Old (1995) Chris Roberts interview

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
Hey all - it's been a good couple of years since I've visited the forums, and that's probably not about to change. Life's keeping me busy, there's a war next door (yeah, not exactly words I ever expected to write...), and all that.

However, my thoughts do still occasionally return to Wing Commander, and the other day, for some reason I remembered way back in the 1990s, reading an interview with Chris Roberts in the Australian games magazine Hyper. Wondering if there was anything actually of interest in it, I thought to myself that surely, someone must have archived it. Sure enough, here it is - Hyper issue 019 (June 1995), pp. 22-23: https://archive.org/details/hyper-019/mode/2up

Ok, so is there anything of interest in there, that I'm actually bothering to post about it? Well - not much, to be honest :). But there's a couple of things that strike me as either interesting, or just plain fun to look back on:

- The naivete of the questions! Isn't it amazing? It's 1995, you have a few minutes to talk to the director of one of the biggest game releases of the year, and what do you do? Ask "what does the Heart of the Tiger" actually mean? How about ask about if it's possible to save Angel? How about asking about strategies to destroy the skipper missile? No kidding - those wouldn't be my top three choices today either ;). But if you think back to the 1990s, when games journalists were often barely out of their teens (dunno about Australia, but here in Poland, many of them were *not* out of their teens), and it makes sense. It's also charming in a way - today, we've become jaded with games journalism, we see that a lot of game journalists seem to almost dislike both the games they report on, and the gamers they report to. Back then, this wasn't the case, and it shows.

- Hobbes. This is the real reason I still remembered about the existence of this interview after so many years - because I recalled Roberts being asked about Hobbes' betrayal, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what he actually said. So, his response is at once very interesting from a creative perspective, and disappointing from a Wing Commander fan perspective. We've all seen many debates about Hobbes over the years - what did it all mean, which Hobbes was the real Hobbes, et cetera. So, what was Chris Roberts' explanation?
Interview said:
I felt that the inclusion of Hobbs [sic] in the crew was a subtle lesson in multi-racial harmony. Is this so and why did he finally turn bad?...
It's more to do with the way the original Wing Commander was structured; you know, the Kilrathi are bad, the Humans are good. It's not like you have an option to make peace with the Kilrathi, because that's not the way the game's structured. So in Wing Commander 2 I felt like it got a little too grey and I wanted to get back towards the Kilrathi being bad and the humans being good, because it's black and white. In Star Wars the storm troopers are bad the rebels are good - you don't have any question about it. Hobbs [sic - blame the transcriber] was kind of like the one sore thumb sticking out in terms of that, so that was more the reason why he turned traitor.
So, there you have it, once and for all: there was no secret masterplan devised back in the Freedom Flight days to have Hobbes as a sleeper agent. There was the WC2 team (and Freedom Flight, obviously) pushing towards a more complex universe with more complex Kilrathi capable of moral agency - and there was Chris Roberts pushing back on that in WC3 with "well, the Kilrathi are just evil". As a WC fan who believes this was a step backwards for the complexity of the universe, I can criticise this decision - but I have to admit, it makes a lot of sense from a creative perspective of reinforcing what the two sides are about, raising the stakes, opening the game up to new players... and of course, making the final destruction of Kilrah a logical conclusion rather than a moral conundrum. I assume that if someone back then had bothered to ask why Tolwyn went back to hating Blair in WC3, the response would have been similarly cast in creative terms - Blair (and Eisen) needed a foil on the Confed side.

- Am I the only one who finds it odd, that even before the film shoot for WC4, here was Chris Roberts casually talking about how this would be a "sort of Malcolm vs. Mark thing"? Spoilers much!

- Interestingly, he also claims there are not going to be *any* Kilrathi in WC4 - which in the end didn't turn out to be true. Since by that point, the Kilrathi puppets must have been at least on order for the film shoot, should we assume he was concerned the new Melek might not be good enough to use?

