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Chris Roberts on Star Citizen Crowdfunding Success, and Why He Doesn't Want a Publisher

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Chris Roberts on Star Citizen Crowdfunding Success, and Why He Doesn't Want a Publisher

September 26, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Chris Roberts has an atypically successful crowdfunding story -- but then again, as the creator of Wing Commander, he has an atypically successful career. As of this writing, his Star Citizen crowdfunding campaign has pulled in almost 20 million dollars, largely via his site, not Kickstarter. 

Roberts did run a Kickstarter campaign -- which pulled in over 2 million dollars. It was, however, never part of his plans. "Basically, we actually started on our own," Roberts tells Gamasutra. "The whole idea was to build a community of space sim fans." 

"I think we had about 30-odd thousand people sign up before they even know what I was going to announce," Roberts says. "The idea was to build a community for people that liked that kind of game, and then I didn't feel like they then wanted to have to go somewhere else to log in, give credentials somewhere else to give money. We were always intending to do our own crowdfunding." 

Community was always his goal; the problem was that though he'd spent a year prototyping Star Citizen, its website was "hacky crap" and crashed on launch. 

Still, he has little to regret now, and it goes without saying that Roberts is a huge proponent of crowdfunding. In this conversation, which took place at this year's Gamescom, he has nothing but positive things to say about it. 

You may be surprised to hear that crowdfunding his project wasn't always his goal. Roberts' plans have shifted as he observes and reacts to trends among players and backers. Importantly, he now sees it as the only way he'd want to go, having both worked with traditional publishers and sought outside investment. Why? It frees him from meddling and distraction. He can make the game that he and his fans want. 

Of course it's true that his success comes thanks to his previous games -- Wing Commander, Privateer, and Freelancer. But a built-in fan base is far from all that has carried him this far. In this interview, Roberts offers his insights into community building and crowdfunding, lessons useful to developers big and small. 

Roberts' Community-Driven Crowdfunding Essentials

Having had so much success, Roberts has some tips on how to do it right. One thing he is adamant about is that since you have to build your own site sooner or later, why not do it from the off?

"Kickstarter is very good for the community right at the beginning, but then afterwards you've got to have a solution, because it's not really a great place to interact. It doesn't have forums," Roberts says. 

There's also no way to bring in new fans (and their contributions) if your campaign is over. "Our solution was always to have a place for the community to hang out, first and foremost. For them to get information about the game, to share how it's getting done. They would also be able to back the game, and new people would be able to come into it," Roberts says. 

He also thinks that offering many physical rewards is largely an unnecessary complication. "Most people, when you back games, it's not really about the physical goods. It's about backing the game. They're actually quite happy to be backing this game they've missed for awhile, and the money's less of an issue. It's more of an issue of them having fun," he says. 

That sense of "fun" is why Roberts goes primarily for in-game rewards. The first piece of the game that Roberts is distributing to fans, the Hangar Module, is affected by pledge level. Those who back at higher tiers get more ships and a bigger hangar. 

"I would say that one of the reasons why we've raised this much money is that we've sort of gamified the backing," notes Roberts. 

And while many crowdfunded games start from zero, Roberts suggests avoiding that if at all possible. Prepare as best as you possibly can. He spent a year doing a technical prototype -- though this is largely thanks to the fact that he was originally planning on seeking traditional investment. 

"I actually wanted to work out all the issues. I wanted to scope it. I didn't want to just say, 'Oh, I can make this game!' I did a lot of my homework it was going to take, what budget, what engine I was going to use." 

In the end, however, his efforts in pre-Kickstarter community building and pre-funding scoping and prototyping allowed him to launch his campaign to a massive response. 

There's also one other very tangible result of running your own crowdfunding effort: "we're capturing 97 percent of the dollars that come in, because all we do is pay a fee to the credit card provider and PayPal," says Roberts. 

...And His Incredible Results 

Taken all together, Roberts has managed to build a huge, engaged community and link it into his funding efforts. The symbiotic relationship with his community has fundamentally changed Roberts' plans for developing and releasing his game. 

Why? "Because I feel that people have given their money to this dream, helping me make the game I want to make, my dream game," says Roberts. "I think it's their dream game too. So I want to make sure they're constantly updated, seeing it, getting involved. Because that's the spirit -- for me, the spirit of crowdfunding is participation. The power." 

Originally, Roberts wanted to pull a page from Minecraft's book, and have players pay for an alpha -- "like two years out," he says. But having an audience created a drive to "constantly show them what's happening. I think everything that's happening is cool, so I like to show it off." 

