http://www.escapistmagazine.com/art...alk-Star-Citizen-and-the-State-of-the-CompanyFollowing 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."
"FOLLOW THE MONEY."
This statement was the common thread that linked all of the sources who reached out together. They truly wanted me to follow the money - a feat not easily accomplished. Multiple sources from within the company stated that the Pacific Palisades mansion that Chris Roberts shares with Sandi Gardiner is being paid for with funds from the company, along with the couple's personal vehicles and personal vacations.
CS5 stated that Gardiner would be out of the country on vacation or auditioning for movie or television roles, allegedly paid for with company money, but would post images of the office - taken by another employee - to make it appear as though she was at work. Multiple sources confided that several videos were filmed using company resources and employees, both in Cloud Imperium Games' offices and in the couple's home.
"No crowdfunding monies are used for any private purposes - these allegations are completely false and defamatory," Roberts stated. "This is pure innuendo for nefarious purposes and I guarantee that anyone making this claim will be unable to show any proof of it as it simply hasn't happened. Ever since Wing Commander came out I've been lucky enough to be financially independent, driven nice cars and lived in nice houses. That's due to money earned through royalties, the sale of Origin to Electronic Arts, Digital Anvil to Microsoft and prudent investing. So why are people making a deal about me having these things now? I also find the continued attack on Sandi fairly alarming. Why is she being singled out? Because she's my wife? A woman? Yes, she's also an actress and there's nothing wrong with her also engaging in one of her passions after hours or outside of work. We let employees play games of D&D in our conference room in the evenings or weekends."
Tales of first class travels, lavish lifestyles, and seven figure combined annual salaries were near-universally reported. Several sources pointed to one concrete example of potential fund mismanagement, however, and statements from both Cloud Imperium Games and their partner, Turbulent, appear to add some level of credibility to the claim.
In February 2013, an announcement on the Roberts Space Industries website detailed the start of the partnership with Turbulent. "We've partnered with Turbulent, an excellent large-scale web development team in Montreal to develop a new, much more elegant back-end architecture that can easily flex to accommodate our comprehensive requirements," the announcement reads. "Every process is going to be redesigned to work the way it should in order for the site to seamlessly intertwine with Star Citizen exactly the way we envision, rather than hacking our way around a pre-packaged solution."
The statement went on to detail the changes that would be made to the existing website's layout and features, user interface, and forums, with the tradeoff being "more time." One thing not mentioned in the detailing of the remodel and partnership at this time, however, was an investment in the development of a crowdfunding platform.
CS7 indicated that Cloud Imperium Games Montreal entered into a joint venture partnership with Turbulent to continue to develop and sell the crowdfunding platform that was built for Star Citizen to other companies - and that backer money was being used for this project. HEAP C3MS is described as "the first platform to combine content, community, and commerce within one integrated platform," and was used for the design of the RSI website.
"We thank Cloud Imperium Games for taking a risk with us and for contributing conceptually and commercially..."
After Star Citizen's crowdfunding campaign was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the "Most Crowdfunded Project (Overall)," Turbulent released a statement on their website. In this statement Marc Beaudet, CEO of Turbulent, wrote "We thank Cloud Imperium Games for taking a risk with us and for contributing conceptually and commercially to making HEAP C3MS fantastic for content monetization."
"The opposite is true," Roberts says. "CIG benefited from pre-existing software that Turbulent had developed. Our JV with them allowed us access to cheaper rates and bound an important part of Star Citizen closer to CIG, which are both beneficial to CIG and the backers. Per our agreement Turbulent is of course free to offer their technology to other customers."
Other sources expressed concern over what they call "irresponsible spending." Complete portions of the game have been stripped down and entirely redone, utilizing extra time and resources, and often with minimal or no reward. The company also allegedly hired "big-name Hollywood actors" to do voice-overs for commercials. "This isn't going to make the game better. This is throwing away money because, deep down, Chris Roberts wants to make movies," CS5 stated. "He failed in Hollywood, but he never made peace with that."
"He failed in Hollywood, but he never made peace with that."
An all-star Hollywood cast has also been slated for the game itself, a claim that has been confirmed in a recent interview Develop had with Roberts. "We have a top-level movie cast more than any game that's been out there, period, by a long way," he said. "So I cast it like I did my movies. It's acted like the movies. We have the full performance capture, we're pushing the tech as much as possible." Roberts also indicated that four months were spent filming performance capture with this all-star Hollywood cast, at a cost that several employees anticipate being astronomical.
"Where does this come from? Has anyone given you examples of "big name" actors or numbers? It's completely incorrect - we paid appropriate rates for normal VO work for the commercials," Roberts says. "Now for Squadron 42 we do have a really great cast, which we will announce in a week from Saturday, but that was one of our stretch goals so it would be a bit rich to accuse us of mismanagement there!
