Chris Roberts: Time between my new games was getting too long

Chris Roberts, developer of the Wing Commander series and the upcoming Star Citizen, talks about his hiatus from game making and shares his thoughts about the state of the games industry.

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When game developer Chris Roberts stopped by a couple of weeks ago to demonstrate his upcoming space combat opus, Star Citizen, he talked at length about his hiatus from the games industry, and why now was a prime time for his return. In 2001, after helming multiple entries in the Wing Commander series--followed by Privateer and Freelancer--Roberts decided he needed a break. One of the key reasons was the technological limitations of the time. "I was sort of frustrated with the ability to get the image I had in my head onto the computer screen," Roberts said. "I felt like I was fighting technology too much. I had a whole bunch of ideas I wanted to do, and there was more than one time where I had to scrap some stuff because we couldn't deliver on it." To put things in some context, he explained that the first and third installments of the Wing Commander series were in development for about 18 months apiece, and parts two and four of the series were each in development for about a year. "On Freelancer, when Microsoft bought Digital Anvil, we'd already been in production for like 4 years," he said. "And it was still another two years after I sold the company to them (and wasn't really involved, other than being a consultant) before it came out." "Six years, for me," Roberts said, "is too long." "It's tough enough when you go off and build a game. And you build it in isolation. And you work really hard," he explained. "In the old way of doing those, you'd put it on disks; it would go into a box; it would go to the store. Then people would get their hands on it and hopefully people would like it. And they played it and there would be a bunch of noise for a month. And it was all kind of cool. And then you're off doing it again." "That's fine, when it's a couple of years, max. But when it was getting to be like four to six years... my creative side found that pretty frustrating," Roberts said. "I wanted to be in the cycle more. And then finally, when it was the time of the transition when the industry was sort of segueing from--you could have been smaller and more independent, or you had to be part of a bigger mothership (whether it was Microsoft or EA)--I'd already done my tour of duty inside EA when Origin was bought by EA."

New technology will make Star Citizen the game Roberts wants it to be.

That's not to say that Roberts is sour about larger publishers. "It's not like the big publisher is bad. It's different," he clarified. "Whenever you've got 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, or 100,000 people, the dynamics of that relationship are different than if you were a small, tight developer." Given Roberts' experience in the film world--he directed the 1999 Wing Commander film, and was a producer on The Punisher, The Jacket, and Lord of War--the connection between big-budget games and big-budget movies seemed logical. "The biggest problem in the bigger setups is that there's a lot of noise that just comes with a large organization," he said. "You're doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with making the game. That's probably the biggest challenge for the EAs and the Microsofts of the world. The film business has solved it, right? I mean, you're talking about James Cameron, and he may have 1,000 people, but no one is asking him to go into the boardroom meetings and do all that sort of stuff. They've bifurcated the executive management stuff from the creative. Steven Spielberg--no one is asking him to be the head of Warner Bros. They say, 'You should just make movies, because you do movies really well.'" "So, I think part of the issue--for me, anyway--is just that, in terms of a bigger organization, that's sort of the final reason I said I wanted to take a break. I could see that I was going to have to spend more time on non-gamemaking stuff," Roberts said. "When you become sort of a general manager, you spend a lot of your time interfacing with the bigger company. Of course, you've gotta be up there fighting for your budget, and all these other things. And there's all this noise that's not about making the game itself." Roberts' also discussed his departure from games in context of the recent, notable exits of Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games, or Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk from BioWare. "I haven't talked to him. I'm gonna have to get the skinny from Cliff," Roberts said. "The BioWare guys? It's hard to say. I suspect that... well, EA bought them, and they've been doing really well, right? I know for a fact that [John] Riccitiello and Frank [Gibeau] both think they're awesome. That's not a matter of anyone saying, 'We don't like you,' or anything." "I think part of the problem was is that they went from what I'm talking about--being guys that make games--to like 'Hey, you're doing really good. Why don't you have this division in Austin? Why don't you take over Redwood Shores? Why don't you take this thing over in Ireland?' And so all of a sudden, they're running an empire, which is a bit different from being a developer. I don't know, this is completely just my supposition. I think those guys got into making games because they like to make games," Roberts said. Roberts said the time was right for a return with Star Citizen because it allows him to return to his roots as a game developer. "I definitely think there's a lot of that," he said. As far as the trend of moving top developers and industry luminaries into management roles and away from game making, Roberts sees it as an issue that needs addressing. "Long term, it's probably something the industry needs to solve," he said. "It got solved in the film industry, to a certain extent. I'm sure, like me, [devs like Bleszinski and the BioWare doctors will] be back. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries. It's like being on a treadmill. You're constantly going, like a hamster running around on a wheel. So sometimes, it's nice to just take some time off and get some perspective."
In part two tomorrow, Roberts delves into his love of PC gaming and the reason Star Citizen is PC only.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 24, 2012 9:35 AM

    Jeff Mattas posted a new article, Chris Roberts: Time between my new games was getting too long.

    Chris Roberts, developer of the Wing Commander series and the upcoming Star Citizen, talks about his hiatus from game making and shares his thoughts about the state of the games industry.

