Chris Roberts has an atypically successful crowdfunding story -- but then again, as the creator of Wing Commander, he has an atypically successful career. As of this writing, his Star Citizen crowdfunding campaign has pulled in almost 20 million dollars, largely via his site, not Kickstarter.
Roberts did run a Kickstarter campaign -- which pulled in over 2 million dollars. It was, however, never part of his plans. "Basically, we actually started on our own," Roberts tells Gamasutra. "The whole idea was to build a community of space sim fans."
"I think we had about 30-odd thousand people sign up before they even know what I was going to announce," Roberts says. "The idea was to build a community for people that liked that kind of game, and then I didn't feel like they then wanted to have to go somewhere else to log in, give credentials somewhere else to give money. We were always intending to do our own crowdfunding."
Community was always his goal; the problem was that though he'd spent a year prototyping Star Citizen, its website was "hacky crap" and crashed on launch.
Still, he has little to regret now, and it goes without saying that Roberts is a huge proponent of crowdfunding. In this conversation, which took place at this year's Gamescom, he has nothing but positive things to say about it.
You may be surprised to hear that crowdfunding his project wasn't always his goal. Roberts' plans have shifted as he observes and reacts to trends among players and backers. Importantly, he now sees it as the only way he'd want to go, having both worked with traditional publishers and sought outside investment. Why? It frees him from meddling and distraction. He can make the game that he and his fans want.
Of course it's true that his success comes thanks to his previous games -- Wing Commander, Privateer, and Freelancer. But a built-in fan base is far from all that has carried him this far. In this interview, Roberts offers his insights into community building and crowdfunding, lessons useful to developers big and small.
Roberts' Community-Driven Crowdfunding Essentials
Having had so much success, Roberts has some tips on how to do it right. One thing he is adamant about is that since you have to build your own site sooner or later, why not do it from the off?
"Kickstarter is very good for the community right at the beginning, but then afterwards you've got to have a solution, because it's not really a great place to interact. It doesn't have forums," Roberts says.
There's also no way to bring in new fans (and their contributions) if your campaign is over. "Our solution was always to have a place for the community to hang out, first and foremost. For them to get information about the game, to share how it's getting done. They would also be able to back the game, and new people would be able to come into it," Roberts says.
He also thinks that offering many physical rewards is largely an unnecessary complication. "Most people, when you back games, it's not really about the physical goods. It's about backing the game. They're actually quite happy to be backing this game they've missed for awhile, and the money's less of an issue. It's more of an issue of them having fun," he says.
That sense of "fun" is why Roberts goes primarily for in-game rewards. The first piece of the game that Roberts is distributing to fans, the Hangar Module, is affected by pledge level. Those who back at higher tiers get more ships and a bigger hangar.
"I would say that one of the reasons why we've raised this much money is that we've sort of gamified the backing," notes Roberts.
And while many crowdfunded games start from zero, Roberts suggests avoiding that if at all possible. Prepare as best as you possibly can. He spent a year doing a technical prototype -- though this is largely thanks to the fact that he was originally planning on seeking traditional investment.
"I actually wanted to work out all the issues. I wanted to scope it. I didn't want to just say, 'Oh, I can make this game!' I did a lot of my homework it was going to take, what budget, what engine I was going to use."
In the end, however, his efforts in pre-Kickstarter community building and pre-funding scoping and prototyping allowed him to launch his campaign to a massive response.
There's also one other very tangible result of running your own crowdfunding effort: "we're capturing 97 percent of the dollars that come in, because all we do is pay a fee to the credit card provider and PayPal," says Roberts.
...And His Incredible Results
Taken all together, Roberts has managed to build a huge, engaged community and link it into his funding efforts. The symbiotic relationship with his community has fundamentally changed Roberts' plans for developing and releasing his game.
