Star Citizen's HUD Design
The heads-up display is arguably the most important component of any cockpit-oriented game; to feel like a pilot in the seat of a squadron fighter -- because we don't have that comparison in the real world -- must compete with our cinematic expectations. There has to be a canopy for optically tracking enemy fighters who speed by, targeting systems on the computer, a joystick for missile and flight control, and all manner of instruments responsible for ship vitals. Everyone has different expectations of what this should feel like, making for especially challenging design.
The team behind Star Citizen is focusing heavily on the immersive nature of their game, as demonstrated in the above "Star Citizen - Immersion" video, and hopes to create one of the most interactive and realistic game HUDs ever made:
"You haven't seen anything yet -- it's crazy. If you've seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, or the Avengers and the Iron Man HUD - that's basically what it is. It's that level of detail. It individually tags and tracks targets, it [can zoom and pan] from your view, it brings up vital readouts, it can switch between autopilot and fly-by-wire. I've actually disliked all the HUDs I've seen in games, they sort of feel very flat to me, they feel very game-y, they're not like a natural HUD; it's almost like you might as well put a score up there, with the way it feels."
On a mechanical level, the HUD is highly-interactive and will be the centerpiece of all the best action in the game. You'll be able to toggle numerous computer-aided systems, go completely auto-pilot, or go completely unaided, Roberts told us. Everything is fully customizable, too: individual panels can be traded in or out in favor of others, swapped between monitors on a multi-monitor configuration; flight control systems can be toggled on and off; power can be cut to minimize detection on sensors; auto-pilot can be enabled for long trips or if you'd like to walk around the ship; and all support systems can be disabled for fly-by-wire play, Roberts noted.
This all sounds fantastic, but I had one immediate concern: Gameplay suddenly sounded very complex and intimidating, and as much as I love depth in a game, I don't always have the time to learn every underlying mechanic. Roberts squelched those concerns:
"The systems underpinning everything are far more detailed [than Wing Commander] and— a lot of it is procedurally-driven... A lot of [the detailed interactions] are simulated in the background, and then on the top-layer we've got a flight control system that's the equivalent of a modern-day flight system or fly-by-wire computer. [It does] all the calculations of where you want thrust to be applied and what part of the rigid body needs to rotate at what angle and degree.
We want it to be very simple and easy to play, but if you really want to get into it, you can get down to assigning hotkeys to different thrusters. We give controls to the power users, but for someone who wants to play casually, it's pretty easy for them to play and enjoy as well. It's sort of like StarCraft 2 - you can play and use your mouse and click around, but the hardcore players know every single hotkey.
If you wanted to disable all the flight computers and spin around Asteroids style, or turn off parts of the computer and not others, you can do all that. That's the kind of philosophy we're approaching it with: Easy to learn, hard to master— said a very long time ago and very appropriate for our game design."
This whole block contains important information -- the game is accessible and enjoyable to more casual players, but has the level of depth that would turn a flight sim veteran green. Roberts later went on to note that with Leap Motion or other touch-enabled devices, you'll be able to sweep elements of the HUD between monitors for full immersion and customization, as briefly mentioned above. I have to say: This level of depth makes me want to build a monitor-encased gaming throne. Arcade style. We'll need at least six monitors for, ah, testing purposes. Better make it eight.
Star Citizen / CryEngine 3 Graphics Capabilities
Crytek has introduced several new graphics techniques to the gaming world, mostly enabling cinematic-quality graphics to be rendered dynamically in real time. SSAO (Screen Space Ambient Occlusion), DirectX 11 tessellation, parallax occlusion mapping, real-time volumetric FX, and displacement mapping are all solid examples of CryEngine's attempt to streamline graphics pipelines.
All of these items aid in the elimination of pre-baked lighting effects and pre-rendered cut-scenes, and Star Citizen plans to take advantage of all of it. A full discussion on graphics technology is out of the scope of this article, but we'll provide a few brief examples of some of the most noted options available in CryEngine 3. NVidia created a series of .GIFs for its more in-depth article on these topics, so we urge you to visit their post for further detail.
