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Chris Roberts has broken all the records for crowdfunding. As of this report, His Roberts Space Industries raised an unprecedented $72 million from 750,913 supporters for his upcoming Star Citizen sci-fi space combat sim and its related games. He did that by starting with an ambitious idea and then staying in constant touch with his supporters.
It’s hard to imagine anybody in any industry raising $72 million for a cause, but that tells you how starved players are for something different. And with the cool 3D graphics and intricate universe of Star Citizen, Roberts hopes to tap into the nostalgia that people have for his old space dogfighting games like Wing Commander.
It hasn’t been easy, as fans generated more than 4 million forum posts, and Roberts’ team had to set up infrastructure for real-time communication with everybody. Roberts Space Industries stoked the fan interest by streaming videos of development decisions and holding contests that allowed the winner to submit content that the studio would use in the game. In fact, the team delivered 1,757 development updates over the past couple of years as of last week. All of the funding has enabled Roberts to vastly accelerate his ambitious plan to create a whole universe of Star Citizen games, including a first-person shooter.
The results speak for themselves. Now all Roberts has to do is deliver his games. He expects to start doing that this year. We caught up with Roberts after his talk at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: You keep these running stats on the Roberts Space Industries site. Are you always collecting that and keeping it updated?
Chris Roberts: Yeah. Whenever people are playing, they’re connecting to the servers, so we can track all the match results. It’s quite interesting. Also, on the forums people give us feedback, and we ask questions and engage them. Our QA department spends a lot of time with the backers. We’re always trying to figure out balance and tuning.
That’s the advantage of what we’re doing. We’re able to continually work on fine-tuning that long before—a lot of times you wouldn’t have that opportunity. You’d try to balance everything right at the end as you were going toward alpha and beta. It’s interesting to get the statistics as well as the feedback. Sometimes you’ll have some people who are very loud in their opinions. Then you look at the statistics and they say something different from what a few loud people say.
GamesBeat: You’ve had something like 4 million forum posts.
Roberts: It’s a lot, right? We have a super-active, engaged community. If you’re not part of it and following it all the time, you might have no idea. It all seems a bit weird that there’s that many people who are all giving money and all seem pretty excited and happy with it. If you’re in it all, you see—We’re constantly updating, talking about what we’re doing, showing stuff. People feel like they can say something and things change.
We have a two-week patch cycle. We update the current build every two weeks. That incorporates balance changes, and then occasionally dropping in new features.
GamesBeat: The 846 days, is that since the campaign started?
Roberts: Thirty days before the campaign.
GamesBeat: How soon did you blow up the Star Citizen’s scope to be as big as it is today? At some point, did you get enough money to say, “We could do a second game”?
Roberts: Basically it was last year. What happened was, when we went to Gamescom in 2013, I think we hit $16 million raised. You could see it accelerating. That’s when I stopped and saw my brother in the U.K., who was still at Traveller’s Tales at the time. I didn’t have him involved at the very beginning because I had no idea whether this thing was going to raise a cent. At that point, though, I said, “We have enough money that I can commit to you.” That was when we started to ramp up.
After Gamescom and onward, we did Citizen Con in November. By the end of the year we were at something like $35 million. At that point we said, “All right, we can see a trajectory.” Then we started to scope and scale up. 2014 was building up the infrastructure. It takes time. We have a fair number of people now, but you can’t just say, “I need 300 people who are instantly effective. Let’s go.”
GamesBeat: How many levels of surprise did you go through? One would be the realization that many people missed Wing Commander and space sims. Everyone thought it was a dead genre.
Roberts: I was shocked. I was hoping that it would do well, but my definition of doing well was raising four or five million. That’s the lesson, which I mentioned before. The thing that we do very differently from most other crowdfunded projects is that we didn’t stop. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the end of the campaign” and we went off and gave people an update once in a while. We decided to keep the momentum and the energy of the initial campaign going all the time. We’re constantly sharing information and updates, involving the community, and sharing code and builds with them. They can give feedback on smaller parts of functionality.
The more we did that—you can take a graph of what we raised and see that the more we do our engagement, the more stuff we roll out, the more we do live events, the more we drop features—Now you can go to the Hangar, so that was a spike. That was at Gamescom in 2013, where people could walk around their ships. They couldn’t do anything with them, but they could walk around and get inside them. Then, in the middle of last year, it was the arena, where you could fly single-seater ships and shoot other people. You can look at the revenue and see that the more tangible it becomes, the more we engage people, the more we give them stuff, the more people join and the more the existing people continue to be engaged.
