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What the hell is going on with Star Citizen?

Delays, demands for refunds and online feuds are breaking out

Chris Roberts needs a vacation.

Since Star Citizen was presented on Kickstarter back in 2012, he says he's been working non-stop.

In the last few weeks, Roberts has made a Gamescom appearance, visited his studios around the world, talked to various media outlets and posted detailed blogs about progress on Star Citizen. He's also been helping with design and code for Star Citizen.

A significant part of his job is reassuring the Star Citizen backer community that all is well, that their faith and their money are well placed. Speaking to Polygon during a recent interview, he's definitely in outreach mode.

He delivers the lines designed to mollify and reassure Star Citizen backers who have pledged more than $87 million to his game, and who are still waiting for delivery.

This is a big game, he says. All big games suffer delays. But it will be worth the wait. It will be worth all the pledges and all the hard work.

But this interview is slightly different. This time, the subject is not just the game, but Roberts himself, and how he is coping with what is likely to be the most intense and challenging few years of his life.

Roberts works seven days a week, every week. He never takes a day off. He rises early to communicate with his studios in England and Germany. He spends each day with his teams in Texas and California. At night, he goes home to code and to make notes. He hasn't had a day away from Star Citizen for three years.

"I'm personally working harder than I ever worked in my life, including going back to the early days doing the first Wing Commander," he says adding that the workload is compounded by regular and detailed updates sent to backers.

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"Most of the time developers go dark once their Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign has run its course, with the backers getting occasional or sporadic updates," he explains. "But that's nothing like we do; we have more posts than days of the week, at least three video updates, a 50 to 70 page behind the scenes e-magazine and normally at least two patches a month."

During those hectic first few days when Star Citizen first exploded on Kickstarter, he went without sleep for 72 hours straight and, according to an aide, had to be forced to a hotel room bed by worried colleagues.

Star Citizen was originally due to be launched at the end of 2014. Although some limited modules are available to backers — two dogfighting maps (called Arena Commander), some spaceship racecourses, a hangar to store ships and a social hub — the vast bulk of the game is still in development.

Some backers are asking for their money back. Media reports are emerging that suggest Roberts has made a few questionable project management decisions. A release-date timeline touted by Roberts in January has completely slipped.

"Yeah, I find it very challenging," says Roberts. "It's a bit like being a politician. Not only are you trying to develop a game and run multiple studios with a lot of different people, but we're also being open and keeping the community informed of everything we do, while we have work that is out there and being improved upon all the time."

Between his 1990s success with the Wing Commander and Privateer games, Roberts tried his hand in Hollywood. Coming back to games is a re-education in how much time is needed to manage multiple people working at multiple studios.

"In the movie business, people just say 'I'm doing what the boss wants whether I agree or not.' In games, people code the system the way they want to do it. That's just the way games work, which I know because I've done it for a long time."

Star Citizen

There's little doubt that the 255 people working at Star Citizen publisher Cloud Imperium Games are putting in the hours to get the game done, and that Roberts is living in a state of perpetual crunch.

"I've never seen him work so hard," says Erin Roberts, who runs the company's Manchester, England studio where the game's single player campaign is being developed. "He's my brother and sometimes it stresses me out that he's putting in these huge amount of hours. He's dealing with a lot of stuff. I'm not sure it's especially healthy. But in terms of his dedication, it's 100 percent."

At Gamescom earlier this month, Roberts presented some of the progress he and his team have been making, including a social hub where players can interact and collect missions, the latest build of a first-person shooting module and "multi-crew," in which various players can work together on larger spaceships, entering combat against other teams.

"There is certainly a huge amount of stress 24/7 being so public and to have people out there that are just hoping you fail."

All these game-parts are due out in the weeks and months ahead. But the game-world that strings them all together - called the Persistent Universe — will not be out until 2016. And the single-player campaign, Squadron 42, does not have a release date.

Although the Star Citizen community forums are generally upbeat about the game, there's also a core of backers who are expressing disillusionment, accusing Roberts of biting off more than he can chew.