Why? "Because I feel that people have given their money to this dream, helping me make the game I want to make, my dream game," says Roberts. "I think it's their dream game too. So I want to make sure they're constantly updated, seeing it, getting involved. Because that's the spirit -- for me, the spirit of crowdfunding is participation. The power."
Originally, Roberts wanted to pull a page from Minecraft's book, and have players pay for an alpha -- "like two years out," he says. But having an audience created a drive to "constantly show them what's happening. I think everything that's happening is cool, so I like to show it off."
His backers let Roberts build a game on his own terms, and he wanted to give them a peek behind the curtain.
That's just what he's done. Late last month, Roberts launched the first "module" of his game -- the Hangar Module. Since August 29, backers have been able to download a Star Citizen app to their computers. "The client will be on your machine... and then just grow, over the next couple of years, to be the final game," says Roberts.
The Hangar Module is simple: it allows players to walk around a spaceship hangar; and that's really it. They can enter their ships and even sit at the controls -- but they cannot leave the hangar. It's a taste of what's to come.
The next step is the Dogfighting Module, which is due at the end of the year. "You'll be able to take your ships, you go out of your hanger and you go into space, and you fight against other players, or AI, in this sort of deathmatch setup. So it doesn't have the story that we're going to have, it doesn't have a big sandbox universe. But we're going to use it to balance the combat, we're going to use it to do technical stress testing -- like, how many people we can have in one area of space," Roberts says.
"And then next year we're going to have the planetside module, which is where you walk around the planet, go to the bar, get missions, talk/interact with other players, you buy equipment and stuff like that. And then we'll have the shipboarding module, which is the first person combat when you board another ship. And then we'll have the alpha single player story. Then we'll have the alpha of the full game."
Doing things this way has several advantages, Roberts says. Fans get rewarded much earlier than they would with an alpha release. They also can offer feedback on work-in-progress gameplay. Roberts' team can stress test the game long before the full release and course correct as time goes on. They're also forced to continually polish the game during development, a process that Roberts thinks will result in a more refined game down the road.
He acknowledges that Star Citizen has an advantage -- it can easily be broken into modules. Flying in space and exploring a planet are two totally different pieces of the game, for example. "So we said, 'Let's break it down into the modules that will all come together and make the final game,'" Roberts says.
Roberts is confident that this content drip-feed will only have a positive effect. "The more you engage with the community and the more you share with them, the more you participate with them, the better you do," he says.
And while he's a bit nervous about inviting his audience in so early -- "Way, way, way early. This is like an actor doing theater, and you're inviting audience to your workshopping of the play you're going to do" -- he's much more excited to share progress with fans than he is worried about negative reactions.
Development, Evolving Quickly
What Roberts has learned is that he has to change his plans if he wants to stay at the forefront of community-funded development.
"Originally my road plan was more to be like the way Notch did Minecraft," he says. He intended to release the game as an alpha with an upcoming features list, and then continue development, dropping new versions along the way.
His plans started before Double Fine's Broken Age -- then known as Double Fine Adventure -- set a record on Kickstarter. "I'd seen what Minecraft did, and I said, 'It'd be interesting. I could probably get something out for $10 million. It's not the full game I want. And then alpha, sell it at a discount, get people in, and then finish the game off,' which was the big, full $20 million thing I'm talking about."
It was to that end Roberts began to seek investors. But when Double Fine hit it big in 2012, he shifted gears. But his original goal with crowdfunding was not to make money; it was to prove to his investors that his game would appeal to a contemporary audience.
"I was never making a two or three or four million dollar game. I was always making $15 million game, minimum," Roberts says. "I'd lined up investors, and the crowdfunding was to validate that people still cared about space sims, or even about me, because I'd been gone for 10 years."
As it turns out that, thanks to crowdfunding, he no longer needs investors at all.
"The crowdfunding took off, and I could basically have more features than I wanted in the initial game, so the scope grew to what I'd always wanted it to be if I had an unlimited budget. And that was it."