- I assume this interview would have been one of the first places where a Privateer TV series was mentioned as something in development for next year. Needless to say, that didn't happen - but it's interesting to see him talking about it with certainty. No buts, no maybes: "Yeah, we're in development right now. It's for next year when we'll launch a Privateer game along side a Privateer TV series." This suggests things must have been moving in such a way at the time, that the TV series seemed certain? Did we ever hear about the circumstances in which the TV series died?

- The interviewers asked Chris Roberts about "why not just increase the difficulty exponentially?" Umm, yeah. That's exactly the kind of question I'd ask. Yep. No doubt about it. I guess this tells us who we should blame for the WC4 gameplay.

- There are questions about Pacific Strike's dismal disaster, and about whether there would ever be another Strike Commander game. With Pacific Strike, the response is not very deep, but kind of risque - it's basically "blame EA", and about the only diplomatic thing about it is that "everyone learnt from Pacific Strike and we won't do that again." As for Strike Commander, Roberts talks about everybody being fed up with the extra work required to make a realistic sim, having to talk to F-16 pilots and all that - and then, as a kind of cop-out, he blames Falcon 3.0 for his disinterest in more jet simulations: "[...] but ever since Falcon 3.0 came out, making a flight sim has been a lot tougher. Everyone says if it doesn't fly like Falcon it's not right." Heh.

- Right at the end, there is the obligatory question about what games does Chris Roberts play when not working. The response is just one sentence: "at eight o'clock each night we all stop work and play multiplayer Descent". Hey, yeah, I remember playing multiplayer Descent too, but the really fun thing about this response is actually the "eight o'clock" bit. Boy, how have times changed! No game developer today would so casually admit that the team actually stays in the office and works until eight in the evening... each night! Obviously, today we know enough about Origin of that period to understand that this was indeed normal at least for the WC4 development team, if not for the whole company. But notice that the interviewers don't bat an eyelid, don't follow up with "hey, wait, how long do you guys work?". Of course, that was par for the course - as we saw in the first few questions, these guys were gamers, and much more interested in asking questions about getting past this or that mission, than actually delving into the complexities of game development.


So, there you have it. All in all, not a very significant interview in terms of content, but what a wonderful artefact of an age long gone! And speaking of long gone - time to get back to work ;).
 

Pedro

Admiral
Not sure we learn much about who is to blame for the difficulty. Also I’m not sure an exponential difficulty curve is a good thing - yes on average the latter half of the game should be harder than the first as you’ve theoretically gotten better at it - but I’d say the SM and SO campaigns show how frustrating that can be (made worse but how buggy wc2 is on GoG and prone to crashing at the end of a really tough mission).

I get why you’d want to make it more black and white, you’re essentially being asked to nuke civilians at the end of the game. It’s a logical way to end a war in a game where you want to increase the players importance but horrible when you think about it.
Like with Star Wars as Clerks pointed out - they probably killed a whole bunch of construction workers and contractors, best not to think about that.
Had wing 3 had the same focus on rebel colonies as wing 2 the mission would have been far more uneasy.

I don’t think changing the emphasis for a game though unwrites the complexity of the Kilrathi - but it’s definitely something you don’t want to player focused on for that game. He certainly didn’t continue that type of portrayal in wciv, and given it turned out to be the entry point for so many players I think it was probably the right choice.
 
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Quarto

Unknown Enemy
Not sure we learn much about who is to blame for the difficulty. Also I’m not sure an exponential difficulty curve is a good thing - yes on average the latter half of the game should be harder than the first as you’ve theoretically gotten better at it - but I’d say the SM and SO campaigns show how frustrating that can be (made worse but how buggy wc2 is on GoG and prone to crashing at the end of a really tough mission).
Oh, yeah, that was more of a joke on my part - I'm pretty sure Chris Roberts wouldn't have revised the gameplay based on one question in an interview. My point was more about how curious, how very 1990s it seems to be, that the journalist would be basically saying "hey, the game wasn't hard enough, can you make the next one exponentially harder?" It's certainly not something I'd be lobbying for, but more to the point - it's just not the kind of question that would come up in an interview these days, unless there were very evident problems with the game's difficulty (which in WC3, I don't think there were? It's been years, but I recall the game's difficulty as quite well balanced). And as for WC4 - I guess if anything, the trouble with WC4 is that it's a bit unbalanced the other way - the difficulty curve is far from exponential, at times it could even be a little bit too flat, but because of how the missiles work, the game is too frustrating from the very start (at least for my taste - IIRC, that was one of the things we tended to disagree on).

