With the citizens
It’s a perfect Sunday afternoon in the plastic part of Los Angeles and the line for CitizenCon is around the block an hour before showtime. Every single seat in the Avalon Hollywood will soon be filled by bounty hunters, pirates, explorers, and fleet commanders. Today they are human, and wear big starchy t-shirts emblazoned with their organization logo. It’s a testament to the power of Star Citizen’s fantasy that now, without even a target release window, the players have already regulated themselves into overlapping factions.
Test Squadron are here. They carry their banners high and earn gleeful, pro-wrestling jeers from the rest of the universe. I see Tortilla, Takan, and MoneyShot settle into a lush, presidential booth in front of me. Every once in a while somebody shouts their name, and the rest of the clan responds in full. "Test Squadron? "TEST SQUADRON!"
Outside I meet David Nowlen, who is here with a friend who’s spent over $3,000 on the game so far. He tells me his most reasonable hope from the Con is a little more information on 3.0, and maybe an unveiling of Squadron 42, which stars some big name actors like Mark Hamill and Gary Oldman. I ask what his relationship is like with the game’s detractors, and if he ever gets offended on a personal level when the insults piles up.
"It irritates me right off the bat when people say ‘Scam Citizen’ and all these hurtful things. There’s a lot of really talented people working really hard, and to hear people say your project is never going to work..." Nowlen’s voice trails off.
I ask if he really means "hurtful," given that we’re talking about a videogame, not a family member or a lifestyle choice.
"Yeah, it’s something that I love," says Nowlen. "It’s not like if I love Star Wars and somebody says George Lucas sucks. This is people going completely out of their way to say things that are against him, and attack him, and attack his family."
"We’re talking about Chris Roberts right?"
"Yeah, and I’ve met him before, and he’s a great guy. And from the first time I met him I was sold," he says.
After an hour’s delay, the curtains pull back to reveal Sandi Gardiner—co-founder of Star Citizen, VP of Marketing and wife of Chris Roberts—who formally inaugurates CitizenCon 2016 with a gracious, lengthy video profiling the best parts of the community. Pockets of glee erupt around the building as streamers and YouTubers recognize themselves on screen. Personally, I’m feeling the love. I don’t have any money committed, but after months of reading the forums and soaking in the defiance of the people propping up this crazy project, the trenches can look pretty welcoming.
Chris Roberts gets his usual hero’s welcome. If you’ve seen any live Star Citizen keynotes, you’re probably familiar with his PowerPoint presentations. They are endless. Each slide filled to the brim with arcane, hopeful information. Roberts, in his usual mumbly way, over-explains every detail. Eventually we’re looking at the prospective threshold for build 4.0, which seems especially far away considering 3.0 doesn't even have a set release date.
I knew something was wrong when a Cloud Imperium executive began walking through their infrastructure for a Star Citizen-exclusive version of Discord. CitizenCon is supposed to be a yearly celebration for the loyal, tickets are $45, and we were burning 30 minutes on a new private messaging system. Everyone I talked to had high hopes—most expected either a release date or a lengthy exposé on Squadron 42—but slowly all the air left the room.
Roberts eventually gave us the bad news. There would be no Squadron 42 demo today. The team was "really close" to having something ready, but they couldn’t quite make the deadline. This is disappointing news, considering until very recently, emblazoned on its official website. A few minutes before, everyone in the building got a brochure for a new capital ship called The Polaris. As usual, a Star Citizen delay came accompanied by a $750 piece of concept art.
The main event, and Roberts’ tacit mea culpa, was a demo similar to what had been shown at Gamescom. A player landed on a brown, deserted planet, and activated a couple of distress beacons before finding a downed ship riddled with marauding aliens. It seemed... early. The screen was tearing, the shadows were glitchy, it was transparently scripted, and the finale (an admittedly awesome sandworm attack) completely broke down, forcing Roberts to offer a sheepish "that’s the first time that’s happened." Live demo folks, live demo.
It’s cool that Cloud Imperium is transparent enough to show its backers unpolished content, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. It gave me a distinct flashback to the first Mass Effect—driving around a big, empty planet with a few rote side missions dropped in by an algorithm.
For the first time, Star Citizen gave me a bad taste in my mouth. This was a premium gala in a rented ballroom. I talked to people who had flown in from places as far as Finland. And frankly, they didn’t have much to show for it. Publishers can be detrimental to creativity, but they also do a good job of preventing disappointments like this.
And yet the vibe inside the building remained joyful. There was a long line to meet developers and take pictures, and the community at large got giddy drunk on $10 vodka cranberries. The Star Citizen faithful excel at taking a deep breath and making the best of a bad situation. I’m talking to DeejayKnight, a Star Citizen streamer who’s here with his girlfriend waiting in an extremely long line for a meet ‘n greet. He told me he thought the demo was "amazing," especially as someone interested in game design.
