Feature Article

AAA vs. Indie: An Interview With Star Citizen's Chris Roberts Part 2

We have liftoff.

Chris Roberts is the prime example of a developer who has turned his back on traditional publisher-driven AAA development in order to create the game that he and his fans want. In an environment where space sims no longer command gigantic development and marketing budgets from large-scale publishers, he has found a way to keep the dream alive. More than that, he has attracted the type of budget that's usually reserved for AAA games without the associated headaches that come from working under monetary advances and milestone deadlines.

In the first part of our two-part interview with Roberts, we explored his thoughts on crowdfunding and how it has enabled him to create Star Citizen, and more importantly, how it has led him to expand his vision and take on new challenges as a developer. Now, in the concluding half of our interview, he speaks to the issues that arise from working with a big publisher, how that relationship can impact public perception, and what developers can do to free themselves from that system.

Do you see the big publisher model shrinking in the future?

I don't see it shrinking, I just think that it will be different. I think the Call of Duties and the Grand Theft Autos will be the domain of the publishers. The big-ticket items, the ones that sell 10, 20 million units, that's what the publishers want. They're not going to be putting bets on smaller things that could maybe turn into a bigger thing.

I think digital publishing, crowdfunding, Steam Greenlight, that sort of thing is really sort of the fertile ground where the new games are going to bubble up from. The problem with big publishers is that all of those games that are franchises now, when they first started, it took them some time to get to that point, so the question is: where are the new ones going to come from? And that's sort of hard to [answer] in the publisher model, because your budget is dictated by what marketing and sales think they can sell. They always think they can sell 10 million or 20 million of Call of Duty or whatever, but if it's those same [developers], and if it's not Call of Duty, marketing and sales might think we can only sell 2 or 3 million units, and then the budget's less, your marketing budget's less. It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

EA was clearly keen for Titanfall, but would Activision have funded it?
EA was clearly keen for Titanfall, but would Activision have funded it?

I don't know what the sales numbers for Titanfall are, but that's doing very well as far as I can tell, and that's really on the pedigree of the people involved versus Call of Duty, right? I get EA backed them to do Titanfall because they love the [idea of] "I'm going to get the Call of Duty guys away from you," but I'm not sure Activision would have basically financed them inside that structure to be doing Titanfall, because they'd be like, "Now we want you to do another Call of Duty," and that was I think part of why they left, because that was part of the friction.

I definitely know that while I was at EA doing the Wing Commanders, there was other stuff that I wanted to do, but they were always, "Chris, if you want to do something new, marketing and sales only think they can sell so many units of it," so my budget would be a lot less. I'm like, "Hey, I'm the same guy," so I think that what's nice about the crowdfunding and Steam Greenlight and any of the sort of indie side stuff is that it allows games that can connect with an audience to basically happen, and bubble up, and grow organically.

The thing that always amazes me is that people always talk about how space sims are dead and that nobody wants them, but when I was making them, they were the biggest thing out there. It was bigger than Medal of Honor, which is basically the precursor to Call of Duty. It was a bigger deal, right? Even with the first call of Duty, people were way more excited about me working on Freelancer than seeing the first Call of Duty.

Who says real-time strategy games are dead?
Who says real-time strategy games are dead?

It's the same thing for RTS games. People go "Aww, they're dead," but I don't think when Blizzard ships one it feels very dead to me. Starcraft II certainly did a lot of numbers, so I just sort of feel that I do like the crowdfunding route, because it allows the game players themselves to say they want to play. I definitely think that was a factor of Star Citizen too, because a lot of people are like, "You know what? I feel like a lot of my preferences have been ignored for too long, therefore I'm going to vote with my dollars to show that this is something I've really wanted."

