Video Games FeaturesStar Citizen Employees Speak Out on Project Woes - Update 2Video Games Features - RSS 2.0
Update: The Escapist, notwithstanding Cloud Imperium Games' notice and posting, stands by its coverage of Star Citizen and intends to continue to investigate the developing story. Since publishing our original stories, we have been contacted by, and are currently interviewing, additional sources corroborating a variety of the reported allegations. Additionally, if Mr. Roberts' offer for The Escapist to "meet the developers making the game and see how we're building one of the most ambitious PC games first hand" remains open, we take the opportunity to accept such invitation so as to hopefully provide the public with sufficient information and opportunity to vet such sources' allegations and claims for themselves. We have also communicated the foregoing directly to Cloud Imperium Games.
Editor's Note: Updated with response from Chris Roberts throughout.
For details on how we vetted our sources, please check our response to the community comments.
Following my recent op-ed, titled "Eject! Eject! Is Star Citizen Going to Crash and Burn?" a number of sources, comprised of both current and former employees of Cloud Imperium Games, reached out to discuss troubling revelations about the state of the company. We have agreed to protect their identities, as well as to give them an opportunity to share their accounts. From inappropriate managerial conduct to fund mismanagement, here is the story from those who lived it. Nine people reached out to us - two were completely anonymous and were used to corroborate information. The seven quoted below identified themselves, but will be referenced by number (CS1, CS2, etc.) at their request.
Before jumping in, it is important to appreciate the gravity of this situation. Crowdfunding campaigns are a necessity for smaller independent developers to both break into the industry and to present a unique gaming experience when they don't have the luxury of AAA backing. While there are no guarantees with funding a project, the FTC has set a precedent by holding those launching campaigns accountable for any improper behaviors and misrepresentation in regards to crowdfunding campaigns.
Ambition May be Star Citizen's Greatest Flaw
It's never been done because it can't be done.
- Several sources
Star Citizen is an ambitious space simulation title from industry veteran Chris Roberts. The game began as a passion project, drawing inspiration from Wing Commander and Freelancer. Star Citizen promised a triumphant return to the space-sim genre by combining a huge universe with multiple gameplay options, a massive variety of ships, and no subscription fees. The demand was immediately overwhelming. More than $2 million was raised through Kickstarter within a month, blowing past the original $500,000 goal.
Following the successful completion of the campaign, crowdfunding continued through other methods. In August 2014 the campaign reached $49 million, with Roberts stating that they still needed additional funds in order to "sustain this level of development." The game has, to date, raised nearly $90 million through crowdfunding.
Previously, Cloud Imperium Games claimed that the high cost of the stretch goals was intended to allow them to meet a November 2014 release date while still adding the additional content.
"The purpose of the higher stretch goals is to ensure that the game-as-described is finished in the two year time period," the Star Citizen FAQ from the Kickstarter, last updated October 2012, reads. "We intend to build the game that Chris Roberts described at GDC Online regardless, but without additional funding we are going to have to do it one piece at a time, starting with Squadron 42, rather than as a single larger production. With more funding we can include more ships, systems, unique locations, animations and cinematic sequences."
...more about the campaign and less about the actual game.
- Several sources
Backers pledged millions of dollars to a project with the understanding that the money would be used to ensure the delivery of the complete title in the promised time period. However, some sources stated that at some point Star Citizen became "more about the campaign and less about the actual game," with repeated delays announced while citing the additional funds raised as the cause.
Roberts responded to these concerns, writing "You will notice that this is saying that we would only be able to deliver Squadron 42, not the bigger game without additional funding. If you refer to the stretch goals you will notice that the base goal was enhanced community content (delivered), alpha dogfighting module (delivered) and Squadron 42 (in progress). That was the base game as described. The full persistent universe and all the extra features like FPS boarding, multiple star systems to visit, extra ships and so on are all stretch goals. As is true with most projects when the scope changes so do the timelines, you can't build a castle in the same time you would a wood shed no matter how much money or how many people you have. To try to make some kind of narrative about how we promised the game in two years no matter how big the scope grew is false. Could we have shipped a small scale 30 mission game in the old Wing Commander format in two years? Yes, but that's not the game the community wants or the game we're building. What we are delivering now, just on the Squadron 42 side is more akin to a huge AAA game that would retail for $60 by itself. The value for money that people are getting for a $40 pledge is pretty crazy."
According to several former employees and industry veterans, the reason Star Citizen is so popular is because it's never been done. And, they continue, the reason it has never been done is because it can't be done - at least, not with $90 million.
"$90 million for what he's pitching, even with a competent leadership, you couldn't do," CS1 said. "The thing you have to remember about Chris Roberts is that, before this, he hadn't made a game in 12 years. He has no concept of what can and can't be done today with that amount of money, or for a game like this. Chris Roberts hadn't made a game in 12 years, and he was actively ignoring the input of people who have been in and a part of the industry that entire time."
