Interview: Chris Roberts Gives Us a Glimpse on Star Citizen and Squadron 42
Wing Commander has been my first PC game, back when I was in high school and the idea of writing about games didn’t even cross my mind yet. Soon it was followed by Wing Commander II, that completely overwhelmed me with its cinematic story and its incredible (for the time) graphics packed into a staggering bundle of 14 floppy disks that used to take a couple hours to install on my first 286 machine. It was a golden age that, in some ways, I still miss.
One of the first gaming-related articles I wrote on the net was on the franchises I would have liked to return, and the first of the list was again Wing Commander, so you can pretty much imagine how I felt when I learned that the series’ creator Chris Roberts had decided to come back to game development and when I saw the first, spectacular trailer of of Squadron 42.
The game, together with its persistent online counterpart Star Citizen will bring back a genre that I desperately loved and will mix it up with online gameplay, creating something that I definitely look forward to, made possible by the wonders of crowd funding that allowed Chris Roberts and his team to skip publishers and just make their dream game supported by the gamers themselves.
Things are going great on the funding side, with the kickstarter goal already overtaken and the game nearing two million dollars in pledges in less than a couple weeks. It isn’t just a dream anymore.
Yesterday, I was honored to sit down and have a chat with Chris Roberts himself, talking with the developer that most influenced my identity as a gamer in its early stages about his new project. You can read the results below.
Giuseppe: So, you’re back at the helm after so many years. Was the impact with today’s game development and tools harsh, or have you managed to slide back on the saddle without major issues?
Chris: It was pretty easy. First of all, even though I haven’t been making games for a while, I was always keeping pace and in touch with the technology and playing around with it. Getting back into it was actually kind of fun for me, because now there are a lot more tools available. Compared to the old days in which you had to build all the code and technology yourself, it’s actually much easier and much more fun. Machines are also much more powerful.
In the movie business you don’t have to invent your cameras to shoot your movies, while in the past to make games you actually had to invent them before you could shoot. Today, it’s not like that anymore. You can just decide you’re going to use CryENGINE or Unity or Unreal and have many of the tools ready. Even if I didn’t code for a while it was pretty easy. It’s like riding a bike.
G: Did you contact any publisher before resorting to crowd funding for Star Citizen, or was the decision to ask gamers for their support directly was your first thought?
C: I didn’t go to any publisher deliberately. With the way the gaming world is changing, a traditional publisher isn’t helpful for what I’m trying to make. League of Legends and World of Tanks are two big successes in PC online market and, you know, you never heard of Riot Games before League of Legends or about Wargaming.net before World of Tanks…
G: Actually, I did…
C: Ok, you definitely heard about Riot Games, and from Wargaming.net you may have heard about some smaller strategy games, but my point is that they didn’t have to go to Activision, EA, Microsoft or Sony to make it happen, because with the PC online community I don’t think that really counts for much at all.
For me it’s an opportunity, and a bit more liberating, to try and build it without the typical constraints that come with big publishers. That was my theory, so I lined up some private equity, and the agreement I made was to prove that there was demand in the marketplace, which is why I did the crowd funding.
Now the crowd funding is hitting the goals, so we have the demand, and I’m quite excited about that. For me it’s much more fun to actually be connected to the community, because when you make a game for a publisher, you do a demo for them, you show the game to the publishing executives as you build it and when there’s a milestone, but I’m happier to do that with the people that will be playing it.
There are a lot of people that work with publishers that aren’t necessarily hardcore gamers. It’s more fun to work directly for the people that will appreciate it.
G: Will our performance in Squadron 42 influence the persistent universe in any way? Will there be any online leaderboards or killboards?
C: There’s definitely going to be online leaderboards, killboards and squadron boards, so you and your friends can see who has the most kills. In addition to that, depending on how you finish the Squadron 42 campaign, you will be rated going into the persistent universe.
To get that rating you’ll have to play Squadron 42 on the online mode, just to make sure that there aren’t any people cheating, otherwise a lot of people would suddenly show up as top aces.
G: Tell me more of what navigating an unexplored wormhole will entail. The only reference I have is the Wing Commander movie, where Blair has to perform the calculations in an extremely limited amount of time. Will it be something like that, or a method more reliant on piloting skill?
