Promising the Stars: The three big space games of the 2010s

by Tom Souvarine

Promising the Stars: The three big space games of the 2010s
September 18, 2019 Parallel Worlds

In the first half of this decade, three games came along that promised something no game had offered before: the opportunity to fly freely through space and land on and explore planets, on foot and in a spaceship. The stories of those games have become some of the industry’s most dramatic narratives. Now, in 2019, we ask, how close have these games come to delivering on their promises?

 

In the early 2010s, it was as if several people received an email from the mid 1990s all at the same time. 

“What are you doing? Get back to making great space sims.”

In 2012, Chris Roberts — creator of the Wing Commander and Privateer series — announced Star Citizen, an ambitious space game combining the best of modern first-person shooter (FPS) games and flight simulator-like spaceflight. In November of that year, David Braben — creator of Elite, one of the most seminal video games of all time, and its sequels — announced Elite 4, ‘Elite Dangerous’. It promised free-form space and atmospheric flight in a 1:1 scale scientifically-plausible model of the Milky Way, as well as (for the first time in the series) the ability to walk around spaceships, space stations, and planets. Two years later, Sean Murray of Hello Games announced No Man’s Sky, a kaleidoscopic vision of a space game in which you explore a stunning galaxy, planet by planet, in your starship; at your own pace and direction. 

These games, though all different, promised to break ground in several common ways. Two of them relied on the magic of procedural generation to create bafflingly large game worlds, with Star Citizen later promising to add some of the same. All offered an experience free of directed goals or scripted, linear campaigns (at least initially). All offered the thrill of genuine exploration, at the player’s own pace. And all promised to let you fly a spaceship towards a planet, descend through its atmosphere, fly over its landscape, set down, climb out of the cockpit, and walk around. 

Players of video games were electrified. We hadn’t known we wanted this, but boy, did we want it. Star Citizen became a very successful Indigogo campaign, and then a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Elite also ventured onto Kickstarter and handily met its fundraising goals. In the meantime, No Man’s Sky stayed away, but generated a level of hype and expectation that studios have come to dread. 

What these developers promised, and what tapped into players’ desires so deeply, was not just a fun game to play for a while. They promised the opportunity to escape into and inhabit an entirely new universe: “a science fiction universe you can live in,” as David Braben put it. 

This article is not a review of these games, though it will necessarily discuss their features. Rather, it asks: how close have they come to that vision? Where are they today? How do these experiences compare to each other, and what are they like to play?

 

A 1960s vision of the future

No Man’s Sky is one of the most interesting stories in video games this decade. It is the redemption story of the industry: for a while after launch, its name was analogous with overpromising and disingenuous marketing. Three years later, it is widely considered a triumph. Hello Games are widely perceived to have selflessly toiled for three years to do right by their customers, and have released a number of updates that address nearly all of the main grievances against the game in 2016. Less widely recognised is the fact that it’s a phenomenally successful new intellectual property, and that each patch has delivered launch-scale revenues for the studio. 

No Man’s Sky is, first and foremost, a survival game. It bears the fundamental hallmarks of other games in the Minecraft legacy: inventory management, hacking at rocks and trees, and crafting pyramids. Want to fly to that star system? Cool, you’ll need a warp cell. How do you get that? Well, you’ll need a wooden pipe and two wingnuts. Great — you already have the wingnuts. But how do you get a pipe? Ah, you can make it with six bark shavings and some kelp paste. Right, time to shoot some trees. 

I like No Man’s Sky despite, rather than because of, the survival elements. They interrupt the delight of discovering new worlds. Refuelling is a good example: in Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen, you refuel by selecting the appropriate option at a spaceport and paying some in-game money. In No Man’s Sky, you refuel by shooting rocks. 

However, exploration in No Man’s Sky is gratifying, when you get to it — more so, enthusiasts might argue, because of the faff involved in doing so. Since release the developers have made it less frustrating, with well-conceived features like constructable portals and summonable freighters. Planets are beautiful, with varied, interesting terrain, a rich palette of colours and weather, and interesting wildlife. 

