Chris Roberts on Star Citizen's Procedural Planets, Alpha 3.0, & CitizenCon

By Published September 24, 2016 at 2:05 pm
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It's been three years since we first visited the Cloud Imperium Games studios in Santa Monica, though we've conducted a dozen interviews with CIG CEO Chris Roberts in the time since. Now, taking a victory lap through Southern California's hardware manufacturers, we stopped over at CIG's offices for a second in-person visit.

A lot has changed. The studio, for one, is now in a new location that's farther from the Santa Monica beach, but in a larger space. The team has grown significantly in both organization and team size, and challenges faced, and Roberts has adjusted his interview technique just enough to ease off on providing release dates.

Our latest visit had us focusing on the new planetary procedural generation tech, version 2.0, the predecessor for which we originally detailed two full years ago. Roberts talked us through the start-to-finish plans for CitizenCon's presentations, additional Alpha 3.0 launch details, Star Marine, procedural generation, character tech, and engine refactoring in a forty-minute interview. We've split the interview into two parts, the second of which will go live on Monday (September 26). Our time spent in the office was doubled to accommodate a second interview with Technical Director Sean Tracy, responsible for answering our deeper hardware and software engineering questions. That content will go live next week, after the first two parts of the interview with Chris Roberts.

 

Chris Roberts on Procedural Generation V2, Star Marine, CitizenCon

Timestamps & Foreword

This article will extensively detail the interviews and provide some initial insight to our future postings. We also discuss past interviews with Roberts and the progress from then til now. Timestamps for the video are below, if you prefer that content.

  • 4:00 - Updates in the immediate future, Arena Commander update, Star Marine and FPS system refactoring.

  • 6:50 - Alpha 3.0 initial discussion, including brief detailing of professions, gameplay, and locations/worlds.

  • 8:40 - Procedural Planets V2 information, including discussion on artist authoring, world-building techniques, and planetary biomes.

  • 10:00 - Biome details (specifically), height maps, and distribution maps.

  • 11:55 - Weather systems in Procedural Generation V2.

  • 14:20 - Artist hands-on with every single plan, artist production pipeline and time required to make planets.

  • 15:10 - Scheduling challenges and planet-building that meets stretch goals.

  • 16:50 - Biome rulesets, edge blending, avoiding carbon copy planet generation.

  • 21:20 - What will be shown at CitizenCon?

(Forenote: We know that the Star Citizen community is very eager to share content. We kindly remind readers that copying and pasting entire articles is damaging to a publication's ability to measure the success of content and remain in business, and thus damaging to the ability to fund future flights to make developer tours.)

Like most of our discussions with Roberts, this one started immediately and without an official intro. We normally speak with interview subjects for a few minutes to dial-in the audio and camera settings, often by doing a short version or practice run of the interview topics. With the CIG CEO, that immediately turns into the interview – and so there's no “proper” intro for this content, we just dive straight into it.

Chris Roberts started with some of the current internal work items, like Alpha 3.0 and Star Marine 2.6. We eventually, around the eight-minute mark, got into procedural generation for planets (v 2.0). The latter half of the interview, which will go live on Monday, discussed character technology and “Star Engine” customization.

The opening question was an easy one: What's being worked on lately?

Star Marine 2.6 Changes, Flight Model Changes in Arena Commander

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Roberts immediately jumped into Star Marine and Squadron 42 updates for CitizenCon, then focused on update 2.6. The 2.6 update will drive the FPS game mode to include new vision stabilization technology that more closely mimics the human eye's function when walking or running. This eliminates undesirable headbob, but manages to keep the unified first- and third-person animations and models as CIG wants them.

Unifying the view points means that first- and third-person views of a character show the same skeleton, animation, and mesh in both points of view. Most FPS games use separate animations and body positions between points of view. Crysis 2 is an easy example (and in the same base engine): The player's arms are effectively attached to the side of the head in first-person, allowing a down-the-barrel view for better gameplay. Multiplayer has the arms lowered, nearer the mid-section, and bullets appear to fire at an angle out of the guns. Call of Duty, another example, has more intricate animations and movements in the campaign than in multiplayer, which must use a simplified art set to focus on gameplay and production time.

Roberts referenced glitches in CSGO, Crysis, and Battlefield that are a result of the non-unified systems. Battlefield's neck glitch is among the most comical and exaggerated examples.

To explain this focus on points of view, Roberts elaborated:

"There's a disparity between what you see in first-person view, when you're faking it, and what really is happening. We don't cheat at all. Where your gun points is where you're shooting. That's another big difference -- almost every FPS, the center of the screen is where you'll shoot. The bullets don't fire straight from the muzzle of your gun. [...] None of that's fake [in Star Citizen/SQ42], so when you actually aim, you aim down the sights.

