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pcgamer, Inside the hardcore fanbase of Star Citizen

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We spent CitizenCon with the game’s most dedicated backers to find out why they still believe.


The Star Citizen faithful have spilled into the streets. It’s a brisk, neon Friday night in Santa Monica, and The Arsenal—a bougie watering hole lit solely by the blazing primary colors of ESPN shows—can barely hold the men and women talking about comm-links, spaceships, scanning animations, and Alpha 2.6. You have not lived until you have watched eager youths tenderly step into a club, order a vodka soda, and slowly realize that for one night only, those without theoretical interstellar asteroid mining organizations are not invited.

These get-togethers are colloquially known as "Bar Citizens." The Star Citizen community hosts them all the time, all over the world. It’s an easy way for the now 1.5 million backers to meet and be merry with each other across the void. Tonight’s event, however, has been officially organized by Cloud Imperium Games, and a number of developers are dotted around the floor space, yukking it up with the fans. We’re only two days away from CitizenCon—an annual presentation of the most scrutinized unreleased game in industry history.

If you’re unfamiliar with Star Citizen’s trajectory, here are the basics. It is currently the most successful crowdfunded game of all time, having raised a massive initial pledge of $6.2 million on Kickstarter back in 2012. In the years since, Cloud Imperium Games has supplemented development costs by selling in-game spacecraft for real money. Most of these are priced in the $100 range, but a few notable exceptions can cost up to $2,500. This has naturally earned the project a number of high-profile doubters, but there are many that still believe. CitizenCon is essentially a celebration for the most ardent stalwarts. It’s taken place each year since 2013, and attracts committed fans from all over the world. They are here to be together, far from the negativity and frustrations of the nonbelievers.

I am here to take the pulse of Star Citizen's most fervent fans, who've had their passion and patience tested more than once in 2016. Most recently, a seven month investigation by Kotaku UK laid out in detail issues with the game engine, mismanagement, and layoffs that have culminated in missed deadlines and stalled progress. CitizenCon is the chance for CIG to deliver some good news. 


I’m standing outside on the corner with Tortilla The Hun, Moneyshot, and Takon—three longstanding members of Test Squadron, which proudly claims to be "the most inept, drunk organization in the ‘verse of Star Citizen." They come from Vermont, Seattle, and St. Louis, and this is the first time they’ve met in real life. Our conversation unfolds in the way all Star Citizen interviews do. Moneyshot wants to check that I won’t be "flaming the game," Takon tells me how he first invested last July with a $125 freelancer package when he had some disposable income, and life is good. When you’ve traveled thousands of miles to drink at a bar in fantasy-corporate unity, you don’t need anything momentous to stay optimistic.

And then it happens.

A jet-black BMW creeps up the curb behind us. "That’s... that’s Chris Roberts." Sure enough, the founder, director, and public face of Star Citizen is making an appearance, and the crowd are very much going wild. Videogame designers are not supposed to be immediately recognized by their silhouette, but Roberts is a bonafide superstar here.  

Things deteriorate quickly. The emperor has arrived and is willing to enter by the front door. Tortilla, now blissed out and punch-drunk, starts wandering towards the car. His friends grab his shoulder, pulling him back into reality. "Nobody look, dude! Nobody look!" someone shouts. "We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!" Takon does his absolute best to focus on the now entirely inconsequential question I asked about Squadron 42, Star Citizen's planned singleplayer campaign, while the rest of the posse form a welcoming party. "I think we may have to stop this," he says, joining the ranks.

Roberts is dapper, fresh-faced, and happy to shake every hand between him and the bar. Over the past five years, he’s shepherded in $125 million from people around the world who want to make Star Citizen a reality. The dream is to build on the groundwork Roberts established with his lauded Wing Commanderseries, and take those ideas into the stratosphere. We will never be Han Solo. Elon Musk will not save us. But Cloud Imperium Games, in its pulpy, highly referential way, is trying to build your next best option.


Promising the moon

When it’s released in full, Star Citizen will include space combat, dynamically generated planets, open player-to-player trade, an impressive voice cast, and mechanics for practically every sci-fi hero/antihero narrative you can imagine. Want to be a rebellious, vulturing pirate lingering on the outskirts of the galaxy? Want to hunt those same scum and villainy for bounties? Either way, Star Citizen has you covered. There are people out there who’ve wanted an experience like this from the moment they first understood the potential of videogames. If you’re one of them, you’d be fawning over Roberts, too.

