When I pre-ordered Star Citizen in 2013, I was anticipating a fun video game, one loosely described to me as a cross between War Thunder and EVE Online. Over three years later, I have a thoroughly more entertaining story than any tale of interstellar adventure: Thanks to a thriving gray market for virtual spaceships in a game not even released yet, I was able to wheel and deal my way to thousands of dollars in profit. This easy money helped me out so dramatically that even if Star Citizen never comes out, I've already won.
What first got me hyped for the game was a commercial. Each ship in the game is the product of a fictional but believable corporation with convincing promotional materials, and what I saw mimicked the vaguely aspirational phrasings about speed and virtue that line real-world car commercials.
I could have sworn that this was too perfect to not be a joke. This commercial for a Space BMW with a Don Draper-style voiceover is what made me want to play the game. I didn't want to be Space Draper, but I did want to destroy the high-poly luxury ships of the space-elite. I bought the cheapest pre-order package, entitling me to the game itself and a starting ship without many frills. This suited me well, since my actual car was a Ford Escort, one of the most generic cars available.
With Cloud Imperium Games (CIG)'s proposed development timeline placing Star Citizen's release in 2015, two years in the future, my destructive ambitions rattled around in the back of my mind. I received an email alerting me that the "lifetime insurance" purchase period was ending and certain ships would be removed from the store.
Up until this point, all ships had lifetime insurance (LTI) which meant free replacements when they were wrecked, instead of whatever insurance costs ended up being in the game. I decided to burn a gift card I'd gotten for my birthday on a second ship, something with a little more luxury value. It was $80 dollars and wasn't sold with a game pre-order, meaning I couldn't just trade in my Space Escort towards it. It was a headache to justify, but the concept art made it look like something out of F-Zero. I now had two ships.
The game's official forums were buzzing with people bragging about their last-minute collapses of willpower and the glory of their theoretical space garages. I posted a throwaway joke about buyer's remorse, and within an hour someone had messaged me asking if I wanted to sell it. This came across like a scheme, and I ran through all of the possible ways I could get screwed. The risk of losing a ship that existed only as concept art failed to outweigh the reward of getting more money back than I'd blown on an impulse purchase. I agreed to send the ship once the money was safely in my bank account, and gave the buyer my PayPal details.
One hundred and forty-six dollars soon arrived in my account, far more than we agreed upon. This was setting off all kinds of alarms.
One hundred and forty-six dollars soon arrived in my account, far more than we agreed upon, and nearing twice the original price of the ship. This was setting off all kinds of alarms. When I asked, he admitted a mistake converting the money from Euro to USD, but that he was fine with me keeping it since I was doing him a favor. I was told to consider it a tip for cheerful, honest service. The sirens in the back of my skull continued for three days until the transfer officially cleared. I sent the ship and waited for the inevitability of getting what I deserved, an email telling me the money was being revoked from my account, but it never came.
With far more money on hand than I'd bought into the game with, I decided to poke around the community and learn a little bit more about the after-market value of some of these ships. I found that despite all the last-minute fussing CIG had made about LTI going away, people that had backed Star Citizen early enough had special privileges. Because I had preordered the game in that period, I not only had the ability to continue purchasing ships with lifetime insurance, but I could still buy and later trade ships that were not available to people that joined up after me. I saw an opportunity to make money, have some fun, and trick myself into getting spaceships guilt-free. I dived right in.
Above: 'Star Citizen' artwork courtesy of Cloud Imperium Games
That early adopter status gave some people serious power on the market. An LTI ship carried the same cost as a non-LTI ship, so people would send the money or store credit to an intermediary to hook them up. You had folks on the official forums with stickied threads arranging to make these transactions for free, with tipping heavily suggested. CIG had created a marketplace where people could turn a profit solely by being a middleman between CIG and people wanting the finest spaceships on at launch, a date still years away at best.
CIG soon pushed accountability for trades off the official forums and into the arms of Reddit and other communities. I found myself scoping out the market across five fan forums and the Starcitizen_trades subreddit, which acted as a central hub.
