There are two schools of thought on the long, long-in-development Star Citizen. For fans, it is an in-development wonder, a work-in-progress promise of a bright, stellar future. It's a game in which people have already invested significant amounts of money.
But it's that same money that, for others, is a problem. Here is a crowdfunded game - or the foundations of one, at least - which is way behind schedule, which often fails to hit deadlines, and which never seems to quite live up to its promise.
I met up with the Star Citizen figurehead, Chris Roberts, at Gamescom last month for a frank chat on how things were going. Unsurprisingly, he falls in to the first school of thought - and was keen to explain why.
Gamescom saw a huge press conference for the game. Those who were there - or who watched remotely - got to see more details of Star Citizen's hotly-anticipated update 3.0, plus future enhancements such as the game's fancy new face over IP technology. My original plan for this interview was to run it alongside the launch of 3.0, which was expected by many fans to launch last week. But again, Star Citizen's development is taking longer than expected. The latest best guesstimate for launch now seems to be early October.
So here we are, with fans again wondering when the next update will arrive. Five years after its announcement, where is the future of Star Citizen headed? Will it ever be finished? Here's Chris Roberts with his take.
At Gamescom we're getting a good look at Star Citizen version 3.0. Are you in a state now that you'd term beta? What's next?
Chris Roberts: The term beta in terms of Star Citizen - with 3.0 the game is moving into a phase akin to Early Access. It'll build and grow from there, and then you could say 'well, it's not really Early Access anymore'. The price will probably go up a little bit and it will have much more of the features and content going on.
3.0 is the first time you'll have some of the basic game loops and mechanics. It's the first one which has proper persistence for your character, ship and items in terms of what their state is, their location is. When you log off and your ship is damaged, when you come back it'll still be damaged. There are a lot of jobs and options. The AI is still fairly basic - there's a lot more coming, but the AI... the previous 2.63 update was done the old scripted way. Now it's a scalable, modular mission system which designers can build from different blocks. We have procedural missions so there's a lot of 'go deliver something to this place', 'go identify a dead body on a spaceship', 'go after this particular pirate'. It's all templated up. There's a basic buying and selling mechanic, hauling cargo, the ability to earn and spend money on clothes, weapons, ship items or ship weapons. 3.1 will let you buy ships as well. And then from there we'll add more features for specific activities - mining, repair, building out more of the infrastructure for a dynamic universe.
Where do you draw a line in the sand between alpha, beta, Early Access? Are they just labels?
Chris Roberts: I feel like they're just labels - people still think of the old way [of making games], like my past games. We'd talk about a game for years, we'd show it, but no one would have their hands on it 'til it was out. There was an obsession with 'when will it get released'. Even with those [traditional boxed] games now, they get patched, they add things, make things better over time. The way I look at it is, if you've supported Star Citizen you can download and play 2.63 which is a mini, early-stage version of this universe and play around. There's a game experience there - it's not got nearly as much as we'll have in the final game but you can go and see how ships feel, find out what you think, and get your voice heard in our community as we make it better. It's like saying 'hey, we're going to have this really fancy hotel, but if you want to stay in this wing which is finished but maybe all the bits aren't quite working - there's no hot water yet - you can'.
You're getting in there at a much cheaper rate than when it's finished and you can maybe help us define how we operate. I think even if we said, this is now past beta, the paradigm for online stuff just doesn't work that way now. You see it all the time. League of Legends continues to add new heroes, even more traditional stuff like World of Warcraft has revisions every year. Even if we said, 'we're released', we're never going to stop adding content. That's how online games die. If you look at EVE Online now, it looks nothing like the game which launched. GTA Online, too, it originally launched on PS3 and Xbox 360 which aren't even supported now, they're constantly adding new stuff to it. Maybe people need to shift their point of view - the way I look at it on Star Citizen, if you get involved it's not going to be completely polished or finished but you'll get your voice heard. It's not for everyone, of course - you can always take a back seat for a year or two and reassess it.
When will you make the call to raise the price point? Do you have enough money to finish the game?
Chris Roberts: We run the business like a live business - we look at what we bring in every month, every year and plan our business by that. If that changed, we would change what we do. Outside the fact we're not finished or released, the company runs like we had an online game which was monetised every day. Which it essentially is - we have people joining every day, buying a starter pack or a ship. All the money we've raised dictates our budget - to a certain point where we have pretty much everything on our wishlist. Right now it's a very not-for-profit enterprise where we plough the money back in.
Some people have spent a lot of money on the game - have you ever thought about putting in a spending limit?
Chris Roberts: I know some people don't think we say it, but I do - you don't need to spend any more than the base amount. That's all you need. I definitely think there are some people out there who just like the idea of supporting this. For them it's their hobby. I have friends who aren't necessarily into computer games but maybe they're into golf, which can be a pretty expensive hobby. I like to play games, I don't buy antique cars and restore them, or play golf, or any other middle-aged person's hobby. So I figure I'll spend a couple thousand dollars on games, I'll budget where I'm going to spend that, on World of Warcraft or EVE Online or whatever, because I like what's happening and I want to support them. It's nice to have that level of support, but by far the majority of the people who have backed it have paid $40. What happens is, it's much more of a headline to write about a person who's spent $100 or $1000. Longer term, people who have spent a decent amount of money in the game will have more value than if they'd spend $1000 or $10k on a Kickstarter and got to have dinner with a developer. Most of our stuff is related to the ships you have, and dollar to the actual in-game cost, the money cost is significantly less than the in-game cost. Some of these ships, like the Idris, are massive capital ships. As an individual, maybe Bill Gates could afford a carrier. Nations buy those things, not individuals. That's part of the appeal - ships in Star Citizen are so fully-realised. I would love to be Roman Abramovich hanging out in the south of France but I don't have that much cash.