"One of the reasons I support this project is that they take their time and make sure what they show off is impressive," he tells me a few days after the show. "I love the idea that I can see the progress they're making with Star Citizen every time they have an event. The planetary tech had come a long way from the Holiday Livestream to Gamescom and even more since then. I'm anxious to see it in-game for myself!"
Inside Squadron 42
When I got home, the forums were in less forgiving mood. Currently the subreddit’s second most upvoted post over the past week reads "you guys are gonna hate me, but CitizenCon wasn’t that great."
"No Squadron 42 preview, no new gameplay (cargo hauling, pirating, or anything that's supposed to be 3.0,) Only 30 minutes of two or three hour presentation was actual gameplay," it reads. "Yes, the new planetary tech is absolutely amazing—but that's all we really got. The gameplay we saw was pretty cool, but it was on the shallow end."
"I won't say I was let down by what I did see, but I'm more disappointed with what I didn't see," reads the top-upvoted post by HockeyBrawler09. "I just have difficulty accepting that there is a studio that is almost entirely dedicated to [Squadron 42] and they weren't able to put together a polished single level."
This year’s CitizenCon wasn’t a watershed moment. The game will have dozens more chances to shore up its base as development continues to trudge forward. But at the end of the day, the Star Citizen community is founded on give and take. These men and women sacrificed their capital to help make the greatest game of all time. In return, they’ve been offered glimpses of the destiny that awaits them. They’re dedicated and passionate, but they aren’t stupid and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Cloud Imperium knows that, but it could only take a few events like this CitizenCon for support to sag.
Stars in reach
Backstage, Chris Roberts is sweaty, smiling, and clutching a melting gin and tonic. He’s just finished two hours under the lights, and is now traversing interviews by way of long, roundabout answers. It only takes a brief conversation with him to remember why people fell under his spell in the first place. Roberts can be hypnotic. In a gaggle of journalists, background static, and attendant sycophants, his gaze can feel like the only thing in the universe.
I ask him what it feels like to have a huge group of people behind him that are all focused on exactly the same thing, and apparently willing to put up with any necessary delays, frustrations, and heartache to make it happen.
"It’s a very unique position to be in," Roberts says. "Normally there’s a lot of commercial and financial strains. But we have so many people here that say ‘no, our priority is the best game possible.’ It’s awesome, it’s humbling."
Leaving CitizenCon, and reflecting on months spent in the online community, one thing stands out in my mind: Star Citizen fans are insular. Most of these men and women don’t care about you, or your doubts, or your false narratives, though some can't resist defending Star Citizen in comment sections across the web. So many other communities are obsessed with how they’re perceived by the rest of the world. Heroes of the Storm lifers have daily nervous breakdowns over the relative smallness of their esports scene, Starcraft lifers are increasingly insecure about the decline of the RTS, and there’s a long legacy of console wars drawing battle lines in middle schools around the world.
But here, in the ‘verse, there's little desire to sell themselves, or reeducate the nonbelievers. They’ve already thrown their money down, and the thing they’re focused on now is making the dream come true.
At the Bar Citizen on Friday night I met a military veteran named Isaiah Campbell. Earlier in the day he was picked up at the airport by someone he met through Star Citizen. It was the first time they had connected in real life. “He said ‘hey I really want you to come out’ and I said ‘awesome,’" Campbell says. "It’s someone I’ve been talking to for two and a half years."
I ask him when he knew—personally—that he would never make it to space himself, and that any Han Solo fantasies he harbored as a kid aren’t going to come to fruition.
"It’s a common saying, born too late to explore the earth, born too early to explore the universe, and it really is true," says Campbell. "It’s upsetting because… I’m married now so it’d be kind of hard to leave my wife, but before I’ve always had aspirations to go explore the stars. Like you said, like Han Solo. But to be able to translate that into a simulation, that’s the next best thing."
A videogame, but also the next best thing. Nothing is guaranteed. Despite all the community’s goodwill and the talent behind the scenes, Star Citizen is perfectly capable of disappointment. But that’s okay. For some fans, it's already giving them something they need. They fall asleep at night dreaming about the day the universe will finally be at their fingertips. To them, right now, in the midst of all the promises and possibilities, Star Citizen is already the best game ever.
Videogames are inevitably less magical when they actually exist. The limitless fantasy of being a bounty hunter in a rogue galaxy is bound to feel a lot less evocative when it’s finally actualized in regimented code and imperfect mechanics. My entire life playing games is defined by a feeling of wanting something more. Developers inevitably always come up a little short, which is why we all chase the next big thing. But the Star Citizen community holds to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this one is the exception to the rule.
"I think one thing that CIG almost has against them is that the journey is almost more fun than the destination, and more exciting, so I think that’s a really big challenge on their end," says Campbell. “When they launch it they need that hype to still be here, and I think that will be difficult. But I think the majority of the community is deadset on this game and want nothing else, myself included. When it comes out, we’re gonna look back and say ‘wow this was a fun journey, but we’re here now!’ and that’s the best part."
Photography by Tuan Nguyen. Front page image by Mr. Hasgaha