"Squadron 42 will feature celebrity voice-acting including at least one favorite from Wing Commander."
"THE COMPANY IS BLEEDING BOTH MONEY AND EMPLOYEES."
Several different sources have indicated that the company has already used the majority of its funding, but not much has been created to show for it. The number most often received from people has indicated that, currently, the company has less than $8 million of what was raised from the crowdfunding efforts left - a number that several employees have stated is "common knowledge" within the company - although it is important to note that pledges are still being accepted for Star Citizen through the RSI website, with game packages and merchandise available to purchase.
"They've spent $82 million dollars, and what is there to show for that? There's a demo, a racing demo, a single first person shooter level, and an area where you can walk around. For $82 million," CS2 stated. Most of the sources feel this is the reason for continued fundraising through the website - to "extend the dream" for as long as possible. They also feel this is the motivation behind the inflated pricing on digital products that, at this moment, allegedly don't exist.
"Anybody even with minimal knowledge about game development can assess the significant progress by looking at the released modules and the detailed monthly reports from each development studio," Roberts said. "We have a massive team, working flat out to build something special for everybody. We feel like we've made huge strides and have completed a good portion of the underlying technology that will enable us to make Star Citizen the game that your sources say can't be made."
The most expensive package on the website, weighing in at a whopping $15,000, allows a player to use "all ships announced up to 2014, plus a couple 2015 Concepts." The package also "comes loaded" with Hangar decorations and 20,000 UEC starting money for the game launch. The newest ship pack, revealed on Sept. 30, costs $900 dollars. I personally do not consider a space sim to be the type of game I would typically turn to, and therefore asked a source whether such pricing is typical for unlocking in-game material. "They're charging more for packages than for the game itself. That's pretty unorthodox," I was told. Then again, Roberts previously revealed that a single complete ship was costing anywhere from $35,000 to $150,000 to complete.
"Personally, I felt like the company was understaffed for what they were trying to do," CS3 stated. "Building these spaceships - every ship is equivalent of a game level. They're supposed to be something where you can examine the entire outside, and then go inside and walk around the entire inside. And that's a huge amount of work. And they had just a handful of people working on this."
"The firings are both saving and costing money," CS6 said. "The money is running out and they're cutting wherever they can - but they're cutting people, not frills. Chris Roberts wants a certain game - practically a movie - and doesn't want to compromise on anything but staff. "He's letting go people (sic) necessary to complete the game, but then wants to hire a professional linguist to create three brand new alien languages. He's making this entire project impossible," CS3 added.
"In every project I've done and others I've witnessed it's a very common tendency for people to want more staff to help finish the job," Roberts responded. "It's always that way until the game is finally done. Under Erin's leadership at head of Global Production we've re-organized to make things more efficient (which is really what started this flap in the first place) and we are in a hiring mode (which you can see by our open positions) which shows that we are working to address these concerns. We have ten confirmed new hires that will start this month alone and offers out to several more candidates."
It has been indicated that nearly the entire character development team in the UK office quit within a four month period - including global character lead Andy Matthew, Senior Character Artist Seth Nash, and several character designers - and that Star Citizen currently does not have any full character builds complete.
Roberts responded, saying "You've been able to walk around your hangar since August of 2013. I'm pretty sure that was a complete character walking around rather than a mass hallucination. We have multiple characters in the game and are working on a lot more (of which some will be seen at Citizen Con)."
Sources have also indicated that the Austin office is, in fact, closing - despite CIG's claims that this is untrue. This is allegedly being done in the form of gradual layoffs, despite the fact that the office was guaranteed by CIG as the $11 million stretch goal.
To this, Roberts asserts "This is completely false. We've actually made public statements to this fact. All Austin employees have been advised of a fairly minimal restructuring where some roles have been moved to LA or Europe for overall team efficiency. The majority of our Texas employees will remain in the Austin studio (indefinitely, by the way). As I've mentioned previously we are actually increasing our worldwide headcount in order to complete the game as effectively as possible. I would hope that the backers want us to be constantly trying to increase efficiency and making the hard choices that will benefit the game."
"WE WERE MAKING COMMERCIALS. WE WEREN'T MAKING A GAME. "
"It wasn't about making a game. it was about a flashy demo for Gamescom, or PAX, or the next commercial."
The most common issue people discussed, second only to tales of workplace improprieties, was the lack of progress that Star Citizen has seen. Three former employees, who voluntarily quit for a myriad of reasons, echoed this sentiment, stating that they felt they were spending more time creating material for cons and fundraising than creating any material for gameplay.
"The thing I noticed when I started was that we were making commercials. We weren't making a game," CS2 said. "It was all about what was on the screen behind [Roberts] during the presentation."
