Massively Overthinking: The Star Citizen money machine

It's like three games for the price of... well, actually, it's two games now.

Massively OP reader Ichi has posed us an interesting question. At the end of 2015, a lot of gamers, including some of our own writers, said they expected Star Citizen’s funding to slow way down. Massively OP’s Brendan Drain argued quite convincingly that he expected the 100 million mark to be a sort of mental hurdle for backers.

“Pledges have slowed down dramatically throughout this past year and were given the final push to 100m by a combination of factors including the Alpha 2.0 reveals at CitizenCon, the [Internet Warlord] drama, and a series of aggressive sales and marketing pushes,” he wrote in early December. “People also have a strong psychological attraction to round numbers, so there’s been a lot of organic movement within the community to help it hit the 100 million mark and we won’t see that same fervor in the future. If we go by the current development schedule, I would expect passive organic growth will push it to 105 million by launch, and with aggressive enough marketing it could top out at 120-125 million.”

A few months later, the game’s crowdfunding tally sits over $108 million (trigger warning: sweet, sweet spreadsheet porn), and it’s just split into two different crowdfunding packages. So what’s going on here? Is it slowing down? Why is this thing still making so much money? Is it brilliant marketing, actual quality, or as Ichi put it, some sort of mass hysteria? I posed these questions to the Massively OP writers for this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I can’t ignore Star Citizen (even the BBC can’t ignore it!), but beyond headlines, it’s too big for me to get hyped over. Any headlines about SC and money become, “Star Citizen is $X closer to becoming recognized as a small, digital country!”

The reason it’s still making money is that it’s huge. It’s a small planet that generates its own monetary form of gravity. It’s “too big to fail.” I haven’t invested any money in it (yet), and I’ve only briefly experienced parts of the game I’m not very good at (flight sims), but even I’m curious to try the finished product. I never even played any of Chris Roberts’ old games and only really played Rogue Squadron for the N64, so I’m hardly a huge fan of the genre.

For me, as both a fan and press, it’s not so much about marketing. I don’t hear much, though I know there are blog updates for those watching. Heck, I even once contacted Cloud Imperium to make sure I was still on their mailing list, as I hadn’t heard anything from them in ages. No, without a doubt, it’s a community effort that keeps SC in the spotlight (even if a certain former member of that community is toxic). There’s so much enthusiasm, patience, and yes, money, that it’s hard to ignore them.

I also have to say that Roberts himself is incredibly good at pitching his game. He generally knows upcoming criticism before it leaves your mouth and has a response prepped, but more importantly, he knows how to pitch SC at angles for those outside the genre (and maybe the industry), and that’s a big deal. The fact that he’s also including a shooter and RP-bar as overlapping and (supposedly) independently enjoyable methods of gameplay in the same larger game world makes me feel like he wants to include everyone. It’s something I rarely find in the MMO sphere that’s largely about third-person combat being spread out between various group sizes of killing AI or killing other players, sometimes while there’s also AI, and that makes the game even harder to ignore.

Star Citizen

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): We had this argument in the comments of the predictions article at the time, and it turns out I was actually wrong about pledges slowing down dramatically throughout 2015. The graphs actually showed a consistent 30 million per year revenue for the past three years, and if that trend continues and we don’t get a major release, then this year should end at 130 million or so. My main argument still stands, though: The level of marketing required in order to hit that 30 million revenue mark had definitely increased each year. As I said at the time, it appears from the graphs that revenue and new signups were much spikier over 2015, with fewer day-to-day sales than in 2014 but bigger spikes during concept sales and heavy marketing periods.

In short, a greater percentage of revenue in 2015 was precipitated by marketing and PR than by organic growth, which means that organic growth was definitely slowing by the end of 2015. This indicates that the market for Star Citizen in its pre-alpha form was starting to reach a saturation point. Carrying that trend forward throughout 2016, I predicted that either total funding will slow down due to this saturation, total marketing efforts would increase to compensate for the saturation, or the product itself would change enough to tap into a wider audience and so increase organic sales again. In my original prediction, I underestimated the third of those effects as I failed to consider that public Alpha 2.0 access could be such a transformative event for the product.

Since I made that prediction on December 10th, we’ve seen the second and third of these predicted effects in action. The holiday holiday sale and livestream at the end of 2015 made several million dollars, and January and February have seen incredibly good organic growth again. This is likely because of the release of Alpha 2.0 to all backers, which resulted in a huge spate of people making YouTube videos and streams that act as organic marketing. As long as SC releases something considerably more complete during this year and makes a lot of media noise about it, there’s no reason that this new trend can’t continue. There are a lot of people out there waiting for Star Citizen to be more complete before they buy in, and attracting some of them should be a cost-effective revenue generator that would allow SC to hit its usual 30 million per year target or even exceed it.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Brendan’s number analysis is dead-on, so I won’t rehash that part. I don’t think it’s some form of sustained mass hysteria (just the opposite with all the hipsters throwing shade all the time). And it’s certainly not a product of overt advertising; Star Citizen doesn’t advertise and seldom reaches out to media. It has, however, hit key self-promotion marks in the form of free-fly periods and an exhausting stream of weekly behind-the-scenes information that keeps the game constantly in the news, independent of the toxic elements. The Squadron 42 split no doubt propelled sales too. Like Brendan, I suspect that the cost of that type of marketing is not insignificant and appears to be increasing in conjunction with the game’s lengthening development period. Lucky for them, they can afford it.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Star Citizen’s endless hype train has a number of things going for it, really, and one of those things is the fact that it’s still not out. Small indeed are the number of people who can drop several thousand dollars on a game once, but it becomes a lot easier to justify tossing another $50 in the pot once per month if you’ve got the disposable income and the wish to do so.

