Star Citizen this, Star Citizen that. It's in the news significantly more often than any real space program, and it's probably better funded at this point too. Personally, I still can't help but question Chris Roberts' and co's ability to pull it off, but I'm now much less doubtful that their aspirations are sincere. I recently lobbed all the skepticism I could at each of Roberts' claims, and he backed them up with dates, times, and plans to prove he's not just blasting hot air into the empty blackness of our bank accounts. Look for that mammoth back-and-forth very soon. First, though, Squadron 42. The single-player story-based spin-off kind of disappeared after Star Citizen's initial announcement, but apparently it's benefiting from Roberts' lightspeed jump into the Implausible Wealth Nebula just as much as its big brother. According to Roberts, it's now just as big as anything he could've done working with EA to make a new Wing Commander.
It would've been pretty easy to sweep Squadron 42 under the rug. At least, for a little while.
Star Citizen is the talk of the town (town name: space, population: all existence), and many wannabe pilots have become damn near obsessed with preparing their virtual armadas for impending intergalactic war. A meticulously interconnected online galaxy awaits. Single-player? Who goes to space for that?
And honestly- for better or worse - Roberts would probably get a pass from many if he managed to deliver Star Citizen without too many compromises. That absurd vision in most of its sprawling splendor. But he also promised an entire single-player story-based Wing Commander successor set in Star Citizen's universe, and apparently that's coming together just as quickly behind the scenes.
"I haven't talked about Squadron 42 because it's a narrative story," Roberts explained to RPS during GDC Next. "I kinda want to make that more of a discovery thing. But it's going to be as big or as fancy as any Wing Commander would be."
"The scope and scale and ambition of it now is gonna be up there with anything I could've done with Wing Commander [thanks to crowdfunding]. Like, if I was doing a Wing Commander at EA, Squadron 42 is gonna be that. At that level. We already have a bunch of stuff that I really like. We have our own motion capture studio. We have a whole face rig thing."
My eyebrow leaped into the coldest, deepest reaches of my hairline at that notion. After all, single-player games aren't cheap. Yes, Roberts and co have amassed more than $25 million between Kickstarter and their own site, but that may as well be brightly colored Monopoly money in the grand scheme of things - especially given that it's holding up both a single-player story and a full-fledged MMO. Roberts, however, claimed that working sans publisher, console concerns, and marketing (subscribers, whose contributions aren't listed on the total, take care of that) don't whittle away at the cost so much as they run it through a wood chipper. I suppose, however, that only time will if crowdfunding alone is enough.
So then, what exactly is Squadron 42? How does it work? Roberts explained the story-driven starfighter's structure:
"You're in the military, right? So you go wherever they want you to. But you have an effect on how the campaign unfolds. That determines where your campaign ends up, which is very much the Wing Commander model - especially Wing Commander 1. It's gonna be more interactive than Wing Commander 3 and 4, which were more linear because you have the film element."
But what about wings and the commanding thereof? This isn't a one-man show, after all. As in the Wing Commanders of yore, you'll be able to pick both your battles and your co-pilots. Conversations, however, will apparently be far more advanced.
"We're doing a bunch of stuff with the conversation system," Roberts continued. "It's one I've been thinking about for a while that I think is going to make that field better. It's about managing relationships with your pilots. I don't want it to feel like you're on some conversation tree, just ticking off answers to make sure you didn't miss anything. The way we're setting it up is to be much more about managing your relationships with your co-pilots, and it's kinda up to you."
"The original Wing Commander was a little this way. It was like, who do you like? Who do you want to hang out with? You can have a person who's an asshole, you can have a person who's great, you can have a person who's funny. Players will sort of form their relationships with different wingmen and that will affect what they do and how they play."
"The on board the ship stuff is almost like a relationship manager, as opposed to a bunch of set cut-scenes."