SSAO: Screen Space Ambient Occlusion is a graphics rendering option that intelligently approximates real-world lighting effects without needing to prebake scenes. It can dynamically interpret how light should interact with surfaces in games, and perhaps most importantly, it's at a (relatively) low performance cost.
Dx11 Tessellation: This was all the rage during the Kepler launch and upon Crysis 2's ultra add-on release. At its most basic level, tessellation in game environments is the rendering of non-uniform objects (tiled floors, brick walls, rubble-strewn landscapes, spike-backed dragons) in a way that really makes them pop-out; it reduces the sharp edged nature of objects and also adds depth to environments. You can read a technical overview of its inner-workings here, and see a very helpful example below:
Volumetric FX: These visual effects -- normally involving clouds, mists / fog, lighting, 'godrays,' and smoke -- appear to have actual depth. CryEngine 3 is also capable of rendering shadows for volumetric effects somewhat realistically, which adds to the sense of true depth. Crysis' explosions and other smoke-producing effects are good examples of this.
All of these (and far more that we won't cover) are natively supported by CryEngine 3, though Roberts mentioned that his team is working to integrate film-class particle effects on top of the existing options. Most of CryEngine 3's rendering is handled by the GPU and scales fluidly with larger GPU arrays, meaning full support for SLI/CrossFire systems.
Aside from the effects, Star Citizen will also feature complex models with a high poly-count: Carriers will be composed of 7 million polygons, characters will hover around 100,000 polygons, and other ships will consist of several hundred thousand. These numbers don't mean much when provided sans context, so we asked Chris Roberts to put this into perspective for us:
"Everything will be about 10X what it is in most modern triple-A games. In a typical FPS, you also have to render the environment, but most of what we're dealing with is empty or mostly-empty space. The high-end [of polygons on screen for an FPS] is about 1.1 to 2 million polys on-screen at any given time for games like Crysis 2, Uncharted, and Assassin's Creed 3. That's where they peak out on a console before dropping below 30FPS."
The next obvious question was one of detail: Because we won't ever be rendering all 7 million of that carrier's polygons simultaneously (if it's a tiny square in the distance, you don't need that level of detail; if you're close enough for finer details, you can't see the whole thing), we asked Roberts where those polygons will be noticeable:
"The difference is in the small details: You'll really be able to tell when you get up close to stuff -- you'll see the ridging on a hose or a pipe, the individual plates and moving parts on a carrier -- you'll see these things in a 10 million [poly] scenario, but not necessarily with 1 million polys."
When we attended an nVidia conference a year back, nVidia projected its post-Maxwell line of GPUs would increase graphics capabilities on CUDA by 1000%. Star Citizen is being developed now and will be under way for another two years, so we were curious as to how the game would make use of hardware that isn't available yet; Roberts insists that the game will possess enough graphics options to make use of any reasonable amount of hardware thrown at the game, creating an increasingly smooth gaming experience.
Star Citizen Gaming PC - "What Kind of GPU / CPU Do I Need for Star Citizen?"
If you're building a rig only for Star Citizen, it is (of course) advisable that you wait it out until the game is closer to launch. With that said, if you're looking to build something today that will run the game admirably in the future, we'd steer you toward an i5-3570k (if you plan to overclock; 3450 if not), Z77-equipped motherboard for best SRT/SLI support, mid-range GPU array (2x7850s in Crossfire) or a single, high-end card, probably a GTX 670, and an SSD (favoring the Vertex 4, HyperX, and Samsung 840 Pro SSDs) or two smaller SSDs in a striped RAID 0 array.
It is impossible for us to accurately predict what the game's ultimate requirements for maxed settings are, but given outlines from Roberts, that's what we can conclude for now. A recent email blast from Cloud Imperium Games listed these specs as tentative requirements:
Official Star Citizen System Requirements (Tentative)
- CPU: "Playable on a dual-core." (GN: We recommend an i3-3220 or better for dual-core rigs).
