Chris Roberts: Time between my new games was getting too long
by Jeff Mattas, shacknews.com, Oct 24, 2012 9:35AM PDT
When game developer Chris Roberts stopped by a couple of weeks ago to demonstrate his upcoming space combat opus, Star Citizen, he talked at length about his hiatus from the games industry, and why now was a prime time for his return.
In 2001, after helming multiple entries in the Wing Commander series--followed by Privateer and Freelancer--Roberts decided he needed a break. One of the key reasons was the technological limitations of the time.
"I was sort of frustrated with the ability to get the image I had in my head onto the computer screen," Roberts said. "I felt like I was fighting technology too much. I had a whole bunch of ideas I wanted to do, and there was more than one time where I had to scrap some stuff because we couldn't deliver on it."
To put things in some context, he explained that the first and third installments of the Wing Commander series were in development for about 18 months apiece, and parts two and four of the series were each in development for about a year.
"On Freelancer, when Microsoft bought Digital Anvil, we'd already been in production for like 4 years," he said. "And it was still another two years after I sold the company to them (and wasn't really involved, other than being a consultant) before it came out."
"Six years, for me," Roberts said, "is too long."
"It's tough enough when you go off and build a game. And you build it in isolation. And you work really hard," he explained. "In the old way of doing those, you'd put it on disks; it would go into a box; it would go to the store. Then people would get their hands on it and hopefully people would like it. And they played it and there would be a bunch of noise for a month. And it was all kind of cool. And then you're off doing it again."
"That's fine, when it's a couple of years, max. But when it was getting to be like four to six years... my creative side found that pretty frustrating," Roberts said. "I wanted to be in the cycle more. And then finally, when it was the time of the transition when the industry was sort of segueing from--you could have been smaller and more independent, or you had to be part of a bigger mothership (whether it was Microsoft or EA)--I'd already done my tour of duty inside EA when Origin was bought by EA."
That's not to say that Roberts is sour about larger publishers. "It's not like the big publisher is bad. It's different," he clarified. "Whenever you've got 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, or 100,000 people, the dynamics of that relationship are different than if you were a small, tight developer."
Given Roberts' experience in the film world--he directed the 1999 Wing Commander film, and was a producer on The Punisher, The Jacket, and Lord of War--the connection between big-budget games and big-budget movies seemed logical. "The biggest problem in the bigger setups is that there's a lot of noise that just comes with a large organization," he said. "You're doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with making the game. That's probably the biggest challenge for the EAs and the Microsofts of the world. The film business has solved it, right? I mean, you're talking about James Cameron, and he may have 1,000 people, but no one is asking him to go into the boardroom meetings and do all that sort of stuff. They've bifurcated the executive management stuff from the creative. Steven Spielberg--no one is asking him to be the head of Warner Bros. They say, 'You should just make movies, because you do movies really well.'"
"So, I think part of the issue--for me, anyway--is just that, in terms of a bigger organization, that's sort of the final reason I said I wanted to take a break. I could see that I was going to have to spend more time on non-gamemaking stuff," Roberts said. "When you become sort of a general manager, you spend a lot of your time interfacing with the bigger company. Of course, you've gotta be up there fighting for your budget, and all these other things. And there's all this noise that's not about making the game itself."
Roberts' also discussed his departure from games in context of the recent, notable exits of Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games, or Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk from BioWare. "I haven't talked to him. I'm gonna have to get the skinny from Cliff," Roberts said. "The BioWare guys? It's hard to say. I suspect that... well, EA bought them, and they've been doing really well, right? I know for a fact that [John] Riccitiello and Frank [Gibeau] both think they're awesome. That's not a matter of anyone saying, 'We don't like you,' or anything."
"I think part of the problem was is that they went from what I'm talking about--being guys that make games--to like 'Hey, you're doing really good. Why don't you have this division in Austin? Why don't you take over Redwood Shores? Why don't you take this thing over in Ireland?' And so all of a sudden, they're running an empire, which is a bit different from being a developer. I don't know, this is completely just my supposition. I think those guys got into making games because they like to make games," Roberts said.
Roberts said the time was right for a return with Star Citizen because it allows him to return to his roots as a game developer. "I definitely think there's a lot of that," he said.
As far as the trend of moving top developers and industry luminaries into management roles and away from game making, Roberts sees it as an issue that needs addressing. "Long term, it's probably something the industry needs to solve," he said. "It got solved in the film industry, to a certain extent. I'm sure, like me, [devs like Bleszinski and the BioWare doctors will] be back. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries. It's like being on a treadmill. You're constantly going, like a hamster running around on a wheel. So sometimes, it's nice to just take some time off and get some perspective."
In part two tomorrow, Roberts delves into his love of PC gaming and the reason Star Citizen is PC only.