Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Long Read: Star Chamber

The Silicon Valley Startup Shuffle model can be applied to just about anything, from vaporware hardware to financial double-dealing to organic mayo, but what has to be the biggest ongoing scam is, of all things, a video game about space that at this point may turn into one of the biggest ripoffs in crowdfunding history: Star Citizen.  Julian Benson at Kotaku UK lifts the lid on the gaming industry's biggest elephant in the room, and wonders like I do when it will all come crashing down and take PC gaming with it.

For the past seven months, I’ve been talking to the people who have been makingStar Citizen. This includes its directors, a number of anonymous sources who’ve worked on it, and the man who drives the whole project: Chris Roberts. From the outside, Star Citizen appears to have been wildly successful; to date, it has raised more than $124 million from passionate fans. The money has allowed its developer, Cloud Imperium Games, to open studios around the world and employ more than 325 talented developers.

Behind the closed doors of CIG’s studios, however, it’s been far from an easy ride, according to staff. They have all faced a unique challenge: how to nail down the scope of a game whose budget and ambition is always growing. Star Citizen has now been in development for five years, and over that time it has suffered through significant changes and unrest among its staff, huge delays and, 18 months ago, a radical restructuring of all its studios. CIG has released several discrete demos over this time, but there is still not even a date for the final game, which was originally planned for 2014.

Star Citizen’s development has been high-profile enough, expensive enough and, yes, troubled enough to spawn a whole ecosystem of theories as to what’s going on at Cloud Imperium Games, from theorising about the project’s technical challenges to wild accusations about what’s happening to the money. Various community scandals have added yet more fuel to the fire, turning Star Citizen into a lightning rod for controversy. The questions I wanted answers to were: what exactly has been happening over the past five years? What are the reasons behind Star Citizen’s various delays, and what specific development problems has it encountered? Have things been mismanaged? And, as many Star Citizen backers are now beginning to wonder, can it ever actually be finished?

Chasing this information has not been easy. There’s a reason that many of the sources in articles like this are usually anonymous: people fear both legal and professional repercussions for speaking out. In the course of contacting over 100 different people while researching Star Citizen’s development, I was told by multiple sources that they were worried about legal repercussions if they spoke to the press. Speaking out publicly about a previous employer carries professional peril, too; prospective future employers may see you as a risky hire. Nonetheless, over the course of the year we found that many of the people who had worked on Star Citizenwere willing to talk about their experiences, which painted a picture of a development process riven by technical challenges, unrealistic expectations and internal strife.

The other side to the story, of course, is that told by Cloud Imperium Games’ current staff: its director, Chris Roberts, its project leads, and the developers who have survived the upsets that drove others away. At the stage where CIG allowed us access to Roberts and other members of the Star Citizen team at its Manchester studio, we already had a pretty clear picture of the problems that have dogged the project thus far. Roberts and his team did not deny any of them (though they did contest the severity of the problems’ impacts). But despite everything, most of the staff we talked to still passionately believe in this unwieldy, ever-changing dream project. Many of its backers still believe, too, even as others have been demanding (and mostly getting) refunds.

Plenty of people have sermonised about Star Citizen’s future. We can’t pretend to know how it will work out in the end. But we can know how it got to where it is today.

Keep in mind that people have invested $120 million in a game that hasn't come close to being out yet, and is still in extended alpha testing now.  At best the game won't be out until 2018.  At worst, this is a portrait of Chris Roberts and his ego, and it's doing the kind of damage to people that we usually reserve for Big Pharma, banks, campaign finance cons and Silicon Valley disasters.

And yet people I know continue to hope and dream this game will come out someday.

It's amazing, and more than a bit sad.

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