Crowd Pleaser: Chris Roberts

After spending over a decade in film, Wing Commander and Freelancer creator Chris Roberts gets his newest PC space simulation game off the ground with a crowd-funded boost.

 

Chris Roberts started his career in the late ‘80s. Landing a job with Origin Systems, the Austin, Texas-based firm co-founded by Richard Garriott and home to other game legends including John Romero, Roberts launched Wing Commander in 1990, precipitating a series of successful sequels. Wing Commander III and Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom incorporated live-action video clips starring Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and gave Roberts his first crack at film directing.

By the late ‘90s, Roberts was creating media on two fronts—games like Starlancer and Freelancer through his new company, Digital Anvil, and feature films including a 1999 screen adaptation of Wing Commander starring Freddie Prinze Jr. He officially left games in 2001 to produce films including The Punisher (2004), The Jacket (2005), Lord of War (2005), and Lucky Number Slevin (2006).

And now he’s back. Late last year Roberts and his new company, Cloud Imperium Games, launched an ongoing crowd-funding campaign for a new space simulation game, which is set to come out in late 2014 or 2015. The Star Citizen campaign has raised an astounding $19 million as of September 20th and includes a plan for keeping backers engaged from now until the game is released.

Get In Media: Why return to video games now?

Chris Roberts: I basically was in video games since ‘82 and I left in 2001. At the time, I was kind of frustrated. Technology, I felt, was kind of limiting what I wanted to do. Also the industry itself was stagnating. It was becoming fewer publishers. Basically, you had to join up with a big guy like Microsoft to be able to afford to build the games at that period of time because the investment was too big. I went off and I did movies for about ten years and had a great time, but over the time I never felt like I really got to build a world to the level of detail that you can in a game. In a movie, you tell a two-hour story and it’s sort of a glimpse into a world. If the camera turns around this way, there’s no set there whereas if you’re doing a video game, that’s not true. You have to build the whole world because you don’t know where the player is going to go. You end up having to create a much deeper, richer world.

Towards the end, I started to get the itch to come back and do that world building and creating. The technology had moved along, so I felt like some of the stuff that I was frustrated with wasn’t an issue anymore. I felt like I could do something that really immersed you better because the visuals, the audio would be better. The film business also has become pretty [stagnant] now. You have to be a $200 million event movie and it’s based on a comic book series or a sequel and there’s much fewer movies getting made.

I feel like I’ve got the passion again. I think the technology’s there and the other thing that was very compelling for me is I felt like the industry was changing because of the shift to digital, the shift to online, the ability to directly connect with your audience. I didn’t have that in the past. What you can do now, what we’re doing with Star Citizen, we’re connecting directly to the people who care, that want this kind of game, and they like it so much they’re willing to give you money well before it’s going to be finished. They want to participate in the process and that’s actually a really invigorating.

GIM: Obviously a video game is going to be much richer than a film, but how does the storytelling process stack up between the two mediums?

CR: You can’t count on what the player’s going to do, so really the challenge is creating and constructing an environment in such a way that the way the player wants to go and the direction, the velocity the player is going to take in the story, you have a pretty good idea. Then the challenge is being able to write those situations and characters out in enough detail where they work well and also anticipate and have options in case the player’s going to go left instead of right.

The thing with movies is it’s all about pacing. I can be in an editing room and I literally can snip a little bit out of a scene or a tiny bit here and I can color the movie completely differently, because the pacing and the order of the imagery you see informs what you feel. You can’t do that in games, because you can’t really control necessarily the order of the imagery.

“Don’t try to out-Angry Birds Angry Birds. Don’t try to out-Zynga Zynga. They’re already there. They’re already the outliers. Pick some area that hasn’t got that big 800-pound gorilla in it that people probably like.”
GIM: [Cloud Imperium] had a very unique model for fundraising for this game. Would you mind explaining that?

CR: It was actually a very cool sort of viral thing that happened. We were testing our site, and at Reddit, at exactly the same time, there was a thread going on about Freelancer. During the thread, they were like, “What’s Chris Roberts up to?” and they figured out that I had just started a new company called Cloud Imperium. They went to the site and then they saw that I had registered a domain name called Roberts Space Industries. They went to the Roberts Space Industries site. We had it firewalled, but at the exact time, which was about five days before we were going to like stealth launch the site, we brought down the wall so we could test the registration mechanic. We were sitting there with the web guys and there was like ten registrations. We were like “Did you do this?” “No, I didn’t do it. Did you do this?” We put the wall up immediately. It was only down for a few minutes. We put up a counter. Basically, it said, “There’s something happening. Here’s the time that it’s happening,” so when we finally went live with the site, which was a Monday, I think this happened on a Thursday. When it was live we had like 10,000 people in the first day.

