With $7.7M raised via crowdfunding, Chris Roberts makes his sci-fi game in the public eye (interview)

Chris Roberts is under a lot of pressure to get Star Citizen right. The new massively multiplayer online sci-fi title from the creator of the legendary Wing Commander sci-fi spaceship combat games raised $7.7 million via crowdfunding on the promise of bringing back the glory days of science fiction combat simulations in a persistent online universe.

Roberts scored the money via Kickstarter and his own web site, Roberts Space Industries, for his new company Cloud Imperium Games, where he is chief creative officer. In an interview with GamesBeat at the DICE Summit game conference, Roberts said he is now working in the public eye. And everything has to pass muster with the thousands of fans who funded his project. On top of this, Roberts believes he’ll raise another round of funding from professional investors, just to ensure that he has all the resources he needs to live up to the eye-popping 3D visuals in his demo.

Last week, he posted about how he plans to handle “death” in the Star Citizen universe. If your spaceship is destroyed and you fail to bail out, you’ll lose your character and pass on the belongings to your heir, especially if you have taken the trouble to get an insurance policy.

Roberts’ game is perhaps the most ambitious crowdfunded online game that has ever been attempted. But he is accustomed to swinging for the fences. He started in games at Origin Systems, the Austin, Texas game studio that Electronic Arts later bought. He became a star in 1990 with the release of Wing Commander, a space combat game that produced nine sequels and spinoffs. For a time, it was a huge business for Electronic Arts, but the copycat sequels bored gamers and drove the franchise into the ground.

Roberts left Origin in 1996 and started his own company, Digital Anvil. Roberts said that no one has really picked up the mantle in sci-fi combat sims since his last company created the ill-fated Freelancer, published by Microsoft in 1999. That game took 4.5 years to make (and six to get to market), and by the end of it, Roberts had left the firm to make movies, and Microsoft acquired his company. Freelancer was not a huge commercial success, but it was memorable. The player went from planet to planet, running missions and building a cool spacecraft. In Roberts’ original vision, each one of those worlds was a living, breathing thing, full of people and adventures. It was a precursor to modern massively multiplayer online games.

Star Citizen will carry on that legacy on the PC when it launches in a couple of years. In the meantime, Roberts will release bits of it so that fans can battle test them. You’ll be able to inspect your ships and then fight in dogfights in the not-so-distant future. Once those modules are complete, they’ll be plugged into the larger game, which includes the online universe and a single-player campaign.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: You have an update, I guess? More things are happening?

Chris Roberts: I did this fairly big update the day before yesterday about how death is going to get handled in a persistent world. Single-player is pretty easy. You die, and you go back to an earlier save point. But obviously, in a multiplayer online world where there ‘s lots of other people playing, you can’t go back in time. The universe carries on.

GamesBeat: How do you handle death?

Roberts: The hardcore version is permadeath. Your character dies and you start a new character. That’s hyper-realistic, but maybe not so much fun. Then the other side of the coin is that you never die. You respawn and you’re basically immortal. You just lose time getting back to the spot you were at. I did an update on something I’ve been thinking about for a while that I thought would give a sense of mortality and history and risk, but not be too punishing. It’s a slightly different approach from the way most multiplayer games work.

The big challenge for something like that in the environment where I’m building a game is that I’m doing it publicly. It’s not behind the curtain anymore. You have to figure out how to share concepts with people. You’re never going to please all the people all the time. You’re never going to keep them all happy. There’s always people who are polarized on either side. That’s one of the challenges of a crowdfunded game where you’re open about your development process. Any time you’ll try something slightly out of the norm, it takes some people out of their comfort zone. They’re going to be upset about it.

It generally went over well. I think it could work, and it would fix some of the problems I have with big multiplayer setups, where I have trouble getting immersed in the world. That’s my goal with Star Citizen, to have this living universe. People have history. If you’ve been in a lot of dogfights and escape by the skin of your teeth and I see you in the bar, you’ll have scars on you. Maybe you have a cybernetic arm. You look like you’ve been through the wringer a few times. I haven’t really seen that. That’s kind of like the character version of ship damage, so to speak. That was the recent big thing.

