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Space Epic or Black Hole?

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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In theory, Star Citizen should have launched by now. After a successful Kickstarter in November 2012, raising over $2 million in crowdfunding, Cloud Imperium Games planned to have the spacefaring epic in our hands in just two years.

Those plans may have been somewhat optimistic. It’s nearly 18 months since that milestone passed and, while playable, Star Citizen’s alpha is far from feature complete. The studio may be staffed with industry veterans, but it remains a young studio piecing together a complex space simulation as its freshman effort. Crowdfunded stretch goals have bloated the feature list beyond the original scope, exacerbating those development pains further.

And yet, it seems like a corner is slowly being turned. The studio’s focus has narrowed to completing and releasing Squadron 42, a single player campaign set in the same universe, and finishing the ‘minimum viable product’ for Star Citizen to launch. Still, those three words have reverberated through the community – while some feel vindicated for sticking by CSI through some turbulent years, others are eyeing the exits. Should we stick with the hype train, or is it time to jump off?

Double-Edged Sword of Transparency

At first glance, Star Citizen seems like a gleaming example of crowdfunded success.  Since that initial burst of activity, CIG has managed to raise over $100 million from roughly 1.3 million eager players. While some have been keeping their investment to the minimum, others have sunk over $30,000 into their space dreams. That comes with its own problems – an army of fans eager to see Star Citizen launch and do well, and a horde of malcontents who fear that they aren’t getting what they bought.

Crowdfunding itself may be part of the problem. With the traditional publisher model, there’s a single voice that controls the money. By contrast, Star Citizen has over a million, and it’s impossible to please that many people. Voice talent is one such example – Wing Commander fans cheered when they heard Mark Hamil was joining the cast, but that didn’t stop others from preferring that the cash goes on coders instead of celebrities. And this is just one example – keeping the ship pointing in the right direction while also pulling new backers on board is a very tough balancing act.

And, speaking of getting more people on the ship, some of CIG’s fundraising initiatives have certainly raised a few eyebrows. On top of buying into the game and an optional subscription, some ships are sold for hundreds of dollars. It essentially means having an item shop with some huge price tags, for a game that remains in alpha. Squadron 42 has also been split out of the Star Citizen pack, resulting in a price increase if you still want to buy both. For a studio that displays a running total of how much it’s raised, these hefty fees can be seen with cynical scorn.

Invested Interests

Star Citizen has the appearance of vast sums of money flowing in, but has anything tangible come out of the other end of the sausage-making machine? For a studio that’s often accused of running a scam by its detractors, there’s a surprising amount of productivity. The current alpha (version 2.3) includes an Arena Commander dogfighting mode, open world missions, first-person shooter, and more. Subsequent updates, we’re told, will start to establish the persistent world and lay the foundations for the online experience.

Cloud Imperium has also started sharing a monthly Studio Update, describing in detail what the Los Angeles, Austin, UK and German studios have been working on. While it doesn’t show progress against milestones or how the project is progressing against plan, it’s the kind of material that a publisher investor would receive. Subscribers get additional updates in the form of a monthly magazine, but you’ve got to subscribe for that.

So why the missed deadlines? Truth is, online games are notoriously difficult to create. Star Wars: The Old Republic is rumoured to have blasted thorough a cool $200 million (excluding marketing) and several years to develop, and that’s with using Hero Engine as a leg-up. In a similar way, Star Citizen is built on a highly modified version of CryEngine 3, and will probably take a similar 5 to 7 years in order to be fully realised. It’s why I agree with our own Robert Lashley in that we’ll see more alpha and beta content this year (and probably more drama), but ultimately no release until 2017.

Kick the Spaceball

In the three and a half years since Star Citizen’s Kickstarter, the crowdfunding landscape has changed significantly. Kickstarter itself has clarified what they expect from projects using the platform. Paypal has tightened their purchase protection regulations to remove crowdfunding platforms. And yet we hear about projects like Greed Monger and Mansion Lord which collapse without delivering, damaging trust in crowdfunding as a platform.

Realistically, backing a crowdfunded game isn’t paying for early access. It’s donating money to a developer, with the hope that the investment will pay off in the form of a game that you enjoy playing. If you can’t afford to write that off, either fiscally or emotionally, then don’t back the project. If you don’t have faith in the studio to deliver, or the names behind it, don’t hand over your cash. There may come a time where crowdfunded investors get some kind of protection or legal recourse but, until then, it pays to be incredibly cautious.

If you have backed Star Citizen (and Squadron 42), and you like what you see, then hang tight, grab the alpha, and start throwing in some feedback. If, however, you’re on the fence or disappointed with how your pledge has been spent, there’s not much you can do. Sure, you could push for a refund, (some backers have been refunded), but that probably depends on the size of your pledge and how eagerly you want it back. If not, you can always chalk it up to experience. You never know – you might be surprised when it eventually releases.

Ultimately though, Star Citizen needs two things – a hefty dose of production realism when it comes to planning and forecasting, and an iron grip on scope to avoid production delays. After weathering the storm of drama that threatened to engulf it last year, the focus has to be on reliable, predictable updates leading up to a release. Right now, consistent delivery is the only thing that matters.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.