After dumping thousands of dollars into the Star Citizen project, the spiritual successor to the Wing Commander franchise being designed and built by a team led by Chris Roberts, one backer tried to get his money back. What followed was a weekslong struggle that only recently ended after a Los Angeles County investigator got involved.
In 2014, Arthur — he asked Polygon to withhold his full name because of threats he's received over this story — began contributing to the Star Citizen crowdfunding effort. Over several years his purchases, including alpha access, virtual ships and online subscriptions, totaled more than $3,300. But as development dragged on and as changes were made to the focus of the Star Citizen project, he elected to try and get his money back.
Multiple times his claims were denied by the team behind Star Citizen, leading him to file formal complaints with the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA).
Reached for comment, Star Citizen's PR representative stated that "refunds with respect to Star Citizen are made on a discretionary basis. There was nothing special about this situation. The fact that this particular party used a complaint form that is online and openly available, doesn’t make this any different."
Polygon has reached out to the DCBA about their involvement.
Arthur initially requested, and received, around $1,000 in returns from Amazon Payments. He said these were handled entirely by Amazon. However, there was still more than $1,600 tied up in PayPal transactions. Arthur said that it was only after a personal call to the Star Citizen team made by a DCBA investigator that all of his PayPal payments were returned.
In all, Arthur said he was able to receive more than $2,500 back. He had to forfeit the remainder of approximately $800, part of an ongoing content subscription.
Arthur said that part of what prevented him from getting his money back in a timely fashion were recent changes made to Star Citizen’s terms of service. Those tweaks subtly change the language of the contract between backers and the Star Citizen team. These changes, which Polygon received from Star Citizen’s PR representative, are shown in red below.
Star Citizen’s PR told us at the time that these changes are commonplace among crowdfunding efforts.
"We've previously updated our terms of service, and we will continue to do so from time to time as it's been expressly reserved in the terms of service since the beginning of our crowdfunding campaign," the PR representative told Polygon. "This reflects the advancing status of the game development and the game’s live operations. ... The latest minor changes to the pledge section keep our terms in line with the ToS of other major crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter."
In a letter from the Star Citizen team that Arthur shared with Polygon, a customer service representative refers to these changes as the basis for denying his refund.
"The only exception," the email states, "would be a return of unearned funds remaining in case of an abandonment of the project; this exception does not apply as we have not abandoned development."
But Arthur told Polygon that he never agreed to those changes in the terms of service.
"I haven’t played the alpha for Star Citizen," Arthur said. "There’s actually a reason behind that. It’s not just because I didn’t want to play it. It’s because I’m in a wheelchair. I’m disabled, so I require a certain level of customization in order to play a game. Which is really why I was interested in VR."
What had originally excited Arthur, a quadriplegic, about the project was the potential virtual reality features promised in the Star Citizen Kickstarter campaign.
"Virtual Reality is here," the original Kickstarter campaign reads. "We have backed Oculus Rift and will support it in Star Citizen/Squadron 42. Who doesn't want to sit in their cockpit, hands on your joystick and throttle, swiveling your head, to track that enemy fighter that just blew by?"
While that initial campaign ended in November 2013 after earning more than $2.1 million, the crowdfunding effort continued. The Star Citizen project is the most highly crowdfunded endeavor of any kind to date, having stated that it has raised more than $117 million raised as of this writing.
"I wanted to be able to put the headset on and, like, move around with my head," Arthur said. When recent videos released by the development team indicated to him that the VR component was being wound down or pushed back, Arthur took it personally. "I was pissed! When they said they were giving up on [VR], I was fucking livid. ... And then when I saw the terms of service change, I was like, 'Nope.' ... That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me."
Arthur went on to explain how he had felt a personal connection to the company, and the individuals working to publicize the game online.
"In the last email that I sent," he told Polygon, "I said I actually met Sandi [Gardiner, co-founder of Star Citizen] in Boston. ... I met Sandi at a bar with Chris Roberts and all of them, and I actually talked to her for about two or three minutes, and she signed my poster.
"I felt like I had an attachment to this company, even though it’s not my company. And I guess that’s what a lot of backers feel."
"I felt like I had an attachment to this company ... And I guess that’s what a lot of backers feel."
When Arthur contacted the DCBA, he said that the investigator assigned to his case had never heard of Star Citizen. A timeline was originally chronicled on the private online forum at Something Awful, but details of that exchange were later shared publicly on Imgur. Polygon received the name of the investigator, confirmed their employment at DCBA and made multiple requests for more information from that agency.
After an hour on the phone with him, Arthur said that the investigator said he would make a call to the Star Citizen team so that things would not need to be escalated. Since Arthur had neither downloaded the game client, which would have prompted his acceptance of the new terms of service, nor received a formal email stating that those changes were made, he says it became the basis of the argument in favor of a refund.
Arthur says that the balance of his payments via PayPal were returned to him electronically on July 12.
"I don’t hate them," Arthur said. "I have no ill will towards their project. I hope Star Citizen is the best project that’s ever made. But until they change their policies, until they come to realize that you can’t just keep taking money ... until they change something, I don’t think I’m going to support them anymore. So. I wish them the best."