Image: Star Citizen
Ken Lord used to be a Star Citizen super fan. Once upon a time, he helped fund Roberts Space Industries’ endless maiden voyage with £3,450 of his own money. Now, after years of delays and changes, he wants out. RSI didn’t get back to him, and he sued. It didn’t go his way.
Lord first backed Star Citizen in 2012, the year it was announced. After that, he continued to back the project with multiple additional payments over several years. He loved studio founder Chris Roberts’ Wing Commander space sim, and he wanted another game like it. Then, as millions of dollars in crowdfunding money poured in, the feature creep began. Star Citizen grew in scope from a multiplayer game to a full-blown MMO that included — among many, many other features and modes — first-person shooter combat. That addition was a sticking point for Lord, who has multiple sclerosis and suffers from tremors that make fast-twitch games near-impossible for him to play.
“The biggest problem is that for Squadron 42, they got rid of multiplayer co-op, but also added first-person shooter as required parts of the game,” Lord said in an email to Kotaku, referring to Star Citizen’s story-focused campaign, which is the closest thing to Wing Commander that RSI has to offer. “So they added something I can’t do, but got rid of the part where at least I could have friends carry me.”
Years passed, and Lord began to lose faith. He’d signed on to a volunteer tester of alpha versions of the game, and he even got invited to join Star Citizen’s exclusive “Evocati” tester group, which tries out builds before they’re released to the wider public. But progress was slow. “Nearing 6 years into the 2 year project, they have yet to complete a single star system, though they promised 100 as a stretch goal,” Lord said.
Worse, he didn’t like the methods Roberts and his employees were using to entice new players to join the crew for their rickety shuttle launch to parts unknown. Lord admitted to being “sort of scared” by the game’s marketing techniques, which he characterised as gamification of the idea of being a backer. Star Citizen developers rewarded bigtime backers with ships and perks like land ownership, promising more features in a game that was far from delivering its initial promises. “They didn’t just figure out how to sell DLC for a game that didn’t yet exist,” he said. “They figured out how to sell scope creep itself.”
Earlier this year, Lord decided he’d finally had it. He wanted his money back. Right away, he ran into a problem. Unbeknownst to him, RSI had changed its terms of service, and he was no longer eligible for a refund, because it had been more than 14 days since he’d forked over his £3,450.
“They didn’t just figure out how to sell DLC for a game that didn’t yet exist. They figured out how to sell scope creep itself.”
Lord tried to get a refund anyway. He submitted a customer support ticket, after which he got told to wait for a “specialist” who, based on screenshots Lord showed Kotaku, never showed up — even after a month of waiting. Lord also tried the game’s forums. “My questions in their forums were buried in a mega-thread, not responded to, then locked a month later after not being answered,” he said, noting that many other users who requested refunds got stuck in the same limbo.
After giving up on the refund idea, Lord sent a demand letter to RSI threatening litigation if the issue didn’t get resolved by June 29. That didn’t happen, so on July 13, off to court it went.
Lord emphasised to Kotaku that he had hoped since his first payments to RSI had occurred before the current 14-day refund policy got put into place, he’d be able to argue that RSI technically still owed him money. That strategy didn’t work. “Though the TOS clearly say they don’t apply to transactions before that date, CIG/RSI successfully argued to do exactly that,” Lord said. According to documents from the West District Santa Monica courthouse, the case got dismissed without prejudice.
In an email to Kotaku, an RSI rep said that, according to the company’s records, Lord has made 61 pledges to Star Citizen since 2013. “The Terms of Service are not retroactive, but a huge majority of Mr. Lord’s pledges came after the TOS was changed to specify arbitration, and those pledges are under that TOS,” the rep wrote. “His pledges with new money on top of his earlier pledges required him to accept the new Terms of Service.”
In a separate statement to Kotaku, RSI defended its current refund policy. “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,” the statement read. “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.”
Lord is glad he at least tried to get his money back, but he can’t help but look at RSI in a new, decidedly dimmer light. He recounted a time in 2012 when — as part of a special “Golden Ticket” promotion — he got an email directly from Chris Roberts.
“I wrote back, explaining that my reflexes were pretty poor — I already knew I had MS — and explained that I wasn’t ever going to be much of a fighter pilot,” Lord said. “I got a heartfelt email back explaining that in the universe he was building, everyone was going to have a place. They were good people, and somewhere along the way, they lost their way.”