Chris Roberts is in trouble. It’s just before Christmas 2015, and the legendary designer of early-’90s classic Wing Commander is live on the air, ready to give a demonstration of his new space sim: Star Citizen. Even though a firm release date seems as distant as another galaxy, the game itself is already more famous than its creator, widely hailed as the most successful crowdfunding project ever. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the recording studio’s cheap faux-brick wallpaper, but Chris Roberts’ new company Cloud Imperium Games has received over $100 million from its fans.
Unfortunately, it’s even harder to tell from what’s currently happening on his computer screen.
Star Citizen aims to be an astonishingly detailed spaceship simulator in the vein of Roberts’ previous work. But his ambitions didn’t end there. It’s also intended to include a first-person-shooter component, promised to be on the same level as the best the genre has to offer. Add to this a huge number of job classes, an economic system that enables in-game trading, and myriad spaceships with unique specifications — some of them huge enough to swallow a multiplayer level from Halo. Now picture all of this flowing together, more or less seamlessly, in a “persistent universe” spanning at least a hundred star systems that players can explore on their own or with others, with no barriers between first-person shooting and outer-space dogfights.
Star Citizen is not supposed to be Wing Commander. It’s supposed to be Wing Commander, Call of Duty, Eve Online and Second Life, all at the same time.
But right now, it’s nothing more than a bizarre freeze-frame on Chris Roberts’ monitor — a freeze-frame that’s being broadcast to thousands of viewers all over the world. Backers had been promised that Star Citizen would be fully playable at this point, and in many cases they have paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the opportunity to test drive the most expensive indie game in history. After seeing Cloud Imperium Games miss milestone after milestone, these people had been relishing the opportunity to finally get a glimpse of Star Citizen’s “public test universe” (a small portion of the intended game).
Instead, they find themselves staring into Chris Roberts’ confused face as he struggles to figure out why the game crashed. “What’s wrong with this computer nowadays?”, he wonders out loud before rebooting it. On the second try, the build actually works… for a minute or two. Roberts lets out a frustrated sigh when the screen freezes up again.
On the third attempt, he fares better. From a terminal on the space station Port Olisar, Roberts orders a ship out of the game’s expansive armada. “Unfortunately”, an artificial voice informs him, “our automated systems are unable to access that ship at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience”. Instead, the CEO of Cloud Imperium Games goes for a slightly confused stroll up to the nearby landing pads, hoping someone else might have left a ship waiting for him. When he gets there, the only sign of life is an Aurora fighter preparing for landing. Unfortunately, its single seat is already occupied. Roberts decides to head back and give the computer terminal another shot. He tries once more to order the ship called RSI Constellation Andromeda. No luck. When he asks for a different model, the game finally decides to obey its master. Relieved, Roberts heads back to the landing pads to climb into the cockpit of his shiny new Aegis Gladius.
This time it’s not the screen that freezes up, but Chris Roberts himself. Instead of taking off, he just stands still on the deck of Port Olisar, evidently baffled by the keyboard, mouse and dual-joystick control setup. Once he gets the Gladius moving, he immediately proceeds to crash it into a ship that’s parked right in front of it. “This is really annoying,” he narrates, before ordering a colleague to hook up a regular control pad instead. Controller in hand, he manages to chart a course toward another space station. A pre-recorded message greets him as he approaches. “This Covalex shipping hub is currently closed to the public. We apologise for the inconvenience.” A second later the game crashes again.
Hoping for a miracle, Roberts pushes all the buttons on the controller over and over, before throwing it on the table and sighing heavily. Behind him in the studio, a Cloud Imperium Games employee dressed as Santa Claus pops into view, awkwardly trying to lighten the mood. Off camera, community manager Ben Lesnick and marketing chief Sandi Gardiner do their best to distract the viewers with a bit of forced conversation. The lens, however, remains directed at Roberts, whose mic stays switched on as Lesnick and Gardiner chat away. He smiles nervously. “Am I on camera?” After a while, he decides he’s had enough, and announces that they’re going to show a video clip instead of the gameplay demo.
At the time of this live presentation, Star Citizen was already rising rapidly on the list of the most expensive games ever developed. In this context, this demonstration might have been shrugged off as a tough day at work — but in Roberts’ world, there appear to have been a lot of tough days during the last few years.
The Star Citizen story did not begin in 2012, but in 1977. One night in Manchester, an eight-year-old boy walked into a cinema with his dad. A couple of hours later, it was a different boy who stumbled out into the street, awestruck by what he had just witnessed.
It would be incorrect to say that Star Wars changed Chris Roberts’ life. Rather, it continues to change it, in the present tense, up to this day. You’d still be hard pressed to find a project on his CV that hasn’t taken its inspiration from that magical night in Manchester. “This was the first time I was completely absorbed by a science-fiction story. It felt like a whole universe. The feeling of immersion, of a complete world… When I came home, I built spaceships out of Lego bricks,” he told me in an interview for Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet in 2014.
[Star Wars] was the first time I was completely absorbed by a science-fiction story. It felt like a whole universe. The feeling of immersion, of a complete world… When I came home, I built spaceships out of Lego bricks. – Roberts
Before Star Wars, Roberts had already been obsessed with blurring the line between fantasy and reality. He would spend countless hours furnishing his mind with surreal landscapes inspired by his Dungeons & Dragons sessions. After reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he went so far as to try to calculate how much it would cost to turn it into a film. By his estimation, £100 million (around $140 million) might be enough to get the job done. (Decades later, Peter Jackson made Fellowship of the Ring on a budget of $93 million — quite a lot less than the budget of Star Citizen.)
What made Star Wars different from Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings was that the universe George Lucas brought to life was a mirror image of what had taken shape in Chris Roberts’ head when he read his first science-fiction novels. At eight, he was already devouring every fantasy and space adventure he could get his hands on, but he had never seen someone bring the stories to life with such care and precision. Rather than watching the movie, it felt like he was inside it, like a wireless signal was being transmitted from his brain to the projector.
Unlike George Lucas, Chris Roberts grew up around arcades, home computers and pirated floppy disks. His parents might as well have deposited his pocket money straight into the local Galaga machine; Chris himself was merely a middleman. In the early ’80s, his father brought home a BBC Micro. When Chris was around 12 he started taking computer-science classes. While the teacher did his best to kill the students’ enthusiasm by droning on about database management for phone numbers, Chris was sitting in the back of the classroom, jotting down lines of code for action games about helicopters.
A year later, that same teacher became editor-in-chief of a magazine called The Micro User, and asked the obstinate student from the back of the class to make a “game of the month” to be included on the magazine’s attached floppy disk. Chris eagerly threw together a version of the helicopter action game he had been working on, where the objective was to push King Kong off the Empire State Building. For his efforts, he was awarded £100. At 13, Chris Roberts had made his official debut as a commercial game developer.
Throughout his teenage years, he kept making games, with the ultimate goal of someday creating his own universe, of designing as believable an illusion of a “complete world” as George Lucas had managed to. Around the UK, developers were becoming aware of Roberts, not least thanks to the impressive futuristic war game Stryker’s Run, which he released in 1986. But as a 2D game, it still wasn’t close to the pictures in Chris Roberts’ head.
By the late ’80s, when Chris was approaching 20, his parents had left Manchester for a new life in sunny Austin, Texas, where his dad had landed a job as a university teacher. Chris, however, stayed behind in England to finish his studies. At least, that was the plan; in 1988 he found himself on a plane crossing the Atlantic, school be damned.
Once he touched down on American soil, things started moving quickly for Chris. As a young, talented game designer, it was only a matter of time before he joined up with the iconic Austin-based studio Origin, founded by Richard “Lord British” Garriott de Cayeux, where nerd idols like John Romero and Warren Spector had passed through on their way to bigger things. A few years later, Roberts’ planned sabbatical had turned into a permanent career in the US. At Origin, he was already busy creating the game that keeps his fame alive to this day: Wing Commander.
When Wing Commander was released in 1990, one computer magazine (Dragon) summed up the general feeling by awarding it six stars out of five. The game itself summed up much of what would become Chris Roberts’ signature style: obsessive attention to detail, cutting-edge graphics technology, and a bombastic campaign mode backed up by a rich mythology that lent the futuristic dogfights a sense of weight and realism. More than two decades later, Wing Commander would be honored on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best games ever, described as “a revelation in 1990 for PC space-sim buffs looking for a little less Star Trek and a little more Star Wars”.
When Wing Commander was released in 1990, one computer magazine summed up the general feeling by awarding it six stars out of five
With Wing Commander as its launch pad, between 1990 and 1996’s Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, Chris Roberts’ own career trajectory trended straight upwards. When the second sequel was released in 1994 (after Electronic Arts acquired Origin in 1992), he had not only managed to render polygon-based graphics in real time years before dedicated graphics cards existed for this purpose; he had also talked his childhood hero Mark Hamill into playing the lead in Wing Commander III’s full-motion-video sequences.
At this stage, Roberts’ fame had transcended the games industry, affording him the opportunity to realize one of his biggest dreams: transporting his fantasy universe to the silver screen. Wing Commander the movie was a space adventure set to premiere in the same year as the first part of George Lucas’ new Star Wars trilogy. It placed Roberts in the director’s chair, and I Know What You Did Last Summer star Freddie Prinze, Jr. on the poster (as first lieutenant Christopher “Maverick” Blair).
Like the games, the film takes place in a distant future where humanity finds itself threatened by a cat-like alien race called kilrathi. “At the edge of the universe, all hell is about to break loose”, promised the film’s tagline. But the intergalactic war was nothing compared to what broke loose in the newspaper columns. Wing Commander and its director were skewered so severely by critics (the film has scraped together a meager 10% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes) that it’s a miracle he lived to tell the tale. Most scathing was the review by Roger Ebert, one of America’s most revered critics:
“Quiet! There’s a destroyer!’ someone shouts, and then everyone on board holds their breath, as there are subtle sonar pings on the soundtrack, and we hear the rumble of a giant vessel overhead. Or underhead. Wherever. ‘In space,’’ as Alien reminded us, ‘no one can hear you scream.’ There is an excellent reason for that: Vacuums do not conduct sound waves, not even those caused by giant destroyers. Such logic is of course irrelevant to Wing Commander, a movie based on a video game and looking like one a lot of the time.”
“For several reasons, the movie didn’t turn out the way I wanted”, Chris Roberts remembers with a tinge of bitterness in the Aftonbladet interview. “A few of them were entirely my fault, and were down to the fact that it was my directing debut. A few of them were down to the fact that the film studios — which are the industry’s equivalent of game publishers — duped me. It was a learning experience. I’m not James Cameron, so I couldn’t tell them to go to hell.”