Right now, there are sliced off portions of the full Star Citizen experience already in the hands of backers. There is a fully-FPS "mini-universe" module, which lets you take off from space stations and complete missions. There’s Arena Commander, a PvE and PvP dogfighting sim, a racing module, as well as a "hangar" which lets you to examine your purchased ships in all their stationery glory. Obviously these elements are slim pickings compared to Star Citizen’s long-term goal, but each hopes to offer a small but concrete proof of concept.

The big question hanging over Star Citizen, though, is whether these disparate pieces will ever coalesce into a coherent whole. Can Robert’s grand vision truly be realized? Outside the hardcore community, extreme skepticism has set in when it comes to Star Citizen, and development takes place against a backdrop of criticism. Microtransactions were already controversial, but when you jack up the price and reduce the reward to an IOU pasted on a jpeg of a mining vessel, the result is inevitably a public image problem. CIG’s justification is that Star Citizen fans are happy to commit money to development regardless of any kickback, but as the years go by with little sign of a finished game, it’s easy to understand how the doubters continue to find their fuel.

But here, on the sidewalk, none of that matters. These men and women have already accepted Chris Roberts’ promises. Why stop now?


The $125 million dream

A few days before CitizenCon, a Spanish fan named Carlos "Lannar" Garrido delivered a manifesto on the Star Citizen subreddit. This followed an interview with Chris Roberts on a website called Gear Patrol, where he said his only worry was losing the support of the community. Lannar explained at length exactly why that was never going to happen in a twice-gilded post called "Letter to the Chairman."

"We are aware of the difficulties, and no one would be as naive as to think the road is exempt of problems. We believe in you and your team. We know you to be honest. We have seen your dedication to the game, don't think we don't notice the amount of hours you pour into the game each day," he wrote. "We are here for the feelings, for the amazing community and for being part of one of the milestones of the videogame industry history. And we get to play a game too. We are here as long time as you are. No naysayer is capable of changing that, because your work and your team's speaks loudly."

"It's a bit cheesy even for this subreddit's standards," Lannar admits when I contact him, "but people seemed to like it. I just wanted to have my opinion expressed. It's uncommon to find this kind of communication in a videogame in heavy development, where you can reach out for the CEOs and have them read your feedback."

The difficulties Lannar referred to include a number of reports, like Kotaku's, detailing troubles within CIG. The community, as always, largely responded with faith. Videogame development is treacherous—projects are cancelled, cut, and refocused all the time—but Star Citizen answers directly to a group of people who are fully invested in the vision. There’s this belief that by self-funding the project, the community is skirting conventional industry standards such as release dates and DLC plans. It’s difficult to imagine EA or Activision risking a loss-leading, knowingly over-scoped project for half a decade with no end in sight, but frankly, that’s kind of the point.

"Publishers force developers to take the easy route, or the cheap route, or compromise their vision in order to meet a release date," wrote Thethomas in a Reddit post called "Don’t Be The Publisher." "Publishers are the problem. I gave Cloud Imperium money specifically to keep publishers out of this process. I gave them money to put feature rich, revolutionary gameplay before target dates and 0-day patches. As a community we have effectively paid to keep the publisher away."

And to be fair, there have been recent causes for optimism. At Gamescom this year, Cloud Imperium showed off a demo for the upcoming 3.0 Star Citizenalpha build. We watched as a faceless pilot climbed into his cockpit and selected a barren planet from a vast, 3D star chart. We hit hyperspace, and suddenly a distant waypoint became a huge, untethered landmass. The spaceship broke through the atmosphere, the landing gear locked in, and our little spaceman plopped his feet on solid ground. The presentation hall went nuts. Here was a demonstration that there was something real stashed behind the curtain. One small step for a digital spaceman, one giant leap for Citizen-kind.

Ben Rathbun, who runs the YouTube channel Rawcritics, started to get emotional during his reaction video to the 3.0 demo. "The guys and I are going to be playing this forever," he says, with a wide-open grin and his dog on his lap. "We’re the type of gamers that just want a couple go-to games in our lives, and we haven’t had those steady relationships in our lives in a long time. Star Wars: Galaxies was in my life for years. World of Warcraft has been in my friend’s life for eight years. And this has taken so long, but... look at it! Look at this!"

"What overcame me as I was watching the descent," Rathbun said in a later interview, "was the realization that it wasn't about graphics or even the money they were tossing at this game. It was more about the awe I felt and the indescribable freedom and looseness that the gameplay seemed to be presenting. It became very clear to me in an instant that CIG was pulling out all the stops for this game, and building this for us from the ground up. What game developer does this? Indie devs don't have the resources and triple-A teams are too worried about bottom lines. Gamers have been so frustrated with this, which is why this realization hit me so hard as I was watching."

