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Death of a Salesman

Red Thomas Posted:
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Yeah, it has been a while since I’ve written about Star Citizen.  In large part, it’s because I’ve been angry and didn’t think I really could be very objective about it.  I’ve also made a number of friends over the years covering the inception and development of the game.  Most of them have left employment, but I have a couple buddies that still work there who I chat with on occasion.  Writing about the game while angry could mean my spilling something said in confidence, and potentially get folks fired or in trouble.

I’ve had recent motivation, though.  CIG has fired off another cease and desist letter, and I kind of felt compelled to finally put the pen to work and say a few things.  First, I’ve heard a lot of the same things mentioned in the article about Chris’ wife Sandi Gardiner, but I never wrote about them because CIG is absolutely correct in their letter that to do so would be irresponsible and defamatory.

If these things are true, there are legal systems in place for addressing it, and those who have first-hand knowledge of such occurrences have a moral responsibility to take action.  Though, I will say in their defense that without any physical evidence of wrong-doing, taking that stand is dangerous and scary.  That’s why despite my opinion on the matter, I don’t really cast a lot of blame in that respect.

Who I do blame is Chris Roberts.  It’s very clear that there is some serious dysfunctionality inside CIG, whether Sandi is a part of it or not.  The back-to-back departure of multiple highly placed individuals culminating in the recent leaving of executive producer Alex Mayberry is clear indication that there are issues.  Even assuming neither Alex Mayberry nor Travis Day gave reasons for their departures in private, and I’m certain at least one of them did, you still have to take a hard look and ask questions about what’s going on.

I’ve interviewed, befriended, and worked with quite a few personalities over the years who take on roles like producer, and they all have one definitive trait in common.  They don’t quit.  If you’re in the profession of launching a product, there’s nothing more damaging to your reputation or career than leaving a sinking ship.  Those who make their living by overcoming technical problems would only leave over a something completely out of their control and so toxic that staying would be worse than leaving.

The culture of CIG has changed dramatically since the early days in the Austin office. Mostly because everyone’s been fired or quit.

Problems along those lines are so large and severe that there’s no way Roberts isn’t aware of them.  He’s not addressing them because he doesn’t want to, or doesn’t know how.  I suspect it’s a little of both, because he’s at the center of it all where perspective is hardest.  Chris is a visionary and a creatively brilliant individual, but he’s a poor leader.  In essence, that’s the root of most of the problems in CIG right now.  Leadership is about enabling the people around you to do more and reach further, not brow-beating them with how to do it your way.

Directive leadership suffices in small projects and groups (eg squad-level, as in my old Army days).  As the units become larger, the attempt to exercise that level of finite control becomes increasingly harmful and it’s time to transition to inspirational and distributed leadership.  At the corporate level, leaders are primarily charged with overall vision and promoting the desired culture.  Being successful leaders, I suspect this is something Mayberry and Day know very well.

Chris has a reputation for being so embroiled in the minutia that his teams can’t do their jobs, though.  That said, I don’t blame him for being wired the way he is because it’s what made him so good at what he does.  I blame him for not recognizing his own weaknesses and empowering someone to help compensate for them.  He needs an executive producer who he allows to tell him “no,” and who can get the project back in line.

Besides the toxic culture permeating CIG, I also find myself pretty upset with the attitude Chris has towards backer money.  I’m not talking about the excessive salaries Derek Smart rants about.  I’ve heard about a lot of mismanagement myself, but my issue is with the line between marketing and integrity.

When I initially backed Star Citizen, I was told that life time insurance was a perk of backing early and that after a given date, it would never be offered again.  Well, that changed.  They now offer life time insurance on each new ship as it’s announced.  You can make the argument that it’s fair to give buyers a chance to get the perk on each new ship, but the implication during those early campaigns was that it was specifically a perk for the early backers that got the game off the ground.

The DFM was supposed to be one of several core modules that made up the eventual game, not the only one we’d ever get to see.

I also bought multiple ships because past a certain date, they would never be offered in the online store again.  The only way to get them was supposed to be in-game, but that seems to have changed, as well.  Several “limited time only” ships have cycled on and off the market multiple times over the last couple years.

Of course, that brings up another issue, which is all the additional ships.  A good friend of mine spent a portion of his re-enlistment bonus backing Star Citizen, where he picked up a package with the Drake Caterpillar.  A ship he still can’t access or fly, by the way.  Though there are an increasing number of new ships not in the original campaign that he could purchase and get right into the game with.  When I asked about it during a visit to CIG, I was told he didn’t have his ship yet due to how non-linear the development process was.

The Drake Caterpillar – Apparently non-linear means non-existant.

