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How movies shaped Star Citizen's success

Chris Roberts shares what he learned in Hollywood that helped drive a $72 million crowdfunding phenomenon

In 2001, Chris Roberts left the game industry to go Hollywood.

"I was kind of getting frustrated with the technology," Roberts told GamesIndustry.biz during the DICE Summit earlier this month. "I wanted to build a richer, more immersive world, but I felt like I was held back by memory, or fidelity, or graphics cards."

Roberts already had a taste of Hollywood, having produced, directed, and co-written the 1999 feature film adaptation of his signature space combat series Wing Commander. The developer acknowledges that project "didn't work out the way I wanted it to," but Roberts was undeterred. He founded production company Ascendant Pictures, and went on to produce a variety of high-profile films like Who's Your Caddy, Lord of War, The Punisher, and Lucky Number Slevin.

"I kind of felt like there was an emotion and nuance to good movies and an attention to detail that I wanted to spend time to understand it on an organic basis," Roberts said. "I'm not very good at going to classes or doing anything theoretical. I love to do it, to get my hands on it and get the feeling that I like this, I don't like that, I want to do more of that, less of that. It was the same way I did my game stuff, most of it was self-taught through doing and experimentation."

At the time, Roberts said he'd hit a barrier in his advancement as a game developer. He wanted to explore the human and emotional side of storytelling, and he felt movies were just a better medium for that at the time.

"Now I actually think with the advancement of technology, games are getting to the point where you can explore some of those concepts and ideas and create an experience that's pretty impactful in a way I was frustrated about not being able to do 10 years ago," Roberts said.

Roberts believes his return to games with Cloud Imperium and its crowdfunded blockbuster Star Citizen will benefit not just from the gaming medium's advances in the last decade, but from his own lessons learned in the world of film.

"Movies are all about the details, the small things," Roberts explained. "Even in the emotional scenes, it's the small things. If you've got good actors, a lot of time the emotion of the moment's not in the person speaking it; it's in the look on the face of the person listening to it. There's a kind of subtlety to those small moments and the details."

Roberts was particularly impressed with the work of artists and set designers in the film industry. Many contemporary movies are filmed on sound stages, he said, but talented artists take those sets and make them look lived in and believable on the big screen with an abundance of details, like scratches and scuffs on a wall. It's a lesson he's already put to use in Star Citizen, and something that has contributed to its staggering $72 million (and counting) in crowdfunding derived from more than 750,000 backers.

"Those aspects, the attention to detail to make things tactile, is one of the things in Star Citizen that people love," Roberts said. "From the beginning, the idea of the spaceships was they weren't just going to be something you see from afar, you can use it. It works. All the bits fold up into the right parts; you have to almost industrial design it so it's a fully functional machine with all those details. From that point it becomes almost real to you and tactile, and then you get an emotional connection because it feels like you're there."

That emotional connection to the material is something Roberts has tried to foster in the Star Citizen community from day one. He had seen how developers like Riot Games and Mojang had enjoyed tremendous success by focusing on the community aspects of League of Legends and Minecraft, respectively.

"It's basically like saying, 'Hey, we're going to build this huge palace that we're all going to live in,' and they may not be actually doing all the bricks and mortar, but they're looking at the plans and they feel like they're part of the congregation... There's a certain aspect of that where you're trying to build something ambitious and the community wants to be part of that."

Much of Roberts' presentation at the DICE Summit was dedicated to laying out the specific ways Cloud Imperium has catered to its community, from studio tours for backers to episodic web shows like Around the Verse and The Next Great Starship. While some developers are focusing on the games-as-a-service trend, Cloud Imperium is thriving on development-as-a-service.

"In today's world, we recognize there are a million things competing for people's attention," Roberts said. "So from day one, we decided our job was to engage the people who helped fund this game while we make it, not wait until we finish the game and they get to play it. One of my goals is that someone who's backed the game, by the time it comes out, they'll say they've already got their money's worth and the game itself is almost like a bonus."

When Roberts first announced Star Citizen, he expected it to have a budget of $10 million to $12 million, with that money derived from "a good chunk of private equity and a small component of crowdfunding." Obviously, things didn't go as planned, and now Cloud Imperium is making a massive game with an as-yet-unknown final budget. As problems go, it's a good one to have, but it does impact development.

"We scope to the money we bring in," Roberts explained. "So we have a minimum set of features and goals that if the money stopped tomorrow, we would deliver. And then we have a whole bunch of other features on the development road map."

While Cloud Imperium is working with the "if the money stopped tomorrow" hypothetical situation in mind, Roberts doesn't think that's a very likely scenario.

