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Star Citizen's $49M crowdfunded budget isn't outrageous, but the risk to the industry is real

Chris Roberts' Star Citizen has raised $49 million in funding, and the latest milestone means that all backers have unlocked a new space plant. The project will also continue to bring in funding from fans, because the $49 million just isn't enough.

"We’ve had a lot of questions about why we still need to continue crowd funding. The answer is that that money is letting Star Citizen tackle longer term features and content sooner than we normally would," Chris Roberts stated in a blog post. "To sustain this level of development, we need to keep bringing in additional funds. Star Citizen is still much less than the other published backed AAA games that have similar levels of ambition (some would even say a little less :-) ) like GTA V, Watch Dogs or Destiny."

The customers are willing, and so is the developer

This statement has rubbed some the wrong way, but it's also important to remember that Chris Roberts is funding development of a huge game, and paying a team of developers while bringing new people into the world of Star Citizen.

"Our plan is to scale the team based on the crowd funding, with the goal to be able to double down on development wherever it’s possible to do so," Roberts wrote. "If we need more artists to produce additional ships, we’d like to be able to hire them. Or if we need more engineers to get a head start on some longer term technical issue before it blocks other parts of development, we want that option!"

We're used to crowdfunded games asking for the minimum amount of cash needed to finish a game, and even then it's common for developers to give up a salary in exchange for a percentage of sales when the game is released. Roberts is operating his studio in a more traditional manner, and that requires an extensive monthly commitment of funds simply for payroll.

"Our plan is to scale the team based on the crowd funding"

"We ended up operating for five months without money or payments to the team here," Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club wrote in a post. "It was a difficult period, where some of us were awkwardly standing in front of cashiers having our credit cards declined, drawing from any possible savings, and borrowing money from our friends and family. But we made it to the other side!"

This was after raising over $300,000 for a comparatively simple game. Roberts isn't interested in being put in that position, and if people are still interested in paying for the game, why should he be? Polygon recently ran a look at the costs involved in running a smallish indie studio, and things add up quickly.

It's also worth pointing out that Star Citizen is huge in scope. In fact, many of the words used to describe it, including "online" and "MMO" are huge red-flags when it comes to risky crowdfunding campaigns. They're not making a game that usually comes from an independent studio, they're cooking some thing much more ambitious. Roberts isn't shy about it.

"We know that Star Citizen is an incredibly ambitious project, after all its basically several high fidelity AAA games all rolled into one; a MMO Space Sim, a First Person Shooter, a rich Single Player story and a fully-fledged Trading and Economy game," Roberts wrote. "I’m pretty sure this level of ambition is why the majority of you backed. If I had pitched Star Citizen to a typical publisher, told them I wanted all these features and wanted to make it just for a PC I would have been laughed out of the room."

He brought up other games that cost far more, and its another salient point. The industry has gotten to the point where you can defend a $500 million budget, so an open-ended space simulation being made for $50 million doesn't seem that crazy. It's just not what we're used to from crowdfunded projects, and there is now social pressure for developers to be coy about where the money is going. Roberts refuses to play by the normal rules when its comes to crowdfunding: He's making a huge, expensive game and he's not afraid to ask for the money he needs to do so.

What's at risk

This budget makes sense for the scope of the game being made, and Chris Roberts comes from a background that seems to suggest that he knows how to lead a team and create ambitious games. This is the guy who gave us Wing Commander, after all, and when given the opportunity to make a movie shrugged and said why not. He's never been a person to shy away from big ideas.

If the game is released and is a success, the game industry will find itself in a new world. The people will have funded a game with a budget that is more AAA than indie, and the space genre will be given a huge shot in the arm. No matter who you are or what you do in the industry, you should be praying that Roberts can pull it off. Having a crowdfunding win when the news seems to be full of failures helps everyone.

On the other hand, Star Citizen's possible failure would close doors. It would be cited as a risk in every decision to spend money on a game in this genre for the next ten years moving forward. People would point to it as a reason not to invest in large-scale crowdfunding efforts. It would have a chilling effect on many aspects of the video game business.

The bottom line is that if people want to continue supporting the game, why not take them up on it? The only risk is failure, and the industry's reaction to that failure could be severe. The budget of Star Citizen is reasonable for the game they're promising, and it's likely even a bit low. The stakes riding on its success, on the other hand, are enormous.