Originally launched a year ago, Cloud Imperium Games’ Star Citizen went on to break crowdfunding records and continues to pull in huge amounts of money from an avid fanbase. It remains to be see whether Chris Roberts and his team can make everyone happy, but right now the operation is a wonder to behold.
However, behind the developers' ongoing crowdfunding campaign to support development, a player operated market emerged that sells in-game goods for real money. This market has aimed at circumventing certain limits while enriching the dealers both in real world and virtual currency. These dealers are capitalizing on demand for items and features removed from the regular store and are thus unavailable to new backers who arrived late to the community.
Presently any new player that decides to back the game right now can go to Roberts Space Industries website, hit the pledge page and select a package that suits their needs. $30 buys the game when it’s released, $40 gets alpha access and spending more gets them a better spaceship as the starting ship, all the way up to the $275 Rear Admiral package which comes with the Constellation.
We are all used to crowdfunding and this strategy is standard procedure, but the ongoing incentivisation process creates different classes of backers where new arrivals are at a somewhat disadvantage compared to those who threw their hat in the ring early. For most users, the obvious difference is Lifetime Insurance (LTI). This insurance is supposed to guarantee that if a spaceship is ever destroyed, it will ultimately be replaced with one in similar condition. This isn’t supposed to be a gamebreaking difference, and the developers went to great pains to explicitly spell this out a devblog:
LTI is intended to make this more convenient for our early backers, not to unbalance the game in any way. Insurance does not negate the cost of repairing, rearming or docking your ship. It protects your hull in its current condition and does not allow you to explode a beaten up ship to exchange for a fresh one at no cost.
However, while new backers are unable to buy LTI packages, veteran backers can continue to do so until late November of this year. This enables the process commonly described as ‘pledge laundering’ where a new player gifts an item of equal value from the RSI store to a veteran backer. The veteran backer then melts the gifted item into store credit and uses the credit to purchase the item the new backer wants. Once done, the veteran backer than gifts the new item to the new backer. There’s a lesser known bonus for the backers who pledged during the original kickstarter: lower prices on practically everything. The previously mentioned $275 Rear Admiral package only costs an original backer $250, leaving a $25 excess. Because this practice is permitted by CIG, it isn't a true black market, but it's not entirely legitimate either, earning it the "grey market" name.
Now, what happens to that excess cash depends on who is involved. There are some launderers who give it back in the form of skins and other cheap pledge items to the new player. Others only return part of it, keeping a portion as a tip. However, there are some who silently pocket the difference, not even bothering to tell the new backer that they’re donating to someone else’s wallet.
As an experiment, an account was created and logged into the official Star Citizen chat posing as someone interested in buying a package. Immediately several enthusiastic individuals who were very happy to help offered to do so in private. All but one suggested looking at bigger pledges, and were very negative about the Arbiter and Pathfinder packages (for which there is no price difference). The Rear Admiral was "the way to go if you can get the cash." One suggested a tip can be given to him for this service by sending some ship skins along with the equally priced item being sent. At $5, skins are the smallest unit of currency for these transactions.
None of them mentioned the price difference, and when it was brought up two of them insisted that they would take 100% of this difference as payment and that a buyer should be thankful they would be doing all the "hard work" on their behalf.
One such encounter during this multi-day experiment came some what serendipitously. Asking about LTI laundering prompted an RSI moderator, a community moderator who is not emplyed by CIG, to send a private message. In their message they stated it is prohibited to discuss the laundering in the chat but provided a link to that moderator's own "free" laundering service. At first glance the launderer cares for the non-veteran players: they say they do not scam but instead provide the service for "free" with no additional cost to the base price.
Posing as a buyer, the moderator was asked about the markups through their service, such as charging $125 for a $110 package which comes with no physical goods to warrant any additional costs for shipping. Pressed on why that item also received a markup despite containing purely digital goods, the launderer stated that their post held the answer. At the bottom of their "Want To Sell" post they claimed they wanted to match the non-veteran price point from the RSI store, even though they are getting the item for $15 cheaper than the non-veteran backer price and pocketing the difference.