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Interview: Chris Roberts Charts A Course For Star Citizen

Once a glorious genre filled with popular titles like Wing Commander and X-Wing, space combat simulators have fallen on hard times in recent years. With no game offering the kind of experience he and other fans crave, Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts is taking it upon himself to resurrect the genre. After a decade-long haitus from game development, he recently left his Hollywood pursuits to jump back in the cockpit of a starfighter. He built a prototype of his dream game using the CryEngine 3, formed the Cloud Imperium Games Corporation, crowdfunded an operating budget for an new studio via Kickstarter, and raised additional venture capital funding to fuel the creation of Star Citizen, his space combat simulation comeback. 

We recently sat down with Roberts to discuss why he came back to video games, the freedom of the crowdfunding model, the ambitious game ideas contained within Star Citizen, and the PC specs the game may require. 

I've seen you around conferences like D.I.C.E. the past couple years. Were you pitching your game before you decided to go the crowdfunding route or were you just kind of re-integrating into the business?

Definitely not with Star Citizen. That seriously was never something I wanted to pitch the traditional route because I didn't see the benefit of doing it with the EA or something. It's not necessarily in their DNA. Riot Games wasn't pitching League of Legends to EA. 

I worked for a year on a prototype and I was spending a lot of time looking to find out what I wanted to do when I was reentering. I had a very serious conversation about coming back, but I ultimately decided I didn't want to go the traditional route that you would expect me to go, because I felt like it was a real opportunity. There's a whole aspect to moving more digital, and it felt that was open and a lot more like the early days of the industry when you had to make the rules as you went along. 

It was kind of exciting, like we did mission packs for Wing Commander when nobody was doing that. That was basically a precursor to DLC. It only happened because I built Wing Commander and I couldn't fit it all on a floppy disc. So I had to cut some ships, and Wing Commander was this big hit but the next one was going to take some time. I thought, "Well, I've played D&D and there's all these campaigns or modules, so why don't we think of packaging up a bunch of ships, doing 10 to 12 missions, and selling it as like a little pack?" Not full price - whatever it was, $20, and the sales and the marketing guys were like, "That will never work, you can't sell something that cheap into retail." We eventually persuaded them to go for it, and we thought maybe we'd sell like 10,000 copies or something. I think we sold 400,000 copies, which back in 1990-91 was pretty crazy numbers. 

I kind of feel like there's a lot of that right now, a new frontier so to speak, with the digital frontier. There's an ability to connect directly with your player. [With] the old retail model you didn't because you would work on the game off in your own little world, then after finishing it it you'd throw it over the fence to the marketing and sales guys who'd get it out there. You would see people responding to it in time, but then you'd be off working on the next thing. I like this idea of directly having more of a live connection to everybody that's playing the game. 

[Taking into account] all of those things I just spent some time considering my options. I came very close to doing another Wing Commander, but ultimately this was sort of what my end game was going to be. Even if I didn't do another Wing Commander I wanted to use that to build the technology that would become Star Citizen and I sort of decided, "Well, if that really is my end goal, and if I have the opportunity to start there instead of end there, let's do that." Originally I was thinking Star Citizen would be a combination of VC-funded and crowd-funded, but more in the Mojang Minecraft way. Not necessarily as I've done it now, but maybe something that is a part of the functionality and you release it and people pay a less amount of money and then ultimately you use that funding to keep you going. Then when crowdfunding became more of an accepted thing, the people sort of said, "Ooh, it's not scary or anything," I thought that could be a better route to get this done. 

I'd already spent six or seven months on the prototype. Then from that February to maybe October I was finishing the prototype and laying the groundwork for the campaign, because it wasn't - maybe there are some campaigns that throw something up and see if it sticks, but I treated it like a proper launch. I worked really hard to have a great demo lined up, did a whole press tour before to make sure there's a bunch of press that broke at the same time, did the live streaming event, and actually had a teaser site live before I did the announcement. We also aggregated a bunch of Wing Commander, Freelancer, and Privateer fans, so a lot of work that went into the marketing and the launch platform. It wasn't like, "Hey, I'll put something up and hope people discover it." Crowdfunding is a lot of fun, but it's definitely a lot of work. 

