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Behind the scenes of Star Citizen's persistent world

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Last month during their annual fan convention the team behind Star Citizen showed off in-game footage of a spaceship landing on a planet. This video showed to many, for the first time, the true promise of the game — a game that has already raised over $50 million through crowdfunding.

Polygon talked with Tony Zurovec, director of persistent universe, to find out what that video represented, for fans of the game and for the team at Cloud Imperium Games that made it.

Zurovec began his career at Origin Systems, and for a time led technical development on the Ultima franchise. With roots in exotic, persistent worlds he was a natural fit for something as ambitious as Star Citizen. As a game director, it's his job to make sure that the game is as immersive as possible, and a large part of that is making sure that the cities players will visit are as diverse as they are engaging.

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"The plan is for the Star Citizen universe to be absolutely enormous," Zurovec said. "But that's a long-term goal. Over 400 star systems are currently envisioned, most of which will have a variety of planets."

Zurovec says that each of those systems will have at most two habitable planets, as well as several space stations. That means their in-game universe will have at least 800 different locations that players can visit. Making each of them to feel unique is a massive task, and to speed up that process the toolset they've developed for their designers uses a modular approach.

"The cities are done to such a level of detail that it would be totally impractical to build each one from scratch," Zurovec said. "As a result, we've adopted a multi-step process whereupon once the art assets have been created and properly set up, we can quickly create a lot of areas that look dramatically different."

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For designers, building a world will be a lot like building with Tinker Toys. All of the pieces will be created ahead of time, each designed to fit together with others in specific, seamless ways.

"The first and most time-consuming step is creating the base art set for a given environment. That step involves everything from establishing the architectural style to the overall color scheme, determining the types of aesthetic touches like water and foliage, and the creation of the actual models and textures. The various art pieces are constructed according to a very precisely defined set of modular guidelines that allows everything from pivot points to wall spacing to height differentials for things like steps and stairs to be standardized so that designers can easily rearrange the pieces into totally different configurations.

"A flexible tagging system allows the designers to specify which pieces can be associated with others and how, so that things like a section of wall can be quickly customized to look totally different than another simply via the addition of accent pieces like wall sconces, pipes, vents, and display screens. Finally, when warranted we create dedicated 'hero props' for a specific area, which are distinctive visual elements — like a gravity generation machine — that further help to make a given area feel completely unique despite the fact that a lot of its component pieces are shared."

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The video shown at CitizenCon last month featured a sprawling city, complete with air traffic and a massive urban area. Much of that, Zurovec says, is there for background. Not all of it will be explorable on foot, or even from the air.

"The approach shot was constructed by starting with the actual city and building outwards," Zurovec said. "So, when you're flying through the city, you really can see the actual area where you'll be given free rein to walk around, shop, identify missions of interest to you, and meet other players. The outer periphery of the cityscape and sky lanes, though, employs a bit more smoke and mirrors, which was itself the result of very conscious design decision.

"Real cities tend to have a lot of redundancy — dozens and dozens of extremely similar bars, gun shops, medical facilities, gas stations, and the like. ... Cities in Star Citizen are more representative in nature — we wanted them to provide players with access to everything that they needed, but also wanted to keep them relatively compact so that there was a minimum of wasted transit time, and so that players at a given city could easily find one another. This narrowing of the focus allows us to achieve a far higher level of detail than would otherwise be the case, and to create a larger number of these smaller, more distinctive cities than would otherwise be the case."

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Star Citizen is being launched piecemeal, with systems like the player hangars and the dogfighting modules each having their own alpha and beta releases. The plan is for the persistent world module to launch some time in late 2015.

"Only a small fraction of those areas will make it into the initial launch of the persistent universe ... but following that release I'd expect to see a steady stream of new areas to explore."