If the gaming industry should have learned anything at all from the SimCity and Diablo 3, it's that if your game isn't going to have an offline mode for play, being online had damned well better work from launch and it should be necessary for play, rather than as a form of stupid DRM easily circumvented by pissed off fans. Otherwise, fans are going to be really pissed off and your company will end up on the most hated list. Pissed off on levels of, say, angry customers who paid money for Playstation 3 features that were retroactively removed by the manufacturer.
But, wait. What if there was a way to marry an always online requirement that angers fans with the removal of features after significant money has been spent? Well, it turns out that such a scenario isn't a "what if." It's called Elite: Dangerous, and things are about to get really messy.
"Offline was initially not a planned feature when we went to Kickstarter," [creator David] Braben confessed. "We said we were making an online game. But then there were some people on forums and on the Kickstarter saying it'd be really great to have offline. So then we looked at it and thought, 'Actually, why can't we just run [what we have offline]?' We looked at the design and saw that it'd be quite empty. And I did say that. But I did say we'd be able to do a purely offline mode."
Braben is underselling the call for an offline mode here. He does, to his credit, admit that he absolutely promised a full offline mode for the game. Which makes sense, since there's, you know, an entire single player game
included. But the company just
announced, a week before the game goes out of beta and goes full release, that the offline mode is being killed off completely. And if the breaking of a promise by a game creator sounds like no big deal to you, you haven't heard how much money has been poured into this by Kickstarter backers and early-beta players. $2 million in funding came in through crowdfunding sources by parties that had been informed the game would have an offline mode and beta access cost gamers $75 a piece with the offline mode promise already in place. You have to imagine that there is going to be a significant number of people that might damned well want their money back with the last-second removal of a feature that had been promised at the time money exchanged hands.
And for those that do indeed want refunds? Meh, the developer will see if it feels like you deserve one.
Back when Braben and co first announced that offline mode wasn't gonna make the cut, they only offered refunds to people who hadn't spent a significant amount of time playing Elite's alpha or beta. They were worried, Braben told me, that people might take advantage of the system if they offered refunds to everybody—get their money back and then buy the final version of the game for a lower price. More community outcry, however, caused them to reconsider that stance, electing instead to offer refunds on a case-by-case basis. Players would take up their beef with Frontier, and if it checked out they'd get their money back.
I don't know what needs to check out beyond, "Hey, you promised me something I wanted when I gave you my money and now you're taking it away, so I would like my goddamned money back, please." After all, the excuse that some beta players have spent a "significant" amount of time in the game doesn't really matter if purchases were made under the conditions of promises that are now being refused to customers. If I buy a car that promises me four-wheel drive in the summer and only find out in the winter that the "4WD" button on the stick shift isn't a button at all, but a cleverly-drawn crayon etching of a button, Ford doesn't get to tell me they did nothing wrong because I drove the car all summer.
But how about we get a nice, tone-deaf quote from Braben to really drive home the face-palm moment?
What about in the future, though? Once Braben and co have a little more time and space (in multiple senses of the word), could they hack something together?
"We may still do something [offline]," Braben said. "We just don't want to promise it at this point."
Oh, yeah. Promising an offline mode when you're not sure you can deliver? That'd just be crazy-pants.