A 2014 trailer for Star Citizen asks gamers to imagine a world in which you, as the player, could “do whatever you wanted to do” and “go wherever you wanted to go.” That’s the central premise of the spacefaring massively multiplayer online game, though it will be a while before that vision is fully realized. Headed up by Chris Roberts, the mind behind the classic Wing Commander, Star Citizen began with a crowdfunding campaign in 2012. It promised players a space-set game at unprecedented scale: 100 star systems full of detailed planets to explore; gigantic starships with fully designed interiors that players could walk around in; the ability to roleplay as whatever the player wanted to be, whether that’s a hero, an outlaw, a space trucker, or anything in-between. “I don’t want to build any old game. I want to build a universe,” he told Kickstarter backers in 2012 (the game has crowdfunded more than $200 million over the course of its development), “I want to build the game I didn’t have the tools to build until now.”
Originally planned for a 2014 release, Star Citizen has had a rocky development and is nowhere close to finished. A lot of that has to do with the lofty scale of the project, which demands hundreds of handcrafted worlds, buildings, and vehicles. But the delay also has to do with the fact that technology is always improving, always growing more capable of offering new immersive experiences. Instead of considering what current technology is capable of, Roberts is looking at what’s just beyond the horizon.
What’s the elevator pitch for Star Citizen?
Essentially it is to live a completely virtual life in a science-fiction universe that has almost no boundaries. It’s an open sandbox that allows you to be whatever you want to be. If you want to be law-abiding, you want to be a pirate, you want to be a farmer, you want to be a trader, you want to be a miner — it’s almost like a second life that’s in a science-fiction universe realized at a fidelity that hasn’t been previously possible. It’s essentially the dream game I’ve had since back in the ’80s. You were like “Well, if we had supercomputers then we could do this!” The technology’s moved on so much now that a lot of the conjecture back then is possible with enough time and money. We’re lucky enough to have support to be able to do that.
When you think of standard video games, you have a limited number of actions you can take, or “verbs” so to speak. It seems like in Star Citizen you want that to be limitless?
We’re tying to build it in a simulation-style way. If you saw Ready Player One, it’s not necessarily all the fictional worlds, but we want that sense of just going into another virtual universe but being able to actually interact and do things. Because of the rules of the world, the things you think you could do, you could do. It’s a challenge to build something to be able to do that at the scale we’re trying, but it’s also hugely exhilarating as you start to put parts of it together. We’re still working on making it better and more reliable but if you have a webcam you can drive [control] the face of your avatar in the game, which is a really high-fidelity face. We’re using the same techniques they used on Avatar. We also take your voice and process it and put it into the world, placing you in this world with a higher sense of immersion than previously. We’re working very much on things that will increase social interaction, increase the feeling of realism in the world, for you to get lost in it and have fun, escape from our world, so to speak.
So you can do anything theoretically, but what are the core gameplay actions?
The scale is really large. You can be on a planet, walk around and explore every inch of that planet and go down in caves, go into a city and various buildings in it, and then get into a spaceship. The spaceships range anywhere from small, like a single-seater that’s 20 meters long, to the biggest in the game, which is 200 meters long. We have ones we’re working on that will be over a kilometer in size, and they’re fully realized inside. There’s living quarters and mess and toilets, there’s engines. It’s all realized and laid out like you would expect it to be. You can get in, take off, leave one planet, fly to another planet, get out, and so there’s a sense of scale and freedom. Think about some of the things you can do in Grand Theft Auto, but think on a much larger scale, and less focused on one profession. You can be the criminal if you want, but you can be the law enforcer or bounty hunter, or someone minding their own business trading cargo.
A lot of games use procedural generation [a technique that generates game elements automatically, as opposed to designed by a person]. Are you using any of that?
We’re using some of the tools. What we’re doing is slightly different than what something like a No Man’s Sky would do. We use procedural techniques to allow us to create or paint at scale. In No Man’s Sky, there’s rules and random [seed] numbers and it creates the planets based on that rule set. With us, we don’t do that because we have a specific universe with pretty deep lore. We use the procedural tools to paint at scale: an artist would go in there and we would say “This planet is in the cold zone, so it’s going to be mostly covered in snow and ice, and then maybe here’s where the oceans would be, the mountain ranges would be, here’s where the tundra would be.” The details of what’s in every inch or meter comes from the procedural rules but the very high level in terms of creation is all artist-driven. If you want to create a universe that has a history and a lore, that’s why we went that way. We have a pretty big write department that’s been working on it for seven-plus years now that’s fleshing out the different planets, the histories, the companies, historical characters, moments in time. All those combine to make this feel tangible and real.
What techniques or technologies have you developed that weren’t feasible seven years ago, when you started this project?
