Since launching its Kickstarter back in the mists of late 2012, Star Citizen has made bank. Its backers have forked over around $110 million, through pledges, subscriptions and the purchase of virtual spaceships. What started as a cap-in-hand underdog has grown and mutated into a sodding great money-hound - and all before the game has even arrived.
But it isn’t just the total size of the pot that’s so staggering from the outside: it’s where Star Citizen’s cash comes from, with backers forking over bushels of cash (some of them thousands, some of them tens of thousands) in funding and in-game purchases as Star Citizen inches towards a nebulous future release.
Who are these people? And what drives them to lavish four or five-figure sums on a game that, lest we forget, isn’t really a game yet?
Like many of the people who would go onto to back big, Brian started small. He jumped into the game at the RSI Constellation level - the mantle bestowed on backers who pledge $250 - back during the game’s 2012 Kickstarter. The rest of the money that Brian gave to developer Cloud Imperium Games was all through in-game ship purchases. To date, Brian has spent around ten times his initial investment on buying ships for his Hangar, and thousands more on subscriptions and attending Star Citizen events like Citizencon.
“[I’ve spent] over $2000,” he says. [That mostly] comes from buying ships - upon ships upon ships. [It] would probably be a lot higher, but I have a wife who has some say in my spending. It’s really crept up, up, up... And I’m going to Citizencon this year and got to meet [Cloud Imperium’s director of community engagement] Ben and [vice president of marketing] Sandi, so that was a couple of thousand dollars there for that trip - it’s easily a couple of thousand dollars to go out to LA for Citizencon. So, I’ve given $2000 to Star Citizen, but it’s driven many thousands of dollars for purchases outside of [the game].”
$2000 might be an eye-watering amount of money for most people, but doesn’t come close to putting you in the top tier of Star Citizen backers. Relatively early in its development, the game had so many players who had invested more than $10,000 that they were rewarded with access to their own superbacker collective: the Million Mile High Club.
“I started [backing] about three years ago,” says John, a US Navy serviceman, who has spent in the region of $13,000 on Star Citizen so far. “I was on deployment at the time. The first thing I bought was the Rear Admiral package. I remember, because it was like $250, I was like, ‘that’s insane! That’s an insane amount of money for a game! Hell no!’.
“I don’t know why I caved. It looked cool. So I bought the Rear Admiral package and then it went all downhill from there. I was on deployment for two years in Bahrain. So I was getting a little bit of extra money for being out there, so obviously I was just blowing my money like it was my job. So I bought the Rear Admiral package, and then new ships would come out and I’d pick them up slowly. It wasn’t like one big burst of money. But I was buying every ship that came out.”
Tom, who works selling audio/video software and home theatre setups, found himself in the same boat, with an investment of, by his estimate, a whopping $20,000 to date. But even he is hesitant to put himself in the very top tier of Star Citizen backers.
“I don’t consider myself in the ‘1%’, because there’s guys who plopped down $10K that first week back in November 2012, whereas I grew to the number that I’m at with every sale, every purchase, every subscription down the road,” he says. “So I don’t see myself as a one-per-center… [I’m] not wealthy, by any means, but I’m comfortable enough that I can spend money, monthly or weekly, on things that don’t matter to normal living, like games, travelling, etc. So, that’s where I’ll put my ‘fun money’. Whereas some guys will spend five or six grand a year on their favorite sports team, I prefer to give it to my passion, which is gaming.”
When you talk to Star Citizen’s backers, the size of the numbers involved in their investments starts to lose their context. Tom, Brian and John sound so casual - even self-deprecating - about the money they’ve put into buying entirely virtual products that it’s easy to forget that they’re talking about the sorts of money people would normally associate with buying a car or putting down as a deposit on a house. But it must be even weirder for the developers of other Kickstarter posterchildren - your Wastelands, Shadowruns and Broken Ages. ‘What on earth,’ those developers must think, ‘makes this game worth ten, 20 or 50 times the investment we received for ours?’ What makes Star Citizen special, to the tune of the $110 million it has raked in so far?
“It was easy to do over the course of four years,” says Tom. “Some of this is my own pocket money, but a lot of this is used equipment that I would sell through PayPal. I’ll sell used equipment on eBay, the money shows up on PayPal, then I would use it for games or hardware - ‘fun money’, if you will. So, it’s easy to spend that money on Star Citizen, because nothing else is really piquing my interest [right now].
