WHEN CHRIS ROBERTS STARTED his own computer-game design company, Digital Anvil, earlier this year, the news flashed across few screens outside the computer industry. But techies everywhere paid attention. Within the software world Roberts is a legend of sorts, having developed the popular Wing Commander series for his longtime employer, Origin Systems. By creating detailed story lines more appropriate to an epic novel, by combining computer graphics and live-action shots of actors like Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell, by operating on a budget that only Hollywood could love$10 million for Wing Commander IV alonethe understated 29-year-old had irrevocably changed the rules of the game game.
And he was about to change them again. Soon after Roberts set up shop in a refurbished hundred-year-old building in downtown Austin, Microsoft invested $75 million in his company in exchange for the exclusive rights to distribute its future releases. The fat bankroll from the Redmond, Washingtonbased behemoth gives Digital Anvil’s 35-person team a cushion of at least two years to develop its first title, and it means Microsoft will soon be able to flex its considerable muscles in the realm of game publishing, one of the few areas of cyberspace where it has had a minimal impact. More important, the arrangement gives Roberts the clout to realize his dream, which is to turn computer gaming into a subset of movie production. Already he has signed up Texas-bred director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) as a Digital Anvil partner; thanks to the Microsoft deal, Rodriguez will design a game and get an Austin screening room where he can watch rushes of his films and games in development.
Indeed, movies are what got Roberts into gaming in the first place. “Star Wars was the one that did it for me,” he says matter-of-factly in an ever-so-slight British accent that lingers from his boyhood days in Manchester, England. “I went home and started building ships out of Legos.” But instead of making a motion picture, he created a computer game. “I was fascinated with the ability to animate images on a computer screen. I thought that was just awesome. So at thirteen I taught myself how to do it. At the same time, I was playing a lot of arcade games, and it was one of those things where you go, I could do this better.’ So I started trying to write my own computer games.”
His first break came when his computer science teacher was named editor of the British magazine PC Micro. “He remembered that instead of doing database stuff, I’d be writing games with helicopters flying around,” Roberts says. “He told me to call him if I had any games.” Of course, he had a few.”I sold him King Kong for one hundred pounds. It was pretty basicyou were Kong on top of the Empire State Building, throwing rocks, knocking down helicopters and planes, stuff like that. Then I sold a game called Wizador to a Manchester software publisher for five thousand pounds. I thought I was a millionaire.”
At the time, Roberts was supposed to enter Manchester University to study physics, but he decided to take a year off to visit his father, who was teaching sociology and Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin; eventually he moved stateside for good. “I always liked hot weather, the concept of things that went on for twenty-four hours, and the fact that there were always movies to see,” he says. “So it was actually fun moving to Austin.” In 1987 Roberts began developing games on a freelance basis at Origin; three years later, as a full-time employee, he rolled out Wing Commander. “At first my father would say to me, Why don’t you go back to college? The computer-game thing is just a passing fad.’” Roberts says with a smile. “Then Wing Commander hit and made gobs of money, and he changed his opinion.”
The key to its success, Roberts quickly determined, was the narrative. “My slant on every game I ever did was to have a story, some sort of context and meaning,” he says. “Everything I did was wrapped inside some story, rather than just getting high scores. If I wasn’t doing computer games, I would probably have ended up doing movies, because that’s my other huge interest and love. It just happened that games were a little easier back then, ‘cause you know a thirteen-year-old can get on the computer and do everything himself.”
And it’s a lot easier when you’ve got a partner like Microsoft backing you up. “Since the last two Wing Commanders I did sold well overseas, it was very important to have worldwide reach,” he says. “We didn’t know anyone at Microsoft, but we had Bill Gates’s e-mail address, so we sent him a message. The next day we got a call from the general manager of his entertainment division. We just went from there.”
But where does he go from here? First on the rollout schedule is a combat- strategy game tentatively titled Conquest. “You’re controlling your fleet against other people’s fleets,” Roberts explains, “and you go around galaxies and find planets and build ships and go to war with your neighbors. It’s like a combination of Risk, space combat, and the visuals of Return of the Jedi.” After that comes Highway Knight, an action-adventure driving game set fifty years from now in a society where law and order have broken down, followed by Freelancer, a multiplayer space adventure in the Wing Commander vein. “And Robert [Rodriguez] is working on a project tentatively called Tribe,” Roberts says. “The idea is, he will write a movie, possibly direct it, and then write a game.”
Pretty heady stuff, but Roberts says he and his company are up to the challenge. “The big struggle for moviemakers is that you have to have characters you can empathize with. In an interactive story you care about what happens to you. If you do something and the character dies, it is your fault, and that should hit you harder than when you’re watching a movie and the hero screws up. The thing that holds back gaming from having the same emotional impact as movies is the visual and audio quality of the story and the sophistication and creativity of the storyteller. Hollywood has been doing it longer, but give interactive thirty years and you’ll start to see a more powerful, involved experience.”