Star Citizen – The Cult, The Criticism and The Journey So Far
For many people, it started with this one video. For many others, it had been months or even a year of slowly building up the details, the plans and the ambitions of the developers. But as Star Citizen rockets towards another million, which will bring the current total to $44million, it’s a good time to reflect on how this game has set fire to many people’s expectations. It has introduced something truly exciting to an industry that is now choking to death with a self fulfilling cycle of broken promises, poor business practices and toxic cynicism.
I was first made aware of Star Citizen when writing an article for GamesFiends some time ago. I was interested in the concept, and the name Chris Roberts obviously carries weight. But I swiftly moved on and didn’t give the fledgling campaign much thought, having taken a dislike to the entire begging bowl concept of Kickstarters in general. It was much later when a friend started telling me about some of the proposed gameplay ideas that I began to pay attention.
The weirdest thing about the space sim genre is that it’s one of my favourite genres, but also the one where I don’t tend to spend my money. For me, videogames are at their best when they’re completely immersive, and playing a floating camera in space never managed to hold my appeal for long. I had frequently dipped my toe into many efforts, but would seldom see them through to the end. This was where Star Citizen had me, it had the depth and immersion of living an entire life. Where you could walk around your ship before going inside your ship. You could live inside your ship, and will even be able to walk on your ship in-game as part of an EVA in order to repair your damaged vessel.
It is a game that promises to be all things to all people. A dogfighter, an epic persistent universe MMO adventure, a gripping single player action adventure, an FPS, a space sim, a trading/salvaging sim. There isn’t much that Cloud Imperium Games (supported by multiple external studios) aren’t ruling out.
But this article isn’t so much exploring this mammoth title and single player campaign, Squadron 42, as there simply isn’t enough space on our webservers. Instead we’re looking at something more peripheral to that. The cult and criticism surrounding Star Citizen, an interesting case study due to the unique nature of how Chris Roberts has decided to build and develop this game.
With crowd funding very much in vogue, Cloud Imperium Games (CIG) began touting for money in October 2012 before running a temporary Kickstarter campaign in addition. Asking for what now seems like a paltry $500,000 the funding initially ceased at just over $6million between both the Kickstarter campaign and the one hosted on CIG’s own website. From there CIG continued to keep the crowd funding channels open through innovative products such as pledge packages and traditional skins or in-game decorative items.
While there isn’t any hard data on what exactly is contributing the most to CIG’s ever growing coffers, it’s the pledge packages that seem to hoover up most of the cash if the frequent forum posts are to be believed. Many have commented that buying the spaceships has become something of an addiction. But it’s also a testament as to how much these people want to see this game come to life and believe in the vision outlined to them. These packages have differing profiles depending on the size of the wallet. They all include at least a ship of some description, and most packages include access to the full game, or include on top of that access to the alpha/beta phase (the latter being effective since the release of the hangar module last year). Some of these packages even come with a considerable garage of ships to start with, both large multi-crew ships and smaller single seaters. These can hit the wallet to the tune of several thousand, very much for the hardcore.
But there is something alluring about being able to purchase a ship outright, a sense of being an owner of something that is wholly intoxicating. People who’ve never crowd funded before, or looked at spending more than the recommended retail price for a game have found themselves forking over several hundred pounds in order to build up a roster of ships that will suit their preferred playing style upon release.
In amongst all of this is the attention to detail in how the game is marketing itself in-universe. Ship brochures which detail different variants perfectly mimic those you’d pick up from a car showroom. TV commercials for the ships themselves are unique in their approach to selling the ship, right down to the style of music and voiceover used.
The net result, hundreds of thousands of ships “shipped” and a healthy cash flow that even during the quieter moments of the website you could easily set your watch to. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the fans feel like cash cows, and there have been plenty of times where the site has been accused of conducting “one sale too many”. But CIG have an uncanny knack to both address and resolve those concerns when it becomes apparent that there is a current of feeling running through a significant, and vocal, portion of the community. This was notably displayed when they set up a poll to see if people would like to purchase the newest single seater ship, the Mustang, before it had even been fully revealed. At that point the community spoke and although the voting was close (by a few percent) CIG took the time and effort to ask the community what it wanted. Then they listened and acted on the winning vote.
