LOS ANGELES — Chris Roberts has been making space-combat simulation games for decades: Wing Commander, Privateer, Strike Commander, and Freelancer. After a diversion to Hollywood, he stormed back in 2012 with Star Citizen, a new sci-fi space combat and exploration game.
When we first wrote about Star Citizen, it was little more than a cool demo. But it used the CryEngine game engine and had beautiful 3D art. Fans flocked to it because of the ambition of the vision that Roberts had to build a full universe. Through crowdfunding, Star Citizen has raised almost $46 million from more than 400,000 fans. Now, Roberts Space Industries is showing off demos of playable space combat game, Arena Commander, where you can learn how to fight.
And the company is working on Squadron 42, a single-player campaign that will carry on the tradition of Wing Commander. Multiple games are in the works with a full-scale, linked economy across the universe.
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Along the way, Roberts is keeping fans fully informed of the company’s progress, much the way he once had to do with publisher overlords. Except now, the fans are in control. Is this the new way to create triple-A games?
We caught up with Roberts at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game tradeshow in Los Angeles. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How many millions have you hit altogether now?
Chris Roberts: I think we’re going to hit $46 million today. We’re really close. We’re at something like $45,920,000.
GamesBeat: What do you think resonates so well? It just keeps on going.
Roberts: There’s an ambition to the dream that you don’t normally see. In a lot of other stuff, you’ve seen it before. It’s just higher fidelity now. In this, you can see yourself in the ships and the people, see yourself cruising the stars and stopping at a planet and getting out and shopping for stuff. A lot of people responded to that ambition.
GamesBeat: What’s this demo showing here?
Roberts: That’s the hangar. Last August, we released the hangar where people could walk around and look at the ships that they’d pledged for. They could get inside, but not fly yet. The whole idea with this modular approach was that we’d gradually open up pieces of functionality to all the backers, because I knew it was going to take a long time to build the game. I wanted people to be able to play something. You have this huge invested community, and you don’t just want to go away for three years and come back later on.
The idea is very much, as you build and do stuff, they can play it and give feedback and feel like they’re part of the process. That’s another thing people are responding to. They really feel like, when they join the community, they’re part of the process. Their voice can be heard in a way that it wouldn’t in a traditional publisher dynamic. In a normal beta, that’s happening maybe a month before the game comes out. You know you’re not going to be able to affect much.
Now we have the arena, where we’re going to allow you to do dogfighting. In the final game—I’m a big fan of all this in-fiction stuff. We do all these commercials for the ships as in-fiction commercials, centuries into the future. The first one we did was kind of like a BMW commercial. We just did one for the Freelancer, which is kind of like the trucker’s ship, in the style of an F-150 pickup commercial.
Arena Commander, the idea with that is that it’s the simulation software hooked up to your ship. You as a pilot can go in and fire that up to practice flying around, shooting, and competing against other pilots without risking losing your ship. When you fly between planets, in the real game, you can get attacked by pirates and lose your ship, lose your cargo. It’s kind of a pain in the ass. Arena Commander is the part of it that allows you to hone your skills and practice and maybe even compete against other people without the risk of learning everything.
Long-term, in the universe, we’re going to use it as a sort of eSports thing. We’ll have competitions for the best combat pilot. We’re thinking we can even broadcast that inside the universe. If you’re in a bar you can see the Arena Commander finals playing out. Of course we’d do it on the web too. It’s also allowing us to show off and demonstrate and get feedback on the space flight mechanics and balance. We can deal with issues like how our backend solution works, how many players we can get running at the same time.
You start flying around in the Aurora, which is the base ship you get, the starter ship. The initial launch of Arena Commander had three ships – the Aurora, the 300i, and the Hornet, which was more of a dogfighting ship. People that have backed on whatever level, even if their ship that they’ve backed for isn’t in Arena Commander, they’ll be able to fly the one that’s the closest. Chad’s just playing a single-player mode called Vanduul Swarm, which is like a horde mode. The Vanduul are the enemies of the human race, basically, kind of the equivalent of the Kilrathi in Wing Commander. I think there’s 15 waves of Vanduul Swarm you can go against.
In the longer term, this week we start the multiplayer testing. We’re slowly opening that up. We have a unique challenge, in that we’re letting people get early access, but our numbers are so huge. There’s more than 250,000 people who qualify. It’s not a small release. It’s almost like releasing a full game. You have to deal with the scaling. We delivered I don’t know how many petabytes of data already just for this patch. The Arena Commander patch was 11 gigs, and we’ve had 150,000 installs already. It’s challenging, the building-out process, but it’s fun. It’s allowing us to get really useful community feedback early enough that we can change things and make things better.
GamesBeat: You’re doing a sort of game-within-a-game here.
Roberts: Exactly. I knew Star Citizen was such a big vision, especially once we started to get the funding and all the different features, that I didn’t want to spend two or three years before people could interact and play. We’re in the age of community. I don’t look at this as a game someone plays for a week and then they’ll be done. You need to have them interacting and doing stuff so they can see the progress, see that the game is moving forward, see that they have an opportunity to give feedback.
It does present some challenges, because not everyone is aware of the development process. They expect it should all work perfectly and be neatly balanced. No, that’s why we’re giving it to you early, so you can give us feedback on it. The majority of our backers, though, understand.
GamesBeat: I talked to Ultima creator Richard Garriott, who also went the crowdfunding route with his new RPG Shroud of the Avatar, just now. He mentioned that he used to have to communicate a lot more with publishers. He’d have all these internal meetings and write all this stuff about where the game was, and then nobody would read it.
