One day a gamer with vivid memories of playing Wing Commander back in the 1980s entered an antique store and picked up a cursed monkey paw. Whilst inspecting the curio, he absent-mindedly said to himself: “Man, those old Chris Roberts space shooters were great, but I wish he had unlimited time and money to make a game that could truly live up to his vision.” With a sinister creak, one of the fingers curled. The shop-keeper rang up the purchase, and to the aging nerd spoke two ominous words: “No refunds.”
This tale may seem fanciful, dear reader, but it is as plausible an explanation as any for current events.
The Kickstarter boom of 2011 made it possible for charismatic developers to reach out directly to their fans, no matter how bad they were at managing projects. Of those games since released, some were late, like Wasteland 2. Some were disappointments, like Mighty No. 009. But there have been none like Star Citizen. This game alone has seen its scope increase to elephantine excess, and its fans have served as the perfect enablers to Chris Roberts’s ambitions. As of this writing there are over 1.75 million ‘Star Citizens,’ who have donated over $US147 million.
In comparison, Mass Effect: Andromeda only cost $US40 million. It spent almost as much time in development, and delivered a rather spotty gaming experience at launch. But at least it did launch; EA/BioWare eventually got it out the door. Star Citizen is something else entirely.
It’s been five years now since the gamer in our opening story got his wish, and a few of the hairs on his temples have turned grey. Many Star Citizen backers, himself included, are getting a little worried about this burgeoning enterprise. Picking up the monkey paw from his mantle, he asks for another boon: “I sure wish Chris Roberts would let his backers know exactly what he was spending their money on.” And with a deathly creak, the second finger curled.
On April 14 the Star Citizen team published a video to their official YouTube channel, ‘Building a Schedule for a Universe.’ For 20-odd minutes global head of production Erin Roberts and his pensive minions explained how Roberts Space Industries has become such a colossal, Byzantine organisation that even something as seemingly straightforward as implementing ship cargo is an engineering challenge on a par with the Apollo Program.
With such a sprawling, multi-disciplinary organisation spread out over several nations and time zones, it would seem that delays are inevitable. Frankfurt-based producer Lena Brenk was sanguine about their setbacks: “It’s nobody’s fault... We just need to figure out how to move forward.” When touching on Star Citizen’s ever-increasing scope, she almost laughed out loud: “The schedule is never done. It’s always changing. Always being amended.”
While there is still no ETA for a minimum viable product, the Star Citizen meta-game is already tremendously entertaining.
Consider the referral program, where Star Citizens can get extra in-game goodies if they persuade their friends to play. Fair enough. But this incentive program took a bizarre turn with the launch of the ‘Star Kitten’ line of in-game merchandise. Star Kitten is a shameless knock-off of the Hello Kitty merch empire, a pastiche of luminous colour schemes and infantile character art. Consumer response has been mixed. Some Citizens are looking forward to disintegrating every shill starship they see. Others don’t want hot pink hardware in the game at all. They point out that lurid merchandise made for little girls is a poor fit for a gritty universe of quasi-realistic space combat.
Note that I made the deliberate choice of describing Roberts’s customers as ‘Citizens,’ not ‘players,’ as the game itself is still far from complete. The upcoming ‘3.0’ release is but another iteration of the alpha. Squadron 42 and the final form of the Persistent Universe, or P.U., are still a long, long way off.
Some day the story of Star Citizen will come to an end. Our poor hero, now approaching retirement age, will make one last tottering trip towards his mantle. There he keeps his most treasured items: his signed copy of Freelancer, a mint condition Gizmondo console, and... the monkey’s paw. As the shadows of passing Hover-Ubers streak through the windows of his sitting room, he’ll grasp the paw, take a pensive gulp, and make one last request:
“I wish that Star Citizen would finally launch.”
And the third and final finger will curl shut...