Star Citizen: Chris Roberts Speak About The Game

A few years ago Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame took his idea for a third-person open world space simulator called Star Citizen and pitched it to the internet. His goal? Raise between two and four million through crowd funding to make a prototype that could entice investors. It didn't take long for Roberts to secure the cash but then people gave him more, and more, and a whole lot more. At last count, Star Citizen had amassed a healthy $65 million, an amount that’s set to grow as fans continue to buy upgrades for their ship in the small portions of the game that are available.

Think of it as a do anything space sim, a universe where you can be a marine, a pirate, a trader or even a lone wolf willing to take on any job in the universe. All actions, such as taking out a steel supply ship, have consequences. Without steel, factories lack supplies and thus the number of new ships for sale will decrease. Dynamic is a word thrown around far too often these days but in this case, it feels appropriate. So far most of the details have focused on the space side of things, intergalactic dogfights, interplanetary trading and the like. But when Roberts brought Wing Commander to the last PAX Aus, he debuted the game’s highly anticipated FPS module. That’s right, when you’re not zipping around the universe, you can land on planets and shoot holes in other players and NPCs because apparently epic space battles just weren't enough.

So tell us about the new FPS module.
CHRIS ROBERTS: We’re showing a scenario basically, a group of marines are going in to try and take out a bunch of outlaws that have taken over a deserted space station, so we open up with our gunship landing, four people are playing the marines and four people are playing the outlaws. Think of it as a tactical Counter Strike. The FPS module that the backers are getting will come next year, there’s still a lot more polish to happen.

And how does this module fit into the greater context of the game?
You’re always in FPS to a certain extent, when you’re flying your ship you’re basically always in first person but you’re operating a vehicle, it just happens to be a big vehicle that’s big enough to walk around in when it flies. That’s something special that we’re doing which you don’t normally get in other games. The FPS is part of the DNA of the game but explicit combat aspects of the FPS, if you’re on a ship and someone wants to take over, they breach, blow up the airlock and come in, that’s where you get into a fire fight. And you can have the same down on planets, we’re going to make most of them [planets] a safe haven from most other players so there won’t be a lot of PVP, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be PVE, so like you’ve got to go down to this shady area of the town and get this black market deal done, then you go down this alleyway and two NPC muggers jump out to try and mug you, but you pull out your sidearm and shoot them Han Solo style. That’s the kind of stuff that you’ll see a lot of in FPS when you’re down on the planet.

So in Star Citizen Han shot first?
Absolutely! That was much cooler.

Say you’re in a dogfight in space, can that same battle continue on a planet?
We’re not going to transition flights in space down to planets, but you can go down to a planet to repair your ship or whatever. We’re not really going to let you fly down into the atmosphere and continue to dogfight because we’re not setup to do that at the moment. When we transition between orbit and out in space, we do it inside your ship so things change around you, so there isn’t a loading screen.

Are we talking traditional weapons or sci-fi six shooters?
A combination. We have ballistic and energy weaponry, like pistols and assault rifles, and also laser assault rifles, electric shot guns and various grenades. It’s pretty cool.

People play FPS games differently, some like stealth, others go in all guns blazing. How does your FPS module accommodate different styles of play?
Well you shouldn’t go in all guns blazing in our design, because it’s not a respawn design. Because of the way the game works there isn’t really going to be respawn, if you get killed you’re basically going to wake up in hospital on the last friendly planet that you visited. If you do that too much you’ll actually lose your character and it’ll be passed onto the next of kin. It’s definitely much more tactical, part of it is resource management and part is managing the resources of your team. In our FPS combat there’s no shot in the head, respawn and come back but you can get shot in the leg or get badly wounded and you’ll go down, then your buddy can come drag you to safety and patch you up. So our version of a resource is getting the guy that got shot up, taking him to safety and being able to patch him up before the other player comes along, shoots him in the head and kills him permanently. You can do an execution shot on someone that’s down too.

Are there any other ways that your FPS module differs from other shooters?
We don’t cheat first person, the character, the animation and the model is the same in first and third person. A lot of FPS games put arms by the camera and they’re sort of floating but when you move and run in Star Citizen the camera is where you’re eyes are, so all of the actions you see someone else doing are also the same actions they’re doing in first person. You can look down, look at your weapon and look around, and the third person is very animation driven so it’s going to allow us to have a lot more organic and natural looking motion for what’s happening.

Right now the preview can only accommodate 4v4. How many players do you plan to have in the final release?
We’re aiming to have between 50 and 100 people in an instance in space, but we don’t know if we’ll be able to do 50 - 100 in FPS. We imagine that on the lower end you probably could though, you can in Battlefield so why couldn’t you do it in what we’re doing.