With regards to the complexity of the Kilrathi, I agree that it didn't "unwrite" it - it just kinda shifted it out of the picture. For players who went into WC3 from the previous games, there was no going back to a black & white vision of the conflict, because... well Hobbes is Hobbes, but there were those colonies as well. Nonetheless, Hobbes' betrayal allowed even such players to not worry too much (not that players would worry too much anyway). The big concern was undoubtedly communicating the whole conflict in a clear-cut way to all the new players, and without a doubt, WC3 was designed, funded, and marketed in such a way that everyone would have been working with the (ultimately correct) assumption that this game would far eclipse earlier titles in terms of sales, and that most of the players would be new to the series. We could almost go as far as to claim that WC3 was a soft reboot, two decades before the concept became fashionable.

BTW - in my very occasional visits to the CIC, I'm always happy to see updates on your WC4 remake project. Glad to see someone from the old guard still has time to spend on making Wing Commander stuff. I'm envious, but in a good way. Keep up the fight - sorry I can't offer to help in any way!
 

Pedro

Admiral
BTW - in my very occasional visits to the CIC, I'm always happy to see updates on your WC4 remake project. Glad to see someone from the old guard still has time to spend on making Wing Commander stuff. I'm envious, but in a good way. Keep up the fight - sorry I can't offer to help in any way!

It's lack of time driving me, just came off a year of long hours and we have a third kid on the way.
Once the new screamer arrives I'll be out of it for atleast a year - before that happens I'd like to try and get something out to maybe get some new recruits.
Or EA if you're listening we could remake the whole franchise if it was full time :p (I'm only half kidding, so much was carried over from game to game I feel like we've completed half the work needed for every title in the franchise).
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
It's lack of time driving me, just came off a year of long hours and we have a third kid on the way.
Once the new screamer arrives I'll be out of it for atleast a year - before that happens I'd like to try and get something out to maybe get some new recruits.
Or EA if you're listening we could remake the whole franchise if it was full time :p (I'm only half kidding, so much was carried over from game to game I feel like we've completed half the work needed for every title in the franchise).
Hey, that's great, congratulations!
And yeah, I can imagine there's a lot of continuity across the series. Their design philosophy evolved a lot, but it was evolving, not undergoing huge revolutions.
 

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
It's great to hear from you! I have to be honest that life has been so challenging these past couple years that I've barely been able to keep up with anyone... which is to say I feel badly that I hadn't even noticed you were gone. But that reflects nothing on you and I am glad you are here now!

The thing that really strikes me about this interview is that Chris was /27/ when he was directing Wing Commander IV. That probably seemed ancient to me when I was 14... but now it boggles the mind how accomplished he was when he was so young.

So, there you have it, once and for all: there was no secret masterplan devised back in the Freedom Flight days to have Hobbes as a sleeper agent. There was the WC2 team (and Freedom Flight, obviously) pushing towards a more complex universe with more complex Kilrathi capable of moral agency - and there was Chris Roberts pushing back on that in WC3 with "well, the Kilrathi are just evil". As a WC fan who believes this was a step backwards for the complexity of the universe, I can criticise this decision - but I have to admit, it makes a lot of sense from a creative perspective of reinforcing what the two sides are about, raising the stakes, opening the game up to new players... and of course, making the final destruction of Kilrah a logical conclusion rather than a moral conundrum.

I don't think anyone ever believed there was a plan in Freedom Flight, it's just one of those things that works.