"There's a fair amount of work that comes from communicating with all the backers," says Roberts. "It's generally a nice experience. You get to meet the people who played your old games, who like what you're doing now. Then there's the not so nice stuff."

Star Citizen isn't just a game in development. It's also the focus of a great deal of interest about crowdfunding, game developer star appeal and the intersection of money and game-making.

"There is certainly a huge amount of stress 24/7 being so public and to have people out there that are just hoping you fail because they are somehow threatened by the concept of crowdfunding and the fact that people may genuinely want to see a certain type of project built and are willing to contribute money towards that goal," he adds

"Star Citizen has definitely become the main target for people that think crowdfunding is a scam. We're the biggest project out there and therefore the most visible and any hint of negative news brings out these people in force."

"It's incredibly frustrating and taxing to constantly read posts from people that don't even bother to check out what we've done or the amount of information we share with our backers yet call us vaporware, or worse actively try to harass and be as mean spirited as possible to cause distress. I have a pretty thick skin, but we have quite a few people on our community and customer service teams that deal with this kind of vitriol every day and it's frustrating to see them take continual abuse. It's not easy keeping the community informed and fixing their issues, and they do an amazing job, but to also be the brunt of unreasonable hatred is just not cool."

An Online Antagonist

Derek Smart is a game developer whose most recent game, Line of Defense, is (like Star Citizen) a sci-fi game set in space. He's also known as a vociferous and garrulous social media commentator on video game culture. He is a serial poster on forums and comments threads, including Polygon.

In the past few months, Smart posted various blog posts that are intensely critical of Star Citizen and of Chris Roberts. He claims that the game can never be made, and expresses a belief that Cloud Imperium will run out of money. He demands that all backers who want a refund ought to be given one and has repeatedly called for a full accounting of crowdfunded money pledged to the project.

Star Citizen

Smart has collected a few hundred names of backers who have expressed an interest in a refund. Even so, since his blog posts began, fewer than a hundred people have approached Cloud Imperium to ask for a refund, according to Roberts.

On one of his long blog posts Smart wrote that Star Citizen "has all the makings of a crowd-funding failure and an unmitigated disaster" which is "likely to be the most shocking event in recent gaming memory."

Cloud Imperium argues that Smart is a compromised critic. His blog posts often mention his own game (Smart denies he is motivated by competition, saying that they are "totally different games."). He accepts that, although he was a backer of Star Citizen and has criticized the quality of the game's released modules, he's never downloaded or played the modules.

Derek Smart
Smart: Star Citizen "has all the makings of a
crowd-funding failure and an unmitigated disaster"

Cloud Imperium kicked Smart off the backer program, refunding his money. (Smart claims he never received the check, something Cloud Imperium disputes.)

The company's publicity people dismiss Smart as a crank with an agenda, who commands a relatively small following. But although Roberts generally avoids talking about Smart directly, during Polygon's interview the Cloud Imperium CEO seemed to lose his cool when asked about his nemesis. Clearly, the attacks are having some effect.

"If you read his blogs, he gets more and more personal, more and more outrageous with his claims, and he's been getting traction and attention. Catfights are fun for people to read about. But it's not fun for me to be in the middle. It's quite distracting. It's hard on the company," he says.

Roberts: "It's not going to happen. We have a
pretty healthy cash reserve."

"You have to deal with people publicly taking you on and calling you names in public. You have to sit there and take it. That becomes fairly stressful ... We've got people around our company who get worried. Is this gonna happen? Are we running out of money? Will I lose my job? The stress that gets caused to other people that work for me is something that ... it's bullshit."

In a later email to Polygon, Roberts again addressed his feelings about Smart. "It's hard not to be irritated when someone who is famous for being very late and then finally releasing a bug ridden game that doesn't do half the things he promised starts criticizing you for taking too long and not delivering on promises.

Legal Matter

Last week, Derek Smart sent a lawyer's letter to Cloud Imperium demanding that the company allow auditors to examine how the crowd-funded money has so far been spent and seeking guaranteed refunds for backers who want them.

A Cloud Imperium spokesperson told Polygon that the company has responded directly to Smart's lawyers. "Mr. Smart’s counsel is in receipt of our response," said the spokesperson. "As a matter of policy, we don’t release private communications, but if the past provides any guidance, our letter should be posted any time now by Mr. Smart."