- GPU: GTX 460 or greater.
- RAM: 4GB.
- Storage: Unknown at this time.
Official Star Citizen Recommended System Specs (Tentative)
- CPU: "i7-2500 or better." (GN: There is no i7-2500 -- we believe they meant the i5-2500k or better).
- GPU: GTX 670 or greater.
- RAM: Unlisted. (GN: We recommend 8GB of 1600MHz memory or higher; if you're running an APU, you'll want 1866MHz).
- Storage: Unknown at this time.
What is Star Citizen's admiral using? Read for yourself:
"The machine I'm talking to you from is one I built myself... I don't know if I'm going to make all of our developers do this, but I kind of like the idea of understanding your hardware. It's a Thermaltake G10 case, ASUS X79 Pro motherboard with a 3960X that's overclocked, I think it's about 4.4GHz, and a corsair H100 as the cooling solution, mainly because I'm not quite the enthusiast that's going to build my own water cooling solution. I also have 32GB of Corsair 1600MHz memory in it and it's got twin EVGA Superclocked GTX 680s in it in SLI, and a 1200W Corsair PSU; it also has a 512GB SSD as the system and dev drive, and then a cached 2TB 7200RPM HDD cached with a 128GB Corsair GT SSD. I can't be making this game without a really badass system, right? I'm basically making a game to push this system."
Granted, we'd probably recommend a smaller SSD (~32-64GB) for SRT / drive caching, but that's not to take away from the awesome layout. Maybe push the RAM and CPU a bit harder, Chris! The H100 can handle it.
For those of you who need help building your own system for the game, head over to our hardware forums for dedicated PC build support from our build specialists. That's what the site's here for, after all.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
Star Citizen is an overwhelming scope with an overwhelming amount of data. From a hardware enthusiast perspective, the game is exciting on multiple levels (fingers crossed for a shipped benchmarking simulation). It's encouraging SSD adoption, driving for proper quad-core utilization, and supporting more interfaces than you can shake a HOTAS at. We can't really comment heavily on gameplay mechanics, playability, and whether the game will be "good" or not yet, obviously, but the technical details are promising.
We haven't even really touched on the multiplayer aspects or some of the cooler gameplay mechanics either, but I can promise that we've got loads of content to follow-up in another post. We'll work to post an article centered around those items in the coming weeks, hopefully including some of our info on mod support and dedicated server options.
With a core team of roughly 60 people (split between Austin, Montreal, and LA), an expandable base of contractors, tons of funding from supporters, and 100,000+ fans on the Roberts Space Industries site, the game has serious potential.
The HUD's integration with abstract interface technologies makes for what could be one of the most engaging input experiences in the gaming world, right up there with HAWKEN's recent Oculus Rift promises. I think that's probably the take-away message for Star Citizen: The game wants to be as "realistic" as it possibly can, but still keep the cinematic quality of our imaginations. We asked Roberts what he most looks forward to with the game's launch, to which he said:
"The level of detail in the spaceships is what I'm most looking forward to. Our ships are fully functional on all levels - I've never had that experience and that's sort of what I want. And the first-person aspect of it where you can spacewalk to board someone else's ship, disable the ship, spacewalk out, blast their airlock and try to take it over, that'd be kind of cool. Those are the kinds of things I'm most excited about."
As with any game that is still in full development, I remain cautious with my optimism. We really will just have to wait and see how things pan out. That wait won't be long, though -- alpha should be ready for backers by next year.
Personally, I'm very curious to see how the game stresses hardware in its more intense combat- and player-heavy scenarios; I'm also looking forward to benching SSD performance vs. HDD performance, if we can determine a reliable way to implement the game into our benchmarking suite.
Post a comment if you have any questions you'd like us to bring up for the next article or interview!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.