Former Origin Producer Warren Spector remembers the 1990 coming-out at CES. "Chris was personally writing code, tweaking the demo as we set up on the show floor. And he took his PC - with the only copy of the demo on its hard drive - to the hotel room each night of the show. I shared a room with him, and I can tell you he didn't sleep much, just coded all night, every night, making for a different and better demo every day of the show. That was the commitment and madness that made Chris a great developer."
Published in 1990, Wing Commander - changed from Wing Leader for trademark reasons - scored a brilliant success. It spawned a six-year, multi-million-selling franchise: Three direct sequels; the companion games Privateer and Prophecy, plus numerous expansions; 10 novels; and a 1996 animated TV series, Wing Commander Academy.
Newly wealthy, Roberts bought four expensive cars and an estate outside Austin, Texas, named Commander's Ranch.
II, III, IV ...
Later games in the series kept pushing the hardware frontier. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi introduced spoken dialogue to computer games; the Wing II Speech Accessory Pack became the first killer app for the Creative Labs SoundBlaster. Wing II's story, too, moved into new territory. Ellen Guon Beeman, the game's assistant director and lead writer, took a cue from players' Rorschach-blot interpretations of Wing I's characters. "I spent a lot of time lurking on the Wing Commander fan forums on GEnie and Compuserve. Some guys talked about how the character Angel really had something going for the hero. I went back to the scripted text for Wing I and searched for that scene. I couldn't find anything that hinted at romantic interest, it was just a scene in which Angel described how to fight a particular Kilrathi ship. But after talking about it, [director Stephen Beeman] and I decided to create a full cinematic story, including the planned death of a major character and a love interest."
Wing II also used rotoscoping for its cut-scene animations. Stephen Beeman recalls, "We used people around the office, filming them with a camcorder, capturing with a really primitive capture card, and painting over the vidcaps in Deluxe Paint, frame by frame.
"The best part of the rotoscoping came when we filmed the scene at the end of Wing II, where Angel punches Jazz. Jackie Chapman, one of Origin's marketers, was playing Angel, and we had Chris play Jazz. Needless to say, neither of them was a trained Hollywood stunt person, so when Jackie threw that punch, it didn't breeze past Chris the way we intended - it socked him right in the nose! Naturally, that's the take we used.
"The fans should be pleased to know Chris literally put his blood, sweat and tears into that game. The rest of us settled for just the sweat and tears."
Roberts' commitment to innovation peaked (this time without injury) in 1994's Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger and 1995's Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. In these two hybrid game-movies, with branching storylines told in ambitious full-motion video (FMV), Roberts aimed for a true cinematic space-opera experience. The games starred Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies and (in III) porn star Ginger Lynn Allen.