In this way, No Man’s Sky undeniably does deliver on the promise of free-form exploration, epitomised with the seamless planetary approach, landing, and climbing out of the cockpit. It’s done so since launch. Compared to the other two titles discussed here, though, it does so shallowly.

The planets each have one biome; the poles are identical to the equator. They have no running water or volcanism. You can broadly tick off an entire planet once you’ve walked two hundred metres along a shoreline and seen the colours of the trees, water, and grass. The three races’ buildings are identical and they have no towns or cities. The spaceships have all the complexity of the cars in the Grand Theft Auto games from the 2000s: a bit more customisation perhaps, but it’s ‘press X to go’, ‘press Y to get out’. 

In short, No Man’s Sky is arguably now the most finished product of the three games being discussed here, but its scope is much, much smaller than the other two.

 

Frame shift drive charging

Since Elite Dangerous was first released in 2014, it has quietly improved with little fanfare and no features obviously targeted at increasing the playerbase. There has been no significant step along the development roadmap as laid out in the Kickstarter campaign since 2015, when landing on airless worlds was introduced. A big update is coming late next year, apparently viewed internally as a re-release of the game, and it’s widely expected to be either walking around spaceships and space stations or landing on atmospheric worlds. 

Space dogfighting and Elite’s galaxy are the game’s two undisputed triumphs — nobody has ever said “Elite’s galaxy is rubbish” or “the combat is boring.” The game’s ‘Stellar Forge’ engine has created a realistically-sized approximation of the Milky Way, which is utterly fascinating and humbling to explore. You can visit every star you can see in the sky — there’s no painted-on skybox; the backdrop changes as you traverse the playspace, the nebulae and stars moving in relation to you. 

It is realistic, which means inevitably that it’s a bit boring. Space is big and empty, and the not-empty bits are mostly dust and rocks. However, planets are believable, varied, intimidating and scientifically plausible — despite players only having access to airless rocks and ice balls so far.

Each ship feels very different, and all aspects of their design are excellent. ‘Engineering’ — customising and tweaking every aspect of your ship’s components — adds an order of magnitude to its potential complexity. The flight model is a wonderful blend of the different styles featured in the earlier games: ‘flight assist’ makes spaceflight feel like atmospheric flight, and you can turn it off to experience something close to Newtonian physics in space. Shifting your ship’s power between weapon cooling, shields and thrusters is also necessary for higher-echelon combat, which some players don’t begin to experiment with until they have been playing for several years. There is a pleasing rock/paper/scissors aspect to combat and ship outfitting; this isn’t a roleplaying game, in which once you reach level 50 you have the best stuff and can’t be beaten by someone at a lower level. A small ship, outfitted smartly and flown by a pilot with a plan, can take out the most expensive ship in the game. And that is bloody wonderful

The core experience at the heart of the 1984 Elite is still there: joyously fly a spaceship from starport to starport, taking advantage of the different economy types to sell high and buy low, making money to upgrade your ship. 

However, there is still much negativity around Elite Dangerous, particularly on its developer-hosted forums. Why? Fundamentally, it’s not because of what the game is; it’s because of what it’s not yet

Elite Dangerous was sold to potential players in 2012 and 2013 as a “science fiction universe you can live in.” David Braben famously promised us the ability to “chase big dinosaurs around” on alien worlds and leave our cockpits to “stow away in other players’ ships.” Official concept art showed pilots striding around space stations, and FPS-style combat. The two fundamental features these features require — atmospheric landings and ‘space legs’, or the ability for your avatar to walk around — have been demanded by much of the player-base ever since. This impatience is piqued by the fact that many veteran players feel that they paid for these features when they backed the game. 

Are they coming?

Frontier, the developer, notoriously don’t communicate further than the next point release. They rarely give roadmaps beyond a year ahead, and when they do, they tend to fall short. Players reasonably feel that this refusal to talk about the game’s future forms a stark contrast to how effusive the company was before release, and it worries backers. The developer now refuses to even confirm that they’re working on space legs and atmospheric landings.