Rathbun tells me that if Star Citizen meets his expectations, he expects to be far too busy ignoring real life to worry about whatever happens next. "This is it, the one we’ve been waiting for right?" he says. But he also understands that nothing is guaranteed, and there’s a chance he won’t quite find a home in what Cloud Imperium is building. If that happens, he’ll pick himself back up and find a new hope to obsess over. But he doesn’t have much time for anyone rooting for failure.

"Doesn't everyone want Star Citizen to be great? Even if you don't like certain people, respect what is trying to be accomplished here," says Rathbun. "This is a new approach in the industry, so I'm not sure if the change is scaring folks or if they just don't like space games. For a lot of people this is at the very least a positive step in the right direction for games and how they should be made. If nothing else, I mean, did they not see the alpha 3.0 demo like I did? Did their jaw not drop at the possibilities? C'mon!"

The average Star Citizen fan is more self-aware than their reputation might suggest, but they still carry resentment towards the game's critics. If you look at the comments about the Kotaku report on the subreddit, you’ll find some surprisingly nuanced discussion.

"I thought it was an excellent article. I thought it covered the issues and the timeline very well. I’m an original Kickstarter backer," reads the highest-rated reply by user Eloquent_Cantalope. Of course you can also find fanboyism if you look for it, but that’s not necessarily the norm.

But it’s undeniable that Star Citizen backers have grown defensive towards those who point out the cracks. Indie developer Derek Smart has constantly waged war on the project through his blog and Twitter account, claiming with certainty that the entire project is a scam. If we're being blunt, there are absolutely people who want the game to fail. To me, it seems like those doubts are rooted in cynicism or self-preservation. There's a pessimistic pleasure to be had from dismissing something so aspirational out of hand. And we've all been disappointed by games that promised far less than what Chris Roberts is selling. I'd rather be pleasantly surprised than left devastated by an idea I was all-in on.


The obvious recent comparison is No Man’s Sky. The subreddit for the otherprocedurally generated space game is an upturned car. Sean Murray—lead designer and over-proposer—has not tweeted since August. "I do not care anymore. At all. Update your game, don't update your game. I don't care!" writes user ChingChangChui. "Any game that you work on from here on out, I will not buy out of sheer principle. You are a terrible dev; mostly because you will not communicate."

There is a belief within the community that Star Citizen will avoid the disappointments of No Man’s Sky because of the unique nature of its development cycle. And to a certain extent, they’re probably right. A game like Star Citizen will never happen again. It’s a perfect confluence of player fantasy and the crowd-funding explosion. To many of the backers, the project is more pure and free than the average triple-A game, as evidenced by this thread called "finally appreciating what Chris Roberts means with PC games needing more development/support after reading all the reviews about No Man's Sky."

"Sure, there's always been a lot of hype surrounding Star Citizen, and it is an incredibly ambitious game; but the fact that we're a part of the development process and we're given the opportunity to play each new iteration and give feedback means there's no way for this game to completely fail to live up to hype/people's expectations," writes user leadofstate.

Whether or not that will actually save them from disappointment remains to be seen, but this community has little interest in hedged bets. They saw something they’ve wanted their whole lives, and they did everything they could to make it work. There’s a big difference between getting scammed and taking a leap of faith.

"We threw money at this thing hand over fist, ultimately, because Chris Roberts promised to do something batshit insane," says Peter Brunton, who posts on the Star Citizen subreddit as Voroxpete. "There’s this general feeling that this isn’t about just buying a videogame. I’m going to be a little grandiose here, but I feel like I’m expressing the sentiment of a lot of people in the community when I say this is about buying back our hobby. If I was characterizing the core Star Citizen backers, especially in the early days when the game had nothing to show for itself, there is the feeling that this was reclaiming gaming. People are sick to fucking death of Activision declaring that Call of Duty is a yearly franchise... I’m sitting here playing Destiny which is just a broken fucking mess that Bungie threw together, and it’s still one of the most imaginative games on the market. They shot for the moon, they tried something big and bold, and they missed, but they still ended with a more interesting, and original game than anything else. That’s what we wanted."

With the citizens

It’s a perfect Sunday afternoon in the plastic part of Los Angeles and the line for CitizenCon is around the block an hour before showtime. Every single seat in the Avalon Hollywood will soon be filled by bounty hunters, pirates, explorers, and fleet commanders. Today they are human, and wear big starchy t-shirts emblazoned with their organization logo. It’s a testament to the power of Star Citizen’s fantasy that now, without even a target release window, the players have already regulated themselves into overlapping factions. 

Test Squadron are here. They carry their banners high and earn gleeful, pro-wrestling jeers from the rest of the universe. I see Tortilla, Takan, and MoneyShot settle into a lush, presidential booth in front of me. Every once in a while somebody shouts their name, and the rest of the clan responds in full. "Test Squadron? "TEST SQUADRON!"

