Anyone following the Star Citizen project the past few years is likely aware of its multiple controversies. There’s the issue with its protracted development, of course, which began way back in 2012 and continues to drag on. There’s also a looming lawsuit with Crytek that’s still being litigated in federal court. With these and other distractions, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are many people actively playing the game right now, even in its unfinished state. There’s an entire community of thousands of players flying from mission to mission in its open world or running laps in the corridors of its multiplayer shooter mode.
Lisle is using Star Citizen’s persistent universe (PU) game to create epic, 50-player ground battles. The fights he stages look more like something out of a Star Wars movie than a traditional spacefaring game. Polygon reached out to find out how he’s able to pull them off on a daily basis.
Prior to picking up Star Citizen late last year, Lisle made his living playing games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Call of Duty’s new Blackout mode. Eventually, he said, the novelty of the battle royale genre wore off.
“I’ve just kind of kind of got bored of all that stuff,” Lisle told Polygon via Discord. “Battle royale is kind of what got me noticed on Twitch and what began growing my community. [Eventually] PUBG started dying. Then we jumped on the Call of Duty train. Blackout just came out and then [...] it started dying. To me it’s just like that stuff’s the same thing. It’s just re-skinned over and over again.”
Lisle says that he picked up Star Citizen almost on a whim. After getting his bearings with the game’s flight systems, he began to focus on its first-person shooter mechanics. His Twitch viewership took an interest in his exploits, and from there things have snowballed. Now he says he’s running these massive, multiplayer events on a daily basis for many hundreds of viewers.
“There’s not one day I take off right now because of how booming this thing is,” Lisle said. “It’s crazy.”
More impressive is the fact that Lisle is drawing attention from hardcore supporters of the Star Citizen project. That very insular community, he said, is beginning to take notice of what he’s up to.
“It’s the hot thing on the block for Star Citizen right now,” Lisle said. “I start up the stream and boom!”
Trouble is that Star Citizen simply isn’t built for this style of gameplay. The logistics involved in pulling off an event like this are unusual.
Much like Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky, Star Citizen’s PU is a multiplayer game that runs across multiple instances. That means that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of versions of the same patch of in-game real estate running at any one time. Each one is filled with a different group of players. When single players or small parties load up the game, they’re joined to one of these instances where they can hang out with the other players already there.
Lisle does things a little differently. Instead of joining single players or small groups to existing servers, he manually creates a party of 50 or more players from inside his Twitch stream. Then he loads them all into the game together. The PU spools up a fresh server just for them, effectively giving his community a discrete galaxy all their own.
With that sorted, the next hurdle is simply getting everyone together in the same place. Even though the PU itself has only a tiny fraction of the in-game content that its developers have promised, Lisle’s private galaxy still spans quadrillions of kilometers in every direction. Getting all 50 players to the correct planet is only half the battle, because those orbital bodies themselves are actually planet-sized.
In order to keep viewers’ attention, Lisle said he’s gotten pretty good at finding his way around. It also helps that Star Citizen multiplayer isn’t quite as “persistent” as it claims to be.
“When you jump into a fresh server,” Lisle explained, “there’s a starting spot for the rotation of every planet. It’s always the same. So, whenever we go in we know we can go to Wolf Point, for instance, and it’s always on the sunrise side of Daymar. It’s always there, never in a different spot, every single time.”
Unfortunately, Star Citizen’s PU is still in an early alpha state. That means it’s positively riddled with bugs. But even more dangerous are issues with connectivity. Sometimes a player’s computer will lose connection with the central server, meaning that whole shiploads of players have crashed into planets and exploded. That tends to put a damper on the festivities, but Lisle says his community simply takes it all in stride.
Once everyone is in the same general location, Lisle takes a quick poll to find out what scenario his players want to play that evening. Then he sets the boundaries, assigns teams, and quickly designs the terrain. There’s no system in place for creating a battlefield, so he uses the player-owned ships that everyone arrived in, positioning each one as a piece of cover or an objective for the ensuing battle.
Meanwhile, a few players stay inside their ships to loiter over the battlefield and protect the proceedings from “stream snipers,” players who could arrive uninvited to disrupt the game.
What’s even more interesting is that Star Citizen has a simulated in-game economy. If a player’s ship is destroyed during the battle, they’ll need to wait an hour or more for it to respawn. Alternately, they can pay in-game currency to get it back sooner. This has created a kind of miniature war economy, run exclusively out of Lisle’s Discord channel, where players are constantly running missions for cash to fuel the battles he organizes every night.
“We have a lot of people that this is their nightly entertainment,” Lisle said. “They grind outside [of our events]. We have one of the most active Star Citizen Discords right now and these people are always grinding for the night.”
Lisle’s community of players also includes people who he refers to as “arms dealers.” In Star Citizen’s PU, if a player dies with a weapon in their hand that weapon is lost. So simply supplying enough small arms and ammunition for each round requires hundreds of thousands of in-game credits every night.
But the spending isn’t limited to in-game purchases. To further diversify the experience for his community, Lisle says that he’s spent upward of $2,500 of his own money in just the last few weeks to purchase ships that will make his in-game events more interesting.
“I bought a Hammerhead for $725 off the actual [Roberts Space Industries] website,” Lisle said, referring to the massive sub-capital gunship that serves as the objective in the video above. “But my point of buying ships is different than anybody else. I’m buying these ships to create these battles. When I buy a ship I look at it like, ‘Hey, I buy a $400 Reclaimer? That’s the size of two Call of Duty maps put into one.”
Lisle’s purchases, and the purchases made by his community, are just a small part of the money flowing into the Star Citizen project. In 2018 it earned an estimated $30 million from backers making similar purchases. That means Star Citizen earned twice as much money from crowdfunding than every other video game Kickstarter combined in 2018, a feat that the project has accomplished now three years in a row.
Of course, Lisle plays video games professionally. He’s one of the few people in the world who can write off the cost of virtual spaceships on his taxes as a business expense. But, even if he couldn’t, he says the scale of the game would keep him coming back for more.
While Star Citizen’s single-player game, Squadron 42, is expected to be playable by 2020, there is still no word from developers on when the PU might actually be finished. That’s left a sizable community of players inside the game that wants something new to do. Lisle is simply mobilizing them with these battles.
He hopes that the developers are taking note.
“Even when you dream about where Star Citizen is going to be some day,” Lisle said, “what I still want, that someday, is what we’re doing right now.”