I think that that's really good, because...you mention Sid Meier; Sid Meier is a great game designer--he always has been--but I can tell you that the Sid Meiers of the world, myself, and a bunch of the other people that were big in the '90s, that people love, I can tell you that when we sold a million or 2 million copies in the '90s, we were gods. Now, EA or Activision would say 2 million copies is a complete failure and everyone gets fired and that franchise dies. If it's doing at least 5, then there's a chance, but it really has to be doing 10. So, you have all of these designers that have talent that aren't getting financed, and you certainly can make an RTS game, and if you don't have all of the overhead that you have in a big publisher, you sell a couple hundred thousand units, you'd probably be able to turn a profit, at least half a million. That's all the sort of stuff a publisher wouldn't get out of bed for. That's the opportunity where you can come back, and people can get some games that aren't the 10 million type of games, but they sell a couple hundred thousand, and that's a decent business.

No publisher would have backed Minecraft, right? And, let's look at it, DayZ? I don't think any publisher would have backed that either. And I'm not sure that any publisher would have backed League of Legends, and that's basically the biggest online game, right? So, I'm just saying that I don't think publishers are going to go away. I just think that their territory is going to become more...they're just going to focus on the big event, high ground stuff, and the middle ground to the indie stuff is going to be less about publishers and more about the people making them and the platforms they get delivered on.

This whole cycle now of creating a game, shipping it, and almost immediately laying people off before you even see sales numbers, that's becoming a bigger problem year after year, forcing a lot of developers to go indie as a result. How can publishers fix the issues that they're currently facing?

It would be better if you could be working with a publisher where you could share in the upside of it. Part of the developer problem is that you're in-house, and then you're just part of a big corporation, which tend to upsize and downsize however is appropriate for their bottom line, which means they don't have any loyalty to their employees. I know that every big company says they do, but at the end of the day, their loyalty is to their shareholders. A bunch of good people get affected by that.

...they don't have any loyalty to their employees. I know that every big company says they do, but at the end of the day, their loyalty is to their shareholders.

Or, if you're working with outside developers, that's really hard, because in that model, the more money you get advanced by that publisher, the smaller your royalty becomes, and you use your royalties to pay off your advance. So most developers who work for publishers do it for their advance, and it's very rare that they'll earn enough on sales to actually start getting some royalties, so they're working hand to mouth. That's why you see all of these developers that have been around for a while, that have a great pedigree; they just didn't sign that new product in time and now they're just out of business.

So, it's a terrible business to be in. You don't have any control over your destiny, especially when all the publishers started to pull back on doing stuff, and they just want to develop in-house with a smaller number of bigger projects. That's what happened to Chris Taylor (Dungeon Siege). Luckily Wargaming was a new kid on the block with some money to spend, and they were fans of his work.

I know when games get delayed on kickstarters and fans get outraged, "If a big publisher was here that wouldn't happen," and I'm just like "You guys, I've been in big publishers, and you have no idea how many projects get killed all of the time, how many get deep into development and get killed." I mean, it's way worse. You're just seeing a little bit of that because you're exposed to the process now when you never were before.

When Sony had their financial problems and they cut back, they said, "Well, you're not core to us, so we're going to cut your dev contracts now." They could have had 50 people in their studio, 100 people in their studio, but money goes quick. Without that [contract], without money in the bank, which developers don't have, then you're in trouble.

Would you be excited about a new Grand Theft Auto game if the original creators weren't involved?
Would you be excited about a new Grand Theft Auto game if the original creators weren't involved?

I don't think anyone buys a game because it's an Activision game or an EA game. I think people buy a game because it's designed by this person, whether it's the guys who made Call of Duty or whatever it is. People don't buy GTA because it's a Take-Two game; they buy it because it's made by the Houser brothers, and the guys that made all of the other Grand Theft Autos. If those guys said, "We aren't with Take-Two anymore, and we're going to make another Grand Theft Auto," I don't think anybody would blink. No one cares that movies are made by Warner Bros. and Universal; they go see a movie because it's made by James Cameron or Steven Spielberg. I think the ability to go straight to the game players is going to give independence to developers on a certain level, and that will be good.

Considering that people don't necessarily buy games because they're Activision games, for example, you have people who don't want an Oculus Rift now that it's coming from Facebook. Is Oculus at a disadvantage now that it's owned by such a large company that people actively speak out against?

