Star Citizen: Reaching For The Star

If there’s a single word that we would use to describe Star Citizen it would be ambitious. Ambitious in its goals, ambitious in its scope, ambitious in its vision, which has captured the imagination of a waiting fan base and ambitious in its approach to technology. “The game dovetails nicely with the whole theme of Star Citizen of space and going out there, because space is sort of ambitious, right?” poses Chris Roberts, the visionary behind Star Citizen and the creator of such games as Wing Commander. “What are the new frontiers? Let’s go discover this new star front. On the PC and pushing this technology it’s the same thing.”

If you haven’t kept up with the Star Citizen story then it’s quite an extraordinary one. Launched on Kickstarter with the view of resurrecting the classic space exploration genre, the target was a modest $500,000, but through various outlets it exceeded $6.2 million. Cloud Imperium Games took the campaign and kept on pushing. To date, the team has crowdfunded almost $72 million. It’s one of the greatest examples of fan-driven funding seen to date.

Roberts modestly tells us it was something they “fell into”. “I didn’t intend for it to be at the level we do it now, but we just ran with it and saw the energy we got at the early stages of the crowdfunding and that’s kind of why we raised so much money. You’ve got this community and everyone’s talking about it and everyone’s excited and they’re sharing stuff and most crowdfunding things just sort of say ‘okay, thanks’ and then they just go and work on stuff for a year or two years and then it comes out. It sort of feels like you had all this momentum and energy and excitement, why cut that off and not keep it going?”

But how was this amazing feat achieved? To get to the bottom of that we have to go back to how Chris Roberts chose to come back and what he brought with him after a decade away from games, making movies. “One of the key things you learn working on films is that they’re very good at telling a highly realised story or emotional experience in a very small way,” he explains, going on to show how the application of this idea directly impacted how fans have reacted to the game. “You can go to the forums and you can see people talking about what they’re going to do, how they’re going to venture out in their ship and they’re living this life in their head and part of why they’re doing that is that we’ve gone to an extreme. The ships are a good example of this; it’s not that it’s just a pretty exterior of a ship, it’s a fully realised spaceship that looks cool on the outside, but also has all the bits working on the inside. It has the living quarters and the toilet and whatever. It has sleeping areas and you can use them all, so when you get inside the ship the details are there. You can easily project yourself that you’re in this ship, venturing around this universe. So in your mind it’s easier to put yourself in that place and have that initial reaction to that experience. It’s small things and it’s subtle things, but I think that it all adds up together to pull you into the universe.”

Star Citizen is more than just a single game, which perhaps also goes some way to explain how it appears to have appealed to so many so quickly while it’s still in development. There’s the open sandbox persistent online universe aspect of the game, which will see over 100 systems to explore and various roles you can play out in the world. There’s Squadron 42, the single-player component of the game, which will feature up to 70 missions and from which you will create the character you take into that online world. And then there are the separate modules for co-op and multiplayer, elements of which have already been released for testing.

It’s a massive game, but was it always intended to be such? $72 million goes a long way after all. “There are a fair amount of aspects to the game that have been greatly enhanced and expanded. There are always the obvious ones like we can just do more content, more locations and star systems and more ships, but also just the fidelity. When I was originally starting out I was kind of envisioning that I would have the space stuff, flying around, but when I was down on the planet it would be more like Freelancer or Privateer where you would sort of be on the planet and you would have a couple of locations. You could click on some people and try and sell some stuff, but then partly because we were in CryEngine and partly because we have the greater funds and backing, I was like, ‘now we can make that stuff down on the planet fully immersive’ and in the first-person engine, running around with that level of detail that you see in a triple-A first person game.”

It goes far beyond just graphical fidelity though, as we found out speaking to Erin Roberts, brother of Chris and lead on Squadron 42. “[CryEngine] gives us a big advantage in the FPS side of things, although we are doing a bunch of work with the Moon Collider guys in Edinburgh who are doing the Kythera system for us, and they’re doing a lot of the AI, so we’re actually working with a new AI system,” he reveals. “There’s a lot of stuff that we want to do with the AI that needs a system that can handle these new situations.”

