How to build a universe for $40m

Artwork from Star Citizen Image copyright Roberts Space Industries
Image caption Star Citizen is all about flying, fighting and trading in an online universe

If you were given $40m (£24m), what would you spend it on?

Buy a yacht and sail the world, lie on a beach all day or put it all on red at a Vegas casino?

Chris Roberts has that much to spend and he is using it to build a universe.

Mr Roberts is not entirely free to use the cash as he wishes because the money has come to him from crowdfunding site Kickstarter and through the Roberts Space Industries website.

"I'm completely shocked by how much we have raised and how well we have done," said Mr Roberts. "I would never have guessed it was possible."

Fight and flight

The reason that people have given him so much cash is because of his track record in making space games. Mr Roberts was the driving creative force behind the massively popular Wing Commander series of games. These let people play a part in the star-spanning conflict between humans and the cat-like Kilrathi.

The money is being spent on another space game called Star Citizen set in a 30th century virtual universe. Players will pilot their ships around this persistent online universe engaging in dogfights as they trade and explore. Alongside this, and in the same universe will go a more episodic game, called Squadron 42, that can be played by individuals or groups.

Star Citizen debuted on Kickstarter in late 2012 seeking just $500,000 (£300,000). When its funding period closed it had raised more than $2m from 34,000 people.

A year or so on and the funding drive has continued via the game's dedicated website and the total is closing in on $40m. The number of people who have signed up or put down cash has hit 300,000.

Mr Roberts believes that at least part of the reason so many have backed Star Citizen is because there have been so few big space-based games in the last decade or so.

Image copyright Origin
Image caption The Kilrathi were the enemy in Chris Roberts's Wing Commander series

In more recent times, the steady success of Eve Online showed there was an appetite for some kind of space trading and combat game. However, said Mr Roberts, Star Citizen would offer more "visceral" thrills than the somewhat intellectual Eve Online - a game that sometimes seems to reward skill with a spreadsheet more than it does a blaster.

Competition for space sim fans will come, however, from Eve Valkyrie - a new game set in the Eve universe but which puts players in the cockpit of a spaceship and gives them the chance to let loose with missiles and lasers against other people.

Perhaps a bigger threat is another space-based game that also raised lots of money via Kickstarter - Elite Dangerous.

That too has an industry veteran at its helm, British gaming veteran David Braben, and will let players fight, trade and explore in an online universe.

"The competition is healthy," said Mr Roberts. "Just like in in the old days when Lucas Arts had their X-Wing and Tie Fighter games.

"I feel like there have not been enough space games and I'm happy to have more," he said, adding that he had backed Elite on Kickstarter and was looking forward to playing it.

Control panel

Before the game can be launched against its competitors, it has to be developed and, said Mr Roberts, creating a game set in a sizeable chunk of the universe, even a digital one, was always going to take a lot of money.

"It's not one of those games you can make for two, three or even four million," said Mr Roberts. "Originally, I didn't think I would be able to do everything I wanted to."

The basic plan was to raise a few million on Kickstarter and then turn to investors to build up a total development fund of $12-$14m. That cash would be used to fund the alpha or test version which would help raise more money to flesh out the full vision - which Mr Roberts estimated had a price tag of about $20m.

Image copyright Roberts Space Industries
Image caption The game puts players in the cockpit of one of several different star-ships

However, he said, getting all the cash almost upfront means no alpha and no investors. Instead he's been able to set out a plan to get the whole thing done right from the start and recruit heavily so development of different parts of Star Citizen proceed in parallel. The extra cash means it will get more ships, more star systems and missions set on planets.

One element of the game has already been released - the hangar module that lets players look around the ship or ships they have bought and in which they will fly in Star Citizen. One of the next modules is the dog-fighting system that players will test before the final release in 2015.

But what the pledged funds have not done is change the fundamental direction of the game, he said.

Star Citizen might have 300,000 people interested but that does not mean that Mr Roberts has 300,000 bosses who want him to make the game for them.

While it is good to hear from the backers, they are not going to be able to radically change the game.

"The way we look at the crowd is that it's a huge resource for talking the game over with 300,000 people instead of just a small team," he said. "If something they say resonates with us then we should respond to it, but if it does not then we just don't do it."

"But," he said, "it's definitely good to get that feedback early on in this process."

He added: "We could spend an eternity building this game but we have to make decisions about what we focus on and having the crowd involved really helps us with that process."

And, he said, that large crowd had bought in to the project because of his involvement.

"I think, in general, a lot of people are backing this because of my past games," he said, adding that they are going to get a recognisably Chris Roberts game.

"I get pretty focused when I have an idea in my head," he said. "It's not like I'm easily swayed."

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