The one thing that I’ve noticed during my time on the SC forums is that the IP has already built up a sizable following of Star Citizens. Nerds, buffs and aficionados; at the root of any good Sci-Fi entity are individuals such as these. Seeing some of the comments and thoughts of the gamers as they eagerly await the release of this game, the level of commitment and geekery borders on the sort of thing you’d expect from a Trekkie.
To be absolutely blunt, that’s not a derogatory reference that I’m making either. It’s impressed me just how quickly a brand new licence (albeit one backed by a significant member of the videogames industry) has natured and fostered such a strong level of commitment and excitement amongst the ever growing community. Deep discussions on the thruster array of various ships, in-depth analysis of gun classes and placements, debates over potential combat winning manoeuvres… all of this has led to a vibrant and lively community eager to exchange thoughts and ideas (and yes, insults). While there are many issues surrounding such a head strong and deeply committed community, it’s fair to say that the Star Citizen universe already feels amazingly well populated and alive. From the blinking lights of distant star ships, to the hustle of a busy portside bar, these people are already there in spirit.
An interesting dissection of this community reveals one thing at the absolute core of everyone. They love space sims, and they’re incredibly grateful that someone is building such a game that doesn’t just phone in the POV in a cockpit, but an actual in-universe you that is surrounded by ships both gargantuan and small. Adding numerous gameplay mechanics on top of that (FPS and zero-g combat, ship-boarding, booby trapping, trading, info-running, piracy, salvaging, exploration, racing, engine and component modding) only adds to the anticipation.
Then you start to see a mix breaking away from that core. Those that hold unswerving devotion and trust to Chris Roberts’ vision and execution. Those who are cautious and have been burnt before (MechWarrior Online gets a lot of mentions in the forums as a case in point of how early access game development shouldn’t be done). Then there are those who are perhaps bewildered by the sheer volume of information or the game development process itself. The latter can either be as a result of genuine innocent ignorance or a cynical scepticism against anyone achieving what they’ve promised on paper.
It is here that the community begins to tear at itself. In the nine months that I have been frequenting the forums, they have degenerated from a healthy and positive atmosphere of friendliness and info sharing into… well into any given internet based forum. Anger, spite and venom are now quick to present themselves at the slightest of disagreements. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that opinions carry a certain level of toxicity and free expression is very much the carrier. While the Star Citizen forums are by no means as bad as the comments section in YouTube, they’ve not exactly grown into the most pleasant and carefree of places.
You could argue that it is pretty much par the course for the internet and you’d be right. But in the case of Star Citizen there is an added dimension to this. The Developers have taken it upon themselves to engage closely with the community, to try let them steer the ship in some directions and help them make the game. They monitor the forums and respond to feedback; ships have been altered in design and new gameplay mechanics have been promised. Polls are run to try and dictate the focus and order of development. This process must be incredibly raw for Cloud Imperium Games and their partnered studios. There is a lot of positive energy to feed off and galvanise them forwards, but dissent, dissatisfaction and condemnation can run rife within the forums.
The developers have been accused of a number of crimes in recent months, with no proof at all to back it up and seemingly based on the fact that people are having to wait longer than they are prepared to in order to play a game. GTA V and Watch Dogs can have their release dates pushed back by six months just before release and no-one bats an eyelid. If CIG are 12 hours late in releasing a video then the forums are awash with complaints that then generate into embattled sides. Some arguing with reason, logic and politeness, while others go for the throat in typical “bottom half of the internet” style. This isn’t necessarily down to trolling, it can be driven by passion. People are basing substantial amounts of their spare time following a game that is still in the embryonic stages. They’ve been given the promise of space travel, of a second life amongst the stars. To journey out into the infinite void and to become whatever they want to become. The scale of Star Citizen’s universe is set to be unparalleled in both scope, scale and detail. There are certainly backers who pour so much faith and devotion that they become easily scared at the mere possible hint of the game’s vision not quite matching up with their own expectations. Often there’s so little information to go on that people fabricate their own problems to while away the time.
They openly air those problems and before you know it everyone is up to their neck in bickering, name-calling and a general red mist.
To me the problem stems partly from boredom. Star Citizen is such an illustrious concept that for many, the forums and developer updates have replaced actual gaming in more than a few instances. Over such a long development time, frustration was always bound to set in at some point.
