There’s a big, ugly controversy brewing right now that could only come out of the bickering, petty, lying, arrogant, me-centric video game industry. If you haven’t been keeping track, Star Citizen, the far-and-away most crowdfunded anything of all time, is up over 90 million US dollars in funding as of now. Holy bojangles that’s a fat load. So then why did The Escapist publish an article last Friday titled “Eject! Eject! Is Star Citizen Going to Crash and Burn?“? Well, because they started listening to the words of one Derek Smart, game industry veteran and legendary internet fight-picker. But now Chris Roberts, creator of Star Citizen, has released a statement of his own lambasting The Escapist and Smart to boot. So what is going on here between all these crazy rich people?
If you haven’t heard of Star Citizen before this, I’ll just say that it is likely the most ambitious gaming project every conceived. It’s creator, Chris Roberts, developed the Wing Commander series of games throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, and when he showed up on Kickstarter promising a new game with every conceivable gaming feature the human mind could conjure, his fans dropped a wad of cash the size of a small planet onto the project. But it didn’t stop there. The stretch goals just kept getting stretchier, and the money just kept rolling in through a post-Kickstarter funding campaign they ran through the game’s official website.
So it became HUGE, right? And what happens when something become huge? Well, especially in today’s landscape of ever-increasing crowdfunding disasters, there are going to be skeptics and detractors. So who appeared as the head of these naysayers? Why, well-known developer, forum-flamer and getter of goats, Derek Smart.
Who’s Derek Smart Again?
Derek Smart is, by his own words, “the the oldest living #indiedev fossil”. And though that is highly arguable, he did become well-known in the mid-90’s for a couple reasons. For one, his debut title Battlecruiser 3000AD, a game which he had been conceptualizing since the 80’s, went through a nearly unbelievable amount of rights exchanges and delays before finally being released in 1996. There were other problems as well, including a buggy initial release, and a lawsuit between Smart and publisher Take-Two Interactive. A flurry of hype had surrounded the game for much of its development time, so when it was released early and broken, a monsoon of derision descended onto Mr. Smart.
In today’s world of bug-tastic Early Access releases and with development hell becoming a standard pitstop for many game dev teams, none of this would raise too many eyebrows. But Derek made sure his name became known, but not for rising above the controversy, that’s for sure. Throughout the development and far after the release of Battlecruiser, Smart’s persona became forever linked to the intense flame wars that centered around him and his development progress on Usenet. He would take on anyone and everyone that raised a word against him and his creation, and gained a reputation as someone that would always make sure to have the last word. He became the premier whipping boy of the gaming industry in the 90’s and strife never failed to follow him to whichever corner of the internet he was found, and he made sure it stayed that way.
But I’m going to extend some sympathy here to D Smart, because he had a few reasons to be angry. He started designing Battlecruiser when he had nary an inkling as to how to design a game. He learned coding by himself and toiled away in his free time to create the project of his dreams. Sound familiar? It was the protozoic struggle of the indie game developer, back in a time where there was no community to support such an endeavor. Smart was forced to work with publishers in order to keep afloat while working on the game, but continuously left them when they wanted to tone down the ambitiousness or originality of his vision. And when the final publisher demanded he release the game—unfinished, buggy, without documentation—in order to meet a Christmas deadline, he was left angry and defeated. And everyone hated him for the product that was released.
How would you react if your perceived life’s work was released without your blessing, to be chided and ridiculed by the world? Yeah, probably not as badly as Derek Smart did. But, ya know ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So fastforwarding to the year 2015, Derek Smart released a string of blog posts criticizing Star Citizen for what he perceived as an impossible feat of game development, the online magazine The Escapist produced an article clumping together all of Smart’s railings for dissemination to a wider audience. These included questions about the allocation of funds, delays in the game’s release, changes to the format and features, silent changes to the Terms of Service agreement, and a general doubt in the ability to produce the game at all. And beyond that, the article states that Smart went on the offense, sending a letter to Cloud Imperium Games (Roberts’ development company) demanding a release date, refunds for anyone that wants one, and a “complete forensic accounting” procedure. It also threatens a class-action lawsuit if they don’t comply. Cloud Imperium responded by saying there was no legal grounds for such a suit, and then call into question how Smart drops the name of his current project repeatedly in his blogs against Star Citizen.
