What does yesterday’s announcement mean to the backer community?
Yesterday, Star Citizen released v2.6 to the Public and announced a pivot to Amazon Web Services (AWS) Lumberyard. As can be expected, there was much derision about this move in some corners of the community of backers and critics around CIG. A few gaming ‘journalists’ also couldn’t miss the opportunity to create click bait headlines leading to poorly researched speculation pieces, intended to drive as much traffic as possible.
However, there are also many genuinely invested backers who simply want to know what, if anything, this move means to them. There’s also a fair question about why it took so long for CIG to announce this decision. In order to understand all of these questions better, I think it’s necessary to take a step back and better understand what Lumberyard is, and what it brings to the table for Star Citizen. Then I’ll explore a few of the questions we’ve received from INN readers.
Lumberyard’s place in Gaming
What’s interesting about this deal is how difficult it might be to understand, through the lens of Lumberyard’s marketing, taken at face value. To the casual observer, Lumberyard appears to be little more than a freely available, spin-off of vanilla Cryengine. What could CIG want with this, when they’ve already invested so much time customizing Cryengine?
The answer can be found in the Lumberyard FAQs:
Lumberyard is also integrated with Amazon GameLift, a new AWS service for deploying, operating, and scaling session-based multiplayer games. With Amazon GameLift, Amazon Lumberyard developers can quickly scale high-performance game servers up and down to meet player demand, without any additional engineering effort or upfront costs.
Add in GridMate and the AWS horsepower necessary to support a persistent, online world and you’ve got the recipe that’s been supporting Elite Dangerous since the beginning. It’s also the core tech for Amazon Gaming’s ‘New World’ MMORPG title.
In order for Star Citizen to scale beyond peak enthusiast and become the 10+ year project with a hundred star systems we all hope for, it will need to grow very quickly. Today there are approximately 1.7 million RSI accounts, but by some estimates, somewhere north of half of them are backers. What percentage of backers who are willing to deal with the challenges of playing on development servers with Alpha code is unknown, but it’s certainly not all of them.
Over the next year, INN has estimated the number of RSI accounts will double (or more) as Star Marine, 3.0, and Squadron 42 come online and ignite buzz within the larger community of 750 Million PC gamers. As the number of RSI accounts grows, so will the user to account ratio. Long story short, there are going to be a lot more players hitting the server infrastructure within months and expecting it to work like any other AAA title’s infrastructure.
CIG was always going to need to figure out how to accommodate this demand. While the pessimists may look at this move and decide it is evidence CIG made some grievous error when they selected Cryengine they which are now trying to correct, in fact, all evidence indicates CIG is doubling down on their choice by providing the necessary network infrastructure and scalability to support it.
Was this a seamless transition?
OK, but did CIG waste a bunch of time on this move? It’s important to point out, contrary to rumors and speculation, nothing in the Letter from the Chairman or the official press release from CIG yesterday indicates they’ve spent undue amounts of time making this transition.
Making the transition to Lumberyard and AWS has been very easy and has not delayed any of our work, as broadly, the technology switch was a ‘like-for-like’ change, which is now complete. -Chris Roberts
However, if you’re not inclined to take Chris Robert’s word for it for whatever reason, the fact that the work is done and delivered really speaks for itself.
As we’ve established, CIG was always going to need to adopt cloud infrastructure in order to support the growth of Star Citizen. Amazon just happens to provide the world’s most successful cloud computing environment with native support for CryEngine integration. This means less difficulty sorting out netcode challenges, not more.
But why announce this now?
A few INN readers have rightly asked, why did they wait until now to announce this? It seems suspicious the night before Christmas eve. This is also a difficult question to answer since (contrary to frequent rumors) I do not have any more access to the internal machinations of CIG than any other person outside their four walls. However, I do know a lot about how enterprise tech deals get done and I can use that experience to share a few more optimistic suggestions than “CIG is trying to bury this story because their trying to hide something.”
