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The Future Persistent Universe

Red Thomas Posted:
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It’s no secret that studios tend to use writers as a sort of advertising.  It’s nothing malicious, just a subtle focus on the new stuff they would like to get promoted.  The relationship is certainly symbiotic because where they get to manage the publicity of their games to some degree, we get to see things a little earlier than most, which allows us to produce articles while the information is relevant.

This is why it’s particularly cool when I occasionally get a chance to swing by studios and talk to the developers about a game without any pressing agenda.  Since I started writing, I’ve only really ever had one avenue of questioning shut down to me, and it was a business situation I completely understood and didn’t have an issue with.  Despite that, it’s rare to really get to dive into what you personally are interested in, though. 

I travel to Austin periodically to see a few friends and conduct interviews, to include CIG.  This last visit to CIG was one of those rare time where I just popped in and got to talk about whatever I wanted, though.  It was awesome, and I learned a lot about their plans for the persistent universe and mission system that you readers now get a chance to hear about, as well.

Theory of Intelligent Design

I started with Tony Zurovec, though I always hit a few desks when I’m up that way.  As Director of Persistent Universe for Star Citizen, Tony’s opinions matter and his vision of what that eventual universe is supposed to look like will shape what gets delivered every bit as much as what Chris Roberts wants to see.  He’s also an experienced developer with a very realistic grasp on what’s possible in a given timeframe, and that’s a really refreshing perspective in the modern era of hype-based over-promising.

When I asked Tony what he was specifically willing to discuss when it came to the persistent universe, he gave a really interesting answer.  “Development is in such a state of flux.  There are so many systems we’ve made significant progress on, but with which there are still so many details left to iron out.   [There are] so many things that will dramatically impact how far we can push stuff, at least over the near-term.  Going forward two years out or three years out, obviously we’ll continue to evolve these systems and the experience should get better over time, but I tend to focus on the relatively near-term.  As for what will be in the game in late-2015, we’ll push it as far as we can and then six months later, it’ll be farther still.”

When you build a station a piece at a time as people use it, when is considered complete?

In the first hand-full of minutes, Tony’s answer that first question was loaded with information critical to understanding Star Citizen’s development.  First and what’s most obvious, it’s a massive game compared to the initial design, and while they’ve gotten a lot done, it still means things will take a little longer than they might have otherwise.  More importantly, I think there’s an indication here that the modular design concept is working well with the development of the game, and that backers will be experiencing content much sooner.  It also says that they should expect a continuously improving experience. 

The phrasing of the answer, to me, also notes an awareness by the team that the crowdfunded nature of their development, means they need to get components out the door to players more quickly and not wait for things to be completely finished first.  Not to say you should expect shovel-ware, but it seems like we’ll continue getting things in a slightly less-than-polished state.  That’s a really good thing for the team, though.  Feedback from the field of backers will do a lot to catch mistakes and problems early, when they’re much more easily corrected.

It’s another indication that the modular development model with periodic releases of component-level content is effective.  The bigger win may yet be felt by fans or devs, though.  I suspect that once the game reaches release, the development strategy will prove even more effective as major components are easily added to the game post-release.  I’ve been a huge fan of Star Citizen’s development system for a long time, and I’m glad to see it’s working well for them.

Predestination vs Free Will

Here’s where Tony and I disagree, though.  Be sure to read to the end, because he’s right and I’m wrong.  It’s not often I’ll say that, but I’d like to point out that I still disagree with him about how much power to give players in a game.  It just so happens that my desires are rather unrealistic in the current industry.

The obvious standard for player-driven economy and in-game content is EVE Online, and I kind of went in with the feeling that Tony Zurovec isn’t as big a fan of that hardcore system as I am.  Tony’s certainly a fan of sandbox games, but he’s a realist when it comes to the damage that players can do to in-game economies.

The in-game economics of Star Citizen are going to be insanely complex, which really excites my inner-carebear.  Tony dove into them a bit for me, but pointed out that it wouldn’t be a free-for-all.  Star Citizen’s economic module will include something like rails in the pricing models to keep the economy in some range of normal.

I objected in horror, of course.  I’m not a huge fan of Keynesian economics in the real world, I sure don’t want to them imposed on me in a game.  If I want to become an iron baron and have a hand in the movement of the iron market, I feel like I should be able to do that with enough hard work.

Tony pointed out how unrealistic that would be, though.  He noted that the rails were really there to simulate the fact that players weren’t the only ones producing goods or shipping them from one point to another.  The idea that a hand-full of players could interdict all traffic into and out of a system is pretty unrealistic when you think about just how big space really is.  We’ll certainly be able to impact the market to a great degree with enough effort, but they want to protect the economy from complete player-initiated sabotage.  Though unmentioned, I’d say it’s another indication that the sale of ships in raising money for the game is going to be a lot less pay-to-win than many would have you believe.

Well, I still don’t like it.  I do have to admit that he’s right, though.  I’m okay with the idea that a player could completely destroy my budding iron empire, because the struggle for success is what I enjoy, not success itself.  Star Citizen has grown to include a huge numbers of all sorts of fans, and it’s pretty doubtful that most of them would enjoy the hardcore system I’d advocate.

With enough lever, you can still move the world. Star Citizen will play with the fulcrum a bit on you, though.

It’s completely fair, and absolutely appropriate, to consider the less hardcore players in the equation and ensure you build a game they’ll enjoy playing, as well.  More players, makes for a much healthier game in the long run, and that a win for everyone.  Plus, the economic system is hugely important in the developing Star Citizen universe.

Economics will be a major driving force behind the dynamic mission generation system.  The buffered market will also tie into planetary modeling and determine dynamically what the populations and prosperity of given systems will be.  The types of NPCs you run into on the planet where RedIron Industries makes its headquarters and the way they dress will be determined in part by the economic module.

The downside of that is that you have to have some sort of rails in place if you want to keep rich corporate worlds rich and corporate.  The advantage is the ability to define new planets with a set of properties and pop them into the persistent universe with very little effort.  Remember Tony’s comment about continuing to grow the game at two and three years out?  Maybe you’re realizing why that was a pretty important comment about now…

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Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.