Back in 2012, developer Roberts Space Industries (RSI) launched a Kickstarter asking for money to fund Star Citizen—an ambitious space game in the mold of Wing Commander. It’s 2018, and while parts of the game are playable in various forms, it's far from achieving what it set out to accomplish. So far, it’s collected almost $200 million in funding from fans eager to play it.
Ken Lord was one of those fans, and an early backer of Star Citizen. He’s got a Golden Ticket, a mark on his account that singles him out as an early member of the community. Between April 2013 and April 2018, Ken pledged $4,495 to the project. The game still isn’t out, and Lord wants his money back. RSI wouldn’t refund it, so Lord took the developer to small-claims court in California.
On June 13, 2018, a judge ruled in favor of Star Citizen. According to Lord—and the LA county court records—the judge dismissed the case without prejudice, saying an arbitration clause buried in the Star Citizen end-user license agreement prevented Lord, or anyone, from taking RSI to court for a refund on a game that some backers think may never come out.
Crowdfunding is messy and new. After six years in development and hundreds of millions of dollars raised, Star Citizen is the single largest crowdsourced project ever. It’s managed a wide set of expectations, an increasingly Byzantine set of terms of service that, according to RSI, has changed five different times in six years. It’s also a victim of one of the worst cases of feature creep in history. Lord's case isn't proof of some nefarious scam, but a tiny peek at the nature of crowdfunding a multimillion-dollar video game with high expectations and ever-expanding ambitions.
Lord is a data scientist who works on developing AI for SAP—a data-processing company in Colorado. In his free time, he loves playing video games set in space. “I loved Wing Commander,” he told me over Skype. “I really liked Freelancer.” So when Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, the developer of several video games and director of the Wing Commander film, announced Star Citizen, he was excited. He had never backed a crowdfunded game before, but he wasn’t worried about it: “They said two years, I figured it would probably be maybe three, possibly even four, which would have put us in 2015, 2016. Since it’s Chris Roberts, I figured he has a good handle on how to make a video game.”
But games change during development and, according to Lord, Star Citizen changed a lot. According to the game’s original pitch on Kickstarter, it would be a space sim with a co-op multiplayer game, an offline single-player experience, and a persistent universe. It’s since become a massively multiplayer online game and a separate single-player game with first-person shooter elements called Squadron 42, which RSI originally pitched as “A Wing Commander style single player mode, playable OFFLINE if you want.”
For Lord, it’s no longer the game he thought he was getting. The first person mode is an especially hard sell. “I have [multiple sclerosis],” he told me. “My hands shake badly. I have tremors…They just recently confirmed that you have to do the first-person shooter thing to get through Squadron 42. I can’t do that, I just can’t do that. So my money’s stuck in a game I can’t possibly play.”
Along with the game—which originally had a targeted release date of 2014—Lord was supposed to have received numerous bits of physical swag. “So aside from [the game], I'm supposed to get a spaceship USB drive, silver collector’s box, CDs, DVDs, spaceship blueprints, models of the spaceship, a hardback book,” he said. “That's the making of Star Citizen, which—if they end up making this game—might turn into an encyclopedia set.”
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative neurological disease that strips nerve cells of their protective coating. It causes a variety of symptoms including tremors and paralysis. There are treatments, but no cure. Lord said he wasn’t angry at RSI. He understood that games change direction during development. He wrote to the company and asked for a refund, saying he didn’t feel the game was moving in a direction he could enjoy.
In a series of messages Lord sent to RSI and shared with Motherboard, an RSI player-relations representative explained that Lord was outside of the timeframe for refunds, but that they would look at his case and make a determination. Lord felt he’d been given the brush-off by a bot. “If you don't respond to the mailbot, it marks your ticket as solved and closes it and says you don't want to refund anymore,” he said. “If you do respond, it just takes a couple more weeks and it will send you another of the same message. I’d never heard of anything that remotely slimey before. If you have a policy, just state the policy and enforce the policy.”
So, Lord escalated the situation. He sent a letter to RSI demanding a refund. The five-page letter—dated May 25, 2018—detailed the various ways Lord felt RSI had acted in bad faith and failed to deliver on its promises. He said he would settle for a lesser amount in order to reach an agreement, and proposed $3,800. He also promised to pursue legal action if RSI ignored him.
RSI ignored him, and he filed a claim in California small-claims court on July 11. The two parties met on July 13, and after about three hours, the judge dismissed the case at the request of RSI. Its argument was that, according to its terms of service, a backer wasn’t allowed to force any kind of arbitration on RSI, and the judge agreed.
