HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Chris Roberts’ brain spun out a
grand vision: a rich, immersive galaxy; exquisite
spaceships traversing between infinite star systems with
thousands of computer gamers manning the cockpits,
racing, dogfighting and defending humanity.
would call his game "Star Citizen." It would
be big. It would be ambitious. It would be ridiculously
impressive. And it would be built outside the
traditional publisher system dominated by big game
companies such as Activision Blizzard and Electronic
vision was clear. All he required was money.
— former Hollywood producer, movie director and
veteran computer game creator — had a plan: raise
several million dollars from true believers who would
place advance orders. That would prove demand to venture
capitalists, who could supply the tens of millions of
dollars more that "Star Citizen" would
turned out he didn’t need the venture capitalists.
than $58 million has poured into the coffers of Roberts’
West Hollywood, Calif., company, Cloud Imperium Games
Corp., since "Star Citizen’s" inception two
years ago. And cash continues to flow — nearly all of
it raised from hard-core gamers who make pre-orders and
spend cash on digital goods that range from one-man
spaceships to interstellar caterpillars that look cool
when they explode in space.
video games have raised as much as a few million dollars
through crowdfunding, a fundraising technique in which
creators pitch ideas on the Web to attract relatively
small amounts of cash from lots of people. But
"Star Citizen" did something extraordinary: It
quickly reached the several-million mark and then blew
result is a game industry phenomenon.
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is demonstrating you can fund 100 percent development of
a game if you have an audience that wants the
game," says Robin Kaminsky,
entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm Rustic
Canyon Partners and former executive vice president at
Activision. "We’ve never seen this for a game of
full product isn’t scheduled for completion until
sometime in 2016, but, according to Roberts, more than
600,000 fans worldwide are playing modules of the partly
built game and suggesting improvements to developers.
And they’re buying digital goods — an average of
more than $90 per crowdfund contributor. Roberts
attributes the success to the game’s possibility to
last a lifetime.
idea is to make it a huge space playground that you
dream of spending time in if you’ve ever watched ‘Star
Wars,’" he said. "You can be a pilot, a
mercenary, an explorer, a salvager; everything’s
available to you."
Imperium’s website features a live fundraising tracker
and monthly progress reports on the accomplishments of
its 280 employees and contractors, located in cities
that include Santa Monica; Austin, Texas; Montreal; and
revealing look that Cloud Imperium offers into a
typically secretive industry has invigorated people like
Steve Snyder. The retired Air Force reconnaissance pilot
wanted to keep flying as a hobby, but his wife said no.
So the fire captain turned to computer games, resting
his hands over a keyboard and joystick instead. Snyder,
57, came across a "Star Citizen" trailer on
YouTube last January and got hooked.
spent $1,500 on spaceships, including $300 this month to
partner with a wingman to buy the 890 Jump, an exclusive
space yacht whose "very presence signifies
power," according to Cloud Imperium. He’s also
taking a more active role. Game designers consulted him
to create real-looking firefighting outfits. And he
volunteered to hand out pamphlets at this year’s
annual Citizen Con, where 300 fans gathered in the
flesh, with 14,000 more watching a live Web feed.
many of us have dreamed of being astronauts at some
point?" Snyder said. "This is the only way it’s
going to happen these days for a lot of us, and I just
wanted to make sure (Roberts) was successful."
had set out to build "Star Citizen" like the
popular games "Minecraft" and "League of
Legends," which slowly became more involved as they
gained popularity across the world. But the ambition for
"Star Citizen" quickly changed because of the
fast cash. From the beginning, it was a cut above in
visual appeal and scope, with highly detailed features,
landscapes and characters that reflect a Hollywood
probably because Roberts, 46, spent a decade in the
movie business. He’s a native Californian who grew up
in Manchester, England, doodling tanks as a child and
programming games as a teenager. He started his career
as a game designer, then formed Digital Anvil, a game
company that developed the highly successful "Wing
Commander" space combat video game franchise. In
1999, he turned the game into a feature-length movie as
its director for 20th Century Fox. The film was a
critical flop, though it scored high marks for special
effects. Roberts continued in Los Angeles in the
producer ranks on movies including "Lord of
War," starring Nicolas Cage, and "Who’s Your
labored in Hollywood for a decade because he could
astonish viewers with richness in detail and emotion
that technology and low budgets prevented him from
achieving in games.
2011, technology had "massively changed," he
said. Powerful graphics processors, computer chips and
memory cards had become cheap enough for Roberts to
deliver a game that drops people and their friends into
an Internet-hosted universe where players by the
thousands interact in a virtual reality.
remained an issue. Investors and publishers gravitate to
games with wide appeal because sales can be
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Securities analyst Michael Pachter estimated Activision’s
console title "Destiny," a first-person
shooter game released in September, sold 5 million
copies in its first five days. War games sell well.
Space games are niche — bought by maybe 1 million or 2
million during the life of the game, and dominated by
established franchises, like Star Wars.
initial crowdfund pitch was aimed at three audiences:
Fans of his old hit game, PC gamers whom he called
"underserved" by developers, and people
thrilled about exploring virtual worlds. With their
support, he avoided the strings of big corporations and
video game market is huge: $15.4 billion in U.S. sales
alone in 2013, according to NPD Group. About half of
that revenue comes from digital content like "Star
Citizen," downloaded on a computer, not bought in a
revenue includes sales of virtual goods, a theoretically
inexhaustible resource as long as fans keep buying.
Cloud Imperium’s marketing budget includes large
dollops spent on keeping the community engaged, holding
live events, producing regular programs on YouTube and
Twitch, and pumping out promotional videos that trumpet
the latest spaceships on sale as if they were the newest
ability to create new content endlessly … I think it
shows how big it could possibly get," Kaminsky
said. "If people are willing to spend for stuff he
hasn’t yet created, I wouldn’t be surprised by $100
million in crowdfunding."
Williams, head of analytics firm Ninja Metrics, said
"Star Citizen" is drawing industry attention,
though some wonder whether the project is a one-off
exception made possible by a cult hero like Roberts.
this an outlier or the new normal?" he said.
"I think we have to take this kind of funding
seriously, but we should also remember the novelty of
he added, "the lesson to the broader gaming
industry is that players matter. They vote with their
feet, and now with their wallets — and if they have
new ways to vote, they’ll use them. In a way, (Cloud
Imperium is) reducing the noise that middlemen bring to
for Roberts, he’s encouraged by the message "Star
Citizen" is delivering to the gaming world that
"talented kids who can inspire people’s
imaginations" have fertile ground to challenge
"the big guys."
distribution has liberated a lot of people," he
said. "Maybe you won’t raise what we have, but
small teams with good ideas can get them out there. It’s
brighter out there than it’s been in quite some