Star Citizen: Constellation Cruising Over Cellin In-game screenshot from Star Citizen Alpha 2.4.1. Image credit: flickr/mr.hasgaha

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a video game.

All of the games that I’ve played, from video games, MUDs (the text-only precursors to MMOs), tabletop RPGs, I’ve always been interested in open worlds. In tabletop RPGs like D&D you could call it the sandbox campaign. It’s the kind of game where you can go anyway, do anything, live in a fantastic universe that responds to you, rather than putting you through a linear adventure like a movie or a novel. This is where games differ most from other kinds of fiction, as a player in an open world you have agency, the decisions you make have real impact. That makes open worlds the most interesting kind of game.

Now in production there is a video game that promises to deliver the deepest open world experience that I’ve seen, and it’s also beautiful in graphics, and being developed in a most unusual way. The way it’s being created is probably the only reason that it will be able to achieve its objective. To put it simply, it’s being crowdfunded and has raised over US$250 million since 2011. That’s the largest crowdfunding campaign ever*.

Star Citizen is lead by Chris Roberts, creator of such past glories as Wing Commander I and II. It consists of two main elements, a single-player game (which I don’t care about) and a super-important MMO that I do care about very much. The developers have been releasing Alpha versions of the game for many years, in the form of a Persistent Universe which allows backers to test the MMO version of the game. Although it’s super buggy, it’s also totally awesome.

Check out some footage. This is a beautiful, beautiful game. The the ship, building and environment design is top-notch, and game engine somehow delivers lighting that you just have to see to believe. Content creators on YouTube and Twitch are consistently using it to create visually stunning videos.

In game footage from Star Citizen captured by Terada

As an entrepreneur I want to know how Star Citizen has managed to raise so much money, and what effect that has had on their development. I think the success comes from a confluence of three factors:

  1. They have tapped into a serious unmet desire in the market for a game of this type. A few similar games were kicked off around the same time and none has delivered a great open-world science-fiction/space opera game experience, and the market is very hungry.
  2. They figured out that they could sell spaceships to backers for serious cash. Make no mistake, these are virtual products, fictional ships in a fictional game, and when they are first sold, they exist only as concepts. Concept art, concept specifications. But a vast array of presumably disposable-income-rich folk out there have been willing to pay up to US$2,500 for a single ship (the Javelin). It’s amazing! This is a ship that was sold out in 2014, and it’s still not available in the game. And I’m not criticizing the company for doing this, I’m seriously impressed that they discovered a business model like this and make it work so well.
  3. Their development process is unusually open. I’ve never seen a company share so much information on a weekly basis about software development. They do weekly live Q&A shows with their internal developers and artists, they do weekly more refined shows about what they are working on. They are also very open about the software development methodology they use and the challenges they have with meeting deadlines.

All of that is, however, a means to an end. The end goal is, as I said right at the start, an open world. And it has an attribute that is very important to me personally: you don’t need to shoot people to play the game. There are a variety of different paths to advance, professions if you will, such as data gathering, shipping, medical, smuggling, and prospecting. Perhaps there will be more in the future. This is not exactly common in video games, which tend to be categorized by which type of violence you use (first person shooters, military simulations, beat-em-ups) as if there were nothing else you would want to do. It strives for a simulation-style realism, so in order to improve in the game you need to personally improve your skills, there’s no grinding and levelling up. It has a wonderful concept for the life of a character, called Death of a Spaceman:

To achieve this sense of a living history, there needs to be a universe where time progresses, characters die, and new ones come to the front. Beyond this, I want people to have a sense of accomplishment when they complete a really difficult trading run or kill an especially infamous pirate.

In game footage from Star Citizen captured by Jaddow

Star Citizen has been heavily criticized for being vaporware, smoke and mirrors that is paying a lot of developers a lot of money but will never be released, or will never fulfill it’s promise. I’ve been watching the game for a few years now, and many milestones have been missed and delayed. But. Software development is hard, and they have a lot of money, an evidently talented team, and an experienced and visionary leader. And, their alpha game is already so amazing that I spend an inordinate amount of time on YouTube watching people play. So, in the end, I fall on the side that thinks that it’s a worthwhile project, that deserves to succeed, and will succeed.

Of course, if it does, I’ll have to buy a PC so I can play it.

* If you exclude cryptocurrencies, which you should.