According to Lord, the terms of service when he made the initial pledge aren’t the same terms of service they are today. The original terms of service, according to RSI’s own records, make no mention of arbitration before February 2015. “These Terms of Service (TOS) do not affect any transactions made before its effective date,” RSI’s terms site said. “All prior transactions are governed by the TOS in effect on the date of such transactions.”
Lord came to court prepared. He had printed out multiple versions of the terms of service, all records of communication with RSI, and a long document recording the 77 promises RSI hasn’t fulfilled in a timely fashion, including citations showing where and when RSI made those promises. But the case never got that far. He said RSI’s representatives understood that Lord’s pledges weren’t covered by the arbitration clause, and he offered to settle, again, for $3,800. They declined.
According to Lord, when RSI’s representatives stood before the judge, they tried to argue the arbitration clause of their TOS. “Right off the bat, they assert the arbitration clause applied to everything, even though it plainly didn't,” Lord said. “I had to give the judge a copy of the first terms of services that clearly show that the arbitration clause was not there for the first few transactions.”
Lord felt RSI’s arguments were insulting. During the proceedings, RSI referred to Lord’s funds as a donation. “Like they were some sort of charity, or like I just gave them $4,500 because I like them,” he said. “I gave them $4,500 because I wanted them to give me a video game.”
RSI’s representatives tried to frame Lord’s participation in Star Citizens’ beta-tester program as evidence it had delivered a game. Lord is part of RSI’s Evocati, meaning he gets to beta test and do bug reports on early versions of the game. “Them portraying bug testing as playing was, I felt, disingenuous at best because they were trying to make a value proposition that they had given me something for my money when, in fact, they had gotten free services,” he said.
According to Lord, the judge decided to apply the current TOS to all of the transactions in dispute. “He said he didn’t want two rulings floating out there,” Lord said. He may have lost this case, but he’s not done fighting. “I’m going to pursue it further. I’m not sure in what direction. I’m going to be speaking with a couple of different attorneys to evaluate my options.”
“Our Terms of Service provides refunds for 14 days after each pledge is made, but company policy is to refund anyone who has second thoughts for up to 30 days after their pledge, no questions asked,” RSI told Motherboard in an email. “Outside of this window, we still consider refund requests for exceptional cases, but generally at that point the funds need to be considered available for development. This policy is actually very generous when compared to nearly any other gaming company–most publishers would not allow any refund at all after players have downloaded and played for several hours.
“All the money we raise is used to develop the game and to deliver content on a regular basis. In fact, we’ve created our Public Roadmap that automatically imports information from our internal Jira database which tracks the status of all Star Citizen development. This level of openness to the public is unprecedented across pretty much any medium, let alone game development.”
Crowdfunding something is never a guarantee. Hundreds of projects fail without coming to fruition, and the money vanishes. That may not have been apparent in 2012, when Star Citizen launched its campaign and crowdfunding was new, but it’s certainly clear now. “I feel like I made a mistake,” Lord said. “I shouldn't have backed a Kickstarter like that. It's the first time I've ever backed a Kickstarter software project, and it will certainly be the last.”
It's also worth noting that we're in a cultural moment in which the relationship between fans and creators is becoming more toxic. Star Wars fans who don't like The Last Jedi are demanding to remake the movie to fit their expectations. Trolls think the new She-Ra cartoon doesn't fit their highly specific conception of what is "feminine." Creators, of course, should be free to create what they want without fearing a mob. That's how we got the things that people are fans of in the first place, and RSI should be free to make Star Citizen what it wants. That being said, it's no wonder that Star Citizen fans feel like they have some degree of ownership over what it should be, seeing as how so many of them invested thousands of dollars in funding its development.
Despite losing in court, Lord remains upbeat. “They already have $4,500. I’m not going to let them have control over how I feel and my emotions and let them ruin my day,” he said. “They’re bad people. I try to be a good person, so I’m not going to let them throw me off my game because they’re flim-flam men.”
Multiple sclerosis has given him a unique outlook on life. “Having MS, you wake up everyday and do what you can do with that day,” he said. “Some days I wake up and I can’t walk, and that means it’s a good day for sitting in bed with a laptop watching TV. You can’t get thrown off your game, but also you don’t get to have any pride left after your roommate has to carry you to the bathroom. You don’t get to hold on to a lot of ego after that. You either laugh or you cry. I’m going to go with laugh.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Star Citizen raised more than $200 million in crowdfunding. It raised almost $200 million, just a little over $190 million, to be exact. Motherboard regrets the error.