"What you see [your friends] do is what they're actually doing. That's really important, and we're kind of doing that to a level that I don't think anyone else has done that. That's more important for Star Citizen than it is for Squadron 42, because Squadron 42 is a single-player game, so we could have faked it. [...] We're quite happy and proud of where it is.

"We're doing a lot of work on Arena Commander itself. It hasn't had a lot of love and attention since we focused on 2.0, which is the large world, so we've gone back, changed the flight handling and modeling, balanced things to be sort of up-close dog-fighting. We're just about to roll-out to the Evocati test group. They're our first-wave of community testers, so they test stuff very early. [...] We've been balancing and testing flight changes and model changes. Dog-fighting is going to be more up-close and have the original sort of Wing Commander spirit. [...] We've rebalanced things and changed stuff in the flight model."

Roberts indicated that things have gotten a bit fast, making it easy to 'ski' around or overshoot targets and increasing distance during combat. The new update will bring combat closer together and more personal.

Match-making and lobby systems are also seeing improvement in 2.6, all of which will be released after CitizenCon. No hard dates were provided during these interviews.

The First Steps Toward a “Complete Game”

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The CIG team has taken a modular approach to its game release since the beginning. Although there will likely be a hard release of some kind, we're expecting something more similar to the Minecraft release: There wasn't a lot of fanfare, and to the existing playerbase for Minecraft, the official release of the game didn't feel much different from what was already playable.

That happened because the Mojang developers pushed content consistently during the early Alpha and Beta stages, making for a more seamless transition once the proper release was finally pushed. Squadron 42 will be faced with a hard release, but Star Citizen will follow its iterative development until the game is fairly feature complete. In previous interviews with Chris Roberts, the project lead has made clear that the stretch goals and often dream-like content discussed in interviews will not all launch at once. These updates, from what CIG plans, will roll-out incrementally and over a period of several years, many following a “hard launch” announcement.

But Alpha 3.0 takes the first steps toward a “complete game,” from what Roberts tells us:

"3.0 is the first time you can say that, when you get out there and fly around, it will feel like a full game, or a complete game, because you'll be able to go between locations, buy and sell stuff, earn money, do all the things you normally would do in something like a Privateer or a Freelancer. That's the first step to the Persistent Universe getting fully fleshed-out. There's a lot more to be done -- locations, worlds, systems, additional professions.”

The conversation continued to cover professions planned for the immediate future, then the distant future:

“We're going to start with cargo hauling, buying, selling, trading, mercenary, bounty-hunter, piracy. You're either taking stuff from a-b, protecting someone taking stuff a-b, robbing someone taking stuff a-b, or you're going after someone that's robbing someone going from a-b.

“Longer-term, there's a lot of secondary professions, whether it's rescue and recovery, refueling people that are out of fuel, mining, salvage. Those are professions coming along after we get the first lot out. We're concentrating on 3.0 to have one star system roughed-in. It won't be done and polished, but the major locations will be there or mostly there, which will include a whole bunch of... not just the landing locations, we have 5 major ones there, but also a whole network of space stations and satellites and refueling stations and all the rest that you'd stop off in your travels around the star system.

“For us, the star system has a greater density of action, interest; it's not just, you stop and there's one station you trade in and leave and you go to another star system. For us, this star system should be something [where] the player could spend a bunch of time going back and forth. If you see a planet -- as long as it's not the sun, which would probably burn you [laughs] -- you can go and land and adventure. It's a huge, huge, huge task, so we are in the process of doing a whole bunch of stuff towards that. Along the way, we're going to show a preview of the next stage of the planetary tech that we'll have, which will be at CitizenCon.”

Procedural Generation (“Planets V2”)

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Having run this website for eight years now, and having worked with Chris Roberts on interviews for four of those, I often experience déjà vu during our ongoing discussions. GamersNexus has published millions of words of content, with a few tens of thousands derived from CIG interviews. In those ongoing talks, we've covered several of the topics that are “only” now coming to fruition within CIG. In our 2014 PAX interview, for instance, Roberts detailed his exceptionally early plans for procedural generation. At the time, nothing was final. The goal was to build a system through which artists could more rapidly generate planets, but hard details were still unfinalized. Of the tool, Roberts told us (in 2014):

"We are going to use it as a tool for universe building. I know a lot of people think Star Citizen is purely hand-crafted and that something like Elite or No Man's Sky is all procedural, but the reality is that all of these games have a mix of hand-crafted and procedural stuff in them."

