"I love story and narrative and I think you can use that story and narrative to tie your action together and that will give your action meaning and context in a game. That was my idea and that was what really drove what I was doing."
- Chris Roberts, speaking in 2013 about what drove him to create the first Wing Commander game.
Game designer Chris Roberts is best known these days for sitting in the command chair of the capital ship that is Star Citizen, the massively crowdfunded (to the tune of over $146 million) space game currently being developed by Roberts' Cloud Imperium Games.
Some devs may be unfamiliar with his long history in the game industry, which stretches back beyond Origin Systems (where he created the venerable Wing Commander series of games) to the bedroom computing era of '80s British game development.
Video game history buff Jimmy Maher has set out to tell a bit of Roberts' story on his Digital Antiquarian blog, and the first post is a fascinating read that speaks to the state of Origin Systems in the '80s and '90s. According to Maher's reporting, Roberts came to join Origin thanks to a chance encounter at an Austin tabletop game shop, and eventually wound up working on what became perhaps one of the (now defunct) game studio's most high-profile franchises: Wing Commander.
Maher tells the story of how Wing Commander was honed down from Roberts' vision of a proposed "space-conquest game" into an in-cockpit game about flying combat missions in space, one with a unique focus on keeping players engaged by removing all artificial reminders that they were playing a game.
"I didn’t want anything that made you sort of…pulled you out of being in this world. I didn’t want that typical game UI, or 'Here’s how many lives you’ve got, here’s what high score you’ve got,'" Roberts said in a 2013 interview cited by Maher. "I always felt that broke the immersion. If you wanted to save the game you’d go to the barracks and you’d click on the bunk. If you wanted to exit, you’d click on the airlock. It was all meant to be in that world and so that was what the drive was."
As Maher points out, this philosophy of design (coupled with what sounds like a sort of seat-of-the-pants approach to development) led Roberts and the rest of the team to implement intriguing design features like a branching mission structure, meant to avoid sending underperforming players to a "Game Over" screen and thus breaking their immersion in the game.
The rest of the blog post is worth reading in full, though it doesn't quite get up to the point where Wing Commander was released in 1990, chronicling instead Roberts' route from Manchester, England to Origin Systems in Austin, Texas and his early work.