Elite: Dangerous [official site] is that rare thing: a Kickstarter-funded game that came out when its developers said that it would. Less rare is the response it inspired when it turned out that the planned offline mode had been scrapped, leaving a game that required an internet connection and backers struggling to receive refunds.
Despite this, the game has considerable merits. I spoke to David Braben at GDC 2015 about whether player's anger is fair, whether the tone of responses has changed over the course of his career, and whether Elite is designed for those who play for five hours or a thousand.
RPS: Whenever we write about Elite on our site, there's a portion of commenters who are angry about the condition the game was released in, the absence of offline mode, the problems with refunds. Is that anger fair, and does it feel different to when you were making games twenty years ago?
Braben: It's a difficult one. There are certain people who will never be happy, and there are certain people where-- It's a shame, but I'm always saddened when people are upset about something. For the whole time that I've been in the games business, there's always been things where people have got angry about something. I remember with RollerCoaster Tycoon, [adopts gruff, angry voice], 'This game doesn't work on my PC! It's disgraceful!' and all this thing. And we've engaged with them and it turns out there's a problem with their driver and then often afterwards they say, 'Oh that's great, I can also play these other two games that weren't working.' [laughs] If you'd have said that earlier we would have been able to get to the bottom of the problem more quickly.
It's that sort of thing. You can understand, people get very angry if something isn't what they expect. For whatever reason. But that's not necessarily to say that you've done-- you've certainly not set out to annoy that person. We're trying to make the game as good as we can make it, and to do interactive stories, making it great fun to play with your friends, those kinds of things, and there will always be a portion of people which, [angry voice] 'Oh I don't want that, I want this.' And we're doing our best to make as many people as we can happy.
RPS: As a developer, do you simply have to make peace with the anger? I know devs who say that they don't go on their Steam forums anymore because they're just full of anger and there's sometimes nothing the developer can do to help.
Braben: I do still look at it, but every time I see something negative I do get slightly saddened. If it's a reasonable point, we'll do our best to address it, and hopefully people see that I've been taking the problems on squarely and said, this is what we're doing, this is why whatever it is people are asking for, but you try to do your best, that's the important thing. And you also have a regard for whether it makes the game better or not.
RPS: It was a remarkable thing when you committed to releasing the game before the end of last year and then actually did it. Was that release date a thing you did because it was important for the Kickstarter project to work, or was it a budget constraint?
Braben: No. The issue with the game is... In my experience, there's always something more you want to do with the game. If you're a perfectionist, it's never perfect. But having said that, we released a game that was a complete game. That's not to say that there wasn't things we wanted to do with it, I'm still proud of the game we released. It worked as a holistic whole, and we've had a lot of people commenting who've played the game for more than a thousand hours. Saying, oh, they feel they've seen everything. And they probably have.
But they haven't actually, they've seen everything that's in at that point. We're continuing to add more content. People say there isn't enough variation in the missions. I'm inclined to agree and we're increasing that variation. There's some variation coming in the Wings update for example, and coming forward there will be in future ones as well, and the point is that we're making it as good as we can and we're making it better. We haven't let go of it. We're continuing to do that. As we go forward, we will keep doing that. Eventually we'll bring in a big upgrade, a paid update, which we said we'd do right at the start, and then there would still be support for the game and free updates as well going forward from that.
RPS: Those larger updates are things like landing on planet surfaces?
Braben: Yeah. We've said things like going down to planet surfaces, walking around inside your spaceship, getting out of your ship, all of those things would be part of paid updates. And we would phase it, we wouldn't necessarily do them as part of one big thing, there would be multiple over time. Cause each of those, if you think of the work to do each one, it's a major new-game-level of content. And so we're just trying to take that seriously. We don't want to do half-baked solutions.
RPS: How do you stop that from splitting the community in a multiplayer game, between those who do buy those updates and those who don't? To avoid the problem of a new player joining and everyone else is in a galaxy far, far away, tooling around on planet surfaces.
Braben: So we've done two updates with new features already and they're free, which means everyone gets them. So that doesn't divide the community. When a paid update comes, for example that allows going down to planet surfaces, it would be great if people did that. Because we've got to keep funding the development which is what hope people will do, but they don't have to do that, and you may find a group of friends will eventually do it. In the same way Call of Duty fans will eventually move to the later version of Call of Duty. If you think of Call of Duty doing a paid update as being the next version of the game, you have to buy the whole thing or you can't play.
RPS: But does the game depend upon a constant influx of new players buying the base game in order to keep those areas populated?
Braben: Don't forget, we've also got the skins and stuff like that. We've not done pay-to-win but we have done things that make your ship shinier, and obviously as that becomes richer, as you can walk around inside your ships, things like leather upholstery are also things that we can do. It's not a pay-to-win thing but actually makes your ship more shiny.
