Star Citizen: The ups and downs of 2015

Due in 2016, can the most successful video game crowd-funding story meet expectations?
Star Citizen
Star Citizen © Robert Space Industries
By John Robertson

It has been a huge month for Star Citizen, the sci-fi flight, combat and trading simulator being headed up by Chris Roberts – the man behind the iconic Wing Commander (1990). Not only has December seen Roberts' development company, Cloud Imperium Games, release Alpha version 2.0 of the space sim, but it also brought with it the news that total crowd-funding income for the project has surpassed US$100m – more than 15 times the record amount raised by a games project in Kickstarter.

More than $5m was raised in November alone, with that number due to be exceeded this month thanks to a single week that earned the company in excess of $3m off the back of the then-imminent arrival of Alpha 2.0.

At times, almost unbelievably, the game is receiving over $50,000 per hour in player backing, according to Star Citizen's official website. To put that into perspective, Star Citizen's initial funding drive took place at the back end of 2012 and resulted in a little over $6m being raised over 32 days through both the Kickstarter platform and the game's own website.

That Kickstarter campaign saw 34,397 backers pledge their allegiance to the game, with that number now in excess of one million. Clearly, people are interested.

This recent spike in activity represents the culmination of what has been an extraordinary year for Star Citizen, the game being one of the hottest properties in digital entertainment, despite its still-in-development status. Not many fully-fledged, fully-released games have hosted their own dedicated convention, but Star Citizen has managed it. It's called CitizenCon, the inaugural event held this past October in Manchester, England.

Star Citizen's success highlights the public's continued hunger for exhaustive experiences set in deep space, as well as its continued excitement about the possibilities provided by crowdfunding. Free from the pressure and prying eyes of publishers, developers are able to create the exact game that they envision without having to worry about adhering to the whims of directors and executives stationed in their boardroom command centre. So goes the concept, at least.

In place of a publisher, crowdfunded titles have their backers to answer to. This triggers a constant stream of information and updates regarding the status of the game and when content is set to be released. When performed skilfully, this communication can result in generating further interest and, in turn, the securing of further investment through new players signing up. Clearly, Cloud Imperium Games is a master at this form of communication.

Star Citizen: Space has never been more accessible
Star Citizen: Space has never been more accessible © Robert Space Industries

That mastery is primarily based around the release of interesting information, however, rather than some sort of nefarious marketing tactic. For instance, this past October saw the announcement that a string of respected actors have been cast to perform roles in the game's single player campaign, dubbed Squadron 42. Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, Andy Serkis, Gillian Anderson, John Rhys Davies and more are all confirmed, giving even those not especially interested in space flight and combat reason to take notice.

Amid all of the excitement, though, a sizeable chunk of controversy has followed the project. Of course, that is to be expected whenever members of the public combine to provide more than $100m in investment to a private company.

Chiefly, this controversy has centred around delivery of the finished game and the way in which content is being sold to players. The original plan was for Star Citizen to be released in 2014, but that date was pushed back to 2016.

This setback has split the game's followers into two camps. On the one hand you've got people saying that the delay is down to the fact that Cloud Imperium is making so much money from the pre-release hype that the delay is artificial and designed only with further marketing in mind, whilst others say that the dramatic increase in cash since the initial funding campaign means that the scope is now much greater and, therefore, more time is needed.

Star Citizen: Plenty of asteroids to destroy
Star Citizen: Plenty of asteroids to destroy © Robert Space Industries

hen there's the cost of some of the Star Citizen's items, many of which can't be used to their full potential given that still-in-development status. At the time of writing, the cheapest entry point is $36 and comes with access to the game and a basic ship. If you want something more interesting you can opt to throw down $390 for a single ship, the Constellation Aquila, or even opt the $18,000 'Completionist' combo pack that includes all ships announced up to 2014. Yes, that means for that amount of money you still don't get everything announced post-2014.

With such expensive items being offered in the run-up to release, there have been concerns voiced over Star Citizen's dedication to providing new ways for people to spend money whilst simultaneously delaying the full game. It's more about the crowd-funding campaign then it is about the game, believe some.

Things weren’t helped when, in September, The Escapist reported that Cloud Imperium had silently changed the Terms of Service available to backers when they originally pledged money towards the game’s development. The most contentious of these was the removal of the promise that if Star Citizen failed to be released within 12 months of the original estimated delivery date listed on Kickstarter then backers would be eligible for a refund.

Chris Roberts himself, speaking via Star Citizen’s official website has tended to reply by pointing to the work that has been achieved so far, rather than concentrate on what hasn’t: “My feeling has been that it is most important to speak with actions instead of words, and to date I feel that we have done that with the multi crew demo, the launch of the social module and everything else you see here in this space on a daily basis.”

However, Roberts isn’t alone in his defences. For every article criticising the game and its development, it’s easy enough to stumble across an example of the opposite. Forbes, for instance, published a piece referencing The Escapist’s reporting and, eventually, coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth attacking the game or its development team whilst so little is known about its internal working.

Such concerns are healthy, of course, but in and of themselves they don't mean that Star Citizen will not meet expectations... even if those expectations are now, potentially, greater than any game ever released before now.

Star Citizen: Space certainly looks the part
Star Citizen: Space certainly looks the part © Robert Space Industries

The fact of Star Citizen is that something on this scale has never been attempted before. More pertinently, the people behind the game could not have possibly envisaged that their vision would have courted so much attention and, as such, are playing catch-up themselves. It's difficult, therefore, to be too cynical regarding the present and future of the game.

Whatever the case, 2016 is going to be a huge year for Star Citizen. It's the (newly) promised year of released and, as such, we should start seeing all of the separate components come together into the whole that we've been promised. By that time some people will have waited four years to play the game that they've already paid for, demonstrating with great effect the fact that crowdfunding is now a wholly accepted and, for some people, preferable way of dealing with creators and consuming their work.

It's already one of the biggest games of all time and it hasn't even been released yet. Even with the controversies surrounding it, Star Citizen is one of the 2015’s most interesting and enjoyable games – even if much of that entertainment comes from dreaming about which new elements are just around the corner. If Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium can make good on those dreams then 2016 is looking incredibly promising indeed.

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