Star Citizen is one of the most ambitious games in development—a massive, high-fidelity, multiplayer space combat sim headed by Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts. Back at GDC I interviewed Roberts about how he plans to realize Star Citizen's prodigious goals, the latest development update—which details modular ship customization —and how the universe as a whole will be simulated. You probably also want to scroll down for the first in-engine screenshots since the prototype reveal.
PC Gamer: You recently posted an update on ship customization , and it all sounds great—especially component tweaking—but this question keeps coming up, which is: “That sounds amazing, but how the hell are they going to do it?”
Chris Roberts: Well, first of all, people haven't really been working on space sim games like this, so some of this stuff is easier—especially now, it's much easier than it was ten years ago, because of the tool sets we're using. Like the ship system we documented, we already have it functioning in the game and in the engine.
That was more a modular design approach, and computers are very good at doing that kind of stuff. And I also think it's the focus of the design of Star Citizen—I'm putting a lot of focus on how to design systems versus more scripted kind of events. There's no way this game is ever going to survive by us generating scripted content, so my goal is to have something like 80 percent of the actual action and drama, whatever you want to call it, be generated by the players themselves. They're hiring each other for missions, they're fighting each other, helping each other out, so we're really trying to make a sandbox that lets people take these roles on and do their own stuff.
So that philosophy extends all the way down to the ship component design, so you can add on these different components, and depending on how you set them up you can set your ship up for dogfighting, or stealth, or you know, hauling cargo. I'm thinking about how I can design a system that will keep people busy for years.
We're also trying to be smart about what we do. There's a lot of high-yield stuff you can do that seems like it has a lot of impact, but isn't necessarily a ridiculous amount of work, and the ship systems is a pretty good example of that. It took us maybe two weeks, three weeks to code up the basic system that it runs under, and we're refining and tweaking it and stuff. So I would say we're doing a good job of delivering some high-yield stuff that's system-based.
On the ship design, your document mentioned that the pipes which connect ship systems can be damaged, causing emergent problems. Can you elaborate on what those are?
Well, the way the pipes actually work is that they're data-driven, so designers can actually specify as many pipes as they want. So one could be a data pipe, one could be a heat pipe, one could be a fuel pipe, and there will be different devices that can feed a pipe or need to receive from a pipe.
So, if you need power, you need to be connected to a power pipe and getting enough power through that pipe to run the weapon, or scanner, or whatever it would be. So, if you don't, then it will either not work or work at 10 percent efficiency, or however that device is set up.
And so, there's a whole idea of whether it's data flow, fuel flow, or energy flow, that it's going between these components, so you've got to manage it. Your power plant has to be able to generate enough power—just like a PC, your PSU has to generate enough power to feed your GPU, your CPU, your case fans. So you have to manage that, and certain devices will drain on that power.
And then there's the whole concept of efficiency, and then also when you overclock. So all the devices have a threshold, just like a normal CPU—Intel rates CPUs at this clock speed, but you can usually overclock them. But you don't know whether you can get you i7 ship up to 4.4 or 5 or push it even beyond that. And some chips can, and some can't, because on the yield basis, they just make sure they hit a certain amount. So, we're going to have the items in the game like that. There will probably be some that will have a potential that will be greater than others.
It makes a lot of sense to apply something PC gamers already know—that sense of ownership over their rig. Beyond just owning it, it's the pride of having built and tweaked it.
That literally was a major part of it. I was shocked. We did a survey of users and I think we had about 10,000-plus respond—maybe more, close to 20,000. It's a pretty large sample compared to generally when you do surveys, and 82 percent of them built their own PCs.
I think in PC gamers you've got this sense of—I don't know whether it's the same in car culture where people tweak and tune their cars. So that was actually a big part of the inspiration. In a normal RPG game, it's like your character you customize and the armor and whatever, and yes we're going to have a little bit of that, but really it's your spaceship.
We also don't have that traditional leveling, where it's like “OK, I'm going to go up to strength 20 now, and 19 dexterity, or whatever it would be.” So, having these different devices and maybe you searching out—like someone's going, “Oh, this device is steady at 30 percent overclocked.” And there will be a few out there, but they won't be very common. So when you get a couple devices and try to overlcock them, if you push them too far they'll damage, but if you've got one of those ones that works at plus 30 percent, that gives you an edge in combat over someone else at stock speed or even plus 10. So on the trading market it will be pretty valuable.
So is the overclock threshold randomized stat? Like with actual chips, some may not be able to be pushed past their rating.
Yeah, exactly. That is 100 percent the inspiration for it, because people go through and they'll bin stuff. They're like, "Oh, I can't get this up, so let me try this other CPU." So that's the idea, and it's to give people things to do and tweak on their ship.
I could definitely see someone just staying with the same ship—the analogy is it's the case in a PC, and completely changing the components out. And I actually see that people would basically have different sets of components, and we're going to let them have buildouts. So when you go into your hanger, you could have your dogfighting build out, or your stealth buildout, you know, something else you could be doing in the game is you could be an information courier. So there's some remote areas of the galaxy that aren't on the regular relay comm system, so getting news from there is difficult. So, as a courier you're set up for speed, a certain level of stealth, shielding, making sure your units are all cool.
On the next page: How Roberts plans to simulate a universe, and an update on development progress.
PC Gamer: Is the idea of being an information courier something we'd see in scripted missions, or is there information in the simulation other players might actually need and pay for?
