Back in 1990, Chris Roberts introduced PC gamers to an epic space drama packed with intense battles and political intrigue. But unlike George Lucas, who oversaw the more linear Star Wars games, Roberts put players in control of all those interspace dogfights and galactic drama. After several sequels and the advanced space simulation Freelancer in 2003, Roberts left the video game business to work in Hollywood.
Now he’s back, and he’s turned to his fans to crowdfund his most ambitious space sim to date, Star Citizen. Later, Roberts talks about his return to game development and explains why he sees the PC as the future of gaming in this exclusive interview.
Game On: How big will your team be for creating Star Citizen?
Chris Roberts: We built the prototype with less than 10 people. The team for this is probably going to be about 60 or 70 people on staff by the time we finish. The funny thing is with this online game, especially this nature of game, you ramp up and then you ramp down towards the end. We’re also going to use a lot of contractors for the art assets and production and sound and that kind of stuff, so that will ramp us beyond that number.
What does online open up from the standpoint of launching the game and expanding the universe over time?
Roberts: It’s very liberating as a designer because in the past when I used to make games you had one shot. You put it on a disk and you couldn’t really undo it. So you tried to put everything on the disk, and sometimes maybe you put too much and you didn’t have enough time to do everything right. I’d rather have the ability to get the stuff out first that’s well done, and then add to it going forward. That lets me focus on the important things that everyone wants. I’m not so paranoid that I’m going to lose my opportunity because I know a month or two months or four months later, if there’s this feature I really want to add I can add it. That’s one of the most exciting things for me is that I know it’s a work in progress. I can make it great at the beginning, but I can continue to make it great.
With so much focus in gaming on the next generation of consoles, what are your thoughts on PC gaming?
The next generation of consoles are PCs. Whether or not one’s announced the specs out there, what Microsoft and Sony are trying to do is trying to figure out how to cut down a gaming PC and sell it for $400 or $500. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of gaming, it’s the PC platform. The PC platform is always evolving and always changing, which is why I like it. Every year there’s going to be a newer, better GPU out, or some other hardware or things like the Oculus Rift that will give you a different experience that I think you can really push forward and try new things in gaming. That’s where I’d rather be. I’d rather be in an ever-evolving platform than a stagnant platform.
What excites you about returning to the games industry?
The thing that’s exciting is I mean what I’m doing right now. It’s this whole idea of crowd funding, getting your community together very early in the process, having them be part of what you’re doing, having them see what you’re doing, and getting their feedback from what you’re doing on a connected basis. I could never do that before when I was making my games because I’d work on a game for two or three years and then people would get to see and play it. And then it would all start again. With this, I’m much more connected to the people that really love this style of game and want to play it and we're having a constant dialog. I find that really great and exciting.
How have advances in technology opened up things for you more creatively?
There’s much less of a case of “it can’t be done.” Certainly from a visual standpoint, you can do a lot of stuff that I always wanted to do with a movie level quality. The other aspects are just simple things like the Web and everyone having broadband.
It means that you can connect one at a high fidelity with lots of players in one area. It’s not about two or four players but a lot more than that. All those things are combined to make these environments that could be a great sandbox, a great holodeck, if you will.
What role will storytelling play in Star Citizen?
Storytelling is going to play a really big role in the universe because my brand of game has always involved a heavy sense of story and cinematic flare. That will be a really strong part of what we’re doing and in Squadron 42 it will be a very specific narrative. On the Star Citizen side it will be less one overarching narrative, but more lots of little stories that you can run across and encounter that we will constantly be updating and adding and seeding around the galaxy as the game goes forward. It will be part of our regular content updates to not necessarily have 30-mission branching stories for the open world, but there’s something that could be three or four missions that has a small story thread over here, and then a different one on a different side of the galaxy.