Star Citizen is arguably the biggest game in development right now. Big in terms of budget, at $161m (£122m) and rising, big in terms of staffing, with 457 developers across four main studios, and big in terms of community, with 1.89m supporters to date. But most of all it’s big in scale, a epic space game from the mind that brought us Wing Commander.
Despite its massive size, creator Chris Roberts is concerned with things on a more human scale when we meet to talk. We’re not the only ones talking, either, as we’re surrounded by conversations of an altogether more virtual nature. Roberts is stood in the middle of a large room. In front of him is a video mixing desk and a huge TV, and around him sit numerous staff on gaming PCs with Roberts directing their actions all while switching between their feeds on his TV.
What they’re all doing, in the Star Citizen universe, is talking to each other. But the brilliant bit is that their faces are moving as they do it.
While the ‘Star’ part of the game gets the most attention, it’s the ‘Citizen’ bit that’s just as important to Roberts. He may be building a huge and complex interstellar playground, but it will be its inhabitants that really bring it life. And to do that they need to be able to communicate effectively.
To that end, Star Citizen is introducing face-tracking via webcam to the game, including “what your expressions are, where you’re looking and it brings your voice into the game, so it maps onto your avatar’s face,” Roberts tells us. “Your voice gets treated correctly, too, so if I’m standing behind you, it will positioned correctly. If I’m wearing a helmet, it will be filtered. In a big room, there will be an echo.”
That’s a big step-up from the usual handling of player chat in a game, which is usually divorced from any in-game situation.
"Letting people exist in this virtual world is one of the priorities for us. What we’re trying to do is put you into this world, and make it easy to access."Chris Roberts
Roberts demos the tech, and though it’s early days, it definitely enhances communication and adds a sense of player presence. You can see whether someone is looking at you as they talk, and there’s a notably different feel to hollering across a big room compared to speaking to someone right next to you.
“Letting people exist in this virtual world is one of the priorities for us,” Roberts explains, adding that the FPS-like pace of his game makes typed chat unsuitable. “If I’m in the pilot seat of a ship and someone is in a turret, and I’m like ‘get the guy on the right’, then by the time I’ve typed it, he’s not there anymore.
“You can do it with TeamSpeak or Discord, but what we’re trying to do is put you into this world, and make it easy to access. So if I’m wandering around this station and I meet you, and I can just say hello.”
Roberts identifies playing together and community as the key elements in creating a game with a lifespan of ten years or more, name checking World of Warcraft and Eve: Online.
“It adds a lot to the sense of going on an adventure with my friends. One of the big goals of Star Citizen is to allow that, and we’re quite focused on how players can communicate, talk and interact together because we’re trying to build this online game to last for a long time.”
Of course, all those players aren’t waiting for Roberts’ fancy voice technology to make their feelings known. With such a huge community playing builds of the game as they’re released, the game’s forums are jam-packed with opinions.
“The problem online is a small number of people over-amplify their voice, which can distort the feedback. They trample over other people’s opinions.”
When it comes to forums, Roberts has some advice: “Read everything, see everything, but don’t take things personally. I only respond if something resonates with me.” He goes onto to explain that much of it is just difference of opinion. However, despite being open to ideas, his message to some commenters is: “People have supported me to make the game; they haven’t supported me to make your game.”
Roberts can always temper all those raw opinions with data, too. “In some ways, the big data is more powerful than the individual comments. The comments give you colour, but with the big data I can see who’s playing, what area of the game they are in, what ships they are using… We can absolutely see who’s playing, who’s registered, who’s downloading, and also on our website, we know how many registered accounts we have, how many actually look at the forums and how many actually comment.”
He then quickly demonstrates that even in a fan-backed game such as his, it’s still a very small percentage of people who post most of the forum comments.
Another important avenue of communication is events: “We’re more focused on events where we can interact with the community, so Gamescom or PAX, where it’s much more fan-driven. That’s our model: direct to the gamers and interacting with them and no middle people at all. It’s nice to have feedback in person, people tend be nicer than they are on the internet.”
While Roberts is dead set on making ‘his’ game, the game itself is far from dictatorial in its approach. In fact, he’s relying on his players to fill it with interesting interactions – and even at this point, they’re not disappointing him:
“There’s already a large part of the community that are really cool, streaming the game and talking about their experiences,” he enthuses.
He tells us how one player’s ship got damaged and they were stuck in space, asked for help over chat, and someone flew out from one of the space stations to rescue them.
“They are telling this story, like they were there, and it’s cool. It’s those kind of things that you think, ‘That’s great, let’s do things that help support that – how can we get players to co-operate that way, to send out a distress beacons so other people can come and get them?’.”
