Massively Overthinking: How will Star Citizen make money after launch?
During this week’s Massively OP Podcast, Justin and I attempted to tackle a question sent in by commenter and listener Sally Bowls – specifically, she wanted us to speculate on what a post-launch monetization plan for Star Citizen might look like.
“Assuming they have a lot of overhead and expense, are they going to fire most of their employees at launch? Keep them and support them with subscriptions? DLC? Cosmetics? A stream of new ships would be my first guess – but new ships good enough that people spend $50M-$100M per year withouth causing old customers to think the new shiny invalidates their previous purchase? That seems to me a non-trivial tightrope to walk.”
Put away your instinct to joke that it won’t matter because Star Citizen is never coming out. Let’s just reasonably assume that it does eventually launch into something the studio will call more or less ready. How do you think Star Citizen will make money after launch? That’s the question I’ve posed the Massively OP team for this round of Massively Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Oh, are they not going to release the game in a “beta” or “Early Access” for $20-$50 for several years and sell ships until it “launches” essentially a second time? It’s worked for them so far, why would they stop? This is clearly a premium game for a core audience that seems to have deep pockets.
If we’re talking about a full “release” though, it’d probably be similar to Elite Dangerous I think: skins and expansion. Tiger striped laser beams, “Eat space dust” bumper stickers, ship bobbleheads of Chris Roberts, that sort of thing. Backers will get the content they were promised, but I wouldn’t be surprised if things like the FPS mode cost non-backers extra or even got sold off as separate games, ala EVE’s DUST 514.
I can’t imagine a constant slew of new ships, but they’ll still come out. Again looking to Elite, I wonder if maybe different types of weapons and tech might be the lore reason to have different types of ships. Think of early MMOs when we needed both frost and fire swords because the enemy might resist one and be weak to the other. Again, these might be sold in the shops during “Early Access” or something, but post launch, they’d probably be kept behind an expansion wall, but they’d be seen/felt in a way that players who don’t pony up would be tempted to open their wallets.
Naturally, the team will shed burnout out employees ready for their next project and replace them with a new team that largely won’t understand the creation of the game as per usual in this industry. More importantly, though, is release in itself is a good way to bring in revenue. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw physical rewards for Deluxe Editions of the game so you can own that Roberts bobblehead in game and in real life!
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): A few years ago, devs said that the plan for post-launch monetisation was to directly sell in-game currency for cash and if that didn’t raise enough they hinted at continuing with ship sales. There are also subscriptions and box sales, which should generate a lot of money. The problem is that there’s never been a game as heavily crowdfunded as Star Citizen, and we really don’t know how deep the well goes. I’ve been wrong every year with my prediction that the money will dry up. The market will be largely exhausted at some point, though, and that’s bad news for the studios and devs working on the game.
Crowdfunding lets a company front-load a percentage of the money it’s going to make before the game is released, and the worst case is that the devs reach a high percentage of market penetration before launch and need to secure funding from elsewhere to keep the studios going. For small indie studios, that can mean a failed/abandoned project or jumping into another crowdfunded game, but CIG is probably big enough to secure massive investment if that happens. Unless they already have more projects underway when release comes, though, I do expect that they’ll release a bunch of staff and studio contracts anyway as you don’t need as many people for live operations as development. That’s just the nature of MMO development.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Star Citizen has never shown even the slightest hesitation when it comes to milking whales. It certainly isn’t going to stop after launch. I don’t think whales can support the game quite as luxuriously post-launch, however. I expect the current subscription to ramp up in importance, I’d be surprised if an elaborate cash shop doesn’t eventually roll out, I expect the hinted-at currency sales to materialize, I imagine the pay-to-win cries will grow louder as the game skirts those boundaries, and then I expect paid expansions and DLC. Every major video game company is monetizing us six ways to Sunday. Tripledipping is for noobs; this year we’re sextupledipping!
I do expect the studio to downsize because to do otherwise would be foolish. All online game studios eventually switch to live team mode. You can’t bleed money on R&D forever when you no longer need R&D.
But as I said on the podcast, I don’t honestly think we’re going to see anything like a launch for several more years, and who knows what the industry will look like by then. Maybe lockboxes will be regulated and people will stop buying pixel ships on spec in the future. A girl can dream.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I feel like there are a lot of assumptions that need to be baked into this question right off of the bat. I mean, for one thing, Star Citizen seems to have already hit on a pretty great monetization scheme by continually crowdfunding and setting an expectation that the game is still in the “ramping up to production” stage instead of the “should be steamrolling along” stage, so there’s always the question of whether or not the game will ever move on to an explicit “launch” stage when this one is so easy to extend for ever. There’s also the assumption that the game wouldn’t lay off lots of people, which… look, it’s awful, but it’s a gross reality of the industry whenever a game ships.
Heck, it seems like the ever-extending feature bloat alone does a good job of continually promising the stars and stepping up a need for another batch of funding. Worth keeping that in your mind for a bit…
What’s important is that these are the assumptions we’re working with, and by gum, we’re going with it. We’re going to assume that the game has actually called it a launch and that the layoffs, while they probably still happened, aren’t going to do much more than serve as a nudge financially. How does the game keep funding itself?
For starters, I don’t necessarily agree that “selling ships that are not actually available” will lose its appeal; after all, the game has sold itself so long on that exact premise that most of its supporters kind of expect it now. Why stop there? Heck, why stop with ships? I think there’s some plausibility to expanding the game’s feature list even further in perpetuity – pay another $10 to unlock the game’s Toilet Customization Module or Deciding On Your Ship’s In-Game Call Ringtone Module. Considering that the game is already meant to have some modularity with further releases of its story, that hardly seems out of the realm of possibility.
Beyond that, though, I see an ugly possibility when the game has already added a large number of features that seem tailor-made to pump up irritation in the name of “immersion.” I remember reading an early review of part of the game wherein you had to go through the same steps to cycle an airlock every single time, which raises the question of whether or not that would be an immediate target for any sort of monetization. You don’t have to subscribe, no… but don’t you want to pay five bucks to skip that for a month? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Of course, I also think the questions remain about whether or not the game is ever going to actually be in a launch state. But hey, assumptions were made in the premise.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): If you think that the studio is going to change up what’s been working fabulously for the team so far, you have to be crazy. I’d say expect to see advance ship sales continue, providing a lucrative and neverending stream of revenue. If the ships are released to the rest of the gaming public for in-game acquisition a few months down the line, I don’t see much in the way of complaints here.
Keeping those whales hooked and swimming after the game and studio is key, and Star Citizen surely has its fair share of them. Other than that, box sales (for both Squadron 42 and Star Citizen) will be a big one, as will DLC, microtransactions and macrotransactions, the inevitable lockboxes, and even an expansion on the current subscription plan that offers perks in exchange for regular funding. If that fails, there’s always the Kickstarter for Star Citizen 2! (What, too soon?)