robot’s Sir, You Are Being Hunted. These projects both have big potential and if funded will both deliver – I have not a single doubt or any reason to have any.

For my open world space game fix, I am looking forward to X: Rebirth next year. I do not need Elite. I played Elite already, it was great but it’s in the past.