GIM: [Star Citizen has raised $19 million through Kickstarter and their own site] When you have a community of supporters that large, how do you ensure that you’re delivering what they expect?

CR: One of the greatest things about crowd funding and having a community to begin with is you can have dialogue with them, what features they’re interested in, what’s most important to them, and a lot of times you’ll get answers that are surprising to you. The number one profession that people want to do in Star Citizen is explorer. Not mercenary or bounty hunter or pirate or things that you think they would want to do. That helps focus your design decisions because in anything, especially something that’s as big and has a sandbox around it like Star Citizen, you’ve got to make compromises. You’ve got to say, “Ok this is important,” and you rank them in the way you spend your resources.

We’re doing that everyday with our community. We’re always finding out, reading the forums, asking the questions, seeing what they’re into. One of the biggest reasons why we were successful [with crowd funding] is because we had a dialogue with the community directly. With most crowd-funded games, you pay more money and then you get some more goodies in the box, but it’s basically the same game. We started with five different levels of ships that you could back and we were noticing that there were people with multiple pledges. We were seeing people with multiple pledges and we were like, “You already have the game. Why do you want to get it again?” And they were like, “Well we want to collect all the ships.” And we were like, “Oh. We didn’t even think of that,” but of course that makes sense. You want to have this ship for dogfighting and this ship for trading. They were like, “You know what? I don’t want any of that physical. I don’t want a box. I don’t want the map, the book. I’ve got my copy of the game. Can you do ships as digital add-ons?”

Basically everything came from the community. They were asking us for it and because we listened to them and gave them what they wanted, they were thankful. I think that’s a really good lesson in this kind of thing, in what’s happening in the new world dynamic, because it’s a whole different relationship between the customer and the producer. It’s a much more instant relationship.

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GIM: How will you sustain that interaction moving forward?

CR: We’re trying to build it into the DNA of the company. We’re in the middle of building a new site that can handle the load that we expect to get when the game is live, which we think will be hopefully millions of people. We’re building tools into the site, much better than our current site in terms of interaction, asking them polls, giving them areas where they can leave their comments and do all that sort of stuff. Every developer spends at least a week interacting with the community. They have to go onto the forums and answer questions, deal with them.

Roberts Space Industries Team

We have a live chat thing they go on and talk. We bring them on, we do a live webcast every Friday called Wingman’s Hangar that’s done from here and we bring team members in, we answer questions from the forum, from the community. Every month we have a thing for what we call “development subscribers,” where we publish a magazine that’s anywhere between 25 and 40 pages long, a digital magazine, which goes into behind-the-scenes stuff, has fiction in it, has interviews, talks about places in the galaxy, how we build this ship, all this kind of stuff.

We’re also going to be releasing modules of code to the community as we go along. Not the whole game. The first thing we’re to release is the hangar module, which is going to be in August. It allows you in the actual game engine to walk around the hangar and see the ship or the ships you’ve purchased. You can look at your ship, climb inside it, fiddle around with the bits in it. You can’t fly it, you can’t take off, but you can see the thing you bought and you’ll be able to invite other friends into your hangar to see your ship. In December [or early 2015], we’re going to have the dogfighting alpha.

The ships that you’ve already backed the pledge for, you can take into basically a death match in space and fight against other players or fight against AI to test out your dogfighting skills. They’re sort of testing and playing along sections of functionality. The following year we’ll have other parts like we’ll have the planet-side module where you go into bars and talk and buy equipment and the alpha and the single player story. Finally when we’re ready to go live and all the bits are done, they’ll all get folded in and that will sort of be the live beta. After that we’ll go properly live. The theory with it is that by the time you get there, you’ll have battle tested a lot.

GIM: What is the number one mistake you see new game developers make?

CR: Don’t try to out-Angry Birds Angry Birds. Don’t try to out-Zynga Zynga. They’re already there. They’re already the outliers. Pick some area that hasn’t got that big 800-pound gorilla in it that people probably like. There are plenty of areas. There really aren’t that many great [real-time strategy] games on PCs. This is why Project Eternity did so well and Torment: Tides of Numenera is doing so well, is because people want that single-player RPG game that they’re not getting from the big publishers.

Find an area or niche that’s kind of underserved and then really embrace it. I think if you embrace your core, the rest of it will come to you. Everyone doesn’t always need a million downloads. If you start out trying to make a movie saying, “Oh I need to make more money than Avatar did,” you won’t do it. It just doesn’t happen that way. 

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