By all measures, Star Citizen is the most ambitious video game in history. It is also one of the most controversial. When it launched on Kickstarter four years ago, it promised a universe so incomprehensibly massive and detailed that many heralded it as the be-all-end-all of space games. It has since raised nearly $125 million by 1.5 million backers, making it one of the most successful crowdfunding projects to date. But with its ever-ballooning budget, the game keeps growing and growing — and that has caused setbacks. No one really knows when the game will be released; some are beginning to doubt if it ever will. And at the center of all the controversy is Chris Roberts.
Roberts is the chairman and CEO of Cloud Imperium Games, the company behind Star Citizen. He’s been building video games for over 30 years. He’s had some hits in the past: Wing Commander, the 1990 space fighter, was the game that made him famous; Freelancer, another space game, enjoyed moderate success. Star Citizen, he says, will be his magnum opus. Understandably, he demands that the game is perfect. It’s a Steve Jobs-like perfectionism, stubborn and brilliant, that pushes both boundaries and production deadlines. But in his mind, that’s what it takes to build the greatest space game the world has ever seen.
Q: For the past five years, you’ve been heading the development of one of the most anticipated video games in history. What’s that been like?
A: It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of work. It’s pretty amazing, because I never guessed it would’ve turned into what it’s turned into when we started out. I was just hoping there was a big enough group of people out there that still wanted a space game like the kind I made so I could go off and make it. Obviously we’re way beyond that. We’ve been able to build this really large company that’s dedicated to making the best space game possible. We now have over 360 people in four studios spread between L.A., Austin, Manchester and Frankfurt. We also have folks working on it up in Montreal. It’s pretty amazing that from this one idea, this big company has grown and evolved, and of course that comes with its own set of work. There’s a challenge to build and grow a company while trying to build a really ambitious game.
And it’s really interesting that we’re doing it in public. All the past games I’ve built have been built behind closed doors, and have been funded by a publisher. You’d go off and work on something for several years before you even show it to people. With Star Citizen, from the very beginning, we were just like, “Hey! This is what we’re doing!” That is exhilarating, and it’s great to get feedback and all that stuff, but of course that can have unfavorable consequences. But I’d rather take the good with the bad.
Just one star system should have enough content and enough things to do for players to play for hundreds, even thousands of hours.
The biggest takeaway for me is the community. In the past, all the games I’ve made — I knew that people liked them, they got all these reviews — but you never really connected to the people that liked the game or what you were doing. That’s not what happens with a crowdfunded game. We have this huge, supportive community, and over the last four years they’ve supported us to a level no other crowdfunding game has seen before. They make this game possible. It’s amazing to see their excitement and enthusiasm.
You have this direct connection to the players, and there’s something really cool about that — not just for me, but for a lot of the people working on this stuff. When they build a cool ship or they build a cool feature, all these people say, “Ahh, I really like that, it’s really cool!” A lot of times when you’re creating something, you’re doing it for yourself, but you also want to do it so other people enjoy it. If you’re working on a triple-A game, you could be locked up for four years before knowing whether anyone likes it or not or is even excited about it. In our case, we know there’s a big community out there that’s super excited and can’t get enough of it.
Chris Roberts, chairman and CEO of Cloud Imperium Games and creator of Star Citizen.
Q: Tell me about the moment the idea for Star Citizen first came to you. What was the original vision? Has the game turned out anything like you imagined it would?
A: Star Citizen is pretty much the game I’ve been wanting to build for all my life. If you look at the history of games I’ve built, you sort of see bits of it along the way. When I was a kid, I’d watch things like Star Wars and Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I read a lot of science fiction. I imagined living in this future world, but the technology never felt like it was there. Wing Commander was specifically done the way it was done to work with the technology at that time to be immersive in that world and story, but we were on a pretty constrained path relative to what we’re doing in Star Citizen.
You can do whatever profession you want to do. You can go to all these various locations, wander around worlds, fly ships, and have it all done in this detail that you would imagine you could project yourself in as a person. It’s not abstract. It’s not looking at the exterior of a 3D ship. It’s actually walking around inside the ship; it’s sitting in the captain’s chair, flying in and landing and getting up and walking around on the planet you’ve landed on. I’ve always wanted to do that.
