Star Citizen Interview – Global Head of Development Talks Upcoming Updates, Squadron 42, and More
Star Citizen Global Head of Development and Foundry 42 Studio Director Erin Roberts talks about the ins and outs this year's updates.
Star Citizen has passed an important milestone with the launch of alpha 3.0 in December, and the team is preparing to implement relevant changes with regular quarterly releases of incremental updates.
In order to get a better insight on the future of the massive crowdfunded game, DualShockers had a chat with Global Head of Development and Foundry 42 Studio Director Erin Roberts, who provided a lot of interesting information.
First of all, we heard about the release of alpha 3.0 itself. It was certainly a challenge since it represented a massive technological push with the goal of getting a lot of the game’s underlying tech in working conditions.
The team wanted to get the update out in time for Christmas not only to give backers something new to play but also to receive a large influx of data and feedback, which is very important at this stage.
On the other hand, the upcoming alpha 3.1 update (scheduled for March) was always meant to represent a polishing and tightening pass on what has been offered with 3.0. It will also include performance enhancements that will actually continue to be rolled out gradually through the whole year.
In the gallery above, you can check out three brand new images of the content coming in alpha 3.1.
Alpha 3.3 in September will be the biggest part of this process, with developers hoping to roll out the object container streaming technology, which should grant a “massive” performance increase. This is due to the fact that the game will only load what it needs to at any given time, instead of everything included in a system as it does now.
The game’s development is split into a development branch and a release branch. When the team is close to a release date, they move to the release branch. In 3.0’s case, they have been in the release branch for roughly ten to twelve weeks before the actual launch.
Normally all the changes made to the release branch to polish the game are copied over to the development branch, but there is still a huge amount of work being done in parallel on the development branch. All those features get moved on to the next release.
Roberts explained that it’s very important to get a release out, and then immediately go back to work on the development branch. This is what happened with 3.0 going into the development of 3.1, which will include both fixes and relevant core changes.
The new approach with regular quarterly releases started this year is “much more regimented.” The team knows that every three months they will release a major update to the community (even if minor patches can still come in-between the large ones). As a result, players get more content, and feedback also flows back to the developers more consistently.
Feedback is very important, because “there is nothing better for the morale of the team to get stuff out to the community and see them playing it, and get feedback, positive as well as negative.” The backer community is the largest pool of testers for Cloud Imperium Games. Internal testing and even the relatively limited Evocati group of users often aren’t enough for many issues to be visible.
Having the full community playing 3.0 allowed the development team to identify the issues that will be fixed for 3.1. One of the largest problems with the current build is that there are events in the game that can cripple a server, causing poor performance for everyone connected to it. Without releasing the update to all backers, these issues would have remained invisible.
This is why releasing regular updates from now on is very important, even more so because a lot of work is going to be done on the network side.
At the moment there is a team working exclusively on performance issues and on the crippling scenarios described above. Interestingly, a lot of the problems are related server CPU usage. While a lot of the game’s systems use multithreading (more than one CPU core at the same time), there are still some in which multithreading isn’t completely implemented. This is currently being worked on and is going to make a big difference when it’s done.
Ultimately, the cleanup pass that will be included in Alpha 3.1 should make the gameplay experience a lot more enjoyable for many.
Alpha 3.1 isn’t just going to be about fixes and performance: it will include a large update to the graphics of the moons, which will considerably improve the way they look and feel. There will also be new ships and vehicles, while in-game stores will have more items to purchase.
We’ll also get the first pass of the ability to customize our characters, alongside large improvements to the user interface. Interdiction will be tweaked, and the balance of the economy will be improved.
Another interesting feature that is going to be added is the ability for players to make distress calls: if you get interdicted in the middle of nowhere, you’ll be able to send out a distress call that will provide your location to other players interested in (hopefully) rescuing you.
This is the core of a set of features coming in alpha 3.2 scheduled for June, allowing players to create missions that other pilots can take on, including search and rescue, cargo hauling, and bounty hunting. The system will include a rating feature similar to eBay, enabling players to rate their contacts according to their reliability.
Alpha 3.2 should also include a lot of new non-combat features like mining, trading, and refueling (including in-flight refueling). This process will extend into 3.3 (which should come in September) with the ability to actually mine fuel and salvaging.
More additions to the economy will include the handling of stolen cargo, that players will be able to resell at certain locations at a reduced price, with the danger of being caught by the authorities and the consequences related to that. Basically, between 3.2 and 3.3, the development team plans to implement the means to take on many different careers in the game.
The biggest content push will happen with the advent of object container streaming, focusing on the addition of most of the Stanton system and its planets. This should materialize between the third and fourth quarters of the year.
