To date no single project has earned more through crowdfunding than Chris Roberts' Star Citizen. No piece of consumer electronics, no movie, nor any other video game has raised anywhere near as much — currently a grand total of $85 million. And, more or less since the original Kickstarter campaign in 2012, that number has only ever gone up. That is, PC Gamer reports, until this past Monday, when veteran game developer Derek Smart got his $250 pledge back.
Now, an internal survey posted by a community member on the Star Citizen message boards reveals that as many as 25 percent of the game's backers could be interested in possibly getting their money back as well.
The potential for a refund, where once there was none, is a crack in the armor of Chris Roberts' much-lauded campaign, and a potential paradigm shift for crowdfunding generally.
How did it come to this?
Star Citizen began as a Kickstarter project in 2012, but even before it had finished earning its $2.1 million there, it launched its own, private crowdfunding site. Since that time, Roberts Space Industries has been selling access to the game, or at least the playable alpha and beta pieces of it leading up to full release.
But in order to keep the coffers full, RSI has been selling ships — first with splashy automobile-inspired commercials and most recently with "work in progress" ship sales. One recent sale let backers purchase a starliner for $400. Some you can fly in Arena Commander right now, and some you can't.
It's through these pricey, yet incremental sales over time that Chris Roberts expects to reach $100 million in total funding by the end of the year. While you can get access to the completed game for as little as $45, the beautiful, shiny/blinky ships are the incentive to spend more.
But everyone, both inside and outside of the RSI community, has been waiting for the game's various elements to launch and finally gel together. Arena Commander is all fine and good, but there has been so much promised, including an MMO-like persistent world, a single-player campaign called Squadron 42 and a first-person shooter module called Star Marine.
Announced in 2013, when the campaign had cleared its $20 million stretch goal, Star Marine has been described as "a mixture of Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six, Arma, Delta Force, [and] Kill Zone [sic]." But Star Marine is more than an add-on. It has become a vital part of the game. Bits and pieces of its code will eventually allow you to get into and out of your ship, move around the game's persistent world and even play futuristic sports ball in an orbital sphere.
Star Marine is, as one developer said recently, "the blood and sinew of the game."
Backers expected Star Marine this past spring, part of a 1.2 update to the available game code, but it didn't come.
Then the bombshell. In a letter to the community dated June 27 and posted on Star Citizen's website, Chris Roberts announced that his team would need to indefinitely delay Star Marine, and in doing so spend time pulling its code from the 1.2 update before releasing it. The vast majority of backers seemed to be alright with this, but a vocal minority cried foul.
One of that vocal minority is game developer Derek Smart. In a series of posts that began on Polygon, Smart laid out his issues with RSI in detail. He encouraged backers to formally request a refund, and later to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Well, it seems that RSI has had enough. Two days ago they sent Smart an email, along with a refund of his pledge of $250.
Those actions led one backer on the RSI forums, who goes by the name Loonie, to take an informal poll.
"Due to the recent flare-ups and discontent amongst many Star Citizens," Loonie wrote, "I feel it would certainly be in all our best interests to find out whether or not we have the option to request (and this time also receive, since this latest case proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, that CIG is more than capable of this) a refund, should we ever wish to do so in the future."
Of the more than 1,100 who voted, more than 25 percent think they should be able to get a refund if they want one.
But, says Star Citizen team member Ben Lesnick, Smart's refund wasn't actually a refund. Giving Smart his money back was really a punitive measure based on his behavior.
I believe I can clarify this. We refunded Mr. Smart’s package because he was using Star Citizen as a platform to gain attention as part of a campaign to promote his Line of Defense space game. Our [terms of service] (or in this case, the Kickstarter ToS) allows us to refund troubled users who we would rather not have interacting with the community. The process lets us entirely disable their accounts, preventing them from playing the finished game. Think of it as the video game equivalent of a "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" sign in a restaurant. We’ve used this ability a limited number of times in the past, always with the aim of improving the community...
I do now want to stress that that is not to say you can get your money back by simply being as obnoxious as possible; we’re also able to ban accounts from the forums without requiring a refund. But sometimes we take a look at a user and decide that they’re so toxic or their intentions are so sinister that we simply don’t want them associated with Star Citizen.
As for refund requests working the other way: per the ToS, we’re not required to offer them. We do try and work with backers who are facing hardships, but the hard truth is that the money is by necessity being spent to develop a game rather than sitting unused somewhere (that being the significant difference with Steam; those refunds are taken out of their games’ profits rather than their development budgets.)
And so here we are, with the Star Citizen community discussing among themselves the potential for a refund, and RSI stepping in quickly to quash those hopes.
While Derek Smart is an admitted and unrepentant agitator, does he have a point? Should backers jilted by Star Citizen's partial delay have the right to get their money back? Possibly. Do they have the ability? No.
If anything, the team at Roberts Space Industries has been incredibly open. Their status updates and their attempts at transparency throughout development are voluminous. They even provide up-to-date metrics on the money they take in so, if this furor over refunds has a chilling effect on the rate at which they're able to raise money, everyone will be able to see it in near-real time.
We grabbed the following shots just today, which appear to show a downward trend.