It isn't every day that you get to speak to someone who single-handedly revolutionizes an industry.
Chris Roberts, a video game developer and feature film producer, certainly fits that bill, and on Monday I had an opportunity to talk to him about his latest project, Star Citizen.
Roberts forever changed the video game industry in 1990 when he released the first installment of the Wing Commander series.
When Roberts set out to produce Wing Commander, he drew inspiration from classic science fiction, mixed it with the best available gaming technology and added a compelling musical score. When taken together, these elements formed the underpinnings of what would evolve into a classic space-opera. The story Roberts was able to tell using the then nascent multimedia and interactive capabilities of the PC would go on to develop a life all its own, spinning off books, movies, and multiple sequel games.
Wing Commander featured complex, evolving characters, and the player could directly influence the story. The missions your character flew advanced the storyline, and your performance during the mission would actually affect the plot and the outcome of not just the game, but the war as a whole.
This unprecedented level of immersion had never been attempted before, and it succeeded in drawing the player into the world Roberts had created in a way that had until then been impossible.
Roberts went on to produce several Wing Commander sequels, each more impressive than the last.
Wing Commander 3 was one of the first games to feature full motion video cut-scenes, and featured Mark Hamill as the protagonist and player character, Colonel Christopher Blair. With Wing Commander 3, the interactive movie was born, and Wing Commander 4, with improved video quality, stunning set design, and then-stratospheric 12 million dollar budget, expanded upon the concept and was released to critical acclaim.
The spin-off games were equally groundbreaking. Wing Commander Privateer allowed the player to command their own destiny ‚?? they could captain a freighter, buy and sell cargo, fight enemies, trade, and modify their spacecraft as they desired. It was a pioneering ‚??open-ended‚?Ě video game, where the player could either follow the storyline or do whatever they liked ‚?? become a pirate, fight the evil Kilrathi, or become a trader and amass a fortune.
In 1996, Roberts left Origin, which had been acquired by Electronic Arts, to found Digital Anvil. There, he directed the Wing Commander feature film, starring Freddie Prinze Jr, produced the video game StarLancer with his brother, Erin Roberts, and began work on a game concept that would later evolve into Freelancer.
Digital Anvil was acquired by Microsoft in 2000, and at that point, disillusioned by the increasingly corporate nature of the industry, Roberts essentially disappeared from the gaming scene.
Then, in 2011, the Wing Commander fan community ‚?? still alive and well after nearly a decade without a new game ‚?? began to buzz with the rumor that Chris Roberts was up to something. Shortly thereafter, a viral marketing campaign began, centered around a website ‚?? RobertsSpaceIndustries.com, and a number ‚?? 10.10.10. The countdown was on.
Roberts was up to something, and the world would find out on October 10th, 2012, at 10am.
That something, as it would turn out, was Star Citizen.
Star Citizen has all of the earmarks of a groundbreaking video game - Breathtaking graphics, even in the technology demos, an intricate plot, and a massively multiplayer open-ended universe. Star Citizen, it seemed, was the spiritual successor to Wing Commander.
Chris Roberts was back. Star Citizen would be made the way he wanted, on his own terms, with no interference from any corporations, publishers, or old men in boardrooms. But he needed help from the fans. In order to get the financial backing to pay for the game ‚?? nearly $20 million, the fans needed to show that there was still a market for PC based space combat simulators.
If he could raise $2,000,000 from the fans, he would be able to make the game. So he made an appeal ‚?? contribute something, and get something in return. Five dollars. Ten. Thirty dollars, and you get the game when it comes out. Maybe gamers don't trust developers anymore. They've been burned too many times. Maybe, he thought, they'd get $4,000,000, if they were lucky.
But Chris Roberts isn't just any game developer. He doesn't make games. He creates worlds.
The fans responded.
Here were people that had waited over a decade for another game like Wing Commander, and that built new machines with old parts, just to keep playing the games Roberts had created. Here were people who had made their own games, set in the universe that Roberts had created, so much did they miss playing.
And now Roberts is asking if they can help him make another game. He wants $2 million.
100,000 fans responded. Times are tough, they said. We can only come up with $7 million.
If we could spare more, we would. We trust Chris Roberts.
During the course of the month-long crowd-funding campaign, Roberts dangled numerous incentives ‚?? extra space ships, maps, t-shirts, alpha access, even visits to the developers offices to fans to entice them.
It's literally the only time I've ever seen people plead to be able to spend money for something they couldn't have yet.
Roberts raised $7 million in spite of issues with their website (there were so many people attempting to donate money simultaneously that it crashed under the load), in spite of hard economic times, and in spite of a general belief that Space Combat Simulators and PC games were on their way out.
The original Wing Commander was one of my first games. It introduced me to Science Fiction. Some say ‚??A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away‚?Ě. I say - ‚??In the distant future...‚?Ě. Trying to get each successive and increasingly demanding installment of the series working on my computer quickly turned me into a nerd who would unhesitatingly rip apart and rebuild a computer without batting an eye, and recklessly tinker with system settings to perhaps fool the game into running just a bit better. That, in turn, gave me the foundation for the programming skills I use everyday.
Needless to say, he has a substantial chunk of my money. I want that game.
When offered a chance to interview Chris Roberts, I seized upon it unhesitatingly.
My first question was a matter of personal curiosity ‚?? I wondered what exactly he'd been up to for the past 10 years, and why he decided it was time ‚?? right now ‚?? to make a new video game.
