On the edge of known space, we centre the object in our meteorscratched canopy and hit the thrusters. In time, it begins to loom large in our vision, monolithic and yet somehow indistinct, its obsidian, almost too perfect alien surface melding into the pervading blackness. Clearly it’s colossal, but it’s also beguilingly mysterious. Yet the problem isn’t really a lack of information: early probes have returned full of data, it’s just that much of it is apparently contradictory and there’s plenty of disagreement over what it all means. The object is Star Citizen, and the only conclusion everyone seems truly happy with is that it’s made a hell of a lot of money.


That could not be more perfectly calculated to wind up Chris Roberts, the creator of the beloved Wing Commander series, CEO of Cloud Imperium Games and chief creative officer on Star Citizen. “I do get a bit disappointed,” he admits. “I mean, it’s today’s news cycle... If you’re on the online 24/7 game blog, they don’t have time to [do in-depth articles], so they’re always about the headline. So for them it’s like, ‘Oh, Star Citizen’s made X million or X million,’ and everything focuses on the money. And then you can read it and say, ‘Well, all they care about is the money.’ Not really.”
“RIGHT NOW I THINK WE'RE ESTIMATING SOMETHING LIKE 50 HOURS TO PLAY THROUGH THE FULL NARRATIVE STORY”
It is the distorting weight of $60m and counting, raised by some 640,000 backers, which has seen the developer variously accused of running a cult, a scam and, thanks to the $30 to $15,000 game packages on the Roberts Space Industries site, a pay to-win operation. Alternatively, for the faithful, this is the second coming of Chris Roberts after a ten-year break from games. But Star Citizen’s even harder to get a read on: it’s a space dogfighting game, only with ships big enough to walk around and live in, except when it’s an FPS, set in an online universe.

The list of features defies credulity, but if Star Citizen is a con, it might be the worst-run one on the planet. For starters, it’s intensely public, with Chris often making appearances on game expo stages to reveal more in-engine footage. Secondly, while only a sliver of what’s promised, the dogfighting and hangar modules are both in public hands already, the former the beneficiary of a huge update in recent weeks (see ‘Reality engine’). Some 110 Cloud Imperium staff have accounts on LinkedIn, and these are not sock puppets, but people who have portfolio sites and histories at Crytek, BioWare and Activision.

As slight as accountability in crowdfunding projects may be, the conspiracy theory doesn't stack up.
Chris refutes the pay to win accusations himself: “The design of the game, and this is just personal preference, because I hate it in free-to-play games, is there’s nothing that you can buy with money that you can’t earn in the game.” The packages are pledge tiers, their values set to offer funding options. Come release, the basic starting package is all you’ll need.

The problem for outside observers is really scale. Baffling, mind-boggling scale. “We’re essentially giving them four huge games all in one,” Chris explains. “Squadron 42 is going to be what, or better than what, a next-generation Wing Commander would have been, and that’s just by itself. And its level of fidelity I mean, the scope and the size of the story and the missions we’re doing in it is huge. I mean, I’m pretty sure if I was doing another Wing Commander for EA, I don’t think they would allow me to do as much content. Because right now I think we’re estimating something like 50 hours or so to play through the full narrative story.

“I mean, it’s so big we’re going to release it in episodes. Think of it as a mini series, like five episodes. So the first episode is what we’re going to release next year well, hopefully there are two episodes next year, but for the first one I think we're aiming for Gamescom. But the first episode itself is about ten hours of gameplay. So compared to modern FPS games, that’s more than you get in most of the campaign modes with a Call Of Duty.

“And then, of course, there’s whole persistent [online] universe. You've got the 4X space game style, because if you don’t want to get into combat, you can go into building a business up or building a trade empire and doing all that kind of stuff. And then we’ve got the FPS section. So someone could make a game just by itself from any one of these.”