"The reason why we have chosen not to engage him and tried to take the high road is that he's the kind of person with nothing to lose, that will carry on no matter what facts are put in front of him and has made it his mission to try and tear down Star Citizen."

Roberts scoffs at the notion that the company will run out of money before the final game is delivered. "It's not going to happen. We keep a pretty healthy cash reserve. We managed our expenses based on the revenue we bring in. We have our development timeline and we know what we're doing. We adjust. If I'm not bringing in $3 million or $2 million a month, we aren't going to have as many people working on it.

"When Star Citizen and Squadron 42 are out there, I think the game will speak for itself. The noise we're dealing with now will not be there. The people who were there and backed it along the way will be happy and they'll be proud of helping make something happen that probably could not have happened in any other situation."

Star Marine's Delay

One of the main reasons why 2015 has, so far, been difficult for Roberts is the delay of Star Citizen's first-person shooting module, called Star Marine.

In January, Roberts said that Star Marine would be arriving in the spring. The module was delayed and is now slated to arrive some time in the next few weeks. At the time of the delay, earlier this year, Roberts had no new release date and several outlets, including Polygon, reported it as being "delayed indefinitely," something at which the studio bristled.

"We never said that," offers a company spokesperson. "We never used those words."

Cloud Imperium Games later locked down a new release window.

"We made an initial decision not to release additional Arena Commander updates," explains Roberts. "We thought, well, the FPS is coming soon, it'll be too much of a load on the backend and our dev-ops and our testing to get these two things out at the same time. That turned to be a mistake, because the FPS has taken longer than we wanted. We've continued to have some issues we need to solve."

Roberts has repeatedly explained the nature of those technical problems which come down to player perspective and the number of players allowed in one map at a time. But why weren't those issues accounted for when the now-slipped release dates were being announced?

"You work on things, you see how it works out, you see that it's not good enough so you have to change it a bit," he says.

Denver-based studio Illfonic was hired to work on first-person-shooter element Star Citizen, mainly based on its experience working with CryEngine. But Illfonic is a small company with little experience making big budget games.

Cloud Imperium is now in the process of transitioning final development of the two FPS levels to its newest internal studio in Germany. "In the very early days we didn't have a big staff," says Roberts. "It takes time to staff up and hire. Our plan was always to transition into internal staff. We've now got people that have the knowledge and the experience with the engine that they can help finish and close things out in a way that would be more difficult with people who don't have the same familiarity."

Was Illfonic a bad choice for such a big job?

"It wouldn't be very fair to say one thing or another," says Roberts. "I think they did a good job. I think they had experience with CryEngine, which was a plus. But I do think that we are better served having less disparate groups work on the code base.

Illfonic recently laid off some of the people who worked on the project. "We brought them on to specifically write mechanics and systems for the FPS," says Roberts. "We're now at the point where most of that is done and we're transitioning it in-house. The people they laid off are environment artists that built the FPS levels."

Todd Papy
Todd Papy

Todd Papy is design director for the company and game director on Star Marine. Last week, he spoke to Polygon via Skype from Illfonic's offices where he was managing the project's transition to Cloud Imperium's Frankfurt offices. Papy's experience includes SCEA Santa Monica and Crytek.

He says that the Illfonic team have "served their purpose" and that "in my mind it's just handing the baton over" now that internal studios with relevant experience have been staffed up. "Player movement is a major resource that, in my mind, should be in-house. It should be something we own," he says.

The FPS levels were shown at Gamescom and are unlikely to concern gaming's powerhouse FPS brands. They feature soldiers in corridors shooting at one another.

Papy says that the levels ought to be seen in the context of the much larger world that is coming later.

"We're going to judge it as a whole, once we get the multi-crew stuff working, once we get EVA [Extra Vehicular Activity) all working. Then we start getting into some of the asymmetrical gun battles we can have with ships as well as FPS. That's where I think we'll shine."

