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Chris Roberts On Life After Crowdfunding, Games Vs Film

Fly Me To The Moon

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Star Citizen has made $8 million thanks to the contributions of generously wistful wing commanders like you. That’s so much money that, if you broke it down into individual bills and wrapped it around the Earth, you’d have wrapped $8 million around the Earth. And while Chris Roberts obviously had high hopes for his galaxy-sized baby, even he wasn’t expecting to drum up this level of interest. But Star Citizen’s not like the majority of gaming’s freshly crowdfunded crop. Somewhere way up the chain, investors are pulling a decent number of the strings. Or are they? “We’re still doing investment,” Roberts explained to RPS, “but I’m going to be a bit more picky in choosing it, and I’m getting to dictate the terms better. I’m saying, ‘You guys have to realize about making the game as good as possible. No forcing us to go public or to sell out.’” You’ll find that and tons more about the sudden explosion of space games, the future health of PC gaming, the medium’s relative maturity, and crossovers between games and film after the break.

RPS: So crowdfunding obviously went even better than you’d hoped. What happens now – especially since you’re working with a number of investors and other third-parties?

Chris Roberts: It’s actually funny. Everyone I lined up is basically over the moon. Your big risk as an investor is, “I’m backing this thing. Does anyone really want it?” At this point there’s no question that people want it, and maybe a lot more than anyone was expecting. But the actual nice thing about it is that’s allowing me to take less investment, because we’ve done so well. We’re still doing investment, but I’m going to be a bit more picky in choosing it, and I’m getting to dictate the terms better.

Whether it’s a publisher or an investor, they’re about making a profit and a return. I care about making a great game. The bad situation we’d be in, if I hadn’t done the crowdfunding and I had to get a bunch of money from a VC, first of all they would get a bigger chunk of the company. Then they’re more about, “Hey, I need my return.” If it were successful they’d be pushing us to sell to EA or something. We may not want to sell – we’d want to keep it private and be like Valve and keep doing our own thing.

But because we’ve been so successful, and we’re still collecting on the site, now the investors are going to get a much smaller piece of the company than they were before.

I feel like what’s really good about the success we’ve had is it allows me to run Cloud Imperium – the company making Star Citizen – in a way that’s all about making Star Citizen the best game it can be. I’m not having to worry about that. It’s the same reason you don’t want to work with a publisher. I don’t have to worry about, “Oh, I’m supporting Origin because that’s your digital platform.” It’s turned out well. We have the original investors who were already in, and we have some more that we were going to close afterward. We’re in the process of closing them, but like I said, we’re getting less and I’m being more picky about it, which is good. I’m saying, “You guys have to realize about making the game as good as possible. No forcing us to go public or to sell out.” As a designer, I care about making the best game, making the decisions for the game, and not about anything else.

RPS: So you launched the Kickstarter for Star Citizen, and ever since, it seems like there’s been this giant influx of space games. It may not entirely have been a direct cause-and-effect thing, but still, it’s there. I mean, we’ve got Elite…

Chris Roberts: Limit Theory?

RPS: Yeah, Limit Theory too. I’m guessing you’ve checked it out?

Chris Roberts: I did. I backed Limit Theory and Elite. I actually told our community about Elite and GODUS by Peter Molyneux and said they should check them out. I think I helped send a few people their way. But no, I’m not worried on the competition side. When I used to be making Wing Commander, there was X-Wing and TIE Fighter, and I was doing great and they were doing great. I think there’s definitely room for multiple people in the genre.

I’m just glad that people are coming back to the genre. I feel like the games are a bit different anyway. But it’s nice to see a resurgence of it.

The other thing I like to see is developers getting the opportunity to have some independence. It’s quite nice that you can make a game specifically for the audience, instead of a middleman like a publisher. Basically, instead of working from contract to contract and being beholden to the publishers, you have a chance of getting some independence. I’m a big supporter of that.

RPS: Do you worry about fatigue for space as a setting, at all? I mean, I love it, but gaming already goes there a lot, and – while I think we’re a ways off from hitting this point – there is a limit to what you can do with dogfighting, trading, bounty hunting, and the like.

Chris Roberts: Right now I look at the things we talked about, like Limit Theory, and I feel like fundamentally they’re going to be very different experiences from what I’m doing with Star Citizen.

I’m lucky that I’ve raised the money I have and the backing that I’m getting. I’m doing something with a huge budget compared to most crowdfunded games. I’m making something that’s competing with a triple-A title from a publisher. The other projects don’t necessarily have that level of resources. Maybe I should be, but right now I’m not that worried about it. In my head, I can see what Star Citizen is and I have an idea of what Elite is going to be and I have an idea of what Limit Theory is going to be. I just feel like they’re going to feel different.

I don’t think people are going to mind. I think people love these kinds of games. They want to play them year-in and year-out. That’s why they’re signing up for the idea of a Star Citizen or an Elite. I don’t think there will be an oversaturation. I mean, come on. How many first-person shooters are out there? I know some don’t do very well, but that’s usually because they suck. There’s 25 million people that trot out to buy Call of Duty every year. I think the market’s there. We’re far from getting saturated.

