• 14, August, 2018

Looking at the tech behind Star Citizen

Space games have seen a resurgence over the past 3 years. Titles such as Elite Dangerous and No Man’s Sky making their way from concept to full completion. Elite dangerous was successfully crowd funded and is now a great space adventure with emphasis on piloting, exploration and discovery. No Man’s Sky was a more experimental procedurally generated game that gained much criticism over its release due to un-kept promises by its developer. In both cases, those games attracted enough crowds to make them a success. However some of us have been patiently waiting for another game to make its way out of alpha stage: Star Citizen.

What is Star Citizen?

Star Citizen is a very ambitious space game lead by Cloud Imperium. It started as a crowd-funded project, but unlike some other kick-starters, Star Citizen has reached a point where the funding has completely exceeded expectations; racking in $150 million by May 2017 and completely overpassing its original target. As a result, the game developers have raised their ambitions and are creating a game which will go much further than its intended scope. It won’t be just a spaceship battle game, but instead a fully-fledged multi-player universe where players can combat, explore planets, mine resources; and so much more. The game was originally slated for release in 2014 and whilst some have been worrying about the development taking so long; most people are actually happy that the developers are not trying to rush a product out of the door. Instead, the developers are focusing on making it the best game they can.

Modular development

The team at Cloud Imperium is using a modular approach to their development. Development focuses on one specific area of the game, then moves on to the next. The first module to be created for Star Citizen was the Hangar Module; creating hangars for the spaceships so that the players could actually visit and explore their ships from a first person point of view.

The second module is called Arena Commander. Backers of the game could pilot their ships and engage into combat both in PVP (Player vs player) and PVE (Player versus environment). This was a great way to get people to test multiplayer combat, as well as testing the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the game.

The third module in development is called Star Marine, and focuses on the FPS (First Person Shooter) aspect of the game. It also introduces gravity features for first person combat, as well as other physics features to simulate the space environment outside of a spaceship.

The fourth module that is being worked on and has been said to make its way through version 3.0 of Star Citizen alpha is Planetary Landings. It will introduce the possibility of landing as well as mining planets for resources; along with more features to that effect.

This modular approach to development allows Cloud Imperium to stay focused on specific aspects of the game. It also allows the games backers to test those features and report on any bugs, along with suggesting improvements. Rather than spreading the development team too thinly around countless tasks, there is instead a focus on those particular areas to make sure that they are made right. As Star Citizen is such a wide and ambitious project, it is great to see that the development stays concise. This modular approach allows the production not to get lost into countless development cycles.

A change of engine

Star Citizen was originally developed using Crytek’s CryEngine. This gaming development platform is known for its high visual graphics and was made popular through the early Far Cry games as well as the robust Crysis series. The original Crysis was a challenge for many computers to run upon its release, and the later instalments of the series are still being used today to benchmark modern hardware. To put this into perspective; Crysis 3 was released in 2013 and yet tech tubers still use this game when measuring modern GPU performances.

However due to the issues faced by Crytek in 2016, Cloud Imperium decided to switch development onto the Amazon Lumberyard platform. This platform is based on CryEngine’s architecture but licensed by Amazon. It might sound strange to hear that Amazon is into game development, but after all they do have their hands in as many pockets as they can. In this particular case, Lumberyard is made to allow developers to use Amazon’s servers as a way to build and host their games. Furthermore, those servers also serve as a host for Twitch streaming.

With the current gaming climate, it is no surprise that Cloud Imperium changed to a more bankable platform provider. Using Amazon’s fast servers for online multiplayer and streaming does make a lot of sense. After all, streaming games is probably one of the best ways to have your game publicised with few costs on the developer end; instead relying on YouTubers and Twitch streamers to pass the good word around. This also goes in line with the plans for making Star Citizen a persistent universe, and using Amazon’s online servers will save a few headaches further down the line.

APIs and future optimization

At the current time of writing, Star Citizen runs on the latest versions of Windows (7 to 10) and is available for PC only. It currently only supports the Directx11 API (Application Programming Interface) but the developers have announced that they plan to implement the new Directx12 API, as well as the Vulkan API.

It would be great to see the implementation of Vulkan, especially with the game’s demanding engine. Vulkan takes out less overhead than the more popular and used OpenGL as it offers more direct control over GPU and CPU usage without having to go through many layers of software. Essentially Vulkan can take place at a hardware level; thus removing those overheads. This implementation should allow users with mid-ranged PC to have a more playable experience. We hope this will be the case because at the moment, you need to be sporting a good rig with a GTX 1070+ to get some good visual fidelity and some decent framerates out of the Star Citizen Alpha.

An expanding team

Starting from a small developer studio led by Chris Roberts, Cloud Imperium now has studios in Los Angeles (U.S.A), Austin (U.S.A), Montreal (Canada), Frankfurt (Germany) and Manchester (United Kingdom). It is safe to say that a lot of work is being put into the game, and the expansion of the team only reflects the increased budget that is available. Cloud Imperium does not want this to be another failed Kickstarter, they seem determined to deliver the best game they can whilst showing a great understanding of how to work with such large-scoped project. The evolution of Star Citizen shows ambition, ideas, but also a technical understanding of how things work in the gaming development industry. The developers are keeping their promises whilst managing their backer’s and fan base’s expectations. In this case, a slow but steady curve is the right approach.