Forbes tells us all about Star Citizen, a video game that attracted $300 million in Crowd-Funding, but still may never be completed.
Itâ€™s October 2018 and 2,000 video game fanatics are jammed into Austinâ€™s Long Center for the Performing Arts to get a glimpse of Star Citizen, the sprawling online multiplayer game being made by legendary designer Chris Roberts. Most of the people here helped to pay for the gameâ€™s developmentâ€”on average, $200 each, although some backers have given thousands. An epic sci-fi fantasy, Star Citizen was supposed to be finished in 2014. But after seven years of work, no oneâ€”least of all Robertsâ€”has a clue as to when it will be done. But despite the disappointments and delays, this crowd is cheering for Roberts. They roar as the 50-year-old Englishman jumps onto the stage and a big screen lights up with the latest test version of Star Citizen.
The demo starts small: Seeing through the eyes of the in-game character, the player wakes up in his living quarters, gets up and brews a cup of coffee. Applause quickly turns to laughter when the game promptly crashes. While his underlings scramble to get the demo running again, a practiced Roberts smoothly fills minutes of dead air by screening a commercial for the Kraken, a massive war machine spaceship. Eventually the Kraken, like all the starships that Roberts sells, will be playable in Star Citizen. At least thatâ€™s the hope. But for $1,650 it could be yours, right away.
â€œSome days, I wish I could be like . . . â€˜Youâ€™re not going to see anything until itâ€™s beautiful,â€™â€‰â€ Roberts later says at his Los Angeles studio. â€œA lot of times weâ€™ll show stuff and literally say, â€˜Now, this is rough.â€™â€‰â€
Whatâ€™s really rough is the current state of Star Citizen. The company Roberts cofounded, Cloud Imperium Games, has raised $288 million to bring the PC game to life along with its companion, an offline single-player action game called Squadron 42. Of this haul, $242 million has been contributed by about 1.1 million fans, who have either bought digital toys like the Kraken or given cash online. Excluding cryptocurrencies, that makes Star Citizen far and away the biggest crowdfunded project ever.
Rough playable modesâ€”alphas, not betasâ€”are used to raise hopes and illustrate work being done. And Roberts has enticed gamers with a steady stream of hype, including promising a vast, playable universe with â€œ100 star systems.â€ But most of the money is gone, and the game is still far from finished. At the end of 2017, for example, Roberts was down to just $14 million in the bank. He has since raised more money. Those 100 star systems? He has not completed a single one. So far he has two mostly finished planets, nine moons and an asteroid.
This is not fraudâ€”Roberts really is working on a gameâ€”but it is incompetence and mismanagement on a galactic scale. The heedless waste is fueled by easy money raised through crowdfunding, a Wild West territory nearly free of regulators and rules. Creatives are in charge here, not profit-driven bean counters or deadline-enforcing suits. Federal bureaucrats and state lawyers have intervened only in a few egregious situations where there was little effort to make good and a lot of the money was pocketed by the promoters. Many high-profile crowdfunded projects, like the Pebble smartwatch ($43.4 million raised) and the Ouya video game console ($8.6 million), have failed miserably.
If you donâ€™t play video games, you probably have never heard of Roberts. But in the world of consoles and controllers, he is Keith Richards: an aging rock star who can still get fans to reach into their pockets. Roberts first gained fame with his early 1990s hit Wing Commander, a space combat series that grossed over $400 million and featured Hollywood stars like Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell. He followed that success by starting his own studio, Digital Anvil, with Microsoft as an investor. There, he spent years working on Freelancer, a spiritual successor to Wing Commander, which was eventually released years behind schedule and was far from a blockbuster. Roberts also dabbled in Hollywood, spending tens of millions on a movie version of Wing Commander that he directed himself and that was a critical and commercial flop.
Forbes spoke to 20 people who used to work for Cloud Imperium, many of whom depict Roberts as a micromanager and poor steward of resources. They describe the work environment as chaotic.
â€œAs the money rolled in, what I consider to be some of [Robertsâ€™] old bad habits popped upâ€”not being super-focused,â€ says Mark Day, a producer on Wing Commander IV who runs a company that was contracted to do work on Star Citizen in 2013 and 2014. â€œIt had got out of hand, in my opinion. The promises being madeâ€”call it feature creep, call it whatever it isâ€”now we can do this, now we can do that. I was shocked.â€
â€œThere is a plan. Donâ€™t worryâ€”itâ€™s not complete madness,â€ Roberts insists.
But what Roberts has stirred up does seem crazy. Star Citizen seems destined to be the most expensive video game ever madeâ€”and it might never be finished. To keep funding it and the 537 employees Cloud Imperium has working in five offices around the world, Roberts constantly needs to raise more money because he is constantly burning through cash.
This is not fraudâ€”Roberts really is working on a gameâ€”but it is incompetence and mismanagement on a galactic scale. …
â€œThereâ€™s no two ways about it, man. Star Citizen is nuts,â€ says Jesse Schell, a prominent game developer and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. â€œThis thing is unusual in about five dimensions. . . . It is very rare to be doing game development for seven yearsâ€”thatâ€™s not how it works. Thatâ€™s not normal at all.â€
Boy! That this story take me back to the old days at SPI back in the late 1970s. I can tell you that high intelligence and self-discipline do not necessarily go together, and that long hours and complete obsession can lead to dissociation from reality. We certainly never spent millions on any game, let alone $500 million, but there were definitely some games where development went on, and on, and on, like Achilles and the tortoise, never quite arriving at completion.