Plus, Star Citizen is going to be… Yes, you’re flying around in space, but you’re also down on planets. You’re talking to people. You’re trading. I think you’re going to feel like Star Citizen is a pretty well-realized world on all levels.

I think that’s going to feel very different from the other games. They’re focusing more on a procedural solution, which is a way to have big universes when you don’t have a vast amount of resources. It’s hard to vocalize it, but the way I would say it is, I think you’re going to be able to almost feel or touch or taste the world of Star Citizen. Some of the other ones, you may not have that same experience. It’s going to just feel more visceral. I don’t see anyone else doing that. Maybe I’m wrong? I could be completely wrong. But I feel like, when you sit down and first play it in the persistent universe, you’ll think, “Wow. This is pretty awesome. I want to spend time in it.”

RPS: Going back to the crowdfunding thing and the level of success you were able to achieve with it, Kickstarter’s bar for success is definitely getting higher. Do you think that what you did is achievable again? For you or other people?

Chris Roberts: The only thing you know in this world is that every record will always get broken. We’ll definitely be beaten. There will be something that will raise more money than we do. I don’t know if it’s this year or next year, but it will definitely fall.

I think what there will have to be is that there need to be some really great successes. There’s been some successes on a smaller scale. FTL was a project that was Kickstarted and then the final game was really good. A lot of people liked it and they sold a lot more units than just the ones for the people backing it. But if Star Citizen works, or Tim Schafer’s adventure game works, or Wasteland works, or Elite works, [people will feel more willing].

The other thing is, if they feel like they backed it and, during the process of waiting for the game, they feel like they had input and they saw what was happening and they enjoyed that process, then I think you’ll see more people come in and embrace crowdfunding. My biggest goal with what we’re doing on the Star Citizen side is, I’m really focused on trying to keep everyone engaged and entertained while we’re building the game. Not just, “Thanks for the money, everybody. I’ll check back with you in two years.” It’s like, “Hey, you’re our community. Let’s have a dialogue every day.” We’re posting new stuff every day. That’s my goal. I want people, at the end of the process, to say, “I backed Star Citizen and I got my money’s worth even before it came out. Playing the game is a bonus.”

RPS: Throughout this whole process, you’ve been a very vocal advocate of PC gaming. But now all the major publishers are doing the typical “new consoles, ohboyohboyohboy” song and dance. Do you think they’re fooling themselves? Do consoles have much of a place in today’s gaming industry – especially in light of all that keeping PC open as a platform has accomplished? Not to mention tablet, mobile, and whatnot?

Chris Roberts: I’m not really worried about them, because first of all, I think every one of these things is a valid platform that has their own audience. I don’t think people are going to be throwing away the PC to be playing console games. I’ve always had a PC and a console. I’ve always played both. I think it’s going to be harder for the next generation of consoles to be as dominant as the past generation has been. Both the console manufacturers don’t want to write off billions of dollars. They don’t want to subsidize the hardware.

The hardware itself is not going to be much different or more powerful than even a mid-level PC. The component prices are all being driven down, so it’s going to be more about, “Do you want to be on an open platform or do you want to be on a closed platform?” For me an open platform is more interesting. I want a game that’s connected all the time, where I’m doing frequent updates and all these different things that, currently, if I were on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, I couldn’t do.

It’s not so much about, “I’m part of the PC master race and you’re a puny console person.” It’s more a matter of whether you’re open or you’re closed. It’s why you’ve got League of Legends and all those. They’re on the PC because it’s open. It’s not an issue for them to distribute. But the business drives me nuts, because everybody in the trade obsesses about, “PC’s dead! Console is the new master race!” “Console is dead! Social games are the new master race!” Now mobile or tablet’s the new master race.

And you know what? There are people playing all these things. There are valid markets everywhere. Everywhere there’s proof of that. You can sell 29 million units of Call of Duty on a console. You can have tens of millions of people playing things like League of Legends and World of Tanks on PC. You can have tens of millions of people playing Clash of Clans on the mobile side. There’s not one ring to rule ‘em all, so to speak. There are different areas. It’s a matter of where you want to play. For me, Star Citizen works the best on the PC and online.

RPS: I’m guessing you’ve heard about David Cage’s recent “immaturity” rant. Unsurprisingly, a bunch of his comparisons stemmed from film. He was like, “Film and television can do this, so why can’t we?” Having been in the film industry, do you agree that the gaming industry has a ways to go before it can make the types of statements film regularly pulls off? Or is Cage way off the mark?

Chris Roberts: I’m sure David Cage likes movies, and I’m sure he’s a historian of movies. But go watch some movies from 1910 or 1920. They’re pretty immature compared to the movies you can see now. That’s just a natural process of growing as the medium changes. If you go and look at an old movie, it’s completely alien. They evolved from people that did stage acting, so originally it was just a fixed camera and everyone was projecting like they would on the stage. It’s really big, broad action. Of course, when they were doing silent movies, it was especially big action.

