Over the weekend Star Citizen released an early version of its much-anticipated social systems, which for the first time allow players to interact with each other on the ground. Polygon was able to experience that social environment first hand. What we found was very clearly an in-production early alpha, one that is mostly non-functional. And yet, Star Citizen's social alpha finally begins to show the game's grand vision of a living, MMO-like experience — one could thrive through player interaction.
Star Citizen was launched as a Kickstarter in 2012, and successfully funded at more than $2.1 million. Since then it has continued to crowdfund online by selling early access to periodic updates as they come online, a promise of the complete game upon release and by the routine sale of premium in-game items including ships. The total funding for the game has since exceeded $88 million.
Star Citizen is unique for more than just its approach to funding. The game also has multiple modules, all being built by multiple teams around the world. They include the aforementioned Arena Commander dogfighting module, a hangar module, a single-player campaign module called Squadron 42, a Planetside module, a Persistent Universe module and an FPS module called Star Marine.
Star Marine was recently delayed, causing the game's multiple codebases — which were on parallel development tracks — to diverge more than anticipated.
While the Star Marine team's delay slowed the Persistent Universe team down, and will complicate the game's overall development timeline due to a need to reintegrate the two codebases at a later date, it had the benefit of allowing for the release of the social alpha roughly as scheduled.
"Star Citizen’s code base split back in March when Star Marine — the FPS module — was targeted for release," wrote Tony Zurovec, director of Star Citizen's Persistent Universe module, on the Star Citizen development blog. "Star Marine’s subsequent delay led to those two streams gradually growing apart, and a considerable delta now exists. ... With Star Marine’s latest postponement, though, the decision was made to flip the release dates and allow the Social Module to go out the door — something that the Persistent Universe group has been wanting to do for quite some time."
The social alpha consists of a single, large, instanced environment accessible through each individual user's hangar. Polygon was able to launch into Star Citizen, turn around and open an elevator that had previously been non-functional. After tapping a few buttons, we were whisked away to ArcCorp’s Area 18.
Area 18 is a point of entry to ArcCorp's megacity. There's a small customs area that empties out into a large open square surmounted by a massive ArcCorp statue — a series of gears grinding away in the shape of a sphere.
There are other players roaming around as well, up to 24 of them at this time. For the most part, most people seem fixated on trying to glitch their way through locked doors to otherwise inaccessible landing pads. There's a functional chat interface, as well as an augmented reality mode that lets you see other player's names and descriptions on items in stores. There's even a half-dozen available player skins, which can be selected prior to entering Area 18.
Also hanging off the central square is a gunshop, a bar, an employment office and a starship showroom. Side alleys lead to dark, garbage-strewn dead-ends. One even features an active incinerator. All the while, spacecraft are flying overhead. It's reminiscent of scenes from movies like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, with long lines of ships snaking their way through a seemingly infinite, vertical city.
Despite the fact that not a single NPC will move, let alone make eye-contact with you, it feels busy. The environmental details — and the other players slamming themselves against the wall — give the otherwise dead space a kind of liveliness. Given the shape of ArcCorp's megacity you can begin to see where encounters with smugglers or other nefarious types could be staged and how centrally-located common areas will be natural points for players to gather. There's even a selection of emotes to play around with.
Like much of Star Citizen's development process, backers are being shown a glimpse of what could become a very engaging game. But it's very, very far from a complete experience. This ArcCorp environment is just the beginning of something much larger.
When Polygon spoke to Zurovec in November of last year, he gave us a hint of the scale of the Persistent Universe.
"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."
"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."
Along with the release of Area 18 and the social alpha came a teaser video of a fly-through of another upcoming environment type, called Nyx.
The next major update to the Persistent Universe, Zurovec wrote in his post over the weekend, will be called "Subsumption" and will "showcase some of the hard work that’s been going into the development of systems that will allow us to construct environments filled with intelligent NPCs going about their business and that really feels alive.
"We’ll be aiming to deliver ... Nyx with that release as well. Final Frontier will follow, and enable you and your friends to accept some simple missions while planetside and then head out into space together to accomplish them. Quantum will unveil the full-blown solar system navigation map and allow easy access to any part of the current system, including cities on three other Stanton planets: Hurston, Microtech, and Crusader."
However, no release dates were given for when Subsumption would come out.
As of this morning, Star Citizen's servers appear to be overloaded. Polygon was unable to join a server to tour the Persistent Universe again. We hope to stream the experience live on our YouTube channel some time this week.