While fan communities maintained a fevered optimism for structured organizations (with titles, military hierarchies, insignias, and even fleet manuals), the subreddit was neutral ground. The open spaceship market on Reddit embraced a laissez-faire attitude, adhering to free market principles. Moderation existed only to allow each trader to hold domain over their threads.
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As time rolled by and the funding total increased by millions a month, CIG pushed more and more ship concepts into limited-period sales or returned previously one-time-only ships back into the store. Aside from ships, other purchasables connected to Star Citizen enjoyed unreasonably high values amongst the community. In-game trophies sold by CIG to foot the cost of convention appearances could be purchased for $5, but sold later for $30. People that subscribed to the monthly development magazine had the option to purchase special cosmetic items for $5, and could resell them at double or triple that amount. Empty, unused accounts registered before certain dates could still receive stretch goal rewards, like potted plants or fish tanks, so even if they owned no spaceships at all, others would pay them hundreds of dollars for the privilege of getting a few vanity items.
With no complete game to compare them in, and many of them existing solely as concept art JPEGs, ships' relative value was impossible to calculate. Lifetime insurance estimates could be extrapolated out to hundreds of dollars on the larger spaceships, according to what people were paying.
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Baseless theories about how the game might eventually work had everyone believing that their thousands of dollars' worth of spaceships were going to represent a good investment once the game came out. They wanted to believe their Space Ford F150 was going to be a secret battlewagon once they equipped it with the right gear, so they'd be a fool to not get prepared now. Everything was entirely subjective, and yet these mental gymnastics were pushing thousands and thousands of dollars around each day, with a lot of it ending up at the feet of CIG itself. The entire gray market was a fantasyland of pure finance, and it all centered on the Starcitizen_trades subreddit.
When I asked for above market price for my virtual goods, my actions would be praised and upvoted as bold because it would raise the going rate; while attempting to sell below market value would be quietly downvoted before I could depress the market. The lust for spaceships was so strong that people were putting up keys for other games, currency from other MMOs, and services like web design or custom portraits of your spaceship pilot.
Especially fun were the few times I saw cars and dirt bikes put up for trade — real-world transport in exchange for totally fictional rides. I was constantly checking for Star Citizen news — not for updates to a game I had intended to play, but for new information that could rock the market I'd become enveloped in.
The most elaborate and sketchy transaction I took part in began when I heard that CIG's customer support was allowing people to buy a ship that was limited to a run of 300. One nice email later, sent via the concierge customer support tier unlocked for big spenders, and I was on a waiting list.
I began to take these trades seriously, insisting on Skype calls as a method of weeding out throwaway accounts and scams.
CIG had given me the option to spend $300 dollars of store credit to get a ship that I could feasibly resell for $2,000. I'd already arranged a buyer, and they were ecstatic that I was letting the ship go for just $1,800. He was willing to put a third of it up front until his paycheck cleared. Two weeks later he told me he'd have to wait a bit longer, sudden car problems taking priority over a spaceship. Two more weeks and the person's accounts did not exist. I waited a month with no way to contact them, and then ended up selling the ship at full price to someone else. And with the near certainty of at least breaking even on any given transaction, how could I not re-invest this money?
I began to take these trades seriously. I began insisting on Skype calls as a method of weeding out throwaway accounts and scams. I enjoyed talking with these people, their enthusiasm for the game was infectious. Memories of these calls still make me smile: a Texan who was super hyped to be an ace bomber pilot, only breaking their glee for a few moments to give me the "professional courtesy" of informing me they were a sheriff and if I screwed them over they'd bring the hammer of law enforcement down on me, no matter where I was.
An engineer in Malta buying a Space Garbage Truck was thrilled to explain how they would have designed the thing to make it more realistic. Cashiering at my non-space-related job, a guy came in minutes before closing and filled a shopping cart with vintage baseball card reprints. He explained that he was making a killing selling binders of complete sets on eBay. He was doing what I was. I was happy that they were happy, even if they were eventually going to make a buck off someone else's bad judgment, or be stuck with worthless cardboard.
