Creator Chris Roberts talks Star Citizen, the ambitious space sim on steroids

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Jul 4, 2015, 5:43 PM EDT (Updated)

Want to travel the galaxy and have epic space adventures? Then you have many fine space sims, now and coming soon. But if you want to have all of that, plus enjoy story and character development, Star Citizen reckons it has you covered.

Much has been written and discussed about Star Citizen, particularly its record-smashingly successful—and ongoing—crowdfunding campaign (more on that below). Not as much has been written about the fact that it's actually two games in one: Star Citizen, a "traditional" space sim on steroids, and Squadron 42, the single-player campaign that takes place within its universe.

This is Blastr, so we care about games with science and plot (space battles, too). So we had a chat with Star Citizen's creator and CEO of Cloud Imperium Games, Chris Roberts, about this current and currently developing game. 

What goes into building a good star-spanning sci-fi universe?

A lot. It starts with the world. I like to take an historical time or situation and extrapolate it into future, which I think a lot of good science fiction does. It resonates and feels real to people. 

We settled on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. But instead of it being the Roman empire, it's the United Empire of Earth, and we've got surrounding enemy alien factions who are analogous to the fall of the Roman empire. 

Once we figured out the lore and the background, and fleshed out a timeline from today to when the game starts in 2945, we started to work with a lot of concept artists. I've done a lot of film stuff, and I was heavily pulling out top film concept guys who've done science fiction. We had a pretty large group of them, probably about 20 at the height, building out what the spaceships, the environments and the characters look like. Those are the sort of things that go into building the world.

What are the game's sci-fi movie/TV influences?

I would say things like Star Wars and Alien or Aliens, in terms of general look, had a decent amount of influence on the world. It's not quite as dark as Alien or Aliens would be, but something [director Neill] Blomkamp would do, District 9 sort of stuff. Somewhere between Star Wars and that, I guess, would be a good way to put it. 

How realistic is the game?

The modern engine we use now has a pretty sophisticated physics system [CryEngine 4], and we design our ships to feel like a spaceship. They're fully modeled, the math is fully simulated, and they are quite realistic as to how a real spaceship would behave at that speed. ... Newtonian physics applies to the ships.

We limit the top speed for when the players are flying around in combat … because if you're fighting at fast speeds, you'll have a brief moment where you can shoot each other. And then you would pass each other. And then you would turn around a couple of days later. That's not really fun as a game, so we keep the speed slow. 

There's also a bit of a physical reason: Without any artificial gravity adaptor aboard the ship, you couldn't rapidly change your heading without a huge amount of g-force on the inhabitants of the ship. And you don't want to turn your humans into jelly. 

What about the game will entice sci-fi fans who aren't gamers?

A couple of things: There's a fair amount of gameplay that isn't necessarily combat-focused. You can explore, fly around the universe and sight-see, and do things like trading, mine for ore, rescue and recovery, scavenge or run information. We're building Star Citizen in such a way that you don't necessarily have to be into blowing people up.

From the large group of people we already have in our community, I can tell there's a lot of them that aren't focused on combat. But they are excited about the other aspects, like building up a trade empire or finding a new planet.

Obviously, if you're a bounty hunter or a pirate, you're more combat-focused—and in Squadron 42, because in that one, you're serving in a military operation.

You've created other games, such as the Wing Commander series. What did you learn about your other games that you're applying to Star Citizen?

Wing Commander was one of the very first space games, and it [had] fairly primitive graphics, almost like a cartoon. But Wing Commander focused on a real narrative story, with characters. The moment I knew Wing Commander was going to work was when I could see people on CompuServe and chat boards discussing the characters, the wingmen that you talked to and flew with. It was like they were talking about real people. 

That was kind of the bigger learning aspects of it for me: You don't have to have a high score. It was more about putting [the game] in a context of a world and story. 

What is Squadron 42? How does it connect to Star Citizen?

Star Citizen has two parts, a single-person campaign, called Squadron 42, and that's 100 percent the spiritual success of Wing Commander but done with today's technology. If I was doing a AAA Wing Commander for EA, Squadron 42 is going to be that and then some.

On top of that, when you're wandering around outside of a single-player campaign, you have your own character and you'll be interacting with other characters all around the universe … who will be both NPCs and also other players. So it should feel like a huge living world.

