Reaching for the stars: Chris Roberts

Reaching for the stars: Chris Roberts
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

October 11th 2012 at 4:30PM

The Wing Commander creator on his return to games and why PC shouldn't be ignored

As we revealed yesterday, Wing Commander and Freelancer creator Chris Roberts has returned to the games industry and is developing a new space-faring MMO, Star Citizen.

Backed by a small studio of ten staff, under the name of Cloud Imperium Games Corporation and harnessing the power of CryEngine 3, Roberts is looking to create an ambitious MMO for the PC platform which he claims lacks developer-support and yet is ten times more powerful than consoles.

Develop sat down with the industry veteran to discuss why he decided to return to the industry, where he made his name after nearly ten years away and what he hopes to achieve with Star Citizen.

So what is it you’ve been working on?
What I’m building is sort of rolling Wing Commander, Freelancer and Privateer into one overarching package.

The bigger idea is the overarching game is called Star Citizen. I’m focusing solely on PC and high-end PC, and I’m making a point to come back. My old games, such as Wing Commander, were famous for pushing the hardware.

In the games business, the industry is very myopic, it’s all, like, ‘PC’s Dead, consoles are the future, now social games are the future, now mobile is the future’, and now it’s the same with tablets.

The way I view it is in the gamescape, all those things exist, and mobile, tablet and social have just been expanding the amount of people that have been playing it.

But I definitely think that there are large communities that aren’t getting attention and one of the biggest communities is PC gaming. On the PC side, there is hardly anyone that’s doing specific games for the for the platform or pushing the hardware, so, yes, you get a fair number of PC games, but they’re all ports of consoles games.

That means you’re getting a game that’s built for seven-year-old technology. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are locked in 2005, and the modern day gaming PC is ten times more powerful than what you can do on console, there is a lot more memory and a lot more power.

I feel like no one is really pushing that. Crytek with Crysis 1 were the last people to do something that really pushed that, and you can argue that Metro 2033 does a little bit of that. But even Blizzard, who is primarily a PC developer, doesn’t really focus on pushing the graphical boundaries.

So for me, I’m a little bummed out because I see a lot of my peer group from when I was making games and they’re all making social and mobile games now. So I see all these famous game designers and I’m like, ‘Why the hell would you want to make a game that’s like a bad version of something you made in 1985?’

For me, all the stuff I’ve ever done is about immersion in the world, and so to get immersion into the world you need to have great fidelity. The way I look at that is, I can watch the Dark Knight Rises on mobile, but do I want to watch The Dark Knight Rises on my iPhone? No, I want to go to an IMax theatre and see it on the big screen.

So the games I made were always kind of doing that, kind of the big sophisticated entertainment for the high-end gamer. I sort of feel like they’re kind of ignored on the PC level by the big publishers. You can see on the PC side there is World of Tanks and League of Legends, they focused on PC gamers. Maybe there isn’t two or three hundred million of them, but there’s probably about 40 million on a worldwide basis, and the thing you find is they don’t mind paying for decent content.

The challenge in other areas, outside of whether it’s creatively interesting to make them, is I think mobile is going to be a complete bloodbath. I don’t see how you make money in an industry where everyone is conditioned to get it for free or 99 cents. You have to sell so many units.

Do you think there has been a rush to the bottom there then?
Yes. And everyone’s going into it, the barrier to entry is really low, so you’re competing with someone in their bedroom working on a free SDK and going into an app store.

If you look at Rovio, the hit of Angry Birds is so big and so far outside of the norm that it’s like expecting every movie you are going to do in the film business to perform like Avatar.

Last year they did $100m of revenue, and $30m was licensing. That means they did $70m of revenue on their core business of mobile, and they shifted far more units than anyone else.

Then if you take a look at the more hardcore business, Activision does a billion dollars a year on Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, but they don’t have a billion people downloading it. But they do have 20 million people paying $60 or whatever for the games.

For me, I think part of the problem in the industry is people care too much about numbers, because that drove the VC world and drove what everyone thinks about the internet. That thinking is a little broken and it would be much better to focus on a core group that really appreciates what you do and that would be very loyal to you.

The other aspect that has excited me to come back is I’ve been watching the level of interaction and involvement you can have with your game community now and the fact you can build experiences, and if you build them in an online manner they are sort of a live project. You can tailor the content and tech you’re upgrading and adding to it based on what the community and the game players are saying.

Will you be using a similar model to Minecraft and letting users in on the alpha and beta?
Definitely. For me having the community as part of it is a huge part of what I’m trying to do. Freelancer, which came out in 2003, still has a pretty active community running their own servers, and even Wing Commander has a group of fans still active.

For me Minecraft is a good example, and Team Fortress 2. These sort of communities where you allow them to be part of the universe and actually contribute and add stuff to it. So as part of this bigger universe there’s a lot of focus on the tools we’re using to flesh out the online open world, and also the tools available to people that get it.

The idea is that you sign up for Star Citizen, which is this persistent world. It’s not free-to-play or MMO subscription, it’s pretty much the Guild Wars model. So you buy your ship in this universe, and once you’ve bought your ship you can venture round and do whatever you want to do and earn your money, and then we’ll allow you to buy more galactic credits with some money, but we may limit how much you can get on a monthly basis.

