Chris Roberts' Star Citizen is likely the most ambitious game currently in development with plans for a huge universe full of massive, fully modeled starships. This ambition, combined with over $90 million raised through crowdfunding has brought on an equally immense level of controversy. The controversy peaked Sunday with developer Cloud Imperium Games threatening a lawsuit against The Escapist for what it describes as an article that is "grossly negligent" with possible "malicious intent."
Things escalated last week when The Escapist published an article alleging Cloud Imperium Games blew through more than $82 million of their budget with little to show for it. The piece also allegedly reported that crowd-funding money was being spent on personal expenses for Christ Roberts and his wife, Sandi Gardiner, who is also Cloud Imperium's Marketing Director. The article largely relied on anonymous sources claiming to be ex-Cloud Imperium Games employees. It included accusations of racial and age discrimination practices by Gardiner, in addition to citing a general "toxic" workplace environment that included angry and vulgar emails.
In return, Roberts accused The Escapist of basing part of their article on anonymous reviews from job-seeking website, Glassdoor, and improperly vetting their anonymous sources that may have included collusion with Derek Smart, who has been a consistent vocal critic of Star Citizen and most recently published a lengthy article in September called Star Citizen – The Long Con. This post included the involvement of lawyers and claims of personal attacks made by Roberts.
Today, Roberts followed up with a letter sent to The Escapist threatening a lawsuit unless the games magazine and website retracts the original article, personally apologizes to Gardiner, publishes an apology, and launches an independent investigation into the publication of the article. Interestingly, Roberts' reasons behind the threatened lawsuit have nothing to do with claims of misuse of money obtained from crowdfunding or the non-delivery of the game still in production. Instead, it is focused on the allegations of racial and age discrimination.
It remains to be seen if a libel lawsuit by Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games will work in the case against The Escapist, if it is ever filed. Libel lawsuits are notoriously difficult to prove in court in the United States, as they require proof that the speaker knew the information to be false and that it caused injury to the subject of the alleged libel. The United Kingdom, where The Escapist and some of its writers are located, was looser with its libel laws until 2013, as the BBC reported. It now includes a "serious harm" threshold as well as a "public interest" exclusion, which may be applicable since this involves crowdfunding.
The controversy surrounding Star Citizen is a long and sordid one that includes accusations of misuse of money from crowdfunding, an overly ambitious game that will never see the light of day, and a "toxic work environment." It has also includes some of the most controversial personalities in the gaming industry such as Derek Smart of Battlecruiser 3000 A.D. fame. His game had the same sort of space sim ambition as Star Citizen when released by Take-Two Interactive in the mid-90s, but it was released in such a buggy state that it caused one of the largest flame wars in Internet history, which spanned years, and has unfortunately been lost to the dustbins of the Internet and Usenet. There is a still humorous summary of the events shared in this Google Groups post.
The current state of Star Citizen is that it is a game coming up on a one year delay from its original planned launch of the Squadron 42 campaign. The Arena Commander multiplayer module is currently the only thing playable along with some of the promised ships that players can purchase.
I've stayed a mildly interested observer through all the drama, as I've never had a dog in the fight beyond nostalgic memories of Roberts' Wing Commander franchise during his time at Origin. I've not supported the Star Citizen crowdfunding effort and have been amused at supporters and detractors as crowdfunding games largely falls under the classic Latin phrase, "caveat emptor" or "Let the buyer beware."
Star Citizen has turned into a sordid affair, as far as video games go, with both the pro and anti sides turning increasingly personal. It is perhaps an even crazier controversy than the bankruptcy of Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, which was developing a MMORPG to compete with World of Warcraft on the back of a $75 million Rhode Island loan guarantee. We will have to see how the direction of Star Citizen shapes up over the course of the next year.
[Images via Star Citizen]