First, I need to squash a common misconception: Open development does not mean open everything. There are very good reasons why CIG can not share every detail of every decision that must be made in order to bring a game like Star Citizen to fruition.
For example, some decisions are so complicated there are only a couple hundred people in the world qualified to make them (2 or 3 of whom work at CIG). Some decisions have external implications and the timing of their announcement could negatively impact Star Citizen’s competitive positioning if not handled properly. Some decisions are simply not as consequential as we may imagine, particularly when there are trolls spinning every single thing CIG does into evidence of an impending implosion that never comes.
I think the Lumberyard pivot includes aspects of all of the above and more. For instance, I speculate that the fact that Lumberyard support is in a Star Citizen loading screen for 2.6 was likely a line item in the master services agreement between AWS and CIG.
12/25/2016 UPDATE: Chris Roberts took some time out from relaxing with family on Christmas morning to issue a follow-up note on the RSI forums which included this, relevant quote:
Finally there was no ulterior motive in the timing of the announcement. The deal wasn’t fully finalized until after the release of 2.5 and we agreed with Amazon to announce the switch and partnership upon the release of 2.6, which would be the first release on Lumberyard and AWS. If you have been checking out our schedule updates you would know that we originally had hoped to release 2.6 at the beginning of December, not Friday the 23rd! -Chris Roberts
CryEngine’s long term prospects
I’ve been covering a different corner of the software industry for quite some time and I can tell you, like any other industry, companies are always rising and falling. Plenty has been written about what’s going on at Crytec. I honestly don’t know anything about it other than what’s been written, but I do know two things regardless of what happens:
- CryEngine will live on.
- It will be better supported and grow over the long term in Amazon’s hands.
On the other hand, just this year Amazon became S&P 500’s 7th largest company, leapfrogging GE and Johnson & Johnson. It’s also in the top 50 largest companies in the world by revenue, at roughly $107 Billion dollars in annual revenue. To put it short, Amazon has deep pockets and long-term prospects.
Amazon also has a history of disrupting publishing businesses, and that’s what Lumberyard is all about. As I discuss in the next section, Star Citizen plays into their strategy well.
For the wonks: Strategic Alignment
Even less consequential to the individual gamer, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of this deal, is the strategic alignment between Amazon’s long-term vision of democratizing the means of production and distribution in the game publishing industry (The way they have in books, music, and movies to a greater or lesser degree) and Star Citizen’s open, publisher free development approach.
If you are truly interested in the wonky details of long-term gaming business strategy, I suggest Simon Wardley’s blog post on the original launch of Lumberyard. There’s really no summarizing Wardley, who is one of the world’s most brilliant Digital Strategists, but the long and short of it is that commoditizing the means of production and delivery are the future of the gaming industry. Where this leaves the publishers is an open question, but as sure as publishers in older industries like books and music have had to adapt or die, so will existing giants like EA games. Few people get this better than Amazon, or Chris Roberts.
The fact is, as much as this deal benefits Star Citizen, it’s a huge win for the AWS Lumberyard sales team. A massively innovative AAA title on Lumberyard will provide a lot of credibility to the platform. Chris Roberts knows this, and he knows how to take advantage of this knowledge in contract negotiations.
To sum it up, I think this move is a very strong indication of the long-term health of Star Citizen. It shows that CIG is planning for the long-term growth of the player base and seeking an environment with the backing to support CryEngine over the long haul.
My best guess on the timing of the announcement is it had much more to do with the negotiations of the deal than any nefarious desire to hide it from the community until the last possible minute. I also believe, as a backer, I am not entitled to knowledge of every single detail of every decision CIG must make in order to bring the Star Citizen universe to life.
That said, I’d love to hear more about what you think. Please leave a comment or feel free to tell me how stupid you think I am on Twitter. Merry Christmas and See you INN the ‘Verse!
PS- Please forgive typos, spelling mistakes or bad grammar. I’m currently shirking potato peeling duties to create this article and Mrs. Larsen is not impressed. =)