When most of the Stanton system will be in the game by the end of 2018, players will also be able to purchase land on planets in order to mine or build their own outposts. On the other hand, features related to corporations are planned for next year.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that all dates are subject to the fortunes of development, and there is always a possibility that some will need to be moved. Any possible change will be reflected in the dynamic roadmap publicly displayed on the game’s official site.
We learn that currently, Cloud Imperium Games has five offices, including the recent opening of a new Foundry 42 location in Derby, U.K., staffed by only fifteen developers. The largest office is the main Foundry 42 location in Manchester, with a headcount of 234. The studios in the U.S. are more compact with Cloud Imperium Games in Los Angeles and Cloud Imperium Games Texas in Austin counting respectively 75 and 71 staffers. Last, but not least, the Foundry 42 office in Frankfurt, Germany, gives work to a staff of eighty.
The total headcount of the internal staff working on the game is now a massive 475.
Roberts mentioned that such a large staff is required by the fact that Squadron 42 on its own has a scope similar to a huge AAA game, then there is the effort on building new technology, and the Star Citizen persistent universe is a huge content undertaking as well.
The new Derby office was opened to focus mostly on facial animation due to the local presence of a group of specialized developers that Cloud Imperium wanted to involve in the project.
Originally, the studio in Manchester was supposed to have no more than fifty people, but they started up small and built up from there. The local staff has grown considerably compared to other countries because the local government offers sizable tax relief for game developers. The northwest of England is also a very good place for hiring talented developers, with a very reasonable cost of living. This means that the company is getting a lot of value for the money compared to working in locations that feature higher costs.
Hiring was done gradually by looking at what needed to be done year by year. The studio started on one floor, then took over the second, then the third, and they’ll be taking over the final floor of the building in the next few weeks.
According to Roberts, since the team has the staff size and the ability, 2018 will be a really good year in terms of getting a lot of gameplay and content in the hands of the community.
We hear that when Roberts joined the team, his brother Chris and him started realizing that the scope of the game that was originally envisioned definitely had to grow. The support the project was receiving from the community was amazing, so they couldn’t create a game that only cost a few million dollars when backers were providing a much higher budget.
The philosophy behind this decision is simple: all the money that comes from the community is money that gets spent on the game. The team realized early-on that they couldn’t create a small game with the technology designed to support a small scope, and then increase it radically a few years later. That’s why they decided to go with a larger scope pretty much from the get-go, and they spent the last few years creating the technology that could support that.
If the team opted to go with the opposite approach by starting small and then trying to retrofit features like procedural planets or fully explorable capital ships into the game, it would have been a huge waste of money, time, and it would have also caused a lot of issues.
Ultimately, they decided to invest time and effort to “do it right” from the beginning.
According to Roberts, Star Citizen is going to have more gameplay in one system than ten average-sized games, and the title will include many full-fledged systems.
Moving on to the single-player campaign Squadron 42, we learn that it’ll be set in an open world map, which is pretty much like a system within the persistent universe. While the player is part of the military, so there will be orders to be followed, there will also still be times in which we will be able to fly off on our own and explore to our hearts’ content.
While the story will be mostly linear, players will be able to make a wide variety of choices in terms of where to go and which locations to visit in the system.
Interestingly, we also hear that Arena Commander will be integrated into the world with an actual arcade-like simulator that will allow players to practice. This feature will probably be familiar to Wing Commander veterans, that might remember the arcade cockpit in the bar of the Tiger’s Claw.
Performance capture for the first episode of Squadron 42 has already been completed. While there might be a few small pickup shoots still to do, the whole story is done. All these scenes are currently being implemented into the game.
Asked whether the team has any ideas on what could be done with the Star Citizen IP possibly beyond the game itself, Roberts mentioned that there have certainly been conversations on that, but at the moment they’re completely focused on finishing the game and getting it in the hands of the backers, so they’re not going to branch out into other ventures.
Conversations about possible spinoffs and similar initiatives might happen once Star Citizen and Squadron 42 are released, but for now, the focus is entirely on achieving that, with the best possible quality.
Roberts concluded by mentioning that what the Star Citizen team is trying to accomplish is an amazing journey that wouldn’t be possible without the support and patience of the community that backed the game. This is something that wouldn’t have been possible under a traditional publisher’s umbrella.
The exciting thing for him is to see this gameplay experience building up over the years. Without the support of the players, there would have been no way for this game to be made.
If you want to see more about Star Citizen, you can check out a recent video about the technology that will allow the crew of our capital ship to feel like a living team in Squadron 42, and the impressive vertical slice from December with added developer commentary.
For the sake of full disclosure, please keep in mind that the author of this article is one of the backers of Star Citizen‘s crowdfunding campaign.