But there is no pay-to-win advantage; everything is in-game currency. You can’t buy anything you can only get with money so the only thing you do with buying credits is save yourself time.

I think that’s fine, because time versus money is the argument everyone is fine with, but what they don’t like is when it’s done in such a way that unless you spend money, you’re at a disadvantage.

The game sounds similar in many aspects to Freelancer. Are you trying to make the game you wanted Freelancer to be?
Yes, definitely, I’m building the game that I wanted to create when I was doing Freelancer but on another level and with the community.

You said you didn’t want to make it pay-to-win, and you can use real money to buy in-game credits, do you not think people will see that as pay-to-win?
No, the way the game works, it doesn’t matter how much you pay or how much you build – whereas in Eve Online you can pretty much build an indestructible dreadnought – you can’t do that in this game, it’s impossible.

Are you not worried that the target audience is a bit niche for a game that is centred on multiplayer?
Well, maybe, I don’t know. The game is going to be like Wing Commander, you’ll be able to play it on a mid-level PC, but it just won’t look as good as on a high-level PC.

The big difference is that people don’t really seem to push the highest level of fidelity. It’s certainly scalable because the advantage of a space game is you don’t render an environment as space is virtually empty. So the stuff that I spent time rendering are the spaceships and the characters flying them.

In the prototype, the fidelity is insane, it’s ten times what a current triple-A game is. The main pilot is 100,000 faces, the fighter you’re flying is 300,000 faces and the carrier you’re flying off of is about seven million.

Why did you really want to push PC to its limits, why not bring the game to console?
Well because PC is open. PC is a platform that I’ve had all my success on. My player base is still mostly PC players anyway, and I find PC interesting because it is open and the technology is changing constantly so it is creatively interesting.

I feel like, yes you might think it’s niche, but everyone thinks it’s niche so everyone ignores it, and there’s a good market there. I could be completely wrong; it’s just a guess by me. I’m just going by my instincts as a game player, because even though I haven’t been making games for a while, I’ve always been playing them.

The reason I’m coming back and making games is that I got to the point where I was feeling like I wasn’t seeing the game I wanted to see, so I wanted to go and make one.

And also because the way I’m setting it up. It’s not set up in a way that like EA you have to see three to four million copies on a console to break even. I think you can have a good business without doing that.

Did you consider going to publishers or going to crowdfunding for this?
There is an element of crowdfunding in this. The way it’s set up is that I have private investment in it. But we’re raising a portion of the budget via crowdfunding as a validation to the demand on high-end PC gaming.

What you’ll see is I spent a year with a small team with my own money and some Angel money to put it together. I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those people that says, ‘hey I’m famous, give me some money and I’ll make a good game’, which is pretty much all the main designers that have done well on Kickstarter.

With this title, the community will be part of the inside of the development, and there’s a real intent there. I’m actually quite disappointed with some of the crowdfunded stuff where everyone rakes in money and you go to the developer’s site and there’s no updates, and basically you can only order a t-shirt.

If you look at the Roberts Space Industries site, we have updates everyday. The idea is to make the website the first destination for players in the universe.

On top of that, the full game to go live in public will be two years out. But next Christmas, we’ll have the multiplayer game that we can play. That’s not in the persistent universe, but you could just match-make like in World of Tanks. The people who pre-bought their ships can play in that, but the general public won’t have access.

You’ll also have access if you pre-order to the Alpha and Beta side that will go live eight-to-ten months after that; although we’re limiting the number of people who will be able to do that.

The idea is, come in early, and you’ll pay less and get to participate in the game, play stuff and do it early.

Going back, why were you out of the industry for so long, why now? I know you said you felt the technology was at that point where you could do lots of things with it, but why specifically now?
I got pretty burnt out and by the time I put the breaks on I’d been making games for almost 20 years and I just wasn’t in love with making games anymore, it just felt more like a grind than a sense of discovery.

I was interested in making movies so I went and did that for a while but I was always playing games. The big thing for me was I was playing them and it got to the point where they were really engaging me in terms of how immersive the world could be because of the power of the hardware.

When I played Uncharted 2 for the first time, the level of detail in it, how it’s set up and the story, it felt like I was playing an amazing a $200 million summer action movie and I was the star.

There were some games that I started to play that I thought were good and I could see the power of technology and thought this is what I want to do. And then also the rise of the online aspect and the connection aspect, most people have got broadband and you can really build a connected community now.

So have you had publishers come to you?

Yes, you can probably guess the things that there were discussions about, I just don’t think that it’s as interesting because I don’t want to work inside the publisher structure, and also I’m not that convinced on the next-generation of consoles.

I feel likeit’s going to be what Blu-ray was after DVD. You’ll have the early adopters but it’s not going to be the same as the last generation. Even with the last generation it didn’t get going for a couple years.

Why do you think it won’t be as big as the last one?
It’s harder because the extra step of fidelity – like all my models are ten times more detailed than current-gen – but I wouldn’t say you’d think it was ten times better. You’ll appreciate the fact that the pilot has all these pipes and wires and stuff, but it’s very subtle.

It’s not the jump from regular TV to HD. You could see that jump. Now everyone is on HD. Even if console goes from 720p and finally goes to 1080p, I think you’d be hard pressed to see it on TV.