Hello there fellow Citizens! It’s time for Meet the Devs with Ben Lesnick!
*Disclaimer – James and Ben laughed through about 70% of this episode, so just always imagine them laughing when reading the transcript!*
JP – So I know no-one’s ever asked this question before, but where’s your necklace from?
Ben – This is from the Wing Commander movie, it’s the Pilgrim Cross that the Freddie Prinze Jr. character wears. I’ve had this since… they made replicas of this, back in 1999-2000, and I’ve had it ever since.
*Meet the Devs intro plays*
JP – Hey everybody, welcome back to meet the devs. With me today is someone you should know, but let me go ahead and try to get his official title. He is the Director of Community Engagement, Online strategy, and Ships, Mr. Ben Lesnick. Ben, how you doing man.
Ben – Hello! It’s good to meet you!
JP – Good to meet you too.
Ben – Person who I employ
JP – So yeah, it’s finally time for the community to meet you.
Ben – Ah yes. No, I think I did one of these with Sandi, back in 2012 or something.
JP – It’s going to be way better than this one. So, this is also a kind of dumb question, but how did you get started with Star Citizen?
Ben – Well, I’ve been a Wing Commander fan since back when Wing Commander started being a thing. In 1995 I started a Wing Commander fansite, back before fan sites were really a thing…
JP – Was there internet in 1995?
Ben – There was internet in 1995. And even before that, I was on a Wing Commander club on Compuserve, and I used my 10 AOL internet hours to chat with Wing Commander fans, Wing Commander. Wing Commander’s the answer to everything. And after a while, I was writing the official Wing Commander site.
JP – WCnews?
Ben – WCnews.com, yeah. We did the launch of Wing Commander Prophecy, Wing Commander Secret Ops, Privateer 2, a bunch of those games, and of course Electronic Arts totally lost interest in Wing Commander, but I didn’t. So I got into the history of it, learning about the cancelled games, meeting the people who made it, I got to know Chris, I got to know him in the leadup to the movie, 1999 Wing Commander movie, and we kind of corresponded ever since. Whenever he would have some… wanted to bring back space sims or Wing Commander, you know, Wing Commander TV show, there’s going to be a GameCube game, all these ideas I would always come back, and he’d ask what the community is thinking, and finally he was like, I’m going to crowdfund this new game, which was called Space Trader at the time, and I said well, I’ll help you out, do whatever I can, and it became a real thing, I ended up getting a job, and here I am!
JP – So at the inception of the project, you worked basically for free right?
Ben – Oh yeah, we were all volunteers at that point. About six months or so, I had my real job, and then I’d spend six hours every night, chatting with… it was okay cause he was on the West coast, I was on the East Coast. I worked at a public school system during the day, and planned out Star Citizen at night with Chris, Dave Haddock, Sandi, and a couple of the other guys.
JP – Why would you ever give up that sick gig you had at the public school system for Star Citizen?
Ben – You joke about that, but one of the nice things about working for a public school system is you basically have a job for life, and you don’t have to worry about health insurance. They have the best possible health insurance. Coming out here was actually a big risk, but I’m happy, and I figured I would never get a chance like this again.
JP – You kinda hit on a ‘who was there at the beginning’, but as this thing has grown, we’re what, 270 now, including contractors, how has your perception of it changed? ‘Cause honestly, you, Chris, Sandi, and Haddock probably have the most interesting views of this project as a whole.
Ben – Yeah, I think nobody expected it would get here. I have no idea how it did. Although I helped, I guess.
JP – No, you helped, don’t be modest.
Ben – No, but it’s nice. It’s still… as big as we are, there’s still that small company feel. Like, if you had some great idea, or you were worried about something, you could go talk to Chris Roberts, he would listen to you as well. We’ve done a good job of keeping that intact, as big as we’ve gotten, as big as the project is now.
JP – So you’ve given your life over to Star Citizen the past three years, but you still just love Wing Commander, correct?