Thanks to Wing Commander’s blockbusting success, Roberts had more leeway with game publishers. In 1991, he made the decision to delay his (now long-forgotten) Strike Commander. It wasn’t until three years later that he allowed Origin to publish the game. In a letter included with the manual, Roberts compared himself to one of history’s most important film directors:
“Recently, I watched the film Heart of Darkness, which chronicled the tremendous struggles that Francis Ford Coppola went through in creating Apocalypse Now. In many ways, the creation of Strike Commander has helped me identify with his plight… In the spirit of wanting it all, we set out to design a game that would have more realism than the best flight simulator, better storytelling, more fun and more accessibility than Wing Commander, and the best sound effects, music and graphics of any game ever created. Our biggest mistake was thinking that we could achieve all of this in a single year. Our biggest setback was the realisation that it would take more than two. And now, a little humbler, we’ve reached the end of our long and arduous journey. We look at Strike Commander and see a game that every member of the team can say, ‘yes, It was two years of hell, but at the end of it we’ve created something that is very special and I’m proud of it’.”
In an industry that was rapidly becoming more corporate and cautious, with development costs skyrocketing due to the advent of 3D graphics, it was increasingly hard for Chris Roberts to squeeze his visions into the narrow framework that EA felt it could afford. In 1996, he left Origin and EA to start his own company, called Digital Anvil. On the surface, it was a risky move: Roberts was effectively trading financial security for no-holds-barred creative freedom. But unbeknownst to his former employer, he had a secret weapon.
“We didn’t know anyone at Microsoft, but we had Bill Gates’ email address, so we sent him a message. The next day we got a call from the general manager of his entertainment division. We just went from there,” Roberts told Texas Monthly in 1997. As it turned out, Chris Roberts had once again struck gold: Microsoft paid $75 million for the exclusive rights to publish Digital Anvil’s games. Finally, Roberts would have both the funds and the freedom to do his visions justice.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to turn out. In reality, his brother Erin Roberts was the only one who actually managed to release a space sim during the Digital Anvil years. While Chris worked on his own game, the likes of which had never been seen before — with a feature list only Star Citizen would be able to match — Erin and his team completed Starlancer, a game that was generally well-received but not exactly daring. Not even Erin Roberts himself claimed that they took the genre where no one had gone before.
In February of 1999, three years after his departure from Origin, Chris Roberts finally announced Starlancer’s companion game: the monstrously ambitious Freelancer. He told the assembled press at Microsoft’s headquarters outside Seattle that he had already been working on the project for two years and that it still wouldn’t be ready for quite some time—possibly as late as the autumn of 2000.
One of the publications present was Gamespot, whose reporter filed a starry-eyed preview under the headline “Chris Roberts Back In the Game”. “Roberts has been working on Freelancer for roughly two years, and it looks impressive… During Roberts’ demonstration, he outlined three goals he had for the game: to create a dynamic single-player and multiplayer world, to affect a ‘radical change in interface’, and to integrate cutscenes and gameplay seamlessly… No space combat sim has yet been able to capture the magnitude of a massive capital ship. Freelancer looks as though it may change that, with enormous space stations and capital ships that truly dwarf your seemingly small fighter.” And so it went on.
For several reasons, the movie didn’t turn out the way I wanted. A few of them were entirely my fault… A few of them were down to the fact that the film studios—which are the industry’s equivalent of game publishers—duped me. – Roberts
Freelancer wasn’t just Roberts’ most serious attempt so far to make his dream game a reality, dressed up in prettier polygons than ever before. It was also his way of making up for Wing Commander: Privateer, a pseudo-open-world spinoff released in 1993. At the time of Freelancer’s unveiling, Privateer was — and still is — regarded as one of the biggest feathers in Roberts’ cap. But the truth is that he had less to do with the project than people think.
“Freelancer was essentially me wanting to do Privateer right,” he said in 2011. “Privateer was a project I produced and did the initial design [on], but because I was leading [the development of] Strike Commander I wasn’t really overseeing it fully. Freelancer was my wanting to go back and do that right with the big budget and really blow it out.”
But as the autumn of 2000 came and went, Freelancer was nowhere to be found on the release schedule. On December 5th, Microsoft finally sent out a press release announcing its acquisition of Digital Anvil, as well as Freelancer itself. Right in the middle of all this, Roberts declared that he was leaving his own studio — albeit with a caveat: he would remain on board as a “creative advisor” for the duration of Freelancer’s development. Beyond his vague title, one thing was crystal clear: the $75 million Microsoft had already invested in Digital Anvil a few years earlier hadn’t been enough. When Gamespot asked Roberts point blank if the acquisition was “necessitated by a need for funding”, he replied: “Partly. Whenever something runs later, it needs more funding. Becoming part of Microsoft made this issue less of a problem.”
Almost 16 years later in an interview with me earlier this year, Chris Roberts says that he felt burned out when he left Digital Anvil. “You have politics and a lot of conflicting agendas instead of just focusing on making a great game. And I was spending a lot more time on relationships with Microsoft — basically management CEO stuff and not what I really like to do, which is making great games. I was frustrated with technology because I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted.”
You have politics and a lot of conflicting agendas instead of just focusing on making a great game. And I was spending a lot more time on management CEO stuff and not what I really like to do, which is making great games. – Roberts
Whatever the cause of the delays, the acquisition didn’t seem to solve anything. Freelancer still wouldn’t see the light of day for another three years. When it was released in 2003, it was a mere shadow of the game Chris Roberts had talked up back in 1999. And this time, it seemed like he’d left the gaming industry for good. Undeterred by the scorn heaped upon his directorial debut, Roberts moved from Austin to Los Angeles to try his hand at producing films. Within a few years, his production company had churned out a slew of mediocre popcorn flicks, such as Lord of War and Lucky Number Slevin. His pride and joy, however, was the sci-fi movie Outlander.
“One of my big goals in Hollywood was to try and build the same sense of world that I did in my game worlds […] Outlander is a great example of this. I helped make sure we did a truly exceptional amount of pre-production, really building all the details of the world in just the same way we used to at Origin. And I would say that I learned a lot in the process that we’re going to bring to Star Citizen,” Roberts told Gog.com in 2012. The only problem with Outlander — apart from the fact that critics considered it an entertaining train wreck, at best — was that it grossed $7 million, having cost $47 million to produce.
By the time Chris Roberts returned to gaming, the better part of a decade had passed, taking with it much of the industry he knew. By now, in 2011, online games and digital distribution were the order of the day. Independent studios were busy creating new forms of expression as well as modernising classic genres. At the same time, Tim Schafer and Double Fine proved with Broken Age (formerly Double Fine Adventure) that it was possible to circumvent traditional publishers, relinquish creative control to no one, and still amass a multi-million dollar budget. A bunch of middle-aged men decided to follow in Broken Age’s footsteps and ask their fans to open their hearts (or at least their wallets) and give them another chance. Chris Roberts, in turn, decided to join them.
In September of 2012, Roberts once again arranged a press conference to unveil a new game, for the first time since 1999. But listening to his pitch, it seemed like little had changed in those 13 years. Once again, he had formed a new company, Cloud Imperium Games, which had already been working on the title in question for a year. Once again, his stated goal was to give the fans the game he failed to deliver last time (resulting in the lacklustre Freelancer). Once again, the previews were gushing. “The concept […] is breathtaking”, Polygon.com wrote. “Imagine everything you could ever want in a single space game: Combat, trade, rich stories, detailed graphics, massive online communities, real physics. Imagine all of that in a single game created by the person who virtually birthed the space sim genre.”
As it turned out, a lot of people had no problem trusting their imaginations. Cloud Imperium began crowdfunding efforts via its own website, but following technical issues, it launched a Kickstarter as well. The campaign for Star Citizen, as Chris Roberts christened his new magnum opus, had barely launched before it blew past its funding goal of $500,000 (it closed at $2,134,374). Cloud Imperium Games opted to keep accepting donations via the game’s official website (somewhat confusingly named Roberts Space Industries) on an ongoing basis. Hundreds of thousands became millions. 10 million became 20. 20 million became 50. 50 became 100. At the time of writing, Cloud Imperium Games has received more than $124 million from its fans.
For a long time, the backers saw no reason to regret their generosity. Between 2012 and 2014, the media ecstatically regurgitated the story of the lost genius returned from his exile to stage the grandest comeback in the history of gaming. In the spring of 2015, you could spot the odd dissident on the official message boards of Roberts Space Industries, but optimism still prevailed. Until it didn’t.
It was during the summer that one of the hundreds of thousands of Star Citizen backers finally decided that his patience had run out. And he wasn’t going to knock on Cloud Imperium Games’ gate begging for his donation back. He was going to blow it off its hinges with a bazooka.
His name is Derek Smart.
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, a teenager named Derek Smart worked at a petrol station in Watford. At least, that’s what he was doing in theory. In practice, he filled every spare minute by playing video games instead of working through the chores he was paid to do. His boss made a habit out of firing him once or twice a week. But a couple of days later, he would invariably show up at the Smart home: “Hey, you coming in today?” Derek would reply: “Sure, let me go pack a lunch”.
Derek Smart liked his boss, but hated his boss’s son. “The less spoken about that sorry sack of shit, the better,” he wrote in a blog post. “He was a bully. He kicked my ass all the time because he was bigger, older — and knew how to fight. I was just a skinny smart-ass geek, who knew how to fix stuff. He broke my nose once; and it never did get fixed quite right.” When the bully passed away prematurely, Derek Smart attended the funeral. He brought flowers and mumbled a few lines about how that “sack of shit” had been like a brother to him. Secretly, he was hoping that “the minute he lands in hell, he gets his ass kicked by some fallen angel.”
More importantly than a crooked nose, the whole episode left Derek Smart determined to never let himself be pushed around again. “It is one of those traumatic things where something happens to you in your life and it lives with you. I just don’t like being bullied.”
By 1988, the year Chris Roberts left Manchester for Austin, Derek Smart had made a career for himself as an IT consultant in London. Inspired by his youthful arcade escapades, as well as the stunning advances in computer technology since then, he spent nights and weekends tinkering away on his own game. What he had in mind was a spectacular intergalactic adventure, but he had no idea how to get his vision to stick to the computer screen. He might have known everything there was to know about games, but he was an amateur when it came to game development. To rectify this oversight, he spent all his time — between sessions of Elite and Echelon, that is — devouring every page of literature on the subject he could find.
Four years later, Derek Smart had left England for the US (his country of birth), started a family and settled down in Florida. His old hobby project, which he had previously simply referred to as “The Game”, now had an official title: Battlecruiser 3000 AD. It was featured on the cover of Computer Games Strategy Plus’ May 1992 issue.
Inside the magazine, two whole pages were devoted to Smart’s hybrid of science fiction, flight simulator and role-playing game. The reporter started off his piece by quoting the manual of a popular game at the time, Wing Commander. “Gone are the days when a single programmer can sit in his room and create all the design, code, artwork, sound and testing required to complete a product,” it stated. “Today’s cutting edge software product requires a team of 15–25 specialists working for 12–18 months”.
However, the reporter noted, “Origin Systems has apparently never heard of Derek Smart. Single-handedly he’s created one of the most startling looking games seen for some time.” The article went on for a while longer in the same euphoric fashion, before letting Smart himself deliver the coup the grâce: “We’ll make Wing Commander look like a prehistoric mammoth.”
