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."