Star Citizen Kickstarter Chat #4

David Lynch


Chris Roberts talks Star Citizen, Kickstarter, Elite: Dangerous, Next-Gen, CryEngine 3, Wing Commander and more...

Published on Jan 31, 2013

Gaming has quickly found itself to be Kickstarter’s most popular category by quite some margin.

We have already seen it impact the gaming community and as more and more developers look to crowd funding as a viable means of financing their games, removing the publisher entirely, its success seems assured.

But, what do the studios working with Kickstarter think of the process? In a series of exclusive interviews, we ask the studios turning to Kickstarter and crowd funding what means to gaming and why it’s proving to be such a success…

Star Citizen

Chris Roberts is famous for creating the Wing Commander series and he may have been away from the games industry for a few years, but he's back and Star Citizen is ready to bring the space flight sim back, too...

What stage is your game at?

Well, we’re just ramping up to full development. We spent about a year in the early prototype and pre-production phase and that resulted in what I showed on October 10th and now we’ve got about two years of full development.

So, we’re just ramping up now in the Austin offices where we’ve had a lot of new people, people I’ve worked with before and some people I haven’t, but they’re very talented so were getting the Austin office up to full speed, which is going to be 20-25 people.

We’ve raised the monies so we’re a go; there’s an audience, people want to play the game!

Would your game exist if it wasn’t on Kickstarter?

Potentially, yes. I was talking to private investors before, originally and I was going in a private investor direction. The thing that you get when you do crowd funding is that you’re validating the demand, you’re validating the idea and you’re proving that there’s a built-in audience, which helps you with your investors but also allows you as a game creator to have greater control.

One of the problems you get is if you get money from an investor or a publisher, and they’re putting up all the money, they’re basically the ones who call the shots. And a lot of the time they won’t be calling shots that are necessarily in the best interests of the game, they’re calling shots for their profitability.

One of my big focuses is because we did so well, I’m in a position to take less private equity than I thought I needed to take and I’ve found that I needed to raise even more money because the smaller amount of private equity I take, the more control I have over Star Citizen and its future.

I’m less beholden to someone saying ‘we’ve invested all our money and now we want to get our returns, so you have to sell to EA or do something else’. The more the crowd funds it the more it can just be about the game.

My goal is to have Star Citizen and never sell out to anyone and just keep it running with the money we generate for the game keeping it all going. Obviously, a private investor, they want a return at some point so they sort of force you to do some things - sometimes - that may not be in the best interests of your game.

I’m going to continue to try and drive the funding as a way to protect the universe, so that I don’t get three or four years into it and have people say ‘oh, it’s going great, Chris. You should go public or you should sell out…’

Crowd funding has definitely allowed a greater degree of independence, so in terms of making it happen that way it’s working and I think it’s going to be better in the long-run for the game and the universe.

It must validating as a game creator to have that sort of response from the community?             

You’re pitching to the real audience and they’re putting money down to buy it. It’s one thing to walk into a publisher, and Publishers are really guessing to what people want when making decisions and they don’t really know.

A lot of the people making the decisions don’t really know and that’s why they all tend to stick to the safe stuff. ‘Oh, well, Call Of Duty’s selling really well, let’s make a military FPS!’ But I don’t think that’s necessarily true; if you’re always looking at what was working yesterday you’re not going to be picking stuff that what works for tomorrow.

You also get that fatigue of getting the same old thing again. Games like Call Of Duty or whatever, when they were first around they weren’t the big thing and they didn’t sell as many units as other big games. To become a big franchise you’ve got to take risks at the beginning. And Kickstarter or crowd funding is an avenue to help facilitate that.

Have you made or anticipated any changes to the original pitch? If so, how did the community react?

One of the things that made us successful while pitching was when we went into the campaign we spent a lot of time interacting and listening to the community, so we definitely evolved what we were offering. We listened to that feedback; to the stretch goals they wanted to see, where we should put our resources and what additional things they wanted to pledge for.

We ran a lot of polls on our site and a good example of this is when we started with crowd funding; one of the things we were thinking about was the extras. ‘Hey, back this game and if you pay a bit more you get a free t-shirt, or a bit more and you get a cloth mat and a bit more and you get dinner with the team and so on…’

We thought that was ok, but they’re into the game and we’re building a game that’s like Privateer and Freelancer, people play the game to get bigger and better ships. If people are going to pledge more, why don’t we start with better ships – that’s kind of the way the game works anyway.

It’s a benefit within the game if you pledge more. When we launched we noticed that people were pledging at multiple levels and with Kickstarter that was something that we had never had happen. You usually say how much you’re going to pledge and you pledge once. But, on our site you could pledge for the Aurora or the Vice Admiral Package or whatever.

So, we saw people making multiple pledges and we couldn’t understand it. And we asked them and the answer was they were collecting the ships. We didn’t think of that, but it makes sense, collecting the virtual items. But then people would say ‘I don’t want any of that silly physical stuff, but I want to be able to get the ships. Sell me them by themselves and don’t charge me as much.’

