Mention the multiplayer space simulator game Star Citizen and even the most unfamiliar gamers would have heard something about it.
However, unlike most upcoming big titles that usually garner hype through positive word-of-mouth publicity, Star Citizen's reputation has taken a beating.
Milder comments might range from a joke about it perpetually being in alpha while harsher criticisms label it as a scam. It's not hard to see why, though.
The game started off with a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 — no doubt due to its creator, prolific game developer Chris Roberts — and has continued crowdfunding efforts over the years. It also saw an infusion of cash with private funding in 2018 and according to various media reports, has raised more than US$500 million (S$679 million) as of September 2022.
Yet, Star Citizen is still in alpha after close to a decade (though it has released playable components and builds since August 2013) and no release date is in sight.
Additionally, its single-player campaign Squadron 42 has gone dark for now with Roberts declaring in December 2020 that it's best not to show gameplay publicly or discuss a release date "until we are closer to the home stretch". The game promises a star-studded cast including Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson, Andy Serkis and Ben Mendelsohn.
That's not all — the game has also come under fire for its questionable microtransactions. In Star Citizen, players can buy ships and even digital real estate. However, these items are usually sold before it's completed and ready for players to use. Additionally, some ships in Star Citizen can cost over a thousand dollars.
One backer even tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the game to get his money back.
The tumultuous and troubled history of Star Citizen runs deep but the developers are unperturbed by it when we asked them about it recently when they were in town for Bar Citizen (a fan event for the game's community).
Elliott Chin, 49, said: "You know what's been said about us and people say it was a scam. There's scepticism around the project 100 per cent."
As the senior vice-president of marketing, Chin (along with director of community Tyler Witken) is always tuned into community sentiments and claimed that it "has never ever been higher".
"Four years ago, people were saying, 'Oh, this game is a scam. I can't believe it.' Or how can we still be taking money from people? Now when it hits r/gaming on Reddit, people are saying like, 'Oh, that's Star Citizen. That looks amazing. I want to go check it out,'" Chin added.
He also observed this spike happens "anytime there's something negative about us" and people actually go on to recommend the game to their friends.
"There's the saying that no publicity is bad publicity, but even our bad publicity is good for us."
Preferring to let the game "speak for us", Chin said they don't ever respond to negative comments on forums or negative reports in the media.
The report that came up during our discussion was a scathing expose by Forbes in May 2019. While it rubbished claims that the game was a fraud, it attributed its rocky development road to "incompetence and mismanagement on a galactic scale".
Speaking to 20 former employees of Cloud Imperium Games (CIG), Chris Roberts' company that is developing the game, the article dove deep into the chaotic work environment and pulled the curtain back on what was tripping up the game's development.
"Look at the game," said Erin Roberts, the 52-year-old chief development officer. "We're doing something no one else is doing. If you're going to go and talk to ex-employees who are disgruntled then you're going to sometimes have that happen."
Gesturing to a projection of a demo of the game which showed the player character in a space city surrounded by buildings with, quite frankly, gorgeous snow particle effects, Chin added: "We let people look at this, like this screen right here of Microtech and the snow that's going on.
"So that did not exist when that article was written. And you look at it, and it's every bit as good and beautiful as any other game you can get right now... Progress has really accelerated since 2013."
In case anyone was curious, the game had some issues booting up but to be fair, that was due to a spotty Wi-Fi connection than a bug or a technical glitch.
Lack of transparency?
Back in February, the company announced that they were making changes to their product roadmap as "passionate players" took features that were added as a "promise" and getting upset when it was delayed.
CIG explained that they would no longer show any features for "any patches beyond the immediate one in the next quarter... rather than continuing to display release projections that carry a high percentage chance of moving".
At a time when the game has a reputation, wouldn't this move seem counterintuitive in inspiring confidence among players?
Witkin, 32, denied that the change was about having "any less transparency" and said the amount of transparency they have is "staggering".
"There's no other game out there where you can say, 'Who's your favourite QA tester?'... Our community knows... We take that level of transparency and we apply that to our roadmap as well."