Today, we walked away with this:

“[Procedural planets V2] is a lot more artist authored and driven, so it uses procedural techniques the same way that World Machine and so on does, but it's very artist-driven. We use these techniques to allow artists to build the world out at scale, but they're determining where the continents are, where the forests are, where the mountains are, where the desert plains are.

"There's a bunch of biomes that are built, so the artist creates these different biomes whether it's a mountain biome, desert biome, woodland biome. There's an overall map for the planet, and there's both a height map and a distribution map. The height map determines the general height of the terrain. The biomes themselves are additional to that height, so the shapes of the mountains are a combination of the overall heightmap and biome data. The distribution map is determining where the trees and vegetation are, so that's kind of how they build it.

"[…] You have this sphere in Planet Ed[itor] and you sculpt it. You push and pull it, paint on top for the distribution map. Based on that and the biomes you've created, it's like painting on a great scale. On top of that, you can go in and specifically paint areas with brushes that go all the way from a few meters in size to hundreds of kilometers in size. You specify what's going to be in your brush.

“That allows the artists to totally craft their environment. They can also place specific art, like a mineshaft, or ruins, basically carve out an area in the planet and place that in it. It's very much built as a tool to allow them to build this at scale. If you think of the tools they had for CryEngine at a much smaller scale for building the maps that they had, imagine that but at a much smaller scale.”

Roberts provided examples of different “brushes” within the Planet Ed tool, primarily pointing toward rocks, trees, and grasses. The editor allows density of placement and uses generators to manipulate models (e.g. a tree model) to better diversify tiles and terrain, theoretically reducing the chance of players seeing repeat objects. We talk about this with Sean Tracy more in an interview coming next week, where specific technical details of the editor are provided.

From what we understand and have been told, these tools already exist and are in the hands of artists. Refinement is going on constantly, but Planet Ed is deployed within the revamped CryEngine.

The team is also working on planetary clouds and weather systems, from what both Tracy and Roberts have told us. Planetary clouds will be generated and mapped via a full weather simulation, and the team has axed its flow maps in favor of a more artist-driven weather ecosystem. Timelapses of planets, we're told, will eventually show full weather systems taking place on the surface below.

As for the procedural generation pipeline, each planet will remain a hands-on endeavor to create. There is no planet which is fully generated by procedural tools, we've been told. Roberts indicated that different astral body types will have tool sets to accelerate creation, and Tracy hammers the Crytek mantra of “using tools to get 90% of the way there,” with hands-on delivering the rest.

“An artist can crank out five or six moons in a week for you,” Roberts told us, emphasizing that “once you've got your building blocks, somethings will be quicker. There isn't going to be a matter where we hit a magic number and, 'boof,' here comes a planet.”

Scheduling Challenges & Stretch Goals

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In our continued discussion on procedural generation for Planets 2.0, Roberts confronted the issue of scheduling challenges:

"One of the long-term schedule challenges is building out the universe that we've – in all the stretch goals, we got up to 100 star systems, I think we have 110 now – we're not going to have them all done on the day of release. We're going to try to get a good chunk of them through, so the creation of all those planets with the additional interest... it's not just about the planet, it's about the planet with its local ecosystem in terms of life. So, there are plans to have animals or creatures down there, but also not just the major landing locations, but other smaller locations.”

Roberts carried on to tell us about the German studio's Around the 'Verse episode, where the team details tools used to model satellites and habitats. Planet sets are used to rapidly generate, with varying and voluntary levels of manual involvement, settlements, farms, homesteads, or other points of interest. Artists may also elect to use a distribution map to roll dice, effectively assigning an X% chance of a homestead occurrence on the surface.

Completing the 100-110 star systems is an enormous task, and one which Roberts affirms will be possible by using a semi-automated approach to content generation. The hope is to avoid well-charted issues of procedural generation – mostly copy-paste areas, as found in the recent two Elder Scrolls games – without completely throwing away its usefulness as a tool to complete content.

Part of this system is to use “edge blending” between biomes or points of interest on the planets, which should more smoothly transition one biome to the next:

"The biome itself isn't just some of the art. The biome ultimately will have all the rules for whether there's creatures in that biome, some of the logic and interest that would happen with it, then the system takes some of that, not all of [the attributes]. That's some of the magic of how the biomes get applied, [the system] doesn't take literally the whole biome verbatim. It takes some of it and blends it with other elements that it's close to, and there's various rules for how that gets done so it doesn't feel like a carbon copy of the other biomes. But the biomes ultimately will contain much more data than just here's the rocks, here's the trees, here's what the mountain looks like. It will contain the rules for wildlife and all the rest of the stuff.

