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Crowdfunded developer of space sim Star Citizen takes on $46M in funding at nearly $500M valuation – TechCrunch

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The story of the game Star Citizen and Cloud Imperium, the company developing it, is almost too ludicrous to believe: a crowdfunding effort to create a space sim of unparalleled size and realism, raising hundreds of millions, with backers paying thousands for ships and gear in a game that’s years from release. Yet it’s real enough that it just pulled in $42 million in private funding to help bring it closer to release.

Star Citizen began as the brainchild of Chris Roberts, architect of the Wing Commander series and other well-received space games. His idea was to crowdfund the team’s next game, and did so in 2012; the money started rolling in, and it never really stopped. Nor has the game ceased to grow in its ambitions, adding things like entire planets to the lineup that seem, on their face, somewhat insane.

There’s no shortage of histories of the game and its developers out there, so for our purposes let it suffice to say that over the last six years the company has raised $211 million, the vast majority of which comes from gamers “pledging” anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars for all manner of things related to the title. Early access to builds, exclusive ships, testing new content, etc.

A huge amount of work has been done on the game, so this isn’t just a colossal con, though there are plenty who think the game, and its first-person shooter counterpart Squadron 42, can’t possibly ever fulfill its ambitions and justify the money people have put into it.

That doesn’t seem to be the opinion of Clive Calder, founder of Zomba and producer in a variety of entertainment formats, whom Roberts met during a clandestine campaign to solicit funding.

Roberts, who writes the story in one of his candid messages to the project’s fanbase, had decided a while back that he didn’t want to use pledged funds for marketing purposes — at least not the kind of marketing blitz AAA games tend to require for a successful global release. So he went looking for investment, and found Calder, with whom he “got on like a house on fire.”

Calder’s family office agreed to invest $46 million for a 10 percent stake in Cloud Imperium, which all told puts it near a half-billion valuation. One may very well question the sanity of such a valuation for a company that has not yet shipped an actual product — working prototypes, sure, but not a completed game — but hell, at least they’re making something people are excited about. That’s got to be worth a couple bucks.

Cloud Imperium gains two new board members from outside, though Roberts, who commands the kind of loyalty that only decades in an industry can create, was quick to point out that “control of the company and the board still firmly stays with myself as chairman, CEO and majority shareholder.”

In another act of not exactly radical but not legally required transparency, the company also posted an outline of the company’s financials over the last six years. Unsurprisingly, the company has been investing most of its cash into game development in the form of salaries, contracts and overhead; a non-trivial amount has gone toward “publishing operations, community, events and marketing,” which with a game as community-focused as Star Citizen is not surprising.

The company has grown steadily, adding a hundred people a year or so to a present size of 464 — which is the kind of size you’d expect on a AAA game like Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption. Even more would be added on as temporary artists, actors and so on.

I’m sure it has escaped no one that pledges appear to have peaked, though if they remain steady the company clearly will have enough to continue operations if it doesn’t expand. But one does also see perhaps a secondary motive in seeking investment from outside the community. At some point people are going to want a game.

To that end, Squadron 42, at least, is scheduled for release in Q2 2020 — though backers and critics will both chuckle a little at the idea that Cloud Imperium will be able to hit those goals. The games, infamously, were originally slated for release long ago. But the scope of the project has grown since its conception and although some no doubt would rather be playing the completed game today, they may very well find that good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait…

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X-ray analysis reveals hidden composition under iconic portrait of the Lavoisiers

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The French 18th-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier is a complicated historical figure. Scientifically, of course, he is an undisputed giant, helping usher in the chemical revolution as the field shifted from a qualitative to a quantitative approach, among many other achievements. He was also a wealthy nobleman and tax collector for the Ferme Generale, one of the most hated bodies of the Ancien regime as the French Revolution gained momentum. Those activities added to his fortune, which he used to fund his (and others’) scientific research and to foster public education. But it’s also why he ran afoul of the revolutionaries in power during the infamous Reign of Terror; they beheaded both Lavoisier and his father-in-law on the same day in 1794 as “enemies of the people.”

