Yesterday afternoon, Chris Roberts (of Wing Commander, Freelancer and Privateer fame) was down to visit another studio to share ‘war stories’ regarding CryEngine 2. On his way back home, he decided to give me a ring and talk a bit about Star Citizen, Eve Online, and the future of space sims while braving the dangerous I-405.
Star Citizen is a newly announced space simulator game with ambitious, if not outright grandiose, goals. Featuring a full single player campaign (with coop mode possible), multiplayer private space combat servers, an entirely moddable interface as well as a public, persistent online universe, Star Citizen seems to promise something for everyone even vaguely interested in playing internet spaceships. Of course, with any ambitious plan there are always doubters, naysayers and (dare we say it) even haters - but Chris Roberts is unfazed by these facts of life. His enthusiasm and belief in the vision of Star Citizen goes back many years and will not be stopped any time soon.
For those of us that have seen the announcement trailer and subsequent footage to come out, it seems like a hugely exciting project. How long have you been working on the game so far?
Chris: Basically I’ve been working with a small team over the course of the past year to get the early prototyping and production done. The team has varied in scale from just me, essentially, to about 10 people. That’s just the actual work though.
Star Citizen is the game, essentially, that I wanted to make when I was working on Freelancer. A very big game, with both single player and multiplayer, a game that you could play with other people on a large scale. I feel I never really got to realize that dream. Microsoft was the publisher of Freelancer and at the time was very focused on getting the Xbox developed, as well as titles for it. I never got to do Freelancer the way I wanted to - it has always felt like a bit of unfinished business.
If EA didn’t hold the rights to the Wing Commander franchise and you somehow ended up with them, would Star Citizen be called something like ‘Wing Commander Online’, or do you feel that the game is essentially different from Wing Commander or Freelancer to the point that you would have renamed it anyways?
Yes, if I somehow owned the rights to Wing Commander still, this would definitely be Wing Commander: Star Citizen or something like that. Star Citizen really is the spiritual successor to all of my work with Wing Commander, Freelancer and Privateer. If I had to sum it up, it is essentially Wing Commander and Privateer blended together.
You have stated that you expect to have an Alpha up and going in about 12 months, with a beta roughly 10 months after that and then launch. For a game of this size and scope, do you think you can really be done in the next two years?
Really it is all about constant iteration from launch. The whole idea is to be constantly updating. It isn’t like the old days where you had to have everything and the kitchen sink in at launch because you weren’t going to come back to it for awhile. We’re already one year in - another two years puts us at 3 total which is ideal. Any more and things would begin to get stale.
Speaking of constant updates, you’ve stated that you would like to roll out updates on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. How sustainable is that vision and what kind of investment of resources do you foresee that taking?
Obviously we would scale up the staff over time until, once live, we have about 20-30 people generating content, not counting high-level development of new features. The idea is to set up a structure for the players to use and add in new content as the spice, where the player-generated content is the meat. Eve Online does this very well. You don’t want to be like [Star Wars] The Old Republic, where all your content is heavily scripted.
Implementing more intelligent procedural systems as in real life, driving player behavior, and then sprinkling in some studio developed story content is what will give us the longevity we need.
You mention Eve Online and obviously have some knowledge of it. Have you played it, or just followed its progress?
I have played Eve a little bit but never really got hardcore into it. I’m more of an in-the-cockpit kind of guy. The game concepts, the ideas that CCP has put out - they have done a great job of it. They are the only ones, really, holding the fortress for space [games]. As for playing Eve, it is really a matter of scale. For myself, I would rather be in a cockpit as opposed to flying a big freighter or something from a distance.
There are obviously some close similiraties on a conceptual level between Star Citizen and Eve Online. How much has CCP’s progress with EVE impacted your current development of Star Citizen?
The main thing is that they proved it could work. Eve Online is a bit larger scale, but has most of the same stuff as when I was pitching Freelancer. Dynamic universe, player driven interaction, etc. CCP has done a really good job of proving that the concept works. What I want to do now is basically make Star Citizen the Call of Duty to Eve Online’s Company of Heroes, in that Star Citizen will give more of a first person, in the moment experience while Eve Online provides a strategic point of view.
The thing that would be really cool, for me, is to have player’s making their own groups like in Eve. My ideal scenario would be something like one player setting himself up as some kind of Criminal Overlord out in the fringes of space, with an asteroid base and hired [player] muscle, harrying other people. Then those other people band together to go take out the Criminal Overlord and his group in order to maintain their own safety or profits.
[Editor’s Note: At this point in the interview, things nearly came off the rails as a typical LA area driver decided it would be a good time to slam on their brakes for no apparent reason. After confirming that Mr. Roberts was alright, we continued...]
You have planned many ways for players of Star Citizen to make a living, including trading and mining. Mining in Eve is literally one of the dullest experiences in modern gaming. What are you planning to make mining something fun to do?
[Laughter] Mining and trading will take some level of actual flying skill, whereas in Eve you are just sort of clicking a button every once in awhile to make money. It’s sort of like playing Farmville and I hate that stuff. I feel that the first person, active flying experience in Star Citizen will turn, for instance, a boring trade run from Eve Online into a more immersive and exciting experience.
