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

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…

Bellabeat’s new hybrid smartwatch tracks your stress…and goes with your outfit

Bellabeat, the company behind a variety of health and wellness wearable devices aimed at women, is now selling its first smartwatch. The device, which is simply called “Time,” was announced earlier this month right in the midst of holiday shopping season. Like other fitness trackers, the watch is capable of basic tasks like counting your steps, tracking sleep patterns and reminding you to move. But unlike traditional smartwatches — which, aesthetically, are still very much just a screen on your wrist — the Time is designed to look like jewelry.

The hybrid device looks like a watch — albeit not a very expensive one.

It’s squarely in the range of fashion jewelry, with either silver or rose gold stainless steel finishes to choose from, and a minimalist watch face that forgoes complications like the date or the moon phase, for example. It even lacks a second hand.

That said, I prefer its cleaner look-and-feel to the gaudier smartwatches put out by brands like Michael Kors and Fossil. (Plus, there’s no Android Wear/Wear OS to contend with here.)

As an analog watch, it has both its pros and cons.

It’s designed to be hypoallergenic so as not to irritate those with sensitive skin, and it has some water resistance. (ATM grade 3, meaning it can withstand a vigorous hand washing and the rain. You can’t swim, bathe or dive with it.)

You also don’t have to charge it, which makes it feel more like a “real” watch than a gadget.

However, there’s a potential downside here, too — the coin cell battery only lasts “up to” six months. You’ll then need to use the tiny tool it ships with to replace the old battery with a new one.

Of course, some will see a user-replaceable battery as a perk. I don’t, but that’s a personal preference on my part.

I much prefer just dropping my Apple Watch onto a charger rather than having to keep up with a small watch tool, which can be easy to lose or misplace in the time between repairs. I’m also not a fan of having to unscrew tiny screws and then finding some sort of small, sharp object to pop out the battery. Perhaps that’s because I have a child with a dozen or so battery-operated toys. I’m constantly unscrewing things to replace batteries, and frankly I don’t need another.

In any event, among the watch’s better aspects is the fact that it packages up fitness and wellness tracking in a device that passes as a regular — and even fairly attractive — piece of fashion jewelry. The Time will go better with some of your outfits where you just don’t think the Apple Watch works — even with one of Apple’s fancier bands.

Of course, it’s not as seamless to use Time as the Apple Watch, which has the Apple platform advantage. (Or an Android smartwatch paired with an Android phone, for that matter.)

Instead, you have to sync your activity between the watch and the third-party Bellabeat app to view things like the steps taken or hours slept. You do so by tapping a sync button in the app and double-tapping on the watch face.

The app can also serve as way to keep up with other aspects of your health and wellness, including your hydration goals, stress, meditation time and your period.

The stress metrics are calculated for you, based on factors like activity levels, sleep quality, reproductive health and meditation over the past week. But hydration and menstruation have to be logged manually (*unless you’re using Bellabeat Spring — see below.)

The mediation tracking only calculates your progress through the app’s own selection of more than 30 included exercises. While it’s nice to have access to those resources included in the app, many people are already using popular meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. An “import” option for externally logged “mindful minutes” would have been nice here.

One of Time’s better features are its silent alarms and inactivity alerts. Instead of pings and loud noises, the watch more calmly reminds you of things with vibrations you configure. There are also included alarms for waking up, taking your vitamins, taking your contraception pill and another general alarm setting, each with their own toggle switches and settings.

There is something to be said for a quieter smartwatch, especially if stress levels are a concern. (There’s also something to be said for a device that’s built by a woman with the needs of women in mind. Remember how long it took for Apple to realize period tracking was a thing?)

That said, it’s unfortunately becoming harder for smaller device makers to compete with the Apple Watch, which has now moved into advanced areas with its Series 4 line, with sports, life-saving ECG and fall detection features, along with smarter workout detection (and yes, you can still swim with it), plus its ability to work with the broader iOS app ecosystem in a more native way.

But the Apple Watch is pricier at $399 and up for current models. Bellabeat’s Time, by comparison, is $179.

The Bellabeat mobile app will work with other Bellabeat products, including its wellness tracker Leaf (which can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, clip, etc.), and $59 smart water bottle, Spring.

Combined, the Spring and Time could be a good entry point into the world of fitness and wellness trackers for those who never felt that wearables and trackers were right for them. Bellabeat’s line is more of a lifestyle choice based just as much on looks as on tech, if not more so.

The question now is whether or not Bellabeat can carve out a big enough slice of the smartwatch market, which continues to be dominated by Apple, to sustain itself in the years ahead.

Bellabeat was a Y Combinator 2014 grad founded by female entrepreneur Urska Srsen, and has raised ~$19 million to date, according to Crunchbase. It previously sold products for expectant mothers, as well, but those have been phased out. Bellabeat declined to share any user metrics or revenue figures, when asked.