Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen Looks Like a Space Sim from the Distant Future

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Cloud Imperium Games

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, much less Wing Commander maharishi Chris Roberts to emerge from the ether and demo a space sim that looks like something you’d conjure on a Pixar Renderfarm, least of all one that’s PC-exclusive.

But — and listen up, anyone who fondly remembers stuff like “Kilrathi” and “Dreadnought” and “Tiger’s Claw” — that’s exactly what’s happening. Roberts confirmed as much at GDC Online in Austin, Texas on Wednesday.

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Before we proceed, have a look at the trailer for the game, dubbed Star Cruiser, and be sure to crank it up to 1080p with the “quality” wheel if you can.

It looks like footage from a missing episode of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, maybe even better, with bright, reflective colors striped on blade-like fighters and inside cockpits, ridiculously ornate capital ships dressed with all the moving parts and crevices and bulky bay doors you’d expect, and the whole shebang rendered 100% in-engine (for wonks, you’re looking at Crytek’s CryEngine 3).

I have no idea what kind of tricked-out hardware it’s running on or how many GPUs it’s tapping, but it’s kind of startling to watch — a brilliantly choreographed sizzle reel that’s a little like seeing the cinematographic ballet between the USS Kelvin and Narada at the outset of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.

But a space game unabashedly calling itself a “sim,” as in “simulation”? Isn’t that 2012-casual-gaming-speak for “suicidal”?

“They said I was dead,” reads the text-tease as the trailer opens. I assumed Roberts was being self-referential. He hasn’t done anything in gaming-dom for over a decade. That decade was instead spent producing Hollywood movies like The PunisherLord of War and Lucky Number Slevin.

But no, he means the PC in its traditional sense, that platform-of-platforms competitors like Steve Jobs enjoyed referring to in the past tense after tablets like the iPad hit the scene.

“In recent years, game designers have stopped innovating and pushing the boundaries of what you can do in this genre,” says Roberts. “I plan on bringing that kind of development mentality back into PC gaming and space sims in particular.”

And then he paints Star Citizen as a kind of wake-up call to a world currently infatuated with social-mobile:

There is a lot of noise out there regarding social and mobile games right now, and I think PC gamers are feeling a little left out of the mix. But the PC is still incredibly capable of presenting an experience that doesn’t take a back seat to any other platform out there, including consoles. With my game, I want PC gamers to stand up, be counted and get excited again about all the great experiences their computer can deliver.

No, it’s not a new Wing Commander or Privateer‘s second coming. It’s not Starlancer 2. It won’t sport live-action footage of Mark Hamill romancing Ginger Lynn Allen or blue-robed and waxing solemn with John Rhys-Davies as a battleship sinks off a rust-colored coast. It has nothing to do with Origin Systems (long defunct) or arch-publisher Electronic Arts.

This is just Chris Roberts with his new studio, the one you probably didn’t realize he formed last year, named Cloud Imperium Games, and it’s staged in a new universe entirely.

And it turns out Star Citizen is already 12 months in the oven, though we’re talking a long cook — we probably won’t be able to lay hands on it until 2014. The idea behind announcing it now? To secure crowd funding.

“Our purpose today is to allow our fans to join us in this process early,” says Roberts. “It will likely be another two years before the full product is ready for release, but early backers will be able to play a version of the game a year from now.”

By crowd-funding Star Citizen, Roberts hopes to trim expenses, engage fans more directly and take the whole thing global:

For one, this route takes the traditional game publisher out of the mix and enables us to take the millions of dollars normally used by publishers for a triple-A title and plow them right back into developing the game. Secondly, using our own crowd funding mechanism allows us to reach out to our international fans, who have been devoted followers of my games in the past. Thirdly, going direct gets us much closer to our fans and allows us to focus more on the community side, create more updates for our fans and directly interact with them as we are making the game.

So, single-player or MMO? Both, sort of. According to Roberts, Star Citizen will be a persistent, sandbox-style universe, but one that’ll include a single-player campaign — subtitled Squadron 42 — that’ll allow your friends to drop in as wingmen in real time. It won’t require a subscription, nor will it be free-to-play, meaning you’ll have to pay for a copy of the game up front, Guild Wars 2-style. Also like Guild Wars 2, it sounds like the revenue model will be based on in-game purchases, where you’ll have the option to buy items to pimp your ship(s).

It’s all pretty impressive-sounding (and looking) in theory, and hey, it’s Chris Roberts! The guy’s a legend (among PC gamers). I have fond memories of playing his Times of Lore on a Commodore 64 in the late 1980s and thinking “This is it, maaaaan.”

But when Roberts says stuff like “In recent years, game designers have stopped innovating and pushing the boundaries of what you can do in this genre” (via Gamasutra), I have to wonder how fans of EVE Online are supposed to feel, or anyone who’s followed Egosoft’s X-Universe series. It’s hard to imagine Star Citizen being more sophisticated than either of those without taking a hard turn towards ultra-niche, though to be fair, neither EVE nor the X games have ever really gone for the Wing Commander space-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe.

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