Roberts had lined up independent investors to fund his game, but he was happy to leave them behind when his crowdfunding campaign took off. In the end, he felt investment could lead to getting sold to a publisher -- and for his opinion on that, see above.
"The fact that we don't have to take investors... means that we can just concentrate on delivering a really great game and have no external pressure."
Roberts did have some "great people" lined up to invest in his game. All the same, he says, "I'm happy not to have investors, mainly because even the best investors, they're in it for a return, and at some point they want their money out, and that doesn't always match up to what's good for the game."
"I like the Valve setup, where they just make their games, they do their stuff, they don't have outside pressures," Roberts says.
He'd rather find out "if this thing can work and be funded by the community and just go on for 10 years" -- like CCP's EVE Online. "Ten years later, it's got more people playing now than when it started out. It keeps on evolving," says Roberts.
In fact, Roberts has nothing but praise for EVE developer CCP. "I think they're great. I'm a big fan of what they've done. It's great. They delivered it, they built it all themselves -- they didn't have a big publisher, and they built that all up organically. They listen. They're really big on their community -- they've always been big on their community."
He has big plans for the franchise that go beyond the launch schedule outlined above. "I just want to make a great game and continue to have fun with it. Because it's a whole sci-fi universe, and there's a lot of things I want to do. And some of them are going to get added after the main launch, because it's a big scope."
Investors pressuring him to sell would inevitably nip those plans in the bud.
"If you have an investor in, three years in, it's a roaring success, they could be like, 'EA wants to buy your company for $400 million, and I'm going to get 10x on my money, so you should take that deal.' And a lot of people get forced in, and a lot of sales happen because of that," Roberts says.
"It's just the nature of the beast, and for me I'm building this universe that I want to curate and be part of for a long time, so I don't want any of that." Roberts would know; he experienced this before at both Origin and his later startup, Digital Anvil, which eventually produced Freelancer after being acquired by Microsoft.
The memory of losing the Wing Commander IP when Electronic Arts acquired Origin in 1992 has clearly left an indelible mark on him.
Says Roberts, "I like the idea of independence." To not be beholden to any outside interference is "a dream."
"Not since the very early days of Origin have I been in that position. When I first made Wing Commander, I was in that position."
Before EA came into the picture, Richard Garriott owned the Ultima IP and Roberts owned Wing Commander. "The way Origin worked was that the individual creators owned their own IP, and Origin was just publishing it, because that was something that was very important to Richard when he set up the company," Roberts says.
"Part of the EA deal was that I had to sell the rights to Wing Commander to EA for the purchase of Origin, and Richard had to do the same for Ultima. And I actually didn't want to do the deal," Roberts adds.
However, walking away "would have killed the deal," he says, and he felt pressure to let it go through so his colleagues could be rewarded for their hard work. "And I was young. I was like 21 or something. And I was like, 'Eh. I can always make another.' At that point, you sort of feel like, 'I can make any franchise.' And I didn't really want to do it, and now I kind of regret it, because I lost control over my franchise."
The ultimate result? "At this point, I'm much happier to try and keep it. I'm not looking to flip the company out to a bigger publisher," Roberts says. "And I've been down that road. I was a part-owner of Origin when EA bought us. Obviously, DA was my company, and Microsoft bought us. So, yeah, I made money. I did very well from that. But something goes away when you become part of a big corporate entity."
In fact, Roberts says it's no surprise that we see high-level departures from acquired companies -- notable examples being BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, and Lionhead founder Peter Molyneux. Cliff Bleszinski also left Epic Games after Tencent took a large stake in the company.
Why? "The spirit goes away," says Roberts. "I had a four-year employment contract with EA. As soon as that was up, I was out of there. You can see this with the BioWare guys."
This is an extension of how the games business treats its top talent, argues Roberts. "As far as EA was concerned, they weren't in the doghouse. They were superstars." Being a superstar, however, means you're pushed into an executive role.
While that works for some developers -- Roberts noted Don Mattrick, now of Zynga, deliberately worked his way up the ranks at EA from developer to executive -- it doesn't for all of them.
"When I joined, I was head of the simulation group at EA, when Origin was bought. And I oversaw other stuff, not just the Origin stuff," says Roberts. That brought headaches -- and distracted him. "We spent a lot of time managing up, and doing something that isn't making the games. And if you're a person who likes to spend a lot of time making the games, and you're a creative, that kind of burns you out."
"There's a lot of stuff that is noise, relative to making the games. And I think that's the challenge with big companies, and that's why I went this route."
Roberts contrasts the game industry against the film industry -- he directed the Wing Commander film adaptation, which was released in 1999. "They do a much better job of letting the director or creative be the director or creative. I think the game business needs to learn that," says Roberts.
"The games business hasn't done a very good job of saying, 'You know what? Nobody says, "James Cameron, we want you to run the studio."' You want Spielberg to be making the movies. You want Cameron to be making the movies. You do not want those guys to suddenly be running a studio. That's not what they like doing, and maybe they'd be good at it, but they actually do something [else]."
Fortunately, says Roberts, "that's something that the crowdfunding is helping -- letting people get back to some of that. And I do think the publishers need to recognize that just because someone makes a great game, why don't you figure out a way that you can let them carry on doing that and support them, versus try and take their organization and mold it into your vision?"
In fact, crowdfunding has rewound time for Roberts -- taking him back to "the early days of when I was doing games, especially the very early days of Origin, where I felt like it was a bit more rough-and-tumble, and you could try stuff and be a bit more scrappy."
It will be fascinating to see what mark this paradox -- the triple-A, scrappy game -- has on the industry at large. No matter what happens, the fundamental success of Star Citizen will pave the way for something new, just as Minecraft and Broken Age inspired Roberts.