Star Citizen: Changing the Way Video Games are Made and Played

The story of “Star Citizen” starts in 1986, when a young game developer and “Star Wars” fanatic returned to the United States from Great Britain and obtained a job at software company Origin Systems.  Eighteen-year-old Chris Roberts was already a veteran game developer, having released “Stryker’s Run” for BBC Micro while still living across the water.

The Origin Systems and Digital Anvil Years:

Origin_Systems_logoRoberts worked on two action-RPG games, “Times of Lore” and “Bad Blood”, released in 1988 and 1990.  By the time “Bad Blood” was released, Roberts was finishing up the game he wanted to make since he first watched “Star Wars”.  It was a space-based flight-sim called “Wing Commander” and would change the flight-simulation genre.

The “Wing Commander” series would become Origin’s most successful franchise, with six different sequels and spin-offs.  Roberts was heavily involved in the production of most of the games – constantly expanding and pushing the limits of computers.  The franchise featured live-action cinematic cutscenes, directed by Roberts, that helped to immerse the player in the overall story.

Roberts went on to produce and direct a feature-length film in the “Wing Commander” universe, titled “Wing Commander“.  After that he worked on two more games for his own company, Digital Anvil, called “Starlancer” and “Freelancer“, before leaving the game development arena and turning to focus on movie production.

His list of accomplishments include “The Punisher” and “Lord of War”.

The Slow Demise of the Space Combat and Trading Simulation:

After “Freelancer”, there was a distinct absence of new space simulation content for theFreelancer
PC.  The “X” series continued regular, if staggered, releases, and some independent developers tried their hands at the genre, but it had become a very niche market that failed to attract AAA distributors or a large playerbase.  It was said the space combat/trading simulation market was dead.

Cloud Imperium Games:

In 2011, Roberts decided the capability of computers had finally caught up with his ambition, and he founded Cloud Imperium Games.  But he ran into one major problem: nobody wanted to risk money on a space combat and trading simulation game.  It was considered a niche market on a dying platform.  So, after spending a year making a prototype in CryEngine 3, Roberts was able to get some concession from investors: raise $2 million in crowdfunding to show the market is there, and the rest of the ~$23 million in projected budget would be funded by these investors.

Cloud Imperium Games released a trailer to launch their crowdfunding initiative in October of 2012.  The response was overwhelming.  Within one month, CIG broke all video-game crowdfunding records, exceeding $6 million in pledges.  Roberts realized he might be able to fund the game entirely without the aid of investors – thus giving him even more creative freedom.  In October of 2013, the goal of entirely funding the initial game via crowdfunding was achieved.  As of January 5, 2014, $36 million has been raised to produce “Star Citizen”.

In the Crosshairs:

“Star Citizen” faces many difficult challenges:

  • It represents a market the AAA developers say simply won’t work for two reasons: one, it is a niche game (space combat and trading) and two, it is exclusive to PC.
  • To deliver on some of the promises, Cloud Imperium Games has to design the game based on high-end gaming PCs, even further limiting their possible pool of players.
  • It is so ambitious in scope as to be considered impossible by many: dozens of systems, hundreds of worlds, dozens of ship types – which you can walk around in and interact with as if they were real – space stations, Non-Player Character and Player-vs-Player interaction, a MMO environment that interacts with the single-player campaign and vice versa, etc.
  • Roberts has given himself a release date of Fall, 2014 – giving his team just two years from inception to release of a playable, non-beta module.  This is a short development cycle for any game, let alone one as ambitious as “Star Citizen”.

MobiGlas Concept Art  (c) 2012/2013 CIG.

Because of these challenges, and because of the way the game is funded and developed, Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games find themselves in the crosshairs of everyone from industry insiders to reviewers and magazines.  And yet, amazingly, there seems to be an overwhelming current of cautious optimism.  Everyone seems to want to see Roberts succeed for more reasons than one.  If his crowdfunding campaign delivers what was promised, for example, it will help to negate some of the more negative crowdfunding campaigns of other video game developers.  If “Star Citizen” becomes a successful game, it will open up the possibility of a revitalization of the space combat and trading sim genre.  It will also validate PC exclusive gamers: it will prove to the AAA developers that we are a viable market.

And, ultimately, Chris Roberts has spent a lifetime delivering our fantasies to us.  The “Wing Commander” series is considered to be one of the best game series of PC history, “Freelancer” is held up as an excellent example of a game with a deep, immersive storyline, sandbox exploration, and yet fun and easy to learn.  People want Roberts to succeed because his dream is our dream: the games he made have filled us with joy over the years, and if he can make the game he always wanted to make, that leads us to hope it will be the game we always wanted to play.