Outside I meet David Nowlen, who is here with a friend who’s spent over $3,000 on the game so far. He tells me his most reasonable hope from the Con is a little more information on 3.0, and maybe an unveiling of Squadron 42, which stars some big name actors like Mark Hamill and Gary Oldman. I ask what his relationship is like with the game’s detractors, and if he ever gets offended on a personal level when the insults piles up.

"It irritates me right off the bat when people say ‘Scam Citizen’ and all these hurtful things. There’s a lot of really talented people working really hard, and to hear people say your project is never going to work..." Nowlen’s voice trails off.
I ask if he really means "hurtful," given that we’re talking about a videogame, not a family member or a lifestyle choice.

"Yeah, it’s something that I love," says Nowlen. "It’s not like if I loveStar Wars and somebody says George Lucas sucks. This is people going completely out of their way to say things that are against him, and attack him, and attack his family."

"We’re talking about Chris Roberts right?"

"Yeah, and I’ve met him before, and he’s a great guy. And from the first time I met him I was sold," he says.

After an hour’s delay, the curtains pull back to reveal Sandi Gardiner—co-founder of Star Citizen, VP of Marketing and wife of Chris Roberts—who formally inaugurates CitizenCon 2016 with a gracious, lengthy video profiling the best parts of the community. Pockets of glee erupt around the building as streamers and YouTubers recognize themselves on screen. Personally, I’m feeling the love. I don’t have any money committed, but after months of reading the forums and soaking in the defiance of the people propping up this crazy project, the trenches can look pretty welcoming. 

Chris Roberts gets his usual hero’s welcome. If you’ve seen any live Star Citizen keynotes, you’re probably familiar with his PowerPoint presentations. They are endless. Each slide filled to the brim with arcane, hopeful information. Roberts, in his usual mumbly way, over-explains every detail. Eventually we’re looking at the prospective threshold for build 4.0, which seems especially far away considering 3.0 doesn't even have a set release date.

I knew something was wrong when a Cloud Imperium executive began walking through their infrastructure for a Star Citizen-exclusive version of Discord. CitizenCon is supposed to be a yearly celebration for the loyal, tickets are $45, and we were burning 30 minutes on a new private messaging system. Everyone I talked to had high hopes—most expected either a release date or a lengthy exposé on Squadron 42—but slowly all the air left the room.

Roberts eventually gave us the bad news. There would be no Squadron 42 demo today. The team was "really close" to having something ready, but they couldn’t quite make the deadline. This is disappointing news, considering until very recently, the game had a small "2016" emblazoned on its official website. A few minutes before, everyone in the building got a brochure for a new capital ship called The Polaris. As usual, a Star Citizen delay came accompanied by a $750 piece of concept art.


The main event, and Roberts’ tacit mea culpa, was a demo similar to what had been shown at Gamescom. A player landed on a brown, deserted planet, and activated a couple of distress beacons before finding a downed ship riddled with marauding aliens. It seemed... early. The screen was tearing, the shadows were glitchy, it was transparently scripted, and the finale (an admittedly awesome sandworm attack) completely broke down, forcing Roberts to offer a sheepish "that’s the first time that’s happened." Live demo folks, live demo.

It’s cool that Cloud Imperium is transparent enough to show its backers unpolished content, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. It gave me a distinct flashback to the first Mass Effect—driving around a big, empty planet with a few rote side missions dropped in by an algorithm.

For the first time, Star Citizen gave me a bad taste in my mouth. This was a premium gala in a rented ballroom. I talked to people who had flown in from places as far as Finland. And frankly, they didn’t have much to show for it. Publishers can be detrimental to creativity, but they also do a good job of preventing disappointments like this.

And yet the vibe inside the building remained joyful. There was a long line to meet developers and take pictures, and the community at large got giddy drunk on $10 vodka cranberries. The Star Citizen faithful excel at taking a deep breath and making the best of a bad situation. I’m talking to DeejayKnight, a Star Citizen streamer who’s here with his girlfriend waiting in an extremely long line for a meet ‘n greet. He told me he thought the demo was "amazing," especially as someone interested in game design.

"One of the reasons I support this project is that they take their time and make sure what they show off is impressive," he tells me a few days after the show. "I love the idea that I can see the progress they're making with Star Citizen every time they have an event. The planetary tech had come a long way from the Holiday Livestream to Gamescom and even more since then. I'm anxious to see it in-game for myself!"