GamesBeat: The usual punishment for death in games is that you have to respawn far away, right? 

Roberts: Yeah. You have to go back to the spawn point.

GamesBeat: You run a long way and then you get killed again. Or in Air Warrior, you had to fly for an hour to get back into the battle. It almost seems like with a space-based universe, that could be a problem.

Roberts: In the game, if you lose a dogfight, you can eject. Then you’ll be drifting in space and get recovered and you’ll go back to the last planet you were on. If you have an insurance policy your new ship will be waiting for you. You do have the ability to go back and do it again. But I feel like you also need a bit more than that. There needs to be some wear and tear that goes on.

The idea behind the mechanic goes back to the old-school idea of lives, almost. If you eject and get recovered and go back, you haven’t lost a life. If you don’t manage to eject in time and the ship blows up, or you get shot in the head boarding another ship, or someone shoots your pilot as he’s floating waiting to be picked up, then it’s almost like you’ve lost a life. This is in the future, so we can probably bring people back from points where we couldn’t do it now. You’d wake up in a med bay and you now have a cybernetic arm replacement or something. Most of the time you should be ejecting. All the rest you won’t even get to this point. But after a while of doing this, your body just gives out and that character’s dead. Then you start again.

The thing is, in Star Citizen, if you think of it in role-playing game terms, your ship is really your character. That’s where you put all your investment. Your assets in your ship transfer along. When you start the game and you set up your character, you state who your beneficiary is going to be. When you finally die, you’re at a funeral scene. Now you’re watching through the eyes of your beneficiary, and their goods have passed on to you.

There are achievements inside the world of Star Citizen that are singular. It’s not like an MMO where everyone goes and kills the evil baron in the castle and then he respawns. There are things I’ve talked about like the jump points, where one person will discover it and then that will be associated with them. They can name it. But also I’m going to have boss-level NPCs that are unique. Only one person or one group of people can kill them, and then they’re gone. Then of course, like anything else, there will be some other pirate that will step into their shoes, but he’ll be different. These won’t be easy to get. They’ll be very rare in terms of being able to fight them and beat them. They’ll be really tough.

It’ll be something that will be part of your epitaph. Your goal in the game is to try to achieve great things during your lifespan. Then, at the funeral, it should say on the tombstone, “Here lies Chris Roberts, discoverer of the Orion 5 jump point, killer of the dread pirate Roberts and citizen of the first order.” Then you could even have points where you lost your character and you go back and revenge him. “You killed my father! Prepare to die!”

GamesBeat: I didn’t catch up with you after you raised the money. How was that process?

Roberts: It was exhilarating and really hard work. I have a lot of respect for politicians, because it was like campaigning 24/7. Everyone that’s backing you, they’re in all time zones, all around the world. The weekend is where they have spare time, so you have to work that too. It’s hard work, but it’s fun, because you’re doing it with people who are into it. They believe in what you’re doing, and they believe so much that they’ll give you money two years before the game’s out. But yeah, it’s exhausting. It’s not like being with a publisher where you know you work nine to five and you can take the weekend off.

We’re still raising money. We’re doing somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000 dollars a day on the site, which is pretty impressive. That’s helping pay for some of the development and newer stuff we want to do. That’s also paying for a higher level of community. We have people dedicated to updating and engaging the community. That’s one of my big goals. We have, on our site, one or two updates a day. In any one week we’ll have eight to 10 updates, which is a lot more community interaction than you would normally get. Then we have our forums. We have a chat system on the site.

We’re doing some specific video content. We do a live show every Friday, but we also shot something with Oculus VR a couple of weeks ago. We’re doing this thing we call Tech On Spot where we look at things that make sense for Star Citizen. We’ll go see Oculus or Razer or Alienware or something. I did one with Chris Taylor where I sat down with him and we did an interview before Christmas, which we’re calling Game Changers. There’s a couple other ones that we’ve got in the pipe.