"A lot of people would be like "Where's the game? When is this going to turn into a game?" CS3 added. "It was all about making pretty spaceships and brochures and commercials and hiring big name Hollywood actors to do voice-overs for the commercials. We were never working on a game."
"We were always building towards the next event," CS4 stated. "It wasn't about making a game. it was about a flashy demo for Gamescom, or PAX, or the next commercial. It never felt like they were trying to make a game, as much as digital spaceships to sell."
"I don't know how someone could say with a straight face that they felt "they were making commercials, not a game." In fact we haven't had a ship commercial since last year," Roberts wrote in response. "As an aside the commercials were used as a fun milestone to make sure everyone got the ship to final game quality, and it focused the artists on finishing the work for public consumption, which in turn helps with getting more final assets in the game sooner. It was also a great way to build the lore of the universe of Star Citizen up, which is a universe we intend to continue to expand for many years to come."
One former employee compared the campaign for Star Citizen to the back of a book.
"You pick up a book, and what's the first thing you do? You read the back. The back is the best part of the book, because you can project what your experience is going to be. And usually the book isn't as good as what you imagine it will be," CS2 said. "With [Roberts], it would be, like, 'look at these beautiful renders of characters, and of this spaceship.' But none of it was real. He shows some artwork, and then people project what their experience is going to be. Like the back of a book."
"HE WANTS THE GAME TO BE EVERYTHING TO EVERYBODY.
AND NOW IT'S NOTHING TO NOBODY."
"You have to ask 'at what point are you taking advantage of someone?' There's a certain responsibility."
There was a grim and near-universal feeling of guilt that almost all of the people who spoke out shared. "You have to ask 'at what point are you taking advantage of someone?' There's a certain responsibility," CS3 said in regards to the backers who have contributed large sums of money. "Like, I felt like we should have gone to their homes and made sure their kids were eating and dressed. It starts to feel like a gambling addiction after a certain point. It was hard not to feel guilty."
"Fans would come into the studio, and I wanted to be like 'Dude, run. Take your money and run.' I felt like I was part of a con," CS2 added. "This could really severely damage crowdfunding, at least for games. Who's going to want to do that again? People will look at everything and think 'but what if it's another Star Citizen?'"
"This is the statement that really makes my blood boil," Roberts says of the comment 'I felt like I was part of a con.' "If any current employee feels this way they should not be working on Star Citizen or at CIG! I suspect these are the words of a few bitter ex-employees trying to stir trouble but I consider it a privilege and an honor to have so many people support myself and the team in making the game of all our dreams. I have nothing but gratitude to our backers for their support and patience and nothing but respect for the CIG team giving their all to make this game. Anyone who doesn't feel this is welcome to the door, and as you must now realize there have been a few people who haven't shared the same passion or love and now resent being called out for it."
Some expressed concerns that Star Citizen became more about the crowdfunding than the actual project. "With Star Citizen, the metric is how much money you've made, not what you've done with that money," CS1 stated.
"It's about making a great game," Roberts replied. "Crowd funding is just a tool that allows us to do it with freedom that you would not normally have with a traditional publisher. So no it's always about the game."
One source compared Roberts to Donald Trump, saying "the value he puts on people is how much they agree with him. The more you say yes, the better you do." The widespread belief among everyone I spoke with is that Chris Roberts is a true visionary - but not a true leader. Chris Roberts has a vision, but people say he can neither articulate nor deliver the vision.
Whether or not a game will come out is a topic of debate, and the only point none of the sources were able to agree on.
"I just really don't see (CIG) coming out with anything as they are. They need to be bailed out."
"I'm guessing something will come out," CS3 said. "What format or who will publish it, I don't know. I think it's unlikely that CIG will put something out. They will be bought, or some angel investor will come in. I just really don't see them coming out with anything as they are. They need to be bailed out."
"Games are made like houses. You want to make the foundation first and the wallpaper last. With Chris Roberts, everything is the wallpaper," CS2 added. "I think there will be a game. But it will be a shell of what was promised."
"There won't be a game. It's not going to happen. But then again, I am a pessimist," CS5 chimed in. "The entire production process is circular. You spend six months proving that what you said wouldn't work won't work. There is no progress happening."
"Chris Roberts thinks he's George Lucas. He thinks he's a genius," CS2 asserted. "He's a fraud, pure and simple. If he was just a salesman, or he worked in marketing, or he was answering to a producer, he would do well. But the emperor wears no clothes. Anybody who has worked with him will tell you the same thing. The difference is that lots of people have a dream, but only some can communicate it. I don't think he's sinister, or a bad person. He's Donald Trump. He thinks that if he wants to do something, he can. Because he's Chris Roberts."
"I'll put my 261, their passion and energy against the complaints of a few disgruntled ex-employees any day," Roberts said. "We have backers visit the offices all the time, they all come away with the same impression - that the entire team is dedicated to making the best game possible."