My talk was trying to be about how it’s not really about the number. It’s about the community. The community enables all those aspects. We’re community-focused in development. We’re community-focused in funding. We’re community-focused in communication. We’re community-focused in testing. We’re community-focused in publishing. Because we’re so community-focused, that community has embraced us. They feel like they’re part of the team.
When we reach a new milestone, when we hit so many million, you’ll see posts on the forums where the backers say things like, “We got $70 million!” They feel a sense of pride and ownership.
GamesBeat: Is the point of continuing to do it, “We make a promise to you that this is open-ended. If you give us more money, we’ll make good use of it”?
Roberts: We’re trying to build something that most people would say that you couldn’t build, that you couldn’t afford to build. No publisher would fund something like this. If you went and talked to a bunch of the backers, a lot of them—this isn’t something they’ll play for a week. This is something they want to spend years in. They just want to have this universe crafted and built to as high a level of quality as possible.
A lot of our backers say, “This is my hobby.” There are plenty of other hobbies where you can spend thousands of dollars every year, if not more. “This is my hobby. I believe in what’s happening here. I enjoy the process. I make a good salary. I’ll contribute to this thing because I want to make sure I can play it for years.”
That’s not everyone. The majority of our players have just bought in for basic ships, spending $30 or $40. But you definitely have a group of backers who feel like they’re part of it. They want to make this happen. They want this to be done as well as possible. Some people think, “Oh, they’re just lining their pockets now,” but I’ve been quite clear that the money people are pledging before we release the game is setting the scale and the ambition of the minimum feature set. They’re setting the budget for what the game is going to be.
GamesBeat: “Unparalleled ambition” is an interesting phrase. It reminds me of a $60 console game versus free-to-play, where you could receive, say, $30,000 from one of your players who wants to be the person who spends the most in your game. That’s open-ended as well.
Roberts: It depends on the kind of game. It depends on what you get out of something. Someone could play Star Citizen for four hours and say, “I’m over that.” For them it’s probably worth $5 or $10. But someone could play it nonstop for four years, five hours a week. For them, compare it to other hobbies, going to the movies, whatever. It’s a pretty good deal, even if they were contributing $1,000.
For us it’s not a conscious thing. We just had this model that started from the crowdfunding and we continue it. We periodically go back to the community and say, “Do you want us to continue doing stretch goals? Do you want us to do this or that?” They pretty much uniformly say, “Yeah. We want this to be the best thing ever.” They all feel an ownership in it. They feel like this is something they’re making happen.
I think a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do that at this kind of level. You could help a smaller game get made, but we’re literally building a first-person game at the level of a triple-A console title and a space sim at the same level. We have the single-player, which is going to be as involved and big as any Wing Commander. There are all these elements in this huge universe. It’s an ambition that not a lot of other projects have. People respond to that ambition.
GamesBeat: How many resources do you have now?
Roberts: We have more than 300 people working on the project. It’s about 200 on staff between the four internal studios, then about 120 external people. Behaviour and illFonic are two development studios who are working on it, and then we have some individual contractors. It’s a big beast.
Last year at this time we were maybe 70 people. We’ve been scaling up. Mainly just because if you have the funds, you can scale up and deliver more of what we were hoping to deliver in the long run. What we’re building now was always the thing I ultimately wanted to build, but I wasn’t thinking I would have the opportunity to do as much of it so soon. What I thought would happen is, I’d have to have a more constrained game. Then it comes out and we’re generating money from a live game, so I can use that money to continue to add content and features and build it up. What’s happened with the support that we’ve gotten is that a lot of that can happen sooner.
GamesBeat: What’s your timeline looking like?
Roberts: This year the FPS module will be available for backers. They’ll be able to run around and play a pretty full-fledged multiplayer shooter. The multi-crew ships will come online about the middle of the year. We have the first iteration of planetside in April, where you’ll walk out of your hangar and wander around the planetside environments and go into shops and stuff. A little later in the year, June or July, you’ll be able to take off and fly and land on another planet. At the end of October, Quadrant 42 is coming out for the backers. Just before Christmas we’ll do the first early alpha of the persistent universe, which will have about five star systems. Ultimately there’s going to be about 130 star systems, but the very first test will be five.
Most of the basic functionality of the game should be in the backers’ hands, in a very rough form, by the end of the year. There’s still a lot more polish and content and smaller features that we’ll be rolling out. Toward the end of 2016, probably, is when you could consider it a commercial release. It’s hard to judge. It’s hard to quantify us. We operate like a live game now. You can play Arena Commander, that whole aspect of the game. We have about two million game sessions and a million game hours already played as of a month or so ago. They’re not playing the full thing, but we keep rolling out these additional functionalities so people can play and give feedback and engage. Finally all the bits will have slotted so you can play in this expansive universe.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you didn’t get to cram into the speech?
