There are plenty of reasons to believe in Frontier Developments’ Kickstarter pitch to remake the seminal Elite – indeed, almost 10,000 people have already found those reasons. And why not? Elite is an almost universally-beloved game, one that influenced countless developers and whose innovative gameplay still holds up today. Trusting the original designer, David Braben, to recapture the magic he conjured up twenty years seems a better bet than most. But before you reach into that wallet, maybe we should ask a few questions.
What Frontier are proposing to create with your investment is potentially very exciting. A reincarnation of the original space privateer game, one that takes the massive procedurally-generated universe and freedom of action that we loved about Elite in the 1980s and gilds it with the stuff of modern gaming: online multiplayer, deep customization, and a dynamic in-game economy. And though it’s being developed for PC, all of it could potentially come to mobile platforms, Braben has said.
Kickstarter styles itself as a “funding platform for creative projects” – but if we were really an investment firm and not a distributed network of fans stitching our support together, we’d be doing some due diligence before handing Frontier the £1.25 million they’re after. And that due diligence raises a few red flags.
When Elite Dangerous’ pitch went up last week, it was a long essay topped with a slightly familiar chunky gold logo for the new game. Though donations started pouring in immediately, some commentators wondered why this video game we were being asked to fund was nowhere in evidence.
This past weekend, Braben made good on that, uploading a smattering of images and the customary pitch video. But what’s the reason for the original omission? Even a cursory look at previous successful Kickstarters would have demonstrated to Braben that images of the thing you’re trying to sell are a key to inspiring pledges. Frontier either carelessly didn’t do their homework or decided they just didn’t need them – betraying a hint of hubris. It’s not as if Frontier are out of practice when it comes to selling games to funders: 2010′s Kinect launch title Kinectimals was their baby.
More troubling than the lack (or dismissal) of Kickstarter research is the fate of Frontier’s last big title: The Outsider. The ambitious-sounding espionage thriller was originally announced way back in 2005, when George W Bush was still president of the United States and before anyone knew who Adele was. Though it looks a touch dated now, back in the noughties The Outsider was pitched as a game that would push the boundaries of what was possible on consoles. Codemasters had been impressed enough to add the game to their slate, and presumably handed Braben & Co. a pretty significant advance to fund development.
Fast-forward six years to 2011, and Codemasters have given up on Frontier and pulled their support from The Outsider. A report in Joystiq suggests that Frontier then shopped the project to EA, offering to dress it up as a Jason Bourne game – but EA apparently were not interested. Like a divorcee still wearing a wedding ring, the Frontier website still lists The Outsider with a release date of “TBA”, but nothing about the game has surfaced since last year.
The last time someone cut Frontier a check to deliver a big, ambitious game – the same thing Braben is asking us to do ourselves this time – something went quite wrong. Was Frontier treated badly by a big hulking publisher? Or did they bite off more than they could chew and fall so far behind that Codemasters could only cut their losses and move on? None of us outside the story can say with any certainty, but as the potential investors in this project, we’re surely entitled to ask.
There’s one more question that a potential investor should ask before putting his money behind a new product: what’s the unique selling point? A vast, multiplayer space sandbox with a player-driven economy where you can be a pirate, or a merchant, or your best mate’s wingman – that game already exists, and it’s called EVE: Online. Frontier’s concept art is gripping, and Braben is disarmingly enthusiastic in his to-camera pitch video, but none of the materials released so far acknowledge the existence of competitors in Elite’s space, nor what Elite will do to cleave away from them.
This might all be moot – Elite: Dangerous is on course to hit its funding target, if not double it. But I’ve reached out to Frontier all the same – let’s see what comes back.