It became one of the reasons why our [pledge] numbers were so high. People were going back and spending more money on these extra things that would be beneficial to them in the game. I think that’s a secret to the number we almost made crowd funding microtransactions. But you can’t really call it microtransactions.

It was really driven by the community. We listened to them, we responded to them.

Will Kickstarter grow or diminish in importance during 2013?

I think it’s going to grow with the more people that use it and feel comfortable with it, it will happen. It’s an opportunity for gamers to have their voice heard on what games they want to see made and not be in the position where they’re only choice is to buy whatever is force-fed to them by the big publishers.

You’re seeing one of the reasons why it’s taken off this year is in response to the big publishers that keep focusing on the bigger titles and they’re getting rid of all the middle stuff. Genres like the RTS or the adventure games like Tim Schafer’s or even what we’re doing with the space sim, this is the ability for gamers to say ‘no, this is a game I want to play’.

And if you’re a developer like us, who doesn’t have all of the over heads of a big publisher, we can deliver something that’s pretty great for a more reasonable amount.

Are you concerned the next generation of consoles will distract from Kickstarter?

I think consoles will be there and they’ll do decent business but I don’t think that the next generation of consoles will be as big as the last generation. Essentially, I can build a high-end PC now that’s much more powerful than the new consoles that will be announced this year.

But obviously, they’re selling the consoles for $400 and what you’re going to see of the console is it become much more of a media hub in the living room. It won’t just be playing games, it will be playing your movies, streaming your movies and they’re essentially turning them into set-top boxes combined with gaming and media players and I think we’ll definitely see a lot of people who have that there.

But, there will also be a lot of people, because the tech’s kind of similar, on the PC side that will stream into the living room and the price-points of those are coming down, too.

I don’t think the console manufacturers are going to have the same advantage, before they were willing to lose millions of dollars on the hardware and making it up on the backend and Sony can’t afford to do that and I don’t think Microsoft is going to support it that much either.

So they’re going to be on an even footing with everyone else, whether it’s Steam Box or whatever, and then what’s the best platform? Is it a closed platform, which is controlled and curated like Microsoft, Apple and Sony, or is it an open platform that isn’t controlled? There are good and bad things about both sides but that’s basically the PC platform.

How has Kickstarter funding changed the development process?

It kind of has a feeling that it could be cool; people like the connections with the game this early [into development] and being able to have a large group of people to use a sounding board for ideas and interact with them. From a game design standpoint it’s really fun and interesting and I think it’s beneficial as it helps to focus you on the important things.

And you also realise that you’ve got a customer base from day one. A lot of the time you build a game and you’re only dealing with the people who are going to play it much later on in the process. Right now, the whole team is very cognitive of making a game for our audience and we want to make sure we build a really good game for them.

How did you work out your original goal total?

Based on what private investors were willing to commit we still had to raise about $2 million to validate it and so our minimum was set at $2 million and we were hoping we could get to $4 million, which is where Project Eternity got to.

And actually, when we started Project Eternity hadn’t finished its campaign and I was hoping we’d get to $4 million because at the time the most that had been raised was Double Fine’s $3 million. But we blew past both of those and ended up at $6 million.

We’re almost at $7.4 million now, which is just incredible.

Would you use Kickstarter again?

And build a new game? To raise large amounts of money, it’s like anything else, you have to have a brand and a reputation. I was lucky people remembered me from Wing Commander and some of the other games I’d made, but if you’re a new guy doing it, sometimes raising just $400,000, which is enough to get you started, is difficult.

And now, onto the game itself...

What sort of connection is there between Star Citizen and the Wing Commander series?

Well, it was nice that everyone remembered me, because I’ve been gone for quite a while, but I ways always playing games when I was making movies. I was playing more games when I was making movies than I was when I was making games because I just had more time for it.

And I’ve always been something of a tech guy, so I’ve always had a top-end PC and all the consoles and for the last few years I’ve been building my own computer, so I’ve kept in touch with it and the engines long before I made my re-entry into the industry.

I just felt that the time was right and the need to make a game like this and I thought the tech was there and I was really invigorated by the move to digital and online and I felt that changed the business model. You didn’t have to be so tied into a big publisher and I saw the success of League Of Legends and what they were doing, or Minecraft.

So yeah, I thought it was an interesting time to come and I have a game that I’d like to make and I think people would like to play and that was kind of the genesis of what Star Citizen became.

Originally, I was just going to have conversations of coming back and doing a Wing Commander or a console game and I spent a bit of time on that, but I ended up with what we’re doing here and I want to build something that’s a long-lasting thing.

I don’t want to work on a game for two or three years and it comes out and everyone likes it and it gets good reviews and then, bam! You’re done and you’ve got to start working on your next game. For me, I’m much more interested in working on a living, dynamic universe.

What made you decide to go with Crytek's CryEngine 3?

