Feature Article

Star Citizen and Crowdfunding: An Interview with Chris Roberts Part 1

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Star Citizen, the ambitious space sim from Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, is undoubtedly a behemoth in the world of crowdfunded games. Roberts began his funding campaign in October 2012, and on November, 12, 2012, two days before it was set to end, Star Citizen set the record for the most funded game of all time by drawing in over 4.2 million dollars.

"You've earned this star system, and a lot more," read Cloud Imperium's official statement. "Let's go for $4.5!" Little did Roberts and his team know that in less than two years, backers would give them the extra $300,000 and a whole lot more.

Today, Star Citizen is approaching the 50 million dollar mark with no sign of slowing down. Currently, it's bringing in around 2 million dollars a month from its ongoing campaign on Cloud Imperium's website.

Roberts at GDC 2012
Roberts at GDC 2012

Roberts' success inspired David Braben, creator of the competing space-sim series Elite, to open his own campaign for Elite 4, aka Elite: Dangerous, in November, 2012. That campaign also continues, but with just over 5 million dollars in pledges, Braben and company are far behind Cloud Imperium and Star Citizen.

Star Citizen's monetary magnetism is impressive, but it raises a lot of questions. Where is all of this money going? Will Star Citizen ever be "released," or will it suffer from constant growth in scale and depth (read: feature creep) and remain in an indefinite development cycle? I had a chance to catch up with Roberts and pick his brain on the matter, but the discussion ultimately went beyond Star Citizen. What follows is the first installment of a two-part series based on that interview, where Roberts and I discuss Star Citizen's success, the impact it has had on the game's development, and the business of games at large.

The last time I saw you was at Gamescom, when Star Citizen was just a few ships in a hangar, but the dogfighting module that's available now is a big step forward in terms of delivering actual gameplay to your backers. Still, the full game is a ways off. Are you concerned that, as the funding grows, Star Citizen may fall victim to feature creep and remain in development indefinitely?

The thing is, I know people get worried--"oh feature creep" and "you keep adding these features"--but you know, we're building an online game, and that hangar is on people's machines, the dogfighting module is on people's machines. We patch it all the time, so feature creep doesn't really apply in those setups, because normally what will happen with feature creep is "Oh I want to play this extra feature," and it would always push back when you would roll out the game, because you'd always have to rely on a disc. Whereas now, it's like, we really like this feature, but it doesn't mean that you aren't pushing out the game without this feature, and then just patching it with that feature later on. That's the kind of approach we're taking.

So the extra level of funding is pretty great, because it's allowing me to ramp up a bunch of stuff much sooner than I normally would have been able to. I'll be able to deliver more features sooner in the cycle. Because originally, when I wanted to do this, I always wanted to make what Star Citizen is with all of these features...but I was being realistic about it. "We're not going to have funding to do this. No publisher's going to give us funding to do this," I thought. "I'll raise some money from crowdfunding to show how much people want it, and then I get investors to finish off the funding, and that's going to get me to this sort of more bare-bones state."

The first piece of Star Citizen was released last year, allowing backers to interact with a highly detailed starship.
The first piece of Star Citizen was released last year, allowing backers to interact with a highly detailed starship.

Think of it sort of like DayZ, the alpha, where it's out there and it doesn't have all of the features, but you're bringing money in, and you're using that money to make the game better, right? Which is also what I think Minecraft did, although to a much different level. And so that was kind of my plan.

I think everyone sort of responded to the game visually. We still do close to 2 million dollars a month, and we haven't been actively promoting or selling anything. So when we were actually saying "Here's the ship you can buy," we did well. I mean, last November, we did almost 8 million dollars in just the month alone. We're not even a live game. All of that extra money and funding goes to ensure that it really can be a full-blown AAA experience.

I'm pretty sure by the time the game is finished...I don't know how much the Old Republic budget was, but we'll probably be up there. Some people say it was 400 or 500 million, and who knows how much of that was marketing. We won't be up there, but I definitely think that we'll be, by the time the game is finished, we'll be at the 80, 90, or 100 million dollar range of funding, and most of it will be all for the game. I mean, what I sort of feel is that all of the prerelease funding is saying how much you can put into the game and content up front, and post-release, hopefully we can make enough money to support the servers and additional content.

As of this summer, backers can finally take off into outer space and battle other commanders with the release of the dogfighting module.
As of this summer, backers can finally take off into outer space and battle other commanders with the release of the dogfighting module.

Do you see a finish line for the development of Star Citizen?

No I don't. It's like something like World of Warcraft or EVE Online. It's an ongoing thing. If you look at EVE right now compared to what it was when it came out, it was totally different. So what my view is: we get the game out and then hopefully we have a lot of people that like it, and it's doing well, and we're making money, and we're just using the money to add content or add features. To me it's like an ever-evolving game. Maybe at one point it will have every feature, but there's a lot of other things that I'd like to see in it, and it'll take some more money and time.

What are some of your dream features?

There's definitely some features that we'd like to do, and we know we aren't doing up front. Sort of, more procedural generation; you can have a planet, and flesh it out, and fly out to space and fly over the planet.

Like No Man's Sky?

To do that at the level of fidelity that I want isn't trivial. Making cities that are livable at that level, that fit into our fiction, you couldn't do that with four people, and I doubt we could do that with anything that we've got going right now, but I think there's definitely some tools that could be built that would sort of help do some of that. I always feel that [with] all of those procedural tools, it's not 100 percent hands-off, right? The artists build building blocks, and then the procedural generator puts the blocks together in different ways, different configurations, and it feels different. So, to do it at the fidelity we do would just take time. It needs to feel like a real planet. That's kind of the challenge on the procedural generation stuff, but it would be nice because it would enable us to have a greater variety of places to visit and explore.

