Hello my name’s Matt and this is Pixel Burn, your guide to clusterfuck games industry legal drama.
It all began with the drama storm that kicked-off at the beginning of October regarding Star Citizen, the insanely ambitious space-everything sim from Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games. In this article in The Escapist written by Lizzy Finnegan, nine people claiming to be current and former employees of Cloud Imperium games alleged, under condition of anonimity, that Star Citizen was in a spot of financial stellar turbulence having burned through $82 million of the $90 million dollars it raised via crowdfunding.
A total higher than the development costs of The Witcher 3’s $82 Million dollars and Metal Gear Solid V’s reported $85 million dollars.
And $39 million of which made Star Citizen the Guiness World Record-holder for most crowdfunded project.
Star Citizen’s goals are far wilder than The Witcher 3’s or Metal Gear Solid V’s however, promising – in Chris Roberts’ own words, “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 apparently with no loading screens and “Triple-A first person fidelity” that cannot be achieved on next gen consoles.
Which to me seems crazily ambitious for a budget of “only” $90 million dollars, but then perhaps with some very tight planning it could be done. Star Citizen’s backers certainly seem to think so.
According to The Escapist’s anonymous sources however, most of Star Citizen’s budget is alleged to have been spent irresponsibly, with complete portions of the game stripped down and entirely redone with little to nothing extra to show for it. Cloud Imperium Games was also, allegedly, hiring big-name Hollywood actors just to do voice overs for commercials. These sources also claimed that because Chris Roberts hasn’t made a game since Freelancer 12 years ago, he has no concept of what can and can’t be done, and was actively ignoring the input of people with more recent long-term industry experience. These supposed ex-employees also alleged that Chris Roberts’ wife, Sandi Gardiner, misappropriated company funds, engaged in racially discriminatory hiring practices, and created a toxic work climate in which employees were afraid of speaking up, for fear of being shouted-down, berated and insulted.
None of these claims have been conclusively proven, for the record. Exaggerated or otherwise these WERE only allegations, nothing more, and there was no smoking gun like video or photographic evidence to lend these claims any real weight.
Aside from the very serious claims of racism in Cloud Imperium Games’ hiring policies however, most of the allegations in Lizzy’s article were almost exactly the sort you’d see in articles like this one by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, about Florida based game studio Trendy Entertainment. Much like The Escapist’s article it sources several former and current employees, all with a possible axe to grind, and who were known to the author but spoke under condition of anonimity. Schreier’s article also alleges discriminatory hiring policies – albeit sexist ones, rather than racist ones – a dictatorial management and a toxic work environment in which people were too afraid to speak out.
And yet despite these incredible similarities, Jason Schreier has called The Escapist’s article “one of the most disgusting pieces of reporting he’s ever seen.”
But perhaps he’s just jealous of the response The Escapist’s piece garnered compared to his own. That response being scores of overwhelmingly negative comments from some of Star Citizen’s most emotionally-invested fans. And most financially-invested as well, some to the tune of $18,000 dollars.
Yes, you heard me correctly there. One of the reward tiers for Star Citizen is a completionist bundle containing in-game ships and other goodies, that costs a cool eighteen-grand.
Blimey! The most I’ve ever chucked into crowdfunding campaigns was about £20 a time for Satellite Reign and Prison Architect. But then I’ve never been compelled to write entire litanies defending those games on the comments sections of various gaming news sites.
I also got two actually finished games out of it
Star Citizen meanwhile is still in what can charitably be called a “pre-alpha” state, existing as little more than a disparate handful of separate glorified CryEngine mods tenuously connected by silly string and sellotape. Very pretty-looking, admittedly, but still a long way from being a cohesive, unified gaming experience, rough-around-the-edges or otherwise.
It’s fans still love it though, particularly the rabid mad-as-a-sack-of-badgers contingent that descend like a swarm of locusts upon anything it perceives as criticism. And reading some of their comments on Lizzy’s article in The Escapist has been…well…
A bit like falling through a wormhole into a parallel universe where the laws of physics are comprised entirely of Insanity, Hysteria and Denial. A theoretical “Madspace” where there is no game but Star Citizen, Chris Roberts is its Messiah, anyone who dares to criticise either is a vile heretic, and Derek Smart is apparently some sort of giant cosmic Space Satan.
Wait, Derek Smart?
“Battlecruiser 3000AD” Derek Smart?
Yep, the one and only Dr Mr Derek Smart PHD, designer of Battlecruiser 3000AD and one-time scourge of Usenet, back in the days when you could say “Information Super Highway” without everyone laughing in your face. Derek was so notorious for picking fights with strangers in various Usenet newsgroups that he became something of a proto-internet urban legend: people would joke that if you said his name three times he would magically appear. Rather like the Candyman, only instead of disembowelling you with a meat hook he writes a whopping great essay calling you a dickhead.
It’s nothing more than a silly legend of course, as I shall now demonstate.
Derek Smart. Derek Smart. Derek Smart. See? There you go! Nothing. Myth busted.
