August 29th 2015
The first release of Star Citizen’s Social Module is now available on the live server! We would like to thank the thousands of backers who helped stress test this release on the PTU early in the week; now we’re excited to make it available to everyone. You can access the complete patch notes for today’s release, Star Citizen Alpha 1.2, here.
The Social Module represents our first step into Star Citizen’s Persistent Universe. In the coming months, you will begin to see Star Citizen’s formerly-disparate modules come together into our long term vision for the game. Today, you can enter your Hangar, load up Arena Commander and take the elevator to explore ArcCorp with other players. From here, expect to see the universe expand!
Read on for word directly from Tony Zurovec, Star Citizen’s Persistent Universe Director. Tony has written an introduction to the Social Module and an outline of what’s coming next. We hope you enjoy your first steps outside your Hangar, and now we can truly say: we’ll see you in the ‘Verse!
Star Citizen is comprised of two fundamental pillars. Squadron 42, a single-player experience, is story-driven and linear in its progression. The Persistent Universe, on the other hand, is completely open-ended. You’ll have free reign to travel wherever you want within a huge, incredibly detailed galaxy filled with places to explore, challenging situations, an endless stream of diverse mission types, and hundreds of thousands of other players and AI characters.
The Social Module – which has been undergoing testing in the Public Test Universe for the last several days, and which will be released to the general community starting today – is the first basic component of the Persistent Universe to come online. As such, I wanted to take a few moments to explain exactly what it is, why we’re releasing it, and how it fits within the longer-term schedule of the Persistent Universe.
The Social Module allows you to select from any of half a dozen character configurations and explore the first of many planetary landing zones – ArcCorp’s Area 18 – with up to 24 other players. You can communicate with other players via a chat system, and express yourself via a variety of different emotes. An augmented reality display system allows you to view additional information about various objects in the environment, including the names of other players. A number of retail shops can be inspected, although they’re not yet open for business.
There are three primary reasons for the existence of the Social Module. First and foremost, we wanted to open up a bit more of the Star Citizen universe to the community, and allow people to get a sense as to what some of the various cities you’ll be able to visit will look like. We also wanted to allow people to be able to gather together within the actual game and engage in real-time discussions – associating animating characters with speakers – rather than having to predominantly rely upon the message forums and the web chat, which equates to a far less personal experience.
The second major objective of the Social Module is to serve as a testing ground for a multitude of fundamental technologies. We’ll be gathering detailed information on a number of different fronts based upon what we see and using that to improve the game. The networking back-end, in particular, has advanced tremendously since the beginning of the year, and stress testing it now requires fairly large numbers of concurrent players. While we’re only exposing a small amount of actual functionality with this release, what’s going on behind the scenes is far more complex. An intricate dance of network services and systems controls everything from the way that new servers are spun up, registered, and told how to configure themselves. GIM – the Generic Instance Manager – and a host of related programs have been designed to support large numbers of simultaneous players, and determine everything from the server to which you’ll be routed to how chat messages are efficiently propagated. There have also been dramatic improvements to what I refer to as the low-latency network functionality – the code that is responsible for how efficiently information is passed between clients and the server, and which is one of the primary determinants with regard to how many players and NPCs we’ll be able to put onto a given server. Whereas only a couple of months ago fifteen players would absolutely bottleneck a server, the network is now a complete non-issue with twenty-five. Improved animation blending, interpolation, and prediction now renders characters far more smoothly, even on busy servers. All of these features have been tested internally and refined, but we’re now at the point where we need to see how things perform when exposed to a much larger audience. The really exciting thing in this area, though, is that there are still a number of major network performance optimizations in the works, such as event-based animation synchronization and more advanced dead reckoning. Needless to say we’ll be needing your help to test ever larger player counts in the not-too-distant future.
The last major reason for the existence of the Social Module is the most important with regard to the future. It’s intended to serve as the basic foundation upon which new pieces of the Persistent Universe will be periodically unveiled. That, in turn, brings me to my final point…. What can you expect to see from the Persistent Universe going forward?
The Persistent Universe will be moving to a more frequent release schedule, with the idea being to routinely put new functionality into your hands to enjoy, provide feedback, and help us verify how well certain systems are performing. One important point to note here is that there is a lot of work involved in releasing something that’s at such an early stage in its development, as no game smoothly proceeds throughout the entire development cycle. At any given moment, there are typically a variety of systems that are in completely different states – some having only recently been started, and many being in the middle of having new functionality inserted. Locking down the code base to ensure that everything is in an acceptable state for release to the public takes considerable time and effort. Thus, there is absolutely a real cost to releasing updates. For that reason, the next half dozen or so Persistent Universe releases will be considerably more focused upon giving you exposure to new features and ensuring that what we need to get feedback upon or tested is included, and less about trying to give a truly comprehensive sense of the gameplay. To some degree, that will limit the expense of releasing more frequent versions – minimize the impact to the long-term schedule. In practice, this means that, for example, when the AI finally makes an appearance you’ll see a fair sampling of character behaviors, but the focus will be upon stress testing the underlying Subsumption, animation, and networking systems, and less about trying to give a particularly accurate sense of what a final city will truly feel like. In essence, then, you will often see some basic functionality appear before we really attempt to go “wide” with the implementation. The appearance of new features will be fairly abrupt, but the full exploitation of those systems will arrive more gradually.