What can you tell us about the plot? (Warning: spoilers.)

Bishop, a very well-known and -liked admiral of the UEE—think of him like Maximus from Gladiator—won a battle [with the enemy Vanduul] at great personal loss; his daughter commanded one of the other ships in the fleet, and she sacrifices herself to save Bishop's ship. That's one of the reasons why Bishop is haunted.

You start out in the military earning citizenship, and you get your wish to become a fighter pilot. While you're training, Admiral Bishop and the [UEE] task force go off into Vanduul space and take the fight to them. As you come out to deploy, the news comes through that they've lost contact with the task force. Bishop goes missing, and the rest of the game is you trying to find him.

You go behind enemy lines, trying to find out where Bishop is, and you see things that have happened along the way that gives you [a reaction] like, Has he lost his mind? What's happening? It's sort of the Ninth Legion mixed with Heart of Darkness.

So you get behind enemy lines, and you find out there's a Vanduul plan to shortcut past the Earth's defenses, and you have to stop it. 

At the end of it there's this big last stand, and you get back to human space. But Bishop is still left, behind the Vanduul side, kind of like Commander Cain on the Pegasus in [classic] Battlestar Galactica. You come back a bit of a war hero, and you muster out, and potentially Bishop's still out there fighting the battle behind enemy lines.

Where do you see space sims going in the future?

I would see them going in the direction of Star Citizen, because it's not about being locked in your ship. We're a full first-person game. I can EVA out over to a derelict wreck, see if there's anything to salvage. Maybe there's an alien artifact, and I [can] find someone who knows what it does. The whole thing is like an adventure game, an FPS and a space sim all rolled into one. 

[It's like being in the] Millennium Falcon with one of your buddies in a rear turret while you're flying it, and someone else down in the engine room making sure the engine's working. You can get up and walk around inside your ship in a fully detailed first-person environment in super-high fidelity. It's fully modeled and fully functional. The bigger ones have crews of dozens, if not hundreds, of people. 

There's a new Elite out now [Elite: Dangerous], and part of that roadmap of the future of Elite is allowing you not just be in a cockpit, to get up walk around the ship and the space station. I think it's something a lot of people would like. 

Star Citizen has a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign. How much have you earned?

$74.8 million. 

Did you think your campaign would have earned this much money?

No. Not at all. We started crowdfunding, and part of the point of crowdfunding was to prove demand for this style of game. I set out to raise $2 to $4 [million], and that would help close private investors and set evaluation. We did much better than that on the initial campaign. So we ended up never doing a private investment round. 

Because we have more funding, the scope of the project has increased, so we can build a bigger, more ambitious game. The original plan was to build a stripped-down version of what we're building, and once it was in the early alpha state we'd sell it as an early-access alpha, kind of like Minecraft did; it wasn't finished, but Notch was letting people give $80, $90 and get Minecraft, and he kept on updating it. That was my original plan: Get something out there, keep iterating on it, make it become the thing I wanted it to become. But we did so well early on and thereafter that I was able to a) not take investors and b) speed up the plan to make it as big and fully featured as possible.

When can gamers play the game?

We're crowdfunded, so we actually share components of the game as we're building it. Right now people can play Arena Commander, which is the space dogfight section of the game, set up in a simulation inside our universe. We're going to release a first-person combat section on top of the space dogfighting section next month, and then we keep on adding all these modules. 

The single-player first episode of the story is going to be out at the end of this year. I would say that the final commercial [release] will probably be the end of 2016. But you'll be able to experience most of what you'll be doing in the game at toward the end of this year. 

As of right now, people are playing portions of the game, and in some ways, what you can playing now is in some ways as good as other space games, because our game has so much more to it, and we're delivering in sections. Anyone comes in now and backs the game will get to play the early build and see it grow and will get the fully finished stuff as it's delivered. 

We're having a lot of fun building Star Citizen. It's a very different way of making a game: an open, collaborative format. If you're into having the opportunity to give feedback that can actually affect the game, then it's a fun thing to get involved with, [rather] than wait until we're finished. When we're finished, the opportunity for feedback is less. Now people get to play and help shape how the game will end up.