For the poor, sweet summer children among you all, Derek Smart’s Battlecruiser 3000AD was an ambitious space sim released in 1996, and which promised players a vast living open universe to romp around in. It was going to have lots of different ship-types to pilot, the ability to land on planets and space stations, ground combat sections, a trading system, and be playable online with real people from around the world.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar to you.
To cut a long story short, Battlecruiser 3000AD wound up being a buggy, broken piece of wank that promised way more than it could ever deliver, and what it DID deliver was mediocre at best. It also had some absolutely godawful advertising. Which would go some way to explaining why Derek Smart might hold a grudge towards Star Citizen. It’s like how Captain Ahab might have reacted to somebody with a Naval Destroyer gunning for his white whale.
Derek Smart has been one of, if not THE most outspoken critic of Star Citizen, in a campaign of blogs and tweets that could be likened to a vendetta if that word didn’t seem like such an understatement. Smart has been actively and aggresively waging a one-man campaign against Star Citizen for several months, supposedly out of concern for the game’s backers whom he believes – truly or otherwise – are being taken for a ride. To this end he has regularly questioned Cloud Imperium Games’ financial transparency, while claiming to have sources within the company supplying him with information.
Sources who supposedly leaked to Derek an internal memo strongly criticising the way the project was being managed, written by former Cloud Imperium Games character artist David Jennison. According to Jennison:
“Instead of articulating the standard for approval and allowing the team to develop the best methods to meet this bar, roberts dictates what the method is, usually with a fraction of the knowledge that the employee has over their particular field. Then, when the plan or method fails to produce the results chris roberts wants, the employee inevitably takes the blame. After all they are responsible for their corner of the game.”
“The results so far have been disastrous, rife with perpetual rework, wasted time, and mass frustration. No one can buy into chris roberts’ artistic vision because no one, including chris roberts, seems to know what it is.”
At least two gaming news sites – PC Powerplay and Games On.Net – claim Jennison contacted them to confirm the letter was genuine, athough not intended for circulation outside of the company.
Now most sensible people would take Derek Smart’s claims with a pinch of salt. The fact he was correct about a letter from a former employee doesn’t mean his other claims are equally true. After all, even a broken clock can sometimes find an acorn.
Not the fanatical contingent of Star Citizen fans though, oh no, they’re gleefully balls-deep in bonkers conspiratorial thinking. To them any and all negative press about the game can be pinned entirely on Derek Smart, as if he were the secret chief of some Anti-Star Citizen Illuminati rather than just a shouty man on the internet.
An Illuminati that apparently also includes Lizzy Finnegan, author of The Escapist article, for the simple reason that Derek follows her on Twitter. Lizzy has also been accused of everything from parroting entire chunks of Derek’s own blogs to scraping anonymous comments posted on Glassdoor.com, a website where people can post reviews of their current or former employers. Some Star Citizen fans have even gone so far as to claim Lizzy’s sources for the article were all entirely Derek Smart himself, presumably wearing various different hats and comedy moustaches to disguise himself.
This same conspiratorial worldview is also used to dismiss any other source of criticism. Former employees complaining about working conditions at Cloud Imperium Games? They either don’t exist or they’re all secretly servants of the Great Satan Derek. Message board comments from anonymous internet people that don’t sing the praises of Chris Roberts? It’s Derek with sock puppets! And if Star Citizen backer donations start slowing down anytime soon then OBVIOUSLY it’ll be because Derek Smart is manipulating the global economy. Somehow.
This barmy vocal minority of the otherwise sane, well-adjusted Star Citizen fanbase aren’t the only ones who sincerely believe Derek Smart is Chris Roberts’ Satanic nemesis. Chris Roberts himself believes it too.
The Escapist had contacted Roberts before their article was due to be published, offering him a window 24 hours to provide his side of the story. Roberts did so with three hours to spare but his 5700-word retort wound up inside a spam folder, due to an alleged email error, where it lay undiscovered for an entire day. Roberts then posted his reply in its entirety on the Star Citizen website, shortly before The Escapist had finished incorporating it into their existing article.
Roberts’ response is an emotive screed of over 5700 words in which Derek Smart is mentioned 22 times, an average of once per paragraph, and simultaneously depicted as a screaming crazy man of no importance yet also, somehow, one of the single biggest threats to Cloud Imperium Games. In fact half the reply is dedicated to Smart, mostly reiterating his history of being an egotistical dick while also accusing him of seeking to “destroy the dreams of almost a million people” with a campaign of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
Meanwhile Lizzy Finnegan is again accused of copying her article wholesale from Smart’s blogs. Roberts also brings up her history with the GamerGate movement as a means to accuse The Escapist of engaging in unethical journalism, while also demanding to know who her sources were.
Which was rather confusing for me because I’ve always thought a good journalist protects their sources. I guess I was wrong.
Pfft, look at Woodward & Bernstein here! Refusing to identify their secret FBI source because of some silly “Journalistic Privilege” nonsense. What a pair of hacks! Real journos throw their sources under a bus the first chance they get!
