Ask Developer a Question: Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts is a video game designer, programmer, film producer and film director. He is best known for creating the popular Wing Commander series. After almost 10-year-long hiatus from making video games, Chris returned recently with a completely new project titled Star Citizen (which you can back on Kickstarter for 8 more hours). The past, the present, and the future--all is discussed in this exclusive interview for
1. First, the obvious question: after so many years, why did you return to the gaming industry?
I left the games industry about ten years ago because I’d become burned out on the ever-increasing development times that were increasingly disconnecting me from my audience. All the Wing Commander games (and Privateer) were made in 18 months or less. Freelancer was over four years in development by the time I sold Digital Anvil to Microsoft and a further 2 ½ years after that to be finished. Creatively that is just too long between projects. In addition it became quite clear that to survive you needed to be acquired by a big publisher to be able to afford to make games of this scale and it was a time of industry consolidation, which in turn was going to lead to stagnation in the kind of projects that a publisher was going to take the risk on. It was also clear that the publishers were becoming much more focused on console and PC was becoming an afterthought. This was especially true at Microsoft who were really focused on building games for Xbox [instead of] PC. If I'd walked in with Wing Commander (as an original IP) in 2002, it would never have been funded because it wasn't another iteration of a first person shooter or a sports game. Finally, I felt that technology wasn't keeping pace with the vision. All the things we take for granted today--3D acceleration, broadband internet, motion capture--were in their infancy and it seemed like the way to really tell the stories I wanted was to move to Hollywood and do it the traditional way. But that has all changed today. With crowdfunding, we can build the game the audience wants instead of the one a big publisher tells them they're going to buy... and then I can take advantage of a whole suite of technologies and standards to make sure the game is like nothing that has been seen before.
2. What's going to be special about Star Citizen?
Star Citizen is going to be the game you imagined the day you picked up Privateer or Freelancer. I'm proud of the games we built at Origin at Digital Anvil, but I think I can admit that you run into their limitations pretty quickly today. Privateer's expansive universe is really just five base types repeated, there's six types of enemy fighters... and that's all because we had to ship on a handfull of 3.5" disks or a single CD-ROM. So the technology was holding us back. At the same time, the core design of those games remains so good that I think anyone who ever picked up a joystick can immediately understand how it transitions into a persistent world.
3. Do you feel that there's something missing in the modern games. Something that makes us still want to play 20-year old classics?
The big element that I find a lot of games are missing today is the challenge. There's a very conscious effort on the part of a lot of designers to make their games as easy as possible; to hold your hands through the whole thing. And that's because they're working at the biggest possible audience. So you have this conscious dumbing down to make your AAA title as much like a social game as possible, because you you'll reach X-million more potential buyers. I've found that the games I truly enjoy today are the ones that make winning rewarding... that make you suffer to move further. And we saw that in Wing Commander, imagine releasing something like The Secret Missions as DLC today, something that continues the story while making it even more of a challenge.
4. Do you play games? What are your favorite titles?
I do play games, of course, and I've kept up with the industry since I left Digital Anvil. I liked the Uncharted series quite a bit, I feel like they were as close to my vision for a true interactive movie as has been possible so far. The team gameplay in the Battlefield series, the storytelling in Mass Effect... I enjoyed RPGs like Fallout 3, Dragon Age and Skyrim quite a bit. just the sheer complexity of the world they built and the freedom that allowed the player. The game I mention to everyone, though, is Demon's Souls, which very much exemplifies that 'harder is better' design philosophy; it's a game that truly punishes you and in so doing makes every achievement all the more rewarding.
5. You're probably best known for creating the Wing Commander series. What was the inspiration behind the first game?
The biggest inspiration is Star Wars, of course. What teenager didn't leave the theater in 1977 and dream about flying his own X-Wing? So Wing Commander was very much the culmination of that dream. Not just the technical aspects of flying a starfighter, but that idea of making you the hero, putting you in the 'movie.' My design philsophy has always been to trend towards a visceral experience, and Wing Commander taught us so much about how little things like making the hand move with you on the joystick or actually showing damage to your cockpit as you fight are incredibly important. Of course, it's not just Star Wars... Wing Commander takes a lot from the same classic World War II air combat films Lucas based his epic on, and in many ways it does so more directly. You're in an aircraft carrier in space and you're fighting an alien empire that stands in for Japan in this island hopping campaign across the stars. I like to build my games' stories on elements from history, which I think you'll see again in Star Citizen.
