With $68 million raised and counting, by over 700,000 backers, Star Citizen holds the Guinness World Record for the most crowdfunded project ever. Chris Roberts, creator of the Wing Commander series, is the captain of this very expensive ship, and today I have the opportunity to talk to him about his vision for the space sim, how players will shape its universe, and why he thinks people are willing to spend so many thousands of dollars on virtual spaceships.
I start by asking if the money raised is enough. “It’s never enough!” he laughs. “We scale development according to how much money is coming in. The level of support dictates our level of ambition. This is a huge open-world game where you can go from planet to planet, so we could spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it quite easily.”
I ask Roberts what it’s like being freed from the traditional developer/ publisher relationship and going indie—albeit on a much grander scale than most studios. “Every day we can just focus on what we think is going to be the best game. When you’re working with a big publisher, a lot of energy gets expended on marketing and sales, and they determine what your budget is... The problem with that is they get a say in what you do with the game. I’ve had situations where marketing has said things like ‘Call of Duty has this, so you need to have this,’ and if we say no, they’ll mark the projected sales down by a million units, lowering the development budget. So you end up doing things you don’t believe in so you get a good forecast.”
Roberts is building a game he believes in. “The people backing it believe in it too. We’re not having to have conversations with publishers who may have other agendas... The downside—and it’s not really a bad thing—is having so many opinions and voices. Everyone has a different idea about what they want the game to be, so you’ve got to walk the line of trying to deliver something you’re really happy with, while making sure the backers get what they invested in.”
Roberts talks to Star Citizen backers regularly—a necessity for any crowdfunded project. “On the internet you get people that don’t have any sense of how to get something across in a constructive manner. But there are plenty of people who are super positive, and ultimately I don’t mind the bad ones, because everyone who backed the game is invested in making it better. You might not agree with them, but they care.”
Once a thriving genre on PC, the space sim had, until recently, faded into obscurity. Now we have Elite: Dangerous, EVE: Valkyrie, No Man’s Sky, and others on the way. I ask Roberts why he thinks these games are making a comeback. “I don’t understand why they went away. I think people just love science fiction. They like escapism, and playing computer games is one of the biggest forms of that. I loved games like X-Wing and Freespace, and after taking a break from the games industry, I came back and saw that no one was developing them any more, which is why I wanted to make Star Citizen.”