The colossal claims have been growing like avalanches, but Roberts said he plans to deliver on them sooner rather than later. Already, Star Citizen's hangar module is letting sci-fi hotrod enthusiasts fulfill their dream of owning a space garage, and dogfighting is still in the pipeline for the end of the year. After that comes planet-level trading around March/April or so, then first-person shooter ship boarding toward the middle of 2014, and Squadron 42 closer to the end.
Such a rapid-fire schedule might sound like an impossibly tall order, but much of that is mitigated by the fact that different studios are working on each part. Roberts claimed that this approach allows for focus, speed, and a much more manageable workload. Squadron 42, meanwhile, is receiving an extra helping of special attention.
"I'm picking the studios that I think have the personnel that can do each task, and then we're all hooked in to the same build," said Roberts. "We all see everything. And then I've gone out of my way to pick the right people. The team in England is led by my brother. It's the team that did Privateer and Starlancer and a bunch of people that worked with me on earlier things like Wing Commander. They're taking the lead on Squadron 42. They basically did the last good Wing-Commander-style space game."
The multi-studio, staggered release setup serves a second purpose as well: to prove to fans and backers that any of this, er, exists at all. This goes double in the event of a Double-Fine-style emergency, because - while confident - Roberts isn't fooling himself. Game development is an imprecise science to begin with, and a project of this scale is like trying to conduct a black hole. Something can and inevitably will go wrong.
"When there's an article about us, there's always one person who's like, 'IT'S A SCAM,'" he confessed. "[Gradually releasing each part of the game and then combining them into one] is a conscious plan. I mean, I'm building a really big game. If you ask people what they want, they'll tell you they want the best game possible. But if you take a look at Blizzard or Valve or Irrational or Rockstar, those guys all make games people love. But then, people are still asking where Half-Life 3 is. These companies are like, 'It's done when it's done.' When some of the best in the business can't run to some preordained schedule, [it says a lot about how this stuff ends up working out]."
"My hope and goal is that, because I share the process and fans see it happening, that when we have to make choices like that, we have different information than we did at the start of the process. People are like, 'OK, I get it. I mean, it sucks and I wish I had it now, but this is better for the final game. Plus, I've already got stuff and I'm seeing what you're doing and delivering. I'm getting new content.'"
He noted, then, that the current Star Citizen/Squadron 42 release schedule is very tentative, and already some pieces are getting jostled by (so far) minor patches of turbulence. The dogfighting module, for instance, will launch at the end of 2013 no matter what, but it might not include multiplayer until early next year. Reason being, RSI has the option of either running CryEngine's stock multiplayer code or implementing Star Citizen's full MMO-ready backend. At the moment, Roberts is leaning toward the latter, as it'll allow stress testing pretty much from the get-go. So long, launch day server troubles - at least, in theory.
"That's the decision that, if you go for the proper system, it's much better for the game long-term," he said. "But that means people aren't playing multiplayer dogfights by Christmas. They'll be able to play against AI or fly their ships around, but I think that may be the choice that I make. It's better for the final game."
"But it's hard. You have to manage a lot of expectations. When we pushed back the Hornet [ship] commercial, we had a lot of upset reactions. People were like, 'How could they? They lied to us.' But then the commercial came out, it was fine, and many of the complaints went away. So it's about managing from the complaints to the point where they get something good. Delivering something good is the all-important thing."
Obvious wisdom, but deceptively easy to forget when thousands of backers are banging down your doors, certain that this time you finally, truly abandoned them. And with more backer money fueling his game than any other crowdfunded project in history, Roberts is bound to be suspected of that at every turn. Maybe justifiably so, maybe not. But whether we're talking Squadron 42 or Star Citizen, this universe is Roberts' new home, and he doesn't plan on going anywhere any time soon.
"Obviously, I'm worried about consistency and quality," he admitted. "But I'm not the guy who goes, 'Oh yeah, that's good enough!' I say, 'Guys, this is gonna have to be scrapped or redone completely.' I want to play it. I've put all this effort in. My point is, I'm committing a decent amount of my life to get this thing done, and I don't want to come out on the other end and realize I dropped the ball or it wasn't good enough."