Erin also worked on the Wing Commander series as well as Privateer, Starlancer and more recently on many of the LEGO titles through TT Fusion. He now heads up Foundry 42, the Manchester-based division of Cloud Imperium Games. “If you walk up to someone and they don’t want to talk to you, they might just turn away,” he goes on to explain about the AI. “If you walk up to someone and look them in the eye, if they start talking to you and you look away or wander off they’re going to say, ‘hey dude, what’s your problem?’. And if you keep on doing that they just say ‘fine’ and turn around and not want to talk to you. We want this level of fidelity in how you interact with people as well.”

It’s a much more naturalistic style of AI behaviour, highly sophisticated and advanced, but also demanding on the player, forcing them to embody the role that Squadron 42 is imposing on them. “In Squadron 42 specifically, you’re in the military, so if the officer in charge is talking to you and you just start being an absolute idiot then he’s going to warn you, obviously,” Erin continues. “You don’t do that and if you carry on messing around he’ll put you in the brig.”

The AI is a great example of how Cloud Imperium Games is pushing on all frontiers to make the ultimate space experience. Another is the use of gravity and zero/low gravity environments, as Chris Roberts tells us. “In the full persistent universe and Squadron 42 the Zero-G parts of it will actually in form decent amounts of gameplay. You’ll board another ship and you’ll EVA over [Extravehicular activity, essentially leaving the spacecraft] and the ship won’t have gravity because it’s damaged or the people aboard the ship have turned the gravity off to thwart the plans of the people boarding. I think it’s going to add a whole bunch of pretty fun and cool gameplay.”

But just as important is that all these different elements of space flight, exploration, FPS combat, RPG narrative elements and more are integrated into one seamless system. You don’t play as a ship and go into cut scenes elsewhere. You’re always in first person, moving around and making choices. “When I worked on games like Wing Commander and Privateer, you kind of did all the action in space and when you landed there would maybe be a room that you walked into to have a conversation,” Erin reminds us. “Whereas this was a whole dream of being able to seamlessly go into space, get out and walk around, meet people and it’s all in this first-person style. That was what really excited me about the whole thing and I just felt that I had been doing one thing for seven or eight years, really enjoying it, but it felt like it was time to really push myself into something new. The technology is really there to do it now too. We can really create something that we just couldn't do back in the old days. Now we can go out and make this amazing fidelity, create a living, breathing world, which you just couldn’t do back then.”

Once again we come back to that word, ambitious. Cloud Imperium Games is putting together one of the largest, most power intensive projects we’ve seen in years. It’s a PC exclusive game only possible on that platformand that’s a fact that’s not lost on the man behind the vision. “I mean, I’mpissed off,” Chris Roberts tells us with a wry smile. “I’ve gota $3,000 gaming rig and the only thing that shows it off is an Nvidia or AMD graphics demo.” It does feel like a long time since something really pushed
PC hardware and reinvigorated that market, and Chris has his view on the last game that pulled that off. “I would always buy the new graphics card so I could push so many more polygons or whatever, but really when I started this I felt that since Crysis 1 pretty much everything you got on the PC was essentially a port from a console game.” And so he gambled with Star Citizen that he wasn’t alone in that frustration.

“There’s probably a bunch of PC gamers who are pissed off about the fact they’re getting hand me downs from consoles that are less powerful. So that was really the bet. The bet on Star Citizen was there’s this community of people that want to see a space sim and a community of PC gamers who feel like no one is making games for them and those were the twin pillars we launched the campaign on.” “We're unashamedly going for it,” adds Erin. “We just didn't want to do it unless we were going to go to that sort of level. The whole deal was that we didn't want to put constraints on it.”

And now the technology is there to do it, through things like the CryEngine, but also through other forms of technology that allow an independent project like this to not only seek funding from around the world, but also divide up development across continents. “When I spent about a year on the prototype, in that case I didn't have the funds to bring 20 people together,” Chris Roberts tells us. “We worked with people distributed around the world contributing to what I was putting together on the
prototype.I felt like that worked fairly successfully and so that was one of the things where I said, ‘well, we’ll give it a try’. Now we’ve scaled much bigger than I was ever expecting us to scale, so now we have a lot of people and they’re distributed. But we go where the talent is, so in the Frankfurt office we have a fair number of people who were at Crytek for a time and helped to build the engine but were leaving and wanted a change of pace, to work on something different. We had an opportunity to have them join us, because that kind of future-proofs our long-term technology. These people are world class.”