Derek Smart always had a flair for the dramatic, but this particular statement was one he would wish he could take back. “It all went downhill from there,” Smart later told Computer Gaming World. “All of a sudden I had to live up to the hype. I got a god complex that took over. Suddenly I was ‘Derek Smart, the game developer’. But I was nothing, nothing, nothing, close to a game developer at that time.”
Good things come to those who wait. – Advert for Battlecruiser 3000 AD
In 1992, he was singing a different tune. His vision for Battlecruiser 3000 AD was so grandiose, it would barely have fit inside Chris Roberts’ head. One of the people who fell for Smart’s impressive sales pitch happened to be the CEO of publisher Three-Sixty Pacific. Tom Frisina (the same Frisina who would, years later, discover Codename Eagle — the obscure prototype for Battlefield 1942 — while working for EA) had read the breathless write-up in Computer Games Strategy Plus, and immediately made sure to secure the rights to Battlecruiser 3000 AD.
A year later, he had ample reason to second-guess his gut instinct, as the game still wasn’t showing any signs of progress. A couple more years after this, Three-Sixty Pacific ran into financial troubles. A series of other companies took over, each giving up on the project after a while. The pattern kept repeating itself: after becoming enamoured with the obviously brilliant Smart and his “Wing Commander killer”, the publisher’s initial optimism soon dissipated. Smart was repeatedly told to trim features from the game, to scale back his ambitions. “Make it more like a regular action game”, publishers would plead. “Make it more like Wing Commander!”
By April of 1996, eight years had passed since he wrote the first lines of code for “The Game” back home in London, and Derek Smart was still nowhere near having a finished product to show for it. To add insult to injury, his new corporate partner, Take-Two Interactive, had forced him to work out of their office in rural Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Smart, who by his own admission isn’t much of a social animal, was stuck trying to work with colleagues he didn’t particularly care for, and who cared for him even less in return. For reasons obvious to all parties, this would be the first and last time that he worked on someone’s terms other than his own.
As for Take-Two, they were eager to put out Battlecruiser 3000 AD in time for Christmas 1996. During the summer that year, the absurdity of that plan slowly dawned on everyone involved in the project. Take-Two, however, stood their ground: the game was going to be etched onto a master disc by the end of the year, no matter what state Derek Smart had left it in. In August, Smart and his development team at the Latrobe offices had completed what might charitably — very charitably — be described as a beta version. By this time, Take-Two’s patience was running out as well.
As it dawned on Derek Smart that this final deadline was non-negotiable, he lost it completely. He’d spent eight years of his life trying to perfect Battlecruiser 3000 AD, and now the realisation that it would all look like a long, elaborate con to generate free PR started to sink in. At this rate, he was burning bridges before he’d had the chance to cross them. As much as it pained him, Derek Smart decided that he couldn’t stomach signing off on his own labour of love in the form Take-Two was intent on releasing it. In fact, he couldn’t bear the thought of being associated with Battlecruiser 3000 AD at all anymore.
This might sound strange, considering he was the one hyping it in the press a few years earlier, promising to blow Wing Commander out of the water. But in reality, his calculations for how long it would actually take to finish the game had been so many lightyears off that he now faced the risk of being associated with a game no one in their right mind would consider a fully playable space sim. Take-Two was about to charge full price for what constituted half a game, if that. On September 27th, 1996, he took stock of the situation and chose to sign a contract granting Take-Two complete rights to the game. Then he got into his car and cruised along the east coast all the way home to the balmy weather of Florida.
In December, the “finished” product finally landed on store shelves. Take-Two did its best to drum up excitement, with ads featuring a nearly-naked model sitting on a bar stool, clad only in a bra and knee-high boots, teasingly putting a finger in her mouth, her downstairs covered with a copy of the game. “She really wants it”, the copy read. Another promo showed a bra dangling from a woman’s hand, along with the tagline “Good things come to those who wait”. “Ever hear the phrase ‘Patience is a virtue?’ Well, never before has patience been more virtuous than with the arrival of Battlecruiser 3000 AD — the most complex, expansive, and enthralling supergame ever created with multiple game engines, the first ever neural net-driven system, and more features than any PC game ever. Sure you’ve waited seven years, now play it and find out why. Derek Smart’s Battlecruiser 3000 AD. The last thing you’ll ever desire.”
The hyperbole fell on deaf ears. “Little of it actually works,” Gamespot fumed in a review:
“First, the game crashes constantly, more than any game I have ever played. Almost any action you perform will cause the program to go south. I didn’t know what half the functions were or how to use them. Most of them don’t work[…] Objects pass through other objects. Ships don’t do what they’re told. Equipment won’t work. […]Best of all, the campaign can’t be played past the second mission, which is structured in such a way that it cannot possibly ever end. Who exactly is to blame is a subject for another time and place, but it is sufficient to point out that Dr. Derek Smart said a year ago that the game was ‘done except for the manual’ and turned in his code to Take-Two, who were supposed to test and refine this code graphically and then publish it. Neither of them is immune from culpability in this farce. Maybe they deserve each other.”
As for Chris Roberts, the man Derek Smart had made a point of starting a beef with, he was too busy enjoying his fame to get embroiled in the Battlecruiser 3000 AD controversy. Smart, the cocky young coder who’d promised to reduce Wing Commander to an embarrassing punchline, was becoming one himself.
But they had one thing in common: while Roberts had several wildly successful Wing Commander games to his name, neither man had actually managed to produce the be-all and end-all of space sims they’d both promised the world.
In the ’90s, with platforms like Twitter and Facebook still a decade away, message boards sprang up around any imaginable topic more than one person was interested in discussing publicly. And while the early “netizens” were busy laying the groundwork for what would later evolve into social media, it naturally followed that some of them got an unenviable early taste of the verbal abuse that has since become commonplace on the internet.
After the disastrous launch of Battlecruiser 3000 AD in December 1996, gamers who had taken to the internet to vent their frustration all pointed their fingers at Derek Smart. But the seemingly unstoppable force that would later be characterised as “cyber bullying” was no match for Smart’s sheer willpower. Decades after the incident with his childhood tormentor, he still hadn’t given up on his promise to himself: if someone attacked him, he would strike back twice as hard.
It’s been said that when Derek Smart enters a discussion, he drenches the entire thread in gasoline and puts a match to it.
Battlecruiser 3000 AD might have been a fiasco of stunning proportions, but Derek Smart refused to become the industry’s laughing stock. If someone as much as mentioned his name on sites like Gamers With Jobs, Blues News or Quarter to Three, he made a point of stopping by in person — always highly eloquent, usually blisteringly mean. The forum threads generally veered way off topic, the debate rocking back and forth, before getting locked, usually followed by a swift ban of Smart himself. He got used to being called a douchebag, mentally unstable, a liar, and “the most hated person in the games industry” (which was good practice, since that’s how some people still refer to him).
It’s been said that when Derek Smart enters a discussion, he drenches the entire thread in gasoline and puts a match to it. He himself thinks that’s a flawed metaphor. “Gasoline takes too long to burn and would require more than one post to be truly effective. A tactical nuke takes one post. A good TN post means that you don’t even have to come back and explain anything nor respond further. It’s my version of a drive-by flaming. One in which everyone — I do mean everyone — gets their collective asses singed. I’m an equal opportunity flamer. The end result is that long after your post, there are wankers sitting around wondering WTF just happened.”
To give you an idea of the tone of his posts, here’s what he had to say to one of his critics shortly before the thread in question was locked: ”I don’t need anyone reminding me who of I am. I know who I am. If we knew who you were and dedicated time to dissecting every aspect of your — obviously inferior (why else would you bother with your recent post?) existence — it would be a waste of time. Why? Well because you’re nobody. You’re inconsequential and just another alias on a board in a small corner of the net. So, do yourself a favour. Just sit back and STFU if you don’t have anything to share and which is deemed worth sharing.”
Even if you don’t consider Derek Smart a liar, or one of the industry’s most horrible people, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he is not exactly his own best PR person. Smart is what you could call a querulant: a person who feels wronged by the slightest infractions, and can’t stop himself from protesting as loudly as possible.
My impression of Derek is that he does not have a lot of people who are close to him who are comfortable telling him he is wrong… For Derek, it is almost always about Derek. – Russ Pitts
What makes all of this even more curious is the fact that Smart is reportedly a completely different person outside of the spotlight: friends and colleagues describe him as kind and caring. This dichotomy is not lost on Derek Smart himself. In an interview with Polygon, he worried about what his daughter will think about him when she becomes old enough to Google his name. “I don’t want her memories of her dad tainting her ability to progress in life,” he said. “I know I haven’t done anything bad, and have made mistakes, I’m only human […] I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t steal from anybody, I just made a game that I wanted to make and I may have not succeeded in reaching other people’s expectations, but I don’t really care. It wasn’t about them. It was about me and what I wanted.”
Russ Pitts, who wrote the Polygon piece, says that Smart isn’t as easily categorized as many make him out to be. You can’t completely separate the Derek Smart that’s become known as the scourge of gaming message boards from the polite, humble man Pitts talked to for his interview. “My impression of Derek is that he does not have a lot of people who are close to him who are comfortable telling him he is wrong,” says Pitts. “I wouldn’t call him a nice guy, but I do think he is a good person who often does not think to give others the benefit of the doubt that he wishes they would give to him. For Derek, it is almost always about Derek. Which, to me, seems an odd point of view for someone who makes entertainment for others.”
If the claim that Smart always puts himself first is true — and there is plenty of evidence to back that up — there are exceptions to the rule. The story of Battlecruiser 3000 AD didn’t end with its disastrous launch. Shortly after Take-Two had released its spit-and-glue version of the game, Smart — rather than licking his wounds back home in Florida — escalated their dispute by suing the publisher. But unlike the archetypical querulant, he won. Take-Two chose to settle the case before it got to court, handing over a significant amount of money to Smart — as well as the rights to his own game. And here is where the story of Derek Smart takes a strange turn.
Instead of investing the money in new projects, or just taking a break from the industry after seven years of drudgery for little to no reward, he spent it on salvaging his life’s work. After patching Battlecruiser 3000 AD, he released a new version on his own — for free. Shortly after that, he finished work on another updated edition, entitled Battlecruiser 2.0. This, as well, was released free of charge. This was Derek Smart’s way of apologising to the people he had let down with the botched initial version of the game.
That doesn’t mean that the game ever managed to live up to expectations — least of all his own. In the 2012 Polygon article, Smart laments the fact that he’s never been able to make the game of his dreams a reality. If you ask his detractors, that’s an understatement, to put it mildly. If you ask Metacritic, his games score between 47 and 68. According to Smart himself, he’s put out 14 games so far, but many of them have simply been new versions of his old titles. They also all take place in the same science-fiction universe, and are so opaque and complicated that if you want to understand what’s happening, you’re virtually forced to plough through the phonebook-sized manuals. Twice.
I just made a game that I wanted to make and I may have not succeeded in reaching other people’s expectations, but I don’t really care. It wasn’t about them. It was about me and what I wanted. -Derek Smart
Derek Smart operates in the very definition of a niche, if not a niche within a niche. But with time, his ferocious dedication has paid off. And quite handsomely, at that. In his parking spot you’ll find a Tesla; on his left wrist, an expensive watch. He owns property in Miami, New York and the UK, and his personal game collection spans 30,000 titles, stored in temperature-controlled warehouses. All his hard work hasn’t only afforded Smart a comfortable lifestyle, but also, at long last, the resources to make that old dream of his a reality.
