"It can be anywhere from $35,000 to $150,000," Roberts says, speaking to the development cost associated with "a single ship."
The ship's price considers multiple factors: the time and money spent by his team to model the object and the care taken to ensure everything within that item functions realistically. Thirty-five thousand dollars, Roberts says, is the price associated with building a small space fighter, composed of animated dashboard displays and moving parts within and out. Larger carriers, like the kilometer-long Bengal Class ship featured in the prototype version of the game and showcased as part of the crowdfunding campaign, inch closer to the $150,000 mark.
Once conceptualized, ships are given a detailed wrapper made up of up to seven million polygons, for the game's largest carriers. In contrast to current-generation games, the Star Citizen Kickstarter page noted that most 'AAA' games today have "10,000 polygons for a character and 30,000 or so for a vehicle." A single fighter in Star Citizen, the campaign page claims, is built with 300,000 polygons. The price to develop each ship doesn't take into account differing components available for customization. Roberts says he considers each hull – which is where the money goes – to be akin to a PC case, stuffed with the innards that players choose. They can purchase a hull and create a ship that fits their needs, be it focused on stealth, fighting or even merchant trading. According to Roberts, it's "the most customizable game I've ever done."
At over $10 million, Star Citizen has become the most successful crowdfunded video game project to date. Through a combination of campaigns that stretched from its own website to Kickstarter, the game continues to acquire the necessary capitol to build the Wing Commander's grand vision. That vision, Roberts tells Joystiq, requires more money to come to fruition.
The initial goal for Roberts and his crew at Roberts Space Industries was to acquire between $12 million and $14 million to develop and release an alpha build of Star Citizen to market. Using what Roberts called the "Minecraft method," RSI would launch in alpha state and continuously update Star Citizen over time until they reached a final release, which would then be supported further.
After lining up angel investors along with money made up from his own personal account and the accounts of others, Roberts and his team built a prototype of Star Citizen. "It wasn't cheap, Roberts says. "The prototype cost about one million dollars."
With the protoype in hand and crowdfunding on the brain, Roberts made an agreement with other investors: if a crowdfunding campaign could bring in at least $2 million to validate there was a demand for a space sim of Star Citizen's scope, the investors would make up the balance for development.
Then, much like stars are wont to do, things exploded. In its initial website-focused crowdfunding campaign, Star Citizen earned over $6.2 million.
"I was pretty confident we could get to at least two [million]," Roberts says, "but $6.2 million? I was shocked." And with a campaign that continues to grow, the plans for investment are beginning to evolve.
"Basically it means that I don't need to take as much money or any money at all. We're actually debating right now of not even taking some of the investment money that was already pre-committed. Because if it's going to come from the community, it's better for the game and it's better for the community because I don't have any other interests involved."
Roberts was with Origin Systems – the company responsible for Ultima, System Shock and Wing Commander – when it was acquired by EA in 1992. It's his opinion that when too many controlling parties are involved with the development of a project, the focus turns to financial payout rather than building a solid product.
"Origin was bought by EA and all those EA guys, I'm friendly with them and they're good people, but when you're part of a big company it's a different thing and ultimately it ends up destroying the DNA that made that small, scrappy company work."
By 2000, Origin had shifted to massively-multiplayer versions of its franchises. After the poor reception of Ultima IX, however, EA canceled all online projects and disbanded the company in early 2004.
"I'd rather run Star Citizen as a community-funded game universe. All I care about is making the best game possible, which is what I think the community wants, too. As long as we're sustaining enough revenue to add more content and all of the rest of the stuff, that's great by me."
Star Citizen's original vision has expanded as its community has grown, with stretch goals adding to the workload and the overall vision. "The full game that I want to build that was in my head was always like $20 million ... or 21 or 22. It's in that range," Roberts says. "That's kind of what we're shooting for, right now."
Star Citizen sets out in modules, starting with an interactive hangar, in August. A playable game is coming in 2014.