C: It’s certainly not going require doing a bunch of calculations in your head. It’s going to involve piloting skills. It’s kind of hard to describe it, but you can think of it similar to that EA game about snowboarding, and it will be sort of like surfing this “galactic wave”…
I’m not doing a good job at selling it, but you’re going to need to hit the right trajectories while going through the jump point tunnel, and if you hit them all correctly, you’ll come out on the other side. If you don’t, then you’ll end up somewhere randomly in space.
G: Do you envison any kind of factional warfare coming to the persistent universe?
C: Definitely, yes. I’m not going to deliberately create big factions other than the typical merchant guild or mercenary guild, but we’re going to allow people to create some sort of groups that we’re calling “squadrons”. The focus of those groups isn’t to become like those huge EVE Online-style corporations with thousands of players, but more like you and your group of friends. We’re in the scale of tens instead of hundreds or thousands.
I can definitely see people creating a pirate squadron and hanging out in some part of the galaxy to prey on merchant ships, then a bounty may be put on their heads, so bounty hunter squadrons may show up to take them out, or maybe another pirate group could try to steal their territory.
G: So it will be more like guild versus guild than persistent faction against persistent factions like Terrans against Vanduul.
C: There’s definitely gioing to be content involving the conflict between Terrans and Vanduul, but that’s going to be more PvE-oriented. Maybe in a later expansion we’ll be able to shift that to PvP, but right at the beginning we’re not. You’ll just be able to play Terran. We’ve got to be realistic about it.
G: Did you already determine how the game will handle collisions between two ships or between ships and other objects in space?
C: Basically, if you run into an asteroid there will be a force to that collision and damage will be done to your ship. Hopefully your shields will absorb it, otherwise the damage will go through to your armor. If your armor doesn’t stop it then it’ll go through to the main ship. So if you fly fast enough into an asteroid you could probably blow up. There’s definitely damage involved in collisions.
People can also ram other players, and some of the ships are actually designed with devices to ram other ships.
G: That’s awesome! Ahem…Sorry…Landings and Take offs: Will they be performed manually? I can definitely imagine that landing a badly damaged ship with your physics engine might be an exciting and challenging gameplay experience.
C: Currently it’s all manual, and we’ll probably keep it manual. We’ll have to see when we do the balancing if we’ll put in some kind of “landing mode”. It’s pretty easy. Maybe we’ll put in a sort of automatic landing, but if your ship is really damaged you won’t be able to use it and you’ll have to land manually.
G: Will there be any kind of Air Traffic Control? Maybe even playable?
C: There’s definitely going to be Air Traffic Control telling you that you can land or take off, especially on the Squadron 42 side. I don’t know if it will be playable. Probably not, but definitely, if you want to land on a planet, you’ll have to request permission.
G: What can we expect as content outside our ships?
C: Space is going to be fairly similar to Freelancer, as it will have a sense of terrain. There will be asteroid fields, nebulae, electric storms, space stations and bases built on some of the asteroids in the asteroid fields. We’re trying to make space fairly interesting, not just one big open black void.
G: What about content that we’ll see when walking out of our ships?
C: You play in your ship in first person, and you also get out of your ship in first person. If you land on a bigger ship you can wander around in it. If you’re flying something bigger than a fighter you can get out of the cockpit chair and you can visit the cargo hold and other areas. In bigger ships and asteroid bases you can also walk around in the 3D space.
When you’ll land on planets it’s going to be like Privateer or Freelancer, with a third person locked-up view. It’s going to be rendered with the same level of fidelity as the rest but it would be too much to model everything like we do with space content.
You’ll see the landing pad on a side, the space bar on the other and so forth. You’ll just click on a location and you’ll see your character walk to that location. You will be able to click on the bartender to get rumors and that kind of stuff.
G: How do you envision social interaction between players in the persistent universe?
C: There will definitely be locations like the space bar I already mentioned. There will be a couple of locations on planets that will be essentially chat rooms, but there won’t be just text going on, as you’ll actually see the avatars at the bar and so forth.
On the other hand, if you land on a space station or a big ship and there are other players there, you’ll see them as you walk around in first person and you will be able to interact directly with them.