As has been noted elsewhere, Star Citizen’s code base split back in March when Star Marine – the FPS module – was targeted for release. The main development branch is called GameDev, whereas Star Marine’s was referred to as 1.2.0. Star Marine’s subsequent delay led to those two streams gradually growing apart, and a considerable delta now exists. The new back-end network service architecture was needed to ensure a smoother launch for Star Marine, and therefore all of the recent development and refinement was done in the 1.2.0 branch. This wasn’t supposed to be an issue for the Social Module because after Star Marine was launched GameDev and 1.2.0 were slated to be re-integrated, and the Social Module was to launch from there. With Star Marine’s latest postponement, though, the decision was made to flip the release dates and allow the Social Module to go out the door – something that the Persistent Universe group has been wanting to do for quite some time.
The re-integration of the two disparate branches has already started. Once that’s complete, subsequent updates to the Social Module will have access to other code that we developed earlier this year in the GameDev stream, as well as a number of major graphical and spatial partitioning optimizations done by other studios that should make Area 18 look and run quite a bit better than it already does.
The next major deliverable for the Persistent Universe will be called Persistence. Its namesake feature won’t generate much in the way of immediate visual rewards, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of the underlying massively multiplayer technology. It will involve everything from communicating with the web platform so that purchased items are converted into actual game items, database abstraction layers and caching functionality, integration with a new global entity ID system that will allow the seamless transition of items from one server to another, and deep integration into various parts of the game server. Ultimately, this update will enable objects to begin to retain state, which sounds simple but – in the context of a massively multiplayer game with seamless transitions between servers – is actually quite involved. Shared hangars will come online and grant you the ability to invite others back to your private hangar. You’ll be able to more easily jump into simulated games together…and eventually head out as a group into space. The Casaba Outlet store in the main Area 18 courtyard will be opened up, and you’ll see quite a few more visual upgrades to the city, especially in the realm of store facades and the main Astro Armada building. Players that previously purchased memberships in the Million Mile High Club – and their invited friends – will gain access to private lounges accessible from their hangar elevator. Additional emotes will be unveiled, with the intent being to really ramp up the variety and allow players to start to really express themselves in the way that they want. The chat system will be dramatically enhanced, with private conversations, the ability to ignore other players, and a much more robust user interface made available. The maximum player count will rise, with the goal being at least forty players in a given server instance. There’s a lot more that will be going on under the hood, including a massive update of the Hub Service that acts as the intermediary between your client application and all of the back-end services, and a considerable enhancement to the communications layer on the game servers. A lot of work will also, of course, be getting done in areas that won’t be exposed until subsequent milestones arrive.
It is possible that Persistence will be split into two separate releases. The rationale is that once we’re back into GameDev we’ll be very close to being able to improve upon some of the basic features of the existing Social Module, and thus we might try to push an update out as soon as possible rather than wait for everything desired to be completed.
Following Persistence will come the Shopping release. It will allow a variety of items to be purchased in the Area 18 shops, including clothing so that you can begin the process of customizing your character. This update will devote considerable attention to the entirety of the shopping experience, including the augmented reality and mobiGlas interfaces, product delivery options, and how things like the medical scanner and healing apparatus in the hospital function. This release will also ensure that things like the product selection, pricing, and quantities available are connected to the appropriate back-end systems, which is a necessary step to eventually allowing such things to be impacted in real-time by the actions of players and NPCs. As will typically be the case, there will again be a lot of work expended in areas that are either improving the basic foundation – like a streamlined user interface programming architecture – or that won’t be ready for release until a bit later, such as facial customization. I’d expect a few surprises with regard to the types of things that you can purchase…and use…in Area 18 with this release.
The next major update will be Subsumption, which will showcase some of the hard work that’s been going into the development of systems that will allow us to construct environments filled with intelligent NPCs going about their business and that really feels alive. We’ll be aiming to deliver a completely new environment – Nyx – with that release as well. Final Frontier will follow and enable you and your friends to accept some simple missions while planetside and then head out into space together to accomplish them. Quantum will unveil the full-blown solar system navigation map and allow easy access to any part of the current system, including cities on three other Stanton planets: Hurston, Microtech, and Crusader.
More details will be provided on these updates as they get closer, but that’s the basic roadmap for the near future. In between the major releases it’s quite possible that you’ll see smaller revisions since delivering content becomes far easier as more and more of the underlying foundation comes online. While there’s still a tremendous amount of work to do, the clouds are finally starting to part and the stars are coming into view….
Sic itur ad astra.