The glossy 22 page brochure reads more like a testament of faith than a sales pitch. The evangelical copy boasts the vehicle's impressive performance benchmarks and gushes over the many luxury features a potential buyer can expect. Reading it you can almost feel the smooth Corinthian leather seats at your back, the low hum of the engine, what it would be like to have that power at your command. The photography is immaculate, shot after shot of the sleek aerodynamic body. Action shots that capture a miracle of precision engineering in motion. The level of detail, the specificity, of the technical specs borders on the pornographic. An accompanying video spot sells not just the ride, but a lifestyle. An aspirational appeal of freedom, exploration, of never settling for second best.
I find my mouse hand hovering perilously over the purchase button, I actually want to spend $50 on a make believe spaceship for a game that won't come out for at least two more years.
And I suddenly realize why everyone on this crazy site thinks Chris Roberts is a genius. He is.
Roberts Space Industries is the home site and launchpad of Star Citizen, the crowd funded giant spearheaded by the titular Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame. Billed as a true triple A experience, the scope of the project is nothing short of staggering. Promising next-generation cutting edge graphics, Oculus Rift support, a full single player campaign experience reminiscent of Robert's classic works, and an expansive laissez faire multiplayer world similar to EVE Online and his original aspirations for Freelancer. A cutthroat simulation universe where players can be anything they want to be, from trader, to merc, to pirate, and all the shades of grey in between (smuggler on contract to defend a civilian merchant fleet, ect.)
The site isn't just a place to get the latest info about the game, it's practically a shrine to Roberts.
Featuring a museum section celebrating past games (and films) Roberts has been involved with, along with missives and communiques straight from the man himself, it's clear that Star Citizen is selling itself as much on Roberts reputation in the genre he helped create as it is on the game's feature set. Taking a page from Tim Schafer's book, Roberts is using his celebrity within his narrow band of interest, the space-combat sim, to resurrect a genre traditional publishers have all but abandoned. Servicing a small, but devoted, audience that craves a return to the games they grew up with.
The appeal of Robert's rock star like fame in this deeply niche genre is only one prong of Cloud Imperium Games marketing strategy. While the Roberts name draws potential customers to the site, it's the content they find there that hooks them in.
Those lovingly crafted glossy ads worked disgustingly well on me. I always snickered at "lifestyle" car ads before, now I'm not sure I can; I've bought in myself. But I don't want to be Ford Tough, I want to be Han Solo. I couldn't care less about cruising the Autobahn in a BMW. But tell me about mapping a deserted solar system in a well armed scout ship, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I got snagged into pledging back during the Aurora sale. I'd like to say it was just the temporary bargain price point that drew me in, but damn if that ad didn't help.
The RSI site updates multiple times a week with little tidbits for the faithful. Messages from the devs, the occasional piece of concept art, or a feature on a planet or character class are offered to whet the fans collective appetite. CIS is already hard at work creating a lore and universe for Star Citizen, publishing short stories, in-universe news clippings, and even an extensive Writer's Guide for fans that want to get a head start developing their characters and elaborate head-canon. An online streaming show, Wingman's Hanger, is produced each week. Its painfully cheesy, with guests more accustomed to spending their time under the glow of a computer monitor organizing lines of code than in the spotlight trying to put on a camera friendly smile. But the show has a certain low-rent, public access charm to it.
They even have a monthly digital magazine, Jump Point, which spoons out even larger helpings of fanservice. Each issue includes an extensive breakdown and making-of special on a specific ship. While the ads for the Aurora and 300i are like something you'd find in a dealership's showroom, Jump Point's features are like a nerdy alternate-reality version of Top Gear, a deep nitty-gritty look at the technology and construction of each ride for true hardcore motorheads.
For all the work CIS has put into building the world of Star Citizen and the obvious passion of the development team, it might be easy to forget in the midst of all those feelgood vibes that Star Citizen is still a for-profit business. But don't worry, it won't take long to be reminded of that fact if you spend some time perusing the site.
