The fallout from Frontier Developments' decision to ditch its promised offline mode for space game Elite: Dangerous continues even as the studio prepares for the game's launch next month.
On Saturday, 22nd November, Frontier staff, boss David Braben and Elite's army of enthusiastic backers joined forces at Imperial War Museum Duxford, Britain's "best-preserved" second world war airfield, to celebrate the release of a game that arrives an incredible 30 years after the ground-breaking original.
It was a night of heartfelt thank yous and cheers, of space pilot cos-play and a community giving back. But the striking enthusiasm from those who are looking forward to Elite's return to the big time - and from those who forked out hundreds of pounds for access to the alpha and beta versions of the game months ago - has been tempered by what has been a difficult two weeks for the Cambridge developer.
The cancellation of the offline mode - promised as part of the game's Kickstarter - sparked a 10,000 post thread on the Frontier forum packed with complaints. I've seen those complaints, too, in comments on Eurogamer and in emails sent to me from disgruntled customers.
There are a number of issues here, from what I've seen. One: many don't buy Braben's reasoning for ditching the offline mode in the first place. How hard can it be, people ask, to offer an offline version of the game that is updated every once in a while, rather than at all times?
"It's always frustrating," Braben tells me under the very tip of Concorde's nose. "I don't like it when people are unhappy, fundamentally. With any big project, you have to make lots and lots of decisions. Quite a lot of them are difficult ones. Especially when things are mutually exclusive."
Two: the timing of the announcement raised eyebrows. It came less than a month before Elite: Dangerous' planned launch in December. Why did it take so long to decide an offline mode wouldn't be released? The sceptical among the community are crying foul play.
"I know, I know," David Braben says when I bring this up. "Absolutely. And I am sorry about that. It's frustrating. With a lot of these things, time doesn't half go quickly. You've got a list of things that need dealing with that's a mile long, and you keep crossing them off, and then someone says, 'no, we need to get this sorted before we can do that.' Things get percolated down. It's not an excuse. But that's the problem. It wasn't off the table until very recently."
As the debate over the rights and wrongs of Frontier's decision rages on, what's clear is this: people were promised an offline mode and now they're not getting it. So, for some, there is only one recourse: a refund.
Here's where Frontier made its second communications blunder: it at first said refunds would only be given to those who have never played the game before, leaving alpha and beta customers out in the cold. They, predictably, kicked off, prompting another re-jig: Frontier has promised to go through denied refund requests one by one to see if it can sort something out. This, though, is taking time, and some of the people affected are getting annoyed.
Through the entire episode one thing has gnawed at the back of my mind: was the decision to make Elite: Dangerous an always-online game about combating piracy?
I ask David Braben, directly, whether piracy was what this was all about after all.
"No," he replies, matter of factly. "We wanted to push the online side as hard as we could. Something that's not been done in gaming in my opinion is the ability to tell a story dynamically, where you have a lot of people contribute to it.
"The story - and this goes all the way back to Frontier, where the Emperor is a powerful figure... in Roman times, when you think of Julius Caesar and all of the people who plotted against him, how does that work in a futuristic society, but based on the same sort of thing?
"You can unfold it so different people can join different camps together. There isn't a way of doing that locally. And if people can't participate in the adventure, it will feel very empty, because all of the missions are tied into it. We would have to re-engineer a separate set. And that's a problem.
"When you start making two games at the same time, you think, this isn't what we were planning to do."
So, it had nothing to do with piracy then?
"No. These days, people will do that anyway. That wasn't the principal reason, certainly."
Whatever the case, the debate over the lack of an offline mode rumbles on. Last week I was contacted by Mr Andrew Mace, a partner at law firm Gowlings and an Elite: Dangerous backer, who told me he was helping people get their money back.
No-one's taking legal action at this stage, but there remains an air of inevitability that Frontier will be dragged into a messy battle with some players if refunds aren't handled well.
Here are a couple of emails I've been sent on this:
The community is waiting, now, to see how Frontier deals with these refund requests - refund requests, remember, it had initially denied.
I wanted to get an idea of how many people had requested refunds relative to the number of players of the game. Braben won't tell me how many, exactly. Apparently "it's not a huge number of people".
But: "Even if it's one person who's upset, I don't like that," Braben says. "We're contacting them each individually. It's not a huge number of people, but they are very upset. I'm sorry about that. We'll see what we can do. But the point is they're upset and that's not good."
Frontier had said it didn't want to give refunds to those who have already played the game at the alpha or beta stage, whether they were backers of the Kickstarter or not. Speaking to Braben on Saturday night, though, there appears to be wiggle room on that.
"We're reviewing that now," he says. "With all of those things, I want to look and see what the situation really is, because if someone's just played it briefly, obviously they've not really played it. It's just being reasonable. And we want to be reasonable. We want them to be happy. We will do that fairly. It's not an absolute no."
And adding fuel to the fire, over the weekend I received reports that Frontier had stepped in to its forum to clamp down on dissenting voices.
This came after the aforementioned 10,000 post thread on the lack of an offline mode, and then the closure of "part two" - a smaller but no less vitriolic thread on the subject.
"We kindly ask that you do not create new threads/discussions about this moderation action or the offline issues at this point in time," a moderator wrote. "Thank you for understanding." I get the impression Frontier has had enough of it all.
Has David Braben? Before huge hangar doors open to unveil a scale model of the Cobra MK III - Elite's iconic spaceship - and before a live show presented by Jessica Chobot began broadcasting on Twitch, Frontier's founder is in positive mood and willing to discuss the drama that threatens to overshadow Elite: Dangerous' launch. He knows these questions are coming, and is prepared to answer them.
And he is prepared to apologise. "I'm really sorry to the people who are upset, for whom it's very important," Braben says, almost right off the bat. "We will see what we can do for those people going forward, as best we can.
"We thought there was a way through. We thought it was better to just come clean and say, look, this is the issue, this is where we are."
Whether the furore over Elite: Dangerous' lack of an offline mode will have a meaningful impact on the game's launch - or Frontier's bottom line - remains to be seen. Braben tells me not a huge number of people have requested refunds, and I hear pre-release sales from Elite's own online shop are brisk.
But perhaps more importantly, the thousand person-strong turnout on Saturday night at Imperial War Museum Duxford suggests Elite's core fanbase remains on board. Indeed, the event reminds me how important and influential the original Elite remains, decades after its original release. There is a deep-rooted love of the series among many who believe Elite: Dangerous - with or without an offline mode - will rekindle their childhoods. No-one I spoke with at Duxford on Saturday night demands a refund. The thing is, the internet is a different beast. And Frontier will do well to keep it sweet.
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