"Depending on which biome is next to the other biome, there's blending rules that happen. And there's blending on multiple levels too, so there's different levels of detail and they all get blended. Then if you have two or three versions of the forest biome, [the system] is picking between those and elements between them as it's distributing the stuff. The concept is that you should not be able to look in there and feel like there's a repeated tile. And on the newer V2 stuff, it's pretty impressive. If you zoom out, the repeated stuff you see is kind of the repeated stuff you see in real life.

“We blend a lot of scales of a texture. Our challenge is you can see this planet from orbit, fly above it from 20k feet, or you can be walking amongst a forest. All of it needs to hold up to our texel density. When you come down, you need to have the detail in the ground and the rocks and the trees all match up to what you're used to when you're sitting in a ship. [...] That involves having different sets of textures that are also pub (?) mapped and various different items that get distributed and have different LODs."

And again, that's all happening within the team's Planet Ed, now added to CryEngine.

“Star Engine”

Then again, calling CIG's engine “CryEngine,” at this point, doesn't give credit to how much has been refactored at a fundamental level. In that same 2014 interview, Roberts told us that the team had plans to convert from 32-bit world space coordinates to 64-bit, but hadn't yet completed the task. Today, that task is done – the engine has been refactored to support 64-bit world space coordinates, though some aspects remain 32-bit. AI modules, for instance, don't need to process in 64 bits. We'll talk about this in great depth in our Sean Tracy interview.

For now, here's what we've gotten from Roberts:

"It's all done in -- we don't call it 'CryEngine' anymore, we call it 'Star Engine.' It's quite detached now from what the base CryEngine is. We do it in the editor, so there's a whole section of the editor called 'Planet Ed' that allows you to specify and build the biomes, then in the editor view you do whatever you want, then you can zoom down to ground level."

The team has completely refactored the implementation of FPS within Star Citizen (for Star Marine), built a custom space flight system, added new editors, and has expanded the average size of a map from a 4x4km square to millions of kilometers. “Star Engine” is the current working name internally, but we're told that name only “first started showing up” on the splash screens in the past few weeks. This isn't necessarily a final, public-facing name.

Plans for Alpha 3.0

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Alpha 3.0 will be – partially, at least – unveiled at October 9th's CitizenCon event in LA. Roberts gave us a verbal walk-through of what the team plans to unveil, detailing point-to-point demos at a top-level.

Version 3.0 will host worlds with specific environments to offer more content variety without overloading the team's artists. We're told that the first set of planets will include a gas giant, which can't be explored on foot, a polluted and over-mined world, a snow-ice planet that Roberts compared to Hoth, and Arc Corp, which is covered with buildings.

For the CitizenCon demo, though, a special planet has been created for a “Homestead demo.” This planet is more Earth-like in its biome distribution, containing forests, oceans, mountains, and deserts; the Homestead demo won't see inclusion in 3.0 and is purpose-built for the CitizenCon unveil of Planets V2. Roberts elaborated:

“Sean [Tracy] is working hard on it with a bunch of talented people, so that's [how] we're showing off the potential of V2 planets and some of the cool stuff and play action that can happen in 3.0. We're […] taking one of the missions that's in Squadron 42 and showing how that would feel, from the briefing, to the ship, to taking off, to the mission, and the combination of flying and FPS stuff, so those are the two things we're going to show. We're going to show full-focus this is what V2 planets can do for you, then this is what Squadron 42 is going to feel like and play like, and this is the experience of a mission in SQ42.

"This is the first time we will show more complete gameplay. We showed last year at CitizenCon the walking around, talking character stuff, but it was very early. Our character tech has come on -- if you look at that and quality of characters compared to last year, it's night and day. I truly feel like our character stuff that we're showing is best in class at the moment. We're going to show a more complete: Here you are, you wake up on the ship, you get your briefing, do your mission. This is what one sequence of events, or what we call 'chapters,' of the game would feel and look like.”

Additional Coverage and a Reminder on Pre-Release Games

Character technology improvements will also be detailed, but we'll save that content for Monday. We've also got a two-part interview with Technical Director Sean Tracy, planned to go live next week.

As a reminder, this is a crowd-funded, incomplete game. GamersNexus takes the same stance with all pre-release games and pre-release hardware, including items which we preview ahead of launch: We recommend waiting to make purchases, especially larger purchases, until after a product has shipped and reviews or user reports are online. GamersNexus encourages that readers particularly interested in supporting a crowd-funded effort take the time to research the project beforehand, and that readers make an informed decision on any purchases. Remember that early access purchasing is a support system for developers to further fund a game, not a sale of a complete, finished product.

If you like our style of objective reporting, please consider supporting us directly on Patreon or following us on YouTube and Twitter.

Editorial: Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke
Video: Andrew “ColossalCake” Coleman

Last modified on September 24, 2016 at 2:05 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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