Ambition of this scale takes not one studio, but five, each working on separate modules of the game. While Chris heads up development on the persistent universe in Los Angeles, CIG also has satellites in Texas and California. IllFonic, a relatively unknown quantity whose output includes the lukewarmly received Nexuiz, is in charge of the FPS module. Rather more promisingly, Erin Roberts is studio director of the Manchester based Foundry 42, entrusted with creating the singleplayer campaign, Squadron 42. Unlike his brother, Erin never left the industry, but after producing Wing Commander: Privateer 2 and helming Starlancer, he wound up at TT Fusion making Lego games. Though he enjoyed it, he took little convincing to rejoin his brother to make Chris’s self-professed “crazy dream”.

Erin’s part is certainly the easiest to contextualise. Taking place before the timeline of the persistent universe, Squadron 42’s arc tells the story of a war between the alien Vanduul and United Empire of Earth (UEE). The setup is battle worn: you’ll play the rookie working your way up the ranks. You start with a light fighter, the Gladius, waiting in your hangar, earning the right to fly more advanced craft over time. But Erin explains there’s been a gestalt shift that defines Star Citizen; Wing Commander has long been famous for its first person view on the cockpit, but pilots here will be free to tear open the canopy and stretch their legs. “It’s not, for me, really a space combat game,” he says. “It’s actually an FPS game where you use vehicles. So, ’cause you’re always a person, you [might] decide to fly a ship, get in a ground vehicle, or go places and walk around.”
“IT’S NOT, FOR ME, REALLY A SPACE COMBAT GAME. IT’S ACTUALLY AN FPS GAME WHERE YOU USE VEHICLES”
So while the storyline's linear, moment-to-moment gameplay is anything but dictatorial. Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is namechecked before Erin describes 1 km long battlecruisers with explorable interiors, and how ships are modelled down to the latrines and manufacturer’s marks on the rivets. It seems one such capital ship will serve as a hub and home for a time, with you at liberty to wander its cafeterias and halls between spells in the cockpit.

The idea is to give a sense of a living place, so the people on board are just as important as the immaculately rendered bulwarks. Crews will assemble in the canteen at lunch, then scuttle off to service hangar craft, and key NPCs will catch your eye if they want a quick chat. Dialogue option lists are out, a body language and reputation system in their place. Stay and listen to a garrulous wingman’s tall tales in a bar and he might form a closer bond with you that means more help out among the stars, get him going and dash off mid-sentence and he might give you the cold shoulder instead.

“I mean, it’s crazy,” says Chris, “because the Wing Commander format was that you fly your mission in space, shoot a bunch of stuff up, and then you come back onto the ship, you have some conversations and the story advances, and you basically rinse and repeat that. This is not like that. It’s completely fluid. You can be going around your ship, having conversations, and suddenly there’s an attack. Vanduul have boarded and you’ve got to run to the armoury to get your weapons to go fend them off, and then fight your way to the flight deck. And then you get in your ship and take it out, and chase after the Vanduul and destroy them.”

This, Erin explains, is the direct benefit of all that overfunding. “It allows us to really push a bunch of stuff we weren’t planning to do originally. If it just stayed very small at the beginning, then [Squadron 42] would have very much been just a smaller, much more focused space thing. The sort of way Elite: Dangerous is going about things, I guess.” That’s not to disparage David Braben’s own return to the genre Chris is a backer, as are many of the Manchester team but Star Citizen has the funds to expand its focus.

“One of the big locations in the game is a huge mining base,” Erin tells us, “and it’s like 6km, well, ‘big’. It’s huge. It’s got 26 landing platforms on it which can fit large ships I mean, like big old transports and things like that and each of these locations are places you can go.”