As it happened, he started working on his “most ambitious game ever” right around the time that Chris Roberts secretly started drawing up the plans for his own magnum opus. By this time, Roberts had turned 43 and Smart was approaching 50. If this was the last chance each of them had to make the perfect space sim, they were both determined not to let anybody stand in their way.
By Derek Smart’s standards, the first of his many blog posts about Star Citizen was an exercise in restraint. Instead of droning on needlessly, he limited himself to a trifling 10,000 words (about half the length of this article) on the myriad challenges Cloud Imperium Games was facing. He was disappointed that the studio had missed its original November 2014 deadline. He had donated $250 back when Star Citizen was nothing more than a relatively humble Kickstarter campaign, but now he was growing increasingly worried that the finished product wouldn’t live up to his — or anyone else’s — expectations. It wasn’t just the game itself he was worried about. In a wider context, Smart claimed, if the project were to go south, it would take the in-good-faith nature of Kickstarter with it, poisoning the well that all crowdfunding campaigns drink from. At that point, July of last year, Cloud Imperium Games had raked in $85 million, meaning its game already had a higher budget than many of biggest names in the industry.
Step by step, Smart broke down the difficulties associated with designing a game of Star Citizen’s magnitude. His report was thorough, detailed and, to no one’s surprise, peppered with little tributes to Derek Smart’s own brilliance. But it was also, keeping in line with his contradictory nature, introspective. Smart had spent the past three years working on Line of Defense — the game that was supposed to finally realise all the ambitions he had accumulated throughout his career. However, he was forced to reckon with the possibility that he was setting himself up for disappointment once again. And if it looked like he might not be able to create the space sim to end all space sims himself, he now considered it even more unlikely that Chris Roberts would succeed instead.
According to Smart, Star Citizen was a flawed construction from the ground up. The most fundamental issue wasn’t the fact that Cloud Imperium Games had grown to encompass four studios in three countries on two continents, with over 300 people on its payroll, but that Roberts had decided to build his game using Crytek’s CryEngine 3 — an engine, Smart noted, that “is, first and foremost, a first-person engine. Second, it is geared toward small scale session-based games. Now imagine using a level-based engine, suited for first-person games, and trying to build an open persistent world with it. That’s like me trying to outfit my Tesla with the engine from a Prius. Bad things can and will happen.”
He wasn’t the only one to make this observation. Even Chris Roberts himself noted the difficulty in working with CryEngine when I talked to him in March this year. At the time of our conversation, Star Citizen had been in development for five years, but Cloud Imperium Games was still struggling with its technological foundation. “CryEngine is a very complicated piece of code,” Roberts said. “It takes time for people to get comfortable and use it, and we are in the process of rewriting most of it. Just because we need to change it to do things at the scale we are doing, which is very different than just an FPS game.”
While the coders are rejigging the engine, the money keeps pouring in, due to a combination of factors that have little to do with either Roberts’ stature in the industry or a sudden widespread resurgence in the appetite for space games: Roberts’ natural salesmanship, a powerful communications machine, and a brilliant business plan.
An article in Wired from March last year mentioned that “for every would-be player who thinks Roberts is the savior of hardcore PC gaming — George Lucas crossed with Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto — there’s one who thinks him a charlatan, a 21st-century snake-oil salesman.” The difference, of course, is that a snake-oil salesman would never have been able to whip up a potion as potent as Wing Commander. Wired noted that when Roberts first pitched the concept for that game:
“[All he had] walking into that meeting was some mock-up sketches and a prototype engine that could depict three-dimensional space battles. That and an irresistible way of describing what was in his mind’s eye. He was just 21 at the time, and his apple cheeks and boyish grin made him look even younger. He doesn’t have an especially commanding voice — he speaks softly in a narrow register, with a slight British accent that he picked up during a childhood spent in Manchester. But his enthusiasm is infectious, and his sales pitch that day 25 years ago was extremely convincing. ‘He nailed it,’ says Richard Garriott, cofounder of Origin. ‘Just nailed it. There wasn’t a person there who didn’t know it would be our best-selling game ever and that Chris would be a rock star’.”
Roberts himself has made a big deal out of the fact that Star Citizen isn’t just financed by the fans: it’s also co-designed by them. When the money started rolling in, Cloud Imperium Games established its own little media empire to facilitate communication between the studio and the players. The form of this communication ranges from newsletters, a number of online TV shows and frequent developer interviews to the annual expo Citizencon. The sheer amount of content produced each week is almost impossible to keep up with. No one can accuse Chris Roberts or Cloud Imperium of avoiding external outlets (after all, he granted me two long interviews), but the company’s marketing and media division has shown that it’s not only possible for independent studios to circumvent traditional publishers, but traditional media channels as well. The sort of direct communication it has established with its consumers is every marketer’s wet dream.
Star Citizen is unique in the sense that there are no checks and balances on its development. This is the first time in history someone has received north of $100 million for a project of this kind, without financers or a publisher keeping an eye on how that money is spent. The company has never shied away from communicating with its fans, however; through its various dedicated media channels, Cloud Imperium Games presents Star Citizen as the most open and transparent development process ever.
Though Chris Roberts has had trouble playing his own game, others have been more successful. There is certainly no shortage of YouTube clips showcasing various bugs and glitches in Star Citizen.
But there are also plenty of videos that give the viewer a glimpse of the game’s boundless ambition; of why hundreds of thousands of people are willing to forget what it is here and now, instead focusing on what it might one day become.
If you want to get a sense of their excitement, all you have to do is take a walk around, or on top of, or inside, any of the game’s numerous spaceships. Their sheer bulk makes GTA V’s jumbo jets seem like paper planes. The Javelin Destroyer, one of the crown jewels of Star Citizen’s fleet, is 345 metres long, stands 60 metres tall, is divided into five decks and requires a crew of 23 players to even get off the ground. According to Roberts, designing one of these monstrosities can take upwards of six months, siphoning more than half a million dollars off the game’s gargantuan budget. This is the scale on which Star Citizen operates. And since the ships don’t design themselves, Cloud Imperium Games makes sure it’s getting paid for its troubles.
If you want to roam the game’s universe in a Javelin Destroyer, it’s not enough to be a backer, even a generous one. Like perks or jewels in a free-to-play game, the ships themselves cost extra: in this case $2,500. (An actual fortune, in actual money, for a digital copy of a virtual ship.) Whether that’s within your budget is a moot point — there are no more Javelin Destroyers for sale, even if you were to come up with the money. Obviously, Cloud Imperium Games can in theory churn out as many digital copies of the ship as it wants, without it costing another penny, but it chose to release a limited run of 200 Javelin Destroyers. Within a few minutes they were completely sold out.
This is the reason that Star Citizen has been able to sustain itself for the past four years, without a finished product to show for it. Concept art of spectacular virtual spaceships sells people the idea of Star Citizen, and the developer offers many of them in strictly limited quantities. It’s possible to find entry-level craft for around $50, but many of them cost ten times that, and even more are already sold out. On top of this, certain ships come with “lifetime insurance”, which means that if they’re crashed or stolen, the player is provided with a replacement free of charge. (Just to be clear, we are still talking about virtual spaceships, with a production cost of $0 per additional copy beyond the initial outlay, costing tens or hundreds or thousands to buy, which can then be lost permanently without the proper insurance.) This insurance plan was originally intended as an exclusive offer to the first round of backers. Much to their chagrin, that same offer has since come to be included with later ships as well. Of course, all of this has become a hotbed for after-market transactions between players.
If you were one of the lucky ones to snatch a Javelin Destroyer right as it went on sale, there’s only one problem: it doesn’t exist, either in real life (obviously) or in the game. Many of the ships Cloud Imperium Games sells haven’t left the drawing board yet, let alone the hangar of a space station. The company has been known to sell expensive ships before they exist in the game, only to realize after the fact that the promised design isn’t possible. In Chris Roberts’ eyes, this is no big deal. (A few of his fans would beg to differ.) He compares the process to that of Boeing and Ford:
“In the very beginning with the concept guys, we draw something. We say, we want this and then over time, as we keep doing it, then you get in to the practicality. The metrics have to work, you have to be able to sit down, how can we fit all these other things? Now we’ve been doing this for so long that we are like Boeing or Ford: we are doing the ergonomics, the industrial design, functionality, the landing gear has to fold up and actually be contained – so there are all these things that you normally don’t ever do on a game or you wouldn’t ever do on concept, that we start to do now. Our whole process for this is incredibly complicated.
“If you’ve ever seen concept cars, it looks great, and then you see the final car… yes, you can see the concept car in the final car, but there’s obviously been changes for various different reasons. And I would say that is not to dissimilar to what goes on with what we do. It’s the same process, essentially we go through the same thing. Now we try to validate things much sooner but there are always people that will be like… [Chris raises his voice to a whiny pitch.] ‘Well, I like the curve of this thing on the concept and I don’t feel like the final one has exactly the same curve.’ And we will have a reason why that one has changed.”
With each delay of the actual game — the universe all these whiners are buying tickets to far in advance (further than they realized, in many cases) — announcements of new concept ships for sale have been greeted with growing suspicion. Just the other month, yet another ship was offered, with a price tag of $200. Like the Javelin Destroyer, it doesn’t exist in-game yet, but even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to use it: the mechanics it’s designed for (in this case, mining) haven’t been developed yet.
The questions people have started to ask are hardly surprising. Cloud Imperium Games stopped adding so-called stretch goals once their crowdfunding had brought in $65 million. At this rate, they will have doubled that sum by next year. So why won’t the developer, for the sake of the backers, at least put the development of new ships on hold? Why not focus on finishing the massive to-do list first, the seemingly endless backlog of already-announced features that have yet to be completed? Surely, it can’t be the case that the money Cloud Imperium Games is being paid for new ships today is being used to fund the development of ships that were bought yesterday? Surely, they’re not in need of even more money to stay afloat? Not according to Chris Roberts.
We keep a very healthy cash balance. I mean, if we had no [further] money [coming in] tomorrow, we have a long runway. – Chris Roberts
“We keep a very healthy cash balance. I mean, if we had no [further] money [coming in] tomorrow, we have a long runway. But honestly, historically, we kind of operate like a live game – I mean, we can look back at the past three years and we can track what happens in terms of when we release a patch, how much revenue comes in, and what’s related to new features. We actually don’t look like normal development, we look like a live game that is already monetized, that’s essentially kind of how we run it. It’d be no different than if you had a live MMO right now that was considered ‘done’; that’s what they do. That’s how we run the business. We run like a normal operating business.”
Of course, the major difference between Star Citizen and a live MMO is that Star Citizen is not a live game, by any stretch of the imagination. So far, it is several disconnected demos.
And as you might have guessed, Derek Smart is even less inclined to share Chris Roberts’ rosy view of proceedings.