My goal is to have the community that’s backed this engaged and entertained while they’re waiting for the game, and even to give them components of the game. The other thing we’re going to do that’s different from traditional development is that we’re going to share drops of game functionality along the way. The first thing we’re planning is, in August, for Gamescom and PAX, we’re going to release the hangar module to all the backers. It’s a space hangar you can go in, all in the engine, and you can see the ships that you’ve pledged. Walk around in 3D. Go inside them. Invite your friends to hang out and see your ships. You should also be able to do some customization on the ships. I’m not sure if we’ll have all the assets built by then, but you should be able to customize. That’s in August.

Then, at the end of the year, we’ll have a dogfighting alpha, which will allow you to fight, just straight deathmatch, with the ships you’ve pledged for. It won’t have the persistent universe or the single-player story, but it will allow us to balance and tweak things and see how it works. Players will get to fly their ships and learn the dogfighting. They’re basically playing part of the game already. We’ll have a version of the planetside interaction. That’ll be another module you’ll get, where you go and talk to other people and feel out how that works inside the space bar and everything. The idea is to build and release these sub-modules, test them with the community, get the feedback, get the kinks out of them, and by the time we pull it all together into the final game in two years’ time, we’ll have battle-tested a lot of it. Hopefully we’ll have fewer problems at the end.

GamesBeat: Are you able to set a more ambitious scope now that you know how much money you have?

Roberts: Definitely. I’m able to set a more ambitious scope, and it’s much better in terms of the private equity side and the control of the company. The valuation is much stronger now. If I were doing this as a traditional VC deal, the amount of the company I owned would be much smaller. I would be more beholden to investors who are like, “What’s our exit plan in four years?” “EA’s offering a lot of money. Why don’t you sell to them right now? We want out of the deal.” That may not be the best answer for the game itself. It may be better to just keep it Valve-style and grow and curate it properly and not worry about other things.

The nice thing about doing the crowdfunding is it validated demand. It set an expectation of where it can end up. It allows me to have better control of the destiny of it on a long-term basis. That’s important to me. I lost Wing Commander when Origin was bought out. It’s always frustrating to lose control over an IP that you think you can still do a lot with. I like the idea of being able to run Star Citizen in a way that can be about Star Citizen. The CCP guys run EVE and make their decisions based on what’s going to be good for EVE. It’s not, “Oh, we need to make sure that we work with our new digital online platform that sells all these other games.”

When you’re hooked in as part of a publisher, all of a sudden there are all these other demands. They’re not necessarily bad things, but there’s other things going on and other priorities. It’s not just about what’s best for the Star Citizen universe. I’m happy about being in the situation where we are now. I feel like I’m going to be allowed a greater degree of control and freedom to make decisions for the universe and the community that I wouldn’t have had in another scenario of getting funding.

GamesBeat: It certainly postpones the day where you have to look for money again.

Roberts: We have private investors already. I’m still closing with some of them. I lined up money to make this game even without the crowdfunding. The crowdfunding was validating the demand. Now I’m at the point of going back to some people and telling them I don’t want as much money now. I want to have more control. It’s going to be better for the players. Their money has ensured that this game and this universe will be truer to their needs.

If you’re an investor or a publisher, sure, it’s nice to have the game, but your primary motivation is turning a really big profit. [laughs] If you’ve got deals on the table and one’s a 20x exit and one’s a 10x exit, you go for the 20x every time. From the player’s standpoint, maybe the 10x exit would be the better call. Not necessarily saying that you’re only going to end up with 10 versus 20, but maybe this company or this path would be a better fit and you’ll get your money back over a longer period of time rather than a shorter one. For me, I’d rather do what makes sense for longevity.

Facebook went public because they had a lot of investors who wanted to get their money and get out. It’s good to be in a position where you can’t have your hand forced. That’s what having a successful crowdfunding campaign allows you. It allows you more power and say in that stuff.

GamesBeat: How do you figure out how much money might be enough? I got a look at the THQ documents. They said Saints Row 4 was supposed to rake in $185 million, and they have a margin of $50 million. That means they’re spending $135 million to get that game out, with marketing and everything.

Roberts: Triple-A games are definitely expensive when they’re console. A big publisher’s per-person costs are more expensive than mine down in Austin where I’m running it lean and mean. I’ve got no executive overhead, none of that.