I think there's something more interesting going on here, though, because as you note he's 100% right: Wing Commander III was designed to appeal to a mass audience that didn't know it from Star Wars and making things simple in the setup was the right call there. But it was also his same impulse on Wing Commander I and it worked there: the Confederation started off as an amoral empire you were supposed to question and his feeling was to drop that then. And I recall exactly the same thing during the early Star Citizen worldbuilding... there's a very strong desire to establish your setting with all kinds of social commentary/allegory ('from my perspective the Jedi are evil!') and his reaction wasn't ever that that was BAD but that you needed to go through that self check and think about why you were making choices like that (whether they'd actually impact the game or if you were just being clever).

But I also think that to some degree he's also being polite because we're giving Wing Commander II a lot more credit than it probably deserves... it's not THAT nuanced. But it does have a kind of cloying earnestness that some people love but that absolutely rubs others the wrong way. I can easily picture why things 'there's a friendly tiger and he's your buddy!' and 'the aliens are all different human animals!' and the like just didn't work for him.

I assume that if someone back then had bothered to ask why Tolwyn went back to hating Blair in WC3, the response would have been similarly cast in creative terms - Blair (and Eisen) needed a foil on the Confed side.

With regards to Tolwyn, there's a line that seems intended to cover exactly this during one of the Torgo briefings: "I thought at long last we’d achieved a measure of respect for each other. Obviously I was wrong." But it's also extremely likely that that line was intended to cover only the implication at the end of Wing Commander II and that no one involved in the process ever knew there was a 'friendly Tolwyn' in the Special Operations stories (and then spun off into the novels). I've discovered there was a giant gulf between super fans who consider the mission disks to be epic continuations of an ongoing story versus developers at the time who saw them as a necessary evil that the most junior folks on the team were responsible for taking care of while everyone else moved on to the next big thing.

- I assume this interview would have been one of the first places where a Privateer TV series was mentioned as something in development for next year. Needless to say, that didn't happen - but it's interesting to see him talking about it with certainty. No buts, no maybes: "Yeah, we're in development right now. It's for next year when we'll launch a Privateer game along side a Privateer TV series." This suggests things must have been moving in such a way at the time, that the TV series seemed certain? Did we ever hear about the circumstances in which the TV series died?

I spoke with Aaron Allston about this at Dragon*Con some years ago (well, obviously!). The project attracted the attention of a studio which industry writers to rework the series bible and outline the first script... but when their take came back no one at Origin was particularly enthusiastic (he recalled one of the big stories was about the privateer discovering a planet of amazonian women).

- Interestingly, he also claims there are not going to be *any* Kilrathi in WC4 - which in the end didn't turn out to be true. Since by that point, the Kilrathi puppets must have been at least on order for the film shoot, should we assume he was concerned the new Melek might not be good enough to use?

Honestly I think that would be about as far as you can get from his personality. He's someone who will run out every option to make something work the way he wants so I think it's more likely he's just keeping Melek's appearance a surprise. I'm not sure at what point in the year this was, but it may have been earli enough that they only knew they were spending a bunch of money for an animatronic developed by folks that worked with JIm Henson.

But someone assosciated with the animatronics folks recently posted the photo they staged of Melek for a review and... it looks so much better with that lighting. So even if there was any worry that Melek wouldn't work (and I suspect there wasn't) it probably didn't happen until they started getting film rushes back. Well-lit Melek: https://cdn.wcnews.com/newestshots/full/melek3.jpg

- There are questions about Pacific Strike's dismal disaster, and about whether there would ever be another Strike Commander game. With Pacific Strike, the response is not very deep, but kind of risque - it's basically "blame EA", and about the only diplomatic thing about it is that "everyone learnt from Pacific Strike and we won't do that again." As for Strike Commander, Roberts talks about everybody being fed up with the extra work required to make a realistic sim, having to talk to F-16 pilots and all that - and then, as a kind of cop-out, he blames Falcon 3.0 for his disinterest in more jet simulations: "[...] but ever since Falcon 3.0 came out, making a flight sim has been a lot tougher. Everyone says if it doesn't fly like Falcon it's not right." Heh.

