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Star Citizen: A cautionary tale of Kickstarter and crowdfunding

(TECH NEWS) Why is the most funded game in history still in development and has no clear release date? Why crowdfunding as a concept cannot be seen as reliable from a backer’s perspective.

Magnifying glass over Kickstarter URL and site, a crowdfunding website.

Kickstarter – at its core – is a brilliant idea (and I wish I’d thought of it first). Creating a funding platform to literally allow anyone to bring an idea to fruition by asking for – essentially – seed capital and investors en masse via crowdfunding is truly appealing in every sense of the word. Originally a stronghold of new inventions, gadgets, and apparel, it quickly spread into the entertainment industry as well, with hobbyist game developers, auteur filmmakers, and first time writers given the chance to use crowdfunding to breathe life into their creations.

Star Citizen first appeared on the Kickstarter platform way back in 2012 and was hailed as the next great space simulation game. The campaign was started by Chris Roberts – one of the grand masters of the genre – who created the legendary Wing Commander series while working at Origin Systems. While these might be unfamiliar to non-gamers, anyone who played computer and console games in the 80s and 90s would recognize each name as a juggernaut of the industry.

Without going into specifics, this is the equivalent of Steven Spielberg asking for money to make Montana Miles, a new franchise centered around an ace paleontologist and all around tough guy roughneck adventurer who maybe had a run in or two with certain historical societies while pursuing artifacts from an ancient and forgotten world.

Ol’ Steve is definitely gonna get backers. To really set this up, imagine he asked for money in the late 80s. That’s the kind of perfect storm situation we’d have here.

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Star Citizen managed to bring in over $2.1 million from nearly 35,000 backers at its inception, and the fervor and excitement was high. This was due to the pedigree of those involved in the project and the fact that a massive space sim had not seen release in several years (the video game industry – like many others – goes through cycles, with certain properties and genres fading into and out of popularity). Fans eagerly donated, and it reached its original $500K goal quickly, with 9 people contributing $10,000 each and another 19 pledging $5,000.

Since then, additional crowdfunding was conducted by giving fans the option to buy ships and other digital goods to be used in-game, bringing the total to $339 million in the past 10 years (accounting for pre-production and other planning that was done prior to the Kickstarter campaign).

Backing up for a second, consider that I just said 10 years. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the game is still not out and has no projected release date. If you go to their website, you can be directed to their Pledge Store to purchase ships and other items for a game that isn’t even done, and last released new public material way back in 2015. A side project meant to appease and entice backers – Squadron 42 – just announced its own delay.

And the developers have more or less given no reassurance or updated timelines. The prevailing theory is that this is the result of feature creep, but even this has sparked a number of heated discussions and angry denial from the developers.

Understandably, gamers are angry, and are (perhaps justifiably) lashing out (I won’t link to Reddit or any other forums, but it’s easy to sniff these out). There’s even a (hilarious) Imgur repository of broken promises and failed deliverables against a backdrop of developer feel-good rhetoric. At least one lawsuit has been filed.

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Let me take a moment here to say that the gaming industry is no stranger to delays, and has also seen games be released in broken states. The biggest recent example is Sony pulling Cyberpunk 2077 from its digital storefront and offering refunds. Cyberpunk 2077 is the biggest and most anticipated game at the moment, but has been delayed countless times, suffered numerous glitches, crashes, is otherwise unplayable on console platforms (both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One), and been called a disaster.

Let’s not even go into talking about the legacy of delayed games, which stretches from Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever, No Man’s Sky (though it should be noted that Hello Games has worked tirelessly to rectify the game’s original dismal state against its many, many promises)… The list goes on.

But we’re getting a little off course here by looking at traditionally funded games (even if there are dozens of problems there too). In terms of pure Kickstarter-funded debacles? There’s lots of examples, including DoubleFine’s Broken Age (famous for being the first major game to be crowdfunded and a story in and of itself), SpaceVenture (now over seven years late), and whatever it was that Yogscast game was trying to do (relevant because this was one of the biggest Youtube groups at the time). What about when backers paid for the Oculus Rift, only to have it purchased
outright by Facebook before it was even released to backers?

There’s too many fascinating and infuriating rabbit holes to go through.

So let’s talk about Kickstarter directly for a bit, because if we’re going to play the blame game (hah!), then we certainly need to consider their participation. As it stands, Kickstarter continues to operate with almost no oversight, and has remained a silent and invisible actor throughout these failures. In effect, they are a neutral third party.