"I don't think we're close to the addressable market, just based on the numbers that used to play my old games," Roberts said. "We're getting up there, but we're not there. Also, the marketplace has increased a huge amount since then and there's a huge amount of game players out there who won't back a game until it's done.

"I think we're going to have a pretty big and diverse audience when the game is up and running, so I think we're probably only scratching the surface of the potential here," he added. "To think of it as a space sim is constraining down what it does because there are so many other elements. We've started to call it a first-person universe because you can fly around in space, but you also walk around on foot in full first-person fidelity equivalent to any AAA title out there. You can shoot people, but you can also trade with people. There are all these different things you can do, so it's essentially a virtual reality we're building in this future sci-fi universe."

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Latest comments (7)

John Kauderer Associate Creative Director, Atari4 years ago
If Star Citizen stirs up the gaming world half as much as Wing Commander did it will be a wondrous thing.

When Wing Commander came out it was leaps and bounds better than every other game on the market. Even to this day it is still more immersive than the lions share of what is available in any genre.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
And you'll "only" need a $3000 computer to play this on! Whee. Okay, exaggeration deluxe here, but man, is this going to be one of those big fat games that shuts out a nice chunk of people who may want to play it or even try out a demo but simply can't because they're shut out of the tech loop or can't access digital content all the time. Oh well. it's the fuuuuuuuu-ture. *sigh*

That said, yeah, it's going to be big and do quite well among those who can play it, I bet.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
The overriding thing I've "learned" from ten years in the VFX industry, is "It doesn't have to be right, it just has to look right!" - (a sentiment that drives me mad by the way - it's never seemed to matter how often I demonstrate that it's about the least efficient way to work, most people take it as accepted wisdom regardless)
I find it pretty laughable to proclaim that VFX is all about the details... VFX is all about fudging the details as quickly as possible, because you're only going to be viewing it for a couple of seconds, from a single known camera POV. I really think it's about the worst source of inspiration to attempt to apply to game design.

Alas, it rings pretty true of what I've seen of Star Citizen's development so far - nobody cares about all that boring "underlying systems" stuff, it only has to look amazing!

The working mantra I'm personally attempting to steer towards these days is "If you don't have time to do it right the first time, what makes you think you'll have time to go back and fix it?"
I've seen them churn out a vast array of disparate game elements so far, each seemingly designed primarily to exhibit a particular feature to the public, rather than having been created as a logical expansion of a core game design. I've not really seen any hint of there actually being a core yet, the assumption seeming to be that when they place all the parts next to each other, the core of the game will somehow form itself. It strikes me that if (when?) the point comes where they realise that it doesn't fit together quite as well as they'd hoped it would, the job of creating a coherant core game is going to be exponentially more difficult and time consuming than if they'd started there in the first place. Combine that with nearing-end-of-schedule crunch time, and I can't really see it happening.

It does indeed seem like a very VFX-esque way of creating a game, in all the wrong ways. (Well, except for the raking-in-$72-million from sheer hype alone part I guess)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 20th February 2015 2:30pm

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Show all comments (7)
Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios4 years ago
But he's not talking about VFX. He's talking about set dressing, and acting. He doesn't mention VFX at all!
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations4 years ago
If it ends up being a pay-to-win game, I will definitely want my money back or it'll be the most expensive T-shirt and a piece of plastic I've ever bought.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
But he's not talking about VFX. He's talking about set dressing, and acting. He doesn't mention VFX at all!
That's true enough I suppose. I actually thought it was a VFX company he founded before, but it turns out it was a complete film-production company.

When it comes to games however, I think my points still stand. Whatever he learned from Hollywood, he's working with an entirely 3D-digital medium now, which only really has direct parallels to VFX. Also, the predominant sentiment I got from working on Hollywood productions has always been "film production is stupidly expensive, hack it all together as quickly as possible, and let the VFX guys tidy it all up in post, because that's a hell of a lot cheaper than keeping a whole film crew around for an extra day"... so again, it really was never about the details, it was always about the cheapest, hackiest route to having it look good-enough. Romanticising it as anything more than that I reckon is ultimately just more hype to boost their crazy pre-order sales.
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Attila Olas IT- security consultant 4 years ago
I was lucky to test the "game" demo made for PAX and one thing I can say (personal opinion): This is nothing else than a 3D virtual space ship sales, no game play on the horizon.

I think this company spent most of the money on Hollywood Style marketing. My only hope that the backers will receive a decent game, but nowadays we know most kickstarter dev. projects don't deliver the promised games (Elite Dangerous, Wasteland 2......) :(

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Attila Olas on 11th March 2015 9:24pm

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