Star Citizen has been under fire lately for a number of unsubstantiated allegations regarding embezzlement, employee work conditions and the leadership of the project under developer Chris Roberts.
Things came to a head recently when an article was published on The Escapist on October 1st, 2015. The article contained quotes from former employees of Cloud Imperium Games who claimed that Star Citizen was a scam and that the project is not going well. The article caused a firestorm of discussion across the web, and the comments from those ex-employees even prompted Cloud Imperium Games to issue legal threats, along with demanding a retraction and an apology from The Escapist over publishing the piece, as reported by Forbes on October 4th, 2015.
Given all the heat surrounding the project, some of the employees of Cloud Imperium Games have been willing to discuss in public, and at great length, what the working conditions are at the studio as well as some of the concerns raised by the community and the media over the crowd-funded space simulator, Star Citizen — which has raised almost $90 million without the help of major publishers.
I managed to get in word with an employee of Cloud Imperium Games, Thomas Hennessy, after he made an impassioned post on Reddit back on October 1st defending the company and the project. You can check out the questions and Hennessy’s answers below.
One Angry Gamer: What exactly is your role at Cloud Imperium Games and how long have you been working on the project?
Thomas Hennessy: I am the Videographer. I am responsible for shooting all of our behind the scenes and community content, as well as producing the broadcasting of our major shows such as Gamescom and Citizencon. I have been involved with the project since spring of 2014. I am based out of our Santa Monica office, but also travel to our other studios to shoot behind the scenes and community content there as well.
One Angry Gamer: There are a lot of rumors about the lack of focus and organization at CIG and that the direction for Star Citizen keeps changing. In regards to the work that you do on the project, do you feel you have a solid direction on where the project is headed based on what you’re doing, or do you have to contend with working with different ideas in different directions on a regular basis?
Thomas Hennessy: Being involved in shooting BTS content gives me a chance to interact and follow what is going on with several different departments, and follow the workflow from one step to the next. Like any growing company, especially a startup like ours, that is growing as fast as we have, there will always be a certain modicum of change as we try to streamline and adapt policies and procedures that will make us more efficient and more productive, but through all that, Chris’ vision and the overall direction we are heading with the big picture has been consistent.
One Angry Gamer: I’m not really interested in the interpersonal matters between employees, which seemed to be brought up by some of the current or ex-employees mentioned in The Escapist piece. What did interest me is that some of these employees claimed to know what the budget burn was for the project and how much cash reserves CIG has left. Do the average employees working at Cloud Imperium Games have access to the accounting information? And even if they do have some rough information about the finances, do they know how much is being spent each month and what it’s being spent on?
Thomas Hennessy: Definitely not. The overall company finances are not shared or discussed with the employees, and I would imagine, that even if my coworkers and I were given access to some spreadsheets or EBITDA statement, we most definitely would not be qualified to analyze or judge what we were looking at. I imagine that the accounting for a global company of our size is pretty complicated.
One Angry Gamer: There seems to be a recurring complaint about Star Citizen: that the project is a “con” or a “scam” and that Chris Roberts will run off with the money. This was actually repeated by the ex/current employees from Cloud Imperium Games in the Escapist piece. Why is it, in your opinion, do you think those particular employees would call Star Citizen a “con” and are there still employees working at CIG who still believe that the entire project is some sort of long con?
Thomas Hennessy: I find this idea to be completely ludicrous. If Star Citizen is a con, it’s a pretty poor con. Having 260+ employees across the globe who are working on developing the game seems pretty counter-intuitive to running a con that doesn’t involve releasing a game. I can’t speak as to the mindset or motivations of former employees, but from a logic standpoint, the con argument doesn’t really hold up, at least in my opinion.
One Angry Gamer: Another one of the common issues brought up when people criticize Star Citizen and CIG, is that it’s bleeding employees or that studios working under Chris Roberts are shutting down left and right. During many large scale projects where contract workers are involved they sometimes come in and go out every couple of months depending on the scale of the project. Some people seem to think that this is happening more often with Star Citizen than other large scale projects. In your time working in the industry, would you say the contractors brought in or let go by CIG is higher, lower or on par to the standard AAA project?