For Tom, it’s also a question of trust. While the Star Citizen’s critics like to pick up on the delays and missed milestones of development (the game was originally slated for a late 2014 release), what reassures CIG’s backers is the steady stream - even deluge - of video and written updates from Chris Roberts and the development team. Backers feel they know what’s going on with Star Citizen, and that transparency means people like Tom are sympathetic when the team miss a deadline.
“I don’t sense the bullshit that comes from corporately controlled games,” Tom explains. “Not that I’m trying to jump on the bandwagon, or ‘anti-bandwagon’, for EA or places of that nature, but you could go through the history of the games that have come out of the bigger corporate entities, and what they sold you at E3 three or four years ago is not what’s delivered to you on release. You know, there are games that are sold as Product A and delivered as Product X, with no explanation. Whereas Star Citizen was sold to us backers as Product A and as it developed, you understand why it’s gotten to Product X, and you’re comfortable with it.”
What Star Citizen does have in common with many of the other big name Kickstarters is nostalgia. CIG’s original Kickstarter pitch video opens with floating white text boldly decrying the state of modern gaming, railing against the pervading industry wisdoms of the time that console and mobile gaming were the future. Star Citizen wore its PC, space-sim colours with pride, and in a genre sorely lacking in modern AAA titles, it struck a great big rose-tinted chord with players like Tom.
“He’s selling a game that I’ve been wanting for 15 or 20 years,” Tom says. “I remember playing Wing Commander for hours at a clip, overnight. Privateer I played and replayed at least three times, and the same with Freelancer - which are all Chris Roberts products of some sort or another. I’ve been playing [these] games since the 80s, and [Star Citizen] is, to put it mildly, everything [I could] hope for in a single package.
(Well, it might be, at some point - right now Star Citizen is a buggy alpha demo, but that doesn’t bother Tom.)
But then, on the other side of the coin, you have players like John, who have no nostalgic connection to Roberts’ games like Wing Commander, for one simple reason: when Wing Commander debuted back in 1990, John hadn’t yet been born.
“I’m only 23,” he says. “I wish I could say that I played Wing Commander and all that stuff when it came out, or that this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life, but I don’t think I ever played space games before this… But I really liked how the [Star Citizen] ships looked, and I really liked the idea behind it. Every now and then there would be kind of a worry that I’ve spent this much money, and you know, what if this game is fucking trash? Or, you know, what if I hate it or it falls through and then it’s a waste of money? And I’d think like that for a little bit and then there’d be like a new release or a video would come out, [and] I’d think: ‘I have no regrets now’.”
Whatever their reasons for putting their trust in Roberts, however, you can’t have a conversation about Star Citizen without eventually coming to the tricky topic of CIG’s somewhat malleable relationship with its release schedule. No-one likes a delayed video game after months of trailers, previews and the thunderous clattering of the hype train. But at least if your pre-order is delayed, you’re usually only out £50. How on earth must you feel if you’ve got ten or twenty grand in the hole, and no cast-iron guarantee you’ll get it back?
“I’m super happy,” Brian says, without hesitating. “I’ve never doubted [CIG], even last year when people were being super-negative, because I’m a software architect. I work on a multimillion dollar air traffic control system. That’s not something you would do in a couple of years - it’s been ten years and it’s still being developed. It’s fielded, but it took eight years to field it - and that’s not a graphically intense game. So my expectations are tempered by real-life experiences.”
Tom, who also works in a field that involves complex software, is similarly understanding.
“I work in a field that employs software for my clients, so I understand that sometimes the ‘you’ll-have-it-next-week’, mentality is just a turn of phrase that gets you out of a quick conversation,” he says. “There are products developed in the real world for real applications that take longer than they should. I get it. So, it doesn’t bother me when they miss a deadline for something, because I still see the progress. Not that I don’t want to hold them accountable for what they’re trying to deliver, but I’m not going to ragequit and go sell all my stuff on the Grey Market because they miss a deadline for something.”
There’s an interesting parallel to be found in the Star Citizen funding model. With backers paying out regularly for ships, paying subscriptions, receiving incremental, modular updates to the game, I ask the backers if what they’ve really signed up for - accidentally or otherwise - is closer to a continually updating MMO than a game that will ever be fully finished. If Star Citizen continues down this path, with the game receiving new chunks of content every few months, built off money that they’ve spent in-game in the interim, would they be happy? How long would they be content to keep pouring money into the game without getting a final product on their shelf or in their games folder?
