Star Citizen and the Universe of Early Access Games

2017 was an interesting year for the video game industry — and how you define ‘interesting’ might depend on whether you’re a game developer or a game purchaser. Clearly video game revenue is growing (up from $104 billion in 2016 to $116 billion in 2017 — and projected to grow to $143 billion by 2020 according to market analyst, Newzoo).

The root cause of that growth might not be swarms of new players but instead new ways of extracting revenue from existing ones. For example, pay-to-win schemes, loot boxes, and incomplete games sold at game-complete prices (to be ‘finished’ with sold-separately DLC) have all enraged gamers in 2017. Look no further than EA’s response to players about Star Wars Battlefront II’s alleged pay-to-win architecture — which resulted in the most down-voted Reddit post in history.

And then there are perennially-alpha games like DayZ, that started out strong but faded away before completion (having accepted lots of gamer’s money). Add to this dozens and dozens of indie titles that seemingly preyed upon the hopes of gamers who merely wanted to support the development of games they’d actually like to play.

All of which brings me to Star Citizen — a topic I first wrote about back in 2016 (‘STAR CITIZEN looks great, but…’). Having raised the most revenue of any crowd-funded game — with over $175 million pledged to support its development — Star Citizen clearly has many supporters. Begun in 2011 by Cloud Imperium Games (which was founded in 2010 by Chris Roberts and Ortwin Freyermuth), acre-feet of digital ink has been spilled over whether this game (now seven years into development) is a ‘scam’ or instead the most ambitious video game ever attempted. In a post-No-Man’s-Sky world, one could be forgiven for being pessimistic.

However, last year I researched the way Cloud Imperium Games has been communicating with their backers, and it seems fair to say that the stretch goals for the project are what stretched the development cycle. Basically, by expanding the scope of what the game would do, backers of Star Citizen created a longer path to completion. Most of the game’s backers appear to be supportive — even enthusiastic — about this long development march, and Cloud Imperium seems to be doing a solid job of keeping them in the loop.

Does that mean Cloud Imperium is going to succeed in their ambitious goal? Not necessarily; however, the fact that they are communicating with the user base on a daily basis is a positive sign.

Since I’m interested in this form of community-centric game development, I decided early last year to pledge a starter ship package in Star Citizen (for the curious I purchased a Cutlass Black), and I’ve monitored the game’s development ever since.

The Drake Cutlass Black — my first Star Citizen ship.

If no significant progress was made on Star Citizen, I figured I would simply stop supporting its continued development. However, I would like to see it succeed, and I’ve been impressed so far with the quality of the studio’s output. They might not be in a huge hurry, but the game looks gorgeous so far. And some of the game-play possibilities (e.g. claiming land and building bases on uncharted planets), would themselves be game-changers.

Happily, with the release of version 3.0, Star Citizen has delivered on a number of major features promised way back when development started: such as seamless piloting from space to anywhere on a planet’s surface, rudimentary commercial trade, a slew of redesigned ships, a delta patcher, and more.

Is Star Citizen optimized? No (frame rates are low). Is 3.0 buggy? Oh, yes. However it does run, and it is already improving (thank goodness for that delta-patcher).

Having played 3.0, I decided to further support Star Citizen’s crowd-funded development during the anniversary sale late last year by pledging an Anvil Carrack. Yes, that’s a large ship, and yes, I’ll need a crew to help fly it, but I figure that since I’m under a book deadline at the moment anyway , I won’t have time to play Star Citizen any time soon. Hopefully, when I am ready, the Carrack will have come out of the development pipeline, prepared to explore the ‘Verse.

And unlike loot boxes, or questionable triple-A DLC — which all goes to the bottom line — my pledge should go toward improving Star Citizen for everyone. Only time will tell whether that faith was well placed, but I hope that crowd-sourced game development fires a warning shot across the bow of traditional game publishers.