On Internet Spaceships, Crowdfunding and Space Sims

Star Citizen may well be the most ambitious game of the last ten years. And if the developer pulls it off, it may change gaming forever.

Concept art image of a massive spaceship in orbait around a planet with floodlights piercing the darkness to floating wreckage

Star Citizen may well be the most ambitious game of the last ten years. And if the developer pulls it off, it may change gaming forever.

Space sims, a genre stagnant since the early 90’s, have recently experienced a resurgence: Elite Dangerous, KSP, No Man’s Sky and a dozen other games now jostle for space and attention. None of these games is more ambitious than Star Citizen, a galaxy-spanning “Universe Sim” that incorporates multiple styles of play – fighter to fleet conflict, resource extraction, FPS, exploration and trade, story-driven arcs and emergent play – into what is promised to be a single, networked, shared-world experience.

View of a planet and habitable zones in Star Citizen

Like most of the other games in the genre, Star Citizen is being made independently. While independent development has always been a vital part of the games industry, it’s the convergence of Kickstarter funding and online distribution that has made work at this scale possible.

It’s unlikely that Star Citizen would ever achieve the success that it has without massive confidence in its makers and founder, but the way the game has earned over $70 million in funding has not been without controversy.

Backers are reluctant to invest in a game without anything to show for it, so Roberts Space Industries – the company development the property – has taken the unique approach of selling ships and other merchandise to investors, in some cases, months or even years before they can be used in-game. For the most part, these ships can also be earned through long-term play when the game is fully released; pre-purchase simply provides players with a head start.

This has left Star Citizen open to accusations of “play to win”: players who have amassed a fleet may have an unbeatable lead ahead of those who join with a single starter ship when the game launches. Given current funding structures, this may be inevitable: independent game development can take only so many forms, and it’s difficult to imagine any other way of gaining millions of dollars other than by providing early investors a significant advantage. To be fair, RSI makes it constantly clear that buying a spaceship goes directly to funding the game, and that ships can be earned with in-game play over time.

View from the bridge of a frigate spaceship

And some of these ships are big, with crews to match: while it’s possible to pilot a capital ship with a crew hired from the AI NPC’s of the Star Citizen universe, the ultimate goal is to have players cooperating to fly the larger ships in coordinated teams, with each taking particular roles: gunnery, communication, radar, electronic warfare, countermeasures, etc.

Despite reservations – and the fact that I don’t yet have a desktop rig powerful enough to play even the small portions of the game released as modules so far – I’ve invested in three ships, the largest being the Aegis Reclaimer shown at the top of this article. It’s a giant salvage hauler, capable of long sustained flight around the edges of space wrecks and the debris of battle, taking in and reprocessing scrap. To this end, I’ve also initiated an official Star Citizen organization that provides a combination of resource extraction and security:

The Wrecking Crew

The organization is open to applications; as it’s very early days, I’ve yet to develop a full branding workup or charter. It is my hope that I’ll be flying around with teams of my current and graduate digital media students. And if Occulus Rift support is delivered as promised, I might never leave the house.

Star Citizen is the space sim I’ve always wanted: deep, complex and open, with a strong storyline and mythos integrated into the narrative. If Bioware’s Mass Effect 4 fully releases around the same time (early 2016, according to current rumors), I’ll be in space heaven.

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