Other games in the past have sought to provide a sort of two-part game, though not on the same level as we will see in Star Citizen with its Squadron 42 component (referring to the single player/coop mode of the game). In particular Age Of Conan springs to mind. However, AOC was fairly terrible, as the first 10 or 20 levels was fully voice acted, really high quality content - and then there was nothing. Could you go more in depth as to how the Squadron 42 aspect integrates with the overall Star Citizen universe?
I know just what you mean. I played Age of Conan and yeah, the beginning was really cool then you seemed to really run out of content. We’re definitely going to avoid that with Star Citizen. Squadron 42 is going to be the kind of military campaign, a linear campaign, reminiscent of Wing Commander. Something where, if you only have a little bit of time or you just don’t want to deal with everyone else trying to backstab you. You’re in the military and you go out on these missions. Once you finish your tour of duty, you muster out into the open universe and pursue your goals. In the end, players may prefer one or the other, in which case they will just have to wait for more content to be put out.
Star Citizen also has plans to enable privately hosted servers that can run mods of the game, either in coop campaign mode or as a small scale space combat server. Will players be able to transfer characters between these private servers and the persistent universe hosted by yourself? How is that interaction going to be handled?
You know, I really don’t have a good answer for that right now, its a bit of a problem that we’re working on ironing out. Probably you will only end up being able to transfer your character itself, not any of the money you earn on the private server or the ships you acquire. The whole point of the public persistent universe is to make sure people stay honest and are coming by their goods legitimately. You won’t be able to mod yourself a megaship in a private server and then take it out into the universe.
The most recent FAQ put up on the Star Citizen website definitively states that Star Citizen is not an MMO. Obviously, with single player and private hosted servers, it isn’t just an MMO, but doesn’t the online persistent universe make it an MMO in some way?
To be honest, all these classifications are a bit silly. We stated it isn’t an MMO because when people hear ‘MMO’ they think of subscriptions and World of Warcraft. We wanted to reassure old Wing Commander and Privateer fans that this they wouldn’t have to pay a subscription to play a game they love. Obviously at no point does this mean you won’t be able to play with your friends - who doesn’t want to do that? It is an MMO in the aspect of having a big, massive galaxy, a persistent universe, that sort of thing. But it will also have a full single player game, so it isn’t always an MMO.
What kind of consequences will there be for death in Star Citizen? Can your ‘flesh and blood’ avatar be killed?
Well, when your ship blows up, you’ll be floating out in space and someone can pick you up and take you to the nearest space station or planet. There will be things like insurance for your ship and even for your cargo in the event of its demise, but there will also be things like tariffs and taxes in the safer parts of the galaxy - someone has to pay for that protection. So in some parts you won’t need insurance, but will pay taxes. In others you won’t pay taxes, but will definitely need insurance. It is sort of like the real world - if you live in a bad neighborhood, you pay more in insurance. In Star Citizen, insurance rates will vary depending on where you get it.
I like setting up the world and letting the players gravitate towards whatever they want to do. As a developer, you are always surprised by what the players want to and eventually end up doing.
You plan on having Star Citizen not only support the typical mouse, keyboard, joystick and gamepad that you find in PC gaming, but also things like rudder pedals, flight chairs and the Oculus Rift. Why go to such great lengths to support equipment that isn’t that prevalent, and what kind of impact will this have on development costs?
I feel like I’m making a game for the enthusiast. If someone not only spent the money on a gaming PC to play Star Citizen, but also dropped 100, 200 dollars on some other equipment, I want to be able to say to them ‘You paid for it, you should be able to use it’.
In terms of development time, it doesn’t take much. Input is input and if I didn’t think we could accommodate all those different types of peripherals, I wouldn’t have the support in the game.
Earlier today you launched a Kickstarter campaign after previously going with your own crowdfunding solution. How is all of that going?
Well, the website had some issues when we first announced the game. People weren’t able to see their pledges right away and I’m sure some weren’t comfortable going with just some website. I like Kickstarter a lot, I’ve supported multiple projects on Kickstarter, so when we had these issues Kickstarter came to us and said ‘how can we help?’. They’ve been excellent at helping expedite the process of getting a Kickstarter set up for people that want to use them.
Not using Kickstarter to begin with was never about saving the 5% fee they charge or anything like that. It was about making pledging as frictionless as possible for those who were already supporters of the site and the game.
Any parting words for the Eve Online community or in general?
If Eve players are interested in more of a first person, spaceship type of experience, it would be awesome if they backed Star Citizen. I really want to show the big publishers that there is significant demand not just for space games, but for PC games as well, and that people love them!
Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us!
So there you have it - words straight from Chris Roberts. To find out more about Star Citizen I highly recommend checking out the website for the game. Unlike some that stay stagnant for weeks or months while in development, Mr. Roberts is committed to putting out updates on various aspects of the game as often as possible.
And if, as Mr. Roberts said, you fancy yourself a bit of a cockpit kind of guy like him - definitely back the project. It has raised over $1 million USD on the RSI/Star Citizen website itself in about a week and an additional $100,000+ on Kickstarter (in just a few hours).