When I reach Derek Smart on Skype, I’m greeted by a charming, funny and humble man — the polar opposite of his online persona. Unfortunately for him, even if his sceptics got to see this side of him for once, it wouldn’t be enough to convince them that he is worth hearing out. Smart has become the boy who cried wolf: by this stage, no rational person would take any notice of what he has to say. Not because he can be, and has been, accused of being a pathological liar, but because he is unable to temper his public tantrums. He may not have been making things up, but he’s been screaming at the top of his lungs for decades. Many who were once inclined to lend him their ears have since become used to filtering out the noise.
Another problem for Derek Smart is that he is still working on his own space game, Line of Defense, which — no matter how different from Star Citizen he claims it to be — makes him even less of an impartial observer.
When we bring these issues up with him, it’s obvious he’s had to confront the same accusations many times before. “Yeah, but here is the thing though. It’s always good when people point that out ‘you’re making a space game, so you can’t be relied upon to be unbiased’. I tell people, ‘You should remember that you cannot rely on me to be unbiased’. But by the same token, it doesn’t take anything from the context of the material I am writing. It is like saying that because I am a politician, I can’t talk about another politician. Or that I am a news reporter and I vote Democratic, so I can’t talk about the Democratic party. It doesn’t work like that… Put it this way: everybody has a bias.”
In his first blog post about Star Citizen, from July of last year, Derek Smart claimed that selling unfinished ships was tantamount to peddling snow to eskimos. “They are making concept art for ships, some were actual models, and then selling them at a premium. People keep buying them. This despite the fact that there is still no ‘game’ to play them with. In short, the result is that you have ships you’ve bought, with no game to play them with. Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with that. After all, that’s what raising funds for a project is about: selling. But it’s a double-edged sword. And usually, if you’re dealing with seasoned and experienced investors or even publishers, if they’re not convinced or even interested, you’re not getting the money. And if you do get it, that money comes with strings… usually pretty long and taut strings. With crowdfunding, no such strings exist, and you can pretty much do what you want. And that’s usually where trouble starts.”
I tell people, ‘You should remember that you cannot rely on me to be unbiased’. But by the same token, it doesn’t take anything from the context of the material I am writing… Put it this way: everybody has a bias. – Smart
At this point, it would have been easy for Cloud Imperium Games and its media division to disarm Derek Smart. A simple “Thank you for your valuable input” would probably have sufficed: the sort of humble, the-customer-is-always-right kind of statement that a regular PR agency would have whipped up in 15 minutes. The company could have been open about the fact that development was dragging on for longer than expected, and that all the backers were starting to wonder what was happening behind the scenes. But instead, Cloud Imperium took the worst possible approach when dealing with Derek Smart. As he himself puts it:
“They made it personal.”
The email arrived at 22:05 on a Monday night in July last year. “Dear Mr. Smart,” it began. “Please be advised that we have cancelled your pledge and terminated your Roberts Space Industries account pursuant to the Kickstarter rules”.
For a moment, Derek Smart just sat there, dumbfounded as to how he should react. The whole situation was as abrupt as it was confusing: he’d never asked for his $250 back. Instead of firing off a reply then and there, he decided to sleep on it.
Two days later, PC Gamer published an article where a representative of Cloud Imperium Games defended the decision. “It was obvious he was not a supporter of our project and was just using our visibility as a platform to gain attention and promote his current game and his past games. We have strict rules about people using our forums and chat for self-promotion and it was clear that he didn’t care about the project, or the backers, or a good game being made. He was just trying to create a huge fuss to make himself relevant at a lot of other people’s expense and distress.”
It was obvious [Smart] was not a supporter of our project and was just using our visibility as a platform to gain attention and promote his current game and his past games… He was just trying to create a huge fuss to make himself relevant at a lot of other people’s expense and distress. – Cloud Imperium Games statement
Cloud Imperium Games’ tactic of offering up Derek Smart as a scapegoat for the unrest in the Star Citizen community backfired immediately. All of a sudden, several other backers started getting in touch with the company, asking if they were also entitled to their money back. Ben Lesnick, Cloud Imperium Games’ community manager, had no choice but to address the concerns on Roberts Space Industries, the official website of Star Citizen.
“We refunded Mr. Smart’s package because he was using Star Citizen as a platform to gain attention as part of a campaign to promote his Line of Defense space game. Our ToS (or in this case, the Kickstarter ToS) allows us to refund troubled users who we would rather not have interacting with the community. The process lets us entirely disable their accounts, preventing them from playing the finished game.
“I do now want to stress that that is not to say you can get your money back by simply being as obnoxious as possible; we’re also able to ban accounts from the forums without requiring a refund. But sometimes we take a look at a user and decide that they’re so toxic or their intentions are so sinister that we simply don’t want them associated with Star Citizen.”
From the looks of it, Ben Lesnick was unfamiliar with the Streisand effect.
The fact that Derek Smart — the infamous rabble-rouser — had been kicked out by Chris Roberts was an enticing headline, which soon spread around the world, bolstering Smart’s case instead of silencing him, as had been the intention. And once he’d slept on it, Derek Smart himself decided that CIG’s email was more than an mere overreaction. In his eyes, it was an act of war.
“This whole thing happened not because of me,” says Smart. “People know me, and I’ve been around for a very very long time. I am very opinionated and because I don’t work for anybody, I don’t rely on any publisher – I can do what the hell I want. I cannot be corrupted [and] I have very strong opinions about a lot of things. So, some friends of mine who’d left the [Star Citizen] project reached out to me and said hey, you know, something’s not right here, you should look into it. It took me three or four months before I even wrote that first blog in July 2015. And even so, I wasn’t saying anything over the top. I said: it is impossible but I hope you guys can do it because you have all the money. I hope you can pull it off, but I have my doubts. They took it the wrong way.”
Unfortunately, the truth rarely follows the elegant arc of a scripted narrative. It’s messier, more complicated and more confusing. The fact is that even before Cloud Imperium Games decided to respond to Smart by cancelling his Kickstarted pledge, he had already published another blog post, one whose language was decidedly more provocative than the first. In it, he claimed that he had turned to both Chris Roberts, PR manager David Swofford and Cloud Imperium Games co-founder Ortwin Freyermuth without getting a satisfactory explanation. In addition to this, he hinted that something else had occurred to complicate his relationship with the Star Citizen developers, without mentioning what this might have been. When I asked him to explain clearly what it was that turned his tone from somewhat diplomatic to downright aggressive from one blog post to the next (on the same subject, at that), he intentionally ducks the question.
I am very opinionated and because I don’t work for anybody, I don’t rely on any publisher – I can do what the hell I want. I cannot be corrupted [and] I have very strong opinions about a lot of things. – Smart
As if all of this wasn’t enough drama for one development cycle (let alone one person), Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games had reason to suspect that Smart had had it in for them for several years, despite the fact that he donated $250 to the development of Star Citizen. As early as September 2012 — when Roberts had announced his plan for a new space sim — Smart couldn’t resist firing a shot across the bow in the form of a tweet oozing with shade:
— Derek Smart (@dsmart) September 11, 2012
By the time February 2015 rolled around, he had convinced himself that the entire Star Citizen project was, in fact, a “massive ponzi scheme”.
That's it. I'm convinced that this whole Star Citizen thing is some massive Ponzi scheme – that I helped fund. 2015 can't come soon enough.
— Derek Smart (@dsmart) February 6, 2014
To this day, Smart stands behind everything he wrote in his blog posts: “My statements are perfectly OK, since my opinions remain the same and had merit.”
No matter how you feel about the topic, it’s worth pointing out that the jury is still out when it comes to who first “made it personal”. And no matter the amount of vitriol in Derek Smart’s writing, Cloud Imperium Games’ response wasn’t exactly becoming of a 100-million-dollar company.
According to Smart himself, he has no interest in marketing his own games in this roundabout way (not to mention the fact that he is already financially independent). If anything, the whole debacle has only made him more reviled. But the reasons CIG gave for closing his account made no sense. Smart had never actually promoted Line of Defense, or any other game, on the Roberts Space Industries site. How can we be so sure? Well, to begin with, he never even had an RSI account. To add insult to injury, Smart’s personal information, including his name and the fact that his Star Citizen account had been closed, were distributed to news sites as well as RSI itself (an act which seems to run counter to its own user agreement). In short, CIG was evidently trying to make an example of Derek Smart. As it turned out, they couldn’t have picked a worse target to go after.
On a sunny January day, a man named Kevin found himself walking down 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the iconic pier with its towering ferris wheel. People in fancy clothes, lugging heavy shopping bags, were darting in and out of the boutiques lining the street. Others took refuge in the shade of large sun umbrellas, sipping over-priced coffee. Kevin had been given an address, but not much else. To reach the offices of Cloud Imperium Games, he had to pass through a dimly lit corridor that linked the promenade with a back street. It was easy to miss, but once he found his way, he was greeted by a smiling Will Lewis, who at the time was the highest ranking moderator of the RSI community.
Kevin could be described as one of the most vocal and dedicated Star Citizen fans. A 32-year old engineer, he spent much of his free time on the boards of Something Awful, a community with almost 200,000 members whose founder, Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, once memorably agreed to face Uwe Boll in an absurd PR spectacle of a boxing match.
Right before the bout, Kyanka told the assembled reporters that he had been forced to sign an agreement rescinding the right to take legal action against Uwe Boll after the match. “It says that if he gives me AIDS or brain damage or kills me, I can’t sue him. But it didn’t say anything about me giving AIDS to him, so I’ve been out sleeping with male hookers.”
This quote sums up the temperament of Something Awful and its infamous message boards. It happened to be a place where Kevin felt right at home. He was a member of a group of Something Awful-affiliated gamers called “Goons”, whose many subgroups have become infamous themselves for their highly dedicated trolling and griefing of other players, not least in Eve Online. (In Star Citizen, the goons are known as “Goonrathi”, a reference to the catlike alien race Kilrathi from Wing Commander.) They wear their badge as digital saboteurs with pride.
When news of an upcoming space sim called Star Citizen reached Kevin in the autumn of 2012, he listened intently. He remembered Wing Commander fondly, and found Chris Roberts’ vision enormously enticing, not least because it would probably result in a virtual universe full of people for Kevin to drive insane. He clicked the Kickstarter link and donated $35. When we spoke to him almost four years later, that number had risen to $600. “I think I became obsessed because I bought into the ‘dream’ of Star Citizen”, he tells us. “Chris Roberts establishes a framework of a game that’s just solid enough to provide a vision, but leaves plenty of gaps that the backer is encouraged to fill in with their own dreams. As a result everyone is backing their own perfect game.”
With thousands of Star Citizen-related posts on Something Awful, the game’s subreddit and RSI, Kevin became one of the game’s most enthusiastic ambassadors. But this didn’t stop him from voicing his own concerns about everything from ship designs to how the Star Citizen business model should evolve post-launch. Despite his strong opinions on various details and the doubts (and, sometimes, ridicule) of his fellow Goons, many of whom considered Star Citizen’s ambition completely detached from reality, he remained staunchly loyal to CIG. Hence the visit to the CIG offices in Santa Monica on January 14th last year.