I definitely do not.
Chris Roberts: There's a very small number of people in the world who have that. But in Star Citizen maybe you've got yourself a billionaire's yacht. It's a big-ass ship and you can have all your friends over to hang out. People set a value to this virtual space and for whatever reason they like spaceships more than other things.
You guys are perhaps the most high-profile crowdfunded game out there, or at least one of them. Do you feel the responsibility to do crowdfunding right?
Chris Roberts: I definitely feel the responsibility to deliver the game, and the best game possible.
Other people look to you guys as an example of how big crowdfunded games can be run. Does that weigh on your mind at all?
Chris Roberts: Not really - to be honest, I feel like we do a better job than a lot of people do with interfacing with and updating our community. We had a site for the community before we announced the game, the DNA of the company has always been about informing the community and keeping them involved. And of course with having a community comes people who will always say 'you're not open enough'. People ask me about launching their own Kickstarter, and I'll say 'it's really rewarding, you have a direct connection to gamers who are enthusiastic about what you're doing, who are supporting you. But it is 24/7, and you have to be prepared to be constantly sharing, engaging and that is quite exhausting. It's like running a political campaign but non-stop. We do video content every day of the working week, we put a lot of effort into updating the community every week on what we're working on, we have a large community team, we try our best. You're not going to get everyone happy but we try our best to keep everyone involved and be respectful of our supporters. Not everyone is going to agree with whatever direction we're taking because our community is large. We're always very thankful of the support and have built tools, an organisation system on our website, to allow people to get together, to have their own forums and talk privately. There are events which happen around the world called BarCitizen where people from a location get together, hang out and share stories. We really put effort into that. Sometimes on crowdfunding, there are some who raise the money and then you get maybe an update once a month, then two or three years later you get the game. For us, you're along for the whole ride. You've boarded at the beginning, and we'll show and tell you about everything until we get to our destination.
My time is almost up so, perhaps in a couple of sentences, I'd love to hear you answer your critics. The game has a lot of fans but also a lot of detractors, and for every missed deadline those detractors' claims are proved more correct. What would you say to reassure them?
I mean, you're a gaming journalist, I've been in the industry a long time. How many times do you hear that another publisher like EA or Ubisoft or anyone that's creating something big or new or ambitious, even after four or five years of development, where they've promised it for this year and then when the time comes they say 'actually, it's going to be the following year after all'. It happens a lot. A lot of titles get killed along the way. The game business is unpredictable - there's a lot of R&D which happens, people are just not particularly aware of that because they don't see how the sausage is made a lot of the time.
Sure, although the difference for you guys is that people have already put in their money, as opposed to a Ubisoft game which isn't crowdfunded.
Chris Roberts: Yes, but we do say it when people put in their money - there's a load of disclaimers on it. The beginning of our schedule page if you go to it is a load of caveats - quality is always the number one priority, so if we need to redo something versus staying on schedule we will redo it. That R&D is quite unpredictable and even if we've scheduled something out we may have missed some things. That when you're in bug-fixing phase, you could fix it in a week, you could fix it in an hour, you don't know. So we have all these caveats to our schedule, we say it has been built very traditionally by people who have been in the industry for a long time. Our production group is over 30 people, who have worked on everything from Grand Theft Auto to World of Warcraft, Halo, Destiny. They are not amateurs. It's stuff I've done for a long time, but the project is just so large, there's so much R&D, so many interdependencies, that as you get into things there are aspects which have a ripple effect on the schedule. It may be taking longer than we want, longer than we thought it was going to take, but our goal is to communicate at least where it's at all the time. And our schedules legitimately are internal schedules, the ones we share with the community. Now we're in the bug-fixing phase of 3.0 we've shared out bug count and you can see our fix rate against the discovery rate of new bugs.
People still say 'Chris, you lied to me', even if I did give all those caveats for our predictions. People forget all those qualifiers. I am fed up of giving someone an estimate - I'd rather say, here's the data I have, here's the schedule I see. This is what we are hoping for. Software developers at all levels tend to be optimistic - you have to be to build big things. But I hope that with what we're doing, show what we're doing every week, we can educate a fair amount of people about the process. There will always be cynics. And we're big - I grew up in Manchester when United weren't great, Liverpool were the team of the time. Now people hate United because they're the big team of the 90s and 2000s. There are people who love to show up in the match report in the Guardian and rile up their rival supporters. There's definitely an element of that which happens in Star Citizen - there's an element of investment and passion in the community, and when you're invested in something it's easy to get rises out of those people. There's a subset of people who say 'this thing is never going to come out, it's a scam'. Which is plainly not true. It would be the worst scam in the world. We're hiring all these people, we're working really hard. We're showing what we're doing every week.
You could say 'I wanted it to be this big [small gesture] instead of this big [large gesture]. That would be a legitimate complaint. But some of the stuff is literally just like a fan trolling a match report for their rival team. It happens. I see it on Call of Duty versus Battlefield, or PlayStation versus Xbox. There's an element of gaming culture which plays into that. The majority of our gamers, by our metrics, are happy. They don't really care, or pay attention to it, or read the comments. We know on our stuff, we know the people who are joining us and playing the game. We know how many people of those then are active in our community, who go to our forums. Then there are the people who are really loud to get their opinion across. And they are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction [of our playerbase]. It's a long term challenge for, in general, the world - there's a lot of loudness which gets over-amplified through social media. Maybe five per cent of people cared about that issue but it gets blown up. Noise can seem like it comes from a larger amount of people than it does.
That was more than a couple of sentences!
Chris Roberts: It's not an easy thing!