Cloud Imperium Games: Manchester and the five-year future for Star Citizen and Squadron 42

Carl Jones, COO of Cloud Imperium Games.

On October 10th it will be a decade since the Crowd Imperium Games founder, Chris Roberts, announced Star Citizen at GDC, since which time CIG has continued to amass an ever deepening warchest of crowdfunding credits, currently standing at £318m ($422m). By most estimations that makes Star Citizen the most successful game to have never been released. Coming from the creator of the most expensively-produced games of the 1990s, that perhaps is no surprise, but what continues to baffle detractors is how without any release date in sight, CIG continues to gather financial support, a significant amount of which comes from the sale of in-game ships that are either unrealised or unfinished.

The appeal for its 3.4 million backers is that Star Citizen exists – albeit in alpha form – outside of many of the norms of modern game development. It is the most extreme example of an early access title, which has allowed CIG to stick to its own trajectory, even if a course correction has often been necessary and a final destination seems forever distant.

However, the news last November that CIG’s main development studio in Cheshire would be moving to Manchester’s Enterprise City, site of the Old Granada Studios, with a view to expanding operations to 1000 staff within five years, seemed to suggest that while we may never know where Star Citizen will end up or what state it will be in when it gets there, we can at least put an ETA to when that that might be: Five years from now, if our maths is correct, is the year 2027.

“I think by that time we’ll be operating a very large MMORPG,” says Carl Jones, COO of Cloud Imperium Games. “So there’ll be a lot more publishing resources, a lot more games masters, more player support. That may require us to open facilities in other locations. At the moment we don’t have any major Asia Pacific presence and that’s probably something that will have to come in the long run, because if your game explodes over there, then you really need to start building up teams to service that.”

Jones suggests that while the potential to expand the new Manchester studio beyond its planned 1000-person capacity exists, the world is practically CIG’s oyster. It might be Europe or the US that CIG heads to next. The point is that CIG will increasingly resemble an online game publisher, “we’ll still have huge development resources, because by that time we’ll be developing the sequel and sequels for Squadron 42.”

Woah there! Let’s wind that back a bit. Sequels for Squadron 42? as in, more than one?

Squadron 42 is the cinematic sidekick to Star Citizen, a single-player space adventure more in the vein of the old Wing Commander games that Chris Roberts came to prominence with. Starring the motion-captured likenesses of Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson and Gary Oldman, the game was announced in the wake of Star Citizen’s crowdfunding success for an initial 2014 release. Not only has it not been released, it’s been put back so many times that CIG have understandably fallen on the “done when it’s done” mantra. However, with Chris Roberts in the process of re-establishing himself in the UK after many years in LA, perhaps we can pin an ETA on that game as well, seeing as he’s looking to hang around the north west for up to two years.

“I guess we’ll see how long he needs to be over. But yeah, it could be one or two years more” says Jones. “He’s spending more time over here with the Squadron 42 team and with our other developers, but it’ll be this year when he moves over for longer periods of time. Hopefully that means we can progress Squadron 42 through to completion faster. We want to get that game finished, but it will be finished when it’s ready.”

Squadron 42 shares the same universe as Star Citizen, but will be a cinematic single-player game.

Tactical Operations

Jones has said in the past that his job is to manage all the things that Chris Roberts doesn’t want to, which means the long-standing COO is not the go-to guy for development updates. His priority is to get the office moving again, as well as moving office. This might have been easier seven years ago when CIG numbered barely more than a 100 staff, but in the time since the company has expanded massively. Right now there are studios and offices not only in the UK and US (Austin and LA), but also in Germany. There are more than 400 based in the UK and 750 worldwide, and space is getting tight.

“During the pandemic we increased to a point beyond which we have capacity for in our offices, which is why we’re looking at new offices in most of our locations. Obviously CIG isn’t just developing Star Citizen, we’re getting it out there to the public, we’re publishing it ourselves, and there’s a huge amount of people needed to deal with all that.”

There are a number of reasons why Manchester is the focus for current and future growth. One is that CIG is already well established in the area, close to Manchester Airport. Another is that Califorian-born Chris Roberts grew up and went to school there. More importantly, it’s cheap. Thanks to the UK government’s Video Games Tax Relief for Corporation Tax, CIG can plan for a larger expansion than would be viable elsewhere.

“The availability of resources is great in the UK,” adds Jones. “It’s always been a great place for game developers. Aside from about 20 years ago, with the great brain drain, I think we’ve come back to massive strength in this country and we’re able to hire very, very experienced people. Obviously it’s a little tougher now to bring people over from Europe, but we’re planning to expand in Frankfurt as well. We’re doubling our size in Frankfurt. So yeah, all studios are growing. The whole company is growing.”