However, there is a good chance that players waiting for these things will have good news in 2020. A developer post in August 2018 said that “a major milestone in the history of Elite” (my emphasis) was being worked on. While atmospheric planets have been accessible in previous Elite games, walking around has not — so its introduction would be a milestone for Elite, the series. Also, an apparent leak posted in spring of this year, ostensibly from a ‘friend’ of a member of Frontier staff, suggested that space legs was the update due in 2020. Though greeted with scepticism at the time, other predictions in the leak have been proven right over the months.

If all of this is true, it will mean that players finally get the ability to walk around their ships six years after the game’s initial release. That’s still well within the ten-year development lifetime originally posited, but hardly hot on the heels of 2015’s Horizons update, which first introduced planetary landings. 

 

They said I was dead

Alone among these three games, Star Citizen isn’t yet released. It’s been in development for most of this decade (a single-player campaign called Squadron 42 is billed for release in 2020). It is viewed by believers as a groundbreaking project that will be everything they want in a game, and by most other people as a cautionary tale about newfangled, unregulated funding platforms like Kickstarter.

In May of this year Forbes ran an article demolishing Star Citizen. It lined up designers who had been involved with the project to testify against Chris Roberts’ management and allocation of resources and focus, as well as the developer, Cloud Imperium’s (CI) approach to raising funds. The article ran with an accompanying piece on other ‘failed’ Kickstarter projects, and made scathing references to Roberts’ personal life.

Star Citizen has entered a stage in development in which many people view it as a disaster waiting to happen. This isn’t my opinion — because I’ve played it. 

Star Citizen is a wonderful, incredible feat of smart, ambitious game design. The one star system we have access to (100 are promised) is several orders of magnitude larger than most finished games, and you can log in, create your avatar, summon your spaceship, lift off and traverse the solar system smoothly. You can land on planets, take on missions, meet up with other players, dogfight, race vehicles — often without encountering bugs for hours or more. This is a game, not a tech demo. It’s a game that just happens to still be in alpha. 

You know how, in PC games, your character’s movement speed is limited to a painfully slow walk, a jog, or a sprint? In Star Citizen you use the scroll wheel on your mouse to change your movement speed. Neat, right? 

Similarly, your stamina meter is your heart rate, and the game’s heads-up display mostly disappears when you remove your helmet. Much of the world is interactive, and you hold down an ‘interaction button’ to reveal what you can do with objects. This allows varied options for interactions in the world, but leaves it visually uncluttered when you’re not doing so. The game is full of smart ideas like this.

There are still bugs. At the time of writing, when you die in the game it often freezes and has to be force-closed via the Task Manager. But, incredibly, in the hours I’ve played it as research for this article, I’ve actually experienced fewer bugs than I did in a recent afternoon fighting in conflict zones in Elite Dangerous. Unfinished it may be, but what is available to play right now of Star Citizen is most definitely a game. 

The fact that each release window has slipped and we are now seven years after the game was announced is evidence enough that there have been problems in development. However, there is one often-overlooked factor in light of which this should be viewed. 

Star Citizen was originally meant to be a much smaller game. In 2014, as the money kept rolling in, CI asked the backers whether to keep offering stretch goals. 55% of the players said ‘yes’. Now, the scope is massive, and arguably implausible in parts — like the goal of item permanence in the world, whereby an object dropped on one place on a planet will still be there for another player to find, potentially years later. This expansion in scope is probably why the game is late, and you could call it ‘feature creep’ — but it’s not fair to suggest that players and backers didn’t support that choice. 

 

So which is closest to delivering on the promise?

These games are often compared, but outer space is really the only common factor between them. No Man’s Sky is a wildly different experience from the others: it’s simpler, more arcadey, and essentially a crafting game. Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen are both true ‘space sims’, but the different approaches taken in their development have meant that they are in very different places today.