Roberts: Yeah. The backers read that stuff. People always ask what it’s like having 400,000-some bosses. My answer is mostly, in the old way of doing it, you always had people you had to tell what you were doing. But I feel that in this case, there’s a lot of people, but they’ve got money down on this game. They love this game so much that they were willing to pay for it long before they can play it. They’re invested parties.
A lot of times, in the old publishing model, I used to get frustrated when you’d be dealing with a marketing executive that didn’t really care about the game. They would come at it from, “Oh, I saw this game sold so many copies and it has this feature, so you should have it too.” I’d say, “That feature doesn’t make any sense for our game.” “Well, you need to have it, or we’ll have to put your sales forecast down and cut your budget.” You’d end up compromising stuff in your game to make sales and marketing happy. In this case, we don’t have to. We make the game that we think the community wants, and we get community feedback on it. It’s a fun process.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have working on this now?
Roberts: I think at last count it was 268, between contractors and in-house. We have three internal studios – one here in L.A., one in Austin, and one in Manchester. The Manchester one my brother heads up. It was formed from the core nucleus of his team at Traveller’s Tales. Then we’re working with two external studios, one in Montreal and one in Colorado. Between the five studios, we’re all spearheading the different elements of the game.
The game’s pretty modular, so each studio’s taking the lead on one aspect. Squadron 42 is the single-player game. That’s being led out of the U.K. We’re leading space combat here in L.A. The persistent universe and planetside’s happening between Austin and Montreal. First-person shooter is happening in Colorado. It all gets integrated together, but that allows a smaller team to work on an aspect and not get overwhelmed by such an ambitious game.
GamesBeat: Are you building out a vision that you maybe had many years ago?
Roberts: I probably talked to you back in the Freelancer days. I wanted to do Freelancer online. I wanted this dynamic universe. A lot of the ideas I was pitching when I was first doing Freelancer are what I’ll be able to do in Star Citizen. The tech’s there so I can do it now. The financial support’s there. But yeah, I want to build a dynamic universe that’s got that sandbox element to it, but at this level of fidelity, where it looks as good as any triple-A shooter game.
GamesBeat: Do you still have to watch your spending?
Roberts: $46 million is a lot of money, but first of all, you don’t actually get $46 million. You have to pay Paypal and Kickstarter and everyone. It may sound like a lot of money, but in the world of these huge games like Destiny or Halo or whatever—Those guys have 500 to 1,000 people on their teams. We still try to be pretty efficient. We try to figure out where we can be more economical in terms of how we’re outsourcing work and things like that.
GamesBeat: This is based on Crytek’s engine, right?
Roberts: Yes, this is the CryEngine. We’ve done a lot of modifications and we’ll continue to do more.
GamesBeat: They’ve changed their licensing policies some. Does that help you at all? Or do you have a more general license?
Roberts: Yeah, we bought it out. We’re building this game for the long term. It’s an MMO. Hopefully it lasts as long as something like EVE or World of Warcraft. We need to have control over it. So we basically had to buy it out and control the source and everything. We still get updates from them. We work very closely with Crytek. But their new licensing deal doesn’t factor into what we do.
GamesBeat: Which elements of the game are going to finish first? What targets are you looking at right now?
Roberts: It’s hard to say. This year we’re going to show the first-person combat. We have a couple of big iterations on the Arena Commander, with things like multi-crew ships and some other functionality. Next year we’re going to be showing the planetside stuff. We’re starting Squadron 42, the first set of episodes there. Then we’ll have the persistent universe. We’ll start with a smaller elements, like one system, and then we’ll add more systems and keep on adding until the content’s complete.
The backers should be able to fly around in a small version of a persistent universe toward the end of next year. By the end of next year, the beginning of the following year, everything will be feature and content complete. All along the way, though, they’ll be playing. They can play this, go head to head against other people. That’s kind of the content curve.
When you get people in early in development—Inside a publisher, the games go on for years. The end user doesn’t realize that game was in development for four years or five years. A lot of times it’ll get pushed back a year or so and you don’t even know that happened. But we’re doing this totally publicly. Sharing as we go along is one of the big ideas. It forces the team to focus on finishing it and making it stable and polished. When you put something out in public, you don’t want to do it half-assed. It’s very good for cohesion and making the game work well.
When you have people playing it and seeing it grow, they feel like, “Okay, I backed this thing. They’re working hard. I’m getting to play it and I’m having fun.” My goal is, by the time the game is done, a lot of the early backers will say, “It’s all gravy from here. I’ve already had a lot of fun playing the game and giving feedback.” The goal is to take everyone along with us on the journey.
I do think that’s one reason we’ve done so well. We’ve paid attention to interacting with the community. If you go to our website, we do eight to 10 posts a week. We have two or three video segments that we share with everyone. We show them what we’re developing. We give our backers a monthly report, just like you would with a publisher.
GamesBeat: You’re kind of showing everyone in the industry how to do this.
Roberts: I don’t know if we’re showing anyone. We’re just doing what seems to work for us. It’s nice. I very rarely used to get to meet people that enjoyed my games. Ever since I started doing this, because we do a lot more community-focused events, I get to meet people, and it’s really cool. You meet someone who says, “The first game I played was Wing Commander. I became a pilot because I played Wing Commander.” I never thought I’d have that kind of impact.
There’s a sense, when you get to connect with the community on a closer basis—You feel like the work you’re doing matters. People really care. Sometimes, in the more business-oriented publishing side, you lose focus on that. You do all this fighting with the machinery. When’s my release date? Can I get enough marketing dollars? All that stuff that comes in with big business and big publishing. When you’re going straight to the gamer, you don’t have as much of that.
You do have other stuff. You have 400,000 critics. But that’s life.