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Star Citizen's custom joystick looks positively stunning

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Could be the best new HOTAS concept in a decade

One of the little surprises from this past weekend's CitizenCon — aside from the announcement that Mark Hamill and Gillian Anderson are part of the game's cast — was the unveiling of the latest prototype for one of Star Citizen's custom flight sticks.

Carl Jones, Roberts Space Industry's chief operating officer and head of business development, took the stage at CitizenCon to update fans on the ongoing efforts with U.K.-based flight stick manufacturer Saitek. While there wasn't any new information to share on the premium model, which among other things is said to feature a large OLED screen, there were plenty of details on the base model.

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Turns out it isn't just a single device, but instead an entire suite of hands-on, throttle and stick (HOTAS) peripherals built to be highly customizable.

"The idea," Jones said, "is that you can split it apart and combine it with other devices." With it, players will be able to fly with a joystick and keyboard, a joystick and throttle, two joysticks, or any combination of custom-made, Star Citizen branded accessories.

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The mock-up, kept under glass at the convention, featured a core unit that looks a lot like the current Thrustmaster T-Series HOTAS, with an attached throttle to the left of the flight stick. The Saitek model seems to borrow heavily from the existing X52 frame, with the adjustable grip height, locking Z-axis and similar button configuration. But, if you look closely, they've actually added a trackball to the top of the stick — right where your thumb goes — as well as to the throttle.

The addition of dual trackballs opens up a lot of options for players. First off, many hardpoints in Star Citizen allow for gimballed mounts, meaning they can aim in a different direction than the ship is flying. I've had experience aiming gimballed mounts and turrets in Star Citizen with my TrackIR, and while effective it's a little awkward. Slaving gimbals to a trackball seems like a very clever improvement, giving more precise control to the pilot while letting them keep their eyes on the road.

"It should be as easy to use as a mouse," Jones said, "or any other controller."

A trackball would allow for the potential of more precise control of an in-cockpit cursor, something the X-52's little mouse nubbin... thing doesn't quite accomplish right now.

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But remember that Star Citizen isn't just a spaceflight game. It's a first-person shooter and a highly social, massively multiplayer online game as well, one which players will have to navigate on foot. Dual trackballs have the potential to provide the same kind of FPS maneuverability that a mouse and keyboard, or a gamepad, could allow.

The custom controller goes one step further, adding a purpose-built, full-size keyboard that also breaks in two.

The mockup shown allows the right side of keyboard, commonly called the "ten-key" side, to be separated from the "ten-keyless" side. Players could put their throttle right in between, shunting off the larger keyboard to the side of their desk and giving them more room for flight controls front and center.

There's also, Jones said, a small display built right into the ten-keyless board to give on-the-fly flight status information for virtual pilots.

Jones said the goal was to create a HOTAS experience that was complete for their ambitious game, meaning that both inside and outside their ships, Star Citizen players would never need to take their hands off the controls.

The most popular stick for spacesims right now, the X52, was released way back in 2005. Even the current gold standard for PC flight sims, the all-metal Thrustmaster Warthog, dates back to 2010. If this system actually comes together, it would be one of the most complete and ambitious new sets of PC flight gear in years.

Of course, there's no release date for the sticks either.

"One of the reasons we chose Saitek," Roberts said, "was that they were really keen to make something bespoke for us. And you can see it with the trackball and the joystick, so you can get the best of flight control and gimbal aiming control.

"Putting it all together just sort of makes sense, because you’re going to be flying around. You’re also going to be wandering around on foot, engaging in FPS. So having a full suite I think it is cool, and it looks awesome, and I can’t wait to have a working version on my desk."