'Star Citizen' Devs Discuss the Ups & Downs of Funding a $200 Million Promise

Star Citizen is the space sim dream of brothers Chris and Erin Roberts, and while the crowdfunded project has its fair share of detractors, the development team at Cloud Imperium Games remains loyal to the backers who've poured out their hearts—and wallets—to see its vision realized. Hot off the heels of the release of its 3.3.5 alpha a few weeks ago, the funding campaign passed a whopping $200 million in pledges. Newsweek spoke with the minds behind the game about that achievement, development hardships and what's next for the evolving title.

"I just always wanted to have a science fiction universe that I can get lost in and pretty much do whatever I want," said CIG founder Chris Roberts about his broader vision of the game. "I wanted it to feel real for me, so I wanted the ability to do everything from first-person, whether it's sitting in a seat flying a ship or walking around a city on some alien planet. I've always had this vision of a fully dynamic, living, breathing universe that you, your friends a whole bunch of other people can exist and adventure around in."

Star Citizen Mustang Delta
'Star Citizen's developers want to make a game where your sci-fi fantasies come to life. Cloud Imperium Games

In short, the vision of Star Citizen revolves around a limitless persistent universe where sci-fi fans can pursue any fantasy they like. Whether you aspire to be an intergalactic miner, pirate, bounty hunter, adventurer or something in between, there's a career path and ship concept suitable to your needs.

"I play very differently to the way my brother plays," CIG Chief Development Officer Erin Roberts described. "There are things I would do that Chris wouldn't, and that's what we want with Star Citizen. It's a sandbox where people can choose what their progression is…. What we're really trying to create is an immersive experience where people can come home after a sh-t day at work, go in and lose themselves in this universe. If they want to be a billionaire in this universe then they can strive to be that. If they just want to go out and explore to find a new system, they can do that too."

But, just like real life, accomplishing those dreams won't always be easy. While not designed as a deliberate challenge, the Roberts brothers want Star Citizen to be a platform where time spent is a central driving force for progress. Unlike many modern games, this one won't be littered with checkpoints or safeguards. Characters can die, ships can break and relationships can fracture.

"Your character and ship should be something you want to keep alive and repaired because you're attached to it…and [you should] have pride that you're running around with a 50-year-old character because you've managed to keep him alive long enough that he's gotten old," Chris mused. In Star Citizen, there's no direct path to winning, and your character grows depending on how you develop them.

Financial Investment

Despite that ambitious vision, Chris Roberts launched the Star Citizen Kickstarter campaign in 2012 with realistic expectations. "I knew there were enough people like me who like PC games and space games that were being underserved," Chris said. " At that time nobody was making space games, so if you went to a publisher and said 'I want to do a space game,' they would laugh at you."

Inspired by the direct-to-consumer success of Minecraft, Chris and a small group of developers began working on a demo that would eventually give rise to gaming's most successful crowdfunding venture. "I thought the way that Notch did Minecraft was smart," Chris recalled, "so I thought 'what if I can build an alpha and charge people for early access before early access was a thing…' I knew I'd have to raise a bit of money to build that first alpha, so I started working towards that by building a demo that became the first demo I'd show to backers."

Star Citizen Tumbril Cyclone
There are land vehicle options too, like this Tumbril Cyclone. Cloud Imperium Games

From there, what started as an effort to gauge consumer interest has since raised millions from eager backers. Today, more than 1 million pledges ranging from $25 to several hundred dollars each are enough to support five fully operational development studios spread across four time zones. Chris and the CIG team are enormously grateful for the overwhelming support. To them, $200 million is far more than a figure:

"If I said one day somebody's going to do $200 million in crowdfunding, they would have made me an appointment for the crazy house. I'm blown away. I'm always thankful and humbled by it. I think the thing that gets missed, because everybody always focuses on the numbers, is the idea that gamers got together because they really wanted to see this thing and were enthusiastic enough to support something that is to the scale of the biggest publishers. It's amazing. Everybody always complains that publishers are pushing things down their throats, and this is a much more grassroots thing.

"Sometimes I just get annoyed when I see some people taking things the other way saying '$200 million? What's this thing about?' But why? There's all these other people that want this thing to happen. That's cool, isn't it? People managed to get together so they can see something they want to see. That's the bit that I find the most amazing."

The Word of the Critics

Despite all the money the project has raised, it still has its fair share of detractors. In that six-year time span, Star Citizen remains in alpha and a full release might still be a few years away. Many of the ships backers have pledged for are merely concepts that aren't yet flyable in the current game. In snarky internet circles, words like "vaporware" and "feature creep" remain a constant cloud over the positive community this game has built. It's a reality most developers at CIG are aware of, and those at the top admit to being partially culpable for Star Citizen's mixed reputation.

Star Citizen Universe broken
Over six years, 'Star Citizen's development wasn't always easy. Eli Wallace @ Spectrum/Cloud Imperium Games

"Something that I think is a fair criticism is that sometimes, as developers, we look very positively on our schedules," Erin Roberts told us with a laugh. "We work something up, break it down and think we can make it happen because we want it to happen. Then, of course you have some technological hurdles that delay things. On the topic of giving that out, I kind of wish we hadn't done that early on." Considering the first vision of Star Citizen was projected to release four years ago, that's a sentiment even the most passionate of backers can get behind.

