What to make of Star Citizen

For the last week or so we’ve been publishing the fruits of an in-depth investigation into Star Citizen, one of the most successful crowd-funding projects of all time – not just in games, but in anything. The series has included articles on all aspects of this game, from a variety of perspectives: developers, directors, ex-developers, the CEO of Cloud Imperium Games, backers, and vocal critics. It is a fascinating subject for several reasons. Star Citizen has raised a total of nearly $125 million, over 1.5 million individual people have backed it, and it is by any measure one of the most ambitious games ever envisioned. (Just scrolling down the long list of funding and stretch goals on Star Citizen’s website is simultaneously jaw-dropping and eyebrow-raising.) This potent cocktail of factors has created a project of unprecedented scale that is also under huge scrutiny – one that embodies both the transformative power of crowdfunding for creatives, and its potential perils.

Star Citizen’s development challenges also mirror those of many other large-scale games, and offer an extraordinary insight into what the process of game development can turn into without intervention and control from publishers or financial stakeholders. Julian Benson reported this comprehensive exploration of exactly what has happened behind Cloud Imperium Games’ doors over the past five years, and since it’s been published we’ve heard from many developers who’ve seen echoes of other projects they’ve worked on – most of which eventually made it out the door, but some of which never did.

There is also a more salacious aspect to the conversation around Star Citizen: the notion, irresistible to those on the various dissenter forums and hubs, that it is taking advantage of good hard-working gamers by squeezing them for money. Star Citizen conspiracy theorists have frequently questioned why few of the allegations lobbed at the Star Citizen project make it into the press. There are two fairly simple answers to this question: first, you can’t responsibly (or legally) print rumours and allegations, even from vetted sources, without corroborating and fact-checking them. This is especially true for allegations of something immoral or illegal. (For the record, we did look into all kinds of wild claims about how Cloud Imperium Games is spending its money, and found nothing reportable.) Secondly, getting a grasp on something as huge as Star Citizen requires the kind of time and energy that is difficult to find in the modern online journalism landscape.

It takes a lot of time and money to properly research, edit and fact-check something of this scale: in our case, seven months, with eight different people involved at various stages. In the current media market, where team sizes are shrinking, ad revenue is falling and content is free and plentiful, it does not often make sense to invest heavily in this kind of journalism. People still do it, because it’s what journalists love to do – and now and again you come across an irresistible story. If the press doesn’t cover something like this, it’s not because journalists are lazy, or in the pockets of developers or publishers, or part of some conspiracy. It’s because this kind of work takes research and time, and we are all working with ever-more-limited resources.

Speculatively, it's hard not to wonder whether Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games might have been better off if Star Citizen hadn't seen such vast crowdfunding success in the earliest days

Star Citizen has become a lightning-rod for controversy, with several entire forums’ worth of people dedicated to forensically dissecting every tiny detail, rumour or allegation surrounding the project. Star Citizen’s most vociferous detractors claim that it’s all one huge scam; its most vociferous defenders maintain that everything is totally fine, and that it’s still going to be The Best Damn Space Game Ever. The truth, as is so often the case, is not so simple.

Star Citizen has been through incredible development challenges over the past half-decade, during which time its scope expanded from manageable space-combat sim to the be-all and end-all of space games, with ship combat, first-person combat, a persistent universe, and countless other features. Decisions that were perfectly reasonable four years ago have had frustrating consequences down the line. Hold-ups, company restructures, personality clashes within studios and – and by his own admission – the perfectionism of Chris Roberts, Star Citizen’s creative figurehead, have all been the source of delays. For the first several years, Cloud Imperium Games simply did not have the resources to make Star Citizen as Roberts envisioned it. According to those at the studio now, that has changed, and they are finally in a position to push forward. But the amount of time and money has been expended in the meantime, even by the most conservative calculations, is enough to make anyone wince.

Speculatively, it's hard not to wonder whether Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games might have been better off if Star Citizen hadn't seen such vast crowdfunding success in the earliest days. If it had raised $2-4 million, perhaps its scope would have been contained. Perhaps it would even be finished by now.

In the midst of all this, the people working on Star Citizen have also had to deal with an extraordinary amount of drama, perpetuated by a seemingly never-ending feud that started 24 years ago and shows no signs of wrapping up. It’s been an unpleasant but unignorable facet of the Star Citizen story so far, and one of the things that makes it tough to report: so much of it is tainted by this unpleasantness. This, surely, has contributed to some unwise decisions by people at Cloud Imperium Games in how it has dealt with its community and the press: enforced bans and refunds, derogatory language and legal threats against media outlets are not a good look. I can’t think of a single other game project that has had to wrestle with all the challenges of development while also dealing with someone whose main purpose in life appears to be to discredit it.

It is difficult, after all these months of research and having heard from so many people involved with the project, to seriously entertain the notion that Star Citizen is some kind of intentional scam. Hundreds of people all over the world are working hard on it, and have been for years. Although there have been plenty of scandalous allegations, not one of them has checked out in our research – though of course nobody outside of its management team has full visibility on Cloud Imperium’s finances. If Star Citizen goes down – and it yet might – it will likely be because its sheer scope is out of step with the reality of actually making it, or because the money runs out, or because it’s taken too long and its funders have finally withdrawn their support. If there is anything more nefarious than that going on, we have found no convincing evidence of it.