I definitely think that it hasn't helped. I know the Oculus guys, and I know the realities of the hardware business, so I know why they did the move they did. In the business they're in, they're in a hundreds of million dollars business, and to just build enough sets and get them out for retail, they would have had to go out and do another round of three, four hundred million dollars [in funding] to achieve that. So I think they had to make a move, whether it was raise a bunch of money, which is difficult without a product, or have a deep-pocketed backer that came in.

Facebook wouldn't have been the obvious choice for me, but that feels like Mark Zuckerberg thinks, "Oh, I think this tech's cool, and I've got a s***load of cash, and what the f***, I'll give you some money now." I just think he thinks he's got a hundred billion dollars in market value, and he can use a bit of that for something he thinks is cool.

According to Roberts, without the backing of a financial powerhouse like Facebook, Oculus VR would have very difficult time bringing the Rift to the mass market.
According to Roberts, without the backing of a financial powerhouse like Facebook, Oculus VR would have very difficult time bringing the Rift to the mass market.

I don't think it's nefarious, because they needed the money, and there was no way they can get that headset out there at a reasonable price, at volume, because it's not going to work if they get 10 thousand to retail. You need to have a million headsets. They're saying that they're going to sell the headset for $300; maybe it will be cheaper than that. You've got to assume to manufacture that headset, let's say it's $200, or even $150... Take a smartphone. Even with the base parts, even with Apple's or Samsung's volume where you need 10s of millions of units, they're $200 to $250 in base parts. So, let's say $200 to make the Rift, one million of those is $200,000,000 in inventory that you're putting up front. Then you have to market it. It's a lot of money. So, I know why they did that deal.

I can also see on the other side, the community and player side, that there's definitely this feeling of "F*** the man. I don't want to deal with the big sinister corporations." I mean, EA does a bunch of things wrong, but they aren't the worst company in America, you know what I'm saying? Are they worse than the big phone companies or big banks?

But, like in what I'm doing, I don't think you can get away with that. I don't think I can do that. Part of what works about what I'm doing is that it's grassroots, and people feel like they can be a part of it. I think they would never be able to feel like they were part of it if Facebook owned it all. That's what people are rebelling against. They felt the same way a lot of Star Citizen backers feel. They're on the team. All of a sudden they could feel like, "I was on this team but I got kicked off it, and now you're with this big Daddy Warbucks. You've dumped me for the much richer suitor." I think that's partly where the response comes from. I think long term, there will be good benefits cost-wise, so people will get over it, but I do think it's a problem. There's a certain vibe out there that the big corporations aren't quite in tune with people.

When corporations like as Nvidia and EA herald cloud gaming to an audience that doesn't want it, a mental divide is created.
When corporations like as Nvidia and EA herald cloud gaming to an audience that doesn't want it, a mental divide is created.

I was sitting in on the Future of PC panel...and Nvidia had guys who were talking about "Oh, you'll be able to stream games to your devices thanks to the power of the grid," but you're talking to enthusiasts. This isn't meant to be an E3 sales pitch. Talk to them about the cool cards you're going to have that will let them have cooler graphics. That's the kind of thing they want to hear. I was feeling like that's the corporate disconnect, from not understanding your audience, and I think it's a bigger problem nowadays than it ever used to be. Now it's so quick, everything's on social media, everything's tweeted out right away.

You can see it with EA when SimCity went bad. They had this whole "Oh well, it has to be on a cloud because we're doing all of this computing and serving," and I know how these things work, and I'm going, "I don't really think that's the case. Most of it's happening locally. That's just your PR spin to get people over the fact that they wouldn't be able to sign on without DRM." They even had a hacker within a few hours that had already done an analysis, and it's out there in the public.

In the old days, when you only had the magazines, you could really control the message. There was no equivalent with what you have in the comments section now on all of these constant articles. So I think that the bigger companies are having to adapt to this new world, and maybe they're not adapting so well. I think that's an advantage that a lot of indie developers have. They can tap into that and communicate directly with the game players that want to play your game in a way that they actually can relate to. I think people want that kind of relationship. For me, it's kind of energetic. You meet people and their energy rubs off on you. I like tapping into it. You've got a huge group of people that are rooting for you, and that's a nice thing.

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Peter Brown

Peter used to work at GameSpot. Now he just lurks at GameSpot.

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