CIG will be moving into it’s Enterprise City offices in the spring, after what will have been a close to three-year search for new premises. It’s been a long process of elimination, one that started close to the Wilmslow studio and steadily moved outwards and upwards into Greater and then central Manchester. “Our goal was to get more space – that was the simple target,” says Jones. “But then Chris [Roberts] wanted us to have world-class studios for our world-class developers and so we really started looking at what we could get and what we could provide. In Wilmslow there was only one location that had sufficient size, but it just didn’t have the facilities that we were looking for.” And so the search moved steadily north, and the attractions of Manchester, even in lockdown, became apparent: “Games development is a young trade. Being in a quiet leafy suburb like Wilmslow appeals to a certain group of people. But, if you’re young and getting into the industry, you want to be able to go out and have fun and have a lot of amenities on the doorstep.”

With performance capture facilities close by and other media infrastructure links dominating the area (including The Factory concert venue), the deal to occupy Enterprise City was eagerly signed last summer. “It’s going to be an extraordinary site,” says Jones, looking ahead to the move later this year. “It’s just a beautiful location and it’s going to have a great vibe and a great buzz for our young staff. Also being in the centre of Manchester means that coming to the office is a little easier for a wider catchment area. So we’re hoping that it also helps our recruitment in the longer term; to hit those headcount numbers that we’re looking for.”

Star Citizen backers are able to access the game in alpha form.

The Price of Freedom

There are those that might question the wisdom of relocating to an expensive new facility in the midst of a pandemic. After all, there are many organisations that, over the course of the last two years, have expanded far beyond the point at which they can offer everyone a desk to work at, yet they are willing to take a wait-and-see approach and allow staff to work from home in the meantime. “I think the games industry is a little different” says Jones, “and I think, development in the games industry is different from a lot of other activities. It’s very creative and it’s very collaborative, and while we found it very easy to move everybody into remote work, after this long period of doing it we’re starting to realise that it’s not the ideal way for games to be created.”

Citing innumerable game delays over the last two years, Jones feels that studios have struggled to maintain quality during successive lockdowns and the wider period of the pandemic.

“More and more studios are talking about bringing people back to collaborate. We’ve quite recently brought most of our Squadron 42 team back into our office in Wilmslow. The capacity is limited so we couldn’t bring everybody back, but it’s transformed the vibe and the morale of the team.”

Jones gives an example where bug-fixing is made much easier by the teams being in close proximity. Where during lockdown a request might linger in a JIRA task for up to two weeks, now it might be dealt with on the spot after calling an on-team engineer over to check it out. “Since we’ve been in lockdown, everyone is in twice as many Teams meetings as they used to be, so a lot more time has been taken up in meetings, which means finding a slot to talk to a person a week in advance. Whereas when you’re in the office it’s so much easier to have that discussion. When we brought the Squadron 42 team back into the office, the progress that they started making was noticeably better.”

CIG has moved to support more flexible hours and Jones says that staff will still be able to work from home when appropriate, and, of course, where it is mandated. However, he insists that being in the office is an essential part of CIG’s work culture, especially when it comes to establishing and maintaining morale and loyalty between staff. Without the opportunity to bond, Jones believes that staff are more likely to move on. “We’ve been able to hire very successfully, but that shows you that people are leaving their other jobs. If you’re going into an office eight hours a day, working with the same people, you feel loyalty to those people. Regardless of whether the company has your loyalty, your friends have your loyalty. And I think as people are seeing each other less and less, team bonding is being degraded. That’s making it much easier for people to start thinking about changing jobs and moving on, which I think wouldn’t happen if they were enjoying their time with their friends. That’s what we want to encourage, that camaraderie and team spirit that I think has been seriously broken by remote work and having to rely on tools like Zoom or Teams.”

As well as doing everything he can to attract talent to CIG over the coming months and years, Jones is aware of the need for increased diversity, as well as being mindful of the fact that loyalty within closed ranks can, if left unchecked, be a breeding ground for toxicity. In the wake of the issues that continue to blight Blizzard, does he feel that CIG is an inclusive, open and healthy place to work?

“Well, I certainly hope so,” he says. “Before the Activision Blizzard issues were even raised, we’d started our employee resource groups and, we’d started programmes for increasing diversity. Our staff can tell us if there are problems and how we can deal with them. We run frequent town halls, even while we’ve been in the pandemic. Anyone can ask any question of the senior management, and we listen. We’re dedicated to doing what we can to improve it – and that’s all the way up to board level, where we’ve agreed that this is a real focus for the company and we should do what we can to provide a good example.”

“It’s not something you solve overnight,” he adds. “When I started out it was an accepted norm that boys love video games, boys make video games. That’s thankfully something that was cast off when games became popular amongst more diverse audiences. The rise of casual and mobile gaming meant, thankfully, that the traditionally white male-dominatied developer was becoming a thing of the past. Our audience got more diverse. I really hope CIG is an inclusive and welcoming company, because we’re doing everything we can to make sure it is.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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