So what drives people to turn against a videogame developer that simply wants to make a game that anyone and everyone can enjoy playing? Star Citizen is relatively unique in terms of the incredibly niche appeal that it provides to a sci-fi fan base. And nobody takes their entertainment more seriously than sci-fi fans.
Being brought into the process this early on has had plenty of amazingly positive effects. As someone who has spent his entire life playing games, Star Citizen’s almost real-time breakdown of their game development process has been hugely insightful. Many people wonder why I’ve spent money on a game that hasn’t been released yet? Frankly the open development of this title means that I’m getting more than my money’s worth. Even without a game to play Star Citizen has consumed countless hours of my life. Between the thrice weekly videos, the monthly reports, the good natured forum threads, the controversial reveals or announcements, swapping thoughts, speculation and opinions with other members of the community… what more could a gamer ask for?
But at this early stage, people are being given a very early insight into the game. Steam may have desensitised many people to alpha and beta gameplay, but SC is in pre-alpha. The core mechanics are still being built and decided upon. Yet there is a strong voice in the community that takes delays or the changing of previously made statements very badly. Others have developed the same level of mistrust in CIG that took Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft years to acquire. More than once they’ve been accused of “money grabbing” through their sales of ships, the “lifetime insurance” for early backer’s ships perk (which was extended) or changes to the entire gameplay model that open up the possibility for players to purchase extra character slots. The latter actually being introduced to help address the question from people who had bought multiple pledge packages (therefore, multiple copies of the game) and wanted to know what would happen to their extra games packages.
It’s in these examples that CIG have learnt lessons, and in recent months have changed the way they handle the community.
Chris Roberts is an obviously talented individual who can take grand ideas and distil them into code for public consumption. But his vision this time around is gargantuan, and it’s still being formed. As good as he can be in explaining things to the general public, SC grew much quicker than he may have originally anticipated. The budget went from the thousands to the millions… and then the millions in double digits. The fanbase got bigger and bigger, people joined on Chris’ vision who hadn’t even played his previous games.
The community soon outgrew the ability for one very busy man to keep them all updated. It’s here where CIG, without the well oiled and often disingenuous PR machine, has had to learn lessons quick.
From the very beginning, Wingman’s Hangar was the main conduit between the developers and the fanbase. Hosted by Eric Peterson (Studio Director for CIG Austin), the weekly show was never really meant to be weekly, or even exist at all. It was unlocked as part of the $4 million stretchgoal and was only supposed to run monthly. However as with everything else Star Citizen, the webcast soon outgrew its original intentions and became a weekly feature. The show wasn’t a half baked affair either, featuring a Q&A session for questions placed on the forums, interviews with developers and other production staff, as well as the occasional video segments showing the development process.
The relaxed and informal presentation style of Peterson and his co-pilot Rob Irving made the show a hit with the audiences, and delivered a sense of depth to the content and fun in the delivery that was a million miles away from the more stale Developer Diaries. Which are often more an extension of the marketing machine once a game nears release.
However, as the original release for the Dog Fighting Module came and went (due in December 2013, it was cancelled in favour of getting CIG’s own netcode established rather than piggybacking off of CryEngine’s which would have been wasted effort) it became apparent that fatigue was starting to creep in and affect the content. The growing negativity of the forums was starting to impact on the otherwise cheerful tone of the show. One example being the furore raised in the RSI forums when one member spotted a PS4 development kit in the Austin studio during a “flythrough” of their offices in one episode. The episode after that, which included a well detailed response from Chris Roberts himself, had Eric and co making fun of those on the forums who had, not out of absolute stupidity given what they’d seen the previous week, speculated that Star Citizen may well be ported over to the PS4. As http://youtu.be/wsCKGSp2AwM?t=24m13s shows.
This was tempered with some complaints over the repetition some of the questions that were being answered, and the lack of clarity given in the responses.
Sensing this, the CIG crew immediately learned the lesson and made changes. As of the beginning of 2014, CIG started to provide a greater level of insight not just into their thoughts behind the game, but the process of development itself. The Inside CIG studios video segments became more frequent and more detailed. More early WIP was shown, Wingman’s Hangar was tightened up (embarrassing and poorly made video question entries were the first to be culled) and made to focus on, in their own words, “more stuff and less fluff”.