The Biggest, Best Focus Group
"There's nothing better than a focus group," says Roberts. With extensive experience at EA and with Microsoft, he's been exposed to the process. But even better than a focus group, he says, is an energized community -- which crowdfunding gave him.
"Normally, at a publisher, you get a recruited focus group and it's got 30 people in it. And who the hell knows if that's a good focus group for your game? But when you've got 100,000 or 200,000 people that love games, and they're willing to give you money before it's ready, you've probably got a good focus group for space sims," Roberts says.
"A lot of the time, you can spend time on a feature and then when you launch the game, and people aren't using that feature, and they're using another feature you hardly spent any time on," says Roberts. Not so with Star Citizen. "Getting them involved so early allows us, especially in a sandbox game, to always do a reality check."
The team launched a survey soon after the initial crowdfunding boost to find out what players wanted to do in-game. The results surprised Roberts. "We had all of these things, like bounty hunter, mercenary, pirate, merchant, explorer. And I was shocked that 67 percent of the people said that they wanted to be an explorer."
The team was planning to focus on combat-related content -- conventional wisdom says that's what players want. "Because of that, we thought, 'Okay, we had better make sure there's more content and functionality for people that are playing explorers than we were thinking of.' So we added stuff for that. We wouldn't have known that in the old method."
In the past, Roberts has bounced decisions off of his team members. He still does that -- but he has a much broader base now. "All I'm doing is really extending that discussion to the community at large. I'm folding in the community to that discussion."
"And I think, ultimately, that will help the game be better. At least, my hope and guess is [that it will], because obviously we haven't finished the game yet. But it feels right to me. It feels good. It feels invigorating."
Building a Studio For Crowdfunded Triple-A
Another interesting facet of Roberts' modular approach is that the game's different pieces are being built by different studios. His own studio, Cloud Imperium, has about 50 on staff, while also outsourcing art.
That's pretty typical. But Montreal-based independent studio Behaviour Interactive is also building a piece of the game, as is a small Oakland, California-based developer, VoidAlpha, "which is actually some people who worked with me doing Wing Commanders in the past," says Roberts. Another external studio will come online soon.
"It just happens to be that this kind of Privateer, Freelancer game has discreet parts, like down on the planet and up in space," says Roberts. "I decided that because the project was modular, I could basically make those small teams work on different sections."
"So you've got a team working on the dogfighting, a team working on the planetside, a team working on the first person shooting and shipboarding, a team working on the MMO big server backend. I split it up, and that's one of the reasons we have internal staff and external developers."
But besides making a big game possible with a smaller core company, it has another advantage, says Roberts. "I feel in development that you have a problem when you get too big of a team. So this is a very big game, and it's just always going to need a big team. I always found, even at Origin, that when my team got more than about 20 or 30 people, you suddenly didn't know everybody. I like everyone to be able to go to a lunch."
That sense of camaraderie is all-important, but Roberts sees a business reason for splitting things up, too: "When you're distributed, progress is measured by actual deliverables -- versus if you're all in one building, 200 people, you see them at their desks. 'Oh, they're working.' They could be surfing the net or whatever... And so I feel like it focuses people on the right goals and tasks."
No More Publishers
One thing Roberts was sure about was that he didn't want to work with a big publisher again, though he says he easily could have: "This was not a typical crowdfunded deal. Publishers all said they wanted to do it. I had multiple options at different places to go and do this the traditional way."
There are many reasons.
The first is that it brings him a tremendous savings. "I'm building a game that, if I was doing this at EA or somewhere else, it would be a big budget game, big high profile thing, but we get to do it for less money because I don't have all the overhead, and we have freedom for that, which is great," says Roberts.
"If this was getting built by EA or Activision, it would be a $40-50 million game. We're much more efficient. Our current budget is about 20 [million], but our specific spend is pretty much all on the game."