Still, Erin insists the lengthy procedure of making Star Citizen isn't that unusual for large-scale game development. "I can see why someone who doesn't understand development or the industry would think there were issues. But in reality, the process we're going through as a group happens all the time as a part of the process of building something," he explained. "Sometimes you do something that works and sometimes it doesn't, so you improve, make changes or go down certain paths."

Star Citizen Angry face
The character models of 'Star Citizen' have just as much detail as the ships. Hasgaha @ Spectrum/Cloud Imperium Games

Amidst that bobbing and weaving, Los Angeles Studio Director Eric Kieron Davis and his colleagues are working diligently to keep backers in the loop while clearing up outdated or misinformed statements from critics. "We're trying to find ways to make it clear and easy, like our updated website that offers the simple, bite-sized updates on Star Citizen," he said. "So anyone else who's saying something different might not want to do their own research," Davis posited.

Getting positive and negative feedback from active players remains an important part of Star Citizen's creative process. Roberts and crew have a simple policy to understand the needs of backers. "What I tell our team is that if I read things and agree with them, then it's something I take onboard," said Chris. "My lens is mostly my gamer lens, so as I read this stuff I think [about] how I, as a gamer, would feel."

Coming Alive With 3.3.5

The very latest in Star Citizen is Persistent Universe alpha version 3.3.5, which offers a brand-new, full-scale planet to explore called Hurston. Industrial in nature, the entire intergalactic rock is owned by in-game weapons manufacturer Hurston Dynamics.

Star Citizen Welcome to Lorville
Lorville is the main feature of 'Star Citizen' alpha 3.3.5. Cloud Imperium Games

Hurston's main feature is the detailed, bustling city of Lorville, which has plenty of AI NPCs, explorable buildings and missions to discover. Simply put, Alpha 3.3.5 doubled Star Citizen's previous content base overnight.

"We may not have 100 star systems yet, but just wandering around this one star system is more content than almost every game that has detail to this level," Chris described. "I feel like my gift has always been the ability to see something in my head and then work to pull it together. Once everyone else sees that final vision, I feel like a larger group of people can see the big picture rather than just the small bits. We get closer to that with every release, and this one was a big milestone for us."

Developing Hurston itself was just one piece of the puzzle. With so much content being added at once, CIG also had to design a backend feature called Object Container Streaming. As Erin describes, OCS offloads hardware resources so that more detail and locations can be added in the future.

Star Citizen Anvil Valkyrie
The Valkyrie is a straight-to-flyable ship that recently made its debut. Cloud Imperium Games

"Getting Object Container Streaming working means performance will be much better to start with, because it only focuses on what's around you… Now we can add as much content as we want, like whole systems, without worrying about how it fits into memory. We can keep building more stuff in different locations," he explained.

The Power to Push Forward

There's little doubt Star Citizen's development has faced its fair share of challenges. But, for Chris and his team, that struggle is part and parcel to making the best game possible.

When asked if he considers himself a perfectionist, Chris begrudgingly agreed. "If that standard in attention to detail isn't there, then it drives me nuts," he admitted. "If we want to have something out, you have to balance quality, cost and time. We almost always pick quality."

With that quality comes extra cost and time, but the minds behind Star Citizen are mostly happy to oblige. "I genuinely said to my wife a few nights ago that I wish we didn't have to sleep," said Davis. "The need, want and drive is there because what we're making is there, and the team we've surrounded ourselves with is there. It makes you not want to stop. I have a harder time telling my very passionate employees to go home and get some sleep than I do telling them to come in to work and do this job."

Star Citizen Universe Scope
It may take time to get there, but the prospect of delivering on this dream is too cool for developers to pass up. Corsair_62 @ Spectrum/Cloud Imperium Games

Still refining the detail of his own universe, Chris Roberts remains actively involved in Star Citizen's coding process. "There is something about having that live connection to your community as you're developing it that gives you this extra energy to keep on going," he explained.

And, to be clear, Star Citizen's pre-release development cycle will "keep on going" for the foreseeable future. But the shared vision between creators and backers fuels Erin and his colleagues. "I left my last job because this project was my dream. I'm sitting here looking at things and knowing we're going to deliver on this dream. When that happens that will be amazing. But we're still working through it….We get one chance to make the game of a lifetime, and that's basically what we're trying to do here."

Star Citizen 's next big development hurdle involves the implementation of server meshing that allows all players of the game to exist in a single, massive lobby. On top of that, the content available in 3.3.5 is still in need of polish. With just one of its star systems partially complete, the 100-system vision of Star Citizen may be years away from realization. But, as more of its concepts come online, citizens are happy to wait.

Star Citizen alpha 3.3.5 is available now for backers on PC.

How do you feel about Star Citizen's recent developments? Can it possibly live up to backers' expectations? Tell us in the comments section!