The point is that Star Citizen isn't just a compendium of game genres — racing, space-shooter, FPS, trading, MMO — it's all those things combined. The corridor shooter is a work-in-progress towards an integrated Persistent Universe in which players move themselves in and out of different environments, including outside spaceships and on planet surfaces.

"We're just getting the baseline of the player movement the way that we want it to be and then mixing that with the ships," says Papy. "That's the first step in the dream, which is being able to get into your ship with your buddies and go and possibly hijack a ship or defend a ship or a space station. It's the first step in what we're trying to do."

Star Citizen

Cloud Imperium execs repeatedly make the point that Star Citizen is not like games from traditional publishers. The backers have paid to be able to play various modules and engage in a feedback process during development. Execs talk about how much Arena Commander has been tweaked and improved since it was released last year.

At Gamescom, Roberts showed off the game's social module, which was released to backers last week.

"ArcCorp is basically our first social area," says Papy. "What you saw was a very small subset of what we're doing. We still need to build the jobs board. We still need to build where you can buy your parts, buy your weapons, go to a bar. These are all in development."

Another theme that Cloud Imperium execs return to is that all AAA games take a long time to produce.

"To me it's stepping stones." says Papy. "This is the part of the journey that fans and backers are paying for. You're seeing behind the curtain that you don't normally see behind. If you think of something like The Last of Us, or even God of War, games I'm experienced with, God of War took us three or four years before we showed it. These things take time. Last of Us was in development for four years before it came out. That's building off existing technology, an existing engine."

Feature Creep

But this doesn't fully explain the overly ambitious release dates announced by Roberts.

Roberts bristles when asked about these slipped dates. "I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't. I have some backers saying, don't give me dates. Make it right. Don't rush it. And then I have some people go, where is the game? I want to play it right now.

"My opinion on the issue is, people want a great game. No one's backed this to have something rushed out. No one's backed this to make a Christmas season, like you would get from a normal publisher's game."

To be fair, so-called "feature creep" is built into the Star Citizen crowdfunding model. When the game was first seeking a few hundred thousand dollars to get itself made, it was at a much smaller scale than it is now.

What is planned for CitzenCon 2015?

Last year's CtizenCon was held in Los Angeles and gave backers a chance to see the then latest build of the game's Persistent Universe.

This year CitizenCon 2015 — a live event staged by Cloud Imperium Games — is being held in Manchester, England, in October. Once again, fans will get to see progress on the larger game space. But the event is likely to focus more heavily on the nature of single player campaign Squadron 42, with a release date also planned.

Squadron 42 is being built by Cloud Imperium's Manchester studio.

"It's just a very big game, compounded by the fact that we're very public," says Roberts. "We're open in our development. We have no buffer. We have no shield. And so we have to say how things are going. Trust me, I'd love to have the FPS out already. I'd love to have a bunch of stuff out already. But people have invested a lot of their hopes and dreams and money into this thing. I've invested a vast amount of time. We need to make the best possible game.

"We're running a live game at the same time we're doing all the R&D and production. We're still architecting some aspects of the basic game while parts of it are live. That's an incredibly high degree of difficulty."

The scale of Star Citizen is one of the chief beefs of those backers who are losing patience, who say that the massive game currently being developed is not the same as the one they are now waiting for. It's one of the reasons why Roberts seems to be relaxing rules on refunds, which are only officially allowed in the company's terms and service within the first 14-days of making a pledge. "If there are cases where people are really upset, or facing personal hardships, on a case by case basis we take a look and we refund," he says. "We don't want to keep people around. We don't want to fight with them."

tony z
Tony Zurovec

Tony Zurovec is overseeing Star Citizen's Persistent Universe, the ultimate destination for this complex project. He's been working in professional game development for the past 25 years.

He says that, looking back over the game's development life so far, he does not believe they could have reached this point any faster.

"There are always things that, in hindsight, would have saved you some time and money if you'd known them beforehand. That said, I don't think there's a tremendous amount that we could have done differently to accelerate the current game's overall progress short of lessening the scope.

