I still remember the first time I wrote a story about Star Citizen. I was talking to my brother, a massive fan of Freelancer and the Wing Commander series in his own right, saying, “Hey, the dude behind Wing Commander and Freelancer is doing this thing.” And we both looked at it and thought, shit, this is the kind of game we’ve been missing.
We’ve written plenty about Star Citizen, as you’d expect for any game with a budget larger than most AAA games and their marketing budgets combined. But what’s even wilder is just thinking about everything that’s happened in the same space of time.
For one, just look at Kickstarter. When Star Citizen began, Double Fine had just showcased the potential of crowdfunding with Broken Age. So after initial discussions in 2010 and starting work on a prototype in 2011, Star Citizen took to Kickstarter. It raised $US2.1 million at the time, with another $US4.1 million raised directly through the Star Citizen website.
That was back in October 2012. Now, eight years on, much of the appetite for crowdfunding video games has almost completely evaporated. Board games, particularly those with high quality miniatures, can still raise millions. And while there are still some high profile successes — Iron Harvest is one that’s done well lately — most of that excitement has been dampened by projects that never saw the light of day, or games that never came close to their original promise.
Just thinking of what’s happened to people’s careers since Star Citizen was in development is wild. Almost five years ago, Gillian Anderson was recording motion capture for Squadron 42, Star Citizen‘s singleplayer component that we might (but probably won’t) see next year. Anderson’s career has had a massive resurgence since then, with shows like Hannibal, Masters of Sex and recently with her turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown.
So I guess you could say Star Citizen did real well getting in early.
But it’s funny — and historically worthwhile — reading back how optimistic many of those early updates were. Back in 2015, we reported how the game’s scope had already blown well past the original 2014 release date. And at that time, developers were already starting to talk anonymously about how some of their time had been wasted building out features that were scrapped shortly after.
For instance, here’s a tale from early on in Star Citizen‘s development about having to find an in-game helmet to access the Arena Commander menu:
As an example, one high-level ex-employee shared the story of the Menu Helmet. At one point, according to that employee, Roberts decided he wanted players to have to find and wear an in-game helmet in order to gain access to the menu in Arena Commander. Some developers tried to shoot down the idea, noting that players would grow frustrated if they couldn’t find something as essential as a menu, but Roberts insisted, so a team of developers spent weeks making it work. Then, according to that source, Roberts tried it, only to realize that it wasn’t actually fun. So they scrapped the whole thing and went back to a regular menu system.
Roberts’ account of the Menu Helmet is quite different. In an e-mail this week, he said it had come about because Star Citizen’s main menu UI wasn’t far along enough, and players needed a way to select what ship from their hangar they wanted to fly in Arena Commander. Problem: the hangar is also intended to function as a ship gallery, where you can hop into ships and have a gander at all their immaculately rendered buttons and knobs. Solution: have them wear a helmet to designate that they want to play Arena Commander, not just look around in their ship.
Ultimately, Roberts said, once CIG decided they wanted to be able to launch Star Marine from the hangar too, the helmet method started making less sense. So they switched over to an in-game VR Pod. They also added a quick launch menu option for people who’d prefer to bypass all of that. So, according to Roberts’ account, it was still a lot of time and effort expended on a feature that didn’t stay in the game for long, but it wound up making sense in the long run.
As the rest of the industry broke new ground in other ways — we had the first mid-gen console refresh, VR went mainstream and real-time ray tracing became possible in video games for the very first time. We saw massive shifts in the industry’s business model, from crowdfunding to microtransactions. Games became punishingly hard again, but the Kickstarter wave and the growth of platforms like Steam also meant people had a much wider range of short-form experiences to enjoy.
And some of those have left a mark on the industry just as much as any AAA game. You can trace the last five years of roguelike games, including the highly successful Slay The Spire (and what that’ll do in its own right to card games), back to the astonishingly brilliant FTL. Undertale is still a game so much better than what we deserved. No Man’s Sky went through the rollercoaster of all rollercoasters to become a case study of strength and survival in the face of overwhelming adversity.
And you have the other side of indies, games like League of Legends. League was fun but “not as good as DOTA” back when Star Citizen was first raising funds. It now has a monthly active player count equivalent to the budget of most major studios, and the long-awaited mobile release — which is almost guaranteed to rack up tens of millions of players — is days away from launching in Australia. Fortnite was originally a co-op game about fighting off waves of zombies, a game that nobody really understood. Today, Fortnite is practically an entertainment platform with its own metaverse.
Companies, entire franchises have come and gone in the time that Star Citizen was in development. Cyberpunk 2077 is days away from launching, another project that’s been on the burner for about as long as Star Citizen. The two games could not be more different, obviously, and it’s hard to imagine any other studio and executive team that would have survived the near-constant turbulence.
For instance, consider what the game is built on. It’s hard to imagine any of the Star Citizen developers wouldn’t jump at the chance to go back in time to reverse the decision to use CryEngine, a choice which has been a constant source of technical and legal complications. And while it made sense for Chris Roberts to use CryEngine at the time — it was a little more mature in 2011 when Chris Roberts was building out the original prototype — it looks disastrous in hindsight, given Star Citizen‘s severe feature creep and Crytek’s continued struggles.
Or, as put to Kotaku UK a few years ago by a source within Cloud Imperium Games:
“CryEngine was a fine pick when $500,000 was all they were looking for and they needed tech to build a game on. You can’t build your own engine for $500,000. But you can with $100 million. In order to make Star Citizen work it needs proprietary tech. A lot of what was happening was to do with rewriting CryEngine in order to make it do what was needed. That obviously slowed everything down.”
You can definitely build a pretty good engine for more than $550 million. But even if money wasn’t the issue, Star Citizen‘s lengthy development is just an extreme version of problems seen throughout all kinds of development. You start doing one thing, then pivot to something else (the Star Marine FPS module in this case), and then have to pivot halfway through that thing again.
That’s not factoring in the human problem, either. There’s the challenges of distributed development. Star Citizen development was also rocked by the forced restructure of each studio’s pipeline, process and management to better match how Foundry 42, the home of Star Citizen‘s British dev team. It was a logical choice, according to sources on the project, but it also burnt up a lot of time and saw a string of redundancies and departures as management sorted out the growing pains.
What’s ultimately kept Star Citizen going over the years is a combination of promise and never-ending support from fans. Even after years of delays and a lack of clarity on what a final release — or at least a version 1.0 — will actually look like, Star Citizen raises more money than ever. And that continued support, with a bit of private investor backing, means Chris Roberts and co. can continue moving forward without having to push to quite the same deadline, or make the same degree of savage cuts, that other studios face.
The game has always had an extraordinary level of talent, and in the last year or so some of that is starting to come to the fore. But as a game, it’s largely in the same space it was a few years ago: a series of visually impressive vertical slices. It’s nowhere close to a complete package, and only a brave person would put a date on when all the pieces might come together. Just getting solid projections on Squadron 42, the original singleplayer adventure that was the crux of the original Kickstarter pitch, is troublesome enough.
So as we head into the next generation of consoles — and deal with the never-ending nightmare of actually getting those — Star Citizen‘s development carries on. It’s been going for so long that some of the future-forward technology that Chris Roberts spoke about is now a major selling point for Sony and Microsoft. And even this year, the studio is still introducing new video series and talking about new processes just to communicate what they’re working on.
I’m still a little hopeful, if only because I want the next-gen Freelancer experience that I backed almost a decade ago. Although based on my most recent experience, there’s still quite a long way to go:
In case you're ever wondering what the Star Citizen experience is like now pic.twitter.com/O5275z62dR
— Alex Walker (@dippizuka) October 22, 2020