In video game history, the name Chris Roberts looms large and that's because back in the 90s he made a name for himself as director and co-designer of the popular Wing Commander series. This year, after having given Hollywood a go (as director of the Wing Commander movie and producer of various projects, among them the divisive Nicolas Cage vehicle Lord of War) Roberts returns to his roots in the video game industry with a new project called Star Citizen. This online massively multiplayer space trading sim has already drummed up an incredible amount of buzz and if pre-release anticipation is any kind of indicator, it's going to be big.
Of course, it's not just Internet buzz that hints at the game's future success, or the fact that more than 300,000 players have already joined the Star Citizen community. The most compelling factor is that the game has raised astronomical amounts of cash. Though crowd-sourcing's still a relatively new method of funding business enterprises, Star Citizen's used it to raise nearly $36 million dollars (and it’s continually climbing). That impressive number no doubt comes in large part from Roberts' star power, however it's also due to his company, Cloud Imperium Games, employing a savvy, investor-centric fundraising strategy.
Most of us are used to crowd-sourced projects offering investor perks and familiar with the variable value of those perks. Cloud Imperium obviously considered what gamers want, and came up with a plan that offers them real value for their investment dollar. Rather than t-shirts or concept art books, players are given the opportunity to reserve specific ships for use in game; pledge packages ranging from $30 to $15,000 let players choose from individual ships like the workaday RSI (Roberts Space Industries) Aurora MR, the dead-sexy, smuggler-friendly RSI Constellation or for wealthy ship-hoarders, every damn ship in the game. Packages also grant players other goodies like alpha/beta access, soundtracks and in-game spendable Earth credits. If packages aren't you're thing, Cloud Imperium's also hawking other kinds of Star Citizen goods—from logo hoodies to game gift cards—in their online shop.
Beyond that, they've created one-month and yearly subscriptions and access passes that go for $10 and $120 respectively, and the game's not even out. It's clever, really. Most games have to wait until they're released to start pulling money in, but Cloud Imperium's gotten the ball rolling early by commoditizing every possible aspect of the Star Citizen project. I mean, developer diaries are generally wide open and used to raise a game's visibility. While Cloud Imperium makes some aspects of the game's progress available on its website, it's also created a sort of development “cool kids club” where paying subscribers achieve a deeper level of access and as such, have actually turned the development process into a revenue generator.
So what do the members of the club get for ponying up the dough? Aside from bragging rights, they get access to Star Citizen's monthly “show and tell” developer sessions as well as Jump Point, a digital magazine full of exclusive Star Citizen fiction. They'll also be given the opportunity to spend even more money on exclusive Star Citizen merchandise once the game's shop goes online. Cloud Imperium has encouraged players to whip out their wallets even more often by rewarding them for helping the project reach its stretch goals. Woohoo—consumerism! Aside from all the fun everyone's having emptying their piggy banks, even more (possibly unlooked-for) entertainment's being derived from the fundraising process becoming its own kind of game.
One of Roberts' goals is for Star Citizen to create a thriving in-game economy based on universal trade. Though the game's more than a year away from release, that's already happening. Through what's been deemed a “grey market”, early-responding speculators are trying to make a profit on packages that have had their prices raised or are no longer available. Shady deals are taking place in the Internet's equivalent of ill-lit back rooms (or alternately, on reddit) wherein veteran backers are getting their grubby hands on newbies' money in exchange for exclusive veterans-only contraband. Additionally, entrepreneurial players are throwing packages up on Amazon and Ebay, hoping to dupe ill-informed Star Citizen enthusiasts into paying through the nose for stuff they could get much more cheaply by putting their names on a waiting list. Is Cloud Imperium aware this is happening? Yup, but they're not discouraging it, even though transactions like these do nothing to benefit their project.
In interview after interview, Chris Roberts emphasizes that his goal is to make the best game possible. While there must be a good amount of truth to that, the way in which the Star Citizen project has emphasized fundraising, it's easy to think he and his company are more into greenbacks than games. We trust that's not the case, because rarely has a project represented so many people's hopes and dreams. But why does that even matter? Because gamers might be cynics, but scratch a cynical gamer and underneath you'll find a closet idealist. Gamer expectations for what we love are high even when we haven't laid out a penny for their realization, and anyone who disappoints us we burn in effigy. Knowing that, and that Cloud Imperium's drawn in 300,000 of us and $36 million of our dollars, let's hope the company's well aware that when the fundraising game is done, the actual game has a lot to live up to.