To this, Roberts says: "How do you or they know this? Which employees said this and what makes them qualified to make that judgement? I know it's what Derek Smart loves to say but he couldn't make a good game with $200m so I don't think his opinion matters. Outside of that, no employee beyond me and a few other key people who are leading Star Citizen would have the appropriate information and overview to make any judgement about the cost of the total project. Secondly, the company uses additional sources of funding such as tax incentives, marketing and product partnerships, but we do not discuss these issues in public for obvious reasons. We always keep a healthy cash reserve and operate our business prudently based on the incoming revenue. It should tell you something that we are actually increasing our global headcount not decreasing it."
Over concerns that he is not responding to advice from workers, Roberts writes "I have a very strong vision for Star Citizen, which is why I believe we have been backed to the level we have. I have no doubt what we can achieve. Now that most of the base technology is in place we will be able to get with the Large World and MultiCrew milestone a game experience that will allow you to seamlessly go from foot, to boarding a fully realized spaceship with your friends, take off, fly thousands or millions of km in space, exit your ship in EVA and explore derelict space stations or wrecks, engage in FPS combat, return to your ship, engage in space combat and return to your home base to share the tales of your adventures with your other friends. All with no leading screens, all at AAA first person fidelity that you can't even get on a next gen console. This is the core of the Squadron 42 and Star Citizen experience that we will continue to iterate on and add content to, but even the first release will be more "game" than most commercially released space games. In terms of not listening to the advice of people that have worked in the industry that is not true. I have a very strong executive management and design team with huge experience in AAA titles that all contribute to the decision making of the company. I listen to everyone - from our top level all the way through to our QA testers and community giving feedback on gameplay and features. I care and want to build the best game possible. Now that doesn't mean I agree with everyone's opinions and feedback as a project director I owe it to the community to stay true to my vision and pick the things that I think will make the game better which can occasionally lead to people feeling disgruntled, which I suspect is the root of this "concern"."
The popular consensus among most of the people who reached out is that Chris Roberts is not intentionally a con man. "He doesn't set out in the morning to screw anybody over. He's just incredibly arrogant," CS2 stated.
"It was incredibly toxic. I had to get out."
According to several sources, being an employee of Cloud Imperium Games meant subjecting yourself to public insults, screaming, profanity, racism, and stress so powerful that some people would become physically ill.
"I realized it was affecting my health, my home life. I needed to get out. So I left. I had no job lined up. I just had to get out. I looked at my situation, I had enough in savings, so I left," CS3 told me. "I couldn't take it. It was by far the most toxic environment I have ever worked in. No one had clear direction about how to do their jobs well. No one was empowered to do their jobs well. Everything was second guessed, and the default reaction to everything was blame and yelling and emails with all capital letters and curse words."
"I couldn't take it. It was by far the most toxic environment I have ever worked in."
It was also alleged that Roberts' wife and Cloud Imperium Games Vice President of Marketing Sandi Gardiner enforced discriminatory hiring practices. CS1 reported that they were instructed to, first, check the education field on a prospective employee's resume. If too much time had passed, Gardiner reportedly informed people not to hire them, because "they may be over 40, which makes them a protected class and harder to fire." It was also claimed that Gardiner used race as a determining factor in selecting employees, allegedly once saying "We aren't hiring her. We aren't hiring a black girl."
Sources indicate that multiple complaints have been taken to the Human Resource department against Gardiner, with little assistance on the matter - HR, after all, ultimately answers to Roberts and Gardiner.
"She would write emails with so much profanity. She would call people stupid, retard, faggot. Accuse men of not having balls. And she was incredibly hostile to other female employees," CS4 stated. "Sandi is very jealous. She has to be the queen bee at the company. Whenever I was around her, I felt like I was in the presence of a cobra who, at that moment, might not have been inclined to strike but was completely willing to. You don't get on her bad side," CS3 added. "There were two things you were told, when you were hired. One, you don't talk about [Roberts and Gardiner] being married, to anyone. Ever. And two, you don't make Sandi mad."
"[Sandi Gardiner] would write emails with so much profanity. She would call people stupid, retard, faggot. Accuse men of not having balls."
In response, Roberts wrote "All personnel and HR matters are obviously completely private and we can't comment on this as a matter of principle. As always, there are two sides to each story."
In addition to Gardiner's alleged conduct, many felt they were required to be on constant guard when addressing Roberts as well.
CS3 stated that it wasn't uncommon practice to round up four or five people to review an email intended for Roberts, to make sure there was nothing potentially upsetting in the wording. "His immediate response to everything was to insult people, and accuse everyone of being idiots," he said. "It was like the Eye of Sauron. You never wanted to say anything in an email or a meeting that would bring the Eye of Sauron on you. He couldn't control his temper, and had no problem making a public scene of it."
"Games are not a professional environment by default, by their nature," CS4 said. "That's one of the great things about working on a game. But there are certain levels of unprofessionalism that you don't go beyond. Chris and Sandi made it part of their job to go beyond those levels."