"The reality is that we're building an enormous story-driven single-player space combat game with loads of beautiful environments, ships far more detailed than anything that's ever been done, and a fully featured FPS component, while simultaneously building an MMO around the same universe. The larger and better received MMOs routinely take longer to develop, and when the clock starts ticking most of those endeavors already have a good portion of the team in place.

"A lot of the community understands this. The irony is that if the game were much farther along at this point in its development, it would largely be the result of a dramatically reduced scope, which in turn would make the game considerably less interesting to a lot of people."

Hands-on Approach

Due to his success with much-loved series Wing Commander, Roberts is in the top tier of game developers whose names carry weight. That muscle has helped him to leverage his fame to raise funds for Star Citizen and to attract talent to Cloud Imperium.

He's clearly a details man. During the process of writing this feature, Roberts sent the Polygon editorial team lengthy emails outlining his views and arguments about his game. This is rare among developers.

Chris Roberts testing the game

Papy talks about dealing with Roberts' hands-on approach. "I've worked with some very high level game directors in the past," he says. "Once they got into that position, a lot of them weren't really doing anything. But Chris is in there looking at code, giving feedback on code, talking about exactly how he wants the server set up.

"I get emails from Chris sometimes at two in the morning. His drive and passion for the project is unmatched. Yes, there are blind alleys that you go down. It's one of those things where you expect things to work out a certain way and they don't. Then you need to make adjustments. I don't think there's anything out of the ordinary here.

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"The goal is to really push the envelope and do something that's never before been done."

"Sometimes a decision needs to be made and from there we live with the consequences. If you keep second-guessing yourself you're not going anywhere."

"As with any large, ambitious project there have been some areas that required significant research to get right, and sometimes based upon what you learn you wind up changing directions," says Zurovec.

Star Citizen

"You're always going to have people looking at something that works fairly well and saying that it's good enough. There's no doubt that Chris' standards are extremely high and that means that he continues to push people - engineers, designers, artists — a lot farther than some of them think is necessary. Every game has to find its own balance between perfection and pragmatism, and I think that Chris has been pretty clear with everyone that the goal is to really push the envelope and do something that's never before been done."

Squadron 42 and Persistent Universe

Assuming Cloud Imperium hits its latest promised targets, this year will see the release of the FPS following last week's social module, as well as the new Arena Commander, which includes multi-crew combat.

But next year will be the real test of Star Citizen's value, when the Persistent Universe arrives. It is likely to be rolled out in stages and built upon. It will also be connected to the single player campaign, Squadron 42 which will be given a new launch date at CitizenCon in October. It's reasonable to assume a 2016 launch date for that too, although Cloud Imperium may surprise. Squadron 42 is planned as a trilogy of full game campaigns.

"Squadron 42 is at big, epic single-player story," says Erin Roberts. "We're taking what everyone loved about the original Wing Commander and building on that to find new ways to tell stories, so people really feel like they are walking around a ship and visiting these locations and talking to people and having relationships. We want to make a really big immersive experience."

Erin Roberts
Erin Roberts

He says that Squadron 42 will feed into the Persistent Universe, in which players will encounter some of the people and places they saw in the single-player campaign.

"We will have engagements which you can also play later on with your friends when you take moments from gameplay and do missions together with your friends."

The scale of the Persistent Universe is immense.

The game is essentially an MMO, although it's not clear how much will be presented to players when it first arrives.

"We'll do things in stages," says Papy. "It's not like a traditional MMO where you get to a certain state and you go live and start doing tuning and tweaking. We're a live product, and at the same time we're developing a product.

"I think if you pitched Chris's vision to a publisher, they would cut it down and then cut it down some more. The backers are allowing us to try to achieve as much of that vision as possible."

"Star Citizen's ultimate objective is to put you into a highly detailed world and then remove as many boundaries as possible," says Zurovec. "That is a long-term goal, which is a big part of the reason why we're aiming to create a solid foundation that we can use far into the future instead of taking a lot of shortcuts simply to show short-term progress.

"With some major pieces starting to finally come together, though, I expect that the next twelve months will see more content being placed into the hands of players than has happened since the project began."

Backers Patience

So far, 2015 has been a tough year for Star Citizen backers. Yes, there have been tweaks and new starships added, but they've also had to deal with delays to other much-anticipated modules.

