With $68 million raised and counting, by over 700,000 backers, Star Citizen holds the Guinness World Record for the most crowdfunded project ever. Chris Roberts, creator of the Wing Commander series, is the captain of this very expensive ship, and today I have the opportunity to talk to him about his vision for the space sim, how players will shape its universe, and why he thinks people are willing to spend so many thousands of dollars on virtual spaceships.
I start by asking if the money raised is enough. “It’s never enough!” he laughs. “We scale development according to how much money is coming in. The level of support dictates our level of ambition. This is a huge open-world game where you can go from planet to planet, so we could spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it quite easily.”
We’re not having to have conversations with publishers who may have other agendas…
I ask Roberts what it’s like being freed from the traditional developer/ publisher relationship and going indie—albeit on a much grander scale than most studios. “Every day we can just focus on what we think is going to be the best game. When you’re working with a big publisher, a lot of energy gets expended on marketing and sales, and they determine what your budget is… The problem with that is they get a say in what you do with the game. I’ve had situations where marketing has said things like ‘Call of Duty has this, so you need to have this,’ and if we say no, they’ll mark the projected sales down by a million units, lowering the development budget. So you end up doing things you don’t believe in so you get a good forecast.”
Roberts is building a game he believes in. “The people backing it believe in it too. We’re not having to have conversations with publishers who may have other agendas… The downside—and it’s not really a bad thing—is having so many opinions and voices. Everyone has a different idea about what they want the game to be, so you’ve got to walk the line of trying to deliver something you’re really happy with, while making sure the backers get what they invested in.”
Roberts talks to Star Citizen backers regularly—a necessity for any crowdfunded project. “On the internet you get people that don’t have any sense of how to get something across in a constructive manner. But there are plenty of people who are super positive, and ultimately I don’t mind the bad ones, because everyone who backed the game is invested in making it better. You might not agree with them, but they care.”
Once a thriving genre on PC, the space sim had, until recently, faded into obscurity. Now we have Elite: Dangerous, EVE: Valkyrie, No Man’s Sky, and others on the way. I ask Roberts why he thinks these games are making a comeback. “I don’t understand why they went away. I think people just love science fiction. They like escapism, and playing computer games is one of the biggest forms of that. I loved games like X-Wing and Freespace, and after taking a break from the games industry, I came back and saw that no one was developing them any more, which is why I wanted to make Star Citizen.”
When Roberts was working on Freelancer in 2003, he had an ambitious idea for a dynamic online universe shaped by the players, but which never came to fruition. Star Citizen, he says, is a natural evolution of that. “My biggest complaint about online games is that they don’t feel like the players have much impact on the world. It feels like a theme park. So one of the big tenets of Star Citizen is player impact.
“Your actions will have some effect on the world. If we put new star systems into the game, we won’t tell players about them, and the first person who navigates there will be able to name the system. That’s an example of players becoming part of the lore, but we won’t have a million systems to discover, so not everyone will get a chance to do that.”
He adds that the player-driven economy will alter the appearance of certain locations and the missions they offer. “If there’s a settlement and it’s doing well, it’ll grow. You can come back six months later and it’ll be turning into a city, which will then generate missions to deliver the materials to help build it. But if the economy suffers, there’ll be crime and unemployment, and things will begin to look run down.”
One of Star Citizen’s most fascinating ideas is that your character will die, permanently. “We want players to have a lifespan. Your character in Star Citizen, to think of it in arcade terms, will only have so many lives. If you get in a dogfight and your ship blows up, your body will be recovered and taken to a hospital on the nearest friendly planet. But there’s only so many times this can happen.
“You might get a mechanical hand to replace a damaged one. Every ‘death’ will age you, and once those ‘lives’ are used up, your character will pass away, and your possessions will go to a new character.”
The idea is that you’ll be building a legacy as you play, and a family line that can be traced back. “I want it to feel like time is passing, rather than you being this immortal character and nothing ever changing. Ships and items have wear and tear, so if you’re getting into fights, your ship will begin to look scratched and beaten up. You can get it repaired, but it’ll never be pristine again.”
Unlike Elite, which is built around its player’s ships, Star Citizen is essentially a first-person game. It just so happens that a lot of time has been spent on the vehicle simulation. This has allowed Cloud Imperium to do a lot more than it would if the player was forever tethered to their spacecraft. “We can be walking around on the surfaces of planets, interacting with NPCs and other players. These are places where you can pick up missions, explore, talk to people, and buy and sell cargo.
“We’ll also have a limited amount of PvE stuff that’ll happen on planets. Maybe you’ll go down a dark alleyway to sell some contraband to a fence, and as you go down there, you’ll get attacked by muggers. You’ll have to take them out, Han Solo-style, with your blaster. We want these places to feel like they’re alive, rather than just glorified shopping and mission interfaces.”
But while Star Citizen is going to be a game for solo privateers as well as mega-corporations, multiplayer will be a massive part of it, Roberts confirms. “The bigger ships have been designed with co-op in mind, and players can take on different roles, like piloting or manning turrets. In space you can open the airlock and leave your ship in an EVA, and dock with another ship, or repair your own. Or you could be exploring a derelict sitting in an asteroid field. We want to have interesting, fun gameplay for everyone. It won’t be like World of Warcraft where you need a big group to do the really cool stuff.”
I finish by asking what he thinks about the grey market: a community built around the buying and selling of Star Citizen ships, sometimes for thousands of dollars, even though the buyers can’t even fly them yet.
“We thought that if someone is backing the game for $250, they should get a better ship than if they’d spent $40. Then we had a lot of requests to sell ships separately, and this is when we had to decide on the pricing. We couldn’t really take, say, the Constellation, which was on the $250 pledge, and make it a $30 ship. That’s how we set the prices.”
He cites the game’s insurance system as a big factor. “If your ship gets destroyed in the game, you’ll get a new one, providing you keep your premium valid… But we decided that, to reward backers, we’d offer them lifetime insurance on their ships, and it’s those ships that became highly sought-after on the grey market.”
Roberts is clearly incredibly passionate about Star Citizen, and you can tell he’s approaching its development primarily with a game design brain, not a marketing one. I sincerely hope the game can live up to Cloud Imperium’s bold, skyreaching ambitions.