With $74 million raised and a universe of promises made to more than three-quarters of a million people, some may wonder just how realistic Chris Roberts' vision for the all-encompassing, but still unreleased space simulator Star Citizen is.
While bits of the massively multiplayer game featuring space combat, mining, piracy, trading, first-person shooting and a persistent universe have been released, a bulk of the game remains to gamers little more than promise.
Meanwhile, Roberts Space Industries continues to prime interest in the game and feed the funding with a steady release of new ships sold like cars on a car lot for the in-progress game. Roberts says the company pulls in $3 million to $4 million a month and that 200 to 300 people a day buy the game.
So shortly into our meeting early this month, I ask Roberts what seems to me to be the obvious question: "Do you worry that Star Citizen could become a Ponzi scheme, that you're taking money for things now that you promise to produce down the line but never do?
"If the money stopped today would you be able to get all of the things out that you promised?"
Absolutely, says Roberts, creator of Wing Commander and Freelancer.
"For a start, people can only back for a ship when we have it in production," he says. "Right now there is a list. You can go onto the site and there is a whole bunch of ships that players know the name of and the stats of, but we haven't started the conceptual design phase, let alone the 3D modeling phase.
"It's not like we're selling stuff we still have to pay for down the road. By the time we end up like saying this week we're going to have the mining ship sale, it's like, we've already done a lot of the work on it and the remaining work is basically covered by what we bring in."
And those ships remain fertile ground for future funding.
"A bunch of people, they're not interested at all in combat, so they don't want that," he says. "They might be holding out for the mining ship. That will probably be, not hundreds of thousands of sales, but we tend to sell 7,000 to 8,000 of those ships.
"The ships are basically one of the core things that subsidize the building of the game," he says. "Definitely ships cost us money to make and a lot of our cost is a massive amount of people working on ships. But ships are one of the things helping us make the game."
So Roberts is very clear that the ships being sold on the site aren't made available until the company is sure they can be completed. But what about the game itself, the space those ships will fly though and the experiences they'll take part in?
To understand how Roberts is going to deliver such a vast game it helps to understand how the game is being rolled out. Star Citizen is being delivered in updates each building on the last, adding layer like a seemingly endless collection of Russian nesting dolls.
That first tiny doll given to players appeared to be a simple virtual hangar, but it was also the kernel of the game. Next came a ship inside the hangar and the ability to go inside the ship. Then came the first serious interactive part of the game: Arena Commander, which gave players the ability to hop in ships and get into space dogfights.
To get that playable element into the hands of gamers as soon as possible, RSI released it as a simulation within a simulation. That means the combat doesn't fit into any sort of persistent universe; damage taken, wins earned, losses accrued have no impact on the universe itself.
To make that work within the fiction of the game, RSI delivered Arena Commander as an experience accessed inside a holodeck inside the hangar, inside the game. As the game continues to grow, adding doll after doll, RSI will build on experiences separately until finally an update will tie everything together and set it live inside a persistent universe.
Roberts walked me through how that will all come about.
The stars and the moon
"Right now you can play Arena Commander, which is sort of the space combat and that is limited at the moment to the single sort of seater ships and it plays very much like Wing Commander, like any space combat sim," he says. "This [month] we're going to release the first-person shooter part of the game to backers."
The shooter will initially launch with two modes. Roberts describes one of the modes as being sort of like Counter-Strike on a space station. The other, he says, is an Ender's Game sort of battle arena.
"So basically you can do all of those zero-g push-pull stuff," he says.
In April, a social aspect of the game will be introduced, he says. Once released, players will for the first time be able step outside their hangars.
"Then you will be able to open the door and step outside walk around and see those places," he says. "And then in the June, July timeframe we will release the multicrew part of Arena Commander, which means you'll be able to use those ships that can have more than one player in them. Basically, the biggest ship that you and three of your friends, you and ten of your friends fly now that will be in the backers hands. There will be a bunch of ships the backers have pledged for that are sitting in the hangars that they cant fly yet that they will be able to.
"Squadron 42 will be toward the end of the year. That's sort of basically Wing Commander single-player narrative story. And then at the very end of the year we will release the very early alpha of the persistent universe. It wont be nearly all of the systems and planets, but we plan to have five or six systems you can fly between. You won't be able to do all of the things we're planning on you to do, but probably trading, mining, piracy, combat and a lot of core stuff."