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Even worse, Kickstarter themselves say that a creator is under zero obligation to complete their project, and relies heavily on the fact that each and every crowdfunding campaign functions in a benefit of the doubt construct. If a creator reaches funding and is never heard from again, Kickstarter maintains that not only will they not pursue any kind of legal action, but doubles down on blaming the investing audience by stating that they knew the risks upfront. Put bluntly: Kickstarter has a very convenient excuse that “art works by different rules.”

In almost all instances, this has resulted in incomplete and abandoned projects, often fueled by lies, deception, and fraud. And yet, Kickstarter has dodged any and all liability, and it’s unlikely that backers can easily exercise any kind of legal action. A similar situation would be taking a contractor to court over an unfinished job, but having no way to actually enforce restitution even under a favorable judgement.

This doesn’t even take into account that there’s a chance of a rogue backer voicing so much dissatisfaction that they sue a company into bankruptcy. Sure, this sounds like reasonable punishment, is entirely legal, and conceivably is well within the rights of that person. But even so, does the blame lie with an inexperienced creator, impossibly high standards set by a (debatably unreasonable) customer, or with Kickstarter being an enabler?

The lofty goals of Kickstarter set against this backdrop of numerous pitfalls suddenly tarnishes its efficacy and integrity, exacerbated by a laundry list of what ifs and potentialities. There’s simply too many legal issues to navigate when it comes to crowdfunding.

I’m not even going to start going into more examples of failed Kickstarter projects, outright scams, and other clear cut bits of fraud and swindling.

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Real quick, I want to mention a few other things – similar crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo have the same issues, GoFundMe is not without its own controversies, and Valve’s digital marketplace Steam gives developers the same loophole via its Early Access program by allowing them to keep a game in a forever-limbo state.

So I guess the lesson here is that all of these crowdfunding platforms should be treated with a similar attitude you might have when playing the lottery. At the least, try to vet the creator beforehand, as there are certainly viable companies that have run successful campaigns in the past. I encourage you to read user comments on a campaign’s page, research the company in question (have they put out successful products previously?), and be financially ready to lose the money you might put into a shiny new hypothetical.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. joe

    January 6, 2021 at 3:45 pm

    4 Years ago, those so called angry gamer (0.02% as per reddit followers count) predicted CIG will never make ships for in game credits but only $… This feature is in game since more than tow years.
    They predicted 2019 will be the worst year for funding… it was the best.
    They predicted CIG won’t be able to finish 2020… 2020 funding crushed 2019
    They explained SC was a niche… +200.000 NEW backers in 2020 on top of the 800.000 others backers.

    We did not read yet prediction for 2021 but expect a collapse 90 days top! ?

    Factually CIG did released a new roadmap in Dec. 2020 showing their internal Jira process, IE, the very details of every teams working on the different aspect of Star Citizen (MMO) and Squadron 42 (solo). A lot of contents, remaining core tech and new gameplay is coming in 2021. Greta for the space gamer community at large… all for 45$, less than a soulless sequel done by Publishers.

  2. Backcountry164

    January 7, 2021 at 1:42 am

    The lottery?!? Lol! Please point me to the lottery where 99+% of tickets pay out at least the value of the ticket…

  3. C. A.

    January 7, 2021 at 4:30 am

    Technically, these crowdfunding platforms can be used for running ‘scams’ and there is no chance of being able to get any legal compensation. It is only a fine line between failed projects and scams and no real way if telling the difference.

  4. Scott C.

    January 7, 2021 at 6:48 am

    I argue that the problem isn’t “crowdfunding” as a funding solution, but perhaps it should prohibit “game funding”. Further, your article is not factual on several points, but seed rounds and venture type capital are speculative and always have been. It’s the risk/reward scenario. Your article is reckless, and ill-informed.

  5. Jeremiah Harvey

    January 7, 2021 at 9:32 am

    What a terrible all over the place rant version of an article. You forgot to blame computers themselves while you were at it. Another sad writer who hasn’t a clue.

  6. Kris Roberto

    January 7, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    “and last released new public material way back in 2015.”

    WTF are you talking about? They release updates and patches and new content all the time. Try educating yourself on the topic before writing a pointless fluff piece. You’re embarrassing yourself. And don’t take me for some white knight fanboy – SC and CIG have many problems and done plenty of annoying, sketchy BS and went back on their promises countless times. Try doing some real digging and write about actual, real problems.

  7. Jabba

    January 7, 2021 at 11:01 pm

    The “revelation” of this take is 3 years old lol

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