Chris Roberts wants to be Han Solo. But since he can’t be an intergalactic smuggler in real life, he’s spent his career building video games that turn you into a space scoundrel.
That includes the 1990 space-combat sim Wing Commander and its galaxy-hopping spin-off Privateer. He got the closest to his dream with Freelancer, released in 2003, a game where you could be a pirate, a bounty hunter, or just an intergalactic trader. It provided a tease of the wide-open universe he really wanted to build, but it wasn’t quite there.
Roberts took a brief detour to Hollywood to produce movies, but he never stopped imagining his dream game: a big, seemingly endless universe, filled with planets to explore and spaceships to fly. In his mind, it would be a game where you could hop into a bar to get some work — and maybe get into a blaster fight — and make your way through the galaxy taking on whatever job you could. It would be incredibly expensive to build, and impossibly ambitious in scope. And now he’s building it. "If I was a little saner I wouldn't be biting off as much as we're doing here,” he says, “but it's the game that I've wanted to play and dreamed about playing forever.”
It turns out he's far from the only one who wants to play that game. Roberts' studio, Cloud Imperium Games, is approaching $50 million in crowdfunded cash, which is being used to build Star Citizen, the game that's been in his head for the past few decades.
Still in development, Star Citizen is a combination of a space exploration sim and first-person action. It'll take place in a huge, persistent universe shaped by players, through things like a dynamic economy and an ongoing conflict with multiple factions. Most of the action will involve you and a ship — dog fighting and exploration, for example — but you'll also be able to check out cities and space stations from a first-person perspective, and on a few lawless planets get into some more traditional FPS fisticuffs. On top of that, Star Citizen will feature a single-player campaign with an estimated 50 hours of gameplay. In short: its a big game with lots to do. "At its core Star Citizen is a destination, not a one-off story," the original Kickstarter pitch explained.
"It's the game that I've wanted to play and dreamed about playing forever."
While the concept of the game has been percolating for some time, Star Citizen was first announced in 2012. In October of that year, Roberts' new studio kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on its own website — later supplemented by a Kickstarter campaign when the site couldn't handle the demand — with the goal of raising a few million dollars. Wary of his past dealings with big publishers, Roberts hoped that the buzz from crowdfunding would serve as proof of the game's viability, and make it easier to raise additional money through investors. But a crazy thing happened: the cash just kept coming.
After reaching its initial $2 million goal, the studio continued to let players help fund the game. By the end of December the number doubled to $4 million; by June 2013 it became the first crowdfunded project to top $10 million. And some time in the next month or two Star Citizen will have raised an astonishing $50 million, with 10,000 to 15,000 new people donating every month. "If I had gone up to any publisher and said, 'Hey, will you give me $50 million to do a space sim on PC only?' everyone would say, 'Get out of here,'" says Roberts. "But we're in a situation where we're getting to do that."
Once complete, Star Citizen will be a vast universe with lots to do and see. But the key to its ambition is the level of detail. While games like No Man's Sky are able to build sprawling galaxies using procedural generation, almost all of Star Citizen will be hand-crafted. (Things like asteroid fields, though, will be procedurally generated so that developers don't have to waste time hand-placing 15,000 space rocks.) You can explore the world from a first-person view, and then hop in your ship and fly through the galaxy. Some of the ships are so detailed they have toilets and bunk beds. This is what Roberts hopes will set the game apart from anything that came before it.
"For me, it's all about feeling like I'm in the world," Roberts says. "There's an attention to detail you need to suspend that disbelief and for me that is the motto of Star Citizen. We're going for that extra level of detail, so there's a real tactile sense to your environment. It feels like it's lived in."
It's also why the game is so expensive to build. One of the most impressive aspects of No Man's Sky is that it's being developed by less than a dozen people, but Star Citizen requires many more, and it'll take them a long time to pull everything off. The game is expected to launch sometime next year, though development won’t end then, with the game expected to receive new updates and features on a weekly basis.
"It's all about feeling like I'm in the world."
"We're focusing more on a crafted environment," explains Roberts. "Crafted obviously takes time, because people have to do it." One of the benefits of the surge in funding has been the ability to grow that team, both to speed up to development as well as add new features. With each new $1 million milestone, a new feature is added to the game. Early on this meant huge new features, like entire solar systems and alien races, but recent additions have included a new type of plant and an in-game commercial for a virtual ship. At $50 million the game will get authentic alien languages.
The finished product is still a long ways off. Currently early backers can check out their sweet new spaceships in a virtual hangar, but integral aspects like the first-person gameplay and persistent universe remain in the production and design phase. Star Citizen is clearly a big game that will take a long time to complete — Roberts says he hopes to work on it for years to come — and the studio has been very open about the development process. There are regular updates and video shows, and a progress page that lets you see the status of major features.
The slow pace of development hasn't deterred would-be space pirates. In fact, the rate of funding seems to be speeding up: Star Citizen has raised more than $1 million a month so far in 2014. And some of those backers are spending a lot of money. While you can help fund the game by snagging a T-shirt or a $25 in-game ship, other options are much more expensive. Individual ships can cost upwards of $100, while one package of five top-tier crafts runs an astounding $10,000. Roberts believes that these people understand that they’re buying more than just a virtual spaceship for a potentially cool game. They’re helping to build a world. "They're looking at it as years of enjoyment," he says. "And so they're excited to try and make this universe get built as well as possible."
A crowdfunded model eliminates many of the headaches of game development, as the studio no longer has to answer to a publisher or investors that are looking to make money instead of a great game. But it also means a different kind of pressure, with thousands of incredibly passionate fans who are now financially invested in making Star Citizen an amazing experience. But Roberts isn't so worried about them.
"The biggest amount of pressure comes from myself," he says. "I can see this game. I've got a very clear picture of what I want it to be, and I get frustrated when we're not moving as quickly as I want us to move. I want it to be the best thing I've ever played."