Star Citizen: Will big budget space game satisfy its backers?

By Marc Cieslak
BBC Click reporter

media captionWATCH: Marc Cieslak goes behind the scenes at the $108m crowdfunded game Star Citizen

Few video games have a budget as big.

So, it's no small achievement that Star Citizen's creator says he has raised more than $108m (£75m) to develop the title via online crowdfunding campaigns.

In fact, it makes the sci-fi space simulator the biggest crowdfunded project of all time.

Not bad considering its creator, Chris Roberts, had originally hoped to raise about a tenth of the amount.

That would have funded a much smaller game than Star Citizen has evolved into, Roberts told the BBC.

image copyrightCloud Imperium
image captionGamers can become a pirate, a trader or a mercenary among other roles

"I never thought we would raise the money we have, I was going to start more contained and over time its sort of filled out," he said.

But with the title running years behind its originally announced schedule, he has still to prove he can meet the backers' expectations.

Space sandbox

Roberts is famous among video game fans for the popular 1990's spaceship combat Wing Commander series.

The popularity of these games built Roberts a huge fan base, which dug into its own pockets to fund his new PC game.

image copyrightEA
image captionThe Wing Commander games had cut scenes featuring the Star Wars actor Mark Hamill

Roberts' development company is called Cloud Imperium. It operates four studios spread across three different countries (the US, UK and Germany), all working to realise Star Citizen's grand vision.

It's what's known as a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, which allows the player to pilot space ships, big and small, and even become part of the crew on huge vessels.

The universe is planned to be a huge explorable sandbox. Players should be able to engage in first-person combat, spaceship racing, visiting and exploring space stations and planets.

It is a persistent universe of huge ambition - so ambitious it's taking much longer to develop than originally anticipated.

The game was first announced back in 2012, with a release planned for 2014.

image copyrightCloud Imperium
image captionPlayers can explore large spaceships when not piloting vehicles themselves

But at present only small taster portions of the game are available to play.

Inevitably some backers and internet observers have taken to forums and blogs to vent their anger at the delays.

'Don't rush it out'

"People who make games are optimists," Roberts admits.

"If you are building a two-bedroom house and suddenly change to building a castle it's going to be a different timeline."

But he also thinks this game is far from unique when it comes to delays.

"In the games business, games get cancelled all the time, games get pushed back and by the time you hear about the game it's probably been in development for years.

"Things always took longer than anyone thought."

image copyrightCloud Imperium
image captionMr Roberts promises that Star Citizen will have more than 100 star systems when it launches

He concedes that "there are always going to be some people that say, you told me it was going to be two years, I want it to be this big , I want it in two years."

"That isn't necessarily possible," he adds.

"Most of our customers aren't like that. They say: 'Take the time you need. If you need 10 years for a really great space game don't rush it out and make a bad one.'"

Bug squashing

With the development studios spread out across the US and Europe, Roberts is often travelling between them all, checking the progress of the individual teams.

BBC Click visited the Los Angeles studio in California and the Wilmslow studio in the UK.

The atmosphere inside the studios was almost identical: dozens of artists and designers working on spaceship designs and character animations as well as painstakingly sifting though lines of code in search of bugs.

image copyrightCoud Imperium
image captionBackers have been given the opportunity to test early versions of parts of the game

There was a sense of calm, but the size and complexity of the project is mind boggling to the outside observer.

There are almost 300 people working on this game and they are taking advantage of their different time zones.

The studio head in Los Angeles said that when a bug is found by his team, they can work on the problem and then, at the end of their day, hand it over to workers in the UK to crack, and vice-versa with bugs found at any of the other studios.

image copyrightCloud Imperium
image captionStar Citizen's website says that more than 1.2 million people have backed the game

They call this "follow the sun" development. It means that work on Star Citizen is pretty much a 24-hour operation.

Big names

As well as the persistent universe there will also be a single player story-driven game called Squadron 42.

It sounds very much like Roberts is working in familiar Wing Commander territory here. In Squadron 42 the player assumes the role of a rookie pilot, embroiled in a war with a vicious alien species.

While the set-up is a little on the familiar side Roberts has assembled a star-studded cast for the game including Gary Oldman, Mark Strong and Gillian Anderson.

image copyrightCloud Imperium
image captionAn animated version of Gary Oldman plays Admiral Ernst Bishop in Squadron 42

While the larger universe is still in development, Roberts says he aims to release Squadron 42 by the end of this year.

So, it looks like we are going to have to wait a little bit longer to play the full Star Citizen experience.

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