An EA will have, what, $30 million or $40 million for their development? Then they’ll spend at least $20 million for the marketing. If it’s a bigger game they’ll go higher. You add those numbers up and after you back out returns and everything else, it’s about $35 dollars a unit you’re putting away. If I’m already in for $60 million, I have to sell two million units just to get that back. Then I have to manufacture two million discs. That’s another $20 million. I’m behind the eight ball again and losing money. Really I’d need to manufacture three million discs and sell them all to get close to breaking even. That’s the EA break-even generally, from what I remember. Then you want to make a profit. Let’s manufacture four million discs at this point. That’s how those numbers happen.

The beauty of digital is you don’t have those cost-of-goods issues. Nobody’s asking you to manufacture four million discs at $10 dollars a pop up front. You can scale with it. When we finish Star Citizen, we’ll be an expensive game. We won’t be as expensive as a big triple-A console game, but we’ll have about as much value and assets in it. We don’t have the same issues of manufacturing a bunch of physical goods and getting them into the channel. We’re capturing a much larger percentage of the final price. That’s a big issue, if I’m selling a $60-dollar game and only putting $35 dollars in my pocket. In our case, we can sell a $60-dollar game and just give three or four percent to the payment provider. It’s an opportunity for someone like me. I can be in the business without selling four million copies and still do very well.

The money we’ve raised to date is not the end. There’s private equity. We’re continuing to raise money. My expectation is that over the next two years we will probably have raised at least as much as we already have, and maybe more so. There’s going to be opportunities as you go. When we start to do the dogfighting alpha, you can play that. We’ll get more people coming in to pledge for their ship and play.

My experiment is, I would love to have financed the entire game from the players in the crowd, leaving the equity as an insurance policy. We’ve got enough that we don’t need to do that, but I’m interested to see if I can achieve it. Like I said, it’s almost like we’re releasing mini-games along the way. There will be plenty of value. Our player base will get bigger. By the time we launch we’ll hopefully have 200,000 or 300,000 people instead of the 100,000 we have now. If we do that, we’ll definitely have financed the game from that alone. It’s a slightly more big-budget version of Minecraft. [laughs] That would be a good place to be in. He’s doing quite well.

GamesBeat: Did the fans change a lot about what you were planning on doing already?

Roberts: I don’t know if it changed a lot, but it showed what’s useful about having an active community that’s really invested. It’s a great feedback mechanism for figuring out what’s important to people. Whenever you do something big and ambitious, there’s always more things that you can do properly. You have to make a decision on where you’re going to spend your resources. We have a dedicated focus group in our community. There’s not some marketing department recruiting a focus group, either. These are people who love this genre so much and want to play this game so much that they’ve given us money two years before it’s come out. They’re vocal about what’s important to them.

The way we run it, it’s not that we just listen to any one voice on the forums, because that never works. The people who shout the loudest aren’t necessarily the majority. But we get the general feeling of sentiment and we do a lot of polls. We have thousands of people responding. Then you’re more in the realm of statistics. We use that as data points to help decide what areas we’re going to give more TLC and which areas would be lower on the priority list. That’s really efficient and useful for a developer.

A lot of times when you make a game, you build a bunch of stuff, and then when you ship the game you see that no one’s using those features that you spent all this time on. “If I’d known that I’d have spent all the time on this feature over here that everyone loves.” Having a community this early helps you out with that. It helps you learn what’s really important to people, and it helps you with poking holes in systems or ideas that you’ve got now. We talked about the insurance system on the ships. A lot of people were coming up with all these insurance fraud scenarios. It was great. “Okay, cool. Now we can counter that.” You know up front and you can build it into the system instead of having to patch it.

GamesBeat: Now that you also have the money, you may have more options. Would you think about doing a version of this on somebody’s next-gen console? The timing is looking good.

Roberts: [Laughs] The next-gen consoles are basically the high-end PCs of today, so they’ll be capable. It’s more a matter of the thing Gabe talks a lot about. Are you open or closed? One of the reasons why we’re on the PC is because it’s open. We can push a lot content and data out to the user base and update the universe frequently without having to go through all sorts of certifications on a closed system. The way we’re designed right now, it won’t work on a console in that current setup.

