Thursday, October 11, 2012

An Overview of Star Citizen Project

Okay, now that my nerdy glee as worn off a bit I want to take a closer look at Chris Roberts’ proposed crowdfunding project: “Star Citizen.”  

This isn’t Kickstarter and it shows.

In a bold, but predictable move, Star Citizen will NOT be funded on Kickstarter but on his own site http://starcitizen.robertsspaceindustries.com/ which cuts out the middle men of Kickstarter and Amazon and lets more money go strait to the project.  That said there are some major issues that show the difference between using Kickstarter and going this direct route.  

Going to their commercial terms page you get the usual huge amount of legalize text which most of us tend to skip over.  I would like to draw your attention to the following blocks of text though:  

“You must be a registered user to select and pay for a pledge.  Upon selection of a pledge, your payment will be collected through independent third party payment providers such as Paypal, Amazon Payments, and Stripe.”

What this means is that unlike Kickstarter which doesn’t take your money until the campaign actually succeeds and even then not until the time is complete, RSI takes your money NOW.  So none of the usual “Pledge now to get in early but don’t worry about paying until later” like you can do on Kickstarter.  Which can suck especially when there’s those limited “early bird” lower price offers.   



“If you have elected to receive a refund in case that the initial fundraising goal will not be reached on or before November 10, 2012 from all deposits and other investments, then CIG will proceed to refund such deposit promptly to you, less processing cost and third party fees.”

This one comes directly from the first, because if the pledge drive fails you have the option of choosing to get a refund.  Again, unlike Kickstarter where if a campaign fails (and I’ve backed several failed projects) we get a “no harm no foul” agreement in place, here you have to ask for a refund.  Since money has already changed hands (see block one) there’s a chance there will be a reduction in your refund “less processing cost and third party fees.”  

Those who have used Paypal for eBay or what not may know about 5% Credit card fees (or less depending on your account type) and I’m sure other card processing groups use similar rates.  So you could pledge $60 and only get back $59 for instance.  Not that big a deal you say?  Fair enough but it could come as a nasty surprise and one that I’m not sure Kickstarter veterans are prepared for.  
Another thing you’ll notice about going direct with RSI vs Kickstarter is how woefully underprepared they are at supporting this event at launch.  Of course who knew how popular it’d be?  I mean sure it’s Chris Roberts and there’s only a large Sci-Fi community wanting games for decades out there, but yeah no one figured they’d get hit this hard this fast right?  

Seriously though the site currently is so overwhelmed half the time you end up on a “back-up” site which just shows pledges. There’s no convenient tracker showing number or pledges and total like in Kickstarter, nor is there any apparent comment and interaction section.  They say they have an active forum with a “town hall” style discussion group but there’s no apparent way to get there.  Just trying to type the address redirects you to the campaign page so unless you go digging there isn’t a forum or any kind of comment system.  The Kickstarter comments are visible even if you haven’t registered or pledged so the idea of hiding the comments behind a paywall (if that’s where they’re hiding) is off-putting, especially to someone familiar with Kickstarter or even a crowdfunding newbie!

On the plus side going outside Kickstarter gives RSI the ability to collect money in lots of different ways including Paypal which some prefer. Also they have created a European friendly site so they’re not forced to go through US channels and payment plans.  Also removing Amazon and Kickstarter from the equation reduces the number of logins and points of failure which might put some folks at ease.   The extra 5-8% income from loss of overhead created by going direct might produce more cash “in hand” to RSI to aid in development costs.  

Enough about the meta, on with the game!

First off for those who don’t know (he HAS been out of gaming for over a decade) Chris Roberts is one of the pioneers of the space sim computer game, namely the Wing Commander/Freelancer series. Sure, it was “WWII fighters in space” kind of space fighter game, but they told a story and pushed the limits of what video games could do back when PC gaming was very new.  I remember fondly the days of fighting IRQ settings to get my Soundblaster compatible sound card setup to be able to hear the voices in Wing Commander and the musical score.  Folks today in the post Plug and Play world may not have as much appreciation for what developers like Roberts did for gaming in general and space games in particular, but us old hands are still around and we have money too.  

That said every gamer should be excited to see, and I do mean see, what Roberts has planned for us in Star Citizen. First off Roberts design doc seems to be screaming “PC’s are better lets PROVE IT” by pushing the polygons on pretty much everything.  

Most current gen "AAA" games have around 10,000 polygons for a character and 30,000 or so for a vehicle. In Star Citizen, the characters are detailed at 100,000 polygons, the fighter at 300,000 and the Space Carrier 7 million! This allows unparalleled detail, making the visuals more immersive than has ever been achieved before.”

Now those pure numbers probably don’t mean as much to those who don’t model or work in computer images on a regular basis, but just looking at the videos and the still will tell you it means everything looks bloody fantastic.  The game is using the Crytek’s CryEngine3 technology which to me was just media blah blah until Mechwarrior Online’s latest update.  The engine does weather effects like no other multi-player engine I have ever seen and the model detail allowed is quite surprising.   With Star Citizen being completely in space all the processes for weather effects and such can be put into lighting and sheer polygon pushing.  That said the engine seems to scale well as I’ve heard folks bouncing at the minimum specs still being able to play Mechwarrior so I foresee Star Citizen to have that same scalability.  