And that’s part of what’s keeping it running; for better or for worse, the game has really positioned itself in an idealistic spot, a convenient anti-boogeyman on which aspirants can pin every individual hope that they want. With the game still very much in a state of flux, existing more as a set of design principles and ideals than an actual game for the players, it’s very easy to imagine that everything you want to see in the game will​ be there when it finally launches. If the game had opened up more of itself to testing earlier, I suspect it would have to more conclusively deal with the limitations of being an actual game rather than the hypothetical Perfect Game that it remains in theory. When faced with that idea, donating money becomes not just easy, but logical​.

This is where people like myself say that it’s not going to live up to the momentum that it’s generated – not that it’s going to be a bad game, necessarily, but that it can’t possibly live up to the fervor around the idea alone. I think the biggest thing that’s going to really slow its momentum (and has, to an extent) is a combination of the time between hearing about the idea and having that idea shaped into an actual game coupled with people actually playing the game and discovering that it may not, in fact, be perfect. While it remains an idea, it feels like putting more money in just means a better game in the end result, and so long as the game keeps feeling like something that’s just around the corner, it becomes easy to just toss a little more in this month because you’ll be getting all of your rewards very soon.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): It’s a dark and sinister cult and I totally feel left out of all of it just because I haven’t taken out a second mortgage on my home to buy one of these internet spaceships.

Seriously, I think Brendan’s analysis is spot-on, although we’ve also learned never to rule anything out when it comes to Star Citizen’s fundraising capacity. The future of the game’s fundraising might well be heavily influenced by how tight the financials are getting behind the scene; if RSI is in real trouble, it might start pushing aggressively once more instead of somewhat passively letting funds pour in.

Right in half.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I am going to flat out admit that I have no interest whatsoever in crunching through that spreadsheet. I really don’t care about the numbers. I predicted the game would make even more millions, and it has; I never really saw it stopping, though it makes sense that it would ease up a bit until the next new shiny is introduced.

OK, I peeked at it. It’s true there is a dip, but that doesn’t mean it is slowing. I wouldn’t even venture to suggest that until there are maybe four low months in a row. I think the game continues to draw in funds because it is filling a void that so many want filled, between sandbox and space and super cool stuff. I am, however, curious to see how the split into two games affects things. It has the potential of bringing in even more when you add people who didn’t really want to bother with an MMO but are eager for the goodness that Squadron 42 is shaping up to be. Great, now that I have seen that spreadsheet I am going to want to keep watching it! Thanks a lot, Bree!

Patreon Donor Archebius: O great Star Citizen, the Unassessably Wealthy! I think that everyone was right to predict that funding would slow down dramatically; sure, the gaming community has been starved for a really good space sim for ages, but $100,000,0000 is an appropriate measure of our desire, right?

Apparently not.

I don’t think that this wallet-emptying spree is the result of actual quality that we’ve seen from the game; though the modules they’ve released so far are functional, I still don’t feel like it’s tying together into anything very satisfying as of yet. Mass hysteria is out; Star Citizen has been rolling on for way too long to chalk it up to temporary insanity.

Ultimately, it’s successful for the same reason that home gym systems, fiery politicians, and self-help books are perennial favorites: It’s more a reflection of what we want to believe is possible than what might actually be.

We want to pretend that Blizzard isn’t seriously looking into the mobile market. We want to believe that there’s still the potential for games out there that can surprise us and engage us, not copy-pasted franchise installments with one gimmicky mechanic to set them apart. We remember a time when we played games like Escape Velocity with branching storylines (!) and ships you manually outfitted (!!), when we first set foot in New Eden and grasped the size and scope of the universe, when we flipped through the galactic map in Mass Effect and read about all these worlds that existed out there, somewhere.

Wanderlust is a very real thing. It’s what drives us to explore, virtually or in reality, to seek new horizons and new stars. To find. To weave new stories. And lately, games have been more focused on getting us to play them, and keep playing them, than they have on creating a place worth our time.

Star Citizen isn’t just a game; it’s hope. Hope for an experience we haven’t had in a long time. Hope that we can feel again what we haven’t felt in years: something new, something to discover, something to explore. Something that, years from now, we’ll look back on and think, “Man, that game made me feel something I hadn’t since I was a kid.”

And apparently, you can’t put a price on that desire.

Your turn!


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