His backers let Roberts build a game on his own terms, and he wanted to give them a peek behind the curtain. 


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Greg Quinn
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In this case, I don't see absolutely any benefit in having a publisher. He has the following, he has the name, and he has the money.

All the best to you Chris and your team on this project, may you make all us Wing Commander fans proud.

Michael Wenk
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Yeah, for the most part I agree. The problem with this kind of game where there's a long term is whether or not it can sustain itself. If he has a lean quarter or two, he'll have to find money, float debt (if he can) or close down. Its those cases where a shared risk pool helps, because the hope that not every property has a lean and can bridge thru.

The other problem is whether he will want to keep running things. He may want to play in the sun or do something other than running a company. That was the other reason why studios sold out.

Garret Cashman
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Thanks for the article Christian.

As a backer (VB), it's very exciting to see how this is moving forward and how things are being dealt with along the way.
Cloud Imperium Games are certainly forging new ground with this project and boldly going...(was that too much?)

See you in the 'verse!

abbas saleem khan
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I think its fascinating that developers are able to 'create' their own markets and bypass the overheads that large publishers have. Yes, a publisher can help financially with the launch of a product and its core development by providing small developers access to tools, libraries and what not, but given that the "Space sim/space opera" video game market has been perceived to be dead since wing commander iv, this is a big kick in the face to that idea.

All the best for Chris and his team.

Stephen Horn
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I don't know whether there is a "sufficiently mainstream" audience for the space sim genre to attract a publisher's attention. We'll just have to wait for the game to become available to find that out. From a perspective of "dollars per pledge", Star Citizen has consistently been somewhere north of $70/person. To me, that suggests that even if the market proves to be niche, that market has deep pockets for the game's vision. With 260,000 pledgers and counting, though, I'm guessing that the game has at least some mainstream appeal.

Anyways, here's hoping that the game can deliver on its promises, and if so that we fans can support Roberts' team.

Christian Nutt
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Stephen -- He danced around it a bit in this interview, but he's as much as come out and said that he could have gone back to EA and made Wing Commander if he wanted. He didn't.

Corey Cole
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Remember how most of the game publishers became large companies. Most of them did not start out as huge publishers of other developers' games. They started out as small developers themselves, became successful, and started making more games.

Then they found they had extra cash, as well as visibility in the market, and newer developers would approach them for publishing deals. Or sometimes "scouts" from the large company (business dev, marketing, or execs) would see an exciting game from a small developer at a show, and the publisher would offer them a deal.

There isn't some magical divide between a small developer and a huge publisher. In most cases, the large company has just been in the business longer.

Harry Fields
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All it's going to take is one massive class-action for a project of this scope (though hopefully not this one--I grew up on Wing Commander!) falling through, not delivering and not having a solid enough legal net. At that moment, the floor will fall out of Crowdfunding for all but small indie projects. Not a popular stance, I realize, but it is then that everyone will be running back to a publisher (who can find one). Established markets are not disrupted and paradigms broken without a little metaphorical blood being spilled. It is at that moment that the whole concept of crowdfunding will be made or broken. Until then, Kudos to the vets getting "equity-free capital".

When you're looking at a million or a half, things slip through nets... 20 million, you really better have solid legal and accounting resources because guaranteed, the IRS is now looking at you through a whole new lens, as are publishers who are no longer getting a taste. The former wants to make sure they get as much as possible and the latter wants to torpedo this whole concept of cutting them out.

The one I'm watching is Mighty No. 9. If Capcom doesn't obliterate Comcept through legal action, I'll be pleasantly surprised. I hope they let Keiji do his thing, but it all depends on the suits. If Kotick was in charge of Capcom... well.. yeah.

All that said, it's early and the caffeine hasn't kicked in yet =D.

Michael Joseph
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Capcom has no case. They do not own Keiji Inafune and cannot stop him from earning a living by using his skills and expertise in making games or specific types of games. To sue him is to effectively claim that Inafune's status as creator of Capcom copyrighted Mega Man should prohibit him (but not anyone else!) from making a similar game!

This is what happens when companies lose big name talent... that talent can leave and rely on their own brand to market future products.

Young game developers should keep this in mind. Don't allow your work for 'the man' to become lost in obscurity. To the extent that you can legally, blog & talk about your experiences on the products you've worked on. Lay the groundwork today for potentially purchasing your freedom tomorrow.

Saul Gonzalez
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It's a bit sad to say, but I think that Capcom could sue and win easily. Not only the gameplay, but the concept, the characters and the story are too similar. Every person I've shown Mighty No. 9 art to, thinks it's a Megaman sequel. It doesn't help either that the videos constantly reference Megaman, so at the very least Inafune could be accused of using the Megaman franchise (beyond the fact of his own involvement in it) to drum up attention and support for his proyect.
It would probably be terrible PR for Capcom to sue, but a legal case they have.

