Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen needs your money to get more money, and promises everything to get it

Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen needs your money to get more money, and promises everything to get it

Chris Roberts earned much media attention when he announced the details of his upcoming open-world space simulator Star Citizen yesterday, and he wasn’t shy about promising the sun and the moon. The game will feature a solid single-player campaign, as well as a strong multiplayer setting. You can fly around the huge world, have areas named after you, create your own ships, and the whole thing will be supported by a one-time purchase price for the game, followed by microtransactions.

This is the sort of ambitious, large scale space title PC gamers have been dreaming about, and Roberts has some tech demos and videos to show how much work he has finished already. Of course, for all this to happen, he needs your money.

Why that’s a bad bet

Let’s look at what’s being promised here. A complete single and multiplayer game. A persistent online world. Microtransactions. Customization. Roberts talked about ships you can create and then sell for a profit. A world that’s updated every week or two, with a team that continually creates content. All of these things, combined with the level of graphical fidelity that’s been shown in the videos, cost money. A ton of money. The game is being crowdfunded, with Roberts looking for $2 to $4 million from players to get the ball rolling.

While other games like Planetary Annihilation have reached that level of funding, the creators of those games go out of their way to cut costs and think of realistic ways to deliver the content being promised. Planetary Annihilation won’t ship with a single-player game, nor will there be multiple factions. In many ways it’s a conservative project, because everyone at Uber Entertainment is aware that they’re working with a very limited budget for game development. I’ve sat down with people behind that project, and budget concerns along with a realistic look at features that can be promised were big parts of their business plan. That’s a good bet.

Roberts, on the other hand, is promising damn near everything. During a demo he showed a ship with eight thrusters, and said flying it could change if an enemy took one or two out. “We model damage to that level,” he told Polygon. “This ship has 300 different parts, 60 of those are articulating and animating. This is a level of fidelity that hasn’t been done in this style space flight game before.” The game will support a wide variety of peripherals, including the Oculus Rift. There is talk of space ships that you can fly with your friends, so that everyone can jump onto a turret or get into the cockpit and fly as a team. Everything is possible at Zombo.com.

Other outlets share my disbelief at the promised features. “I’m reluctant to keep on listing features though, because all this stuff is very much future tense. Star Citizen is still a couple of years away – at least – and as much as I’d love to see everything promised come to fruition and be amazing, I wouldn’t bet against more than a few bits being put on the backburner or falling through the ‘Molyneux Gap’ during development,” Rock Paper Shotgun wrote. “The single-player campaign in particular (which in keeping with Star Citizen’s slightly shaky grasp on what makes for a cool sounding name is called “Squadron 42″) seems like a great addition for Wing Commander fans, but distinctly snippable if pressed for time.” I can’t imagine funding the game only to find that my favorite feature is cut; what’s being promised and what is likely to be delivered in the shipping product will likely only feature a passing resemblance to each other.

You’re not funding the game, you’re baiting other investors

Keep in mind that the $2 to $4 million Roberts hopes to raise won’t fund the game, it will merely attract the interest of other investors who will provide the rest of the money. Your cash is just bait, and your interest will hopefully make the game seem like a good bet to other investors. 

“If we can raise between $2 to $4 million we have investors that have agreed to contribute the balance we need to complete this game as long as we can validate that there is a demand for a high end PC space game,” the official site states. Major publishers won’t be interested in a project like this, and Roberts says that venture capitalists are only interested in mobile or social games, which is why our money is so important up front.

“Roberts will create Star Citizen without a publisher. He has private investment, but needs to do ‘an element’ of crowdfunding to raise between two and four million dollars and validate the private investors’ valuation of the project,” Eurogamer reported. “The game itself will cost between 12 million and 14 million dollars to create.”

Let’s be clear, just because there’s no publisher doesn’t mean there’s no middle man. We’ve just become the middle men ourselves, except with little to no power over the game, and Roberts will still be responsible to the people putting up the other $10+ million. This isn’t a strike against “the man,” this is the last-ditch effort for a developer with big ambitions to get the money he needs to create his dream game, and many of the features listed feel like exactly that: Dreams.

There is nothing to lose when it comes to promising things at this stage. The more people like a certain feature or idea the more people will give money. During production it’s likely that many of these features will be dropped, or pushed way back into an expansion or update. This is a single-player game mixed with an MMO mixed with a player-driven economy, all wrapped around space ships with complex physics and amazing graphics that will be sold as product and then given free-to-play-style mechanics. It could be the most complex project possible in gaming, and Roberts only has experience with a few aspects of the design. This is a risky, expensive, and deliriously optimistic project.

Keep in mind all this funding is going through Roberts’ own website, so don’t assume any of the Kickstarter or IndieGoGo rules apply. If funding fails you can choose to get a refund but, as with all crowdfunding efforts, don’t give anything you wouldn’t be comfortable losing.

Don’t mistake my skepticism for a lack of enthusiasm, as I want to play the game Roberts is describing. I want to give him money to make that game. If Roberts can buckle down, show something a little more real, and give players a stronger idea of the core feature set that will be available at launch, I may do so. Promising so much when there are such high stakes involved with this first round of fundraising may make sense to get the initial interest of players, but this would be a project that would seem nearly impossible with a huge publisher throwing masses of money at each problem. For $14 million and an independent team it’s downright quixotic.