But all Woodward and Bernstein did was take down a US president. Videogames on the other hand are a much more serious matter.
The Escapist, after updating their existing article with some of Roberts’ comments, responded with a follow-up article outlining their journalistic procedure. Of the nine sources that approached The Escapist, seven were validated as former employees of Cloud Imperium Games through phone calls, The Escapist’s legal department, Skype chats, paystubs and other evidence. One supposedly did not give his real name but showed a Cloud Imperium Games ID card with the name blacked out.
Except Cloud Imperium Games insist they don’t USE employee ID cards, and the only cards they issue are generic door security ones. So that’s one source discredited. Only six more to go.
Although in journalism it’s generally accepted that if you can get two people on the record saying the same thing, or at least three anonymous people saying the same thing, then the information is okay to run.
Much like Jason Schreier did for his article on Kotaku about Trendy Entertainment.
The Escapist also stated that none of their sources were Derek the Carpathian, Scourge of Usenet, Sorrow of Star Citizen, on a Mountain of Skulls in a Castle of Pain where he sat on a Throne of Blood.
Cloud Imperium Games then responded to The Escapist’s follow-up article with this long, somewhat rambling letter from co-founder, Vice Chairman and lawyer-in-residence Ortwin Freyermuth – yes, that is the real name of a real person, and not a fictional character from a Philip K Dick novel – threatening legal action for what he called The Escapist’s “highly slanderous” article.
Now I’m not a lawyer but isn’t it technically libel, not slander?
Ortwin and Cloud Imperium Games demanded a personal apology to Sandy Gardiner, that said apology be published on the Escapist’s website together with a retraction of the article, and that the circumstances surrounding the article’s publication be investigated by a neutral third-party. Otherwise they would file for defamation in both the United States and the UK.
UK libel laws are notorious for being heavily slanted in favour of the plaintiff. However, the US SPEECH act passed in 2010 means UK libel judgements only apply to the US if the defendant would’ve also been found guilty under US defamation law. You’d think Ortwin would know that, him being a lawyer and all.
In response to this The Escapist has refused to back down, declaring they stands by their coverage of Star Citizen and intend to continue investigating. The Escapist also claims they’ve since been contacted by, and are currently interviewing, additional sources that supposedly corroborate many of the allegations made in the article.
If all this has left your head spinning like a Starfighter in freefall, welcome to the club. I’ve spent two weeks looking into this and I’ve barely scratched the surface, although it gets simpler from hereon out. Both sides will either go to court and hash it out in public, or they quietly back down and never speak of it again.
In the meantime it’s left us with interesting things to discuss, like the ramifications of a 90 million dollar crowdfunded project potentially failing. I’m not saying Star Citizen is guaranteed to fail, but it’s not guaranteed to succeed either. Especially when the project is led by someone that hasn’t made a game in 12 years and whose Hollywood career went ultimately nowhere.
I’m also concerned by how the more-rabid Star Citizen fans dogpile anybody that doesn’t praise the game like it’s the second coming of Jesus. Are they really so insecure about it that they feel they must attack anyone who expresses evem the tiniest smidgen of doubt?
And while it’s none of my business how other people spend their own money, even I can’t help but be a little concerned by the emotive way Cloud Imperium Games encourages people to pledge to it. In fact its use of the word “pledge” feels uncomfortably close to televangelists who preach about “seed faith”, only instead of giving money to secure a place in Heaven it’s giving money to secure a future for a bunch of pixels in virtual space. Pledge also brings to mind the idea of telethons and giving to a charity, which Cloud Imperium Games most certainly isn’t. It’s a business, and the goal of a business is to make money. Finally there’s the precedent that might be set if, – IF – Star Citizen fails, and its ramifications for crowdfunding. A project of this magnitude and budget going tits-up will make people more cautious about backing other crowdfunding campaigns in the future. Conversely there’s the precedent that might be set if it actually succeeds: publishers already do their damndest to sell you pieces of a game before the game is even out. You can bet your backside they’re even now looking at how people are spanking 18 grand on virtual spaceships and wondering to themselves “how can we get in on that?”
For the record I absolutely adore space sims, and it actually saddens me that I don’t have as much time to play them as I used to. I’d love nothing more than for Star Citizen to be released and deliver on a decent number of its promises. I don’t expect it to deliver on all of them of course, but only because this is the videogame industry and I consider myself a realist, not because I secretly despise Chris Roberts with the fury of a thousand suns. The more space-sims the better! Even if I never get to play any of them.
Although none of what I just said will deter the bonkers minority of Star Citizen fans itching to accuse me of membership in Derek Smart’s Secret Cabal of Evil, or of hating a game I have no emotional or financial investment in.
Fortunately I’m well-prepared for such an eventuality. Any crazy fans that do emerge from Madspace to shriek at at me will witness the firepower of my fully-armed and operational Sense Of Not Giving a Fuck. Fire at will, commander.
That’s all for this episode of Pixel Burn. If you still liked it then please let me know by clicking the button down below, and let your friends, family and the Kilrathi Empire know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable. In the meantime, until next week, as always, you can go now.