It’s not simply physical scale, either. Across the hour we spend with Erin, he touches tantalisingly on the topics of drop ships to fly, popping out in your EVA suit to perform mid-mission spacewalks to get around problems, and calling for air support from inside a location. It sounds like mad over promising until you consider that PAX Australia gave the world its first glimpse of Star Citizen’s considered, tactical gunplay before capping it off with a less constrained zero-g shootout, soldiers and pirates locked in an aerial ballet as they pushed off from walls and dodged floating crates. Perhaps most attractively of all, because many of Squadron 42’s systems have hooks in the persistent universe, they have been built to work in dynamic, unscripted environments, not just for set pieces. A linear tale may deploy them that way, but Erin stresses the primacy of choice.

Yet the power to choose may mean you never experience his work: in the final release, the entire Squadron 42 campaign will be optional. Still, according to Erin, you can opt out more dramatically than clicking ‘no thanks’ after character creation. “We’re going to give you the ability to pretty much mutiny. So you may decide you’re going to be an evil pirate, and you go and shoot your captain in the back of the head and make an escape… Obviously that puts an end to the campaign for you.”

These choice-based systems are set to reach maturation in the persistent universe, which blends a game-shaping economy simulation with a massively multiplayer sandbox universe. Yet as you explore its 110 star systems, and around 400 planned landing locations, you should notice them free of tired old MMOG design. “I kind of feel like in a lot of online games, especially as you get to the higher levels, you get forced into a social dynamic,” says Chris. “OK, I’m 80th level in World Of Warcraft and I’ve got to be in my raid group… We don’t have levels in Star Citizen. I don't want that. The goal of the game is there shouldn't be any win, right? Because it’s like in the real world: what’s your definition of a win?”

Your interpretation could mean seeking out dogfights until you carve out a legend as a combat ace, but it could equally mean starting up a junking and salvage business to make a few credits. Chris wants every path to involve skill, with mining, for instance, more a case of identifying mineral seams and extracting them, rather than floating near a rock and holding the spacebar.
CLOUD IMPERIUM ISN'T TRYING TO BUILD A UNIVERSE THIS DENSELY PACKED VIA RAW MANPOWER ALONE
So how will it all work? On a technical level, the universe itself is designed to cater to hundreds of thousands of players and millions more NPCs, the ratio being one human to nine AI characters but a game server can only contain 50 to 100 craft at this level of graphical fidelity. Instead of dealing with this via shards, space will be dynamically instanced, those instances stacking on top of each other as the player count in an area rises. Smartly, however, whenever you drop out of warp, an algorithm will be making decisions about who to stick you with based on your in-game affiliations and reputation, and your personal preferences. Express an interest in PvP and you’re likely to be matched with humans. Eschew social contact and pirates in your instance will more likely be AI bots. In this way, Star Citizen invisibly tailors itself to you as much as your actions alter it.

And alter it you will, entangled as you are in the web that is the economy simulation, which acts to imbue the universe with consequence and create a steady flow of missions. Chris provides the example of a factory in need of raw goods. To start with, it will post a mission to the job board that’s for simple haulage. Players get first dibs, but an NPC trucker will step in as time passes. If the sector’s lawless enough to attract pirates, the factory may soon be cut off and, as the bottom line is affected, the factory’s owner may then seek to hire mercenaries to protect their shipments. If that doesn't work, then you could be looking at a bounty to bring back the troublesome pirate lord’s scalp. But fail to reverse the factory’s fortunes and the workers will start to be laid off, crime rises and the area deteriorates visually, a wear-and-tear system responding to local affluence.

Planetside scenarios are said to evolve equally organically, with Chris’s team of designers working on modular mission templates so that the universe will keep providing things to see and do long after its scripted content is exhausted. And it is here that the bamboozling scope finally begins to feel grounded. Cloud Imperium may be crafting every ship by hand, but it isn’t trying to build a universe this densely packed via raw manpower alone.

But such an emphasis on a bespoke, hand shaped approach has introduced limits. “It’s not necessarily as big as a procedural game like Elite or No Man’s Sky that’s doing a lot more procedural stuff, because there’s a slightly different focus,” says Chris. “We’re focused on a more crafted, detailed oriented approach. Even in what I’m describing, there’s still procedural stuff that goes on in building elements of the cities, just because they’re so big and we’re doing them in such high fidelity. Like, for instance, if you’re in a big city, the background city blocks and everything is all much more procedural versus an artist placing down each single building.”

