After decades spent working apart, the trailblazing sci-fi developers Erin and Chris Roberts team up once more. The brothers were around at the dawn of PC gaming and broke new ground back in the 90s with Wing Commander, birthing an entire genre and making a slice of PC gaming history in the process.
Now they’re back under the umbrella of the newly-founded Cloud Imperium Games, working on taking the space sim genre to previously unheard of heights, with the inimitable Star Citizen. News of its crowdfunding success has reached far and wide. The Roberts name coupled with the ardent Wing Commander fanbase has encouraged sci-fi spacefarers around the world to leap on board CIG’s revolutionary online space simulator, where it promises breadth and scope the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
While Chris Roberts originally set up Cloud Imperium Games back in 2011, his brother Erin joined in 2013. Erin previously worked at Lego game developer Travellers Tales, where he helped establish the well known Lego game movie tie-ins throughout the gaming industry. Forming a new Cloud Imperium Games studio, dubbed Foundry 42, Studio Director Erin Roberts has overseen the fledgling studio’s massive expansion over the past year, as the funding from eager spacefarers continues to flood in.
Settling in at Foundry 42, even he was stunned at how fast the crowdfunding for Star Citizen has come along. “If you look at when I joined back in 2013, it was at about $17 million then. Then it really went up,” he enthused. “A lot of people got involved and got excited by the game, so we basically scaled the experience to the money coming in. More people means more money so we took that money and put it straight into further development.” Funding for Star Citizen has now just surpassed $56 million and it doesn’t seem to show any signs of abating, aided by an abundance of stretch goals that continue to expand the already huge scope of Star Citizen.
“You're always playing catch up. This is going really well so we're just trying to keep it going and just make sure we're maximising all the money that's coming in, so we can create the awesome game and universe that we and everyone who's supported us wants us to build.”
Of course building a game on this scale needs a big team, and from small beginnings the entirety of the Star Citizen team has grown to encompass around 270 full time staff spread across the UK and the US. More than 60 people are in the Foundry 42 offices alone, and an entire new floor has been snapped up to bolster the workforce even further, including a dedicated motion capture studio and an eventual marketing team.
Before the success of Star Citizen though, Erin Roberts had already made a name for himself as an esteemed PC developer. Both Erin and his brother Chris worked on the aforementioned Wing Commander series before the PC and Dreamcast release of Starlancer.
Having harboured their sci-fi space sim vision for decades the time is feeling right for the Star Citizen project. You have community enthusiasm turning into funding and the modern PC technology capable of creating the vision, its no wonder that the Roberts brothers have come back together once more for this latest Star Citizen title.
From the heady heights of sci-fi epics, Erin went on to work on titles such as Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet and Warthog Games’ Richard Burns Rally, before eventually ending up at the doors of Traveller’s Tales. The British developer based in Knutsford, Cheshire, has made a name for itself thanks to the enduring popularity of its catalogue of Lego titles and Lego movie tie-ins. Erin arrived at Traveller’s Tales in 2006 and worked on a number of Lego titles until his departure last year, including PSP versions of Lego Batman, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Wii U-exclusive Lego City Undercover.
“In all I think I was there about 7 or 8 years,” said Erin. “So basically I was there when Traveller's Tales was just one office in Oxford, and then Jon Burton [Traveller’s Tales Founder] bought our studio, called Embryonic, back in 2006 and then we basically started a new studio with about 10 or 11 people and we grew it to about 200.”
“Traveller’s Tales started the Lego stuff before I arrived and I was much more responsible for the handheld stuff and Lego City Undercover, and The Lego Movie: The Video Game. They've got a team of about 200 as well in Oxford working on the main titles, and they shared the technology between them.”
Of course releasing a grand total of 23 different Lego games within the past 8 years is bound to be hectic work, with Erin quick to assert that if he learnt one thing at Traveller’s Tales it was how to get a game out fast. “We were sometimes given like 6 months to get something done from scratch. Basically the core tech is already there and shared between the studios, so what you're doing is creating new features and mechanics to layer into the games.”
Inevitably the time came for Erin when he’d had his brick fix, and his mind drifted to fusion drives, Newtonian physics systems, and hull breaches. Erin moved just three minutes down the road to Star Citizen developer Foundry 42 to head up development this side of the pond, while Chris is stationed in the US, California.
The team at Foundry 42 is primarily responsible for two of the core modules in Star Citizen; the recently released Arena Commander dogfighting module and the Squadron 42 single-player campaign, which will begin launching next year.
Despite Erin’s experience under pressure with the quickfire Lego series release, luckily there’s not as much pressure on Cloud Imperium Games to get Star Citizen out post-haste. Without a publishing giant looming over them, the studios of Cloud Imperium Games are free to pursue their vision for Star Citizen without limits. The very nature of its piecemeal release means chunks can be completed and delivered to the fans on-the-fly, without having to wait for the entirety of the game to be ready before shipping.
“For me it's a whole different way of doing things. My background’s from a publishing background and the publisher giving you the cash. So having this thing where people are giving us the money to build Star Citizen and having this immediate feedback from the community is just amazing.”
“We can just put stuff out there and get feedback, and we can come back a few days later and give an update and say ‘What do you think about that?’ It's an absolutely awesome way of developing.”
This back and forth between the team and the community has opened up whole new avenues that weren’t previously possible. Whereas publishers are typically tight-lipped about the progress of their games, Cloud Imperium Games and Foundry 42 have found engaging with the fans from the get-go is helping them to deliver the gaming experience they’ve dreamed of.
“It's the dream to have that situation,” Erin marveled. “A lot of the time publishers say you can't treat people that way because you're going to get killed out there, but we're finding that’s not the case. If you actually go out and you're honest with people and you say ‘This is where we are’ or ‘There's an issue here, this is why we can't deliver exactly what we said we would,’ most people get it, no problem at all.”
It seems as if the shackles have truly been taken off a modern-day video game in a way which has rarely been experienced before, Erin Roberts and his team at Foundry 42 are being given free reign to deliver on the most ambitious idea in gaming history, and in the coming weeks we’re going to delve deeper into what makes Star Citizen tick.