I think I became obsessed because I bought into the ’dream’ of Star Citizen. Chris Roberts establishes a framework of a game that’s just solid enough to provide a vision, but leaves plenty of gaps that the backer is encouraged to fill in with their own dreams. As a result everyone is backing their own perfect game. – Kevin, Star Citizen backer
The first order of business was a tour of the studio conducted by Will Lewis. CIG had two floors of the building at its disposal, but had already begun to outgrow the office. The programmers, graphics artists, community managers and other divisions had to fight for what precious little real estate was available between them. It probably didn’t help that Chris Roberts had turned the offices into a sort of impromptu museum. One set of shelves showed off various props from the Wing Commander movie. On the wall next to Roberts’ own Galaga arcade machine hung posters commemorating his other misadventures in Hollywood.
When Will Lewis and Kevin ran into Roberts himself, he was too busy to even exchange a few words. This was understandable: on this particular day, a big film crew from BAFTA in Los Angeles was visiting the office to conduct interviews for a lecture Roberts was set to give a few days later. Instead, Kevin got to chat with the producer Darian Vorlick, who told him that CIG was “making the game we ourselves want to play”. For once, that old cliché didn’t ring false. Kevin felt more excited than ever about the game as he returned to 3rd Street Promenade. “That day cemented an impression of the staff that remains true to this day: the folks working on this game really want it to happen. They’re all hard-working, dedicated people and they all believe in this game and what it means.”
Afterwards, he boasted about the visit to his friends (and enemies) on Something Awful: “Visited CIG Santa Monica today. Met a lot of awesome people (Chris was busy). Signed a NDA, saw awesome shit. Can confirm game is not a scam.”
Before long, though, that new burst of enthusiasm was ebbing out. In April, Kevin opposed the sale of new spaceships before the old ones had even been completed. The Star Citizen community refers to the phenomenon as “ship debt”. (Out of the 83 ships that CIG lists in the Star Citizen shop, for real money, often at prices exceeding $100, only 39 have been finished. The rest only exist as concepts, or are still in production.) In Kevin’s eyes, early adopters were affected by this issue when CIG started selling new ships with specifications similar to older models.
The Cutlass is a prime example of the consternation that CIG’s ship-selling policy was causing among fans. It was originally pitched as a hybrid between nimble dogfighter and intergalactic freighter. When it was finally delivered, buyers were deeply disappointed: the ship was far too bulky and slow to hold its own against enemy craft. To remedy the situation, CIG elected to design two new Cutlass models, to co-exist alongside the original. Upgrading to one of them—to what the players thought they were getting when they shelled out $100 for the first Cutlass model—would cost an additional $20 or $50, respectively.
Long after that, CIG introduced a new ship, Buccaneer, which for all intents and purposes was the ship that Cutlass was supposed to be from the beginning. CIG offered Cutlass customers the switch to a Buccaneer free of charge, but the confusion created around the Cutlass is something players have had to suffer through many times over as new ships have been offered, released and refined.
I will tell you that there is no one in our organisation that looks down on anyone that is part of our community. – Roberts
“The problem is that what happened with the Cutlass reflects the fundamental issue with backing Star Citizen; you don’t know what you’re paying for,” says Kevin. “You think you do, but CIG has not sufficiently defined the scope of the game (or even the scope of individual ships) for people to make an informed decision. Worse yet, people are punished for taking an early risk. If you want to change your mind you pay a higher price, or lose out on features like lifetime insurance.”
The Cutlass debacle also brought to light a thorny issue with CIG: its stewardship of the Star Citizen community, the very people who are providing Chris Roberts with a release valve for his vision. The debate about the Cutlass has been raging for as long as the game itself has existed, and it hasn’t always been civil—which is to be expected when someone forks out $100 and doesn’t get what he or she expected in return.
This is how community manager Ben Lesnick explains the toxic Cutlass debate on RSI in a YouTube clip: “We love the thread, there’s lots of great feedback. But let’s be absolutely clear. There is also lots of dinks out there, who are there to fight and talk about how ‘they betrayed us and you all need to get refunds for your Cutlass and they lied to us and this is all part of a conspiracy’…you guys suck! And I’ll say it right here on the livestream: don’t be that guy. If you’re going to be that guy we’re gonna ban you from the forums.”
When I read this quote to Chris Roberts, he is at a loss for words.
“I don’t think, I don’t think, he couldn’t have possibly, that’s not Ben.”
You can look it up on YouTube.
“Well, he must have been doing it as a joke or sarcastically. Do you know where he was? I am pretty confident that’s not him because I know him quite well. It is not the way he is.”
Are you saying he didn’t say these things?
“I don’t know, I have to see it. I know him well, and that is not his personality at all. In the case of the Cutlass, there is an ongoing joke in the community that ‘the Cutlass is the ship that hasn’t had the love or the Cutlass owners always get screwed’. Some group is always the downtrodden group, so the Cutlass owners themselves sort of take it on and they make jokes about it like on our online forum and stuff like that. So, I haven’t seen the material but my guess would be that he’s making fun of that reputation.
I will tell you that there is no one in our organisation that looks down on anyone that is part of our community. And we even put up with the people that are deliberate, like, we are actually quite nice even with people that we know are specifically trying to be trolls, trying to cause trouble.”
According to Kevin, who’s been a part of the Star Citizen community all the way back to the initial Kickstarter campaign, Roberts is mistaken: Ben Lesnick wasn’t joking. Kevin feels that CIG is way too eager to label members as “trolls” — including those who have strong opinions about delays and broken promises, or who simply are spreading information about how others can get their money back. Considering the reputation that precedes them by a few lightyears, it’s no surprise that the Goonrathi are especially unpopular at CIG. “What you see in that video is Ben Lesnick responding to criticism the same way he always has; by attacking people and calling them trolls,” Kevin says.
It was this dissatisfaction with the way that CIG handled its community that drew Kevin and Derek Smart together.
Before Smart wrote his series of blog posts lamenting the state of the project, no one had so openly and forcefully criticised CIG. The community itself had — and still has — an uncanny ability to quell dissent, backed up by CIG’s deliberately vague forum rules. For example, one clause states that “Starting threads on controversial topics simply to generate an argument is forbidden.”
In December last year, Forbes published an article titled “‘Star Citizen‘ May Not Be A Scam, But It Feels Like A Cult.” The writer, Paul Tassi, had been warned against writing about the game by his colleagues, who had experienced firsthand the wrath of the Star Citizen fanbase. “They’re vehemently defending themselves and simultaneously attacking anyone who questions whether throwing money at a game like this might actually not be a great idea.”
The article implied that the game’s financiers had been afflicted by what Derek Smart (whose presence made the whole debate even more polarized) called an example of “sunk cost fallacy” — a term used by behavioral scientists and economists to describe the phenomenon of people rationalizing a bad investment by throwing even more resources at it. Once locked into this mindset, the individual will not even be deterred by new facts indicating that continued investment will lead to continued losses.
For Kevin, the investment never continued past the $600 mark, which is far beyond the average of $100 — in itself a significant sum to contribute to a crowdfunding project. He might have donated even more if it weren’t for what happened on October 8th last year — the day when he was permanently banned from Roberts Space Industries.
At first, Kevin had no idea why. After being greeted with open arms on that sunny day back in January, one of the forum’s most prolific members had suddenly turned into a pariah. “I was confused, and tried to contact Ben,” he remembers. “He severed all connections. Then I was just shocked. It hurt for a bit, knowing I was disconnected.”
Kevin had a hard time making sense of what he could have written on the RSI message boards that would have triggered such a strong reaction. According to the forum rules, anyone in violation of them is supposed to receive a warning, with repeated offences resulting in bans lasting between 24 hours and 30 days. In extreme cases, CIG will consider a lifetime ban if a member receives another warning after a 30-day ban has been lifted.
The next day, Kevin sent an email to CIG, asking them to clarify why they had skipped several steps in their standard course of action against forum offenders, as well as what post had caused such a drastic response. During the six weeks that followed, he received five emails to the effect that no one at the company had time to reply to his questions. It wasn’t until December 15, two months after getting disconnected from the forums, that he received a curiously emotional email from CIG customer support. “Wouldn’t you rather a refund and closure of your account though as a lot of your posts suggest you don’t support the project at all. It is really tough on the staff here, to receive negativity constantly,” it read.
It is really tough on the staff here, to receive negativity constantly – CIG representative
The series of emails exchanged between Kevin and various Cloud Imperium staff members make for astonishing reading, to the extent that he has been accused of fabricating them by other Star Citizen forum members. Having seen the emails in question, though — Kevin was happy to forward them to me — I see no reason to believe that they aren’t real. It should also be noted that Cloud Imperium Games has not denied their existence, even on direct questioning. “Who doesn’t ’silence doubters’?” writes Sandi Gardiner, marketing chief. “I’m a qualified teacher, I can’t have rowdy teenagers in the class constantly disrupting the class, nothing gets done nor moves forward.” The emails lay into Kevin, into the press (including allegations of corruption), into RSI’s forum members and the game’s backers (calling them “butthurt” and “special snowflakes”), alongside an impassioned defence of the Star Citizen project and of Chris Roberts himself. And at the end of it all, finally, Kevin had a reason for his ban:
“I am honestly a little surprised that you are not aware of what caused your permaban,” wrote CIG’s chief moderator Patrick Probst. “The final straw which caused the permanent exclusion from the forums was your collusion with one Derek Smart Esq. You seemingly cooperated with him to spread secret information gained by questionable means. This could be construed as aiding and abetting corporate espionage.”
If what Kevin had done amounted to “corporate espionage”, it’s a crime many journalists are equally guilty of. His Roberts Space Industries account was suspended on October 8th last year. Kevin had been in touch with Derek Smart now and then, but he was never quite sure if Smart’s ‘insider’ information about Star Citizen was authentic, or if he was bluffing.
Kevin decided to challenge Smart. On October 10, the annual Citizencon expo was set to take place in Manchester (the city where an eight-year-old Chris Roberts had first seen Star Wars with his father). One of the announcements CIG had in store was the name of a new spaceship. Kevin asked Derek Smart to tell him the name in advance, as a way to gauge the veracity of Smart’s sources. The name he was given was the Vindicator. Kevin decided to upload an encrypted file with the same name, so that he could remove the encryption and make it public the moment CIG unveiled the new ship. That way, everyone could see if the names matched.
Unfortunately, the encryption wasn’t as solid as the plan was ingenious. After only a couple of minutes, Kevin’s file name was public for anyone to see. When the ship was announced at Citizencon, it had been christened Sabre. But the introduction on the RSI website, where Sabre was available to buy for $170, indicated that CIG might actually have changed the name after seeing Kevin’s file, in his opinion. In a couple of places, the ship was referred to not as Sabre, but “Potato”. According to Kevin’s theory, this was a last-minute placeholder that CIG published by mistake.
When head moderator Patrick Probst accused Kevin of “aiding and abetting corporate espionage” by “cooperat[ing] with [Derek Smart] to spread secret information gained by questionable means”, he included links to tweets where Kevin and Smart joked about the failed encryption. In Kevin’s eyes, this was proof that Smart had been right all along.