But Roberts also wanted to follow his own path -- something publishers make difficult. "People have always been like, 'We want you to come back and do it,' but it's always like, then you become part of the machine again. So I was always wanting to do this, but I want to do it on my own terms. That's always difficult for a big company to let you do."
In fact, he says, he has very cordial relationships with top executives at EA, including president of EA Labels Frank Gibeau and chief creative officer Rich Hilleman. But they still couldn't entice him back.
"There's all this stuff that goes on when you're working with a bigger publisher. You've got to get your game, but you've also got to make sure you're fighting to get the budget you need, fighting to get the attention you need, fighting to get your release window, convincing marketing and sales that people want your game. It's a whole bunch of stuff that you play that really has nothing to do with the game," Roberts says.
And of course, there's freedom from external pressure. "We don't have someone saying, 'Make this quarter, because we've got a hole here,'" says Roberts. "Or other things, like, 'Well, we've done a marketing agreement with this console person, so we want an exclusive for this period.' I don't have to do any of that. It's like, all I care about is making the best game possible and making a game that everyone who has backed it will be happy with."
Frankly, he says, he doesn't anymore need a publisher's help. "I do feel like there's a shift in the business with what's happening right now, with the ability to be online and connect directly to the community and the fans. We essentially don't need any publishing functions, because we're connecting directly to people, and normally that's what a publisher would do for you."
It doesn't help that working with publishers can be dispiriting. "When I worked with publishers, I'd go, 'Hey, isn't this cool?' But the problem is that half the time the people who work at publishers that you're dealing with aren't gamers, so they don't really get it." They often have just one question for him: "Are you going to make your date? Am I going to sell 2 million copies, or 3 million copies?"
Fans, on the other hand... "It's nice to have conversations with people who care," says Roberts. He does admit, however, that "Wing 3 and Wing 4 couldn't have happened without the funding from EA. I could not have done some of the things I did without that."
Times, however, have changed.
Why Roberts Left Investors Behind, Too
Roberts had lined up independent investors to fund his game, but he was happy to leave them behind when his crowdfunding campaign took off. In the end, he felt investment could lead to getting sold to a publisher -- and for his opinion on that, see above.
"The fact that we don't have to take investors... means that we can just concentrate on delivering a really great game and have no external pressure."
Roberts did have some "great people" lined up to invest in his game. All the same, he says, "I'm happy not to have investors, mainly because even the best investors, they're in it for a return, and at some point they want their money out, and that doesn't always match up to what's good for the game."
"I like the Valve setup, where they just make their games, they do their stuff, they don't have outside pressures," Roberts says.
He'd rather find out "if this thing can work and be funded by the community and just go on for 10 years" -- like CCP's EVE Online. "Ten years later, it's got more people playing now than when it started out. It keeps on evolving," says Roberts.
In fact, Roberts has nothing but praise for EVE developer CCP. "I think they're great. I'm a big fan of what they've done. It's great. They delivered it, they built it all themselves -- they didn't have a big publisher, and they built that all up organically. They listen. They're really big on their community -- they've always been big on their community."
He has big plans for the franchise that go beyond the launch schedule outlined above. "I just want to make a great game and continue to have fun with it. Because it's a whole sci-fi universe, and there's a lot of things I want to do. And some of them are going to get added after the main launch, because it's a big scope."
Investors pressuring him to sell would inevitably nip those plans in the bud.
"If you have an investor in, three years in, it's a roaring success, they could be like, 'EA wants to buy your company for $400 million, and I'm going to get 10x on my money, so you should take that deal.' And a lot of people get forced in, and a lot of sales happen because of that," Roberts says.
"It's just the nature of the beast, and for me I'm building this universe that I want to curate and be part of for a long time, so I don't want any of that." Roberts would know; he experienced this before at both Origin and his later startup, Digital Anvil, which eventually produced Freelancer after being acquired by Microsoft.