No Man's Sky from Hello Games is an ambitious project, but Roberts sees even greater things ahead for his own planet-to-space sim.
No Man's Sky from Hello Games is an ambitious project, but Roberts sees even greater things ahead for his own planet-to-space sim.

Would you be happy working on Star Citizen for the rest of your professional career?

One that lasts a long time, I hope! For me, Star Citizen is not like a two- or three-year project; it's like a 10-year project. So I'm hoping that I get the game out with the full persistent universe and people like it enough that it becomes successful, and that I have years after that to build and flesh out the universe more.

There's a whole bunch of stuff that we want to do once the persistent universe is there, in terms of player-generated content and what we're doing in terms of manipulation of the universe, the galaxy, and the storytelling within that. We've got a whole plan where different locations will grow over time. As they expand, they have more business. You'll go back down, you'll see something grow from a small pod into a small city, and then an even bigger city, and then a metropolis. So that's not going to happen day one. That's going to happen over years of game playing. We're building the systems to allow us to have that so different planets and star systems will expand and contract based on what's happening in the universe and the economy. I want to see some of that where it's player influenced, which I think could be really kind of cool. EVE I guess kind of does that, but I want it to be more tactile. I think it would make a difference if the last time you went down to a planet, it was a barren colony, and now it's got three skyscrapers and a bustling market and stuff like that.

If the funding keeps growing at the current rate, and you're successful in achieving your goals, do you think that you're going to attract more outside talent? Would you be willing to work with competitors that have a similar passion, like Sid Meier, or is your direction so personal that it's like your baby? If you two could meld your strengths, could your own goals be achieved sooner?

Star Citizen is so big that I think that I would be foolish to believe that I can control every single aspect of it. I want to be sort of the person in charge of the overall feel and vision of it, but you know, I got my brother back from working on the Lego games. He's handling a large part of it, because I can't do everything myself. What I need is people that I know that have done this before that I trust and that I like their sensibilities. I guess the short answer is that yes, I would be completely open to working with people. Sid Meier would be great, but I'm sure he likes to make his own games.

EVE Online from CCP Games has politics, an economy, and a world that's been crafted by its players for the past 11 years. It's a functional analog to what Roberts wants to see in Star Citizen, but his vision goes beyond the admittedly impressive scale of EVE.
EVE Online from CCP Games has politics, an economy, and a world that's been crafted by its players for the past 11 years. It's a functional analog to what Roberts wants to see in Star Citizen, but his vision goes beyond the admittedly impressive scale of EVE.

The level of ambition that I think you're speaking about is, essentially, "the sky's the limit."

I think that's why so many people are excited for and have backed Star Citizen, because it is the ambition of the vision, right? You know, Elite Dangerous looks great, right, and they're out there, but they're not even close to the level that we are, partly because we've put this vision out there, and everyone says "That's f****** crazy, but you know, I would love to see it happen." And I think people are signing up for that.

From my standpoint, I think it's achievable. I don't think it's going to be very easy, and I don't think it's achievable in a very short amount of time, but I definitely think it is achievable, especially when we're in the situation we have now where we don't have the same constraints as the past.

If I was going about this within the more traditional structure with a traditional publisher, there's all sorts of things, like, "Well, we're not sure about going completely digital. We need our PS4 and Xbox versions, and we need you in this release window, because this is when we're going to sell the most, and we've done the deal with Walmart." So there's all these things that sort of start to box you in that usually force you to compromise some of the ambition.

Peter Molyneux knows what it's like to have ambitious ideas crumble under the weight of a large publisher, but both he and Roberts have managed to slip out from under the traditional structure of funding and development to begin anew on their own terms.
Peter Molyneux knows what it's like to have ambitious ideas crumble under the weight of a large publisher, but both he and Roberts have managed to slip out from under the traditional structure of funding and development to begin anew on their own terms.

I think Peter Molyneux gets a bit of a bad rap sometimes because he definitely has his big-picture stuff. Definitely what was happening, especially in the Microsoft days, he's out there saying "Let's all do this," and then at the end of the day, it was Microsoft going "We need to ship something for this Christmas. We have to have a Fable." So the product managers are in there going "Cut, cut, cut," and so Peter was all excited about some features that would be super cool, but they weren't ready for prime time at the moment, so they didn't make it. I definitely felt that with Freelancer, at the end. It had a bunch of stuff that we want in [Star Citizen] that was cut out because we had to get it out the door. It reduced its level of ambition. So I feel like in this setup, I don't have that problem, and I don't have that same issue of "you've got to put it on a disc and get it out there." Yeah, there's the big ambition, but we have the hangar app and the dogfighting app, and we know that more stuff is coming down the road.

I think you're really signing up for this universe. Over time, the dream will become a reality, and I think that's exciting for people. People like being part of the process. The excitement and the passion, it's really invigorating. It also helps to inform the game to some extent. When you start to talk to people, you get a feel for what is important and what isn't, and sometimes, when you're talking to people, you think, "That would be cool, and I can do it fairly easily." So, it's a lot of the stuff that, normally in the old way of doing games, you wouldn't know until the game was already out on store shelves. Maybe you would be able to fold some of that into your sequel or something. I sort of feel like this process allows you to get a lot of that in much earlier and affect the initial release; that will hopefully make it a lot stronger.

Stay tuned early next week for the second half of my interview with Chris Roberts, including his continued evaluation of contemporary game development, his thoughts on Titanfall's emergence from Call of Duty, Oculus landing at Facebook, crowdfunding, and more.

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Peter Brown

Peter is Managing Editor at GameSpot, and when he's not covering the latest games, he's desperately trying to recapture his youth by playing the classics that made him happy as a kid.
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