I didn't even realize what a disaster Pacific Strike was until I started researching those Zero Pilot games a couple years ago. I think the American game press just ignored the issue entirely, but I was shocked to learn Origin ended up issuing multiple formal apologies and agreeing to no-questions-asked refunds for anyone who wanted one. Here's a thread with more details: https://www.wcnews.com/chatzone/thr...ng-spinoff-connection-december-20-2020.30699/ (All of which to say is there was probably a good reason why he'd be nervous to say anything in the wake of that!)

He talks about the Falcon comparison in interviews a lot, often saying that F-16 pilots agree that Strike Commander is the more accurate F-16 recreation... but because of the 'interactive movie' connection everyone assumed it was an arcade game and not even intended to be a simulation (whereas behind the scenes that was the biggest part of the effort).

- Right at the end, there is the obligatory question about what games does Chris Roberts play when not working. The response is just one sentence: "at eight o'clock each night we all stop work and play multiplayer Descent". Hey, yeah, I remember playing multiplayer Descent too, but the really fun thing about this response is actually the "eight o'clock" bit. Boy, how have times changed! No game developer today would so casually admit that the team actually stays in the office and works until eight in the evening... each night! Obviously, today we know enough about Origin of that period to understand that this was indeed normal at least for the WC4 development team, if not for the whole company. But notice that the interviewers don't bat an eyelid, don't follow up with "hey, wait, how long do you guys work?". Of course, that was par for the course - as we saw in the first few questions, these guys were gamers, and much more interested in asking questions about getting past this or that mission, than actually delving into the complexities of game development.

Absolutely all around, although there's one detail that explains why you've never heard anyone at Origin from before 1998 complain about crunch: project completion bonuses were much, much higher before EA cut them to the bone. Everyone working on the early games killed themselves in a way that would get them an angry Kotaku articule for sure... but a succesful game made it worth the effort.
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
...Australian games magazine Hyper.
Definitely remember Hyper...

...it makes a lot of sense from a creative perspective of reinforcing what the two sides are about, raising the stakes, opening the game up to new players... and of course, making the final destruction of Kilrah a logical conclusion rather than a moral conundrum.
I imagine an analogy in the Light Side vs Dark Side of the Force. There are Legends-era novels and much fan discussion of the notion of a grey area between the Light and the Dark but to my understanding, in George Lucas' mind there is a clear delineation between the two, there is no 'in between'. (I can't recall if that's only referring to the Force itself or if that includes their representations in the Jedi and the Sith, but I suppose it would dilute the drama of Anakin's story if there was room to have something between the two.)

But I agree with your point about this simplification being a step backwards in WC3's story-telling. There is the scene with post-Trigger Hobbes referring to mixed feelings he might have about the Behemoth plan and he drops a hint about 'no-one will ever truly understand why I did', but ultimately it just wraps things up as 'all Kilrathi are bad, so it's okay to blow up their planet'. And then we have 'friendly' Melek in WC4...

Am I the only one who finds it odd, that even before the film shoot for WC4, here was Chris Roberts casually talking about how this would be a "sort of Malcolm vs. Mark thing"? Spoilers much!
I thought the same thing, when reading through it just now!

Interestingly, he also claims there are not going to be *any* Kilrathi in WC4 - which in the end didn't turn out to be true. Since by that point, the Kilrathi puppets must have been at least on order for the film shoot, should we assume he was concerned the new Melek might not be good enough to use?
I just wonder if the interview was very early on in WC4 production and he hadn't yet thought of putting in a Melek cameo, just to remind people that the Kilrathi are still around.

Edit: I read the thread before LOAF posted, so I didn't see his reply till after I finally finished my own post. The explanation about keeping Melek a secret is plausible.

... the really fun thing about this response is actually the "eight o'clock" bit.
Yeah, I assume they wouldn't have time for games if it was 'crunch' time.