“This would be like you buying a product, bringing it home, writing on your blog (not even on the site that you bought it from) that it is not as expected. Then they send someone to your house to throw money in your face, take the item – and leave. Then they go post on their website, why they did it.”
This was how Derek Smart summed up his feelings after CIG closed his account, banned him from a forum he’d never visited, taken back the things he paid for, and then returned money he didn’t ask for.
One of Smart’s suggestions before his ban was that the financiers should be allowed to hire an external accountant to get an idea of how Chris Roberts had managed the funds they donated. Smart even offered to pay for the service out of his own pocket. This was obviously an intentional provocation, but that didn’t make it an entirely unreasonable proposal. In fact, CIG’s own user agreement actually leaves the window for at least some kind of audit, albeit only under very specific terms: “In the unlikely event that RSI is not able to deliver the Game and/or the pledge items, RSI agrees to refund any unearned portion of your Pledge, and to post an audited cost accounting on the Website to fully explain the use of the amounts paid for Pledge Item Cost and the Game Cost.”
This would be like you buying a product, bringing it home, writing on your blog (not even on the site that you bought it from) that it is not as expected – then they send someone to your house to throw money in your face, take the item, and leave. – Smart
Derek Smart also put his finger on something even more troubling: in order to make an example out of him, CIG signalled to its users that criticising the company can result in being banned from the game itself, since it requires an active Roberts Space Industries account. As Sandi Gardiner said in her email to Kevin: Who doesn’t want to silence doubters?
But in the case of Derek Smart, the tactic backfired. In the third blog post in a single week, he threw down the gauntlet and put on a brass knuckle. “I will spend every resource I have at my disposal to prove that I am right to seek these answers, and I know with certainty, that I will be vindicated when the dust settles. If this is my final act of industry defiance before I retire for good, so be it. I will see this to the very bitter end.”
At Gamescom in August last year, Chris Roberts finally broke his silence about Derek Smart. “I try not to get into any of that. I think people who talk about other people’s work… I don’t know what to say, other than, if someone spent so much energy focusing on their own stuff, maybe people would like their own stuff better. I don’t particularly pay much attention to him because it seems like the more people pay attention to him… I think at the end of the day the game is gonna speak for itself, the content speaks for itself. There’s plenty of people who say, y’know, you can’t do certain things and I don’t listen to them. Especially, I mean, you have to listen to people who have actually been able to do stuff and that you respect. That’s not the case [here],” he told PCGamesN.
As usual, Derek Smart was quick to reply on his blog. “You will never – ever – get away with this. And I will make sure of it. You had one job. And in typical fashion, you blew it. Again.” He then sent a so-called demand letter — often used to accuse someone of breach of contract, as a preparatory step in a legal process — to CIG. In the letter, Smart — through his attorneys — once again demanded a formal audit of the company’s books, as well as a new release date (since the previous one had already come and gone). He also asked that every donor should be given the option to have his or her money refunded.
A few days later, Ortwin Freyermuth, a lawyer and co-founder of CIG, launched the counter-attack. He accused Smart of having publicly revealed the home addresses of senior executives, and noted that he’d had problems with the IRS and once applied for bankruptcy protection. “In the internet age”, Freyermuth noted, “every successful venture will have to deal with trolls.” If that phrasing wasn’t eyebrow-raising enough, he also claimed that it was entirely possible for anyone following the development of Star Citizen to figure out how CIG is spending its funds.
I will spend every resource I have at my disposal to prove that I am right to seek these answers, and I know with certainty, that I will be vindicated when the dust settles. If this is my final act of industry defiance before I retire for good, so be it. I will see this to the very bitter end. – Smart
Derek Smart, in turn, published the letter from Freyermuth on his own website, refuting its accusations. He explained that the personal information he had shared was publicly available on Zillow.com. He said that the tax liens Freyermuth mentioned had been routine reviews, which had long since been concluded to the satisfaction of the IRS. As for the “bankruptcy”, it was actually a case of someone stealing Smart’s identity 20 years ago. “I specifically made their response public because I had nothing to hide and because I wanted to show the world the type of people we were dealing with,” Smart says.
In the autumn of 2015, the Streisand effect reached its apex when a group of Star Citizen fans published a call to action under the banner “Derek Smart does NOT represent the Star Citizen community!” The petition garnered around 2,600 signatures — but the increasing unrest amongst other backers would not be quelled.
Kevin was hardly the only Star Citizen advocate who had been becoming disillusioned. The dissenters’ numbers are growing by the day, at least if the endless threads on hubs like Something Awful are anything to go by. Of the 100 star systems that players had been promised, only a single one is available to explore, and it’s so buggy that you can randomly be teleported out of your ship or get your head stuck in its hull when you use a ladder, among much else. VR support has yet to materialise, as have the modding tools. The bespoke language that CIG was inventing for its fictional galaxy, with the aid of linguists, is nowhere to be found. The same can be said of the in-game economy. What about job classes? Sorry, no. The ability to compete for and be the captain of your own space station? Only a few of them have been built so far. Modifying your ship? Forget it— you’re lucky if your ship exists to begin with. Oh, and the alpha version of the game slows down to a trickle when 16 players try to duke it out.
All of this, however, starts to seem like an embarrassment of riches when you compare it to Squadron 42. That’s the title of the game’s stand-alone campaign mode, which was recently delayed again. Despite the fact that it is nominally still due out this year, virtually nothing of that game has been shown to the public. (The studio insists this is only because they don’t want to spoil the story.)
The sheer amount of bells and whistles CIG has promised its players gets even harder to survey when you throw Star Marine into the mix. Star Marine was supposed to be Star Citizen’s “FPS module” (while Squadron 42 is more focused on dogfighting), a feature that CIG drummed up a significant amount of hype for, and which was supposed to premiere during PAX East last spring. They did manage to bring a version of the game mode to the show floor — but never to backers’ computers. In July last year, with Star Marine nowhere to be found and people asking lots of questions, community manager Ben Lesnick made an announcement to calm everyone down:
“It would not be my place to give you a timetable, but with the number of people I’m seeing who genuinely believe that we somehow now aren’t doing the FPS module I will say that we are talking about a delay of weeks and not months/years/decades.”
To date — a year later — Star Marine has yet to be released, and external studio Illfonic has ceased work on the “module”: officially, development has been brought back in-house at CIG. Chris Roberts has diverted criticism by toning down the importance of Star Marine in the grand scheme of things. After all the hype, he now considers it to be nothing more than a game mode.
I think people who talk about other people’s work… I don’t know what to say, other than, if someone spent so much energy focusing on their own stuff, maybe people would like their own stuff better. – Roberts
”I sort of get annoyed sometimes when I see this pop up in comments like ‘Oh, Star Marine is cancelled’, or ‘Where’s Star Marine!?’ Star Marine was just a game mode for people to play the FPS elements of Star Citizen until we could combine everything together: flying, walking around, shooting, all together, that is what is in [version] 2.0, that’s what it’s 2.1”, Roberts said in an episode of 10 for the Chairman back in January. This might have made sense if it wasn’t CIG itself that tried to convince the players that the FPS module could stand on its own legs, by giving it a separate title, Star Marine—only to get annoyed when people started wondering what happened to Star Marine.
Roberts does have a point, however. There is an FPS element to the razor-thin slice of Star Citizen that backers are able to play today. “In terms of a first person shooter experience, yeah… You know, I think by the time ours is finished it will be up there with anyone else’s,” Roberts tells us. Judging from what’s there right now, CIG still has a long way to go.
Late last year, CIG received a blow that sent even the usually composed Chris Roberts reeling. But it wasn’t delivered by Derek Smart. Instead, it came in the form of a scathing report by The Escapist, which methodically pieced together a picture of CIG’s tumultuous inner workings based on allegations from nine sources who had worked at Cloud Imperium Games. Their reported comments showed that at least some CIG staffers nursed doubts about Roberts’ ability to deliver a new game more than a decade after his last, let alone one as epic in scope as Star Citizen.
Chris Roberts tried his best to dismiss most of the criticism levelled at him. Despite CIG’s publicly priding themselves on their transparent development process, he claimed that “No employee beyond me and a few other key people who are leading Star Citizen would have the appropriate information and overview to make any judgement about the cost of the total project.”
To one source who said “I felt like I was part of a con,” Roberts responded: “This is the statement that really makes my blood boil”. “I’ll put my 261 [employees], their passion and energy against the complaints of a few disgruntled ex-employees any day.”
In addition to providing The Escapist with comments, Roberts also published an open letter on the RSI website. Here, he didn’t sound like the CEO of the most successful crowdfunding project ever, with its own media division. The rhetoric was more reminiscent of something you might find on a shady subreddit. (According to him, the letter took over eight hours to write.) Beyond calling The Escapist reporter’s credibility into question, he claimed that Derek Smart had orchestrated the entire article. “I know you say that ‘none of these [statements] come from Derek’ but we both know that’s not true. You are quoting the exact same things in your email he has spewed in his blogs and twitter for months. […] This is the same person who wrote a letter to Origin and me after Wing Commander was out claiming that we were infringing on his game and we had to cease publishing it or he would sue us. We told him we never heard of him and good luck with that. He never sued.”
Roberts didn’t pull any punches: “The only person who is famous for being a blowhard, bully, an awful game developer and human being is Derek Smart.”
The only person who is famous for being a blowhard, bully, an awful game developer and human being is Derek Smart. -Roberts
As for Smart himself, he was more bemused than anything by the whole debacle. “Wing Commander was an exceptional game and of course it set the standard,” he tells us, adding: “I never wrote them a letter, that letter does not exist. […] That’s the reason why, when I saw him make that claim that I was going to sue them, I was upset, because I never back away from an argument. I never go back on things because it is not my style. So I knew for a fact it never happened. And I knew that what they were trying to do was to try and establish some sort of imaginary pattern to make it look like that was the reason that I am doing this now. You see what I mean. Even though there was no proof or evidence. I can… It just never happened. It never happened.”
Significantly more troubling was the fact that CIG, through its co-founder and legal counsel Ortwin Freyermuth, attempted to make an example out of The Escapist, much like it had previously done with Derek Smart. In the open letter to the site’s managing editor, John Keefer, Freyermuth demanded that the article be taken down, and an apology issued. The article itself, Freyermuth concluded, was a “conspiracy”, built on ”completely false and unfounded” statements. As for the reporter, she was a “kid [running] rampant”, in desperate need of “adult supervision”. If The Escapist refused to apologize for its “reckless and inexcusable behavior”, and the “tremendous damage” it had caused the studio, CIG would “turn this matter over to our litigators to prepare legal action in the US and the UK”.
The Escapist refused to back down. Instead of retracting the article, Keefer published a follow-up piece where he explained how the site had vetted its sources, as well as flat out denying that Derek Smart was one of them. As of now, the report remains online and intact (UPDATE: since been deleted, but here’s the archived version).
