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."