With all these promises to keep, is Chris feeling the pressure of his literally invested fanbase? Well, no. “The toughest person is myself on myself. The person that would be most annoyed if I didn't do what I have this vision in my head for is myself. When I really see a game through, I have this picture in my mind and I’m really obsessed about getting to this point. The original Wing Commander was that way, and that’s where I’m at on this. I’m stubborn.”

What Chris asks of his fans now is the same stubbornness: to bear with him while he, Erin and the team realise his grand vision, piece by piece. With so much riding on it no more or less than the reputation of crowdfunding whales Star Citizen can only either succeed spectacularly or fail disastrously. No publisher would take this kind of risk, but a great number of PC enthusiasts have, perhaps seeking release from an industry driven by predictable cycles and modest yearly iterations. Whatever Star Citizen ends up being, it will shake the game industry, and that alone makes it worth further exploration.

WHACK PLANET
“Originally, [landing on planets] was more like Free lanceror Privateer,” says Chris, “where you landed to fix your ship or buy new equipment or buy a new ship or get missions like a glorified shopping and mission interface.

Whereas now we’re on a very capable first person engine, so there’s a lot more you can do. We’re starting to look at PvE. I don’t want you to go to the planet and think, ‘Oh, I’m in a PvP gankfest…’ because I think that would be fairly stressful. There’ll be some areas in space where people will feel like that, but that’s OK because you can maybe avoid those areas. Planets should be more of a safe haven. But that doesn’t mean the environment or NPCs themselves don’t interact with you, and couldn’t also potentially be dangerous.

So if you land on a roughand-tumble planet on the edge of UEE space, and go down a dark alleyway to go in this back room to do a deal to get a mission, potentially a couple of NPC muggers could try to take you out. So you can whip out your gun, Han Solo-style, shoot them, and go about your day.”

REALITY ENGINE
The dogfighting module, AKA Arena Commander, is one part testbed for the developers, but it’s also a bottle universe for generating community feedback. While version 0.9.1 gave pilots a feel for the Newtonian physics and fly-by wire systems that underpin Star Citizen’s flight model, it was clinical and overzealous in its simulation, with clumsy fine control and a targeting HUD that felt like chasing boxes in space rather than deadly opponents. The 0.9.2 update is a spectacular improvement.

Targeting has been entirely reworked, with a cleaner HUD and the game now generating projected impact points from either your viewpoint or fixed gun reticle to align with foes, the emphasis restored to watching enemies and reading their moves. Fine control is also improved, a predictive system deadening stick inputs a little when you’re lining up a target to provide granular control. The result is a flight system that not only affords a sense of real momentum and simulates g-force to the extent that fast turns with the safeties off will cause you to black or red out, but is taught and exciting. It’s a promising sign for other modules and Star Citizen’s overall path to a cohesive, entertaining universe.

MARQUE TARGETS
Star Citizen’s economy is deep, and affects more than just the look of planets. The dedication to realism means a web of in-universe goods makers, each with their own personality and aesthetic. “I think we have about not just ships but all manufacturers I think there’s about 400 or 500 manufacturers in total,” lead vehicle artist Bjorn Seinstra explains.

Take weapons maker Behring. “Behring is a very old company. They used to make high-end weapons, but they got outgunned by the newer companies. So they kind of stick to the more classic-looking stuff. It works why change it? While other companies like Gallenson have more of a futuristic look they try new techniques.”

Such equipment is the next phase for ship-to-ship combat, following the Elite model of an arms race between sensors and emissions energy and heat here that will determine who can be seen on the radar, and who must be eyeballed. In a wing of friends, however, you might outfit one ship as a detector, with the others ready for the hunt.