Above: 'Star Citizen' artwork courtesy of Cloud Imperium Games
A few weeks into winter, my real-life Ford Escort's engine threw a fit and self destructed. I had to get a new car. With most of my spare money from the previous two years tied up in video game spaceships, the only avenue I had available was the gray market. Selling ships below cost and elbowing through proper etiquette by privately messaging people to undercut deals in progress may have earned me some downvotes, but it was effective. The budget I had available for my car was entirely dependent on how many ships I could offload before the weekend. I was firing off emails non-stop, letting myself be talked down in price solely because I had come to recognize the value of tangible things over concept art.
I called in my uncle, a veteran used car salesman, to help me replace the broken Escort. I was completely unequipped to do this alone. Unlike Star Citizen ships, these were real products with reputations for unreliability and individualized problems to watch out for. I had a shortlist of what I was looking for, what I was willing to spend, and I had exactly one day to select a car. A PT Cruiser for sale at $800 just blocks from where I lived represented my absolutely last place fallback plan, a failure state I used to urge myself onwards.
We did a few laps around Sacramento's famous Roseville Automall, my uncle steering me away from ex-fleet cars and rust-caked things that stank like burnt plastic and had no business being priced at five digits. Sierra College's parking lot is an auto fair on the weekends, and this was where real value was hiding. These were people trying to sell directly, not having any desire to sit on a bad car at a bad price for months. They wanted to get it over with, and that means competitive pricing. And that competition meant action.
These were not questions a friendly interested party would ask. These were precision strikes.
We surveyed the lot and found two cars priced humanely and in decent enough shape. A brown Toyota Corolla, a clear step up from my Escort. It had low miles and looked clean in the way that seemed like it had never even needed to be cleaned. It had already been sold by the time I called. My next choice was a 2007 Hyundai Elantra in a color I would learn is called "Seattle Blue". It had over 100,000 miles but was in solid condition. To avoid my self-imposed PT Cruiser flagellation, I was willing to roll the dice a little.
I watched my uncle go to work. He called the owner up and asked them about the car in a gratingly nasal voice just inches from being an obvious joke. These were not questions a friendly interested party would ask. These were precision strikes aimed to assess just how much the sellers knew about the car and to sow as much doubt about its condition as possible.
Did it have regular maintenance? Were the tires new? When had the timing belt been replaced? The upholstery looks a bit frayed: was it kept in a garage with mice or rats? Was it a salvage title? This was magic you simply can't do with fake spaceships. His analysis of their responses was simple: the fact that they kept trying to talk him up about the car in the face of blatant disrespect meant they were really hot to sell. So then it was my turn to call.
Above: the author's car, purchased through trading virtual spaceships
Within an hour, we'd had our test drive and were already discussing price. They wanted a very fair $5,500. I asked when the registration would need to be renewed and when the battery was replaced. They said they could make it $5,250. I asked if they knew when the timing belt was last replaced and they admitted they couldn't find any of the maintenance paperwork. I let this hang in the air for a moment. They opened their mouth to fill the silence, offering to knock the price down even further to $4,800. It really felt like I had put the hurt on this guy, pushing him back so far on the price. Was I still being cheerful and honest?
I walked out of the bank with an envelope full of hundred dollar bills, the product of two years of spaceship wheeling and dealing. It was gross to think that this was money other people had given up for video game trinkets with no use other than the potential to be flyable in a game years down the line. I was converting that potential into the car I'd be driving home in that day.
The knowledge that the ship madness that had afflicted so many was going to pay for my car was some relief. When the seller and I signed the paperwork and shook hands, he thanked me.
Today, I've stopped keeping up with Star Citizen's endless ship sales almost entirely. I've refunded everything in my hangar that wasn't flagged as no-trade, leaving me with a handful of ships in case the game eventually becomes something I actually want to download and log into. My car still runs fine even without a new timing belt.