Roberts answered that he'd become burnt out by the industry, and had grown frustrated dealing with publishers and the limitations of the available technology. So he became involved in film production, all the while keeping an eye on the industry. Roberts noted that it felt good to actually have a chance to play games after so many years developing them.
He started working on Star Citizen in early 2011, when he began to feel that the technology necessary to produce and distribute the games had matured. He noted that what once took hours to render for the Wing Commander movie could now be done in real-time by a decent graphics card.
He spent the first year prototyping the game ‚?? an enjoyable process for him because, he noted, there was no pressure due to deadlines or management. For the first time in a while, he was able to ‚??roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty‚?Ě with programming the game, as opposed to managing developers.
I asked him what he felt made Star Citizen unique, versus other entries in the genre.
He responded that the level of detail Star Citizen offered, compared to its contemporaries, is extremely high. There's a fully-functional physics engine underlying the entire game, and unlike other Massively Multiplayer games like EVE, which is essentially played from the 3rd person point of view, Star Citizen puts you in the cockpit, which he feels is a far more immersive experience.
The other difference is the level of involvement a player can have. He compared it to buying a computer. ‚??You can buy a Dell out of the box, and just use it, or you can start to add things or overclock it. So in the game, your ship isn't just a ship. You can take the same hull and configure it to be a dogfighter or a freighter. The ship really is the character here‚?Ě, he said.
When asked about his decision to crowdfund the game, Roberts noted that as he considered the industry today, he began to believe that ‚??perhaps the traditional publisher model isn't so necessary...you don't need EA, or Activision, or Microsoft to have an impact.‚?Ě He reflected that because of the EA purchase of Origin Systems, which had developed the original Wing Commander series, he had gained a lot of resources to make games like Wing Commander 3 and 4, but he no longer owned the name, and couldn't control where they were taking the franchise. With Star Citizen, he felt that ‚??I'm best positioned to oversee and curate the universe I'm creating. There are a lot of things that happen when you're in bed with a publisher ‚?? I'm not saying that they're evil, but they do things for their own reasons, and that might not be what's best for the game‚?Ě.
Roberts said that he was about 6 months into the prototype stage of Star Citizen when he finally made the decision to do crowd-funding.
While considering his crowdfunding strategy, he looked to the success of Minecraft and Double Fine Adventure on Kickstarter, but he didn't initially want to setup a separate funding channel on Kickstarter itself ‚?? they had developed their own crowdfunding solution on the Roberts Space Industry website, and they were concerned about splitting up the community. After they experienced difficulties with their site, however, Roberts decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign in addition to the crowd-funding platform on the Roberts Space Industries website, and now feels that the Kickstarter community itself greatly contributed to the crowdfunding effort.
When I pointed out that Roberts was promising a great deal to the fans, particularly where game features are concerned, he noted that every feature that was promised as a stretch goal was accounted for in the game's development roadmap, and he has precise costs and timeframes for every feature in the content plan. The fan contributions ensure that he will be able to hire the staffing to have these features available upon release.
Given the fan support for the game, and the level of funding achieved, I asked Roberts what impact he expected Star Citizen to have on PC gaming.
He replied that he thought that PC gaming never really went away ‚?? all the big hype was on the consoles, because the XBOX 360 and PS3 made the jump to HD during a time when TVs were all going HD. According to Roberts, the next generation will only feature an incremental improvement in quality, so they won't generate as much enthusiasm as they have in the past.
He pointed out that if one considered titles like World of Tanks, World Of Warcraft, League of Legends, and particularly Diablo 3, which sold over 6 million units in the first week, PC gaming is still strong. ‚??It's usually all about whether you've got a good game or not‚?Ě, he reflected.
Roberts pointed out that when it came right down to it, a console is essentially a PC in a different box that someone is selling for $400. They have essentially the same graphics cards and processors, and the same GamePad style interfaces are available for both.
Star Citizen has been called the ‚??spiritual successor‚?Ě to Wing Commander, and I asked Roberts how ‚??at home‚?Ě Wing Commander fans would feel playing the game.
‚??Very ‚?? if I owned the rights to Wing Commander, this would be Wing Commander. Even if you look at the demo video, there are homages there‚?Ě, he noted, pointing out that the scene where pilots scramble to their fighters was highly reminiscent of Wing Commander. Several ship names and classes also harken back to the early games.
Looking back, I remembered needing to buy a new PC for almost every installment of Wing Commander ‚?? so I asked Roberts about the hardware requirements of the game.
He replied that a ‚??mid to high-level current generation PC‚?Ě would be able to run the game at a high level of fidelity, but it will be able to scale to a certain degree for systems with less capable hardware.
At the end of the interview, Chris Roberts expressed his gratitude to the fans. ‚??They care about the game and the genre‚?Ě, he noted, and said that having them act as a sounding board for the game has been enjoyable in a way he didn't expect when he began the process.
Roberts said that he was very thankful to everyone who had contributed, and concluded by saying that he hopes that no matter how much money a fan had contributed, he wanted them to play the game, and looking back, ‚??at the end of the day, I want people to say that it was worth it.‚?Ě
Roberts and his team thank the community for their support
When I contacted Cloud Imperium Games, I asked to talk to someone on the team about the game.
I did not expect to speak to Chris Roberts himself. During the interview, I found him to be extremely accommodating and gracious. You could hear the excitement in his voice as he discussed the project, and his appreciation of the fan community was easily apparent. He deserves to be successful in this endeavor, and for the sake of PC Gamers everywhere, I hope he is.