How Roberts' Origin Experience Shaped His Attitude
The memory of losing the Wing Commander IP when Electronic Arts acquired Origin in 1992 has clearly left an indelible mark on him.
Says Roberts, "I like the idea of independence." To not be beholden to any outside interference is "a dream."
"Not since the very early days of Origin have I been in that position. When I first made Wing Commander, I was in that position."
Before EA came into the picture, Richard Garriott owned the Ultima IP and Roberts owned Wing Commander. "The way Origin worked was that the individual creators owned their own IP, and Origin was just publishing it, because that was something that was very important to Richard when he set up the company," Roberts says.
"Part of the EA deal was that I had to sell the rights to Wing Commander to EA for the purchase of Origin, and Richard had to do the same for Ultima. And I actually didn't want to do the deal," Roberts adds.
However, walking away "would have killed the deal," he says, and he felt pressure to let it go through so his colleagues could be rewarded for their hard work. "And I was young. I was like 21 or something. And I was like, 'Eh. I can always make another.' At that point, you sort of feel like, 'I can make any franchise.' And I didn't really want to do it, and now I kind of regret it, because I lost control over my franchise."
The ultimate result? "At this point, I'm much happier to try and keep it. I'm not looking to flip the company out to a bigger publisher," Roberts says. "And I've been down that road. I was a part-owner of Origin when EA bought us. Obviously, DA was my company, and Microsoft bought us. So, yeah, I made money. I did very well from that. But something goes away when you become part of a big corporate entity."
"The Spirit Goes Away"
In fact, Roberts says it's no surprise that we see high-level departures from acquired companies -- notable examples being BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, and Lionhead founder Peter Molyneux. Cliff Bleszinski also left Epic Games after Tencent took a large stake in the company.
Why? "The spirit goes away," says Roberts. "I had a four-year employment contract with EA. As soon as that was up, I was out of there. You can see this with the BioWare guys."
This is an extension of how the games business treats its top talent, argues Roberts. "As far as EA was concerned, they weren't in the doghouse. They were superstars." Being a superstar, however, means you're pushed into an executive role.
While that works for some developers -- Roberts noted Don Mattrick, now of Zynga, deliberately worked his way up the ranks at EA from developer to executive -- it doesn't for all of them.
"When I joined, I was head of the simulation group at EA, when Origin was bought. And I oversaw other stuff, not just the Origin stuff," says Roberts. That brought headaches -- and distracted him. "We spent a lot of time managing up, and doing something that isn't making the games. And if you're a person who likes to spend a lot of time making the games, and you're a creative, that kind of burns you out."
"There's a lot of stuff that is noise, relative to making the games. And I think that's the challenge with big companies, and that's why I went this route."
Roberts contrasts the game industry against the film industry -- he directed the Wing Commander film adaptation, which was released in 1999. "They do a much better job of letting the director or creative be the director or creative. I think the game business needs to learn that," says Roberts.
"The games business hasn't done a very good job of saying, 'You know what? Nobody says, "James Cameron, we want you to run the studio."' You want Spielberg to be making the movies. You want Cameron to be making the movies. You do not want those guys to suddenly be running a studio. That's not what they like doing, and maybe they'd be good at it, but they actually do something [else]."
Fortunately, says Roberts, "that's something that the crowdfunding is helping -- letting people get back to some of that. And I do think the publishers need to recognize that just because someone makes a great game, why don't you figure out a way that you can let them carry on doing that and support them, versus try and take their organization and mold it into your vision?"
In fact, crowdfunding has rewound time for Roberts -- taking him back to "the early days of when I was doing games, especially the very early days of Origin, where I felt like it was a bit more rough-and-tumble, and you could try stuff and be a bit more scrappy."
It will be fascinating to see what mark this paradox -- the triple-A, scrappy game -- has on the industry at large. No matter what happens, the fundamental success of Star Citizen will pave the way for something new, just as Minecraft and Broken Age inspired Roberts.