When I first started this, I didn’t think we’d be able to realize the planets and walk around them in first-person any way you want, but as we went on, the power of computers and GPUs has been getting better. The cloud’s become sort of ubiquitous, we run all our servers in AWS at the moment. The power of those machines continues to increase. When we first start the game, I thought we’d have to have all these different instances, so people would play in their instance and not be able to join with their friends because they might not be on the same server. But with the new cloud power, we’re gonna be able to do this thing we call “server meshing” which allows a whole bunch of servers to run in the cloud and talk to each other. So instead of having 400 servers and each server has 100 or 200 people on it, and those people can’t see [players on other servers], if they all mesh together you could have all 4,000 people or 40,000 people in the same world at the same time. We’re not the only people that are working on that. That’s the sort of thing that you won’t be able to get on a single-player game that I think can be really compelling. That definitely wasn’t something people were talking about when I first pitched this in 2012.
So you’re envisioning world-scale environments that have thousands of people in them at once?
Absolutely, and we’re quite far along on the tech to deliver that. I know Amazon has been working on some of this behind closed doors, [Google] Stadia is perfectly situated to do that because their whole setup is in the cloud, including the clients. For an online multiplayer game, that’s really interesting. One of the problems you have in traditional multiplayer games is that you always have a client [the machine the player controls directly] and the servers and there’s always a distance between the two. Even if you have fast internet it will maybe take 20 milliseconds for the message to get from your client to the server and the server has to simulate what’s happening, which could take another 15 milliseconds or 30 milliseconds. Then it has to send that message back to your client and tell you what the results are, plus telling you what everyone else is doing, that’s another 20 milliseconds. And this is only if you’ve got fast internet and are close to a data center. So you’ve already got a lag that’s anywhere from 70 to 100-plus milliseconds. In multiplayer games, people can get slightly out of sync and it gets laggy. The cool thing with Stadia is if everything’s in the cloud, there’s almost no time difference to talk between servers and clients and there really isn’t any difference between the two. The quality of a multiplayer experience will increase because you’ll have much less latency, you won’t have any issue of cheating, you eliminate the issues you get with lag.
How long do you anticipate Star Citizen lasting? Forever?
The concept of Star Citizen is it should always be a live game that people are playing. As long as there’s an audience, we will be improving it and adding content to it. World of Warcraft is still going pretty strong now. There’s some other MMOs that have been going longer. Our model is something that keeps us more on the cutting edge. If you look at World of Warcraft, it hasn’t moved on with the rest of gaming in terms of visuals.
That [live-game model] is probably one of the big shifts in gaming. The past gaming sensibility was: you make this game, and then people would buy it, play it, consume it in two weeks, and then they would buy the next game. There is something a bit frustrating if you [work on a game for a long time] and people are done with it in two weeks. People are still buying GTA V to play online and they’ve been doing this now for quite a few years. They’re doing all sorts of cool, community-driven content, whether they’re doing crazy stunts or having car meets. We see something similar in the Star Citizen community. Our community makes better videos to show off the game than we do. It’s crazy. They do all sorts of wacky things. That’s definitely one of the future things in gaming, that involvement of your gaming community that really invests in this world or universe. That’s been a huge shift. From a creator standpoint, it’s really fun to build this tool set and see how it excites or inspires other people, and then it turns around and inspires us. There’s definitely a symbiotic relationship.
Is there anything you really want to implement but are waiting for the technology to catch up?
The biggest one would be proper ray-tracing [a rendering technique for tracing paths of light] and I would love to be free of polygons [the shapes that compose 3-D models]. That is a longer-term tech plan but that is probably four or five years down the road. In general in games. There is talk of techniques to use now where the processing is powerful enough that you can move away from the way you’ve built games over the past twenty years.
You need some heavy-duty computational power to do some of that stuff though, which is why people haven’t done it today, but longer term it’ll move that way. It’ll just be a far more photorealistic rendering. Lighting actually makes a massive difference to how a scene feels, it’s definitely one of the key area of how you emotionally connect to a scene.
How do you feel about the future of the game industry?
I feel great. I was in it for a long time and then I got burned out and was in movies for a while, and then I was watching it evolve and progress, and that’s what brought me back to it. I felt like the technology had moved along. Broadband became ubiquitous and allowed for a different environment. Like what we have with Star Citizen, we have a direct connection with our players, our consumers. We don’t have any middlemen, we’re not going through a store where they buy and take it home and install it.
It feels like between the technology and the ability to connect more directly to all your players, and the richness of the world you can build, it’s the most exciting entertainment medium for me now. If I had a $200 million movie, I could not be creating a universe of higher fidelity and detail. We build these spaceships with a level of detail you wouldn’t need for a movie, because in a movie you only need the bits of the spaceships that are in the scenes in the script. If you walk around the corner there is no more set. It’s a facade. But in Star Citizen it can’t be, so you have to build the whole thing. If you love to create worlds and tell stories, gaming is immensely fulfilling.
I feel like the power of the tools are allowing creators to be unshackled from technical limitations so they can explore some of the artistic aspects of it. And the audience is huge, it’s totally mainstream. It’s only going to get bigger. I was a kid when this all started but I’m getting older now. It’s a pretty exciting time.
And we’re still in the early stages, we’re still like where movies were in the 20s, still figuring out how to use your camera and the best way to emotionally connect. I’m pretty excited to see where it goes.