Michael Joseph
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The games industry is littered with games that are very similar. Look at the 4X space genre.

Harry Fields
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Yeah, but go look at the KS page again, the portraits of the devs arranged in MegaMan level select format... the near-exact resemblance of everything. The likeness is not coincidental. Art style is one thing, art style + game format + story + music = too much likeness. That said, I would love to see Capcom take this as a challenge and release a proper next-gen Mega Man title that doesn't suck. javascript:void(0)

Michael Joseph
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the comarisons made by the press and blogosphere and how he markets his game are all irrelevant when it comes to the question of infringement by his product. as for the purported similarities... seems all very nebulous to me.

there have been spiritual successors and/or clones to Doom, Tribes, Mechwarrior, all sorts of JRPGs, Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, Minecraft, shmups of all sorts, GTA, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, beat-em ups, etc, etc, etc. The list seems impossibly long.

Wes Jurica
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Capcom would have to prove that Keiji was trying to deceive customers into thinking that what he was making was a Mega Man game. Look at games like Ninja Fishing or the N.O.V.A. games. They got away scott free with making a clone. At least this project adds something new.

Taric Mirza
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Fantastic interview-- thanks Chris.

This relates to some of the feedback I've gotten too as a hobbyist/indie developer: go ahead and work on your web page with forums and try to recruit players as soon as possible.

The early adopters will fully accept your game will be buggy and incomplete for a period of time, but as long as you actively engage with them and continue to make demonstrable progress, you can build up a community.

Mike Smith
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I am still not sure if crowdfunding is just a fad or is going to turn into a viable way to publish large, AAA games. Most (all?) of the big crowdfunding success stories have come from big names with previous success with a well known IP. I can't help but be skeptical that these people are using the crowdfunding hype and their reputations to cash in on a product that, in the end, will not matter if its a hit or miss, because it's already been paid for. I guess the pessimist in me is still waiting for the bubble to burst, because I just can't see how "backers" will continue to pour their money into hopes and dreams of someone else, especially after a few of these big name/big money projects fails. But hey, stranger things have happened.

Bob Fox
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"I am still not sure if crowdfunding is just a fad."

It's not a fad, you just have to make sure you're giving people a project they want and can relate to. Chris taylor of supreme commander fame's kickstarter tanked because he didn't give people what they wanted (supreme commander 4, aka spiritual successor). Instead he tried to go all business like and make a MOBA called wildman and then he had the nerve to blame kickstarter like an idiot.

Notice if Mighty no. 9 had been a brand new property no one understood / could get invested in it would have probably failed.

People know megaman, and have confidence in people who've made games pro for years. So they risk their money.

Saul Gonzalez
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The way things are probably going to turn out is: if you're an unknown, you probably won't be able to raise enough for a AAA game, but if your concept grabs people, you could get USD10K-20K (Look at AdventurOS) for a small-scale project. As you deliver projects, build a reputation and a fan base, you should be able to raise larger and larger ammounts of money.

Which is probably as it should be.

Mark Fronstin
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As a gamer I cannot wait to get my hands on the released game. Glad I upgraded to an i7. :)

Bob Fox
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The reality is game developers and publishers aren't gods and get things wrong all the time, they start believing their own bullshit and become too focused on numbers and not possibilities because they've stopped taking risks and thinking hard.

There is lots of pent up demand for many old games that others have ruined:

Many of us would like a new starfox game based on Starfox 1 / 64, or quite possibly assault if it was done by volition (aka combine saints row style game + starfox assault idea = awesome game).

The problem with Nintendo is it has lost it's ability to maintain game quality. If I were Nintendo I would be creating spin offs of my properties.

Have volition do a starfox game to reboot the franchise.

Have the darksiders team take a crack at a Zelda spin off.

This kind of thinking never occurs to Nintendo though, they are so out of touch with gamers.

If anything crowdfunding proves that business people are out of touch with gamers and have been for a long time.

Devleoper arrogance (aka typical of nerds) and lack of understanding of gamers themselves leads to all sorts of boneheaded cynicism which is not based in reality.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Bob Fox
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@ matt

I don't see the word 'nerd' as an insult, the same way many PC gamers on the internet reframed 'pc gaming master race' (which was meant as an insult).

Many people wear the nerd label with a badge of honor (I'm one of them). So I don't see it as an insult.