Chris Roberts: So, the system—and we will do an update on this in the future, because we've also done a lot of work on how the economy system works—but the way that we're running everything is that we're going to simulate the universe with AI. So my goal with the game is: you should play it, and it doesn't matter if there's one concurrent user or a million concurrent users, it's alive and active. So basically, AI is going about their business, trading, being pirates, fighting, building units, creating purchase orders for equipment which generates a mission for trading.
So when players get in, they push out an AI role. So, they can take that place, but it also depends on you as a player. If I'm flying a ship and I don't really like PvP and I don't want to do that, I can say “I don't like that,” and the game will put AI in your shared space versus other players. But if someone says “I'm fine with PvP,” if there's a player around he will pop in instead of an AI pirate.
But the whole idea on the information stuff is that we have a whole economy system that's node based... One node might be creating a missile—say it's an armaments factory—and that would have multiple nodes in it for each one of the weapons. One of those nodes might be for a missile, and that missile might require grade-three electronics, and this kind of material, for explosives or whatever, and essentially that node needs to get those units in that ratio. Plus, you need to have population—crew, employees, or whatever—of a certain amount. Plus you have to have the equipment. And if it's got all of those things then you can produce one missile, or whatever it may be.
So that node—that factory—would say, “I need grade-three electronics and things, and I've got so many employees, and I've got so much storage, so I can make five missiles a turn.” So it will put out orders and say “I need this, this, and this,” and those orders will go onto the mission boards and players can take those, and if there aren't players an AI will take that mission and do it.
So that's an example of the economy generating missions. So they come in and then the missiles are done. And as missions are happening around that system, if there's combat going on, either players are buying missiles or AI will be buying inventory, because they'll fly their mission. We don't simulate the AI stuff if you aren't actually seeing it, but we resolve it. So, “OK, you flew your mission and there's a 50 percent change you got jumped by a pirate, and if you got jumped by a pirate you would've expended one to three missiles.” So that AI character would go, “OK, I need to buy more missiles.” And he'd go to the factory to buy more missiles.
So there is limited supply and demand. If you go to the factory and the AI has bought all the missiles, there are no more missiles for purchase that turn. Now, of course, if nobody's buying any missiles, there's a big inventory. First of all, the price of missiles would go down, but then also that factory is going to be running at a loss, and so maybe it starts to lay off some of its people. It lays off some of the people on the planet, so the happiness level of the people on the planet goes down. And you've got to keep the people on the planet happy, if you're running a factory. So there's all these dynamics and all these things generating missions.
On the information stuff, there is information that transfers, like “OK, we need this class three electronics.” You send out these purchase orders and those propagate out, because in this universe there's no faster-than-light communication. So what happens is, there's relays—everything's inside the system at the speed of light, essentially beaming a radio wave—and if you're in the central hub where there's communication relays at each jump point, they send a drone across each 30 minutes or whatever it was, with the data packets they've received. Then it goes to the other star system and gets beamed down. And that's the case where a data courier would be involved in a more remote system, because they don't have the data relays.
And that information is valuable. So knowing that there's a shortage or surplus in a certain area, a data courier could get that information out in a more remote area. So the idea is to design this mission generation system that is for both players and AI, that is generated from this economy system, plus the players themselves can generate them. Because if you're doing well at your missile factory and loads of people are buying missiles and you're always out of stock, you're like, “OK, I better upgrade my missile factory, so I need to buy another missile making machine.” So you purchase the missile making machine, and then you have to make sure you have enough employees to run the missile making machine, and they've got to be fed and happy. And that's how the population would grow on a planet.
I'm trying to illustrate a system that's very procedural, that will also be creating the missions in the world. Scripted stuff we do is sort of on top, more for color and character, but most of the stuff will be happening in the system I'm describing.
How much of this has been implemented since the prototype?
Well, as far as project progress, our Austin studio is fully staffed up. I'm really happy with the team—all our project leads are on. The LA office will be finished second week of April, so all the people in LA working at home will have a home to work in.
We integrated to the most recent version of CryEngine, which is sort of Crysis 3 and above. That was a pretty big integration, plus getting everyone up to speed, and getting our pipeline and workflow working properly. So, our model is, we have sort of the high-end lead or hero artists that say, “This is how the high-end hero ship's going to be, or this is how the high-end characters will be.”
So we're finishing up the process of that, getting it into the engine, getting everyone happy with the tools and the workflow. So I think in the next couple months—what I'm wanting to do is get back to showing gameplay video. On the actual code implementation—the dogfighting stuff—we've had 20 different ships going, people flying around in our office. We have the ship system I talked about in the game. It doesn't have all the visual HUD stuff working yet, which is a thing we're working on right now, where all what's going on is reflected in the display and you can see it, tweak it, and control it more. That's the stage we're in right now, and we've got some really cool stuff like shield effects that are pretty radical. Those really high-end tessellation, wave ripple, and you can see energy dissipate.
So I feel like we're progressing at well toward the dogfighting alpha that we want to have at the end of the year, and we're also progressing pretty well toward the hangar module, which is the one where you can walk around in-engine, which we're planning to release in August at Gamescom and PAX Prime. You'll be able to see the ships you've backed and get inside of them, invite some friends to your hangar. There should be some level of customization at that point, where you can do some stuff to make your ship look cool, or be more unique, or even change out some of the equipment on it.
Thank you to Chris Roberts for taking the time to talk with us. We'll have more on Star Citizen in the near future—for now, you can find more information in our preview , which was posted after the announcement last October, and on the official site .