I was looking at both Unreal and the CryEngine and I like Unreal, what both teams has built is really great. I spent a lot of time with Unreal Engine 4 as well as CryEngine 3. I like them both but I was probably a bit more drawn to the CryEngine as it has a slightly more photorealistic look and Unreal is a bit more stylised.

But, the look I have in my mind is more photorealistic, whether it looks like Aliens or Star Wars I want it to have that vibe, and the rendering worked well and it has a lot of live tools that allow you to play around. They’re both very powerful and capable engines.

What's it like returning to the space combat genre and how does it feel re-approaching space dogfighting?

Well, that’s where we are right now, we’re designing those systems and we’ve figured out how we’re going to do some of that stuff, but we’re really getting down to the nuts and bolts of it. My goal is to make everything systems orientated, so [gameplay is] not specific or scripted, it works within these systems.

What I want to do is make it so that you can just get in, play it, and have fun and not really have to tweak much, like Wing Commander. But, if you want you can get into and turn off various ship systems, tweak the power, overclock your engine, so we can have that tweaker culture that you get on PC.

It should be just fun and easy and not a lot between you and getting into the game. You get in and it’s pretty immersive and when you fly and you get to the next level you can start to tweak and look at power management. How much is going to the shields, or engines? You can turn off the flight control system in the middle of combat so that you can spin around.

We’re going to let you have all of those features, but you can play without utilising them. But once you feel comfortable and you want to get into a bit more depth, you can. Starcraft 2 is a good example of this. You can play it and just click, but the really good players have all the hot-keys down and they worry about clicks-per-second.

I want that to be in Star Citizen because I think at the dogfighting level, it almost should be an e-sport on some level. But, you can still just be in trading and manufacturing stuff and I want there to be a lot of roles for people to just exist and have fun in this universe.             

Star Citizen seems to have a strong focus on single-player but you're also attempting to make a multiplayer and MMO as well...

My goal with [Star Citizen] is to really blur the boundaries between single-player and multiplayer and MMO. I want the personal feeling you get when you play a single-player game, but I also want the feeling that there’s a living universe out there that you’re interacting with. I’ve kind of got a picture of this in my head and I’ve got a problem; I don’t play a lot of MMO games.

I feel like if you don’t have a big group, it’s not very friendly. So I want [Star Citizen] to feel friendly and I can play it like I’m playing a single-player game, but if I get my friends over we can play co-operatively and it’s also great and fun.

It’s why I see it as a hybrid multiplayer, single-player, MMO game and blurring those boundaries. When you play single-player and see NPCs there that could be players if you’ve got the PVP stuff switched on.

What did you think when David Braben announced Elite: Dangerous, it looks very similar to Star Citizen?

Well, I supported it. I backed Elite: Dangerous towards the end of David’s campaign when it was looking like it was touch and go if it was going to make it. Basically, that and Project Godus, Peter Molyneux’s game, I told my community that ‘I’m backing it, you don’t have to back it, but I think it’s a worthy cause’.

I supported them, even in the case of Elite: Dangerous, which you would think would be a competitor, but I feel like there aren’t a lot of space games out there and I’m not really concerned Elite will take anything away from Star Citizen. A lot of our backers backed Elite and there’s a lot of crossover, but there’s room for more than one space game.

And, Elite: Dangerous is going to be different, I have a different approach and style to David and he’s going to be more procedural which will make it more generic but also make his galaxy much bigger and much more ‘designed’. We’re still going to have a lot of systems and procedural stuff but the world will be very specifically designed, such as the star systems and locations and stuff.

I feel like as designers this is a great way to take back the power, so to speak. We should support each other and if Peter Molyneux succeeds it’s not going to hurt me, it’s better for the industry.

Would you ever consider bringing Star Citizen to next-gen consoles?

No, I’m not totally against [Star Citizen] being on a next-gen console if those systems are open. The hardware in the next-gen consoles will be good enough to run Star Citizen, maybe not at the highest level, but it’ll be at a mid-level.

But the biggest problem is the openness. On the PC we control the communication with the fans and we control the update cycle and we can rapidly deploy content, as soon as we can on a closed system, which is what Microsoft says it is with its Xbox Live or PSN. We’ve got to go through a whole approval process and it gums up the works and doesn’t make it easy.

The hardware could handle it, but the way they structure their online systems, we couldn’t handle it. If they changed those rules, then we’d look at it, but I don’t see those changes coming any time soon because that’s where they make most of their revenue. Microsoft is very specifically focusing on Xbox Live, especially for the next generation.

There are lot of people playing PC games; how many people are playing World Of Tanks now? They announced they had 40 million people registered, if not playing the game, even League Of Legends and World Of Warcraft has always had a lot of players.

I do think there’s a huge PC gaming audience, even if you look at Steam which has 40 million plus. That’s not an insignificant number and that’s an audience that doesn’t mind paying for content. You might have 100 million plus downloading a mobile game, but they all expect to get it for free.

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