The game's Persistent Universe was originally supposed to be out in 2014, so it's not surprising that patience is wearing a little thin in some quarters.

Paul Shelley (aka Bzerker01) is a Twitch streamer who follows Star Citizen closely and is well known among the game's loyal fanbase. "The community is cautiously optimistic," he said. "They want to see progress. There are many who are waiting for more content before they continue to support it either financially or through word of mouth."

"With the number of backers we have there will always be some segment that is unhappy," says Roberts. "Whether it's because they feel the game is late, we haven't addressed controller balance, their ship was unfairly nerfed in the last Area Commander patch and so on. This is the challenge of a crowd funded project.

Backers Speak

Polygon spoke to two backers who represent different ends of the Star Citizen community.

Ryan Allen, a web developer from California, backed Star Citizen in early 2013 and went on to spend a total of $930 on various in-game spaceships, over a period of about 18 months. He requested a refund in July, which was granted.

"When I backed the game, I was excited that Chris was making a new Wing Commander-type game," he says. "It was like, 'take my money.'"

But by early 2015, Allen had grown disillusioned with the game. "I totally believed in it, but after so much delay, I just wanted my money back." He adds that the growing scale of the project and the delays made him feel that Cloud Imperium "had been dishonest and that the game was going downhill."

Jared Parks backed the Kickstarter from the earliest days. He accepts that the scale of the project has changed, and that delays are part of game development. "I'm not here backing some project. I'm here to back an idea," he says. "People want to see the industry change. Star Citizen is a chance to see that change come to light. Star Citizen is a worthy project to grab a hold of and support.

"This game is unusual and it's uncharted territory, Cloud Imperium Games will inevitably make mistakes. However, if you want to see a change in the industry to shifting away from the same-old producing mindless game releases and going back to an age of quality and passion, then I suggest hanging in there and help Star Citizen push across that final finish line."

"Everybody has their own take on what they are backing as there isn't a final definitive product at the time you back. I personally try my best to listen to everyone's concerns and make the calls we think are best for the whole community. I and the rest of the team genuinely care about the community's feedback and value it in making a better game in the long run."

"Every project I've been on has slipped," says Papy. "Big budget games like [Grand Theft Auto] 5 and The Witcher 3 all slipped. This game is extremely ambitious. There are certain things we do know how to do. It's not pure R&D. But there are elements that take more time to figure out and get to a point where we work out most of the kinks."

"I understand why people who don't understand development would get frustrated," says Erin Roberts. "They really want to have this game. But there's a huge amount of work we're trying to do. Is it great that people get frustrated? No, but it's understandable. It's our job to get the stuff out. We are doubling down to get the content out to people so they can see what we are trying to do. The dream that everyone bought into is the dream that we are trying to deliver."

"Sometimes you don't get to a certain point [in development] quite as quickly as you estimated," says Chris Roberts. "But I'm not looking at the game saying, I can't do this at all. If anyone says, can you make Star Citizen, I say, yep, I absolutely can.

"I have no concern about being able to deliver the promised game. When people do get to connect those things together, when they start to play the multi-crew in a few months time, they'll see the foundation of that. Next thing you'll do is you'll be landing on a planet. Then you'll be going to several planets. Then we'll be opening up another star system you can jump to. Then it's just content production."

Roberts talks about the Star Citizen pitch, the idea of being a person in space, visiting planets, getting into trouble in bars, boarding and attacking other space-ships.

"We're going to build something special for everyone. It's taken longer to deliver the vision than people would like. But in general, that's always the case with great games. Gamers complain about delays. But I would be doing a disservice if I didn't deliver the best game possible for everyone out there who's backed it.

"It's a lot of work, but it's not something I'm complaining about as it's allowed me to be building a game that I doubt any publisher would back. I mean who would invest $87 million into a space sim that is built just for high-end PCs? I don't think it would be healthy to burn the candle this hard ad infinitum but I am super focused on getting the first public release of Star Citizen and Squadron 42 out the door. To do that I can't afford to not give it all my attention. Once done I'll take a long deserved holiday with my family."Babykayak