It’s only around the ‘70s that [things began to evolve into what they are now]. If I look at a film from the ‘70s, I start to see those much more, for me, human movies. In fact, now I feel like we’ve lost some of what we had back in the ‘70s. Some of the stuff now is almost too slick.

So yes, I definitely think that our industry is going to get better and evolve. It’s one of the reasons I came back into it, because I’m interested in doing that. If you’re talking about cinematic stuff, that’s what I was doing a long time ago. I’m interested to come back to the language of a narrative or a world, something you can adventure in. There’s a lot you can do now. Games are a different medium from films, but they both can take you to another world. That’s what I like about films and that’s what I like about games. They both can take you to another world. They just take you to another world in a different way. You have to embrace the medium you’re in and how it does that well.

RPS: Gaming’s in a far more interesting spot right now than I think Cage gave it credit for. A lot of the big triple-A projects are fairly stagnant, sure. They rehash a lot of the same themes – mostly basic power fulfillment. But we do have an independent sector that’s trying a lot of pretty out-there stuff. And crowdfunding seems to be allowing a little overlap. Slightly more robust experiments – though nothing on the scale of, say, Call of Duty, obviously.

Chris Roberts: I definitely think the independent side and some of the crowdfunding is allowing that experimentation. Not so much experimentation like on the big-budget stuff that David Cage is doing, because you can’t do that on $50,000 or $100,000 dollars, but certainly in terms of different gameplay mechanisms, ways to connect into the world, and all that sort of stuff. That’s one of the reasons why I embrace what’s happening in crowdfunding.

The movie business is having major problems. Either you’re a $200 million dollar event movie – and that’s gotta be a sequel or some big brand – so it’s very much like the Call of Duty business in games, or there are some independent films, and then really there’s nothing in between.

I feel like the games business is the middle ground. The games business is coming back because of crowdfunding and stuff. There are people that maybe don’t sell 10 million copies, but maybe they sell a million copies or something. They’re getting an opportunity to make a game again. Like Tim Schafer. He was never a guy that sold multiple millions of copies, but he had a core audience, and it was a good business in the old days, the LucasArts days. Then there was a point where, all of a sudden, if you’re not selling 3 million or 4 million copies, EA or Activision isn’t interested. Then he’s in a no-man’s-land. That’s what crowdfunding enabled to come back.

RPS: Speaking of the intersection between film and games, what are your thoughts on the announcement that Gabe Newell and JJ Abrams are fusing to form Gabe J Abrell? Or maybe making some movies and games. I forget which.

Chris Roberts: It’ll be cool. We’ll have to see. Since I have my film background, I know how busy [Abrams] is in the TV and film world. Not only is he finishing off Star Trek, but he’s signed on to produce future films. He’s got multiple TV shows on the air. Now he’s doing Star Wars, so we’ll see. If you have to be doing the next Star Wars, that’s probably coming ahead of the Portal movie you’re going to work on or whatever it is.

It would be great if something happened. The new generation of filmmakers get games, because they grew up playing games, it’s very different from the old generation. If you look at some of his TV stuff or his film stuff, you could almost accuse it of having game-like elements to it. It would be fun to see him collaborate with Valve, and they’re obviously great too.

RPS: Hm. That’s interesting, because we always say that games are tremendously influenced by films, but there are a lot of films, especially now, that are influenced by games. It’s written all over the cinematography, especially in action sequences. But I think it’s a pejorative a lot of the time. People say, “This movie felt like a video game. Yuck.”

Chris Roberts: Like it’s a bad thing, yeah. Obviously, because I’m a student of film as well as games. It’s not even about the games. It’s about the way we consume information. You get so much information so quickly. You see it in films. The editing is becoming more frantic. It’s quicker to get the information across. If you go and take a film of today and you stack it up against even a film from 10 years ago – if you literally put the two films next to each other – you’ll see the cutting pace and how long it goes and whatever. You’ll feel like the film from 10 years ago – like, “Oh my god, this is unbearably slow compared to what happens now.”

Part of that is because of video games and being online and the internet, where you just click-click-click, zipping around. It’s a different way of thinking. I don’t think necessarily that being like a video game is a bad idea. I mean, now when they say it’s like a video game, they mean it doesn’t have any character. It’s just all on the surface and big explosions. My goal, long-term, would be to fix that.

I do think games themselves, long-term, as a storytelling medium or an immersion medium, [can surpass film]. If you watch Star Wars, Star Trek, whatever, it’s because you like to visit another world. As an immersion medium, gaming is ultimately going to be more powerful than any film can be, because there is inherently a difference between watching someone do something and doing it yourself. The question and the problem in games right now is, doing it yourself… There’s always been a level of awkwardness associated with it, whether it’s the technical reasons, or how the world’s painted is a bit childish or amateurish or whatever. But as time goes on and that changes, you will have more powerful experiences inside a game than you will watching a movie. Not today, but I think in the long term.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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