G: Will the bigger ships have any housing features like cabins and social areas?
C: Yes, we’re definitely going to let you buy some real estate. If you make enough money you can buy a sort of private room where you can invite other players on the asteroid bases, or a penthouse on a planet.
If you’ll earn enough money you will definitely be able to own your own hub in the universe.
G: What about character progression in the persistent universe? Will there be any leveling or perk system that will allow players to specialize in certain roles and become more “powerful” with time and effort, or skill will be the only factors influencing the outcome of a battle?
C: It’s skill-based. There isn’t any traditional RPG mechanic that makes you work your way to level twenty or to level thirty or anything like that. Your results will be determined by your skill as a player, your ship and by how you’ll customize your ship.
G: You talked about allowing players to design content and submit it for implementation. I can definitely get behind that, as I love modding and user created content. So far you talked only about starships, but 3D modeling isn’t very accessible due to the complexity of the software involved. What about clothes? Given a template, it requires just imagination and Photoshop, and other games and virtual worlds shown that people love to spend a lot of money expanding their virtual wardrobe.
C: You’ll be able to customize your avatar to certain degrees, like the sex and the face and possibly the clothes. It’s something we’re going to work towards to make sure that it’s going to be ready down the road. We’re going to let people have a go at designing ships. We’re thinking to do something similar to Steam Greenlight, as we obviously can’t take everything and curate it.
I don’t want to make too many promises yet on the level of customization people will be able to enjoy in the persistent universe, because you have to curate it and you have to make sure that it’s all gonna work. If you allow fifty people to have an unique texture, that’s fifty different textures and that could cause memory problems.
The idea for now is to let you customize your ship with insignia and nose arts. Some will indicate how many kills you have, et cetera. Ultimately I’d like to have as many tools for the users as possible, so that they can do some of that themselves. I just would hate to make promises on what you will be able to do before making sure that it’s all going to fit technically.
G: Romance has always been a rather important aspect of storytelling in your games. Can we expect some in the story of Squadron 42?
C: Maybe! (Laughs) The overall story arc hasn’t been finalized, but it will be like I’ve done in the past. I think we’ll have all the elements that you’ve seen before.
G: Kickstarter is awesome, but it has a weak point in its deadline. The reasons why it’s there are obvious, since Kickstarter has to determine if a project can be funded or not, but this kind of prevents people from providing more funding down the line. Considering that you have your own crowd funding system, you don’t really need to stop at the deadline. I understand you do need one in order to show the results to investors, but have you given some thought to the possibility of letting people pledge in some way even after it expires, maybe with different rewards? Some may not be able to afford it right now, or may want to wait and see a little more about the project. More money to create a bigger and better game can’t be a bad thing, can it?
C: The Roberts Space Industries site is not going to go away. You’ll be able to upgrade your ships, buy t-shirts and do all that kind of stuff even after the funding deadline. There will be two main differences. One: the prices will be a bit different, so if you don’t pledge before the deadline it’s going to cost you more money and you won’t get as much stuff. Secondly we’re going to have a limited number of slots for alpha and beta testing. So the people that backed the game will get a guaranteed slot. After that there will be a limit to the number of people that will be able to get into the testing.
My advice is, if you haven’t backed the game yet, to do it sooner than later. We’re also gonna have a lot of behind the scenes sharing on how the game is being built and developed, conceptual works and videos with the team. All of that will only be for the backers and it won’t be available to the public.
The idea is that if you get in early you’re helping funding the game and you’re almost like our publisher, so you get to see everything. We’re limiting the alpha and beta slots also because the whole point of an alpha or a beta is that you don’t have the full stress of millions of people on the servers.
We’re still going to raise funding on the side and the site will basically become like an e-commerce site going forward, but you won’t have as much as a good deal as you do now, so if you want to be part of it, and you want to see everything on how the game is going to be developed, then it’s better to be involved now rather than later. But, you will still be able to get involved later if you want.
G: Simulators have been away from the spotlight for a while in the gaming industry. Smaller developers continued to release them, but they were definitely an extremely niche product with low budgets and small audiences. Now we have MechWarrior Online for mech warfare, War Thunder: World of Planes for World War II aircrafts and finally Star Citizen. Is the genre making a comeback?
