CitizenCon 2949 was this Saturday and like all good conventions started with the keynote, which this year was broken out into two sessions — one in the morning and one in the evening. Here are some of the highlights.
The Bad News
Although a player’s ship of choice is one part personal, one part financial, it seems that there’s one ship that has been on everyone’s mind for the past six months in the run-up to the convention: The Anvil Carrack.
This is a large exploration ship that comes with a Pisces shuttle craft and an Ursa rover, meaning that when I say “large”, I obviously mean that it’s large enough to carry those two vehicles at the same time.
My plan is to upgrade my Constellation Andromeda and cover the shortfall with my store credit to pick up the Carrack, so I’ve been waiting for this convention since the Carrack hasn’t been available to purchase since last year’s show.
On Friday, word dropped that the Carrack, planned for flyable availability during the convention, was delayed until February 2020. Massive bummer. During the “convention week”, CIG shows off ships at an in-game convention hall with each day devoted to a different ship manufacturer. As if to alleviate the delay somewhat, Aegis’ day was Sunday, meaning that the Carrack was on sale again. I upgraded my Constellation Andromeda, and with a little extra cash, picked up the Carrack. I also spent another $20 to upgrade the Pisces C8 to the C8X which is more combat-capable. Carrack owners will get the Pisces in their hangar now, but apparently many people aren’t seeing it yet, including me, which I guess is no big deal (for me, anyway. Some people can get real salty about stuff).
This year’s mission demo was undertaken using a Carrack, so you’ll see it in subsequent screenshots.
MicroTech and New Babbage
Microtech is the last planet to be made visitable in the Stanton system, and New Babbage is the principal city there. MicroTech is a frozen world, as it’s the furthest from Stanton’s star, and its owner corporation (MicroTech, natch) uses it for high-tech research as the naturally cold temperatures go a long way towards keeping all that machinery super-cooled.
MicroTech will be available in 3.8, but the interior of New Babbage will not. This is still going to be a great opportunity because a frozen planet is going to awesome to run around and drive around on, and while we won’t be able to enter New Babbage, we will be able to fly around it and land anywhere within the city. This is a massive change over how other cities like Lorville and Area 18 were introduced, with prominent no-fly zones that would destroy any ship that tried to land anywhere but the sanctioned landing pads. If I were a betting man, I would say that the snowy zones around New Babbage will no doubt be filled with people shooting at one another.
Planet Tech v4
One of the reasons that Star Citizen is taking so long to develop is that they seem to be really pushing technology in order to get things as simulated as possible. One of the things they need to get nailed down is how they make planets because they will have to make planets as quickly as possible once they start adding new star systems.
Now, I didn’t completely follow all of the technobabble that went into the planet tech demo, but the end result is that they managed to take an unwieldy procedural generation system and shrink it down, and then add — of all things — temperature and humidity as design factors. Based on their explanation, temperature and humidity play a huge role in why certain biomes show up where, and by replicating that, the planet team has been able to let the planets self-generate (to a degree) more realistic surface features, more natural transitions between biomes, and more importantly — actual weather.
These planet generation techniques have also played a big part in fixing the way the planets appear on approach, as the v4 update has resulted in better memory management when serving planets during the transition from space to ground. Gone are the days when certain features would blur and pop into existence; now planets will be true WYSIWYG: you can navigate to a geographical landmark seen from space, and have it accurately represented when you get close enough to see it in detail. In two months, the team converted all of the existing planets and moons in Stanton to use the new v4 technology, and this is the tech they’ll be using going forward.
This Year’s New Mission
This year, the team (Glen, Sam, Joe, and Mystery Fourth Person) was tasked with stealing a data card from a lab on MicroTech. Of a team of four, three were on board a Carrack while one had already landed at the New Babbage spaceport for some prep-work involving stealing a scientist’s lab coat “disguise” and a key-card. Upon arrival, CitizenCon Demo Master Glen picked up these items (using an updated interaction ability) and made his way to a landing pad where he boarded an AI piloted Valkyrie that took him to a Secret Research Facility.
Once inside, he used the keycard to access the less secure areas until he found the server room and the server he needed to access. We got to see a new UI paradigm for interacting with panels like elevators and control surfaces. Rather than rely on the “inner thought” system — a floating menu that was notoriously difficult to use with any accuracy — they’re instituting a system that works directly on the screen that our character is interacting with.
Rather than enter through the front door, Glen opened ventilation ducts, crawled through access tunnels, and stole a blank data card. After the security guard had passed, he downloaded the info and crawled out of the server room. It was not a clean escape: the alarms went off after an NPC discovered…something.
As he was making his way to a predetermined exit point, we saw the new melee combat in use as Glen knocked out one of the guards who was in his way. It was just a solid punch to the head, but a full fist-fighting system is something CIG has been working on for 3.8.
In order to escape, Glen grabbed a parka from a closet (again, with the new storage and interaction system on display) and set out into the wilds of MicroTech — just as an intense snowstorm was kicking up.
Because of the new v4 planet tech bringing temperature and humidity into the picture, the snowstorm was having an effect on the character. Body temperature dropped, and the shaking, stumbling, and reduced vision of hypothermia was setting in. Glen had made his way to a cave where he (the mission) had stashed an environmental suit. As he was suiting up, he grabbed the helmet from its case, and the character’s hands were visibly trembling.
Environmental factors aren’t just to cause players problems. Now moisture beads up on windshields and face masks, and once Glen made it out of the cave with his environmental suit on, his visor began to frost up. Temperatures in the atmosphere can also generate contrails from ship engines.