6. Wing Commander III and IV are recognized for the amazing FMV cutscenes. How difficult it was to make those happen. Can you tell us a little bit more about shooting, production, and working with movie stars like Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies, and Malcolm McDowell?
It was difficult to make these happen because it was a new technology, something unproven. There had been some "full motion video" games before Wing Commander III, but none that really tried to be like a Hollywood movie. No one was casting real actors or filming on real stages… and no one was spending the kind of money you needed to do that. So just selling the project to Electronic Arts was a production in and of itself. The shoots themselves were fantastic, here I was a first time director, someone who'd never been to film school and I was working with amazing talent my first time out. Everything really came together on those projects.
7. Will the story of Wing Commander V ever be concluded? Will we ever see a sequel for Freelander or Starlancer as well?
Wing Commander Prophecy wasn't me. I thought the team did a fantastic job carrying on the legacy for that one, but my involvement in the game series ended after Wing Commander IV. So, I've never been especially invested in the story they set up, with the new enemy replacing the Kilrathi. I'd love to make another Wing Commander – and I spent a lot time thinking what I would do story wise - but I’m only going to do that on my own terms. I created and used to own the IP. I’m only willing to go back if I can be assured of guiding it going forward. I don’t want to be the position the Infinity Ward / Respawn guys were , where they built up a huge franchise then had it taken away from them for the greater good of corporate profit and yearly release cycles, IP integrity be damned... The same is true for Freelancer and Starlancer, they're both owned by Microsoft.
So my answer is not rely on a publisher to realize the best place for an IP is with the person that created and loves it, and instead concentrate all my energy and creativity into Star Citizen. Star Citizen has everything I would do if Wing commander, Privateer and Freelancer were still my IPs, rolled into one holistic game. I’m taking a risk, but I believe there are enough PC gamers and space sim fans out there to show the world and publishers that it is very much a genre people want if you make a truly great game.
8. Can we expect any kind of Easter eggs or any sort references to your earlier games in Star Citizen?
Count on it. In fact, have your readers take a close look at the trailer we released at GDC Online...
9. When you took a break from game design and focused your efforts on Ascendant Pictures how would you describe working on movies such as The Punisher or The Lord of War?
I found it immensely rewarding to spend time making films and being involved in all aspects from early script development, through physical production to post production and final release and marketing. I learnt so much from a creative and storytelling side. Lord of War with Nicholas Cage and Lucky Number Slevin with Josh Harnett, Bruce Willis and Morgan Freemen are two of my favorites. Just getting to work with actors of that caliber and see the small things they do make a performance “real” is immensely insightful. There is a lot of subtlety and detail that goes into making a film work that isn’t apparent to someone looking in from the outside. The quiet moments, maybe just a reaction shot or an image can be more emotionally powerful than a two page long speech. There is a level of maturity to the emotion and storytelling that I learn from film that I would love to bring to games. A level that I think is now possible with the advances in technology allowing for more sophisticated visuals and audio, which allows you to deliver some of the details that make a film work. One of my big goals in Hollywood was to try and build the same sense of world that I did in my game worlds, and I'm very proud of how much of that I was able to do on these projects. The last film I produced, a science fiction film called Outlander, is a great example of this. I helped make sure we did a truly exceptional amount of pre-production, really building all the details of the world in just the same way we used to at Origin. And I would say that I learned a lot in the process that we're going to bring to Star Citizen. One of my immediate takeaways there was that I needed to use the same kind of exceptional talent you find in Hollywood to create the feel for the Star Citizen world. So we've brought in some amazing concept artists from the film world, Ryan Church (who worked with me on Outlander), Jim Martin and others, to help make sure Star Citizen has a truly classic look to it.
10. Out of all your projects, including movies and Star Citizen, which one would you say required the most of your time and attention?
Star Citizen! It's always going to be the next one. You can't just sit back and take it easy in this industry, you have to put all of yourself into your next project. You get to a point on a project where you say, this is taking all my time, this is wearing me out, I can't do this anymore… and then you ship the game and you see what it means to the players and you're eager to come back and do it all over again, but to do all the things you couldn't the last time around.