You mentioned that there’s the option to join different factions, so how do you go about guiding players towards a particular group in the open world?
We don’t really. It’s too early to say because the game isn’t out in its full version where you can be in the big sandbox persistent universe, but our design sensibility isn’t to dictate what the players should be. We just provide the roles and let them gravitate towards what they want to do, and I can definitely say from the community and people that have backed the game, you get onto the forums and see what people are excited about it’s a whole different range. I’m always surprised I think everyone wants to be a bad arse bounty hunter or pirate, but no, loads of people just want to be a miner, some people just want to be a trucker. So the philosophy with what we’re doing is letting the player do what they want to and just providing different things.

How have players responded to that approach?
Once we finished the crowd funding we ran a poll that asked “what do you want to do in the universe?” We had all these options like pirate, trader, mercenary, bounty hunter, explorer, and I was expecting to see a lot more of the combat oriented stuff like pirate or bounty hunter to be much higher up on the list. But basically everyone wanted to explore, 67% of the respondents picked explorer as their number one thing they wanted to do. Not that I didn’t expect people not to explore, but I was shocked that exploring was a big thing for them. So that made us go and look at what we were doing for exploration... we were doing some stuff but we decided to amp it and provide more things for people to do that want to explore. Originally we were saying “explorers can find a jump point and find a new system,” we definitely have that mechanic in but we needed more things for them to do and more fidelity for them to do it.

It all sounds very organic, was that the goal?
Totally, the idea is to have this big dynamic universe that everyone adventures around in, we can’t put everyone next to each other in the same area because you just don’t have the rendering power or networking bandwidth, but we run everyone in the same universe then dynamically put them together in instances if it looks like they would’ve crossed paths are they friends are they enemies, we match make them into a instance where they see each other.

There’s also talk of mod support in Star Citizen. How are you going to keep that kind of content controlled in a dynamic universe?
On the modding side people will be able to have their own server in a more limited fashion, it won’t be able to do what our big one does because it’s not just one server it’s multiple servers, it’s not a setup anyone can do at home. But they’ll be able to run their own local server like they could back in the old days of Freelancer with maybe 100 or 200 people as a part of it, and they can setup the world how they want. Outside of that if user generated content gets in the main game, we haven’t figured it out yet but we’ll have a system to curate and approve or disapprove stuff. We did “The Next Great Starship” earlier this year which was a competition that was, think of it as X Factor but for starship design. Teams came up with a concept, they modelled it, put it into the engine and the community voted over rounds for who was going to win. The winner made this Redeemer gunship which is going in the FPS demo and people will be able to get it to put in their hangar.

I think that’s what we’ll do in the future, so one of the ideas for user generated content is an [in game] government that says “here’s a spec, I need a fighter and here’s the stats, come back with designs and the winning design gets the contract.”

Star Citizen has a crazy high level of polygons. Will you need a super PC to run it?
Well as time goes on PCs get more powerful and don’t cost as much, so by the time we release v1.0 it probably won’t be as demanding. But right now in our early stages it’s pretty demanding because we haven’t done a lot of optimisation. We have a lot of high poly models and we don’t have LODs for some of them, so you can’t play it on an integrated chip PC or anything [laughs], but it doesn’t run that badly because we’re built on top of CryEngine which already has a lot of optimisation.

Any idea of minimum specs yet?
We use high end machines in development so right now we’re either on a hexacore or a quadcore,  780s, 980s, AMD 290s and 290Xs, high end video cards, CPUs, 32 to 64GB of memory and 1TB SSDs for the development drive and OS drive. [But] I’m not really focusing on that because who knows what the minimum specs are going to be in 2016.

And lastly on the topic of crowdfunding, we know why you took that path and the benefits that come with it, but have you encountered any detriments?
We're a much more public game and we share all the stuff that we’re doing. You have a lot of backers and everyone has their own opinions, and when you’ve got this many people there will be some people that are negative on stuff, end some will be positive on stuff, so you have to deal with the noise of that, which is okay. But for me there’re much fewer negatives than dealing with a publisher so I’m quite happy with it, even though you do spend a lot of energy keeping everyone engaged and making sure the backers know what’s happening, as they should because they’re the ones providing the money to help make the game. You’ve got to get used to it, but if you’re used to the old way of doing games it can feel a bit overwhelming sometimes.

Can you envision a publisher backed version of Star Citizen?
Maybe, but I think if I was doing a publisher game I’d probably be doing another Wing Commander because that’s the safe thing that a publisher would want.

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