Phil Hartup on videogames

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Would you spend $275 on a spaceship in a game that doesn't even exist yet?

<em>Star Citizen</em> has raised well over $35m already, and you can't even play it yet. Is this crowd funding gone mad?

A still from the Kickstarter video for Star Citizen.
A still from the Kickstarter video for Star Citizen.

Star Citizen is a game being developed that should be released in some form this year. It is a game set in space about combat and trading and it is being made by, among others, Chris Roberts, who made the very successful Wing Commander series. This shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows in this day and age of course, thanks to Kickstarter and other crowd funding measures this sort of project is fairly common. However there are two things are very odd about this particular development. The first is the amount of money that potential players are able to invest in the game, for example one of the spaceships you can buy costs a rather meaty $275 but the second thing, the really surprising thing, is that people are paying that money. They are paying out money hand over fist. Star Citizen has raised well over $35m and shows no sign of slowing down. In games development terms that is not a huge budget, but for a crowd funded project it is a record.

So what’s the secret? Why are people seemingly throwing large sums of money at a game before they, or anybody else for that matter, has even had a chance to play it?

The easy answer, the cheap, cynical and mean spirited answer, is that a fool and his money are soon parted. It would be nice if this wasn’t the first answer that springs to mind, but let’s not kid ourselves that the video games industry is an entirely honest one. The video games industry has a long history of grifting players. From the sly little tricks like preview footage that doesn’t match the actual game, as with Aliens: Colonial Marines, to the likes of Battlefield 4, Sim City and Rome 2: Total War, games which the developers cannot possibly have thought finished, ready and fit for purpose, yet which they released anyway. Looking at the money being thrown at Star Citizen it isn’t hard to imagine a less than scrupulous developer putting out the bare minimum product to meet requirements then doing a runner with a big bag of cash.

However the easy answer isn’t fair. Plenty of developers have played straight with customers for years. This has been true more often than not with crowd funded and early access projects, great games such as FTL, Kerbal Space Program, Minecraft and Mount and Blade all came from unconventional methods of funding. This is no guarantee of success or quality of course, plenty of Kickstarter projects fail, and there is always the risk of running into a game on early access like Infestation: Survivor Stories, but it is not an inherently more dodgy business practice than the traditional model.

So what does motivate people to crowd fund projects like this to the extent that they do? Traditionally an early access game, like for example Mount and Blade, was available cheaper the sooner you bought it. The attraction was that you got the game for less money in a less finished state. This seems to have changed now, with players buying into many projects for a lot more money than any game would ever cost new. Access to the alpha for Planetary Annihilation on Steam for example was £60, with the price coming down as it nears full release.

The simplest reason in most cases for people to pay more is a combination of impatience, hope and also a sense of wanting to encourage and patronise developers who are doing good work. To an extent it is a measure of faith, even if the actual expectations might be somewhat lacking.

In some ways this sort of support it is akin to putting money in a church collection plate, a belief that the money will be used to make good things happen, things that you approve of. Some people put in more than others, in the belief that more money will make more good things happen, and that sense of supporting the greater good can feel like a reward in itself. This is evident with the sales of the bigger more expensive ships in Star Citizen. You can pay the minimum and get the game when it comes out, and this is reasonable value if you had planned to buy the game anyway, or you can pay more, get less value in terms of tangible benefits, but more of a sense of wellbeing from being a patron of the arts, so to speak. The developers have been clear that there will be no particular advantage to having paid for a bigger ship at this point; you might have a head start in the game when it launches, but it is likely that dedicated players will catch up very quickly. Plus plenty of people will feel compelled to attack ships bought for large amounts of real world money just on general principle which should level the playing field.

The money also works as a signal too. Just as blood in the water will attract sharks a significant amount of money floating around a particular genre or idea will attract the interest of larger parties with greater resources.

The speculative nature of crowd funding is not unique to the PC market, to an extent the console market is almost reliant upon it. Would many developers make games exclusively for the Xbox One or PS4 if nobody bought the consoles first? If everybody waited for that great, must-have next generation exclusive game before actually buying a next generation console, that game would probably never appear. Just like the unfinished game on Steam Early Access or the hypothetical space adventure with the expensive ships a new console is a leap of faith. You buy it, you plug it in, and you wait for somebody to make a great game for it.

There is a big worry with crowd funding though. As with any business model it is in danger of being exploited. When a regular games developer makes a game and releases it then it has to sell itself on what it actually is. Once it has come out you can read a review, you can listen to what people are saying about it and you can watch videos of people playing it. Your choice to buy can be as informed as you want it to be and no amount of false promises in the launch hype can protect a game from the scrutiny of the public. But with crowd funded projects you are not being sold a product, you are being sold the idea of a product, and this is a very delicate position. You can sell anybody anything if you don’t have to actually produce it. Crowd funding schemes will promise the player early access, the ability to shape the development process, a direct line to the developers, these are powerful incentives and when they are delivered upon the results can be great. The trade-off is that a game can either disappear or show up in a severely compromised form and there is little to be done about it.

Perhaps crowd funding may one day turn sour. For the time being however the going seems to be good. Beyond that what the success of crowd funding does show us is that many players are dissatisfied with games as they are. Such players want to be more involved, they want more control of the process and they are willing to pay more for that while accepting the reduced production values that are par for the course with independent games.

It is possible that the golden age of crowd funding won’t continue much longer. Star Citizen might be the last hurrah before the marketplace becomes saturated with great ideas and charlatans fighting over increasingly small shares of available funds. Or perhaps Star Citizen will be bigger than Whale Jesus and change the way that games are developed forever. Meanwhile I’ll be sticking to my new year’s resolution to not pay for any game I can’t yet actually play.