Star Citizen: How the biggest crowd-funded project ever could change the gaming landscape

14 Apr

When Chris Roberts, creator of renowned space-simulator series Wing Commander announced in October 2012 that he was to make his return not only to the stars but to the medium of games itself following a ten year break, he could never have foreseen the outpouring of support he has received from all over the world. For many, Star Citizen is the game that, if successful, could fundamentally change the way that games are made, financed and marketed. It is a project of breathtaking scope, endeavour and ambition.

Star Citizen is a space-sim, trading game and first-person shooter, set in a vast online universe – though it does also feature a 50+ mission single-player/co-op campaign known as Squadron 42 – where players can ply their trade and make a name for themselves; perhaps as a bounty hunter, or through mining and selling materials, resources and weapons to other players, or as a hotshot pilot. The emergent gameplay will be similar (but not identical for technical reasons) to EVE Online, another massively-multiplayer space sim albeit one that operates very differently. Imagine seeing a cruiser that you know has at least a five or six player crew on board, but has you and your squadron of fellow players outgunned. Well, try boarding it, killing the crew and stealing the ship for you and your partners in crime. Just be prepared to face the consequences.

Star Citizen. Needless to say, it's beautiful.

Star Citizen. Needless to say, it’s beautiful.

For many in their mid-to-late 20s and above, this could be the game they dreamed about playing ever since they first saw Star Wars. Who wouldn’t want to play an online game in a persistent universe where you could walk into a seedy bar much like Mos Eisley’s cantina, meet another player who then offers you a job, asking you to smuggle a shipment of contraband to another system for a hefty payment, or hunt down a player with a significant bounty on his head, then climb into the cockpit of your very own ship and take to the stars and explore the vastness of space in pursuit of your goal? Roberts himself has said pretty much exactly this, and technology is now at the point that he believes he can finally make the game he always wanted to play.

He’s clearly not the only one. Star Citizen is the biggest crowd-funded project of any kind having raised, at the time of writing, a staggering $41.9m. What this means for Roberts is that he will have the tools, the hired talent and the time to make the game that he envisioned, unhindered by publishers breathing down his neck, forcing him to meet a release date. The drawback of this of course, is that expectations, particularly amongst fans, are beyond stratospheric. This is not helped by the game’s graphics, which are frankly astounding, powered as they are by a heavily modified and expanded upon CryEngine 3.

Much as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have heralded a new generation of console hardware capable of pushing more polygons and adding more cinematic shader effects that once were the preserve of companies such as WETA Digital and Industrial Light & Magic, Star Citizen is pushing the more powerful PC hardware to its absolute limits. Of note is the game’s support of the upcoming virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, placing players inside this enormous universe and overcoming a fundamental flaw in flight sims – the inabilty to see where a passing craft is behind you as real life pilots can. The results of all of this are jawdropping.

Never was this more clear than at the Penny Arcade Expo that took place recently in Boston, US. Last Thursday gamers finally got to see something playable of a project that has spent approximately 18 months in development. Soon, those who have pledged will get to try it out for themselves and provide feedback in order to ensure that bugs are squashed, the combat is balanced and that the required sheen can be added to all aspects of it. What was shown at PAX was a demo not even in pre-Alpha, of what Roberts’ team at Cloud Imperium Games had made to show how basic combat and flight controls will work during dogfights. Littered with bugs, and crashing twice during the live demonstration – much to Roberts’ frustration, “This is bullshit!” – it was clearly a work-in-progress with plenty of spit, polish and embellishment still to be added, but it showed just enough to set the mind racing as to just how huge Star Citizen could be, as well as highlighting the enormous task CIG have ahead of them.

Simply put, it was dazzling.

Not that you’d know it, based on reaction afterwards across the Internet (and the less said about certain members of the audience the better). It is becoming seemingly endemic amongst the gaming population now, in an industry that is more open to inviting players to participate in Alpha or Beta testing, that they expect a game to be finished, or at least look the part, having no bugs at all no matter what stage of development it’s at upon being revealed. Sadly that is not how software development works.

Most studios would never have dreamed of showing off their latest creation if it was as bug-ridden as the dogfighting demo that Roberts unveiled, but to his absolute credit he has been remarkably upfront and open about the development process. A visit to the official website will provide ample proof of this. The process of making a game is incredibly arduous and challenging, particularly one of this magnitude, and we have been given access to the team attempting to overcome this mind-boggling task.

With the colossal amount of money that fans have pledged out of good will, there is a segment of the community that is hoping Star Citizen not only fails, but crashes and burns. A game this expensive, financed as it has been by the public, will always attract those hoping to wallow in the failure of others, which is incredibly sad and borders on tragic. Star Citizen could be an absolute disaster and leave Roberts’ reputation and career in tatters, or it could change the medium of games as we know it. What many are forgetting is that nothing of this scope and fidelity has dared been attempted before.

As children unsure of what we want to accomplish in life, we are encouraged to aim for the stars, that if we work hard enough we can achieve what we didn’t think possible. Chris Roberts seems to be taking this literally and I, along with over 400,000 others who have pledged our support, admire him for being brave enough to risk his reputation in order to fulfil a vision he has clearly had for the best part of three decades. It is this kind of ambition that games have sorely missed and I look forward to strapping in and heading off into the void.

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One Response to “Star Citizen: How the biggest crowd-funded project ever could change the gaming landscape”

  1. angryfodder April 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    It sounds amazing. Although at the moment i’m not sure how it differs from a revamped wing commander/Elite. Elite itself is being remade.

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