    • reply
      October 24, 2012 9:42 AM

      Omfg than you so much, Jeff. Awesome stuff

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      October 24, 2012 9:50 AM

      That concept art is glorious.

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        October 25, 2012 11:28 AM

        That's not concept art, those are game assets!

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      October 24, 2012 10:07 AM

      I've already contributed over on Roberts Space Industries. When I heard Wing Commander fighting, realistic physics and Privateer-like economy, all in a massively multiplayer persistent universe. I was sold.

      So I threw down $60.
      I want to have the "bounty hunter" title and the Origin i300 ship.
      although I wish they'd hurry up and put out the ship art. I wanna see what the i300 is gonna look like!

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      October 24, 2012 10:18 AM

      Could very well be the best game of 2013/2014. Here's to Chris Roberts and continued Wing Commander success.

    • rms
      reply
      October 24, 2012 10:19 AM

      Timely and informative. Big thumbs up

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      October 24, 2012 11:03 AM

      I love Chris Roberts and I miss playing his games. He could say Hey, I'm making an X-com game and I wouldn't even question it. With his direction it would probably be pretty badass. Can't wait for Star Citizen!!!

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      October 24, 2012 11:20 AM

      Doesn't look good. 1.3k on the site and 540k on kickstarted with 16 days to go to 2 mill.

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        October 24, 2012 11:24 AM

        Actually, they've already met the Kickstarter goal of $500,000, and still have 26 days left to add to that.

        They've also raised $1.3 million on the RSI site, of a $2M goal. They're in very good shape.

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          October 24, 2012 11:27 AM

          These things seem to either get funded very fast at the beginning or very fast at the end.

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            October 24, 2012 12:02 PM

            I think the funding campaign will continue for the better part of next year -- the ultimate goal is 5M. 2M just gets the game "greenlit" so to speak. I contributed and expect them to hit the 2M mark before the end of the week.

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        October 24, 2012 1:50 PM

        How does 1.8 mil with 16 days left to get to 2 mil not look good?

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      October 24, 2012 11:22 AM

      I'm torn. This is the most interesting game in development right now, for me. But, it always seems like a bad sign when the game designer becomes a big deal like this. I think a game designer with a strong vision is essential to good games, and all the games I admire have had someone driving them, but it just seems that once they become somebody with a recognizable name, they go downhill. No More Heroes, Spore, Fable, were all disappointing compared the the previous games.

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        October 24, 2012 11:46 AM

        Big names + big publishers seems to be the recipe for eventual disaster.

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          October 24, 2012 1:00 PM

          Nothing bad happened from the Blizzard + Activision merger...right? :P

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            October 24, 2012 1:01 PM

            Nevermind, just re-read the original post, I'm off topic.

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              October 24, 2012 2:52 PM

              Naw, that counts as far as I'm concerned. Blizzard had the same kind of can't-make-a-bad-game reputation as some of those big-name designers.

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      October 24, 2012 12:07 PM

      This is my current favorite thing on the Internet.

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      October 24, 2012 2:57 PM

      the game sounds really good, but they have to focus on one thing at a time and get it out in stages, instead of trying to jam everything into the game at the beginning.

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        October 24, 2012 4:54 PM

        It sounds like that's the way its going to go. the extra stuff will eventually be added regardless of the final amount (per the forums and dev posts) it's just that having the extra funding will make it happen faster.

        There's a LOT of good info over on the forums, and it's not terribly troll-ish over there either. I'm not sure if it's that most space-simmers are older more mature people, or if it's just run by really good moderators.

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      October 24, 2012 4:21 PM

      Saluting with left hand drives me insane

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      October 24, 2012 5:00 PM

      Holy crap, that video is sexy as hell.

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      October 25, 2012 1:14 AM

      For the uninitiated, you still contribute to the project at http://www.robertsspaceindustries.com/star-citizen/

    • reply
      October 25, 2012 1:14 AM

      For the uninitiated, you still contribute to the project at http://www.robertsspaceindustries.com/star-citizen/

    • reply
      October 25, 2012 3:58 AM

      i want to be able to stick to an asteroid like that and hide from radar. that'd be sick.

      also... why do lasers often have to be so damn slow?

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        October 25, 2012 2:14 PM

        speed of light vs very long distances?

        Unless they're packets of super heated plasma, in that case it's limited to how fast they can be ejected from the firing chamber.

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          November 4, 2012 1:13 PM

          i guess i meant gameplay wise... i've read a good chunk of forum posts for X3 recently, about targeting/accuracy, range, projectile speeds etc. recently. And, to paraphrase, in realistic terms a computer-aimed light-speed weapon will basically never miss, taking out anything small, making only capital ships practical... then they duke it out at beyond-visual ranges. Which is all very interesting to think about, but pretty boring for a space combat game.

          i just wish some of these weapons travelled a bit faster than 40 mph

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      October 25, 2012 11:31 AM

      It would be nice to have links in the article to either KickStarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cig/star-citizen) or the game's website (http://robertsspaceindustries.com) so this thing can get funding and be awesome and all that.

    • reply
      October 31, 2012 1:50 PM

      Btw, this was a good read... is part two still coming?