Q: Version 3.0, set to release later this year, promises a “living, breathing” universe. Can you give an idea of how the Star Citizen universe will feel different from other space games? Just how big will the universe be?
A: We’re planning to get about 100 star systems in the game. Each star system will have anywhere from one to six planets, and then there will obviously be moons, space stations, asteroid fields and all the rest of the stuff. You’ll have oceans and forests and mountains, different homesteads and locations, as well as the landing areas. There’s going to be a huge increase in the play area and what people can do, and we’re really going for a kind of frequency of interaction and interest and AI and everything that is much more dense than what you’d typically get in a space game.
Normally you’d go to a star system and maybe there would be one or two locations you could land on, you buy or sell stuff, and then you’d go to another location. With Star Citizen just one star system should have enough content and enough things to do for players to play for hundreds, even thousands of hours. The density of experience is going to be much higher than what you’ve seen in other space games, including my own.
I’m not looking at this game like I’m going to finish it and then move on to the next game. This is it.
We actually have a full universe simulation that runs on separate servers, responsible for deciding which planets are trading, which organization is doing what, which factories are doing well, who’s selling what, who needs what kind of goods. It’s populating the universe with the various people going about their jobs, whether it’s a pirate, trader, bounty hunter, law enforcer — they’re all running around in this universe simulation, and then we use that simulation to drive the content that people interact with when they’re flying around in the universe.
The whole concept is to have a living, breathing universe that reacts and responds to the players’ actions. We’re doing things like items, ships or even characters that age, wear and tear. You need to make sure that you’re servicing your spaceship or your equipment, otherwise it’s gets damaged. The idea is that nothing in this world should feel static. It should feel like your actions, and your friends’ actions, have an impact. And the world moves on whether you’re participating or not. I think that makes the game quite different from a lot of the MMOs out there. We obviously haven’t got all this working; it’s all in different stages of development, but that’s the long-term vision — a dynamic, living, breathing universe where you can just go off and spend as long as you want in it.
Star Citizen‘s single-player campaign features a star-studded cast, including Mark Hamill (pictured, headset), Gary Oldman, Gillian Anderson and Andy Serkis, among others.
Q: Star Citizen is a massively ambitious video game, relying totally on the support of fans’ crowdfunded dollars. There have been several release-date pushbacks and a good amount of speculation whether or not the game will deliver on its promises. Many believe Star Citizen is simply too ambitious to be realized. What do you say to these skeptics?
A: I’m building the game that I wanted to build. There’s been a vast amount of long hours and assets just to get it here, and there’s still going to be a lot more long hours and assets to get it online. But I’m building it because it’s something that I want to play. I have no doubt in every fiber of my being that we will deliver the game that I see in my head and the game that I think will be really great, and I think my team is like-minded. In any endeavor, there’s always people who say, “It’s too ambitious. You won’t make it.” But there’s a Chinese proverb: Those who think it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it. I very much ascribe to that.
If you take a look and see what we’ve shared over the years and the progress we’ve made, there’s a lot of things people said we couldn’t do that we are doing right now. We are doing some things on a scale and scope and complexity that no other game has achieved. Yes, we aren’t finished yet, and we have a lot more stuff to do. But for me, that’s more just a matter of time. Are we always going to be on time, are we always going to make dates? No. In all software development I’ve been a part of, it never happens that way. Our attitude is that we’re going for quality.
The only worry that I have is losing the support of the community. That’s what’s enabling us to make the game that we’re making right now. As long as we have the support of the community, I have no doubt that we will make this amazing game. Now whether that’s the amazing game that everyone out there wants, I can’t say. Everyone has their own particular vision of what they think is the thing they need. But I will say I have a pretty good feeling that what we will deliver will satisfy and impress a good amount of people. I really believe it. We’re basically combining a lot of the things you’ve never had in one game before. It’s going to take us longer to get to that nirvana of it all, but I think it will be something very special.
People can complain about dates and timelines, but what they really want is a great experience. We’re not doing just a single player game. We have this open-world universe, that you can venture around in for years to come. You don’t want to cut corners — you want to build it right. Something that’ll last for a long time — that’s my goal. I’m not looking at this game like I’m going to finish it and then move on to the next game. This is it. This is going to be a living product, a living world. It will evolve with content, features, graphical capabilities. It will be a constantly living product getting bigger, better and richer over the years. When you do that, you need to make sure the foundation is right.