Something of that complexity is evident in a new scientific analysis of the famous 1788 portrait, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, of Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne, by the Neoclassical painter Jaques-Louis David. The painting shows husband and wife posing with a collection of small scientific instruments—a tribute to their intellectual endeavors.

But cutting-edge analysis techniques have revealed that David originally painted a different version, without the scientific accoutrements, depicting the couple as more typical French aristocrats. He cleverly obscured the underpainting in the final portrait, most likely in response to the growing backlash against the aristocracy, according to a recent paper published in the journal Heritage Science. As the authors wrote in an accompanying online article for the Met:

In addition to modifications of existing formats and poses popular in 1780s portraiture, the overall development of the Lavoisiers’ portrait moved away from foregrounding their identity as tax collectors (the source of their fortune that allowed for such a luxurious commission) and toward underscoring their scientific work. It is, of course, the latter identity that is so clearly defined today and has helped perpetuate their fame both in art history and the history of science. But another identity has been quite literally concealed in the present portrait, and its revelation offers an alternate lens for apprehending Lavoisier not for his contributions to science but simply a wealthy tax collector who could afford the whims of fashionable dress and portraiture that sent him to the guillotine in 1794.

Research scientist Silvia A. Centeno acquiring X-ray fluorescence maps of David’s portrait of the Lavoisiers.
Enlarge / Research scientist Silvia A. Centeno acquiring X-ray fluorescence maps of David’s portrait of the Lavoisiers.

Antoine Lavoisier’s marriage to Marie-Anne Paulze—the daughter of Jacques Paulze, a colleague at the Ferme Generale—was actually arranged by the bride’s father. Apparently, a much older count wanted to marry the 13-year-old Marie-Anne, and Paulze couldn’t outright refuse without losing his job. So he persuaded the 28-year-old Lavoisier to propose instead. Marie-Anne proved to be an excellent choice and took an active interest in her husband’s scientific work. She became an excellent laboratory assistant, making sketches of his experiments, translating English scientific texts into French, and helping maintain meticulous records of the procedures used. She was also a charming hostess for the couple’s scientific soirées.

David was one of the most pre-eminent painters of this period, equally renowned in his field as Lavoisier was in science. David tutored Marie-Anne Lavoisier, enabling her to accurately sketch her husband’s various experiments, and was a guest chez Lavoisier on several occasions. So naturally, the couple commissioned him to paint their portrait. The finished product is considered a landmark of neoclassical portraiture. The Lavoisiers appear to be the very model of “a modern scientifically minded couple in fashionable but simple dress, their bodies casually intertwined,” the authors wrote in their accompanying article.

David’s portrait is remarkably well-preserved, which is perhaps why nobody suspected the existence of an underpainting until 2019, when the piece arrived in the laboratory of conservator Dorothy Mahon after a curator noticed some degradation in the surface varnish. Before she could remove the varnish, Mahon had to analyze the painting quite closely under a microscope to make sure any solvent mixture she used would protect the painting and not put her own health at risk.

That’s when she noticed bits of red paint peeking out in the area above Marie-Anne’s head and through the blue ribbons and bows on her dress. Mahon also noted dried cracks around the red tablecloth in the painting’s foreground. Clearly, a closer analysis was warranted.

Elemental distribution maps acquired by MA-XRF on the portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier: lead, (A); mercury (B); iron (C); and calcium (D).
Enlarge / Elemental distribution maps acquired by MA-XRF on the portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier: lead, (A); mercury (B); iron (C); and calcium (D).

S.A. Centeno et al./Heritage Science, 2021

As Silvia Centeno et al. point out in their paper, much of the technology this interdisciplinary team used to examine the painting is fairly recent and would not have been available to them when the Met acquired the painting in 1977 from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. First, the researchers used infrared reflectography (IRR) to peer through the upper layers of paint. A specialized camera enabled the imaging of the entire nine-foot-by-six-foot canvas. The resulting reflectogram showed evidence of a carbon-based black underdrawing and dark, unclear shapes hinting at possible significant compositional changes.