In a crowd-funding situation you absolutely cannot take backers for granted, because if they turn on you, they could well become your worst enemy

If you examine some of the true moral disasters of the last decade or so in the tech world, in which invested money has been misappropriated, Star Citizen does not look like these projects. To take the very well-researched example of Tiger Telematics, which made the ill-fated Gizmondo handheld after sourcing a huge amount of money from investors: it had an executive team made up of people with criminal convictions; there were clear hallmarks of financial excess, like £2m parties and ostentatious yachts; it had gigantic debts that came to light when the company went bankrupt; its one development studio never made a single game. Cloud Imperium Games self-evidently spends money, sure – on offices that look well-outfitted, on events like Citizencon – but Star Citizen has none of these hallmarks. There is abundant evidence of its past and ongoing development, more than enough to account for the money that has been raised.

There is a notion – which Roberts alludes to in the exhaustive four-hour interview he gave us – that crowd-funded games are free of the strings and pressures that traditional publisher or financier funding bring with them. That may be true in some ways, but the Star Citizen story proves that there is a multitude of other perils. You might not be accountable to corporate investors, but you absolutely are accountable to the people who pledge their £50 or £500 or £5,000+ to your vision and expect to see something in return. In a crowd-funding situation you absolutely cannot take those people for granted, because if they turn on you, they could well become your worst enemy. We’ve been talking to a lot of Star Citizen backers lately, and though most of them are steadfast in their support – especially the big spenders – others have been angered by Cloud Imperium Games’ responses to criticisms, particularly over its decision to charge for virtual ships that remain non-existent months down the line.

That said, it is patronizing to look at Star Citizen’s millions of backers – the vast majority of whom, by all accounts, are perfectly happy with their pledges, even those who’ve spent many thousands – and decide that they’re all suckers. This is one of the complexities of crowdfunding: when you pledge money to something that only exists on a promise, you generally do so with full knowledge that there’s a chance your money will be wasted. You know that you are buying into an idea. If these projects collapse, then backers have a right to be furious; ending up with a finished product is a reasonable expectation. But equally, when people spend their money on any crowd-funded project, that is their decision. They haven’t necessarily been duped, lied to, misled, taken advantage of. They’ve bought into it because they like the idea of a world in which it can become reality.

When people are personally invested in your company and what it’s making, your every decision becomes something that you must account for, and fan feedback becomes a crucial aspect of development. This is something that developers across the board are trying to deal with in the modern games industry. Fan backlash, whether over a change in an online competitive game, an announcement trailer for a game in a popular series that seems to indicate change, or a beta test for a sequel that displeases long-term players of the original, is now universally feared. This isn’t even unique to crowd-funded games. It happens across the board. You only need to look at the No Man’s Sky refund furore, during which enough people asked for refunds on a game that they had paid £40 for and, in many instances, played for 30+ hours to warrant official responses from both Steam and Sony.

When people spend their money on any crowd-funded project, that is their decision. They haven’t necessarily been duped, lied to, misled, taken advantage of

No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen have one interesting thing in common, and it isn’t a funding model or a development process: they’re both space games, and space games seem to have become a locus for unrealistic expectations. Perhaps games that play upon the eternal human fascination with the vast cosmos attract a certain kind of player, or perhaps it’s in the nature of the people who want to make them to reach for the stars metaphorically as well as literally. Conquering space is an impossible dream in reality. Putting you, a cosmically insignificant human, at the center of a galaxy-spanning adventure is one of the key fantasies that video games have peddled since their earliest days. Perhaps it’s impossible to truly realize that fantasy.

There is something very compelling about listening to someone like Chris Roberts talk about his dreams, about beating the odds and defying the naysayers and making something wonderful. It’s the same with other creative figureheads in video games: Peter Molyneux, Ken Levine, Hideo Kojima. Unfortunately, given the opportunity and resources to make their absolute dream vision, many such creatives seem to struggle to rein it in. Peter Molyneux's Project Godus, one of the first high-profile Kickstarter disasters, is a cautionary example. The Godus that was actually released is a pale shadow of the god game that had been envisioned and pitched to backers, all disconnected ideas and half-functional mechanics. It would be fair to say that it eviscerated Molyneux’s reputation.

Expectation versus reality appears to be a problem on both the developer and backer sides of Star Citizen. It is difficult to imagine how the finished game – or whatever gets released as the first version of the finished game – can possibly live up to all these years of effort and hype. Even some of the stretch goals achieved back in 2014, as detailed on Roberts Space Industries' site, verge on the technically impossible. That's according to people outside of CIG, of course. People within have claimed, and occasionally proven, otherwise.

Whatever constitutes the “minimum viable product” might not be the end of Star Citizen. The plan is to continue to develop it once it’s released, if it gets that far. But it is also unlikely to be the be-all and end-all of space games that many people feel it has to be to justify all this time and money. At least, not at first.

Expectation versus reality appears to be a problem on both the developer and backer sides of Star Citizen

There are a lot of people still rooting for Chris Roberts and Star Citizen, and plenty of others who’ve written it off as the ultimate in wasteful hubris. I don’t want to end such an exhaustively reported series of articles with something woolly like “we’ll just have to see what happens”: I want to give a more specific assessment of what we’ve learned from all these months. So, here goes: based on all the evidence, I believe there is a decent chance that Star Citizen will make it to some form of release. But I don’t think it will happen within the next couple of years, and by the time it does happen, there’s a chance that other games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Star Citizen’s great rival Elite Dangerous may well have already given us great versions of the things that Star Citizen is trying to achieve.

This has been a fascinating story. But it’s not over yet. We look forward to following it right to the end of the road – whether that leads into the stars, or comes crashing back to Earth.

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