Star Citizen and Chris Roberts’ Masterclass
Whether or not Star Citizen turns out exactly as Roberts promises, the industry’s landscape won’t be the same after its release.
A lot of people are pinning their hopes and dreams on Chris Roberts’ incredibly ambitious Star Citizen. Hell, we’re some of those people. It’s the most successful crowdfunding campaign to date, having raised just under $70 million, and it’s not a console-focused modern military game or cover-based shooter. Star Citizen is a space sim, part of a long-dead genre Roberts himself helped to create with Wing Commander- it’s incredibly complex and it’s focused on high-end PCs- essentially the antithesis of what publishers in 2015 would ever consider marketable. I’ve been pretty thrilled with this project from the beginning, but as time went on I found myself slowly separating from the hype train. Last night at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, Chris Roberts took audience members on a journey through his rather prolific career, and detailed just what goes into such a massive undertaking. After seeing the man talk about his vision for 90 minutes, I’m back on board- whether or not this game turns out exactly as he promises, the industry’s landscape won’t be the same after its release.
This lecture was the first in a planned series by BAFTA Los Angeles called the ‘Games Masterclass,’ and considering the Roberts’ career path through the game and film industries, it’s fitting that he should have the honor of being their first speaker. The title of his presentation was appropriately borrowed from one of Tolkien’s great works: “There and Back Again: A Designer’s Tale by Chris Roberts.” Large portions were aimed at viewers who didn’t know about his achievements, but even for someone who has followed his story it was interesting to hear Roberts’ own perspective on his various ups and downs. He was one of the innovators in making games feel like films, with 1994’s Wing Commander III starring big names like Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies in live-action cutscenes. He pointed out that he’s still the only game developer to direct his own movie adaptation which, despite the lukewarm reception to the 1999’s Wing Commander film, is no small feat.You can listen to our interview with Chris Roberts from the initial Kickstarter campaign above.
Throughout his time on stage, Roberts continually wove his film influences back into the narrative. It turns out that at the top level, the two industries aren’t so different after all: they’re both businesses, where high-profile projects must be tragically homogenized to get the green light. What’s immediately apparent is a cynicism for how both industries get things done, highlighting the “darker side” of each industry from first-hand experience. Ultimately, his one slide about the film and AAA games scenes stuck with me- in his opinion the two industries are “inefficient, stagnant and disconnected from their audiences.” It’s certainly a bold statement, but one that gives some clear insight into why he chose the crowdfunding model for his magnum opus.
He’s not just a jaded old-school developer though, Roberts has some pretty clear thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of his industries: film is an emotional medium, and games are an action medium. In his opinion, a single look in a single scene can make or break a film- everything is riding on tiny micro-level details to make things right, and usually the big explosions aren’t what stick with you at the end of the day. Conversely, in games the player mostly expresses himself through performing tasks, and some of the most compelling can be large-scale action sequences. He points out that an emotional connection can also be achieved through other characters depending on the player’s performance or choices, something that the developer has focused on in his Wing Commander series quite a bit.
What I hadn’t realized before seeing this presentation was just how involved Star Citizen’s team has been with their community. A huge chunk of the talk was dedicated to all the different ways the team produces regular content, keeps in direct contact with fans, and puts out pre-release playable modules. Roberts played an amusing and surprisingly well-produced in-universe Top Gear parody trailer called “Galactic Gear,” in which the host showed off one of the game’s spaceship models like it was a sleek new car. The team puts out fiction about the game’s universe as well, and they’ve even done an American Idol-esque competition, giving fans a chance to design their own starship. What I’m fascinated by is the team’s commitment to keeping everything within the game’s universe- even the official website is under the guise of the fictional “Roberts Space Industries” corporation! Roberts also lamented the state of video game “betas,” which typically surface a month before a game’s release and don’t give fans time to submit actual feedback- more a preview than an actual beta test. It’s admirable how he wants his fans to get their hands on pieces of the game as soon as there’s something playable, having released two “modules” already for backers to enjoy.
Chris Roberts’ climb back to the top of the games business is an incredibly interesting story to me. Having been through the ringer of both the film and games industries, he’s placed himself as a sort of ‘people’s champion’ by making his project so transparent and interactive pre-release. He mentioned traditional developers being disconnected from their audience as the reason he chose crowdfunding, but reading between the lines, his name might not have meant as much in 2015 had he not rallied his fans to prove otherwise. Star Citizen is more than a game for Chris Roberts, it’s a public display of power, and an incredibly successful way to prove that old dogs certainly can learn new tricks.