Of course, anyone who knows anything about science fiction will be fully aware of the further emergent possibilities around distress beacons, which can be used for many nefarious purposes.
“We’re really focusing on systemic design,” says Roberts. “That should create emergent behaviour for a lot of things. It’s just giving the players the tools to do it. That’s one of our mantras – to build the systems and give the tools to the players – and, yes, we’ll put some designed content in, but we also want them to drive it. It’s the only way for a world like this to work. Otherwise, you can’t feed it with enough content.”
STAR DATE UNKNOWN
If you’ve been following Star Citizen’s progress, you probably know it’s taken quite a long time to make. Progress is steady, with the latest 3.0 version more like a proper Alpha build of the game, including key features such as planetary exploration. It’s currently in final testing by a closed group of player-testers under NDA. But for games such as Star Citizen, the whole concept of release dates feels like an anachronism.
“I get quite frustrated with people looking at it through the prism of yesterday’s game business – a game like Star Citizen doesn’t have a release date,” Roberts confirms. “What it does have is us saying ‘It’s going to be at least this, and we’re probably going to grow features beyond this’. And while we’re building it, you can play it.
“Normally, the reason why people hold onto a release date is because ‘That’s when I can play it’ but you can already play Star Citizen now,” he explains. “You can’t play the Star Citizen that it will be, but you can play everything we’ve got to a level we feel comfortable letting the external world play.”
Going back to the face-tracking technology, we wonder if this is an example of the kind of feature-creep that can delay big games unnecessarily?
“We’re kind of happy with what the big picture feature set is,” he answers. “We’re working on all the bits that can tie it together. One of the main goals of the game is to allow people to properly do things together,” he says returning to a previous theme. “Except it’s all in the first person detail you’d expect in a triple-A game. You can get into a small ship, a big ship with other people, a massive capital ship, fly from planet to planet and do all these things. It’s a huge level of both scale and fidelity.”
With that description, it’s easy to understand why it’s taking a while.
“One of the reasons it’s taken so long is that we’re going for a sims level of AI,” says Roberts. “If you’re doing an FPS campaign, then there’s some AI, but it’s combat AI and actions are scripted. With us, our planets orbit and rotate around stars, and there’s night and day cycles, so the AI will have their schedules and you should just be able to populate a farmer and he’ll get up in the morning and go to his field, eat some lunch, and go back out to work. It’s all very systemic. That kind of AI takes much longer to build and have work.”
Roberts has a significant development ‘farm’ of his own, with 457 people currently employed by his company Roberts Space Industries, which is around 100 more than last year, with around fifty open positions at present and another big ramp up for customer service to come soon.
“We try to be quite smart about development costs, so we do a lot in the UK and two-thirds of our developers are in Europe. It’s far more cost effective. Over here you can have two developers for the price of one in the US. In the places where there’s game development in the US, the price of living is really high. We’re up in Manchester and it’s a lot cheaper to live there than in LA. The average salaries in the industry are less for that reason.”
It’s not just the cost of living, though: “We get basically 25 per cent of the UK cost back from the government. And that allows us to hire more people. We wouldn’t have as big an office in the UK if that deal wasn’t there. I think that was a very good move for the government to do that, because now we have around 250 in the UK, by far our biggest group of people.”
Frankfurt is the company’s other big European outpost: “That’s where Crytek’s CryEngine originally was, and we’ve got a lot of the original engineers that built the engine,” Roberts explains. The game now uses Amazon’s Lumberjack, which is a spin-off of CryEngine.
“We started [hiring] a couple years ago when they did the deal with Amazon, and in that particular case some of the core people had been there a long time and were looking for something else. Bethesda was trying to recruit them, Epic was trying to recruit them, and we thought: we’re not going to poach from Crytek, but if you guys are leaving no matter what, then we’d rather you come and work for us, as we need you in the ecosystem.
“We’ve got this philosophy of going where the talent is, rather than making the talent come to you. These people are world class, but you could only get a fraction of them to move to Manchester or Los Angeles, so we’ve got a studio [in Frankfurt] with some great talent, which we really needed.”
Star Citizen remains an insanely ambitious project, but Roberts is sane enough to know it’s all really about people – be they players or developers – not ships or planets or the great voids between them. It’s those people that are shaping Star Citizen, now and for many years to come.
The game is far from finished, but this human-centric outlook, both in the game and beyond it, looks promising. Many games attempt to get players to work both cooperatively and competitively to generate emergent gameplay, but far fewer manage to pull it off.
If it can achieve even a fraction of its huge potential, Star Citizen might just be aWarcraft-class MMO goliath, and those don’t come along every solar cycle.