Read the forums for any PC game these days and youll hear the consistent lamentation of the passing of PC gamings golden years. The 90s and early 2000s gave us new games with new ideas, techniques, and graphics each and every year. Each new release from a publisher blew the last title out of the water, and while there were always those quintessential and genre-defining titles that took decades to so much as find a worthy competitor, the statement still holds true as a generalization.
Then came the last ten years or so, where publishers found the magic formulas for profitability and introduced the concept of bad console ports. Stagnation set in as the market started its slow spiral of entropy. Will PC gaming ever truly die? Probably not, though it will obviously change a bit to be more compatible with new market demands. Then there will certainly be those one-offs, the throw-backs to the heyday of PC gaming, done with little budget and less fanfare. But, you have to wonder if this is that all we have to look forward to, those few lucky escapees from the Isle of Misfit Toys.
Fortunately, a dark hero has wandered out of the desert of his decade-long break from the world of games like a prophet returning to a lost and dejected people. At first the news of his return was scoffed at and spoken of as nothing more than rumors by the Sadducees of modern gaming. The news still spread though, catching fire as it touched the kindle of frustrated geeks searching for a new light in the darkness. Chris Roberts, creator of the Wing Commander series, has returned, and he brings a prophetic vision of games where risk-taking and innovation still have a place in the world gaming, and where PC gaming is no longer the afterthought of moderately successful console games.
Star Citizen, Roberts new space sim, hopes to revitalize PC gaming by bringing back innovation, and it all started by crowd sourcing the game. Star Citizen reached its $2 million goal in just two weeks, and has gone on to include several stretch goals for its Kickstarter and in-house fundraising efforts. So, its not just a platitude when its said that the project has a solid community behind it; its a demonstrable fact. Hopefully by the time you finish this article, youll have a better idea why their fans are so devoted. Perhaps youll even be on the way to becoming one yourself.
The New Game
The new game will be multiplayer with an optional single-player component called Squadron 42, which takes the player through a military campaign to introduce the player to game mechanics and concepts in a more traditional way. Squadron 42 will offer a unique option--you can either play it offline, or online with friends. Players will also have the option of skipping military service and getting right into the game if thats their preference.
Star Citizen will also be presented using an open-world architecture concept that allows the player to have that unique experience between small fighter craft and the larger capital ships. In the fighter, the player would be restricted to a small cockpit with little move to move around. Larger ships such as transports and carriers however, will have more room to walk around inside them. The result should be a much more immersive environment where each ship feels specifically unique.
Borrowing a page from the successful Guild Wars series of games, Roberts has said that the economic model of the game will be buy-to-play, meaning that the game must be purchased, but after that there will be no additional charges to play. This system has proven to work well for the Guild Wars franchise, but even they included an item shop in this last iteration of the game. Roberts hasnt mentioned any desire to pursue a similar method of additional funding, but it wouldnt surprise me to see it in the future. It doesnt break the game and as optional content that has zero real impact on the game, it doesnt violate the buy-to-play stance.
Physics and Engineering
Roberts says that the new space sim involves as much engineering as coding as its developers, Cloud Imperium Games Corporation, design the ships that go into the game. Each ship is designed to be functional, have functional components, and have realistic damage models. Its hugely ambitious, but the letters to the community and forum posts demonstrate the level of thought going into it. Ladders, gantries, and enclosures will all have to either retract into the ship or stow somehow realistically--no more magical landing gears that just appear or disappear at the touch of a button. This system also includes handling for damage to be applied on a component level, allowing much more realistic damage modeling.
Physics will also play a major role in the game. Star Citizen will feature a fly-by-wire system similar to the flight controls of the F-35 Lightning II, according to Roberts. Combined with component-level damage modeling, this should make for some pretty interesting game mechanics. If a thruster is damaged, the ship computer compensates, but the resulting sluggishness should be noticeable to the pilot.
One of the crazier ideas Roberts has is allowing the community to run their own servers and create their own mods. In a way, it makes me think back to the old days of Ultima Online, and if the interesting results from some of the free-shards back then are any indication, Roberts may have just demonstrated a stroke of genius. Not many titles launch with the stated goal of involving the community to this level, and hackers and exploiters are just one of are several pretty good reasons why.
If the team can develop a good system for catching and controlling hackers and exploiters, opening the universe up to modding may really work well for them. In a way, its like crowd sourcing creativity. Giving a large player-base the opportunity to be creative and be noticed is a great way to promote the innovation that Chris Roberts is so keen on, and it can often result in some very cool game enhancements. How often have we found mods that we liked far more than the original game? Reality Mod for Battlefield 1942 or the Warfare and DayZ mods for Arma are a couple that come to mind.
To promote the innovative work of modders, and to take full advantage of it, Roberts has stated his intent to create a vetting process for mods to include them in the official version of the game, which seems like a very smart step. By allowing players to test mods on private servers, and then creating a process to submit those mods in the official package, its like outsourcing development and play-testing. By the time it gets back to the official Star Citizen servers, the developers will know what bugs are inherent to the mod and have a great indication of community interest in it. Its not a sure thing yet, but the mere idea that the developers are thinking about it enough to post it publicly says a lot about the direction of this game.
Its not all roses for Star Citizen, though. Theyre starting to gain some hype, they have a strong community growing around them, and they have a rock star leader, but there things to be concerned about. While many developers use terms like pushing the envelope or being innovated, few mean it like Chris Roberts does, and theres a reason. Innovation can make a game, but its risky. Effort invested in something the community ends up not caring for is wasted resources, and true innovators blaze the way via new techniques, which take just that much more time and money to realize. Innovation means risk, money, and time, all three of which are hard on fledgling businesses, and especially the ones in this industry.
Few games that make a deep impact on the gaming culture ever go on to become huge commercial successes. Like a mass singularity floating through the universe, they warp space-time about them and change the trajectory of other bodies, but are rarely noticed among their more brightly burning cousins.
There should be some concern that Star Citizen will try to do a lot of awesome things, and not get any of them quite right. Open world content, highly detailed graphics, quasi-real physics, and complex modeling I have to admit, Im drooling just a little in anticipation, but realistically its a tall order. I want them to succeed badly, and so should you. PC gaming has really lost what made it great, which was the type of innovation Roberts is proposing. The reason its not more common is that it doesnt work more often than not, and publishers are typically loath to take those risks. Luckily, crowd sourcing has created a way forward for those sorts of games again.
The other problem is the curse of the trend-setter. Few games that make a deep impact on the gaming culture, or the gaming community in general, really ever go on to become huge commercial successes. Like a mass singularity floating through the universe, they warp space-time about them and change the trajectory of other bodies, but are rarely noticed among their more brightly burning cousins.
Regardless of the eventual status of Star Citizen, my hat is off to Chris Roberts and his team. Theyre pros, and they know exactly what theyre undertaking here. The courage to do so in an industry thats cooling is just ballsy, and I like it. As a fan of PC gaming, Im excited that someone is actually making a game designed to truly take advantage of the platform, and I would encourage anyone else whos a fan of space sims or PC gaming in general to pay close attention to this title. Whether Star Citizen explodes in a brightly colored super nova of temporary glory, or goes on to be that slowly drifting dark mass warping the universe to its design, it promises to be very interesting and worth following.
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