The offices in LA (Chris Robert’s home base), Austin, Frankfurt, and Manchester are supplemented by contractors adding further experience world wide and it’s all coordinated by Skype video conferencing each day as well as collaborative software like Confluence, JIRA and visual effects software Shotgun. Through these means each of the teams is able to keep up to date with the others, offer feedback and suggestions and stay on the same page. It may sound complex, and it is, but both of the Roberts brothers believe the compartmentalisation of the game is helping get the best from each part.

“If you think about Star Citizen and everything that needs to get done, it’s pretty overwhelming and you go, ‘oh my God, how are we ever going to get this done?’,” Chris admits. “But if you’re just focusing on the FPS combat and you’ve got two levels right now and you’re getting them working really well, that’s more mentally containable.” While Erin admits it’s not always perfect it does mean more work can get done faster. “We can be really effective where the UK will finish working here in the evening and we then have a hand-off email to the US saying, ‘this is everything we’ve done, this is where we’re up to’, when we’re working on shared stuff and then they’ll take it and start working on that,” he explains. “They’ll maybe solve some issues we couldn't and come back and say ‘this is where we’re up to’, and hand it back to us. We can almost get 24-hour development going and it works really well.”

The other great focus comes from staggering its releases and having two clear pieces of the puzzle to build for; the broad Star Citizen persistent universe, which may still be a couple of years away from completion and the single-player campaign of Squadron 42, described by Erin and Chris as being everything they would have wanted a new Wing Commander to be if they had returned to that franchise. “ Squadron 42 and the persistent universe are kind of the customers and then all the different pipelines are working to wards getting the stuff in,” Erin explains. “There’s a lot of excitement about what we’re trying to build in terms of detail and fidelity in everything we’re doing and this year we’re planning to just start showing people all that promise and get the ground-based FPS stuff out there. We also want to get the social module out there so people can walk around their hangars and visit people in their hangars and visit the cities and so forth.”

And Squadron 42 isn’t far away either. While it sounds as if final release plans are still being discussed, we could be venturing into the military role-playing experience before the end of 2015 and it will be a finished product. “When that comes out it will be heavily tested and it will go out as a finished project whereas typically with the other stuff we want to put it out there, get community feedback, and because Squadron 42 is using a lot of the ground-based stuff and space stuff and so on, all those elements should be really good, so all we’re putting out that’s new is the story and certain elements of content, which people have seen and should hopefully work pretty well,” Erin adds.

Meanwhile the persistent universe is exploring the balance of a multiplayer experience with a single-player layer. “In general I think our blend of PvE to PvP is going to be about 80 to 20,” Chris Roberts reveals. “Players will make up about ten per cent of the universe and the rest will be AI, so what that means is there are lots of opportunities for a player that if you’re fighting some AI pirates you’ll have a chance to get some victories. So even if you’re not a particularly good player, you can still feel like you're a bit of a badass. And if you’re more into the PvP stuff, there are areas you can go to so that’s avery distinct design that we have.”

This breakdown was decided upon in part to limit too much griefing of other players online, but also because it allows the team to craft moments in the online world that can really draw the players in. “If you go down a dark alleyway when you land on a planet and talk to your black market contact to get a shady mission,a couple of muggers jump out, try to mug you and then you’ve got to fight them off,” is one example offered by Chris. “It’s not necessarily in the greater scheme of things the most amazing confrontation or the most difficult thing to do, but having locations that you can land and interact on, that are alive and potentially dangerous, makes the universe feel more expansive.”

What’s more you can band together in the persistent world, form mega-organisations, work as a lone wolf or just play together with a few friends to pilot a multi-person crewed vessel. As a pirate, fighter, mercenary, trader or something in-between, you can take your military-trained character from Squadron 42 and play as you please. Separate to this will be the ability to play back through single-player set piece engagements with friends in an instanced co-op mode, parts of which are already being shown off.

And that’s the final element of what’s made Star Citizen so successful; the team’s willingness to share and engage the community. “The beauty of what we do is we can just keep putting stuff out there, getting feedback and making it better and better for everybody. It’s fantastic for Squadron 42, because we know that when we release it the space combat is going to be really good, because we’ve had all this feedback, we’ve gone out, we’ve made changes, we’ve had lots of time to balance and we can really give you a great experience when you get into the game.”