Then the company plans to spend 2016 filling out the rest of the star system, finishing ships, finishing characters "basically going from five to 130 star systems and adding more of the functionally and features on that we have and building out different roles."
"By the end of this year backers will have everything they originally pledged for plus a lot more," Roberts says. "But of course our intention is that it's a much bigger, more expansive, huger game than I ever considered we could do."
Virtually delivering the stars and the moons to players is no easy undertaking, and even with his grandiose plans, it far exceeds anything he originally thought he would be able to do with Star Citizen. So RSI has had to quickly build up staffing.
Thanks to Minecraft
There's been a lot of talk about the impact things like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access have had on game development, but neither of those things really had much to do with Star Citizen, Roberts tells me.
What made Star Citizen possible, or at least what pushed Roberts to give developing his dream game a try was Minecraft.
"The inspiration for what I did in Star Citizen was Minecraft," Roberts says. "Not necessarily because I was like, ‘Oh my god, look at the graphics.' It was the model that was used for development, this sort of intriguing basic game that would have never ever lived anywhere, no publisher would have ever agreed to back, but that came out of this grassroots community.
"Notch put it out there and basically says, ‘Can you give me' whatever he asked for and of course it was just him so he didn't need that much money, but he used the money to continue to add features and he was listening to the feedback to his game. He kept adding features, then he could afford to hire people and he sort of organically grew it out."
While RSI did eventually seek some funding through Kickstarter, that wasn't the initial plan.
"My original plan was that I was going to raise some money from private investors to build a sort of alpha that didn't have everything I wanted in it," he says. "It would have been enough that I could give it to someone and they could play it and they could give me a reduced amount of money and I would use that money to continue adding features until I built it to my final feature set."
"The inspiration for what I did in Star Citizen was Minecraft."
In other words, the Minecraft system.
"That was my plan," Roberts says. "I was six months into planning that and had already lined up the investors and then Double Fine Adventure came along on Kickstarter and I looked at that and I was like, ‘Maybe I could advance that.'
"That was my sort of epiphany of, well maybe I don't have to wait until alpha, maybe I could get the people in sooner."
Even under this new plan of getting more seed money from Kickstarter and crowd-funding on the game's website, Roberts didn't think he'd get much money. Instead, he thought, he'd raise just enough cash to prove the level of interest to investors.
"I talked to the investor and says I wanted to do crowdfunding," he says. "It was a bit risky because if no one showed up they wouldn't have given me any money."
At most he hoped to bring in $2 million to $4 million with crowdfunding and add in another $10 million from investors to pay for a functional alpha. Then he planned to use that to start bringing in revenue which would be used to finance the rest of the game.
"It was 100 percent originally inspired by the organic growth Minecraft had," he says.
Instead, Star Citizens initial fundraising campaign brought in $6.2 million and nearly $40 million last year, astounding everyone, including Roberts.
Now, well into development on Star Citizen and with plenty of feedback from players, Roberts says he's happy going the route he did. A big issue with things like Steam Early Access, he says, is that despite how clear it might be that people are paying for an unfinished game, some players are still confused.
"Even on Steam Early Access you still get people thinking they're buying a final game and they kind of complain about it," he says.
Because the Star Citizen team spends so much time communicating with the community and because almost all updates talk about how early the game is in development, Roberts says they don't run into an overwhelming amount of complaints. And when those complaints come, it's usually the community that explains things to the players.
"I still see people on forums complaining about things broken ... and there's always a bunch of other people going, ‘It's an alpha, that's the definition of an alpha. You're here to help make it better, not to necessarily play a finished game.'
That clear communication, even though it may boil down to semantics, is a big part of why the Star Citizen community is the way it is, Roberts says.
"It's the way you enter into any contract with anyone," he says. "It's about setting expectations. As long as you deliver on those expectations than it goes well.
"For us that's the nice thing about the relationship we have right now," he says. "The community feel like they are part of the development team and they give you feedback and they make the game better. Then we go back and reiterate and drop versions to them and they say, ‘This is balanced better' or ‘You fucked up the missiles now.'"
The development cycle of release, listen to fans, change and release again is bolstered by the game's tight release schedule.
"Every two weeks we do a patch," Roberts says. "Every two weeks we are dropping new functionality in or new balance in or fixing something. Sometimes a big update drops, like the first-person shooter update which includes a whole bunch of new content and features. And then there will be another patch two weeks after that and that might fix the bugs we didn't know about when we did the first one."
