I’d love to approach this topic with an unbiased attitude of journalistic indifference, but I’m too invested and quite conflicted, for many reasons that will become clear. So allow me to poke the bear and indulge in some hypocrisy as I examine Frontier’s Elite Dangerous: Odyssey release fallout with the intent of pushing back against the overwhelming negativity. Come on in, the water’s salty.
As a brief explainer in case someone wandered in from a non-gaming part of the internet, videogame developer Frontier Developments PLC, whose flagship product Elite Dangerous enjoys a loyal and articulate fanbase stretching as far back as the 1980s, has recently found itself being publicly criticised for the botched release of the highly anticipated Odyssey expansion to their online sci-fi universe.
This modern version of Elite, released in 2014 was embraced by fans of the original game series from the 80s and 90s and prior to commercial release enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign and a premium beta, both of which were schemes which allowed eager fans to pay sums often greater than the standard cost of a videogame.
As a consumer, I’ve long been wary of this approach to game development when it comes to established game studios, although I accept such crowdfunding mechanisms may well be lifeblood for indie developers. In any case, it can be argued that the last decade of gaming has seen an erosion of release quality in studio-delivered games as public beta by stealth has been normalised. On the Steam delivery platform many games are released as ‘early access’ as a means of monetising an incomplete product.
Despite my principles, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I also backed Elite Dangerous prior to release in 2014, which has since given me access to all subsequent premium releases (Horizons, Odyssey Alpha, Odyssey ‘release’) without further investment. I accept the charge of hypocrisy, m’lud.
Since its release in 2014, Elite Dangerous has been all about the spaceships and exploring a beautifully rendered 1:1 scale rendition of the Milky Way galaxy. With it came a wealth of lore in the form of a series of novels and in-game information (most of which required patiently piecing together). This was very much in keeping with the legacy of Elite, whose original iteration in 1984 was groundbreakingly released with a novella by the late Robert Holdstock, entitled The Dark Wheel. In contrast to the narrative depth this created, the procedurally generated gameplay was criticised by some as being ‘a mile wide and one inch deep’.
Throughout the game’s lifecycle so far, Frontier have expanded and developed the gameplay and the universe, with numerous features being introduced, both as free updates to the existing game and as a premium ‘season’ in the form of Horizons which allowed planetary landings and exploration in surface reconnaissance vehicles (SRVs). Many of these elements added breadth and depth to the core gameplay, however it has been suggested that some of these features warrant further iteration. Your mileage may vary, but it’s certainly kept me and many others entertained for more than half a decade.
And so the ambitious attempt to further enrich the ED universe comes around in the form of Odyssey. Where Horizons gave us vehicular planetary exploration, now Odyssey would allow us to disembark and explore numerous environments on foot. I’m not a developer, but I don’t think anyone needs to be to recognise the sheer scale of this task – to provide the freedom of countless planets and man-made environments with varied and interesting gameplay bolted onto an existing mind-bogglingly vast game seems like lunacy.
But they’ve done it! Odyssey provides a myriad of opportunities for unscripted depth, atmospheric gameplay, and a narrative canvas to play out untold personal stories. In theory.
Unfortunately, the product is incomplete. Many users are reporting problems with framerates and disconnects, as well as an assortment of other issues which are impacting – or entirely preventing – gameplay.
A lot of these issues were evident in the premium ‘alpha’ a few weeks prior to release. Frontier offered reassurances that concurrent development on a newer build would remedy many of those problems and introduce more content that was held back from the alpha.
The fundamental clue here wasn’t so much the evidence of work still to be done, but in the branding of these periods as an alpha phase. It’s important to note that in game development terms an alpha phase is always followed by a beta phase.
According to Wikipedia, ‘Alpha is the stage when key gameplay functionality is implemented, and assets are partially finished. A game in alpha is feature complete, that is, game is playable and contains all the major features. These features may be further revised based on testing and feedback.’
Whereas a beta phase is ‘feature and asset complete version of the game, when only bugs are being fixed. This version contains no bugs that prevent the game from being shippable. No changes are made to the game features, assets, or code. Beta occurs two to three months before code release.’
So how was it that the player base had access to a preview version branded as an ‘alpha’ in April 2021, mere weeks before the 19th May release?
The truth must surely be that what has been released is the beta version, not the final ‘release code’. This fact is further emphasised by the announcement that Odyssey development will continue concurrently to but separate from the PC and consoles running the Horizons versions. There will be a re-unification later in the year when the console version of Odyssey is released.
It seems quite clear that we have now entered a PC-only ongoing public beta, which is neither without precedent (it was how the original Elite Dangerous rolled out, as mentioned earlier) nor unusual in modern game development. In fact, it has become the industry standard. Is this practice unethical or misleading? I’m conflicted about that. It depends on the messaging. It can be done ethically, but I suspect pressure from boardroom and shareholder imposed deadlines can erode those ethics. Certainly Frontier may have done well to pitch the development plan with more candour, perhaps selling this current phase of PC-only Odyssey development as a premium beta.
However, the advent of constant internet connectivity has ensured that the days of ‘going gold’ with a finalised hard copy are long gone. This a double-edged sword, and although we’re repeatedly seeing the negatives of ‘early access culture’ writ large, consumers do benefit from constantly renewed and revised content and a much more immediate relationship with the developers of their favourite games.
I feel that the acrimony we often see in videogame communities is in part due to this ‘always on’ communication conduit. There’s no filter; consumer rage is unbridled, development is endlessly iterative, players demand quality, development requires funding. These factors conflict.
As players, we are customers, and of course we expect – and are entitled – to get what we paid for. But I think it’s selective naivety and predictable over-entitlement to be angry that a game that was in alpha in April would be finished in May. We’re smarter than that. Especially in the iterative development culture that we have all encouraged.
I am disappointed I cannot yet unreservedly recommend Elite Dangerous: Odyssey to my friends, but I’m very much on Team Frontier when it comes to continuing along the journey to see Elite continue to evolve. Horizons is polished to a standard we can expect Odyssey to meet with time. What has been achieved by the development team while working from home through covid-19 lockdown is still remarkable and, but for some miscommunication, might even have been acceptable.
I wish Frontier had checked their corporate entitlement and openly sold us the May release as a PC-only beta or an exclusive PC preview, which would have made any post-release issues easier to stomach. But I believe we can remain confident that Frontier will continue to address the performance issues and bugs as they have in the past.
Meanwhile, we players should perhaps exercise a little patience and perhaps reflect upon the fact that Odyssey is a product of its time, produced under economic and pandemic duress. Also consider that at least a mote of responsibility lies with us, insofar as our consumer choices have enabled the kind of development cycle that permits unfinished games.