It was another PC gaming phenomenon that inspired this way of releasing and creating a fan base for Star Citizen as well as an older title of Roberts’ that was still showing life after so many years. “I saw what Minecraft did and I was pretty impressed with the way at the very early stages there wasn’t much to it, there was just one guy and he said, ‘here it is for alpha’, and he carried on building it,” Chris Roberts reveals to us. “Just the way that it built and connected with the community I think was pretty impactful for me. I saw also what we had on the other side in terms of Freelancer mod community that had built up. The mod tools were put in towards the end, but really the mod community kept Freelancer alive. Microsoft published it and pretty much abandoned it right afterwards and when I went back and looked at the Wing Commander fan sites, Wing Commander news and people are making their own versions in the Wing Commander fiction, there was still this passionate base.”

From this point allowing backers an intimate level of access to how it was being developed and expanded, became the obvious route for Star Citizen. “How often do gamers feel like they can play something and they’re feedback actually makes a difference?” Chris asks. “Sure, you can play the beta of Battlefield or a few other triple-A games before they go out, or Halo or something, but it’s so close to the final release date that nothing can really effect it, so maybe it’s a stress test or just the modern version of a demo before you’re actually going to buy it, but the people who play it know that this thing’s coming out in like a month’s time.”

With the emotional bond backers have already formed with Star Citizen, this is more than just a few beta testers giving a thumbs up or down on a game they may or may not play. These players are in it for the long haul and that’s something Chris Roberts appears immensely proud of. “For most of our backers, they’re not looking at this as something that they’re going to play for a week. ‘This is something that I’m going to spend many years adventuring around in, so I want it to be done right, I want it to be done with a great level of ambition, because this is going to be my World Of Warcraft for the next X number of years’. That’s the sense that I get anyway, not to put words in people’s mouths, but that’s the feeling I get when I talk to people.”

How a console exclusive fantasy game helped reignite Chris Roberts’ imagination
It may come as a surprise but it wasn't Mass Effect or even Eve Online that connected with Chris Roberts as he began to flesh out his vision for Star Citizen, but the dark fantasy world of Demon’s Souls. “In some ways it impacted how I was thinking about doing the multiplayer on Star Citizen, because I liked the model. It was sort of single-player enhanced by multiplayer. It was just kind of cool.” For Star Citizen the inverse of this model is what Cloud Imperium Games has been working on. “We’ve got what I think is a multiplayer online model that gives you that sense of single-player empowerment or engagement. When you play a single-player game you feel like it’s about you and when you play a traditional multiplayer game there are a lot of other people so it doesn't feel so personalised to you. By using the hybrid of what we’re doing I feel like we’re going to achieve both those things and coming back to the original point, I think Demon’s Souls did a very good job of giving you that single-player experience with multiplayer added to it.”

Erin Robert’s on the lessons learned from Traveller’s Tales
My time at Traveller’s taught me a lot. It made me a lot better at a lot of things. One of the things was on a production side we had to get really regimented and good at nailing timelines, because with the LEGO stuff you’ve got a lot of games out in quite a short period of time and so we had to be very good at breaking down what we needed, getting it organised and then making sure that tasks were managed. In terms of that operation side, that’s been really good for the organisation, because a lot of that experience and a lot of the guys who have come on board because there are a few people here from TT Fusion - that production methodology has helped a lot in terms of getting regimented.

This is more than just a single game, it’s a platform for multiple releases

The overarching MMO aspect of the game is the ultimate goal of the various elements that have been released and tested so far. It’s not expected to be finished for some time, but each new element released is a step towards the final product.

Named after the volunteer unit of the UEES (United Empire Of Earth Ship), this represents the prelude to the open world module and single-player component. It has a full story and features from virtually every element of the game.

This is the dogfighting module of the game, making use of real world physics and zero gravity. It’s already available to play and its gameplay will inform both the persistent world and Squadron 42 portions of the game.

The social module of the game allows other players to visit your hangar and interact with the ships you hold there as well as featuring bars and shops for players to use as meeting spots for conversation and team-building.

Consisting of ground and Zero-G gameplay, this module is an extension of the Arena Commander module allowing for multiplayer and co-op tactical First-Person Shooter combat in a PvP and PvE setting.

The storage facility for ships, the Hangar is currently available as a separate test module so you can walk around and explore many of the ships already available. It’s a proof of concept of the first-person exploration and interaction we can expect.

Some of Star Citizen’s impressive numbers
$71,949,104 - made through crowdfunding
744,328 - backers
617,433 - players of Arena Commander
10 - crewmembers in largest IDRIS-M and IDRIS-P frigates in open world
300+ - ships in total

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