Ben – Absolutely, I love talking about Wing Commander. You were making fun of me just yesterday because I was railing at somebody on Tumblr for insulting the super nintendo port of Wing Commander.
JP – Hold on, hold on, let’s give context to this. It’s like 5:30, I’m thinking, maybe it’s time for me to go home for the day, and I look over – I sit right next to him – and he is just typing, and it’s this three page thing, and I’m looking at it being kind of nosey, and it’s ‘the SNES port’ bla bla bla. I’m like, ‘Ben, what are you writing?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh I’m writing this Tumblr post about how mad I am about the Wing Commander port.’ So yeah… that happened. So, don’t act like it’s crazy for me to make fun of you for that! So, I’ve asked you this before but just so everyone else knows – what was it about Wing Commander?
Ben – I don’t 100% know. I grew up like any serious nerd… Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and all the obscure stuff in between. Somehow Wing Commander just called out to me like, ‘This is your one.’ I think I remember getting on the proto-internet like 1990-91. Back then the internet was really interesting because it was all people – you had to be very smart to get there in the first place.
JP – It was an obstacle course to get on.
Ben – Yeah. It was like, if you understand how to dial in your modem when there’s no system for that and connect through some university you can get online… and it’s all particle physicists and grad students. So you kind of looked around and… ‘I love DOOM!’ Well, there’s a DOOM community and they’re all a bunch of dicks. They don’t want some kid with them. There’s the Star Trek community and it’s too big to ever be a part of. And just Wing Commander seemed like it was the right size and I love love loved World War II aircraft growing up and I would make my parents take me all around the country to different museums – ‘Ahh! There’s the Junkers there and a Dornier, I gotta go see this…’ and the Mustang whatever… I was obsessed with that stuff and Wing Commander is very much young Chris Roberts’ obsession with that same stuff and Star Wars and Star Trek all mixed into his vision and I connected to it immediately.
JP – Yeah, it’s one of the things I really like about you, not just in terms of ‘I think you’re a good boss, to save my job,’ but I just think that you LOVE Wing Commander and Star Citizen now so much that you were devoted to it for so long that you made it a career and that’s like… crazy to me.
Ben – It’s not anything I ever expected I’d do… I mean, I always wanted to write a book. I always wanted to write a Wing Commander book some day, the making of this series and how it impacted game development but I never thought I would work for Chris or make video games. Everybody grew up with that fantasy that they would make video games – I absolutely did not, I wanted to be a marine biologist or something…
JP – Is that why you’re always on about Space Whales?
Ben – No, I think those would be a legitimately good game mechanic!
JP – They wouldn’t! And no you don’t.
Ben – I do! I do. I really think they would create missions.
JP – The first time I asked you, ‘What would they do?’ You said they would jump fart. So I don’t really think…
Ben – That’s how they were going to… You could have like space whale hunters in the world and there’ll be like space green peace that wants to protect them. Yeah, I’m really into things that will generate missions in the persistent universe.
JP – So, what is your favourite part about Star Citizen? I know it’s kind of hard because you’ve been here since the beginning but…
Ben – Uhm, I love that it’s a different way of making games. I love that I’m here. I’m super excited about squadron 42 – I’d say I’m mostly excited by the singleplayer stuff.
JP – You were the one who sold me on that. Like, just in general I think we both play games like that.
Ben – Yeah, there’s nothing like a Chris Roberts narrative in a game. It’s kind of what defines… and any game today has some Chris Roberts DNA. It’s not the idea that it’s high art or anything, it’s just this perfect mix of something you can understand and it has these emotional beats that actually affect you like Spirit dying in Wing Commander II.
JP – Spoilers!
Ben – He does such an amazing job of bringing you into the world and he makes you care about it in a way that nobody had before.
JP – The thing that got me was that we were doing… I was watching you player Wing Commander III and you were talking about it on my charity stream awhile back and just seeing how much things can diverge in this tree that gets borne out of your decisions and how you affect it… Like, we didn’t see that in games for like decades after Wing Commander that I can remember.