The reason a game like Star Citizen might be able to release new content with bugs without spurring fan outrage is because of that relationship both developers and players agree they have, Roberts says.
"Halo: The Master Chief Collection's multiplayer is a complete disaster, right?" Roberts says. "We've definitely had situations where our multiplayer has been a complete disaster when we give it out to backers, but they're understanding because it's pre-alpha and they're like, trying to help you out so they're supportive.
"People are like, ‘Fuck you, mother-fucker.'"
"Once you move across that line into, here's the finished game pay me $60 for it and things don't work, people are like, ‘Fuck you, mother-fucker.' Which is kind of what you've seen this year, you've seen a bunch of games like that."
The reason Star Citizen doesn't run into that anger, Roberts says, is because of the understanding the developers have with the community. It's a different sort of relationship than what people purchasing Halo might have with those developers.
"You're paying the same amount of money, so it's 100 percent semantics," he says. "The thing that works really well for Star Citizen is that this is the contract that in their mind they made with us and it is the contract I feel they made with us. So they don't have an issue with that."
Those expectations are also a big part of how Roberts will decide when the perhaps perpetually-in-development game makes the leap from an alpha or beta to a game that can be sold as "complete."
"That's kind of my thinking of how I want to take Star Citizen across the finish line," he says. "When you go from people being backers to people being pure straight consumers, something changes in the way they view that relationship.
"I don't want to do that switch until I've had enough time with the backers to make the game as good as possible and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, that's pretty good.'"
His hope is that the shift from beta to no-longer-in-beta will be, as with Minecraft, not that noticeable.
"That's what we think will happen towards the end of 2016 because that's when we think we will have finished the content and get most of the polishing in," he says. "We are saying before then we think it still be rough around the edges and have issues."
The most noticeable difference once the game is retail, he says, will likely be a change in the way the game will be priced.
"We will remove the crowdfunding aspects of it, and that will probably be the point where we do some proper marketing," he says. "At some point, once it is finished, we would probably do a push to get the general gamer in. Right now we're still hitting only a certain segment of the game population"
Currently there are about 320 people, including contractors, working out of six studios developing the game, Roberts says.
"The way I look at the way we run the business now is we size our staff and what we're working on based on what we bring in every month," he says. "So if we're bringing a good amount, which we have been doing for quite awhile, then OK, I can afford to have a 300 person team working on it. If we didn't bring in the same amount it would have to be 200 or 150, which is still a lot."
Of the six studios working on the game currently, four are internal. Los Angeles is the corporate headquarters and is working on space combat, he says. A studio in Austin, Texas is primarily leading work on the persistent universe. A studio in Manchester, run by Roberts' brother, is responsible for Squadron 42 and helping with space combat. And a new studio in Frankfurt is working on the game's core technology, like its use of the Crytek engine, and is helping with the other elements of the game.
On top of the internal studios, Illfonic, based in Denver, is taking lead on the first-person shooter mechanics and Behaviour Interactive in Montreal is helping with operations, the persistent universe and is tasked with building a lot of environments with all of the different planets. That team is also woking on future concepts for the game which include iOS apps and things like Hololens, Roberts says.
On top of that, they have contractors working out of China and Mexico. Every studio helps out with building ships, he says.
"We are trying to split up each studio so they have a focus and lead they do so we can kind of work in parallel, so there is some crossover," he says. "We have about 200 or just under on staff and about 120 or so on contract.
"It is very big."
The globe-spanning mix of internal and external studios make management a challenge, but more concerning to Roberts is making sure that RSI's overhead never exceeds their income.
"That's why we keep a balance between contract and in-house," he says. "If we had to scale down you would be cutting down on the people on work for hire. I don't want to be in a situation where you have to scale down and people have to lose their jobs."
Finding all of those people, and making sure they had the right talents to help make the game what it needs to be, was helped along by some of the industry's bumpy year.
The relatively newly formed group in Frankfurt, for instance are made up of a lot people from Crytek, he says.
"Frankfurt is 17 now and it is probably going to be 40 in six to seven months," Roberts says. "A lot of them are core Crytek guys. Last year, Crytek has some financial issues and I think it spooked some of the people."
That combined with the developers wanting to work on the sort of game that would push the technology of the CryEngine helped RSI land a new team in Frankfurt.