Carter Gabriel
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@Matthew Shafer-Skelton

I've noticed a significant amount of your posts are simply defending yourself from perceived insults and slights.

Might I suggest not taking every "insult" personally? I doubt anyone is specifically dissing you. I am not saying don't be sensitive- we should be who we are, and some people are supposed to be sensitive. However, there is a difference between being slighted and nothing but a perceived-slight.

Especially given how incredibly vague and versatile in definition the word "nerd" can be.

Please take this as constructive criticism: You seem to take every negative generalization as personal. Stop, lol.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jonathan Murphy
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I understand banks, rich investors have trillions of dollars locked away, but relying this much on the average consumer could have dire results. I could make 5 games with his budget! Perhaps I'm just being clouded by his massive war chest?

Bob Fox
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"but relying this much on the average consumer could have dire results."

As dire as DRM and online only everything? As dire as single player lag in diablo 3? As dire as steam DRM infecting every AAA port?

We already live in dire gaming times if you haven't been paying attention. Confiscating games from being owned by gamers, the whole industry is criminal. It cant' really get much worse at this point.

Jonathan Murphy
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It will get much worse. When things are run poorly on top everyone on the bottom is affected. Consumers can't float all game production that goes over $1 million. It's bad math.

David Paris
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The flaws you mention aren't due to some evils of publisher, they are a direct result of the triviality of software piracy.

Hell, we released our new title yesterday. I can already trivially google a ton of places that are selling it repackaged (without us) today. If we had a mandatory D3 style server component, this would probably be much less the case.

We're a tiny game studio trying to survive, so every single one of those repackage sellers just helps put guys out of work and cuts down the number of similar titles you'll see in the future.

Ron Dippold
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As a (low tier) backer, I was a bit dismayed at the low quality of the hangar release. It looked okay, but was buggy as hell.

At this point the game is really going to have to deliver. You've got no excuses. This needs to be the best first person space combat trading exploration game ever.

Christiaan Moleman
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You're dismayed that the earliest playable version of a work-in-progress game is buggy?

Stephen Horn
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I think the hangar was pretty encouraging for a game that won't be out until 2015.

Ron Dippold
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Yes. They had /one/ room to get right and they released it into the wild with obvious bugs that any sort of QA process at all would have caught.

Now that it's been fixed up it does look quite nice, but if they're using the same level of QA for the whole game it will be unplayable for months after launch.

John Paris
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They're releasing early stage content for the community's benefit. Most people want to see how the development is progressing on a weekly basis and don't care if it's rough around the edges.

More to the point, Chris had no problem asking the community for help to QA the hangar so they can polish it for the final release. That's the compromise. I don't think it's reasonable to expect constant updates & well polished content.

The alternative, of course, is that they maintain radio silence for years, and we literally know nothing about the game until it's almost time for it to be released.

Personally, I prefer the former option and I think a majority of the community would agree.

Ron Dippold
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Eh, they had the obvious bugs fixed a couple days later. It wouldn't have taken them years, it would have taken them a day of actual QA and 3 days to fix it.

What they've done is foist the QA job off to the backers. You could say that that's fine, because a lot of backers /want/ to do the QA job (that's sort of fun as long as it's not a job), and it cuts money and time requirements for the developer, but it wasn't really clear up front that this was going to be a perpetual alpha thing where they just kick out whatever's done and fix the bugs people find in the next cycle. Perhaps I should expect that after Minecraft, but Chris keeps playing up the 'quality' of Star Citizen. Perhaps that's where I was lead astray. I was thinking that with $20M you could do some internal testing, but that may be old fashioned.

Well, worst case is I sit out for a while after 'release' while the early people find the bugs and they fix the worst of them, and I'm sure it'll eventually get whipped into shape, but I don't really care for Agile Excuses All Defects. That's not specific to Star Citizen, though.

Matt Cratty
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All I hope is that this convinces publishers that its time to recall a time when people, many of whom now have college degrees and savings accounts, deeply loved niche games.

And we're willing to pay almost anything for those games. But, you don't have to remember that part if you don't want.

bob roberts
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Hangar, hanger, it's all the same. You say potato, I say tomato. >_<

Seriously, this game had better have a coat rack with a hanger in it inside the hangar just because.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

ed clermont
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Well 2 years later, since he started and more than 35 mill in funding and all u got was a hanger!
I respect the man for what he has done, but honestly 35 mill bucks and all you could make is a hanger. 3 months with cry engine, and a bit of talent could do exact same thing he has done for a few thousand dollars, why is this all he can produce?
I would def fire the lead dev.<>looks at Chris, yes sir, you are your own worst enemy!


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