I've never seen players so happy to see a game break.
I'm at an early PAX East 2014 fan event, seeing Star Citizen for the first time. Star Citizen is the first game from Cloud Imperium Games, a new studio founded by Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts. If you haven't heard of Roberts, Star Citizen, or Cloud Imperium before, you may not have heard of the whopping $41.7 million the game has raised via crowd-funding. It puts some of the bigger Kickstarter drives to shame.
So what does $41.7 million buy fans?
What appears on the screen looks good, but unstable. Star Citizen is early. From the perspective of someone who only occasionally played titles like Wing Commander and X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Star Citizen just looks like an updated version of those titles. If that's not your thing, it's understandable that you'd miss out on the excitement.
Roberts himself takes the stage to show off the game. The demo begins in a hanger, with Roberts' pilot walking up to his chosen starfighter; flight gloves pulled on in first-person as the hangar itself clanks and steams around him. He steps onto a ladder and into his cockpit. The pilot reaches out, grabs his helmet from the dashboard and flips it around before placing it on his head. The crowd roars at the animation.
Roberts pulls out of the hanger in his starfighter and pans around to show it off. It's amazingly detailed, with small individually-animated jumpjets dotting the fuselage. The hangar is attached to a space station floating above an Earth-like planet. Off in the distance, other installations are firing large lasers into the planet, causing the clouds to swirl around like a hurricane. Cloud Imperium's level designers are doing a great job at setting a majestic scale.
Roberts decides to take his ship farther out from the space station. His ship crashes against a jutting metal spire and Roberts' pilot is ejected out into space. The crowd laughs and yells for him to start again. He does. This time he clears the station and flies out into the darkness of space. Out in the distance, far beyond the floating debris, Roberts locks on to a target. Again, something relatively simple, but the crowd roars again.
Then the game freezes up and crashes.
If this were an EA, Microsoft Ubisoft or other major publisher event, gamers would sneer and laugh at the folly of having a presentation crash. But the attendees at this event are fans, backers of the game. Everything that's happened in the development of Star Citizen up until this point has been seen by them. The presentation itself, which began nearly 30 minutes late as developers worked furiously on the game onstage, started with a video of those same developers in the five days before PAX East.
The video covered the long hours they've worked to get the game in a playable state for the stage demo. It detailed and showed off all the crazy bugs they found and fixed. Like I said, Star Citizen is early. It's rough and broken, but the difference is Roberts and his team are honest about the problem. The difference is the fans who kicked in that $41.7 million believe in Cloud Imperium. The studio is giving them something they haven't been able to play in nearly 10 years. Freelancer, one of the last big space sims, came out in 2003. That's a worse version of purgatory than Mega Man's been stuck in.
"We have not been catered to at all," says one backer who has spent over $200 on the game. "The fact that there's no publisher attached to it, who's really worried about making a game narrowly defined by what they think is sellable... it's a big deal. There's never really been a free-wheeling space sim like this. They've made other games like Freelancer and Starlancer, but it's always been the dream to make a truly open-world space MMO where you actually fly the ships around. I played games in the 90s like Escape Velocity, but this is what that always wanted to be."
There's a community out there, $41 million strong, that believes completely in Chris Roberts. When asked if they believed Roberts could deliver on his grand dream, another backer said "absolutely" without hesitation.
"I've been playing his games since I was seventeen years old," says one gentleman I talk to. "I'm pushing forty now. Everything he's said about what he wants to do here, I've wanted for a long time. I put $700 in this game. I plan on getting my money's worth, in terms of entertainment value."
So, even if Star Citizen's public demo didn't go off without a hitch, it does nothing to the enthusiasm and excitement of the backers. And honestly, it was a bit amazing to see that excitement in the flesh.