They certainly aren't shy about asking for money. Jump Point might be cool, but it's only available to subscribers, backers who pay into the game's development on a monthly basis. Each new glossy ship advertisement is designed not only to rope in new players, but with options for current subscribers to upgrade their package to get in on the new hotness. I'd be lying if I told you I didn't feel the pull to kick in a few more dollars to upgrade the comparatively humble Aurora LX I previously pledged for to the shinny new 300i. The game isn't even out and they've done a great job of making me jealous of other player's hypothetical rides.
There were packages introduced to entice early backers with promises of lifetime insurance on their ships, packages that have been offered again and again months since in a "last-last chance!" firesale fashion. There are hull upgrades already available at a modest fee for the ships you can't fly yet. And of course it wouldn't be a microtransaction supported game without all the cosmic fluff and trimmings like paint jobs and custom insignias - all up for grabs if you just pay in a few dollars more.
The 15 year old anti-capitalist radical in me wants to sneer at them, to call them out for being slick phonies, ad men looking for a quick buck. But I can't muster up the indignation.
Yes, when you step back and look at what CIS is doing it can seem a bit unsavoury. But they're just so damn sincere about it. Sure, Roberts and his team have figured out exactly how to wring money out of ageing sci-fi fans, but that's probably because they know what appeals to themselves.
And damn if I don't love his moxy. Make no mistake, Robert's vision for Star Citizen is incredibly ambitious, maybe too ambitious. It would be a tall order to make the game he describes even with full publisher backing, doing it purely through crowd funding is nothing short of a herculean task. But I want to see it happen – there might be more riding on Star Citizen's back than a cool space game.
When the project was first announced, Roberts was looking for somewhere between 2-4 million to "seed" the funding. The original intention was to take a sizable chunk of crowd funded money and wave it at a publisher to show there was still interest in a game like Star Citzen and they already had a down payment secured.
But as the crowd money poured in and the Roberts team got better and better at drawing in more backers (or at least more money from their current backers), the notion of any publisher investment grew increasingly dim. Now, with a war chest of over $10,600,000, Roberts is poised to develop the whole ambitious shebang solely on the fans support.
If he can make the game he says he'll make on the crowd funded dollar, it will be a watershed moment. Proof positive that crowd funding is a viable platform to make games with. And not just the "Block Puzzles About Hating your Dad" kind of indie-kitch we've seen successfully come out of Kickstarter, but big triple A games of scope and magnitude.
At the same time, if Star Citizen flops, if the game is just too damn big and expensive and either collapses or comes out with a gutted feature list, then it might be the nail in the coffin for big budget crowd funding. Crowd funding already faces lots of (legitimate) skepticism, and Star Citizen could be the flaming wreck everyone points to as an example of why you don't plop down $60 on make believe star-ships and wishes.
And that would be a tragedy for every kind of gamer, not just space sim fans.
In this rocky climate of major studio closures, of games pumping in DLC and Online Passes to try and make a return on their bloated budgets, of 3 million plus sale "flops" like Tomb Raider, developers like Roberts are trying to find a way around the system, to make the games they want to make for the audience who wants them. If it's true that the industry can't sustain the current course of super high-budget games, and the only solution is incredibly tight DRM and even more price gouging, we all should be looking for another way.
Just like the slick dealership ads he's taken inspiration from, Christ Roberts isn't just selling a game, he's selling dreams.
The dream to fly through space. The promise of returning to the age of deep simulation, more immersive than ever before. Of finally living out that geeky sci-fi fantasy of being a Malcolm Reynolds-like smuggler, or a hotshot rebel ace, in meticulous detail in a living persistent world.
But he's also selling another dream, the dream of a new age in game development. A world where ambitious games can be made without groveling and begging to a big publisher. A democratic utopia where gamers vote with their dollar to see what games get made.
I want to live in the worlds Chris Roberts is trying to make.
About Nic Rowen One of us since 7:50 PM on 05.05.2010
Nic (formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since 2010. After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for years, he made the jump and became a staff member in 2014. He likes robots, coffee, and pictures of robots enjoying coffee.