The next stop was a camp that had been set up for escape (part of the mission, I believe). There was an Ursa stashed there, covered with a tarp that allowed the demo team to once again showcase their new interaction updates as Glen’s character grabbed it and pulled it off the vehicle.
Once in the rover, he radioed for Sam in the Carrack to collect him. Driving to the pickup point was pretty hellish, with the storm resulting in near-whiteout conditions.
The team wasn’t out of trouble yet: MicroTech had sent a squad of Titans after them, so as they were attempting to break orbit, Glen and Joe took over the Carrack’s turrets.
One reason why so many people had been excited about the Carrack was that it was believed that when this ship released it would usher in jump gate travel and a new star system. We aren’t getting either at the release of 3.8, but the demo mission did send the team through a jump gate and into the Pyro system.
Jump gates are generally stable and should be usable without incident. Roberts mentioned that because of the amount of commerce passing through them, there’ll be stations nearby where folks can land, refuel, shop, and so on before or after their trip from another system. However, there will be unsanctioned jump gates for smugglers and pirates, and gates in unlawful systems won’t have these kinds of amenities. This mission took the team to one of those gates, a ruin that was still operational but otherwise unused.
Jump gates are connected via wormholes. Like quantum travel, you won’t have any control over your forward momentum, but unlike QT, you will need to do some active course correction. If you don’t stay on course (indicated by a conveniently provided river of particles), hitting the walls of the passage might damage your ship or worse — eject you from the high-speed lane into some uncharted and distant space without any recourse or rescue.
The demo ended with the team emerging through the Pyro gate into a particularly destitute star system. We saw the ship fly off into the distance, the Star Citizen logo, and a fade to black.
Pyro promises to be a pretty lawless system, as it was once a prominent resource-heavy location that had been stripped of all it had to offer.
The Revised Roadmap
These items here are what was accomplished since the last CitizenCon. The biggest improvement was OCS or Object Container Streaming which boosted performance significantly on the client-side. I had upgraded my PC specifically to play Star Citizen (and do VR stuff), and while it ran OK before OCS, patch 3.4 improved the game like a night and day difference. We also got a new planet and zone with ArcCorp and Area 18, the ability to purchase ships in-game with aUEC, and the team switched to a 6-month, staggered development plan which sees teams releasing patches every quarter, but leapfrogging over one another from feature to feature. Some blame this change for the recent spate of delays in features on the official road map, but CIG will do what CIG feels is best for CIG, so there’s that.
Here’s what’s on tap for the next year and beyond.
SSOCS — Server Side Object Container Streaming — is the new Holy Grail, as it is the last major stepping stone towards complete universe persistence. Right now if you leave a server chunk, there’s no lasting record of what happened in that previous chunk: If you take a book from your hab and leave it in your ship, it won’t stick around. Once everyone leaves that chunk and it winds down, any state that it knew about is basically lost. SSOCS aims to fix that, and the biggest boon is that we will be able to keep the money we earn in-game and keep the things we buy. Right now, when a new patch is issued, everyone starts back at the start, and it’s really forkin’ annoying. This will be released in 3.8.
Social and group gameplay is on the map for improvements. 3.7 saw private VoIP channels that you were auto-added to when you entered a ship, the sharing of missions and payout, and some other social quality of life improvements and CIG plans on building out more on that. Right now, the social and grouping systems are a major problem because it’s difficult to get together with friends (on account of a 50 person per server cap, really).
More robust missions are always being released with major patches, it seems, but they’ll be branching out more in the future. 3.8 will feature a timed infiltrate and rescue mission onboard an 890 Jump luxury yacht which will probably be fun for FPS fans. We saw this year’s demo (not releasing in 3.8) featuring more stealth aspects, and Roberts stated that they’re aiming to make more varied missions that aren’t all just run-and-gun (or fly-and-gun).
Full universe persistence is on the schedule somewhere down the line, and this is a MASSIVE DEAL as it would mean that everything that gets done is recorded. The example Roberts used was taking a mug from your ship and leaving it in a forest, where someone else could find it. Naturally, there’ll be culling logic so we don’t get a re-hash of the infamous Speed Bike Pile-Up that we saw in Star Wars: Galaxies. Taking this further, Roberts mentioned how persistence will allow for the tracking of resources, and as resources will be finite, finding a particularly rich vein of minerals might lead to a player group encampment that’s raided by another player group, resulting in dynamic, player-created events.
Roberts admitted that the final push for server meshing probably won’t happen in 2020, as it relies on OCS, SSOCS, and full persistence to be rock-solid. Right now we only have 50 people per server. Server meshing means that those barriers will drop as the back-end software will spin up new zone nodes to handle players above a certain threshold.
Aside from these elements we’re talking about general aspects like more quality of life improvements, more game loops like salvaging and refueling, more content in the form of more missions and in-game items, and then eventually more systems, planets, stations, and opportunities.
If CIG continues with the current pattern, by the time we get to server meshing we should have at least two systems we can visit, and maybe a third. If they get their pipeline down pat, we could have more. When server meshing is available, I would personally consider that to be the most significant milestone towards Reaching The End, not from an actual work standpoint, but from a “what the most important technical achievements are of this such an ambitious game” standpoint. While CIG will be working on a lot of things on the road to full persistence and meshing, I believe it’s those aspects that will allow us to point at Star Citizen and say that this is what we’ve been waiting all this time for.