Chris Roberts also entered into a regular weekly show called 10 For The Chairman, where he answers 10 questions from the subscriber community. Their third weekly video is The Next Great Starship competition, which sees teams around the world attempting to design, develop and animate a fully working star ship to be included in Star Citizen. Three videos a week dedicated to a game that’s still a long way off from being shipped is certainly an impressive feat that even fully matured and franchised triple A titles would struggle to maintain.
Admittedly the video content is funded by the subscriber community, a $10 monthly pledge which helps pay for the video production as well as fund the monthly 40-50 page Jump Point magazine. The latter containing some in-depth information regarding the development process of the game and lore based fiction. But CIG aren’t resting on their feet, and recently announced a series of changes to the weekly format of their online video content to help better show the development process of their studios across the world, particularly Found 42 which is based in Manchester England and is working on the single player campaign, Squadron 42.
Their online comms became a lot slicker, if not slightly more evasive where appropriate. A monthly “roundup” of all development studios involved in the production of the game and the robertsspaceindustries website was published at the end of every month. This gave people a far greater insight into the regular work that was being undertaken by each of the studios. For instance, despite so much emphasis currently being placed on the Dog Fighting Module (Arena Commander) release, there was still plenty of work being done behind the scenes on the FPS combat module that’s due to arrive later on in the year. When it became apparent that Arena Commander wasn’t going to be quite ready just after the main PAX East appeal in April, CIG pre-empted the community backlash by publishing weekly Arena Commander updates every Friday.
In amongst this, the “Ask A Developer” section of the forums allows fans to question the different development team on subjects such as programming, art, lore, production and audio. All developers are encouraged by Chris to spend some time responding to questions raised by the community members on a frequent basis.
That’s not to say that CIG have the communications and PR side nailed down just yet. Their live reveals have become something of a running joke amongst the community. The pay off in terms of content is certainly there. But often the staged events are plagued with technical problems. The PAX East reveal of Arena Commander pretty much fell to pieces due to issues with the netcode and the update manager not completely downloading everything required to get the game running smoothly. The result was some very uninspired multiplayer gaming before the team finally gave up trying to show anything meaningful on that front.
But the response to these problems has always been to work harder and do better. It’s usually not long after a major hiccup that CIG post an update in which they apologise and promise to do better. This is sometimes the case with major developers, but you only have to look at the comical one sided engagement of publishers like EA and the Battlefield series, where constant tweets and updates regarding the DLC drown out complaints of rubber banding issues,to see that there is perhaps a slightly greater level of awareness with CIG’s community engagement. It is at the very least slightly more pro-active and “customer” focused.
The Journey So Far
So why the long post? As a lifelong gamer (although not a diehard fan of Chris Roberts as many Star Citizens are) I’ve never felt so connected to the creation and publication of a game. Star Citizen, and its single player campaign Squadron 42, have ascended the common kickstarter begging bowl into something special, unique and industry changing.
Yes, I do mean that last part. I believe that if Chris Roberts is able to bring about the universe that he dreams of, and the universe that he wants to play and live in, with all its magnitude and detail intact, then this will be the wakeup call that major publishers and developers may finally take notice of.
Star Citizen promises to deliver so much beyond the normal space sim. Even the FPS part of the game; with ship-boarding gameplay, location specific body damage, zero-g and perma-death all planning to make combat an incredibly tense and tactical affair. When you add ship component overclocking, EVA repairs to ships, salvage, trade, exploration, information running, planetside and spacestation docking alongside the many other planned gameplay features (procedurally generated content and atmospheric flight are currently being researched) it’s difficult to imagine Star Citizen not appealing to anyone in some way or another.
Star Citizen can be a disruptive force for good in the stagnated mess of the current games industry. It can prove to people that they’ve been oversold sequel after sequel for too long, with too little advancements or improvements in gameplay. It can show people what level of detail can be achieved and create a new baseline for the big name developers to meet. It can prove that crowd funding can achieve more than failed alphas or titles that consistently look like the sort of thing we thought we’d kissed goodbye to with the death of the 16bit systems.
Because of the potential for Star Citizen to leave a lasting impact on the games industry as we know it today, and for the potential it holds for us all as lovers of games, we at Games Fiends will aim to provide you all with weekly updates until the release of the game.
So stay tuned with us every weekend to hear the latest from the SC universe.
P.S. For those of you on the Star Citizen forums – my handle is wintermut3 (Uee Citizen Record #205525) and a member of Islay Enterprises. See you in the ‘verse