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Interviewing the Wing Commander: Chris Roberts explains why you should have faith in Star Citizen

Interviewing the Wing Commander: Chris Roberts explains why you should have faith in Star Citizen

“You’re one of those doubters, but hey, I’m going to be happy to be proving you wrong,” Chris Roberts told me. We were discussing his upcoming game Star Citizen, and my skepticism about his ability to deliver on the stated features with the announced budget.

He took my doubt in stride, and he has reason to be confident. As of this writing the Star Citizen project has raised around $2.7 million via his own community page and an ongoing Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunded money will help get the game made, but it will also help convince larger investors about the validity of the project. Roberts is hoping for a budget of around $14 million when all is said and done.

“If you’re skeptical, I guarantee you EVE Online didn’t cost $50 million when they first released it,” Roberts said. “It was a small Icelandic company that did it on their own dime, for I’m guessing something around $4 or $5 (million) by the time they launched.”

He’s not only confident that he can deliver what he’s promised, but that he can do so in around two years.

Roberts stands behind the promises

“We’ve already spent around a year in development, and remember that most of these crowdfunding campaigns, when you look at it, no one has shown anything. I actually showed a pretty advanced prototype, and that prototype has most of the functionality I need to build a Wing-Commander style game,” he explained.

“The higher end stuff that’s missing is more the MMO, multiplayer side of it. But there’s been a large amount of technical design and research and prototyping towards that.”

He’s willing to put his reputation on the line when it comes to delivering on the promise of Star Citizen.  “A couple of times in my career I’ve been late on what I’ve delivered, but I’ve pretty much delivered everything that I’ve said was going to be in the games. I don’t tend to make promises and not follow through on them.” He claims that he hasn’t promised things with the idea the team will figure it out later; he’s already done much of the work and research to make sure everything is feasible.

IMMERSION 720P from Roberts Space Industries on Vimeo.

When I brought up the graphical challenges in creating ships with so much detail, he pointed out that the game is set in space, and that allows you to “get away with” much in terms of design and graphical fidelity.

“[Space] allows you to have the appearance of a lot more detail and fidelity than you really have. The same goes with the ship and character models. We can afford to have ten times as many polygons as a typical triple-A game, and part of the reason is that yes, we’re on high-end PC hardware, but the other part is that we’re in space. We don’t have to worry about rendering an environment, or a city in first-person mode. We can spend all our processing time on really high-fidelity space ships or high fidelity characters,” he explained.

Think of it this way: to create a realistic city simulation you have to have a high quality ground texture, along with buildings, streets, parks, signs, and it all has to exist in three dimensional space. We know what cities look like, so you have to nail a huge number of complicated details to make the player believe they’re inside a realistic city. In space you have… well, empty space. If you create a beautiful, moving starfield in the background, place a single space station in the middle field, and then put your high-quality ship in the middle of the screen in third-person mode you suddenly have a “realistic” representation of space, and you’ve only used three graphical elements.

This is an incredible oversimplification of the work that goes into a well-designed game in space, but you get the idea. The environment allows you to focus much more attention on what’s important to the player than perhaps any other setting. 

Still, the official materials promise all sorts of things, especially in the multiplayer aspect of the game. I asked Roberts what he felt needed to be done to release the game, although since backers will be playing the game in both alpha and beta stages “release” is a squishy term. Still, he was able to run down all the things the game will support at launch.

“We’ve got several stages, we’ve got the single player game which we’ll make available to our subscribers before the multiplayer will, just because it will be complete sooner,” he explained.

“On the multiplayer side of things you need to have the dynamic economy, you need to be able to go between planets, you need to be able to do the match-making that I’m describing, buy and sell goods, upgrade your ship and buy new ships, form alliances, have friends lists so they can fight and fly alongside you. We’re going to be able to fly a ship and have friends in your ship from the get-go, and in fact that’s going to be working in the multiplayer alpha that we’ll have in 12 months time.”

Squadron 42 Cinematic Long Trailer 1080P from Roberts Space Industries on Vimeo.

He pointed out that this is a genre he knows very well. “I’m essentially promising a slightly more connected version of Freelancer or Privateer, games I’ve built twice. I intimately know how to build these,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. He also points out that back in the day it was necessary to build the engine and technology for the game, and then the game itself. Star Citizen is being built in CryEngine 3, so he can focus on the game at an early stage in development. Still, the multiplayer aspects of the design won’t be easy to put together.

Roberts claimed that the problems are simpler than they sound. “It’s essentially doing the match-making based on location, alliances, allegiances, and skill ratings. On the surface it feels probably more difficult and complicated than it really is, but it’s sort of a persistent match-making system that keeps tracks of your stats,” he explained. “It’s not that difficult, and it’s something I’ve spent the past year doing the technical high level design of, I’m not just saying I’m going to do this, I work it out. That’s why I spent a year doing the prototyping.”

The advantages of high tech

Roberts played up the idea of a game that takes advantage of a high-end gaming computer, but does relying on such expensive equipment make sense when it comes to sales? He laughed. “In the past, with Wing Commander, it seemed to work out!”

Still, hardware has some time to catch up with the demands of the game. “Since this is going to be out in two years time, what I’m shooting for now will be the midlevel not the high level. I’m probably sort of future proof there.” Space is also scalable, which is another advantage of that setting. Since they’re already designing the ships with differing levels of detail it will be simple to allow less powerful hardware to run the game; you just won’t see all the possible polygons in the ship models. The more powerful your hardware, the more detail you see.

“The idea I want is that if you have the really badass machine with the Nvidia cards and SLI or whatever, this is something that will show it off. I think that’s missing from the PC world. There are too many average ports of 360 or PS3 games coming to the PC.”

I still have some doubts about Star Citizen, as the game is as ambitious as they get in the indie space, but he went a long way to making me feel better about the game. This is one of those cases where I hope to be wrong, because the game Roberts is describing sounds very good, and there is definitely a lack of deep, well-designed titles for the PC, if not the video game industry as a whole. Roberts is already trending well above his crowd-funding goals, and it could very well be clear skies from here on in.