Star Citizen preview: the open-world space sim from the creator of Wing Commander

Tyler Wilde

After you're done here, head over to our Star Citizen concept art gallery to see more of the imagination fuelling the game.

What the hell is Chris Roberts thinking? The creator of Wing Commander, who recently returned to game development after spending some time in film production, was in talks to bring his acclaimed series back on EA's dime. Instead, he spent a year producing a prototype of Star Citizen: a multiplayer, persistent-universe space combat sim with monstrous ambition and no publisher support.

“I was having conversations with EA to do another Wing Commander, but I'm not really that interested in doing a next-gen console game and being a part of that loop,” Roberts tells me as he sets up the demonstration. It's a few weeks before he plans to debut this prototype to the world.

“So the pitch is a combination of normal investors, and then cut out the EAs and Activisions and go straight to the die-hard crowd and say, 'OK, I want to deliver you this, but it's not going to be a small thing. Not a $500,000 or $100,000 thing. It's going to be millions. But it's something you'll show your friends who play on consoles and they'll be drooling.' That's my intention.”

Eat your heart out, Star Wars

The game loads, and a modified CryEngine renders the interior of a cavernous carrier. His character, wearing a frighteningly high-poly flight suit, climbs a ladder into the cockpit of a fighter. He plugs a tube into his suit and taps away at touchscreens. Yes, it will have Oculus Rift support, Roberts tells me -- he's going to see the VR headset prototype in a week.

The fighter is now hovering above the deck, but there's a problem: the hanger doors aren't opening. Roberts quits out to hunt down an XML file in need of fixing. While he works, we discuss the game.

“I had this vision with Freelancer and it never got finished because I left and sold the company to Microsoft. The overarching game is a big persistent universe, but there is this single-player aspect you can play offline, sort of like the Wing Commander experience. So imagine that you're in this massive persistent universe, but you sign up for a tour of duty on the front lines against the barbarians — that's your single-player experience. Then after that you're out in the world to make your fortune.”

Wooooosh!

The persistent universe, Roberts tells me, will feature instanced combat scenarios with 60 to 100 players. It will also have a fully simulated economy, and regular updates to add content and permanently change the spacescape. Additionally, players will influence the universe with a ship and item marketplace similar to that in Team Fortress 2, as well as with in-game actions.

“For instance, one of the things you can do is be an explorer, and you can find jump points,” says Roberts. “If you're the first person to navigate it successfully, you can record your trajectory. First, you can sell that back for a great amount of money, but also, that jump point [will be] named after you in the game, for the rest of the game going on.”

Regarding scope, Roberts says that a player with enough wealth (earned in-game or purchased with microtransactions) will be able to buy a ship big enough to house his friends' fighters, or have mannable turrets for them. And outside of the curated persistent universe, you'll also be able to run your own multiplayer server with full mod support, where you can do anything you want.

It helps when the door opens - this really is still in the prototyping stage.

On the single-player side, a campaign called Squadron 42 will provide the "Wing Commander experience" Roberts referred to with a scenario inspired by the fall of Rome. It's not totally isolated though -- like he said, it's a "tour of duty" with the same character you'll be playing in the multiplayer universe, and with co-op if you want help from friends. The list of features just keeps growing - if it can be imagined, he wants to put it in Star Citizen.

The game is running again. This time, giant motors crank back the hangar doors and the fighter zips into a massive asteroid field. Articulated thrusters and turrets react to every control, missiles detach from their pylons and fire up. The pilot hits the correct buttons on his joystick for each action. I ask if the asteroids have physics, if they're destructible. They do, they are. Fidelity is the game.

I ask Roberts if he can land on top of the carrier and get out. He can, and does. He floats about awkwardly (zero-G movement isn't animated yet), then returns to the cockpit and does a fly-by of the carrier's flight deck. Ideally, he tells me, a friend standing inside the carrier will wave to you as you fly by.

Space violence can be a bit hard to represent in screens - trust me, it looks cool.

Now I understand what the hell Roberts is thinking - why he's taking so much risk by doing this on his own: this isn't just a prototype for a product, it's his dream. It's what Freelancer was meant to be: a super high-fidelity persistent universe rendered with millions and millions of polygons. The space sim Chris Roberts always wanted to play.

“This is my vision,” he says after the demonstration. “I've spent the past year [putting this together] with my money and a few others', but we can't take it all the way. It's too expensive and I'm not doing the traditional EA publisher deal. I don't want to make a console game. This is what I want to do.”

Roberts hopes to leverage both traditional investors and crowdfunding to make Star Citizen happen, and he'll be taking pre-orders at www.robertsspaceindustries.com . Speaking more recently to PC Gamer Online Editor Marsh Davies, Roberts further explained his funding decisions.

The ships are like characters - every moving part is articulated.

"We're trying to raise between two and four million from the crowd, and that triggers all the rest of the stuff," he said. "Inside the site itself, we have our own [Kickstarter-like] platform - because we wanted to theme it inside the world. So the idea is that you are pre-ordering your space-ship. One year in we'll release the alpha of the multiplayer stuff, which won't have the persistent universe, but it will have all the instant action. And you'll be privy to a lot of development stuff and your voice will be heard. Hopefully people are psyched. There are a lot of PC gamers who are proud of their gaming rigs but don't have anything to really show it off."

It's a lot of money to raise (Double Fine's adventure game is still the leader in the category with $3,336,371 raised on Kickstarter), and it's a hugely ambitious project which is currently only a prototype. Roberts is confident that the support from hardcore PC gamers will come, and the Star Citizen dream will come true.

The Wing Commander-blue flightsuit is probably no coincidence.

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