That said Roberts definitely is a PC gear head as it were as they’re already announced support for Oculust Rift and pretty much every crazy piece of flight sim gear out there. For pretty much the last seven years the “nerd drive” to upgrade your system to play the latest and greatest game has, in my opinion, been very dampened by the sheer lack of need.  Games today don’t really need the highest of the high end, or even if you are running that kind of rig there isn’t a huge improvement like we saw back in the day.  Star Citizen might change all that again as I can feel that urge at the back of my skull demanding I do something to make that game run even better.  From gaming peripherals of all kinds,  probable multi-monitor and 3D support, anything you could want in a gaming rig will probably be supported and the desire for the best gaming experience possible will drive some to build it.  

Okay so it’s pretty, what about gameplay?

That’s the thing isn’t it?  We are only 1 year into the game development so how can we know what it’ll really play like, and as with all crowdfunded games we won’t really know until much later.  That said backers will get into Alpha and Beta builds of the game so they’ll know first hand just how much the game will improve and change over the life of the project and I hope that’ll help create a better game.  With that many people providing input and testing the game should have a high quality upon release especially since there’s no publisher involved to create artificial deadlines.  

What we can discuss is what is promised in the gameplay department and Chris is promising the not only the moon, but the whole bloody universe!  To sum it up using other games it seems he’s taking Eve Online’s universe and economy, throwing Guild Wars 2’s business model on it, with some Minecraft tossed in for the creative members of the community, and mixing it with lots and lots of Wing Commander/Privateer/Freelancer all over the place.  In short it sounds a lot like a space game players wet dream.  The question of course will be, can he deliver?  

Space is big, really really big.

Eve Online and the X3 series prove that you can create really huge universes to explore and even populate those large universes with live players, the secret is instancing.  Unlike other games that use instancing (which is pretty much all of them now), space games hide their instancing by the simple expedient of space being big so we divide it into “sectors” which are each their own instance.   Those sectors that are busy like Jita in EVE and Earth probably will be in Star Citizen will probably just require special server load preparation.  Actually I hope RSI talks to CCP on how to pull off huge numbers of players in a single server location as Star Citizen sounds like it’ll have that situation in spades.  

Even then there could be even more instancing within a space sector by creating “fight zones” as it were whenever someone engages another person.  In fact these kinds of things are alluded to in the presentation:

“If caught alone in an online ambush, send a distress broadcast to your friends and if they're nearby they can jump in-system to save your bacon. In each combat instance player slots are reserved for your friends so you can rally forces to join you in combat!”

Anything they can do to help reduce lag, especially since we’re talking fighter combat as well as capital ships with user mannable turrets will be a plus.  That said lots of space gives plenty of hiding spots of those who don’t want combat combat combat, but want to build ships and mine rocks.   Room to grow and room to build are both very important things for a space game, especially one that wants to create a player economy and player built items.  

If you build it...

Minecraft proved folks like having control of their virtual worlds, and they like sharing those worlds with others.  Team Fortress 2 has shown that offering players the incentive of earning some money for content creation is a viable way of creating content on the cheap and rewarding the community.  Together these two elements are possible foreshadows of what RSI has in store for Star Citizen as they talk about how their modding tools will be a key element of content creation.  

“Our modding tools will allow players to design new ships for both submission to the persistent RSI ship dealer network or to build custom ships and items for the self-hosted multiplayer mode.”

This could end up being just like Valve’s workshop on TF2 or as accessible as Minecraft or even Forza’s in game system we shall see how it all shakes out.  

A triumphant return or trying to recapture lost glory?

Details are sure to be coming out quickly in the coming days as sites like Gamasutra, PC Gamer, and Giant Bomb are sure to jump on this story with interviews and previews and as I get the information I’ll be sure to share it with you.  Personally I have to say I am even more committed to the PC as my preferred gaming method than ever before.  With PC games being taken more seriously, my current antipathy towards consoles, and my increased fatherhood status all combined to drive me towards deeper and more complex games the promise of Star Citizen has caught my attention.  

In summary here’s how I see Star Citizen right now:

  • The Guild Wars 2 model as it allows me to just buy the game and not worry about yet another subscription.  
  • The Single-player/co-op storyline allows me to play on my terms and time. Offline or On.
  • The Shared Server and Independent server models lets me just “jump in and shoot stuff” or “build my galactic space empire” depending on my mood and time investment.
  • The mod tools offer me a chance to fuel my in game character growth through my real world modeling abilities.  
  • The high end graphics and peripheral support scratches that nerd itch for new toys even if I don’t actually buy any.  
  • The player based economy, player made ships and equipment, player discovered and named star systems, and multiple layers of society all have the potential to blend together into a great persistent universe.  
  • The gameplay and graphics combined with the Wing Commander legacy promise to produce a great single player experience if I can’t stand the online community.

Basically the game sounds like it’ll be all sorts of win, but it remains to be seen if it’ll all work out.  As with all crowdfunding projects this is a gamble by those who back, but I think this is a safe enough bet to be worth your dollars if this sounds like your kind of game.