Imagine a game that took more than seven years to make and cost more than a quarter billion dollars. It’s a sprawling spacefaring multiplayer epic with beautiful graphics combining multiple genres, with a story featuring famous actors. That game exists, kind of, but unless you’re really into following industry drama, you’ve probably never heard of it.
Star Citizen began as a wildly successful crowdfunding project on Kickstarter. Developer Cloud Imperium promised the most immersive space simulation ever, but over seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the game is still only accessible in alpha form, for backers, with no release date in sight. How did we get here? Well, entire books could be written about the weirdness and controversy this game has generated, but we’re going to try to just quickly hit the highlights for you.
The figure discussed here is going to seem hilarious in a moment, but Cloud Imperium managed to get a record $2 million in funding from Kickstarter for Star Citizen in its first few days. That’s a fantastic sum. Especially when you consider how unproven the platform was back then, and how it was achieved by Chris Roberts, a guy responsible solely for Wing Commander, a game you might have loved if you were into gaming … in 1990. Even more surprising is that this money now represent less than 1% of the game’s entire funding so far, as in the years since, it has managed to get over $286 million more through private donors and in-game purchases.
To put that in perspective, that’s more than the budget of any Marvel Cinematic Universe film that doesn’t have Thanos as the lead villain. And that’s somehow not enough, with most of the money already spent. But hey, at least they’re spending their funds on essential equipment … like this office coffee machine that may have cost $20,000.
Star Citizen is now mostly making money by selling ships that players can maybe fly in the perpetually incomplete state of the game. And in what totally doesn’t look like a desperate Hail Mary, Cloud Imperium released a pack containing nearly every ship in the game for the measly sum of $27,000. Yes, you read the number right.
The developers were aware that taking this amount of money from most players would draw controversy. They tried to avoid such trouble by making sure only people who’d previously spent over $1,000 in the game would get to even see that sweet deal. It might have worked, but players naturally weren’t happy about any of it and complained, feeling like this whole thing might possibly have gotten out of hand. You know, just a little.
A year after the controversy, Cloud Imperium responded by launching a ship at a price that can buy you a pretty decent real-life TV. The Over $1K Club could get this new ship for $675, whereas the plebs could get a worse version of the ship for the somehow higher price of $725. There’s a reason the ship is so expensive. The Aegis Nautilus Solstice is a new type of ship, one that can lay mines. That’s really cool if you forget laying mines is the least-cool weapon to use in space.
But it gets worse: The Aegis Nautilus Something isn’t even in the game yet, because the game still doesn’t have its mine-laying mechanics working. And how did they announce this incredible ship which, and I can’t stress this enough, doesn’t actually work?
Having spent over a thousand dollars in the game grants you membership in the Chairman’s Club, a title that means nothing. But you also become associated with cool stuff like the “Aegis VIP Event,” a special luxurious dinner attended by Star Citizen creator Chris Roberts and other developers from Cloud Imperium. That would be neat, to rub elbows with the people offering you fake video game ships that collectively cost more than a down payment on most houses.
At first you might think that being invited to a dinner because of your contributions to a game is a pretty decent gesture, but that’s not exactly the case. The “Chairmen” weren’t invited to attend, but instead invited to buy a ticket to attend. The price: $274. All that to hear about a ship that can’t be played in an unreleased game that you’ve now spent, at the very least, $1,274 on.
Roberts has been notoriously happy about announcing upcoming stuff. However, he seemingly wasn’t too thrilled about not being able to monetize Star Citizen‘s announcements. Why should it be free to watch a company advertise its products? So they tried to implement paid streaming announcements. They’d create an event for players — who were already paying — to get the chance to pay $20 to get an E-ticket to watch announcements for new stuff to spend money on.
Fans of Star Citizen take a lot of crap, but apparently they draw the line at “monetizing monetization” and got furious. After a lot of online backlash, Roberts backtracked on his decision in a long blog post. He stated that they were going to make future announcements free but not without leaving the signature douchey taste in everyone’s mouth by saying it would naturally come with the sacrifice of live crew costs. BET YOU FEEL PRETTY BAD ABOUT YOURSELVES NOW, HUH, RATIONAL CONSUMERS?
Wait, are we sure this is a game and not an elaborate piece of performance art intended to skewer the entire concept of capitalism?