Elite Dangerous has quietly and reliably developed since release. Players may not have seen the leaps forward they were trained to expect by the 2015 update, but every patch has (despite many bugs) undeniably made Elite a better game. That said, if you’d said to players in 2016 “by the way, you’ll still be waiting for space legs and atmospheric landings in 2019”, many of them would have been dismayed. 

Elite arguably needs these features — the station services interface is a blatant placeholder for interactions that should take place between your pilot and simulated people, and it is frustrating to fly amongst these beautiful planets and know that you can only land on the most boring of them. Those wonderfully-designed ships need be be explorable on foot if they are to become places, rather than, essentially, players’ avatars.

A lot of development time has been spent on things that have, in hindsight, not seen the uptake they could have. Multicrew (the ability to beam another player into your ship to pilot a small deployable fighter or operate turrets) rarely works smoothly and is less fun than it could have been. CQC, a drop-in arena combat mode, is similarly unloved. Less patient players might reasonably ask why these features were even developed if they weren’t going to be done properly, given that the game’s architecture was always going to make them difficult.

And Elite is hobbled by its architecture. Its networking is ‘peer-to-peer’, meaning that each player in an instance reports their own status to and adjudicates the others’, rather than a central server adjudicating for all players. This means that each instance is only as fast as its poorest internet connection, and getting many players into one instance is an exercise in frustration. Multicrew often just doesn’t work, meetups between more than a few players are difficult and unreliable, and team combat with Thargoids is horribly bugged. Essentially, Elite Dangerous is not very ‘massively multiplayer’, despite the Steam page description.

However, most of what is there is excellent. Space flight and the galaxy itself remain incredible and, by and large, the features that have been added since launch (while not as transformational as base building in No Man’s Sky, for example) have made the game better. Elite is not yet a science fiction universe you can truly live in, but it is one that is an utter pleasure to fly in. 

No Man’s Sky does a good job of fleshing out its ‘four pillars’ of explore, trade, survive, and fight. Combat is fine — your ‘multi-tool’ is a customisable gun, and the Sentinels are formidable and interesting enemies. The combat in No Man’s Sky is no worse than a lot of games this decade. Similarly, planets are fun to visit. Space flight is an arcadey joy. Base building is rich and interesting, and is a surprisingly large part of the game’s appeal for a feature that wasn’t planned at launch. 

All of this comes from a team that has not exceeded twenty five people since launch. For context, Elite Dangerous’ team at the time of writing is around 100, and Star Citizen’s numbers in the several hundreds. Being compared to the other games in this article doesn’t do No Man’s Sky any favours. It doesn’t offer the depth of experience that those do, but its team is a small fraction of their size. 

No Man’s Sky is a kooky, ambitious, fun, cult game on its own, but it’s the story of the game’s development that makes this such a triumph. Few games have travelled the distance in players’ estimation that this game has. 

Star Citizen is undeniably the most impressive in scope of the three games dealt with here. It makes No Man’s Sky look like a mobile game in comparison, and a few minutes traversing its landscapes or spaceways casts Elite Dangerous’ visuals in a poor light. It’s also more complex than Elite, mechanically — the ships have directional shields which players can manipulate, and several ‘flight assist’ analogues, offering a potentially deeper flight model. Also, it’s being built as all one thing — so if it’s released before Elite includes both atmospheric landings and walking around, then it will actually have reached its planned maturity first.

However, CI needs to keep raising funds to keep the lights on. This has led to some charmless sales practices, like selling access to livestreams. Goodwill has a limit, and there is a finite number of people who will back a project like this. There is a real feeling amongst the players of this kind of game that CI need to ship something ready, soon, to keep up its momentum. 

But contrary to most of what is written about Star Citizen, it is not only a game — it’s already more of a game than many finished games. If you have the patience to learn how it all works (the game really needs a tutorial) there is tremendous fun to be had in the ‘Persistent Universe’.

Chris Roberts, Sean Murray, and David Braben are three likeable geeks who asked for our money in the early 2010s in return for something we all dreamed of: the ability to explore space, planets, and starships in a science fiction universe we could make a home in, not just ‘play’. Are they there yet? No, not yet. But keep dreaming, just a little longer.