There’s a lot of talk out there about that changing. If it does change, we’ll reassess it. We’re not elitist. You don’t have to be part of the PC master race to play Star Citizen. But I’m pragmatic about it. I like the PC. I can push the gameplay experience the farthest on a PC. I can have the coolest hardware. I’m not limited by my frequency of updates or anything like that. That’s why we’re focused on it. But if there’s an opportunity somewhere else and it can be open, then of course we could take a look at it.

GamesBeat: Do you share any of Valve chief exec Gabe Newell’s concerns about the openness of the PC?

Roberts: You mean about Windows 8?

GamesBeat: Yeah. He’s not happy about Steam and Windows 8.

Roberts: I have my Razer laptop that I put Windows 8 on to play around with. I think I may need to be installing whatever that Start8 thing is, that basically makes it like Windows 7. I hate the Metro screen that keeps trying to take over. Underneath it all, though, it’s pretty much Windows 7. They have this whole app thing and the Metro thing on top, but you can do the same desktop apps and everything.

GamesBeat: He talked around it, but his complaint sounded like they were closing it all off, as opposed to living up to the legacy of keeping it open.

Roberts: They’re doing it on the front end. They’re curating it a bit so it’s more like Apple, but you can still go anywhere on the net and download anything. The initial experience for someone who may be more of a neophyte is a bit more directed and curated. As far as I know, Microsoft isn’t forcing you to only have Metro apps on your PC. If they did that, yes, there’s definitely trouble. I think that’s what Gabe is afraid of — not what Windows 8 is today, but the trajectory that he can see it taking, where the next step is, “Metro apps only and they have to go through our store where we’ll charge you X percentage.”

GamesBeat: So, you like your platform.

Roberts: I like the PC. There are issues with the PC in terms of so many different configurations and incompatibilities. But the PC is a much better platform than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Windows 7 is probably the best operating system I’ve ever worked under. It’s the best of any of the Microsoft ones. As far as I’m concerned it better than the Mac system at the moment.

My wife is a big Mac person and her Mac with whatever the latest version is has trouble with detecting the hardware you plug in. You have to install drivers off discs. My Windows 7, I plug something in and bam. It goes to the internet, figures out what it is, and gets the driver. I do development on it. I’m crashing Star Citizen, pretty heavy-duty stuff, and I don’t have to reboot my PC at all. I keep it on 24/7. Maybe once every three months I reboot it. That’s an incredibly powerful, stable system. They did a great job with Windows 7. It’s nice to be on a platform that, when something new and cool comes out, like a faster graphics card, you can take advantage of it. You can plug in the Oculus Rift.

GamesBeat: Will you be able to work with the Oculus Rift?

Roberts: Definitely. We announced we were supporting it when we launched. I did a video on that where we visited them and interviewed everybody behind the scenes, which was fun. The cockpit experience in the headset is a better experience than the first-person shooter experience. You’re actually seated there and you have a joystick. That’s as close to the real experience as I can get. Much more than running around on foot. It’s a natural for Star Citizen.

We did a pretty detailed survey on what the hardware is and what everyone was doing. We had close to 9,000 people respond, which is approximately 10 percent of our base. A pretty good sample. Of those people, 29 percent said they were going to play Star Citizen with the Oculus Rift. If you extrapolate that to our current 100,000 base, that’s 30,000 people. Even right there, that’s 3,000 people. That’s 30 percent of the people backing Rift right now.

The other thing that was an eye-opening stat for me was that 82 percent of our respondents in the survey build their own PCs. 90 percent of them game on desktops versus a laptop. I was shocked. I did not think it would be that high. The people who respond to a survey are a bit more of that kind of person who’d build their own PC. The bigger player base, it’s maybe not 82 percent. But with a statistical sample that big, you have to think that it’s still more like 70 percent building their own PCs. That’s pretty impressive.

It goes with my empirical evidence, if I look at people like Alienware or whatever. They’re having problems with Newegg and Tiger Direct and all those guys going gangbusters. What’s happened is that building a PC is not that difficult. People like to do it because they know they’re saving money, and they can specify their computer exactly the way they like.