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.