Next, the researchers employed macro X-ray fluorescence imaging (MA-XRF) to map out the distribution of elements in the paint pigments—including the paint used below the surface. That process took some 270 hours and produced a huge amount of data. It was Centeno’s expertise, supplemented with chemical analysis of tiny paint samples, that enabled the team to create detailed elemental maps for further study.

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SEC: Short squeeze wasn’t “the main driver” of GameStop’s stock rise

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Enlarge / *Glass-breaking noise*

Aurich Lawson

Back in January, when we attempted to explain the meteoric rise of GameStop’s stock price, we wrote a lot of words about the potential role of a short squeeze on what was happening. The theory was that a large number of short sellers were being forced to cover shares they had previously borrowed by buying shares at rising prices, thus helping to drive the price even further upward.

This week, a 45-page report from the Securities and Exchange Commission takes a detailed look at the situation and concludes that while “short sellers covering their positions likely contributed to increases in GME’s price… a short squeeze did not appear to be the main driver of events.”

The setup

Among the so-called “meme stocks,” GameStop was particularly susceptible to a short squeeze in January. That’s because the level of “short interest” in the stock—the ratio of borrowed shares to total outstanding shares—spiked to an unprecedented 122.97% (reborrowed shares essentially count a second time, which can drive the ratio past 100%).

For context, the SEC points out that “few stocks, if any, have short interest greater than 50% on a given date” and that “until recently, short interest of more than 90% was observed only a few times—in 2007 and 2008.” And while other meme stocks also had high short interest in January—Dillard’s came closest with a 77.3% ratio, followed by Bed Bath and Beyond at 66.02%—the SEC notes that “GME is the only stock that staff observed as having short interest of more than shares outstanding in January 2021.”

Investor interest in shorting GameStop stock had been rising for a while but became truly ridiculous by late January.

Investor interest in shorting GameStop stock had been rising for a while but became truly ridiculous by late January.

That extreme level of one-sided betting against GameStop’s stock price was ripe for disruption, especially once some bullish retail investors started driving the price up (partly in response to Chewy co-founder Ryan Cohen being named to the board of directors on January 11). And looking back at the individual trading data, the SEC found some evidence that short sellers covering their positions helped contribute to the initial stages of GameStop’s January price spike.

The report observes that “buy volume from participants identified as having large short positions” increased heavily starting January 22 and that “during some discrete periods, GME had sharp price increases concurrently with known major short sellers covering their short positions after incurring significant losses,” patterns pointing to a short squeeze. SEC staff also “observed discrete periods of sharp price increases during which accounts held by firms known to the staff to be covering short interest in GME were actively buying large volumes of GME shares, in some cases accounting for very significant portions of the net buying pressure during a period,” the report says.

What else was going on?

But while a short squeeze contributed to GameStop’s initial stock price spike, the report suggests that’s not the whole story. Buyers with short positions were “a small fraction of overall buy volume,” the report says, even during the biggest price spikes, meaning that other buyers were driving the bulk of the demand for the stock. And demand for GameStop stock was incredibly high during that period; as the report notes, “From January 13-29, an average of approximately 100 million GME shares traded per day, an increase of over 1,400% from the 2020 average.” Short sellers covering their positions were part of that, but they were far from the bulk of it.

Short sellers covering their positions were a part of the demand for GameStop stock in January, but they were not the bulk of it.
Enlarge / Short sellers covering their positions were a part of the demand for GameStop stock in January, but they were not the bulk of it.

In addition, the SEC notes that “GME share prices continued to be high after the direct effects of covering short positions would have waned.” If this were nothing but a short squeeze, the price should have fallen back to earth once the short interest fell to more reasonable levels.

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Valve’s “Deck Verified” program evaluates which Steam games are Steam Deck-ready

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Enlarge / Games that earn the “Deck Verified” checkmark will appear in the “Great on Deck” tab of the Steam Store.