When I got home, the forums were in less forgiving mood. Currently the subreddit’s second most upvoted post over the past week reads "you guys are gonna hate me, but CitizenCon wasn’t that great."

"No Squadron 42 preview, no new gameplay (cargo hauling, pirating, or anything that's supposed to be 3.0,) Only 30 minutes of two or three hour presentation was actual gameplay," it reads. "Yes, the new planetary tech is absolutely amazing—but that's all we really got. The gameplay we saw was pretty cool, but it was on the shallow end."

"I won't say I was let down by what I did see, but I'm more disappointed with what I didn't see," reads the top-upvoted post by HockeyBrawler09. "I just have difficulty accepting that there is a studio that is almost entirely dedicated to [Squadron 42] and they weren't able to put together a polished single level."

This year’s CitizenCon wasn’t a watershed moment. The game will have dozens more chances to shore up its base as development continues to trudge forward. But at the end of the day, the Star Citizen community is founded on give and take. These men and women sacrificed their capital to help make the greatest game of all time. In return, they’ve been offered glimpses of the destiny that awaits them. They’re dedicated and passionate, but they aren’t stupid and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Cloud Imperium knows that, but it could only take a few events like this CitizenCon for support to sag.

Stars in reach

Backstage, Chris Roberts is sweaty, smiling, and clutching a melting gin and tonic. He’s just finished two hours under the lights, and is now traversing interviews by way of long, roundabout answers. It only takes a brief conversation with him to remember why people fell under his spell in the first place. Roberts can be hypnotic. In a gaggle of journalists, background static, and attendant sycophants, his gaze can feel like the only thing in the universe.

I ask him what it feels like to have a huge group of people behind him that are all focused on exactly the same thing, and apparently willing to put up with any necessary delays, frustrations, and heartache to make it happen.

"It’s a very unique position to be in," Roberts says. "Normally there’s a lot of commercial and financial strains. But we have so many people here that say ‘no, our priority is the best game possible.’ It’s awesome, it’s humbling."

Leaving CitizenCon, and reflecting on months spent in the online community, one thing stands out in my mind: Star Citizen fans are insular. Most of these men and women don’t care about you, or your doubts, or your false narratives, though some can't resist defending Star Citizen in comment sections across the web. So many other communities are obsessed with how they’re perceived by the rest of the world. Heroes of the Storm lifers have daily nervous breakdowns over the relative smallness of their esports scene, Starcraft lifers are increasingly insecure about the decline of the RTS, and there’s a long legacy of console wars drawing battle lines in middle schools around the world.

But here, in the ‘verse, there's little desire to sell themselves, or reeducate the nonbelievers. They’ve already thrown their money down, and the thing they’re focused on now is making the dream come true.

At the Bar Citizen on Friday night I met a military veteran named Isaiah Campbell. Earlier in the day he was picked up at the airport by someone he met through Star Citizen. It was the first time they had connected in real life. “He said ‘hey I really want you to come out’ and I said ‘awesome,’" Campbell says. "It’s someone I’ve been talking to for two and a half years."

I ask him when he knew—personally—that he would never make it to space himself, and that any Han Solo fantasies he harbored as a kid aren’t going to come to fruition.

"It’s a common saying, born too late to explore the earth, born too early to explore the universe, and it really is true," says Campbell. "It’s upsetting because… I’m married now so it’d be kind of hard to leave my wife, but before I’ve always had aspirations to go explore the stars. Like you said, like Han Solo. But to be able to translate that into a simulation, that’s the next best thing."

A videogame, but also the next best thing. Nothing is guaranteed. Despite all the community’s goodwill and the talent behind the scenes, Star Citizen is perfectly capable of disappointment. But that’s okay. For some fans, it's already giving them something they need. They fall asleep at night dreaming about the day the universe will finally be at their fingertips. To them, right now, in the midst of all the promises and possibilities, Star Citizen is already the best game ever.

Videogames are inevitably less magical when they actually exist. The limitless fantasy of being a bounty hunter in a rogue galaxy is bound to feel a lot less evocative when it’s finally actualized in regimented code and imperfect mechanics. My entire life playing games is defined by a feeling of wanting something more. Developers inevitably always come up a little short, which is why we all chase the next big thing. But the Star Citizen community holds to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this one is the exception to the rule.

"I think one thing that CIG almost has against them is that the journey is almost more fun than the destination, and more exciting, so I think that’s a really big challenge on their end," says Campbell. “When they launch it they need that hype to still be here, and I think that will be difficult. But I think the majority of the community is deadset on this game and want nothing else, myself included. When it comes out, we’re gonna look back and say ‘wow this was a fun journey, but we’re here now!’ and that’s the best part."




Edited by zeus_anoxia

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