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Star Citizen is Wing Commander creator's next game

by Jeff Mattas, Oct 10, 2012 7:00am PDT

Just one short month ago, we reported that Chris Roberts, the creative mind behind titles such as Wing Commander, Privateer, and Freelancer, was working on a new game. This past Monday, Roberts dropped in to give us a first-look at Star Citizen, and talk about his return to creating epic space sims.

If you were a PC gamer back in the early 1990's, there's a pretty good chance that you're familiar with the Wing Commander series. As a gamer, I'd thoroughly enjoyed much of Roberts' work, so I was was optimistic about the early tech demo.

The "visual and technical prototype," as Roberts described it, was quietly built over the past 12 months by a small team, consisting of some of his previous developer compatriots from Wing Commander and Freelancer, along with some new blood. Star Citizen will employ the best aspects of Roberts' previous work--like intense ship-to-ship combat, open-world exploration, and a dynamic economy--while taking advantage of high-end PC gaming hardware.

What I saw, and what the screenshots can only partially convey, is that Star Citizen is impressive in motion. Built using a heavily modified version of CryEngine 3, the live demo was a combinations of extreme detail and massive scale.

Roberts began the demo controlling a space-suited pilot, walking around the flight deck of a huge carrier ship. Without much hesitation, he jumped into a nearby fighter, fired it up--his pilot's in-cockpit movements corresponding to each button press--and flew out for a tour around some asteroids. Exterior thrusters rotated on the craft when maneuvering. Every part of the ship seemed mechanically alive. Roberts said that every single system on the ship could be independently damaged, and would affect control of the vessel in real-time.

Likewise, players customizing their ships will have to be aware of the rock-paper-scissors balance between power, durability, and speed. Designing a flying gun rack, for example, will require a very heavy power supply. Power can be diverted to other systems on the fly as well, allowing players to boost weapons, speed, or shields, at the expense of the other systems.

After a quick tour around the asteroid field, Roberts parked his ship on an exterior wall of the enormous carrier ship, where some other spacecraft had been parked. He exited his own ship, walked across the exterior of the carrier, and boarded another small craft, before flying back around and landing the second craft in the belly of the carrier.

"What my goal is, is to sort of build a universe that encompasses everything that worked about Wing Commander, Privateer, [and] Freelancer. I want to build a holistic universe," Roberts said. "It's called Star Citizen because citizenship is an important aspect of the game. You have to earn it. You don't get it automatically."

As it turns out, there will be a number of ways in which an enterprising pilot can become an Imperial citizen. "You can earn it through military duty, by playing the Wing Commander-like single-player campaign on the front-lines, or you earn it through civic duty, in missions that you'd be doing in more of a Privateer/Freelancer open-world aspect," Roberts said. "Or you can just make a lot of money and buy your citizenship," he added.

Earning citizenship isn't mandatory, however. "In the game you don't necessarily need to be a citizen," Roberts clarified. "In fact, some people may not want to be. Say, if you're a pirate, or on the outer edges of the galaxy, or if you've gravitated to the moral gray area, let's say, then citizenship is not so important for you."

The game's narrative underpinnings seem like a fertile ground for Roberts' trademark space-opera drama. "The galaxy is kind of patterned after the decline and fall of the Roman empire," he said. "But instead of being in Roman times, we're in [the year] 2942, and the Earth has sort of spread [its empire] across the galaxy. On its western borders, there are several barbarian races, and on the eastern borders there are some more-friendly alien races."

Roberts later said that, although humans would be the only playable race from the get-go, plans to make the game's alien races playable--perhaps even with their own story-based content--will be considered post-launch.

The eastern part of the empire is near friendlier alien races more interested in trade and peace, whereas the alien races to the west of the empire are more aggressive and imperial in nature. "The empire itself has a bit of a schism, where the eastern side of the empire--based on a (much bigger, Earth-style) planet called Terra," Roberts said. "On the other side of the galaxy, there happens to be a system that has this nexus of jump points, so it's really good for communication and travel. Whereas Earth, the historical capitol, only has a couple of jump points, so it's a bit more isolated."