Doing Things Differently:

“Star Citizen” and the single-player component, “Squadron 42”, are not slated for release

Concept Art: UEE Bengal Class Carrier and Escorts in orbit (c) 2012/2013 CIG

until late 2014-early 2015.  Yet over three hundred thousand future players have spent a combined $36 million on this game already.  How do you keep your fans appeased for 2+ years of development cycles?

Well, some crowdfunding campaigns have found out this is a problem first-hand.  Not delivering right away, or even soon after funding, has caused problems in the past.  This can lead to rushed releases – which often leads to early failures that prevent the chance of future success.  So how does something like “Star Citizen” get around this – especially considering the amount of attention it is getting?

One word: immersion.

Roberts is a fanatic about immersion in his games.  He wants the player to leave their home and be inside the worlds he creates.  And he is taking this immersion one step further – by including it in the pre-release blitz of information.  The website for “Star Citizen”, “Squadron 42”, and “Cloud Imperium Games” is http://www.robertsspaceindustries.com.  Roberts Space Industries, or RSI, happens to be one of the manufacturers of ships in the “Star Citizen” universe.  So the game is presented to us via one of the fictional companies within the game.  On the website they include such things as fiction set in the universe, information on the ships and planets, and weekly video podcasts.

CIG releases promotion videos as if they were actual advertisements for the ship or company.  The first one, for the Origin (note the name?  Yes, Chris likes to make nods to his previous games and companies) 300i series of ships, created quite the buzz on the internet.

A similar commercial was made for the Anvil (yes, as in “Digital Anvil”) Hornet:

It is worth noting that, because the Hornet is shown easily destroying a 300i-series ship in the Anvil commercial, a fan made an official looking press release from Origin Jumpworks stating a lawsuit was pending.

The Modular Approach:

Cloud Imperium Games is loaded with veterans in PC game and movie development.  They have learned over the years how to do things the right way.  One of those ways is modular development.  Rather than have one big studio with everyone trying to make this giant game, CIG is broken up into several teams around the world.  Each team works on a section of the game, with smaller teams within those teams working on subsections.  One team focuses on the single-player game, for example.  Another is focused on the backend network to run the MMO and economy simulation.  Another is focused on ship art assets.  Another on character assets and motion capture.  And on and on.  And all of these teams ultimately answer to one person: Chris Roberts.  There is no board of directors.  There is no marketing analysis team.  Nobody to come to the teams in the middle of the production and say, “Recent analysis suggests we need zombies in the game.  Figure out a way to add zombies in.”  Nobody to come along and say, “We want to present something to the shareholders next month.  Take whatever you have and make it a working game.  We’ll release patches to fix it later, and include the unfinished content as purchasable DLC when it is done.”

This modular approach also gives CIG the ability to show the backers their progress.  The first module to be released to backers of the game was the Hangar Module.  Simply put: it is a room with your ships in it.  You can’t fly them, but you can walk around them, look at them, get inside them, interact with them.  It doesn’t seem like much, but I can tell you in all honesty that the first time I climbed into my Origin Jumpworks 315p I squealed like a kid on Christmas.

The next module, which has been delayed by a month or more, is the Dogfighting Module.  The delay represents one of the benefits CIG gets by releasing these modules: beta testing.  Rather than release the Dogfighting Module with the standard CryEngine 3 netcode, CIG wants to develop the network code they plan on using with the final game.  This allows them to get several months of real-time beta testing on their network.

The Hangar Module gave them similar feedback.  Users sent back performance reports, and CIG gets an idea of how the engine is handling various hardware platforms.  Since its release in August, the module has had several updates and patches to make it function better.  It has also led to several suggestions by players that may end up in the final game.

The release of the Hangar Module also stressed CIG servers, giving them an idea of how to prepare for future situations and prevent outages.  Something anyone who has dealt with an online release of a game is familiar with (Diablo 3 or Sim City 5, anyone?)

Worth Waiting For?

For those of us who invested in the game, we get to be beta testers for the next year or more.  CIG has exclusive access to hundreds of thousands of beta testers on gaming rigs ranging from the bare minimum to supercomputers.  And that translates into the possibility of a better game when it officially goes live.

So, in the end, “Star Citizen” is, in my opinion, worth the wait and the risk of giving my money in advance.  Chris and his team are changing the way games are funded, produced, and released.  If they succeed it could represent a fundamental shift in production of PC games.  For far too long PC players have felt as if they were put on the backburner, expecting to be content with bad console ports or games dumbed down to work on both consoles and PCs.  We grudgingly accept paying extra money for content available on release date.  We rely on modders to make the games better – we don’t expect developers to make a game exclusively for us.  But “Star Citizen” is just that – and more.

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