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Stick and Rudder: Why Star Citizen's development model matters

Jef Reahard

Chris Roberts' Star Citizen crowdfunding colossus exploded onto the gaming scene late in 2012 with a chip on its shoulder and a certain can-do attitude that resonated with gamers because of its conspicuous absence over the past decade. "I am a PC game, and I am a space sim," the game's trailer defiantly proclaimed.

PC games and space sims, of course, were long past the prime of their 1990s golden years, according to most industry pundits, so how and why did Star Citizen make such a successful splash (over $8.5 million in crowdfunding as of press time, with an additional $5,000 to $10,000 gained on a daily basis)? More importantly why is the title's development model so integral to the future of gaming?

Star Citizen - Terra aerial concept
If you missed Roberts at last month's SXSW convention and you're a fan of his previous work or immersive gaming in general, it's well-worth listening to his 40-minute presentation. He talks at length about the golden years of PC gaming, the industry transition to the console-dominated casual environments of today, and how crowdfunding in general and games like Star Citizen in particular can give a voice to older, disaffected gamers who grew up on meaty, immersive, and dare I say hardcore experiences like Wing Commander, Ultima, and the like.

He follows up the history lesson with some fascinating insight into his newest project and how its crowdfunding campaign has been so successful that it's given him more autonomy than he initially thought possible. "My goal with Star Citizen is to make it a completely community-funded and -driven game, and I'm actually now backing off on some of the investors who had committed before," Roberts explained to the SXSW audience.

Star Citizen - The world of Spider
Mixed in with all the historical notes about his time at Origin Systems and Digital Anvil are plenty of stats about Star Citizen's pledge drive and the backers who made it possible. A developer poll of SC's registered website users garnered "a fairly good statistical sample" of around 12,000 responses, according to Roberts.

I've pulled a few of the more interesting numbers directly from the SXSW audio, and viewing them gives you a great picture of the kinds of people who backed Star Citizen.
  • 69% of backers are over the age of 25
  • 89% of backers game on a desktop
  • 81% of backers built their own PC
  • 75% of backers have 8GB of RAM or more
  • 29% of backers intend to use Oculus Rift
  • 58% of backers own at least one console
Star Citizen - Early gameplay footageThe takeaway from all these numbers, according to Roberts, is that there is a significant audience of dedicated gamers who aren't being adequately serviced by the current game industry. And someone should make games for this audience because they have jobs and plenty of disposable income, he explained. "Too many people are trying to make games that work on a browser and are really basic experiences," he said.

The Star Citizen demographic is clearly a minority when viewed against the legions of gamers who turn out for annual Call of Duty installments, Battlefield sequels, or browser-based social games, but they're nonetheless important because of the shifting development dynamics made possible by crowdfunding.

Kickstarter and Cloud Imperium's internal fund-raising apparatus offered two major benefits to both developers and niche consumers.

One is the transparency of the development process compared to the standard publisher-driven development model. Roberts explained how this benefits both the backers, who get a very real sense of where their money is going due to frequent updates and public-facing developers, and the gamemakers, most of whom labor in anonymity at larger firms and who now gain notoriety for their work on an ongoing basis.

This back-and-forth ultimately makes a better game. "We're seeing, very early in the process now, what's important for people and what isn't important for people," Roberts explained. Instead of spending three years in a cave working on a feature that most of your audience will ignore, you get near-instant feedback and it's a really positive thing, he says.

The second major benefit of Star Citizen's funding model has to do with the supply chain. Roberts explained how his team has cut out the mile-long list of middlemen who typically drive up the price of game development, and this in turn addresses typical community questions like "how can he afford to make a AAA game with $8 million?"

The traditional PC publishing model netted the developer a 20% royalty, which amounted to about $12 of every game sold. With the direct/crowdfunded model, the developer gets all of the money minus the fees for the funding apparatus (Kickstarter or various payment processing fees) plus whatever is spent on marketing. So instead of $12 per $60 game unit, the take-home is anywhere from $48 to $51.

"You're essentially getting four times as much coming back, which is good for everyone because you don't need to sell as many copies," Roberts explains. "And whenever your footprint is smaller it will allow people to innovate more and do more interesting things."

In short, Roberts' SXSW presentation convinced me of two things. One, Star Citizen is even more exciting than I initially realized, and two, this is a great time to be a gamer. And more specifically, it's a great time to be a gamer who is a fan of the immersive experiences that defined the medium in the late 1980s and 1990s. Due to the success of crowdfunding and the emergence of smaller, niche-focused firms led by Roberts and other old-school gaming gurus, a spate of high-quality titles with significant staying power is very likely in the near future.

Apart from its actual gameplay, which is shaping up to be a delicious blend of space combat, out-of-cockpit shenanigans, and MMO-like trading and resource management, Star Citizen represents something else to all of the backers registered on its official website: hope.

Whether it's interviews with Chris Roberts and the Cloud Imperium team or tips and guides for pushing your ship's performance envelope, Stick and Rudder is your inside source for news and commentary on the world of Star Citizen. Join Jef Reahard every other week during the run-up to alpha, beta, and beyond.

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