He explained that the roadmap shows what the team is actively working on, who is working on that feature and which discipline they belong to, for example, an artist or a designer or a producer.
"We still have, of course, the release view, where people can see what major features that we have coming in the next patch, the next patch, the next patch, and we'll keep it several months out."
Where is the money going?
Of course, one of the questions hanging over the development of the game like a dark cloud is about the money they've raised — half a billion dollars, not a sum to sneer at indeed.
But how much of it is in service of the development of the game, though, we asked.
"We're running a staff of 1000 people so that kind of explains where the money goes," Roberts immediately responded, adding that all the money they got is "spent completely back on the game and developing the game".
"Right now, we have 550 people working out of the UK, we have 150 out of Montreal, we have 120 to 130 in LA, we've got about the same in Texas and Frankfurt's got about another 120... When you're paying for five offices worldwide and development costs and everything that comes with it, then it (the money) gets used."
Roberts also said that they publish their financials every year for the sake of transparency.
Back when player discontentment hit a high in sometime between 2017 and 2018, Chin recalled that CIG "actually gave everyone the opportunity to be refunded" and they processed "quite a few".
"After that timeframe, people stopped asking as much... I think what you're you're seeing is there's a refund subreddit, where people complain about things, and they're very much the same old folks that were there from 10 years ago."
In fact, Chin claimed that there have been instances where they review the accounts of players who requested for a refund only to find out that they've sunk about 1,000 to 2,000 hours in the game.
He quipped: "It would be like someone playing Breath of the Wild for 1,000 hours and they beat the game twice, and then go to Nintendo and say, 'You know what, I didn't like that you don't have this feature, though. So give me my money back.'"
Roadmap to beta
Chin also likened the development costs to Blizzard's World of Warcraft and how it would be a "phenomenal" figure too if one were to look at the same period of 10 years.
However, we pointed out that Blizzard has released games over the last 10 years and not just World of Warcraft expansions.
Roberts replied that they're trying to get the game to beta but "it's just that huge" and they're still "building tech right now". There are just a few ducks to get in the row before they're ready to go into beta.
"We can say that we are looking to get server meshing in by the end of next year," he shared.
But first, Chin said that the big milestone the team is aiming for is to "hit persistence". Simply put, it's to create a persistent universe through the persistent entity streaming technology.
The developers understand the frustration of the fans, though, and how they wish they could get their hands on the exciting features that have been promised. However, the constant enemy that CIG can't beat is time, it seems.
Throughout the interview, it was brought up several times that they're pushing the technological boundaries for this game and how it takes time to build "complex new systems that have never been built before".
"We can't change time. We can't make things go faster than they're going to take," said Chin. "We're in the same boat as those people; we're just as as eager to play this full game as they are."
And, he added, a lot of these controversies go as far back as five years ago "so none of that happens anymore".
"Sometimes we have to, you know, answer questions about the past, which is fair, because those things did happen. But I will tell you that the project has not really been [in] any of that situation in at least the last four years."
That said, Chin admitted that they're still selling concept ships — something that has caused the game to run afoul of UK's Advertising Standard Authority.
Concept ships are essentially expensive ships that are still in development and not ready to display in your hangar or fly in the game.
Chin explained: "We slowed them down immensely... We probably only do three or four [a year]; we offer concept ships at our biggest annual sales events."
The focus now is on smaller ships that are quicker to deliver, with one being released four months after its sale, more "straight to flyable [ships]" and on "delivering the concept ships that we have sold in the past".
Star Citizen isn't pretending to be something it's not, with disclaimers in place to inform gamers that the game is an alpha build and in development.
Chin concluded: "What I would tell people is only play us if you're ready to play us. We're not asking everyone to come and check us out now, which is why we do a lot of Free Flies (a limited-time event where people can play the game for free).
"What we want to tell people is, hey, we're a very ambitious game. We're early access alpha, check this out. If you like what you see, because there's so much content here, then you should play.
"And if you don't, then I think you should stay away. We very much want people to wait until beta if that's what they're comfortable with."
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