On the edge of known space, we centre the object in our meteor-scratched canopy and hit the thrusters. In time, it begins to loom large in our vision, monolithic and yet somehow indistinct, its obsidian, almost too perfect alien surface melding into the pervading blackness. Clearly it's colossal, but it's also beguilingly mysterious.
Yet the problem isn't really a lack of information: early probes have returned full of data, it's just that much of it is apparently contradictory and there's plenty of disagreement over what it all means. The object is Star Citizen, and the only conclusion everyone seems truly happy with is that it's made a hell of a lot of money.
That could not be more perfectly calculated to wind up Chris Roberts, the creator of the beloved Wing Commander series, CEO of Cloud Imperium Games and chief creative officer on Star Citizen.
"I do get a bit disappointed," he admits. "I mean, it's today's news cycle... If you're on the online 24/7 game blog, they don't have time to [do in-depth articles], so they're always about the headline. So for them it's like, 'Oh, Star Citizen's made X million or X million,' and everything focuses on the money. And then you can read it and say, 'Well, all they care about is the money.' Not really."
It is the distorting weight of $60m and counting, raised by some 640,000 backers, which has seen the developer variously accused of running a cult, a scam and, thanks to the $30 to $15,000 game packages on the Roberts Space Industries site, a pay-to-win operation. Alternatively, for the faithful, this is the second coming of Chris Roberts after a ten-year break from games. But Star Citizen's even harder to get a read on: it's a space dogfighting game, only with ships big enough to walk around and live in, except when it's an FPS, set in an online universe.
The list of features defies credulity, but if Star Citizen is a con, it might be the worst-run one on the planet. For starters, it's intensely public, with Chris often making appearances on game expo stages to reveal more in-engine footage. Secondly, while only a sliver of what's promised, the dogfighting and hangar modules are both in public hands already, the former the beneficiary of a huge update in recent weeks. Some 110 Cloud Imperium staff have accounts on LinkedIn, and these are not sock puppets, but people who have portfolio sites and histories at Crytek, BioWare and Activision.
As slight as accountability in crowdfunding projects may be, the conspiracy theory doesn't stack up. Chris refutes the pay-to-win accusations himself: "The design of the game, and this is just personal preference, because I hate it in free-to-play games, is there's nothing that you can buy with money that you can't earn in the game." The packages are pledge tiers, their values set to offer funding options. Come release, the basic starting package is all you'll need.
The problem for outside observers is really scale. Baffling, mind-boggling scale. "We're essentially giving them four huge games all in one," Chris explains. "Squadron 42 is going to be what, or better than what, a next-generation Wing Commander would have been, and that's just by itself. And its level of fidelity – I mean, the scope and the size of the story and the missions we're doing in it is huge. I mean, I'm pretty sure if I was doing another Wing Commander for EA, I don't think they would allow me to do as much content. Because right now I think we're estimating something like 50 hours or so to play through the full narrative story.
"I mean, it's so big we're going to release it in episodes. Think of it as a miniseries, like five episodes. So the first episode is what we're going to release next year – well, hopefully there are two episodes next year, but for the first one I think we're aiming for Gamescom. But the first episode itself is about ten hours of gameplay. So compared to modern FPS games, that's more than you get in most of the campaign modes with a Call Of Duty.
"And then, of course, there's whole persistent [online] universe. You've got the 4X space game style, because if you don't want to get into combat, you can go into building a business up or building a trade empire and doing all that kind of stuff. And then we've got the FPS section. So someone could make a game just by itself from any one of these."
Five dev studios?
Ambition of this scale takes not one studio, but five, each working on separate modules of the game. While Chris heads up development on the persistent universe in Los Angeles, CIG also has satellites in Texas and California. IllFonic, a relatively unknown quantity whose output includes the lukewarmly received Nexuiz, is in charge of the FPS module. Rather more promisingly, Erin Roberts is studio director of the Manchester-based Foundry 42, entrusted with creating the singleplayer campaign, Squadron 42.
Unlike his brother, Erin never left the industry, but after producing Wing Commander: Privateer 2 and helming Starlancer, he wound up at TT Fusion making Lego games. Though he enjoyed it, he took little convincing to rejoin his brother to make Chris's self-professed "crazy dream".
Erin's part is certainly the easiest to contextualise. Taking place before the timeline of the persistent universe, Squadron 42's arc tells the story of a war between the alien Vanduul and United Empire of Earth (UEE). The setup is battle-worn: you'll play the rookie working your way up the ranks. You start with a light fighter, the Gladius, waiting in your hangar, earning the right to fly more advanced craft over time.
But Erin explains there's been a gestalt shift that defines Star Citizen; Wing Commander has long been famous for its firstperson view on the cockpit, but pilots here will be free to tear open the canopy and stretch their legs. "It's not, for me, really a space combat game," he says. "It's actually an FPS game where you use vehicles. So, 'cause you're always a person, you [might] decide to fly a ship, get in a ground vehicle, or go places and walk around."