Valve says it has started the process of reviewing all of the tens of thousands of games in the Steam catalog for compatibility with the upcoming Steam Deck portable. The company is doing the review as part of a new informational program called “Deck Verified.”

Games that provide “a great smooth experience” and “work great on Steam Deck right out of the box” will receive a green “Deck Verified” check mark on the Steam store and library interfaces. They will also appear on the default “Great on Deck” tab when the Store is viewed on the Steam Deck itself. Games will receive that check mark if they meet the following criteria:

  • Input: Games must have “full controller support” and the ability to access all content using the Steam Deck controls, with no adjustments necessary. This includes the use of on-screen “glyphs” that match those of the Steam Deck buttons or those on the Xbox 360/One (many Steam games already do this for compatibility with console versions or console controllers). Any in-game text entry must be done using only the controller or an on-screen keyboard.
  • Display: Games must include native support for 1280 x 800 or 1280 x 720 resolution and include a default configuration that runs at a “playable framerate” on the hardware at that resolution (Valve has previously promised that “really the entire Steam library” can meet this threshold on the Steam Deck hardware). On-screen text should also be legible when the screen is held 12 inches from the face; Valve says this means no letter should be less than 9 px in height, though a 12 px height is recommended.
  • Seamlessness: Games shouldn’t throw up any compatibility warnings when running on Steam Deck, and players must be able to navigate any third-party launchers with the controller.
  • System support: The game must be compatible with the SteamOS natively or with the Proton compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on the Linux-based system. This includes any middleware and/or anticheat software used in the game.
An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Enlarge / An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
Enlarge / Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
VR games like <a href=
Enlarge / VR games like Half-Life: Alyx will officially show up as “Unsupported” on the Steam Deck.

Games that don’t quite reach the Verified ideal can still earn a yellow “Playable” badge if they run but “require some extra effort to interact with or configure.” That includes game that require manual controller or graphics configuration on first launch, games with “missing or inaccurate controller glyphs,” and games where players need to use the touchscreen for whatever reason.

Other games will simply be listed as “Unsupported” on Steam Deck. Those include all virtual reality games and games that are incompatible with Proton for whatever reason (the latter group will have any compatibility issues logged by Valve to fix going forward). Games that haven’t yet been reviewed for Steam Deck compatibility will simply have their compatibility shown as “Unknown” in the Steam interface.

Let the reviews begin

Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.
Enlarge / Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.

Steam developers can request a Steam Deck compatibility review for their games manually, but some back catalog games which “Valve identifies… as important to Steam Deck customers” will be added to the review queue “based on automated heuristics.”

The review process should take about a week, according to Valve’s estimates (subject to demand), after which developers will receive “detailed point-by-point results” of the review. After that, developers will have an opportunity to fix any outstanding issues and request a re-review before the results are published. Otherwise, any results will be automatically published after a week. Titles will be re-reviewed “as the developer releases updates or the Deck’s software improves,” Valve says.

While players can hook the Steam Deck up to a monitor and use a mouse and keyboard with the hardware, Valve writes that “we believe most customers will be treating the Deck like a handheld appliance, most of the time.” The Deck Verified program will thus be focused on how games work when the Steam Deck is being used without any external peripherals.

Despite that, Valve’s developer guidelines make clear that “customers browsing the Steam store on Deck aren’t prevented from viewing or purchasing content that may not work well on their device… You’ll always have the option to run whatever you want on Steam Deck. After all, it’s your Deck.”

Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.
Enlarge / Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.

Back in 2013, when Valve first tried to target console gamers with its Steam Machine hardware initiative, we suggested that the company roll out a certification program to set minimum standards for which games would run well on the wide variety of SteamOS-based hardware. The Deck Verified program fulfills some of that promise and should make it easy for Steam users to figure out how much of their library will work with this new Steam hardware at a glance.

Listing image by Blondinrikard Fröberg / Flickr

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