Most games that sell virtual items make most of their cash from “whales” — a core of enthusiasts with (apparently) more disposable income than they know what to do with. Well, everything is bigger with Star Citizen. One man, who we’ll refer to as Ozy311 (as he’s paid enough to earn it), admitted in a 2015 interview that he’d spent over $30,000 in the game, most of it on virtual spaceships. Ozy doesn’t simply own everything in the game; he owns everything and many of those things multiple times. He has even bought the “Completionist with the Million-Mile High Club” package, a name so dumb you know they didn’t put over a second of thought into it, because they never expected anyone to buy it.
One of the game’s biggest selling points should be Squadron 42. Unlike Star Citizen‘s main game, which is an intertwining of various types of mechanics, Squadron 42 was supposed to be a simple standalone campaign even people not interested in the online aspect could get into. And to promote it, they compiled a video of Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, and Gillian Anderson playing starring roles. Commissioner Gordon, Gollum, Luke Skywalker, and Scully? That’s not a bad lineup.
But that was announced back in 2015, before Squadron 42 got delayed indefinitely. Despite being expensive, this should be one of the easiest segments of the game to get done, seeing as you wouldn’t have to worry about the constant change in mechanics that comes with programming an ever-evolving, open-ended multiplayer exploration experience. If you need more info, though, you can check the official website for an ultra-confusing road map, one that’s useless to read because they’ve already thrown in the towel on meeting those deadlines.
Reminder: The original Kickstarter for this game ran in the fall of 2012, around the time Obama was running for his second term. So the backers are kind of used to this sort of thing. For example …
So this is a game about flying around in space and exploring planets. But just to make sure there’s something for absolutely everyone, there was going to be a cutting-edge first-person mode too, including FPS missions (they weren’t charging $400 for guns, but who knows, maybe that’s coming).
So the devs decided that instead of a normal floating camera, like most first-person shooters, they should come up with a revolutionary new one. Because everything in this game is about trying to make things that don’t even work by themselves work together with other things, they devised a camera that would realistically simulate the eyeballs in the character’s head, but which wouldn’t bounce around the way your actual head does when walking. (Note: In real life, your brain does a lot of adjusting to keep you from getting disoriented by such motions.)
After countless hours and dollars spent, a breakthrough was made: Realistic human movement is actually complicated. The devs decided the best way to reproduce the complexity of the relation between human motion and its vision would be to emulate birds, whose heads are able to remain stable as their bodies move. “But wait, isn’t that just going right back to the way other FPS games have been doing it forever?” It seems like it? Anyway, the game’s FPS mode only came out in a very alpha state two years after its original intended release, and the camera feels exactly like every other shooter. And just to remind you: $288 million.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cloud Imerium is its refund policy, which has a window of 30 days, which the they consider very generous. That’s neat, considering the game has been in development hell for 85 times that amount of time.
In 2018, Ken Lord, an early backer and a player who’d spent over $4,500 in the game, started to get disillusioned, for some reason. So Lord filed a lawsuit to get back his money back. And while it would be great to hear that he stuck one to a company that is so obviously, terrifyingly disorganized, it didn’t work out so well. He ended up losing.
But I guess it worked out for him, sort of, as he never ever stopped buying ships for the game anyway. (He’s admitted he was addicted, and his poor impulse control was stronger than his ire.) Maybe customers who are sick of the whole thing should follow the example of the guy who in 2016 managed to sell his Star Citizen fleet to buy an actual car.
Who knows what’s going to happen at this point. While the original release date was 2014, there’s absolutely no estimated, much less official, date currently (currently it’s in alpha version 3.6). So what of this game actually exists, as of the time of this writing?
There are vast, even astonishing stretches of stuff that’s mostly playable, kind of, which grant glimpses of the incredible scale the creators intended. You can see plenty of YouTube videos of people logging in and going on missions and almost getting immersed in this sprawling universe … until their character glitches through the floor of their ship and they lose all of their progress.
For a game that’s in alpha, it looks great, and there’s a whole bunch of content, even if none of it is actually finished. There’s a reason a massive community of fans have kept the thing afloat. There’s plenty here to tease your imagination, to make you believe in what Star Citizen could possible be someday, maybe. Until then, it mainly provides a whole lot of behind-the-scenes drama, and a lot of awkward moments when friends ask, “I’m sorry, you spent $5,000 on what?”