Stick and Rudder: Some thoughts on Chris Roberts’ annual Star Citizen address

    
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As many of our readers are familiar by now, Chris Roberts has put out his annual Letter from the Chairman for the Star Citizen faithful. As the length of the news post indicates, there was a lot of things that were said, and as I was looking through the address, thoughts were springing to mind. Thoughts that I wanted to share in this column, particularly since those thoughts wouldn’t have helped keep to the facts of a news post.

I’ll get the quick and easy stuff out of the way first, starting with the COVID excuses. And, in my eyes, that’s precisely what these are: excuses. I’m hard-pressed to take Roberts’ explanation that features got rolled back because of the pandemic at face value here and more assess his reasoning as his stubborn inability to adapt to a work-from-home environment.

Roberts probably works better when he’s looming over everyone’s desk, but I’m not sure how many members of CIG feel similarly, and the number of meetings and video conferences referenced in the letter reeks more of management that’s incapable of assigning tasks efficiently. I don’t doubt that bug squashing and fixing, and the communication required to pass this information along effectively, was compromised in some way with a WFH setup, but this also assumes that bug reports were that much faster in a physical office.

The other quick-hitter that I wanted to briefly touch on was related to the upcoming CitizenCon, which is going to be missing both a major keynote presentation and anything out of Squadron 42. This kind of begs the question of why hold the event at all other than the impetus of meeting an annual requirement. We’ll have to wait and see what the panels for this year have planned, but I feel like that if the reasons for not having major unveilings were because the devs are all-hands, people would be fine with CitizenCon getting a pass.

Now we get to the meat of the letter in my eye: The segments about “the road to 4.0.” I can almost hear this being said in a marketing announcer’s voice, but beyond that, this path forward is once again about creating tools for the most part, specifically the persistent entity streaming (PES) tech and the server merging tech.

Let’s ignore the fact that PES probably should have been built from the word “go” before Star Citizen was anything more than a few landing areas. I don’t doubt that making genuine persistence in the game as it stands right now is a lot of hard work, but then again CIG worked themselves into a corner. The game engine they are using is so onerous that they have had to adjust practically every aspect of it to work even close to the way they want to, so pushing these highly customized pieces, built with a level of minutia that borders on the ridiculous, into a system that remembers all of those details, can very likely only end in tears.

Let’s try to put these plans into perspective here. The way CIG wants this to work is that every individual piece that players can manipulate and shift will be recalled by a larger server. Whether it’s where a used camp fire or a player’s ship that crash landed onto a planet, Roberts wants the game servers to remember all of it. The fact that most MMORPGs can remember necessary basics is something of a small technical miracle, and most of those games are using established engines instead of what is effectively a brand-new one. Persistence has to be a technical hellscape in the best of times and at the most brass tacks level, let alone for a game as “high fidelity” as SC.

And that’s on top of the fact that the game has to also currently remember where player spaceships, which are designed like small apartments in terms of their interiors and exteriors, are located in the current alpha build. Perhaps SSOCS has made this easier than before, but putting more weight on the server’s “mind” feels Herculean at best and Sisyphean at worst.

Plus, this has to happen at scale, in servers that allow for more people than a couple of dozen at once. And let’s keep in mind that Roberts wrote about having “thousands” in a server. I don’t know that PES and the server merging tech being worked on will be up to snuff at smaller numbers, let alone in the population sizes being eyeballed.

And speaking of scale, 4.0 is when the game finally sees two systems. Two. I’m not necessarily asking SC to create the entire Milky Way galaxy, but two systems is a far cry from what feels like the end of alpha and the start of beta. Then again, that assumes Stanton and Pyro are all that’s arriving in alpha; it’s entirely possible that we’re going to see even more systems added on, but the way the letter reads, 3.18 is the alpha’s final patch.

Incidentally, I’m honestly kind of surprised the letter breathed that word into existence, however softly. That is both a big claim and perhaps more likely a bigger hope owing to the deep levels of complexity of the systems leading towards this beta and to 4.0 mentioned previously. This also kind of assumes that CIG is done building tools for itself – something that doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon. CG is straining too hard at making things that are already done by other games and other engines at exorbitant levels of detail that the tool building and engine tweaking is likely never going to stop.

Finally, I have to cast some side-eye in the direction of the user numbers Roberts was touting. The most damning thing of this portion was the focus on the new: new players, new accounts, new logins, new backers, new buyers. It has to be said over and over again: If you’re eyeing profit and focusing so hard on getting as much new money as possible, you’re probably not interested in building something that’s final and ultimately done, and you’re damned sure not paying attention to the long-time backers who have bought in to the dream at the very interim in the hopes that Star Citizen (or SQ42 for that matter) is going to be a delivered thing.

That entire section of the letter pretty much has confirmed, to me at least, that Roberts has lost sight of who he’s building this game for. Maybe he didn’t start off that way, but the speed and size with which the project has ballooned has now blinded him and therefore derailed the project to an unrecoverable point.

Of course, I’d be delighted to be wrong. I’d be delighted to see 4.0 arrive as projected. I’d love to see all of the server persistence and server tech work like they want. I’d love to see Star Citizen actually land into a beta phase. I want this game to succeed in spite of these gripes because our genre is enriched when more big games make it to market successfully. And I have to stress that I’ve bought in to this thing. Not quite as hard as some of the “lifestyle” sorts, but more than enough. Partly because I want a game like Star Citizen and partly because I want to keep covering it for MOP. But prior history, a starry-eyed hopefulness, and the swift silvery tongue of a jalopy salesperson seem to indicate that I’ve made some safe assumptions.

It’s a big wide universe out there, and the MMO industry is busy filling up the space between the stars – with sci-fi MMORPGs! Join the MOP team here in Stick and Rudder for intermittent voyages into all the big space-trucking, dog-fighting, star-flighting MMOs of the moment.
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