“As long as it’s incremental improvement, like they have been doing, I’d be fine for a couple of years,” says Brian. “I really hope they make their [single player module] Squadron 42 date this year. That’s really the lynchpin. As long as they get that first edition of Squadron 42 in 2016, all will be forgiven and a lot of the naysayers will probably [stop complaining], as they’ll actually get to play the game. I think they understand that, because they seem to be working their butts off on Squadron 42.”
“Not to compare the games, but there are people I know who have spent thousands and thousands on EVE [Online], between [EVE’s’s in-game currency] Plex purchases and Capital Ship purchases, [and so on], says Tom. “I guess I do see it as an MMO mentality, where you see more and spend more.”
But while it’s nice if you can look at your investment in Star Citizen as making yourself part of a development process, clearly, there are still many backers who (quite reasonably) feel aggrieved that they’ve paid for something that’s arriving in dribs and drabs, rather than the completed product that they were led to expect by now. For the superbackers I spoke to, the response to the negativity falls somewhere between sympathy and a feeling that - as with all crowdfunded projects - people should take responsibility for where they put their cash.
“[Chris Roberts] had a really good idea, and I think if he had raised ten or twenty million dollars, he would have been fine,” says Brian, of the delays and subsequent backlash. “But the problem that Star Citizen has is that the level of funding achieved is bloody, freaking insane. So, they pitched the game and got all this money, but the original pitch didn’t say, ‘OK, if we happen to be super, super-successful, throw everything out the window because we’ll make you an even better game.’ That never crossed their minds, I’m guessing. That’s where a certain level of negativity comes from, because [those complaining] just say, ‘give us the game’.”
“I don’t engage with them,” says Tom, of the backers who post complaints. “When I see people just trolling on the subreddit, or on the main forums, I just put them on ‘ignore’ or close that thread, because you can’t get blood from a stone. I guess you just have to believe, believe in the product that [Roberts] is trying to push. And at the end of the day, if I’m out the money because the product is not delivered or [Cloud Imperium] turns and screws all the fans, it’s on me. I decided to put that money where I put it, and if I lose it, I’ll be pissed - who wouldn’t be? - but at the end of the day it was my decision; Chris didn’t come into my house and say, ‘Hey, give me your money!’ and twist my arm.”
“I’ve never been that negative about it or been that upset or about it,” John says, with a near-audible shrug. “My biggest thing is I really like the FPS aspect of it, and I was really excited for the FPS mode that they said was going to come out last March. Not this March , but the March before. I was disappointed about that. But I never get upset or [feel that] I want my money back. Shit happens - it’s a brand new game, it’s only been three years, and it’s given me this much entertainment. I know it’s probably fucking bizarre, and when I told my sister how much I spent on this, she thinks it’s nuts. I don’t really know how to explain it, but for sure it’s fucking insane.”
As I wrap up my interviews, I’m still trying to work out how I feel about Star Citizen’s massive takings and its long-delayed arrival. John, Brian and Tom each sound so totally unruffled about the money they’ve poured into the game that I’m finding it difficult to keep my sense of perspective. I remember the fifty-odd quid I threw at the last few Kickstarter games I backed, which I talk about in the same way that they talk about thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. I’m lucky enough not to have a Kickstarter game fail on me, sinking into oblivion with my precious notes gone forever, but I can’t - and don’t particularly want to - imagine how I’d feel if I’d stumped up hundreds or thousands of pounds on something only to see development stretch on for months or years or - worst case - never finish at all.
Maybe that’s what’s unique about Star Citizen: that for at least some of its backers (the happy ones) it’s not a product they’re paying for, but the experience of being a backer. Like that age-old piece of advice to gamblers heading out to Vegas for the weekend, the people who come back happy aren’t generally the people who go to win, but the people who can see their losses at the tables as the price of a good time.
Or, as Brian puts it:
“I’ve been slightly frustrated with the pace of development. I’ve backed a number of other games, and I’ve stopped backing at over $100 on videogames, because I’ve had too many problems. Software is hard, and human beings are often way too optimistic. I run a technical team and understand how that works in a person. And there are too many games now with broken promises and missed milestones and nothing to show for it.
“The important thing with Kickstarter is to remember: don’t ever put money in that you can’t afford to say goodbye to. And that’s a thing a lot of people don’t think about. Yes, they talk about how Kickstarter has to be accountable, but it’s better to [think], ‘if worst comes to worst, the ride was still worth it’.”