So far The Escapist’s role is fairly innocent in this whole ordeal, having only recapped the squabble between the two veteran game devs. But that changed yesterday when they went into full attack mode themselves and released the follow-up article “Star Citizen Employees Speak Out on Project Woes“. In it, they claim to have been contacted by several former and current employees, who basically talk mad shit about not only the company and project as a whole, but also Roberts himself. Here are a few doozies from this anonymous crew of disgruntlers.
He doesn’t set out in the morning to screw anybody over. He’s just incredibly arrogant.
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.
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.
About the vice president of Cloud Imperium and Roberts’ wife, Sandi 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.
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.
Whew! Highly personal stuff. But the drama doesn’t end there. Right before The Escapist was ready to blow the doors of Roberts and his project this second time, an email was sent to Roberts by Escapist senior editor John Keefer warning him of the aforementioned article’s impending release, and giving him an opportunity to respond to the allegations for inclusion in the article. In the name of jernalizm! But although it was a fair gesture, they gave him a very small window of time to respond, and made it clear they were dying to get this thing out. But Roberts did manage to respond with 3 hours to spare on the deadline… … … but they didn’t include anything from his response anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Supporters of Star Citizen were pissed and flipped out accordingly. In response, the article was amended heavily to include sections of Roberts’ response and the excuse that Roberts “did not include either the writer or the EiC (editor-in-chief)” in the response email which resulted in “the delayed additions”. I’m still not completely clear on what “did not include[…]” means in regards to the response email. The only thing that makes sense is that the writer and EiC were not included as recipients, but the way the email is printed directly from Roberts on his blog clearly shows John Keefer as the recipient. But that’s not official, so who knows. You can read Roberts’ full response along with a transcription of the original email asking for comment here.
So where does that leave us? I’m sure if you’ve made it this far with me, you’re likely deep into the “who gives a shit, these people are all nuts” zone. But I’d like to lay one last layer of blame upon all involved before you make up your mind.
Firstly, I think very little was done by The Escapist to rigorously fact-check these anonymous employees calling out their employer. In his response, Roberts points out that he has over 200 employees, and every company has disgruntled former workers. He makes a big point of emphasizing “former workers”, and one thing the Escapist article doesn’t do is say which of these sources are current or former employees. They only quoted 4 of the supposed 9 detractors, so these 4 could very well be the ones that were fired and are still mad about it. For a publication that has openly embraced GamerGate culture as much as they have, these articles sure do go against the group’s purported principles. It was clearly a sensationalist grab at viewers->advertisement revenue.
On the other hand, Derek Smart has at least one very good reason to call bullshit on the Star Citizen project, and that’s the fact that they changed their terms of service. Originally the company stated that if the product wasn’t released within one year past their release deadline (a deadline of their own making, mind you), backers would be allowed to request and receive a full refund. But when it became clear that their deadline was ridiculously inaccurate, they just changed the ToS. Not only did it get changed to 18 months past the deadline, but the deadline was pushed back from November 2014 to the end of 2016. Now, it’s not uncommon for a company to change their ToS, but when you’re changing a fundamental promise to your crowdfunding backers, a promise that was meant to engender trust in them, you’re basically saying “it don’t matter what we said, we’re gonna do whatever we damn well please!” These guys should go into politics, they’re naturals.
And lastly, let’s beat down on Mr. Smart, for old time’s sake. This is a man who went through a very hard stretch of his life at the hands of people telling him a) his dream was too ambitious and couldn’t be done b) he didn’t have the skills c) the delays were ridiculous d) he was a fraud. But he proved them wrong, eventually. So then why is the guy turning around and doing the same injustice to someone else just to get a few eyeballs on his blog? Hyp. O. Crite. The man has a hunch and he’s running with it because it’s getting him talked about. And though it’s possible he may be right in the end, I don’t think anyone can say for sure at this point. Let’s just hope he’s wrong for the sake of wishing good on the world rather than misfortune in the face of uncertainty.
I know you guys have opinions about this, so let me know in the comments. I tried to stay as neutral as I could, which was fairly easy considering I seriously have no idea who’s right or wrong on this one.