Roberts: The point I wanted to make with the speech was that community underlies everything we do. It’s part of the DNA. The fact that we’ve focused on that—When I saw you a few years ago in San Francisco, before we launched it, we’d been running the community site, just aggregating people who liked my games or liked space games or liked PC games, for 30 days. We put community even before the game announcement.
When we hire people we say, “Hopefully you’re comfortable being on camera.” We make all the developers spend time answering questions on the forums. We have quite a few people on the community and marketing side. We don’t spend money on TV ads or banner ads. We spend money on doing community-focused stuff, whether it’s a live event or video shows or behind-the-scenes. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off.
GamesBeat: They were running ads for free mobile games during the Super Bowl.
Roberts: And the ads look a lot better than the games. I don’t know. Does that Game of War thing make money?
GamesBeat: It makes a ton of money. They’ve been in the top four or five for two years now, a year and a half? At that level you’re making millions a day. So much of that money goes back into user acquisition, though, because people churn out of these games.
Roberts: I know. We had a lot of the Google Adwords—they’d say, “You’re one of the top presences. We’d like to put you own and make you better.” They were pitching a $50 CPA to us. Are you fucking crazy? The basic ship you can buy in this game is $40. Why are we going to pay you more than that? They said, “Well, you said your average per user was $100, so $50 should be perfectly fine.” OK?
But I can see how the bigger mobile stuff is in a different envelope. Even if Star Citizen becomes wildly successful, I don’t think we’ll ever have those kinds of numbers. But we’ll have a pretty dedicated core audience and community. That’s the focus. Engaging and sharing—Even if I was building a Wing Commander, a one-off release, I’d make that a more involved and open relationship with the fans and the community as I was building it. I wouldn’t do it in the way we did in the past.
When I say the world’s changing, it’s like Twitch. People just put on Twitch and look at other people running around not doing a lot in DayZ or Rust or whatever it is. It’s this sense of always seeing and sharing and being connected. When a new patch comes out, we can just go on the web and see other people playing it through their Twitch streams. It’s a window into what the community is doing out there.
Gamers themselves have changed. They expect a different level of interaction and involvement. If you can deliver that, you’ll reap the benefits.
GamesBeat: It looks like some of the infrastructure you have is bypassing what traditional game media do — the video shows and updates and blogs and all that.
Roberts: The thing that works quite well — what’s really changed now is it’s 24/7. Everyone has to have content all the time. It’s not like the old print world where you had your magazines once a month and there would be more people vying for that content. You literally cannot get enough content to keep all the blogs going.
What works for our model is, because we’re always sharing, because we’re always talking about a new feature or whatever, we’re actually very newsworthy for most of the online gaming press. “Here’s a new thing Star Citizen did!” You just don’t get that from the bigger, more publisher-focused stuff. Yes, there’s a marketing campaign orchestrated from E3 to the release date, but they’re not utilizing all this other time. We get a lot of exposure because we feed into that 24/7 news cycle.
You need to do it anyway, because in today’s world—you used to get a cover on a magazine and that magazine would be on the newsstands for a month. Now you get a big article on the front of IGN or something and it’s gone in four hours. You have to do a lot of repetition. You have to constantly get hits for people to see it. I run into people today who say, “I only found out about Star Citizen last month, and I’m the hugest Wing Commander fan.”
We’ve been covered a million times everywhere, but the truth is, unless you’re watching whatever site all the time, you can miss something. It scrolls off. Maybe you only visit a site every week, so you miss things. A fair amount of gamers don’t religiously follow that stuff. Being in a process where you’re generating material that people will get content from, it feeds into that.
GamesBeat: Going direct to the fans is part of this definition of being a digital publisher, it seems.
Roberts: If I were revamping EA or something, I’d change a lot about this same stuff. If you look at YouTube, look at Twitch, look at the rise of YouTube celebrities, they’re just someone who’s streaming stuff. There’s a connection. I have my two little daughters who watch YouTube all the time. It’s a different world. You have to connect. You have to start playing in that field or you’re going to get left behind. It’s raw. It’s there. It’s immediate. People don’t want something that’s so stage-managed or slick. They want it to feel real.
If you can do that kind of thing, that’s how I think you’ll connect with a community. It doesn’t matter whether you’re crowdfunded or publisher-backed or whatever. If you can do more of that, that’s the future of development will go.
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