In the traditional publisher dynamic, developers respond to one entity that has a general, clearly articulated vision outlined in a contract. With crowd funding, you potentially have hundreds of different perspectives, all of which might be demanding something different. Is that a scary master to have for a developer?

It can be scary, but I actually prefer having that direct communication with the people that matter, because all a publisher does is says, "I think a lot of people would buy the game so I'm going to fund the money for it because I'm going to sell it to millions of people down the road. Because I'm funding the money, I'm going to keep the majority of the profits and I'm going to control it." 

By not having that, you get some control back, but in the end, you're not delaying all those people out there [from forming their opinions]. Ultimately people are going to have their opinions, so I would rather engage in a conversation sooner than later. The way I look at it is I know I'll never make all the people happy all the time - it's impossible. So I just use the feedback as a barometer. I use it to help inform me, like what are the areas that people care about, what are the areas that people think are important, and what are the things that people hate about certain games or whatever. I use that. But I'm not really doing it like listening to one individual, especially on forums because there are a lot of loud people. You always find that people make the mistake and think this is the majority of the opinion, and then and you run a poll. We run a lot of polls on our site and you find out it's not the majority.

Yeah, the loudest person doesn't always represent the real concerns.

Yeah, so we do a combination of listening to what people say on the forums, throwing ideas out there to see how people respond to it, and running in-depth polls. We never use it to ask them how to design anything, because when you design stuff you always have these issues where you have this limited amount of resources. For me it's like, "Okay guys, what's more interesting to you - more ships or more systems?" You can say, "I can put some resources here or I can put them over here." I can see how they could go for both of them, and one or the other isn't going to change my vision for the story, so and that's the best scenario. With the community, you get a good gage of what they find really important. It's probably the best focus group you can get. These are people that care so much about this kind of game that they've given money two years before they are going to play it. That's better than a marketing focus group where they found 30 people on the street who say they like this certain game. 

That's kind of what it's used for. As long as you treat it that way and know that there's always people like - "Chris Roberts, I thought he was going to build this and he's building this. F--- him." That's just what it is. You're going to get some of that. The way I like to respond to people like that is, "Hey listen, why don't you wait to play it. If you still don't like it, that's cool, but don't make assumptions." Because there are always a lot of assumptions. You say, "Okay, here is the mechanic," and someone takes that and spins it off into the worst possible disaster scenario, then of course everything's going to be bad. You generally have all that; I just think the difference is a lot of developers just ignore it. 

Even if you go on the Blizzard website, there's a lot of people angry about Diablo or whatever. There's a lot of complaining, but on the Diablo site the customer service employees see all that, and the developer is probably not even paying that much attention to it. I think that always exists, it's just whether you're deliberately paying attention to it. I want to pay attention to it. On my team, everyone has to spend an hour a day in game and an hour a week engaged with the community, forums and chat rooms, so they feel like they are interacting with the community and talking with the community so they know these developers actually exist. 

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Comments
  • Star Citizen looks to be one of the greatest games of all time. It takes full reigns of the PC hardware and control scheme, and will be incredibly immersible, unique, and endearing.

  • I always loved games like that, I really hope Roberts' takes off. This is really unrelated, but should my magazine have come by now?

  • I love Wing Commander, and I still have the boxes for WCI-IV, near intact. Privateer is also one of my favourites.
  • im supporting this as soon as i get a new pc ! :D

  • Cool.

  • Nice read!

    I hope the system requirements don't stifle the play base. The game is coming about in 2 years so DX11 and 8gb of RAM should be way more standard than it is right now.

    I'm fine though :P
  • "I think we may very well be 8GB, DX 11 only, 64-bit OS only. It's like we'll have 2K textures for this, and ships will be no less than 300,000 [polygons] for the fighters. So on a technical side, like number wise, we're definitely bringing it. " He is right , they did surveys on their site recently and 90% of people said yes they will play star citizen even if it is DX11 , 64bit and minimum 8GB ram only game . RIP next gen consoles . lol .
  • Sweet.. can't wait until they start releasing those modules later on in the year. I pretty much future proofed my recent PC so it could play this game.
  • I have never played a space/sim kind of game but this game looks really cool!