"They're doing a lot of free to play stuff at Crytek, some of the engineers who built that engine were looking for a job," Robert says. "Epic was making them offers, id was making them offers and we were like, ‘Shit, this is the engine we're going to be using for years if we're successful, we can't lose that brain trust.' So we stepped in and said, ‘Don't go to Epic or go to id, we would be happy to set you up in Frankfurt and you can sort of work on Star Citizen.'"
The U.K. team in Manchester was formed with the help of Roberts' brother who was working at TT Fusions on Lego games.
Roberts says he and his brother had talked about working on Star Citizen from the beginning, but his brother had a solid job and Star Citizen was still a wild dream.
"I didn't want to say, ‘Hey, join me on this Kickstarter thing that I don't know if it is going to raise one, two whatever million dollars.' Once we got into the fundraising, though, it was pretty clear what the trajectory was.
"[My brother] says, ‘There are only so many Lego games you can do and this is the sort of game I want to be doing.' So we basically hired him and 40 people from that team, the core. They resigned and opened Foundry 42.
And with Foundry 42, Roberts didn't just land a team of developers who have worked together for years and led by his brother, a lot of those developers had a history making games similar to Star Citizen.
"A lot of the people working at 42 built Starlancer and Freelancer 2 a long time ago," Roberts says. "It's fun for them to come back to the genre and do that."
Making space combat cool again
Space combat seems to be cool again. The massive success of Star Citizen should be proof enough of that, but it's not the only proof. Eve Online, of course, has had a long running, if not mainstream, success as a space game. No Man's Sky has captured a lot of interest. And then there is the success of Elite: Dangerous.
When I asked Roberts if he thinks Star Citizen helped revitalize the genre of space combat, he declined to have the game take the credit, but did say that often all a genre needs to return is a bit of proof.
"I think it's one of those things that someone just had to do it and then everyone says people want this and then all of a sudden for whatever reason the prejudice changes," he says. "There was this prejudice that no one wanted these kind of games anymore, no one was interested. Finally, I think the thing Star Citizen did was show what you could do with today's technology.
"All of a sudden that changed the perception then I think other people feel safer committing to it," he says.
Roberts likens the shift to how people once felt about first-person shooters.
"It was all very sort of like Doom and Quake and fantastical and stuff and cool and fun and then there was Call of Duty," he says. "It was World War II and everyone was like, 'Aw yeah man, awesome, I remember shooting nazis in Wolfenstein. Fuck yeah, I want to go around in World War II. The first Call of Duty sold well but not 20 million units and it sort of built from there.
"But until that moment people weren't thinking of historical first-person shooters."
Another example, Roberts says, is World of Tanks.
"I swear to god you could have gone to any publisher and says 'I want to do a World War II tank game' and they would go, 'Well, do you want to sell 5,000 copies? We're not in that business get the fuck out of here.' Now World of Tanks has 40, 50 million people registered and they bring in huge amounts of money. And now you have Armored Warfare and everyone else going into the tank sim genre."
Too much stretching
With all of Star Citizen's new funding now coming to the company directly through its website, Roberts is in a strange position for a crowdfunded game: He's concerned about asking for more money for more features.
"We actually kind of backed off from doing stretch goals recently just because we've done so many of them and there is always a bit of a debate," he says. "First of all, we're starting to run out of ideas and second of all we have a lot to do and people started complaining."
So instead of stretch goals tied to new features, RSI is now offering up more behind-the-scenes looks at the game and its many parts.
"We shifted," he says. "Instead we'll do a deep dive every million; instead of a new feature, we're going to talk about how we're going to be doing something, the design, and reward people that way."
The studio has, in fact, already received funding through stretch goals of everything the team dreamed up before launching the project.
"A stretch goal was like if I drew out a big road map for this project, it's get out the base functionally and then go beyond what I wanted," he says. "Go beyond what I wanted is kind of where we are at now.
"We definitely have the funds, the resources to do that."
Moving forward, Roberts says, any sort of stretch goal would have to substantively add to the game.
And no wonder, look at just one place Star Citizen's lofty goals have it headed, future missions that are the ultimate expression of Roberts' grand vision for the action portion of the game.
"So for instance, one mission could be like, capture the Idris frigate," he says. "The first stage would be coming in and getting rid of fighter cover. Then you would need to shoot the defense guns off. And then you would go into the ship, board it and take it over. Basically, seamlessly going from flying around in space to getting aboard the ship and getting into a first-person shooter fight.
"That's the dream. That's the dream."