Star Citizen is Terraforming the Gaming Industry

Indie game developers are increasingly turning to crowd funding as a revenue source. Star Citizen leads the pack. What are the advantages, and potential pitfalls, of this rapidly growing trend?

If you would have pitched a space sim at game producers a year ago, you would have been fighting a seriously up-hill battle. There was a feeling in the industry that the simulators of old had passed their time and that there would be no current market for them. In walked Chris Roberts and his team over at Cloud Imperium Games, a group of folks who aren’t asking permission to make a game; they’re doing it, and they’ve asked us, the gamers, to help. They set a goal of $2 million, and told the community that if they’d like to see what kind of game Star Citizen could be, then that was the number they needed to get started. Eager gamers didn’t just give them what they thought they needed, we exploded past it with furious intent. Star Citizen has managed to raise $8.5 million at this point, completely obliterating even the stretch goals no one ever expected to reach. It was like dropping an atom bomb on the industry’s perception of the standard production route, and the shock wave is still spreading.

Shroud of the Avatar prototype

Lord British taught us to weaponize Virtues, and now he’s back to continue the fight.

Immediately following the fantastic success of the new Chris Roberts title, we started to see other major names in the industry step forward. Chris Taylor announced an idea for a new RTS and took it to Kickstarter. Richard Garriott announced with 3rd person flair that Lord British would be taking the field with a new playground for the old Avatar. Most recently, the studio inXile Entertainment funded their attempt at creating Torment: Tides of Numenera, the spiritual successor to the classic Planescape: Torment. Like Star Citizen, Torment managed to collect quadruple their stated Kickstarter goal and while they were at it, set the record for fastest project to have a million dollars pledged. Getting to a million only took them seven hours after starting the campaign. So yes, I think you can pretty well say at this point that Star Citizen has managed to terraform the face of the industry. They haven’t just opened a second trail as an alternative for funding games, they’ve basted through the canyon wall and laid down a four-lane highway. They’ve completely reshaped the standard for development as well, but more on that in another article. The question before us is whether this reshaping is a good thing or a bad one. Has CR led us to the land of milk and honey, or have we found the undiscovered country of which Hamlet spoke so sadly?

Torment: Tides of Numenera

Who wouldn’t play another Torment game? No RPG has ever managed to capture the raw emotion of that game… until now, perhaps?

The Golden Age Before Us

There’s a lot of win to be had in the crowd funding phenomenon and finding reasons to cheer it on are hardly uncommon. The immediately obvious reason to cheer is that it allows indie developers to go all out on efforts that before they would have only been able to develop nights and weekends. In the age of large publishing companies playing it safe to avoid flops, games like movies get their most insanely innovative ideas from the independent developers.

Star Citizen

The Devil Dogs of the UEE in Star Citizen stand tall knowing that they’ll be serving an adoring fan-base.

Indie developers are poor, hungry, and most importantly, not afraid of risk. It’s a fundamental point of the human existence that we’re at our best when we should be closest to giving up. Crowd funding allows those hungry young developers to pitch their ideas to the masses, and those who do it best get a supercharged shot of funding to make their dreams into reality. This means the concept is proven more quickly, larger developers take notice more quickly, and we the gamers see those fascinating ideas sooner.

In the traditional game funding model, a publisher would dictate several aspects of the game to the developer based on economic models. Publishers can value making money at the expense of making an awesome game. With the crowd funding model, where a large chunk of development costs are funded by fans,  developers are free to build the game they think their potential users want. Roberts and his team believe that if you make an awesome game, it will make money. Crowd funding has allowed them to attempt to prove that.

If nothing else, taking this route allows the developer to tune the title to the niche market they’re attempting to hit more directly, without having to bow to the need to make it accessible to other demographics. If you’ve ever flown the IL-2 flight simulators, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a segment of games out there that are great primarily because they’re complex and hard to approach. The reward is in the complexity, and that’s why people are still playing the game 12 years after release.

Winter of Discontent

But it’s not all roses on the crowd funding front. I do have some pretty serious concerns. Chief among those concerns is that the massive success of crowd sourced campaigns recently has got to be attracting the attention of the larger publishers, and that means they’re starting to wonder how they can take advantage of all this free money. What happens when Blizzard announces that they’re looking at making their new World of Starcraft, but they need to know people are behind it before they can begin development? "Here, come fund our development and we’ll make you an okay game, charge you $60 to buy it and another $15 a month to play!" Don’t snicker, because if I were a large publisher, that’s exactly what I’d want to do. You get a market test, starting capital, and publicity all in one easy step. They’re not far from it now, because crowd funding is just a few steps from the "pre-order to get into beta" concept that’s already here. In fact, it’s the current pre-ordering process that has primed us all to be okay with the concept of crowd funding in the first place.

Star Citizen

One way to separate legitimate games from potential rip-offs is to look at the detail and how far the game has come before going to Kickstarter.

The next big concern I have is, what happens when we contribute to something that doesn’t meet our expectations? We know that’s bound to happen at some point, and as developers become more educated on crowd funding, and begin to develop marketing strategies for it, eventually, we’re going to fall prey to an awesome trailer and FAQ that completely misrepresents the game. There’s the threat that the concept could destroy itself from within by rolling out junk games for a quick buck.

Worse than destroying itself from within would be the cry out for some sort of enforcement, though. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of expecting someone else to take care of us these days, and that bleeds over into gaming. We have a good record of self-regulation with ratings and we need to apply some of that to the representation of games, especially with crowd funding. The last thing we need is a government agency that doesn’t understand the industry trying to regulate it, but as soon as people lose money on a bad game, it’s something we’re going to be faced with. Having that conversation now could mean the difference between a crowd funding system that’s only slightly dangerous and one that’s so regulated that it’s useless.

Into the Breach Dear Friends

Star Citizen has led the charge into completely new territory. Others have been using crowd funding for some time, but none have captured the eye of the media quite like Star Citizen. Nor have any captured the hearts of their fans. The guys in Austin are bombarded by packages with goods, gifts, and letters of encouragement from their fans constantly. I’ve never heard of anything remotely like this in the gaming industry, and I have to admit, I like it.

Star Citizen

Oh, brave new world that has such people in it!

Getting the gamers closer to the developers looks to be an incredibly rewarding experience for both, and I’m truly hopeful that the crowd funding phenomenon continues to grow. It’s an opportunity for more people to succeed who would have never had a chance before. It’s a chance to see games that would have never made it to market before. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s an opportunity for developers to start work on a game knowing that there are people who care and who are cheering for them.

There is some danger in treading on this new ground, but with a frank conversation about it and by educating ourselves on what those dangers are, I think we can avoid most of them. There are pitfalls any time you take a risk, but that’s what makes them worth taking. The movie industry has a strong indie tradition and is all the better for it. Maybe we’ve chosen a different way of doing it than they have, but hey… we’re gamers. We’ve been building our own roads for decades and there’s no reason to stop now.

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