I’m afraid that doesn’t cut it.  Early backers are still waiting on their ships while CIG entices new players with shiny new toys, and that’s not okay.  It shows a complete disregard for original backers and a lack of concern for ensuring folks get what they paid for.  Those who bought ships like the Caterpillar are completely justified in being upset, and every new ship design announced is just salt on the wound.

All of that could be attributed to bad marketing practices, though.  Maybe it’s just miscommunication and not an integrity issue at all, but it’s just one example of the overall problem.  CIG is founded on gifted money.  It’s not an investment, and it’s not a purchase.  Kickstarter and crowdfunding capital is specifically a gift from interested parties who want to see a product launched.  True, you typically get the promise of some reward with your pledge, but it is a gift none the less.

Backer money should be treated with a certain level of respect that CIG hasn’t given it.  Every opportunity to save and stretch funding should be taken.  Moving the bulk of your operations from Austin, TX to Santa Monica, CA is not how to do that.  Besides the fact that the game was pitched in Austin and represented through the early campaign as being based in Austin, the fact that property and salaries are so much more expensive in California is a very clear example of CIG not being a good steward of the funds they were gifted.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Smart is telling the truth about Chris paying himself and Sandi excessively.  There are enough other clear examples of poor business practices and disrespectful choices that it just adds to the noise.  The number of employees alone means they’ve burned through the vast majority of the money they’ve raised.  So now it’s time for a change.

Negative counseling statements always come with a plan of action, and I think that still holds true.  Chris has created too big a cloud around the project.  He needs to step away.  With a strong Number 2 in the organization who he would have ceded his authority to, Chris would have been a fantastic asset to the project.  As it is, he’s burned a lot of bridges.  After the departures of Mayberry, Day, and Peterson, it’s very unlikely any qualified candidates would be willing to step in to take the reins.

Except there is one qualified candidate still around that could take over, Erin Roberts.  Erin’s name has come up multiple times during my interviews on another article about the business of video games.  His former Origin colleagues all seem to respect him, and I’ve heard his leadership complimented more than once.  I hate the idea of waiving one brother against another, but CIG is in trouble.  If it’s going to be salvaged, Chris needs to step away and Erin is about the only one left to step into his place.

Money from new ships is really bad for the company. It suggests that there’s nothing tangible on the horizon that could create revenue.

If Squadron 42 is as close as they say, then they need to wrap it up and get it out.  Otherwise, it and everything else outside the dogfight module needs to go on hold while all available resources are turned to getting the dogfight module up and running well with multiple maps and all current ships.  Squadron 42 and the dogfight module are their opportunities to monetize the game legitimately.  Get them both on Steam as standalones for non-backers and create a cash shop to support them similar to the World of Tanks model.

Advancing through ships would be a great aspect to build your cash model around, but it wouldn’t be fair to backers who should be able to fly the ships they bought.  You might do it anyway, and backers can just fly any ships they bought, no matter where they are in the advancement tree.  That’d allow you to sell bonuses to advancement, which would monetize well.  Also, anything cosmetic that could be added easily would be a good way to create revenue.

As you shift gears, take a hard look at financials and cut everyhing not directly related to supporting those two products and getting them out the door.  Part of that will mean shifting work Manchester where development is less expensive and CIG could take advantage of a 25% tax benefit, eventually closing down the shop in California and probably Austin, as well.  I’d rather see the work go to Austin, but Manchester is where Erin is, and it’d be better for the game in the end.  While you’re running on backer money, you have a moral obligation to be extremely conservative.

Once S42 and the DFM are bringing in revenue, then you start expanding towards the persistent universe.  A lot of that can be done by expanding on DFM.  New locations in the universe could first be maps in DFM, and non-backers could get access by picking them up as expansions in the cash shop, creating additional revenue for the project.  Eventually make a persistent version of the DFM with something like territory control, later add in economics, and then you should have a short transition into the actual MMO sometime after that.

There’s a path forward.   It’s risky and they may not get to the finish line, but I don’t think they’ll make it at all unless something dramatic changes.  Specifically, Chris Roberts needs to go.  His quoted answers in the Escapist article are clear indication that he’s not even remotely subjective or looking to address his own shortcomings.  It’s not uncommon on a personal level, but it’s absolutely a no-go on a business level.  Leaders don’t have the luxury of not facing themselves and being honest about personal weaknesses, and it doesn’t look like Chris is capable of that.

Cease and desist letters don’t fix problems.  They’re just an attempt to hide them a little longer.

EDIT: After this article was published, we received some corrections from RSI and their PR: "We have 150 or maybe even 160 folks in Europe versus 105 or so in the USe are not shifting development from ATX to LA, we’re focusing the US staff around the Project Leader and then increasing resources in the most economical places so we can better utilize the money  we've got in mass production."


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.