Star Citizen — the crowdfunded game that’s raised nearly $187M from an estimated two million donors — has announced another infamous content pack for its most enthusiastic backers. This time it’s offering content the company prices at a bit under the median cost of a brand-new car in modern America. The new $27,000 “Legatus” pack comes with 111 ships and 163 extras, and you can’t even see it for sale unless you’ve previously bought $1,000 worth of SC content for a game that hasn’t even entered beta yet.
Star Citizen is a video game. It’s also, depending on who you talk to, an attempt to reinvent an entire suite of genres in a single mammoth title, a technical masterpiece, a limited alpha, suffering from an almost-certainly-eventually-terminal case of feature creep, the most popular game on Kickstarter, and a game that raised more money on Kickstarter in 2017 than every other game combined and doubled. There have been fights over refunds, lawsuits with Crytek, and a host of delays and other issues. Again, how these play depend largely on how you view the game and whether you think Chris Roberts has a chance in hell of pulling off what is unambiguously the most complicated title the game industry appears to have ever seriously attempted to incubate.
In its final form, the Star Citizen ‘umbrella’ is supposed to stretch over everything from a Wing Commander-style single-player campaign (nicknamed Squadron 42) to an immersive MMO/trading simulator with a persistent universe, to an FPS game that allows players to fight in human-scale combats, climb into a ship, fly into orbit, and dock at a space station and then travel to another star system, all handled within the same engine — a heavily repurposed version of the Crytek excuse me, the Amazon Lumberyard engine. The game has continued to raise insane amounts of money, from $141M at the start of 2017 to $187M today.
Whether Chris Roberts (or anyone) could pull off a game of Star Citizen’s technical complexity, cost, and capability has been beaten to death. Whether game developers should be charging $27,000 for any amount of content in a frickin’ video game has similarly been beaten to death, largely within a framing of whether or not it’s appropriate to sell this type of access before a game has even launched. The more interesting question, at least to me, is whether or not Star Citizen is setting itself up for societal implosion even if the game manages to launch (at present, neither the single-player nor multi-player components of the title have a release date).
The problem is this: In most video games, success is a function of how long you can invest in playing, not how much money you can throw at the title. The exceptions to this, like the initial run of loot crates in Battlefront II, have often been ruthlessly panned by players and excoriated in the media. Many games offer some type of advantage to players who are willing to trade cash for gear or rankings — selling accounts or buying levels has been A Thing in gaming for decades — but players still tend to recoil when the link between paying for in-game skills or items is seen as giving too big an advantage to the wealthy. When you shuck out $60 for a video game and you know everyone else is shucking out $60 for the same thing (assuming they don’t opt for more expensive collectable editions with various added features), you’re effectively paying for an even playing field. What happens when that changes — and changes by a lot?
We’re not, after all, talking about the difference between $60 and $600. The handful of people that can afford these kits are dropping enough cash to buy a brand-new car. These players are naturally going to feel more invested in the title because they literally are more invested in the title, even if they have none of the legal protections afforded to investors. Juggling the disparate expectations of a player base with wildly different levels of investment will provide its own additional level of difficulty over and above the general problem of building the game — assuming, of course, that the game manages to ship at all.
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