Ben – Yeah, it’s especially crazy in Wing Commander I. In Wing Commander I, there’s like 12 or 14 missions you have to fly. If you win every single one, you finish the game in 12 or 14 missions. But there’s 40-some missions in the entire game and they’re all different. He puts SO much work into that. And even as far as Starlancer which Chris, Eric Peterson, and Erin Roberts worked on – there’s an entirely separate campaign that no one has ever played because it’s the co-op campaign. They did a study, only 3% of players even tried it. But… he cares about that experience in a way that very few people do. And… not to harp on publishers even more, but it’s one of the first things that can go.
JP – Oh for sure.
Ben – Like, ‘Okay I’ve made this game. It can work this way and I want to spend a million dollars on this path and then 3 million dollars on the other.’ ‘Well, just spend the million dollars…’ It’s great that that’s what we can finally do again here. We can do the other thing.
JP – Yeah, it’s this thing that is prevalent more in games today where it’s like… yeah, they don’t want to spend time developing something that not everyone is going to get to see. Seeing how… yeah, when you did that run thing you did it in what… like 12 missions, like you said, but you showed me this map of all of the missions and I was like… I couldn’t even fathom getting to all of those.
Ben – Yeah, it’s crazy.
JP – Alright, so before we get you out of here… just like everyone else we’re going to have some rapid-fire questions.
Ben – Alright.
JP – I have a feeling we’re going to know the answers already… but, favourite movie?
Ben – I’m not going to say the Wing Commander movie… I love the Wing Commander movie, I find it entirely fascinating. Hopefully you guys saw my stream with The Relay the other day. There’s so much lore and so much background, I love it but I don’t think it’s my favourite movie. I love Starship Troopers… that is my ultimate sci-fi movie I think. It’s just the perfect mix of commentary and everything else… *Ben shows his ‘Death From Above’ Starship Troopers tattoo on his right upper arm* I’ll always love that movie. I’m gonna go with Starship Troopers.
JP – I remember seeing the movie when I was a kid and being just horrified at the bug aliens.
Ben – To me it’s the perfect anti-war movie. You have all these Vietnam… it’s the perfect Vietnam movie basically. You have all these movies where it’s… like Full Metal Jacket where it’s like… the innocent kid goes off to war and then he sees how bad it is and then he starts waxing poetic about it. The reality is that the innocent kid goes off to war, sees how terrible it is, and that’s it… you know, ‘Oh, you’re promoted.’ ‘Oh, you’re re-assigned.’ They continue to figure out ways to keep you in that machine and I think Starship Troopers gets that across very well in a way that other movies don’t.
JP – Alright… favourite video game that’s not called Wing Commander?
Ben – That’s a good question… uhm… uh… Privateer? Does that count?
JP – NO! Alright… let’s try again. Favourite video game outside of the Chris Roberts… aura? Sphere of influence?
Ben – What about Erin Roberts’ ‘Privateer 2: The Darkening? Nah, I grew up loving Space Quest, those old Sierra games, Commander Keen from id. All that old 90s stuff. I build retro PCs in my spare time so I’m very into that era.
JP – Favourite ship in Star Citizen?
Ben – I like the Retaliator. I think I’ve said this in like a million different interviews already but one thing I always wanted out of Wing Commander was the space equivalent of like a B-17 raid over Germany, you know box formations of bombers with fighters diving in between them, flak going off… you know, they introduced the A-17 Broadsword in Wing Commander II and it was the B-17 equivalent just like the Retaliator is in our game but the game engine let you have like 8 ships on the screen at once and now we can have… hundreds of them and it’s going to be… I want those missions.
JP – Thank you again for coming on.
Ben – Thank you for continuing to be James Pugh.
JP – I try my best to be the best James Pugh I can possibly be.
Ben – Ooohhh… uh… I don’t know how that’s going but I appreciate the effort.
JP – Once again this is Ben Lesnick and I’m James Pugh and you just met a Director.