One other reflection I had was towards the end they talk about various PC-to-console ports. I know it's the 1990s and the 'golden age' of PC games, but it really feels odd reading that when it's very much other the direction nowadays, of console-to-PC ports - assuming there are any to begin with.
 
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Sharpshooter

Rear Admiral
And as for WC4 - I guess if anything, the trouble with WC4 is that it's a bit unbalanced the other way - the difficulty curve is far from exponential, at times it could even be a little bit too flat, but because of how the missiles work, the game is too frustrating from the very start (at least for my taste - IIRC, that was one of the things we tended to disagree on).

While WC4 is rather unbalanced on the highest difficulty levels... In my opinion, on Ace, the game difficulty is balanced rather well, to the point that WC4 has my favorite gameplay alongside Privateer (excluding Righteous Fire, which for the most part I felt was too easy). WC1 had those missions where luck just seemed to play too important a part (such as some some missions where you had to escort or defend allied ships), WC2 was easy enough but SO1 and SO2 could be nightmarish and, again, luck-based (especially SO1), WC3 was frustrating for mouse players since you couldn't use afterburners while turning (in the DOS version, at least... The KS version fixed that, thankfully), and WCP/WCSO had some bonus objectives that required both a lot of skill and quite a bit of luck to complete. On the other hand, WC4 felt a lot more reasonable when it came to difficulty, unless you deliberately put yourself in a dangerous situation such as standing up for Maniac against Dekker then picking a hard mission without a wingman. Sure, there was the whole "one hit from a missile and you tend to die instantly" thing, but you have to bear in mind the same thing was true for your enemies : most could also be killed with a single missile, which made things easier overall, if you ask me.

Also : It's great to see you again, Quarto!
 

Pedro

Admiral
While WC4 is rather unbalanced on the highest difficulty levels... In my opinion, on Ace, the game difficulty is balanced rather well, to the point that WC4 has my favorite gameplay alongside Privateer (excluding Righteous Fire, which for the most part I felt was too easy). WC1 had those missions where luck just seemed to play too important a part (such as some some missions where you had to escort or defend allied ships), WC2 was easy enough but SO1 and SO2 could be nightmarish and, again, luck-based (especially SO1), WC3 was frustrating for mouse players since you couldn't use afterburners while turning (in the DOS version, at least... The KS version fixed that, thankfully), and WCP/WCSO had some bonus objectives that required both a lot of skill and quite a bit of luck to complete. On the other hand, WC4 felt a lot more reasonable when it came to difficulty, unless you deliberately put yourself in a dangerous situation such as standing up for Maniac against Dekker then picking a hard mission without a wingman. Sure, there was the whole "one hit from a missile and you tend to die instantly" thing, but you have to bear in mind the same thing was true for your enemies : most could also be killed with a single missile, which made things easier overall, if you ask me.

Also : It's great to see you again, Quarto!


I covered the reasons why in the last update but my issues with 4 are just the feel of the flight mechanics. On paper it's a great design and props to the design team, and I do love all the various mechanics that CR mentions there.
I think that Ace level is the level the games were intended to be played at. Looking at the WCIV guide there were some stats changes for rookie mode but other than that it was artifically bumping up or down the enemy AI and how frequently they would fire missiles.
Bumping up all AI to the smartest level kind of ruins any attempt at a difficulty curve and I think you are right, sticking to Ace is the best way to enjoy the game as that's how the designers intended it.
 

Sharpshooter

Rear Admiral
I covered the reasons why in the last update but my issues with 4 are just the feel of the flight mechanics.

I almost forgot about that! Now that you mention it, I guess I did miss the afterburner slide in WC3 and WC4, as I found it to be a lifesaver at times, especially in WC2 (and especially against Gothris).
 

Bob McDob

Better Health Through Less Flavor
But it was also his same impulse on Wing Commander I and it worked there: the Confederation started off as an amoral empire you were supposed to question and his feeling was to drop that then.
But wasn't that his own idea in the first place?
 
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