We look back at the history behind one of crowdfunding's biggest successes.
By James Pinnell on September 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm
After covering video games for over 12 years, there are very few things that tend to surprise or excite you any more. Sure, every now and again you will watch a trailer that seems to exploit some new, inventive, mechanic or you receive a piece of preview code that is genuinely fantastic, fuelling buckets of hype for the final release.
But over the past few years I’ve found myself significantly less enthusiastic about the state of play when it comes to creating games with real scope. Many developers and publishers lately either feel constrained by budgets or market conditions, and most project leads now tend to establish early boundaries in order to reduce their liability from angry communities — or from the press, who track promises and expose missing content on release.
As a result, there aren’t many games you would describe as being epic… until a developer came out of hibernation last year to offer something extraordinary to a community that had almost given up waiting.
Chris Roberts is one of the most talented and respected developers in the realm of space simulations, developing the critically acclaimed Wing Commander at the age of 22 before following it up with a host of equally popular sequels, including a spiritual continuation of the franchise in the form of Starlancer back in 2000. But it was the release of Freelancer in 2003 that introduced, subsequently for the first and final time, players to a world where they could explore the universe, complete bounties and establish trade routes from the cockpit of their ship in an accessible and fluid manner.
While acclaimed by players and press alike, the game was widely criticised for being wholly different to its original brief – where Roberts had promised dynamic economies (markets in Freelancer were static and largely fixed), automated flight manoeuvres, and a true multiplayer mode with thousands of concurrent players. These promises, and and what would be a precursor to Robert’s disappearance from the industry, were detailed via a pre-release interview in 2000 with IGN, where Roberts explained the many challenges he was currently facing (and would continued to face) during the extraordinarily long development of the title.
The lack of a Freelancer sequel perplexed many gamers, particularly since the bulk of the game, from controls to art, mission quality and story, were solid — establishing a potential grounding for a more ambitious follow up. But by the time the game originally released in 2003, Roberts had already left the company he had founded, Digital Anvil, during a messy acquisition by Microsoft.
Shortly after starting a new company, Point of No Return Entertainment, Roberts stagnated. A year passed and nothing had been announced, leaving many gamers to give up on ever seeing a Freelancer successor. For the next six years the genre almost completely imploded, while others, particularly the RPG and the strategy genres, had rebirths. No developers wanted to touch the necessary evolution of the space sim thanks to the sheer number of complexities involved. Titles like Mass Effect and Dark Star One provided the starving masses with a taste of space opera — although sadly mere crumbs of the full cake we were desperate for.
It was no secret that Roberts was not only disappointed with how Freelancer turned out, but also how he was treated by publishers during its development. It’s likely he had been working on a successor privately from the moment he left Digital Anvil, at the very least in draft form. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later, in 2011, that Roberts quietly founded Cloud Imperium Games. It was time to make the title he always wanted to make.
After his previous experience working under the glaring eye of superiors, worried about profits and release dates than making a good game, Roberts was determined to create a title that was funded and actively supported by the community who wanted it. In October 2012, the full pitch of Star Citizen was uploaded to Kickstarter, with Roberts appearing in a video explaining that restrictions around technology and other factors had prevented him from making the game he always wanted — until now.
It was a convincing pitch, and alongside the pedigree of the man promising this vision, punters almost literally flooded the project with money, blitzing the original $2 million target in days, tripling it before the month was out. At the time of writing, Star Citizen has just breached the $18 million dollar mark and continues to rise, making it the most successful crowd funded effort in history and with over 240,000 people donating an average of $30.
Roberts promised from the outlay that the entire process would be detailed to the ninth degree, with his entire team on call to make the development as transparent as possible. To date, the website for the title, Roberts Space Industries, has produced an utterly insane amount of information, from lore to concepts, coupled with both game and site features added as they are developed. CIG has even gone as far to produce video trailers and sales pamphlets for ships, as part of the PR pitch to attract new backers. The team has set an ultimate goal of $21 million to produce the title in full, putting it in the lower tier of a typical AAA budget (as a comparison, the average COD title costs around $45 million to produce).
At the current rate of funding, this should be reached by the end of the year. But ambition does not always transition into success, nor do concepts always find themselves materialising into their promised forms.
Roberts has been careful to ensure that later stretch goals have not included new, drastic features outside the main stated development feature set, but instead new ships, weapons, manuals and other extra content. What’s also likely, considering that the game’s CryENGINE 3 engine has been out since August 2011, is that much of the game had already begun production before the Kickstarter was up. Even so, especially after reading the concepts around complex gameplay mechanics like boarding ships and a new type of perma-death lite, I’m still sceptical that every idea will find itself into the game.
$21 million is a lot of money, however, and Roberts has kept his team small and passionate. Each new million allows more resources, contractors and, thanks to a strong original build plan, a high chance of success.
But all of this hype, incredible concept art and sexy tech demos hasn’t been without its share of controversy. Star Citizen features both a single player and a multiplayer experience, and will not feature a mandatory subscription — unlike its closest spiritual competitor, EVE Online. As a result, it will rely on certain free-to-play concepts of monetisation, in particular, the ability to trade real world cash for in-game credits (with limits) and optional tiers of subscription.
After the in-game store — Voyager Direct — was launched recently, many players were upset at what initially seemed like a blatant money grab, or worse, a pathway to a pay-to-win system, something many other players were originally worried about when powerful ships became available for large cash pledges. Roberts eventually hosed down these complaints in a blog post that clarified the intentions of the store to be simply an ability for players to purchase items with in-game credits outside of the game. Roberts also stressed the large majority of items will need to be created, uncovered or bought inside the wider game world.
It’s a sign that gamers are still not only unsure about Free to Play mechanics, but also that the games they help to fund will stay true to their original intentions. Purity is especially important in titles that rely heavily on player-run economies, as significant outside or cash influence can drastically alter the ability for players to control fluctuations within the various markets.
It’s also a big signal that Star Citizen‘s community will continue to hold Roberts to account, to complete every single development objective he has promised, within the boundaries he himself defined. Because unlike Freelancer, he now has full creative control over the entire project, alongside hundreds of thousands of people willing to shell out more and more money to ensure the title is finished as intended. CryENGINE 3 is one of the most sophisticated game engines ever produced, with enormous flexibility and almost unlimited scope for world creation. PCs, Roberts’ platform of choice, are more powerful than ever. In 2013, there are, effectively, almost no boundaries or impediments — and unlike Double Fine, there is plenty of capital on offer.
I have written many times before about my concerns regarding early access and Kickstarter projects, with my primary complaints being those of transparency, feature creep and accountability. If you are going to take people’s money before you complete a project, investing it directly into development, then you are ethically bound by the promises you make. I have only backed two projects – the first being Natural Selection 2, which followed a very similar line to Star Citizen, and after many years of buggy alphas and engine tweaking have succeeded far and above my original expectations.
This project was my second, and so far I have not been disappointed with Cloud Imperium’s ability to meet those concerns. If Star Citizen is even 75% of the game Roberts has promised it will be, then I can honestly say it will be one of the best titles of the decade. But there have been few times when such an epic development process has been so clearly centred on a single man, and we can only hope that the sheer scope of this massively ambitious project does not befall him.