RPS: Are you still playing the game yourself?
Braben: When I can. I've been playing on beta, so people won't see me for a while unless you're in. But to be honest, this is the trouble, coming to shows like this [GDC 2015], it seriously eats in to the time when I can play the game.
RPS: When you play the game, how do you play it? Are you a pirate, a trader, do you like space truckin'?
Braben: I love the exploration thing. I love heading out into the unknown. I love meeting a player in the middle of nowhere. And it's a sort of Dr. Livingstone I presume moment, when you're a long way away. I like that sort of thing.It feels like quite a fresh experience to me. I suppose I haven't had a time to play the playing-in-system, you know, doing the trading. I did earlier on in the project, and I remember I've seen myself die a few times on YouTube - and I didn't do the YouTubing!
RPS: It's a demanding game in terms of the time investment required to get anywhere with it. Do you hope to add activities to it that can be accomplished in shorter spells of time, so that people who are time poor like yourself can find quicker satisfaction?
Braben: Yes, that's something that - and the learning curve side of it - that we can improve. We will look at doing that. You can play the game for a short period of time. People say that about Skyrim, which I thought was a really good game. I played that for a few tens of hours, which was a lot for me, but I felt like there was still so much more to do. And it feels like that; you can go in, you can do a few missions, you won't necessarily progress all the way up to Elite, but having said that, have you had a good time doing it? That's the ultimate test.
RPS: I guess it feels to me though, that even if you're hopping in and doing a few missions, that's going to take you a few hours to do those missions. There's not much that you can get done in a lunch break.
Braben: I reckon you can do a mission or two in a lunch break. Depends how long your lunch break is.
RPS: That's true.
Braben: It's a balance. And if that's something that we need to look at, then we can. The beauty is, I don't want people to feel compelled to have played for a thousand hours in only three months or whatever, which is actually a whopping amount of time that people have dedicated.
RPS: I'm assuming that you've got player metrics about what activities people are doing and how much time they're spending on things. What is the - presumably you don't want to go into too much detail - but what is the breakdown in terms of percentage of players who play for 50 hours versus 1000 hours versus 5 hours? And do you feel like it's your job as the creator of the game to get people to keep coming back?
Braben: The goal for me is to make the game enjoyable for everbody. To be honest, most disc-based games' campaigns are only 5-10 hours anyway, generally. I'm not being negative about them, that's great, and then there are side quests or whatever on some of them that can go on forever. I think it's horses for courses. As a player of this sort of game, I couldn't dedicate a huge amount of time to it, but I would like to. And it's that feeling, that feeling of enjoyment that you want to dedicate a lot of time to it. So I don't feel bad if people have only played for five or ten hours. I think that's actually a long time. As long as that time has been enjoyable, and that's where I think my job is. To make that time enjoyable.
I'm less worried between hours 1000 and 1005, that they see new stuff, because I think that is quite a tall order. But that's why we're doing these updates; so that they will. So that even the people who have played for a thousand hours and now seeing new stuff today because of the Wings update, and as we go forward with future updates, with the community goals, they saw lots of new things, and they have those and now they've probably played those for a hundred hours or so. But I'm also conscious of the person whose played for nought to five hours, that they get a good feeling, and I think there's things we can do to make that better.
So as a game developer, I have never felt a game we've shipped is perfect. I've always felt, we should do this, we should do that. But the beauty now is, we can be doing that. We can now say, right, we need to concentrate on this, that's our next target, and that's what we're doing. It's wonderful.
RPS: You were open even before the game came out about what updates you had planned. Have you been surprised after the release of the game on what things people want?
Braben: People have very high expectations and that's fair. And that's part down to the fact we raised those expectations. But I think we have been delivering on them. And I am proud actually, even looking at what we said during the Kickstarter, we have done very close to what we said we would do. Overall. In terms of people, I think most people are delighted. They're afraid of saying, 'oh yes', because then we might stop. I think that's at the back of their mind. But we are continuing and we are hitting those things, and if there is a feature that people really care about, talk about it on the forums - people do - and we do look and we do listen. And we do try to say, if a lot of people saying, well, we'll change the priority. It's not that we're not working on it, it's just that we believe, just for genuine reasons, are more important because more people will get enjoyment from them.
RPS: Do you feel like there's more need to raise expectations nowadays than there used to be? It's obviously always been part of marketing, but in an age of Kickstarter, do you have to do that more?
Braben: I think, if you didn't have high expectations of what you were doing, why are you doing it? We're doing it because it's something that we want to do and we're excited about doing it. Part of that process inevitably raises expectations.