Elite: Dangerous goes back on offline mode promises

If you're much of a (virtual) space jockey, you've probably been watching the development of Elite: Dangerous with great interest. The crowdfunded space sim from the creator of the seminal Elite promises to take players back to space with a vast simulation of galactic trade, politics, and eye-searing ship-to-ship combat. Now that the game is just a month away from its full release, it seems primed to deliver on all of those big-picture promises. The only problem is one little-picture detail: contrary to the assurances of its Kickstarter campaign, you have to be online to play.

A totally offline version of the game would be 'unacceptably limited and static' compared to the connected game, Frontier Developments said in its latest newsletter. Even those who plan to stick exclusively to single-player mode will still affect and experience galaxy-wide developments informed by the community's efforts in exploration and diplomacy. The only way to make that happen, Frontier said, is to do all the galactic number crunching on central servers.

All this talk of server-side calculations may remind you of the new SimCity last year, when Maxis insisted that an offline mode was implausible before quietly implementing one in March 2014. But I'm willing to give Frontier the benefit of the doubt here; a galaxy that's reactive to thousands of players has always been a major part of its vision for Elite: Dangerous. That vision has only grown over nearly two years of development. Cutting all of that out for an offline experience, and making sure said offline experience is still compelling, sounds like it would be quite a bit of work.

So yeah, it's easy to see where Frontier is coming from. Only problem is that its hugely successful Kickstarter was partially built on the promise of an offline mode - there's even an FAQ answer specifically confirming it. No matter how well Frontier justifies the decision today, loyal customers were still misled. And it only takes a peek at the campaign's comments to see how they feel about it. This is one of the dangers of crowdfunding games - it's a bit like putting a full deposit down on a pre-order based on a video and essay of what the developers think their project may one day be. Wait, no, that's exactly what it's like.

Unfortunately, there's no happy solution here. Either Frontier diverts resources toward creating an offline mode (which sounds more like a spin-off at this point) and compromises its work on the main project, or backers who plunked down cash for an offline experience are left waiting for a refund. Either way, what looks like a very cool game has already disgruntled much of its fanbase just a month before release. It could have, at the very least, let them down easy.