'Wing Commander' creator returns to the stars with a big gamble

Imagine everything you could ever want in a single space game: Combat, trade, rich stories, detailed graphics, massive online communities, real physics. Imagine all of that in a single game created by the person who virtually birthed the space sim genre.

That's Star Citizen, a new game in development by Chris Roberts, the man behind Wing Commander and Privateer.

It sounds sublime, and it could re-energize the long dormant genre, but it's also mostly still in just Roberts head.

Right now, Star Citizen is just a pitch and a prototype.

Last week, I sat down with Roberts for what was meant to be an hour meeting. It took two hours for him to walk me through the intricacies of his vision, to show me the prototype that was so detailed I could see the threading in a flight suit and the rivets in a ship, to explain the sweeping political backstory, the science of his universe, and the math of his creation's economy.

The concept, which I even had a chance to play for a minute or two, is breathtaking, but it all rests on a single bet. To make Star Citizen a reality, Roberts needs $2 to $4 million dollars in gamer backing. That's not to make the game, that's to prove to much bigger investors there's enough interest that they should drop in the rest of the money needed to build the online universe.

Roberts' pitch is a intoxicating mix of nostalgia and showmanship, peppered with just a dash of reality in the form of a working prototype. Once we sit down and he starts walking me through the ideas behind the game, the lofty goals and endless directions it could go, he doesn't stop. Not until close to the end of the marathon meeting, when I ask him a question he doesn't seem prepared for.

"What happens if you don't get the money?"

Roberts looks genuinely taken aback, as if the idea that gamers would fail to help hadn't occurred to him.

He stops. He stares over my shoulder. He thinks.

"If I don't," he says, "I'll be sad."

2005_lord_of_war_011

Star Citizen is Roberts re-entry into gaming after more than a decade spent making movies in Hollywood as a producer on such movies as The Punisher, The Jacket and Lord of War.

Roberts first career, though, was video games. In the 80s he was the lead designer on space combat game Wing Commander at Origin Systems. The game didn't just reinvent the space sim genre, it sort of created it. The Wing Commander series went on to become one of Origin's most popular games. In the 90s, Roberts left Origin to found Digital Anvil, where he helped create two more significant space games: space flight simulator Starlancer and space trading and combat sim Freelancer. Roberts eventually sold Digital Anvil to Microsoft and left the business entirely.

"When I sold Digital Anvil to Microsoft I was sort of burned out," he said. "I had been making games for 18 years. It was a period of time that I was feeling frustrated with what I could do compared to what I could see in my head."

Development cycles were getting longer, the sale made him a small cog in a very big machine and, Roberts said, he sort of lost the love of making games.

While he left the business of making video games, he said he never stopped playing them.

Over the years he noticed that the technology kept moving forward, steadily closing the gap between what he could imagine in his head and what he believes he could do in a video game.

At the same time Roberts noticed that the genre he had invested so much of his life in was slowly starting to fade away. Eventually he decided it was time to come back and create something new, something he had been thinking about for a long time.

Wing-commander

Viewed one way, Star Citizen looks a bit like an amalgam of everything Roberts has ever done in the genre combined in a massively multiplayer universe a bit like EVE Online.

The universe of Star Citizen is sort of a science fiction take on the Roman Empire at the tail end of its glory days. The empire has taken over planets stretched across the galaxies, spreading itself too thin. This empire is governed by Earth, the Rome of the analogy, and Terra, a far-flung, more modern capital planet on the other side of the empire. While the two planets vie for political control of the empire, aliens and other unknowns threaten to collapse the dynasty.

These struggles are made more difficult by the need to travel between distant planets through controlled folds in space.

Players drop into this fiction as non-citizens of an empire that values and rewards citizenship. To attain that right, players have to do military service in the outer reaches of the empire, do certain civic duties, or outright buy the right with money earned through trading.

While this sounds like a game that will force you through a number of choices to attain citizenship, Roberts promises that isn't the case.

"You can go wherever you want and be whoever you want: soldier, mercenary, pirate, trader," he said.

Players can even decide they never want to be citizens.

The gameplay itself will take place almost entirely in space ships, though there will be certain places where a player can step outside of their ship and walk around.

The idea is that players will work to make money to improve their ships, whether those ships are designed to serve in the military, as trade vessels or even as privateers.

The game won't require a subscription, but rather will sell as a single purchase, sort of like Guild Wars 2. Roberts says he plans to make money through virtual item sales and through potential expansion packs. He also said he hopes to allow players to create their own items, which they can sell themselves, with the developer taking a percentage of the sale.

While the game is very open-ended, Roberts plans to also include very structured missions for those who want that sort of experience. One such choice has players signing up to become members of the legendary 42 squadron, a sort of space version of the French Foreign Legion. Players who opt to take that path will play through a full campaign that will feel a bit like Wing Commander.

"Your goal is that you want to get accepted into the squadron," he said. "When you complete the campaign you are accepted in, make money and become a citizen."

The game's more open elements will allow for space piracy, trading, and even player-versus-player space combat.

"The overall open world is persistent," he said. "The status of your ship is persistent."

