Star Citizen’s Fundraising Could End Up Hurting the Game
Star Citizen’s staggering budget means it will either be crowdfunding’s greatest success story or its greatest failure.
Star Citizen is going to reach the $50 million mark in donations, and it’s going to do it soon. Despite surpassing the amount of funds needed to develop the grandest of space simulators two years ago, the fans continue to fork over an average of $80,000 a day to its production. That’s $10 million since last January alone, a feat that will likely be repeated by the year’s end. Without a doubt, Star Citizen is the most successful crowdfunding project of all time. The trouble is, even with all that money, we still don’t know what the finished game will look like.
Crowdfunding was heralded as the start of a new age for indie developers, even though risks and hazards for such projects were as strong as ever.
It’s a hard question to answer, because crowdfunded games are still an incredibly unfamiliar market. When Chris Roberts first opened up contributions to Star Citizen in 2012, he was one of many developers using Kickstarter as an alternative to traditional games publishing. Crowdfunding was heralded as the start of a new age for indie developers, even though risks and hazards for such projects were as strong as ever. Since then, the majority of successfully backed gaming projects have pushed back their release dates. Some of the biggest Kickstarter-backed titles, like Wasteland 2 or Torment: Tides of Numenera, still aren’t in a state where they can be fully reviewed. And that’s not getting into projects that ran out of money, collapsed after the fact, or turned out to be thinly-veiled scams. And the behemoth that is Star Citizen towers over them all.
Star Citizen began as a passion project for Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts. The game promised a return to the long-defunct space-sim genre, complete with a huge universe, online and offline play, and no subscription fees. The demand was overwhelming, a shock to publishers who believed the genre was unpopular, and Roberts raised more than $2 million from Kickstarter in a month. Its original goal was $500,000.
As a Kickstarter success on par with Double Fine or inXile entertainment, Roberts’ team had over four times the amount needed to create its proposed game. Despite this, the crowdfunding campaign never quite ended. Instead, Paypal donations remained available through Star Citizen’s website, allowing access to the same player rewards, stretch goals, and pre-order packages as Kickstarter. And the donations just kept coming. Millions of dollars continued to pour into the project. Within months, Star Citizen had surpassed the amount for every single stretch goal.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with Cloud Imperium Games having so much money to build from.
At this point, Star Citizen was already looking to be a massive game with enough features to satisfy die-hard fans. But instead of stopping there, Roberts and his team just started creating new stretch goals for backers to achieve. New features, new ship types, new systems, each bringing in a new influx of donations, followed by additional goals with every few million raised. Pledge rewards increased the number of ships available to players at launch, despite the fact that they wouldn’t be available for months or even years. It wasn’t until June 2014 that Roberts finally raised the possibility of closing Star Citizen’s stretch goals, putting the question to backers in a poll. Fifty-four percent of respondents asked for more stretch goals, which Roberts claimed he intends to honor.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with Cloud Imperium Games having so much money to build from; AAA publishers throw these kind of figures at games all the time and produce smash hits. Regardless, it’s a little concerning that crowdfunding has become a game in and of itself at this point. Without a finished product, Star Citizen is little more than a microtransaction website where players buy content they won’t experience for months or even years. Eventually new rewards are announced, and players are encouraged to chip in more money to the cycle while there’s no full game to show for it.