Thomas Hennessy: Well my background is in the film/television industry more than games, so I can’t really compare it to other game studios, but to me it does not seem like we are “bleeding” employees. Not every job is going to be a good fit for every employee, that’s just the way the world works. Chris has a very strong vision, and sets the bar high. It’s unfortunate, but reality dictates that some people either are not capable of hitting that bar, or don’t want the stress of trying to hit it. We are trying to do something here that has never been done before, and will hopefully be considered ground breaking when done, but it’s not going to be easy. Throughout that process people will come and go for a variety of reasons, but as long as Chris is driving the ship, the mission remains unchanged.
I think that the fact that our development is so open, and many of our employees are interacting with the fans on a regular basis, makes some of the turnover seem worse than it is, especially when it’s a fan favorite employee who happened to be featured on camera a lot in our BTS content, or was active in our forums or on reddit, but at the end of the day, these are still human beings with different wants, needs, and goals. Sometimes those wants, needs, and goals lead them somewhere else.
One Angry Gamer: One of the things that stood out in The Escapist piece was when one of the current or former staff from CIG mentioned that for $90 million what Chris Roberts wants to do isn’t possible with today’s technology. We see games like Empyrion and StarMade literally doing the same thing as Star Citizen just on a much smaller budget, scale and obviously with lower graphics fidelity. But I’m curious, are there elements to the design of Star Citizen, that you know of, that is not possible to do with the technology that CIG has under its belt?
Thomas Hennessy: I think that there are a lot of challenges in doing what we are trying to do, and some of what will need to be done will need to be invented by us. A lot of this has been discussed in detail in our weekly updates, monthly reports, and programs like 10 for the Chairman. That’s the tricky thing about being the first. The impossible isn’t possible until the day it was possible, but Chis is the right man to lead the way, and he knows the right people to bring in to help make it happen. When the road is long and full of obstacles, it’s understandable that some people who lack the imagination or vision, view those obstacles as impossible to navigate. When trying to break new ground you will inevitably have some stumbles and wrong turns along the way, but from everything I have seen, heard, and observed here, I have the utmost confidence in Chris and the rest of the team to pull it off.
One Angry Gamer: The release schedule for the game obviously varies to what technical hurdles the team encounters with Star Citizen, which is something that’s discussed in the updates posted frequently on Roberts Spaces Industries website. Any time the game or a module misses a release window there is the common doom and gloom talk about the project failing. Do you think there’s anything that the management at CIG could do to better convey their target goals for Star Citizen and the time frame in which they plan to get some of the modules finished and out to the public? Or is the doom and gloom talk that spreads throughout some gaming communities just the nature of the beast at this point?
Thomas Hennessy: Well I think we are getting better about giving out projections for releases, one of those lessons we’ve learned along the way. I think there will always be critics, and we will always have a target on our backs simply because of what we are, and how we got here, but at the end of the day, the goal is to do it right, and do it well, and to a majority of our backers, that is how they want us to do it. A game as complex and involved as this one has so many moving parts, that one or two snags can cause ripple effects that slow things down, which makes forecasting an inexact science.
If we were a typical publisher we would probably look to cut corners or delete features or release something full of bugs just to make a deadline, but we are not. If we want to reap the rewards of making this ground breaking game we are making, then we have to be willing to ride out the critics and skeptics who doubt us along the way. Here at CIG though, we know what we’re doing, we know what is at stake, and we understand the importance of it all, and through all the ups, downs, highs and lows, as long as we remain unified, all focused on supporting CR’s vision and doing our part in that, we will not fail.
(Huge thanks to Thomas Hennessy and Cloud Imperium Games for allowing him to answer the questions. You can keep an eye on the game as it moves through development by visiting the official website or you can stay skeptical by reading the latest news about the project from your favorite gaming websites.)