Players traveling through folds in space or through the "valleys" between those folds will be tracked by the game. If their path crosses with another player with whom they have a beef, the game will slow down the travel, create an instance and kick off what could become a space battle, Roberts said.

Roberts plans include a game that will also allow players to have ships that can house more than a single player. In those cases, players can invite a friend to join them. The idea is that one player, for instance, could man a turret while another pilots the ship. These instances, Roberts hopes, will support 60 to 100 people at a time in epic space battles.


Roberts knows how to entice a fan of the genre into his vision: Newtonian physics.

Star Citizen won't just rely on real physics to spice up its gameplay and combat, it promises to use a creative take on cause and effect in space.

My first look at the game in action is a peek at the inside of a massive, Battlestar Galatica-like star carrier. He tells me that there are 7 million polygons in the ship. Roberts walks a character (there are 100,000 polygons in this single character he says.) around inside the ship, showing off the graphics and the level of detail he's built into the game.

Roberts gets his character to hop into a fighter and kicks off the launch sequence.

The screen on his high-end laptop fills with a view of the cockpit. I can see the pilot's hands tapping buttons on screens that shift out in front of him and then stow away when he's done. The cockpit seals and the pilot's hands move to the flight stick. After launch, Roberts maneuvers the ship around, each nudge moves the pilot's hands, the pilots feet resting on rudder pedals, the flight stick, and in turn, the ship.

A button tap switches to a chase camera view where we can see the entire fighter. When he starts to fire off a gun, you can see the the weapons spin up and the turrets moving to track where he aims.

Roberts explains that this particular ship has eight thrusters, but players don't have to control them individually, instead the ship uses a fly-by-wire system. Basically that means that you push the stick where you want to go and an on board avionics system figures out what has to be done to get you there. The neat thing, though, is that those eight thrusters operate correctly to move you around in space, firing off in controlled, choreographed bursts to get you moving.

And, Roberts says, if an enemy were to take out one of those thrusters they ships controls would start to erode. Take out the avionics on a ship and it's essentially dead in space.

"We model damage to that level," he says. "This ship has 300 different parts, 60 of those are articulating and animating. This is a level of fidelity that hasn't been done in this style space flight game before."

That doesn't mean the developers are complete slaves to reality. The ship's guns, for instance, fire off colored laser beams, which Roberts is quick to say doesn't make sense.

The entire game runs on a modified version of CryEngine 3, he tells me. And it's a game that will strive to support just about any peripheral you can think of. That includes stereoscopic 3D and even the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. (Something Roberts promises me is mind-blowing when teamed with his game.)

The entire universe will run on a robust economy, Roberts tells me. Players will have to pay with in-game credit to repair their ships, buy upgrades, buy items to trade or sell. Roberts says his plans include things like spaceship insurance, which will protect those investments. There will be taxes and tariffs, all modified by your location in the universe and whether or not you're a citizen.

Trade values will fluctuate on actual demand and the risk of where your routes run you.

"My goal is to have a full, living universe with an economy, sort of what I wanted to do with Freelancer," he said.

Roberts also wants to allow players to have a tangible impact on the universe that he hopes they will spend so much time playing in.

One way he will do that is by allowing players to discover new folds in space and through those folds, sometimes, entirely new quadrants of unexplored galaxies. These new points and geography, Roberts said, will be delivered to the game as micro-updates. When discovered, he said, a player can name the planets, folds and galaxies. Players who discover the fold also have the ability to manually fly through the new course. If they manage to do so without crashing, they'll be given a flight recording of their journey that they can sell on the open market for big money. That recording then opens the undiscovered space to other explorers. The idea doesn't just give players a new way to make money or leave their mark in the game, it also effectively creates a new sort of character class: The navigator.

On paper, and prototype, what Roberts describes sounds like the sort of creation built to not just satisfy the itch of space sim and space combat buffs, but expand that genre's reach. To make it happen he needs money and time.

This morning, Roberts pitched his game to a gathering at GDC Online in Austin and announced that he is seeking crowd funding to help land that big fish money he needs to create a game so grand in scale.

Instead of just asking for monetary support, Roberts is using the game's own fiction to help the money drive.

When players invest in his game they're not just giving his company money, they're pre-ordering a space ship from Roberts Space Industries.

Invest at the bottom tier and you're pre-ordering the sedan of spaceships, drop enough cash for the collector's edition and you're getting a "super fancy sports car spaceship," he tells me.

Roberts goal is to bring in $2 to $4 million in crowdfunding.

"I think I can do that," he said. "I find it hard to believe that someone isn't going to want to do it.

"If we don't hit the $2 to $4 million, then we'll see."

Roberts tells me he's already eaten through a lot of his own money and a chunk of angle investor money as well.

He's also invested quite a bit of time.

"Currently I've spent a year building the tech," he said. "It's going to be two years before we can go live."

But for those who take the financial leap of faith, Roberts promises that they'll be granted access in about a year to an early, multiplayer only build of the game.

"The bottom line," Roberts said, "is that I'm at a point that I have to pull the trigger so that I can ramp up everything up to do the rest of the stuff I need to do to make this game.

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