Elite could be dangerous

I’m unsure whether to write a long, rambling rant about my observations of ED, trying to explain and expound, or whether just to cut to the brutal chase. Today is my birthday so I’m going to treat myself to a short brutal vent.

Frontier have released a decent number of games and they’ve done OK in the console/pc box game market.

Elite Dangerous is the first Elite to leave the hallowed ground of single player, and it’s skipping simple campaign / self-hosted co-op and going straight to sharded MMO. And I see all the warning signs of a box-game dev team making the mistake of thinking they have a clue about how to develop an MMO.

1. They’re referring to the current state as “beta” when it is clearly “alpha”. Unfortunately, the terms have their meanings kind of fixed, and people draw conclusions based on them. Including the engineers etc working on the product (“What comes after beta? Pay!”)

2. They seem to have selected Web Forums as the primary means of communicating with players. Perhaps they have secretly discovered that the 12 years or so of evidence that this does not work only applies to games developed in the US? But click that link and compare the number of posts in “Elite: Dangerous General” – just the one forum – with the older frontier game forums which represent games that have been out for years.

3. Any MMO dev who plays the game and loiters in the forums briefly for a week or so will know in their bones that nobody is “watching” the beta, certainly not any of the important metrics, stats etc, and since they are clearly competent at single player games, you can only conclude that it’s because they just haven’t got a clue that they should be.

4. There is no evidence of QA.

I’m just going to skip straight to the conclusion I’ve drawn from years of experience applied to filtering/processing what I see in their forums, in their patches, etc.

Frontier are working this exactly like a single player game would be shipped, with the addition of forums to handle the online community.

The QA thing is huge to me. It shows all kinds of things that have not happened.

For example: There’s no in-game bug reporting tool; There’s no readme shipped with patches; There’s no direction for testing or known issues outside of the forums.

This adds to other evidence that suggests that – even at this late stage – they are focusing on developing the game with little if any thought to building the infrastructure that is going to be necessary to run and maintain an online game!

The readme isn’t especially important but it is evidence of a certain pipeline of work. Usually when a team doesn’t expose a readme it’s because they’re operating off commit messages rather than a ticket system that QA is validating.

With an online game, the infrastructure has to be built from the start, or you are going to absolutely piss away precious developer time doing menial tasks throughout the process as well as risking increasingly complex things being developed that will be out-of-hand trying to manage down the line. Going back and re-factoring your economy/trading system 6 months later to make it easier to build a sane management/monitoring tool is the kind of thing that could just simply put you out of business.

You also can’t afford to reach release and find that you are missing half the tools you need to operate the game. Your early access backers might be ok with finding that the launch is delayed a day or two, when the larger audience of people who waited until you said it was ready can’t log in on day 1, lose their ship on day 2 and have their cargo teleport into someone’s bank on day 3 – you go out of business.

Equally, QA should be an integral part of your development process very early on, especially for a game aiming large scale like E:D.

A live, running game, needs a very different QA than the treatment you give a single player game. Your QA team is going to be handling frequent patches, game play changes, additions, etc. And to do that, they need a repository of knowledge that tells them what kinds of things to look for when they get a note from a dev saying “tweaked auth, shouldn’t crash now”; they should have a stock repertoire of smoke and stress tests. They should, in fact, become one of the primary stakeholders of the live game. And you want them to do that in the week between gold and launch? Don’t trip on your way to the unemployment office.

If QA was anywhere near established within the Elite Dangerous dev workflow, there’d be evidence of it in the forums: You give a QA team thousands of free testers and they’re going to do something to organize them. If you tell them “I’ll post something in the forums” they’re going to make a reference to bypass plans in disused basements and kick the living snot out of you.

“Elite” was a ground-breaking game. “Frontier”, the sequel, was ground-breaking but largely unsuccessful because it was what some people would term “shitty” – buggy, complicated, steep learning curve and “cool” in ways that were “cool” for a few minutes and then became “fuck me backwards” annoying. “First Encounters” wasn’t ground-breaking, backtracked on some of the things that were wrong about “Frontier”, except the being buggy, which it definitely expanded on. I loved both Frontier and First Encounters but I wouldn’t argue with anyone that referred to First Encounters as “one of the absolute fucking worst games I’ve ever played and a curse on the face of mankind and all the little fishes”. You really had to love Elite not to see it as absolutely awful.

So the question is – will Elite Dangerous be a revival or will it be a revival of the trend curve which until now ended with First Encounters?

Personally, I’m not feeling the holy spirit on this one…

Sorry guys – I wish you good luck, at this point it really looks like that’s what you’re going to need.


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