C: I don’t know, maybe. I think there just haven’t been many people doing it, maybe because everyone was focusing on console games, but I think that the fundamental things that made those games fun are still the same today as they were ten or fifteen years ago. Maybe people haven’t been focusing on making one that really shows off today’s technology After all, I’m sure people still like to drive big robots around, they like flying spaceships or World War II fighters.
There was a time in which military first person shooters weren’t a big genre at all. If you remember the nineties, you only had Doom or Quake as first person shooters. The military shooter side started small with Medal of Honor and then Call of Duty, growing up slowly until they became huge with Modern Warfare, turning into the big juggernaut it is now.
Ultimately, in every genre you need to have innovation and new approaches that utilize the current technology in ways that haven’t been seen before. I think that’s what has been missing from the sim side of things. No one did that for a while and now it seems that more than one is saying “Hey, it’s time we come back and take this genre that everyone used to love and update it to today’s technology”. I think that’s why we’re seeing a sort of resurgence.
G: It’s interesting that both Star Citizen and MechWarrior Online are built with CryENGINE 3…
C: It wasn’t coordinated or anything. I did know that they were using CryENGINE, of course. I think both CryENGINE and Unreal are pretty viable choices for AAA content. I was working with both of them, but CryENGINE has a specific focus on the vehicle system.
Of course, we did a lot of customization on top of the original vehicle system because what we’re doing is a lot more complicated, with a much bigger scale and more moving parts, but the basic system was already in place with CryENGINE, more so than with Unreal. That’s why it made more sense for us, as it was easier to built on top of that vehicle system to achieve what we needed to.
Both engines are really powerful and good, but CryENGINE also has a slightly different visual look, and is a little more photo-realistic, while Unreal is better for a sort of more stylized look. The photo-realistic feel was what I wanted for Star Citizen, and that’s why I chose CryENGINE.
G: Back in time the joystick was one of the most prominent gaming peripherals, but many seem to have just forgotten about it. Things have been changing a bit with the recent influx of simulation games. Razer even went as far as designing a joystick for MechWarrior Online. Have you ever thought about contacting a peripheral manufacturer to create a dedicated Star Citizen joystick?
C: No, but I have a Saitek x52 sitting on my desk and if you take a look at the joystick I used in the demo it’s pretty similar to the Saitek. Something I really wanted to do was embracing all the peripherals that you can have on a PC. So whether you have a HOTAS setup, rudder pedals, a flight chair or the Oculus Rift, I want to try and use it.
G: To close the interview, tell us of your wildest dream feature that definitely won’t be in at launch, but that has a solid chance to be implemented down the line.
C: What I would really like would be to fly around in space, and then go up to a planet, down through the atmosphere and then fly on the planet itself. That would be awesome, but it’s definitely for the future.
If you take a look of what we’ve done for the space part of the game and you notice the level of detail of the ships and the characters, and the scale, to have that done for a whole world right now is impossible.
G: You’d probably need to make an authorized re-entry corridor and just a relevant portion of the planet modeled under it…
C: The way it would happen is that you drop down, have a transition and then have a limited amount of terrain you can fly over. We will definitely have some ground content, just not at the very beginning.
Since it’s already built in CryENGINE, I can already take some of the ships and fly them on terrain levels. It’s all working, but it’s just a matter of content and of creating the transition.
I’d really love to have some ground mission in the future, but it won’t be at launch because right now we need to focus on the space content.
G: Thank you very much Chris. It was an honor to be able to interview you, and if you want to say something to our readers, now it’s the time.
C: I’d just like to say thank you to everyone that backed us up to today. If you still haven’t, please check it out, and if you like it, please support us.
It’s a game I’m having a lot of fun building and playing with, and I think everyone else would as well. We need more of this kind of games on PC, so let’s bring space sims back! Again, thanks everyone for your support, and thank you for your time.
If you still haven’t pledged for Star Citizen you can do so on Kickstarter, or on the official website. As Chris said, sooner will be better than later. You can also check out the full cinematic trailer of the Squadron 42 below.