In the 30-to-40-mission single-player campaign, players will join up with Squadron 42, an elite unit typically sent to make peace in the universe's worst hell-holes. The player can also elect to take the campaign online, and call in friends to be wingmen during missions, similar to the online in Demon's Souls.

Furthermore, Star Citizen will include what Roberts describes as "Millenium Falcon-style" ships, in which player will actually be able to get up and walk around to different stations. Friends can climb aboard and mount the turrets in the back. Even more exciting, was the prospect that some player-controlled ships would be large enough to carry a smaller ship in its hanger bay that a friend can jump into when the fighting breaks out. A helpful thing if, as Roberts put it, "we're going on a trading mission to the edge of the galaxy where there's no law and order."

Post-launch support, as described by Roberts, is a very big part of what makes Star Citizen so enticing. More campaign-based content, as well as physical expansions of the universe are all planned. "The big persistent universe is an open-world universe, like Privateer or Freelancer. It has a dynamic economy. And it is also built in such a way that it reacts in real-time to what the players are doing," Roberts said.

"One of the ways we achieve that is a focus on what we're calling micro-updates. We don't want to do these sort of monolithic, once-a-year [patches]. So maybe one week we add another star system over here, and one week we add a four-mission story campaign over here," said Roberts. "The tools are in place for the content team to riff off what's going on sort of like a Dungeon Master in an old-school D&D game."

A prime example of this is when the content team adds a new star system to the persistent, open-world portion of the game: They're not necessarily going to tell anyone. Instead, players inclined to explore will have further incentive to do so. Exploration-driven players might come across a gravitational anomaly that indicates an uncharted jump point. Normally traveling via a jump point is automatic because it's already programmed into your ship's navigational computer. However, when a new jump point is discovered, players can choose to fly through the uncharted point, and attempt a "pretty tricky" flying sequence that's like "riding a really hairy, massive wave on the north shore," according to Roberts. If successful, the player can sell his flight navigation results to one of the space corporations for a big profit, because people will pay to download it, rather than having to take the risk of navigating it themselves.

Roberts is also promising to release mod tools. In addition to being able to run modified versions of the game on their own servers, players will be able to submit ship builds to be considered for inclusion in the official version. The best part? If your ship design is approved by the content team, it'll appear at a few in-game ship vendors, and you'll make some in-game currency whenever another player purchases one.

Having an ongoing discussion with the Star Citizen community is something Roberts feels is very important both before and after launch. The tech demo Roberts showed me was created using investor capital, but the bigger picture will involve a round of crowd-funding. "As long as we raise between $2 and $4 [million]," Roberts explained, "it triggers the rest of the investment, and we're off making the game."

Since the project is so ambitious, is aimed at high-end PC's, and focuses on a genre that has made bigger publishers traditionally shy in recent years, Roberts is "making a bet that there's a core audience willing to put their money where their mouth is."

As with most crowd-funding situations, there are tiers of rewards depending on the contribution, including special designer types of in-game ships, and even physical models of said ships. Early access to the game, though, is planned. "One year in you're playing the multiplayer build. Eight months later, you're playing the alpha," Roberts estimated. Though we won't see an official release of Star Citizen until at least late 2014, about 200,000 folks will be able to get in on the multiplayer stress-tests and full-game alpha builds. Early backers will be able to get the game cheaper than will be possible on, or after release.

Upon release, Star Citizen will employ a Guild Wars 2 style of monetization: an up-front purchase price, and no monthly subscription fee. Microtransactions will also be present for those who want to trade-in real money for a bit more in-game currency, but Roberts asserts that in-game purchases won't be of the "pay-to-win" variety.

Folks looking for a next-gen, zero-G dogfight have plenty of reasons to be excited. "I'm focusing on high-end PC, because that's sort of what I was known for in the past," Roberts said. "I feel like PC game players out there are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the industry. They're not getting any respect. What you get is a port of a 360 or PS3 game that's running on, now seven-year-old technology. A top-end gaming PC these days is about 10 times more powerful."

Star Citizen's crowd funding stage should begin soon. In the meantime, you can keep up with the latest developments at the Roberts Space Industries website.





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