One thing that’s always annoyed me about game journalism, long before #GamerGate yanked up the floorboards to reveal the SJW rot underneath, is game reporters’ habit of breathlessly gushing about projects that anyone with half a brain can see are going to fail. Case in point: Star Citizen, the forthcoming 60 million dollar disaster from Chris Roberts, creator of Wing Commander, Privateer, and a bunch of other games that no one born after 1990 has ever heard of.
Roberts bills Star Citizen as the spiritual successor to his Privateer games, space simulators that did the whole open world thing before open world games were cool. Wing Commander: Privateer and its sequel dropped you in outer space with a ship and gave you the freedom to do whatever you wanted: trade, fight bad guys, become a pirate and more. Star Citizen is upping the ante with CryEngine-powered first-person shooter gameplay and modern graphics. Such was the power of nostalgia that gamers have contributed millions of dollars to the game’s development, making it the most funded crowdfunding project of all time.
Yeah, I’m eager for a space sim that is created by native English speakers and has a decent plot, but what exactly has Chris Roberts done to deserve enough money to fund a political campaign? Here’s his CV since 1996’s Wing Commander IV, the last Wing Commander game he helped develop:
- Wing Commander (the movie) (1999): This steaming turd is a strike against the theory that the reason why movie adaptations of games are terrible is because the creators have no knowledge of/respect for the source material. Despite being directed by Roberts himself, the Wing Commander movie featured weak acting, a cliched, hole-ridden plot, and ugly special effects. It failed at the box office and was forgotten months later.
- Starlancer (2000): A fun space sim that featured a well-written plot but made no major innovations.
- Freelancer (2003): Roberts’ baby for the better part of the late nineties and early oughts, it was billed as a spiritual successor to Privateer, boasting features such as a dynamic economy, branching conversations and sub-quests. The final product had none of these features and while it was good, there was no reason to keep playing after you finished the story and explored all the star systems.
So Roberts’ resume consists of an unwatchable movie, a fun-but-unremarkable space sim and another space sim that failed to live up to the hype. A guy who hasn’t helmed a game development project in over a decade has secured $50 million in funding. How can anyone think that Star Citizen will even come close to fulfilling gamers’ expectations?
Swirling The Money Drain
As Karl Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Nearly twenty years after John Romero flushed millions of dollars down the Daikatana toilet and came up with nothing but a half-finished game, an insulting ad and an unpublished Playboy pictorial, primadonna game developers are still tossing sacks of money into the commode. Since corporate publishers are no longer willing to fund Romero-style excess, Roberts and his ilk have turned to their fans to bankroll their Benjamin-burning adventures.
This is made possible through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, which are incredibly easy to abuse. Because there’s no mechanism to force creators to actually create the projects they raise money for, there’s nothing stopping them from taking the money and running. Just ask Tim Schafer, another soi-disant auteur coasting on goodwill he built up during the Clinton administration. Or more accurately, ask the Kickstarter backers who funded Schafer’s project Broken Age to the tune of $3 million only to be told, “Sorry, we blew all that money on hookers, blow and DJ Phil Fish.”
And yet despite all the high-budget, high-profile failures of the game industry (Duke Nukem Forever, Fable, Shenmue etc.), gamers continue to give money to developers who make ridiculous promises they’ll never be able to fulfill. The latest iteration of this disease is the “Early Access” scam, where developers charge people money for games with no guarantee that they’ll ever get a finished, polished product.
Nostalgia Is Not Enough
I’m not claiming that everyone who has ever created a Kickstarter project is a scammer, or that gamers are stupid for contributing money towards the development of titles they’re interested in. What I am saying is that you should be more careful with who you send your hard-earned Simoleons to… and how much you give them.
I’m not cheering for Star Citizen to fail. On the contrary, after having suffered through the bugginess, sluggish performance and badly translated dialogue of the X series and other European-made modern space sims, I’d love to play a game made by the professionals who helped create the genre. But I’d also love to have a threesome with Zooey Deschanel and Eva Green. What I want to happen has nothing to do with what is likely to happen.
Right now, the smart money is on high-concept, big budget projects like Star Citizen crashing and burning. I have zero reason to believe Chris Roberts will be able to buck a trend that’s been going strong ever since Derek Smart committed assault and battery on a Coke machine. I hope that Star Citizen turns out to be a great game, but I’m not wagering my paycheck on it.