CIG has a history of trying to control any outside, negative comment on Star Citizen, whether from fans or from the press. When I was granted an interview with Chris Roberts earlier this year, it was on the condition that we not mention Derek Smart or the article. When I asked a question about Smart anyway (Roberts didn’t have anything new to say about him), PR manager David Swofford expressed his disappointment. I kept exchanging emails with Swofford, however — until I mentioned that we had been in touch with ex-employees of CIG. Asked to comment on my quotes, Swofford stopped replying.
Kevin’s permanent ban from the RSI forums came a couple of days after the publication of this Escapist article, which had naturally been a hot topic of conversation amongst Star Citizen’s backers. In his posts, which are still archived on the RSI website, Kevin appears disillusioned and upset, cautioning other members not to automatically assume that Derek Smart was the source of all the quotes in The Escapist’s report — which, outside of the bizarre Star Citizen bubble, appears like the only reasonable conclusion. But the mere mention of Smart has become like waving a red flag in the face of CIG and those fans who are still standing by their side.
Kevin’s experience, however, pales in comparison with what was revealed in the beginning of June this year. Seemingly by accident, it was discovered that a backer who had donated more than $30,000 (no, we didn’t add a zero by mistake) was labelled as “high maintenance” and “snowflake” on Zendesk, an external platform used by CIG to handle its customer service tickets. This person decided to share the findings on Reddit. “Personally, I’m a bit disappointed [to be] in the ‘High Maintenance’ category because my pledge counter sits at >$40K [Australian dollars] and the reason for that label is only to do with me occasionally reminding CIG to keep to their commitments. Instead, they’ve decided that insults are good business policy.”
The mere mention of Smart has become like waving a red flag in the face of CIG and those fans who are still standing by their side.
The backer demonstrated how others could see for themselves if any labels had been applied to them by CIG (unsurprisingly, Kevin found out that he was referred to as a “snowflake”, as well). The reports started flooding YouTube and other media channels. Beyond insulting labels, one user found that a nickname he used on other sites, but never on RSI, had been adopted by CIG (strengthening the case that they kept tabs on their users’ whereabouts).
The RSI forum threads on that very topic were promptly locked, and in some cases deleted altogether. Soon enough, CIG made its customer service platform off-limits to users. At the moment of writing, anyone trying to access it is greeted by the following message: “To bring you the best Customer Support in the universe, the team is hard at work creating a reworked help and support website”.
I spoke to two people whilst researching this article who are ex-employees of Cloud Imperium Games. A third source with a good deal of insight into the project didn’t want us to reveal what kind of relationship he or she has to CIG. One of these people claims: “As you know, many ex-employees (and I can tell you they were all for real) contributed to the Escapist article written last year. Many came forward and told the truth in an effort to expose what was going on… That article was met with a wall of scorn and denial that none of us could have predicted from the fans. This was very disappointing to all of us that felt that the article could have served as a warning to the many backers who have invested so much of their money and gotten so little. But the fans didn’t want to hear it.”
As you might expect, money was a recurring topic in conversations with my sources, though it has not been possible to verify any claims about how it is being spent.
“[Derek Smart] was blamed for everything like a hidden all-powerful puppeteer. No one I know was corresponding with him. In fact, most ex-CIG people think he is a ‘douchebag’ who is not to be trusted. I personally resent his presence in this because he serves as a boogey-man for the die-hard fans—they can blame him for everything and just ignore the facts.”
Later on, we read this quote to Derek Smart. “That’s true. That is very true. That is exactly what’s going on,” he says. “If it was somebody else who was brave enough to be blowing the whistle on this it would have a different response. But just because it happens to be Derek Smart, okay, certain people don’t take it as seriously as they should. Which is just like your source said, it is really the tragic thing.
“But here is the problem with that: nobody in their right mind would do this anyway. You see what I mean, that is a double-edged sword. It takes time, it costs money and also, it could cost people’s careers. You know what, there is not a single person in this industry that would not have something to say about this whole farce. Nobody is brave enough or stupid enough to say those things publicly. But once [CIG] collapses, the NDA is going to go away and people will start talking freely. And you’re going to have every news outlet who did not want to touch this – now they are going to be reaching out to everybody and writing all these crazy articles.”
A mixed picture of Roberts himself emerges from sources’ experience with Star Citizen’s mastermind, but one source describes Squadron 42 as a passion project of Roberts’ whose stand-alone nature makes it something of a modern successor to Wing Commander. “I think genuinely he is putting time and effort into Squadron 42. That is a labour of love for him.”
Cloud Imperium Games has been given the opportunity — and ample time — to comment on all of these claims, but hasn’t replied to my last five emails.
Another recurring theme in conversations about Star Citizen with the people who have been involved with it is that the majority of the people working at CIG’s studios in Santa Monica, Austin, Wilmslow and Frankfurt can’t be held responsible for any blunders by the management. These are the people still working hard to make Star Citizen everything it was supposed to be. Perhaps surprisingly, this is a view shared by Derek Smart, who has always maintained that CIG has a bunch of the world’s brightest developers on its payroll.
During 2016, Cloud Imperium Games has launched four major Star Citizen updates, kept selling upcoming ships and received more than $10 million between January and May. That’s significantly less than the $15 million that flowed in during the same period last year, but it’s still remarkable how the money keeps piling up while the game remains in what can charitably be called a rough pre-alpha state.
Fans are still holding out hope that Squadron 42 will be released in some shape as soon as this year — which is not unreasonable, given that this is what Chris Roberts promised them (and reiterated during our conversation with him). There are many warning signs indicating they are in for yet another disappointment, however. The original plan was to show off the campaign at E3, but shortly before the expo opened, CIG announced that they had cancelled their attendance. If you ask Derek Smart, Squadron 42 will be released in roughly a year — if the fans are lucky.
To silence the voices who kept accusing Star Citizen of so-called feature creep — where the scope of the game becomes broader and broader as the budget grows — Chris Roberts once declared that CIG was going to deliver “the Best Damn Space Sim Ever”. BDSSE has become an established acronym for the game’s fans to rally around — but it’s lost some of its lustre in recent months, since Roberts started using a different combination of letters to describe Star Citizen: MVP, or “minimum viable product”. This is the state in which the game will be when it’s finally ready for its full release sometime in the future — meaning that it will only include what is absolutely necessary. This, from a studio that has received $117 million.
When the game was recently updated to version 2.4, CIG had also made some significant changes to the user agreement, giving them an out if they’re not able to deliver on their previous promises: “You acknowledge and agree that the Game and the pledge items delivered to you may differ in certain aspects from the description of the Game and those pledge items that was available on the Website at the time of your Pledge.”.
At some point Star Citizen will be what we consider the first commercial version. But we will continue to add and develop, because we have a lot of stretch goals over time. -Roberts
The question is how long the studio has until the most dedicated fans give up hope, and turn off the money tap. The rest of the industry certainly isn’t going to stop and wait for CIG: at E3, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare turned heads with sci-fi visuals that surely have a thing or two in common with what Chris Roberts envisioned all the way back in 2012. On the indie scene, even more epic space adventures are popping up to the surface in the wake of CIG’s humongous cruiser, with Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky leading the charge.
During our conversation, Chris Roberts asks me to consider Star Citizen as a game on the same level as Grand Theft Auto V, only much bigger. To hear him tell it, fans’ fears will be alleviated when Squadron 42 is released. “Squadron 42 in itself competes with Uncharted or anything like that, it is the same level of investment, the same level of asset fidelity – it’s a full-on, what you’d consider a big AAA title. […] First of all I think it is a really good game, but at that point, I think there will be less noise. Sometimes the noise is just frustrating. […] People can play that experience while they are still getting updates on Star Citizen and then at some point Star Citizen will be what we consider the first commercial version. But we will continue to add and develop, because we have a lot of stretch goals over time that we will put in the game. Let’s say we do pets – but you don’t have to have pets before you can say Star Citizen is done.”
As for Derek Smart? He’s still as zealous as ever about exposing every single little slip-up by Cloud Imperium Games. If anything, all that’s changed is that he’s stretching the definition of “zealous” further than we thought was possible. He claims to have a team of lawyers and researchers digging into the details about how CIG is scamming its blue-eyed benefactors. (To be precise, he claims to have two law firms handling the case. Which is nothing out of the ordinary to Derek Smart: “Standard stuff really,” he shrugs.)
To claim that he tweets about Star Citizen every day would not be quite accurate; 10 times per day is closer to the truth. At the same time, he keeps releasing regular, extensive ‘reports’ about the game on his blog. He is what a compulsive investigative reporter would look like without an editor, and with twice the ego. If Chris Roberts is right about anything when it comes to Derek Smart, it’s that his endless tirades end up being reduced to static if you try to keep up with it all, especially when he’s wallowing in CIG’s alleged misery.
According to Smart himself, he has no ulterior motive beyond exposing the flaws of the current crowdfunding model itself. “Picture this:  million dollars, let’s say 120 million dollars by the time this whole thing goes sideways, is now out of that sector and gone into one product that collapsed. As a developer and a businessman that pisses me off the most. Especially since it could have been avoided. It could have been a great game, it could have been a game as originally designed. And it would’ve been good for everybody.”
To claim that Smart tweets about Star Citizen every day would not be quite accurate; 10 times per day is closer to the truth.
When asked to point out his single biggest problem with Star Citizen, he replies: “The entire game. I am serious. The scope is completely out of whack. But if you insist on me picking one thing I’ll tell you it is the world. It is the way that they’ve designed the world and the technology.
“These kinds of games, because of the way Chris has pitched it, they will never ever, ever, ever, be able to build the world they’ve designed because the underlying architecture is based on instancing. Instancing, which is what World of Warcraft and a lot of games do, is by its very nature restrictive in the amount of things you can put in the game world. It’s also restrictive in the size of the world, in the minds of players. As you know, [CIG] have problems getting even 16 people on one instance. If you are struggling with 16 people in an instance, when you only have one one-hundredth of the world built, what do you think is going to happen when you finally get around to building a world with 100 systems?”
Obviously, this is a problem for a game with the stated goal of having its entire audience “playing in the same universe”, as Chris Roberts has wanted since the early days. It seems unimaginable that Roberts or his staff would be unaware of these limitations, and are not addressing them.
There is still a way for Cloud Imperium Games to make Derek Smart the boy who cried wolf for the last time. It’s not about telling the world what an “awful human being” he is. It’s not about silencing and censuring critics, both internal and external. It’s not about applying derogatory labels to people who have donated thousands of dollars, or about accusing gaming websites of being part of a conspiracy. There is another way, and it’s as simple — and complicated — as living up to the commitment posted on the Roberts Space Industries website:
“You’ve pledged your money to earn your Citizenship. Now it’s our turn. We, the Star Citizen team at Cloud Imperium, hereby promise to deliver the game you expect. […] There may be delays and there may be changes; we recognise that such things are inevitable and would be lying to you if we claimed otherwise. But when this happens, we will treat you with the respect you deserve rather than spending your money on public relations. When we need to change a mechanic or alter something you believe should be in the game, we will tell you exactly why. You’ve done your part, and we will now do our utmost to live up to your expectations. We will build you the game you are dreaming about.”
If Chris Roberts manages to pull that off, he gets to write the rest of the story himself.