GDC 2013: Chris Roberts expounds on Star Citizen's crafting, economy

GDC 2013  Chris Roberts expounds on Star Citizen's crafting, economy
This week we have a special GDC edition of Some Assembly Required. I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Roberts and talk about his highly anticipated space sim sandbox, Star Citizen. We talked lore, the game's PvP/PvE sliders and living universe concepts, guilds, and when players can expect to get in some dogfighting. Roberts also delved deeply into the crafting and economic aspects of the game.

If you miss the days of carving out a name for yourself and your wares and/or cornering the market and building an economic empire, you'll definitely want to keep an eye on Star Citizen.

Star Citizen screenshot
Population = body snatchers
Before jumping into crafting, you must understand how the population works in Star Citizen. Roberts explained that each system will have a pre-determined number of people, be they live players or AI-driven NPCs. Whenever a player wants to enter the system, he will take the place of one of the AI.

For instance, if a pirate player wants to join in, then a pirate NPC gets bumped out. But as long as the NPCs are there, they are living, working, trading, pirating, manufacturing, or whatever else -- just as a player would do. Roberts explains:
"Sometimes with MMOs if there isn't a big player population, it feels empty and dead. I don't want this universe to have that. We simulate it, it's all happening. And then if there are a lot of players online at one time, more of [the population] will be real players."
Having a vibrant living universe regardless of how many players happen to be online has another benefit. "It also means that the real players can't spike the economy," Roberts pointed out. He gave this example to illustrate: "If there were 20 million AI agents running the universe and two million concurrent players online, [the players are] only 10% of the actually population of that universe. Yes they can affect some of the pricing, but they'll never be able to totally destroy the economy."

Crafting and the economy
Roberts' comments demonstrate a concern for the economy, but how exactly will it work, and what role will players have in it? Will there be drops from mobs? And how does crafting fit in?

For one, there will not be drops in the traditional sense. While a player may be able to salvage something off of a destroyed ship, there aren't specific loot tables encouraging players go to specific areas to farm in the hopes of getting a certain something. Remember, the AI is living in this world as well, not just hanging out waiting for players to come along and interact with it. Unique items might be had from killing a boss, but since once a boss is dead he's gone for good, there is no boss-farming. Thus, most goods will come from crafting.

The crafting system in Star Citizen will be different than that of a traditional MMO. In fact, Roberts likened it to SimCity's. Production nodes and factories will be present on the planets, but whether an AI agent runs one or a player does depends on whether a player has purchased it. If a player owns the factory, she has to manage all aspects of production, from getting resources to keeping factory workers happy to getting equipment to distribution to the market. If no player owns it, then the AI takes care of everything, including getting goods out to the market (so there will always be a market, even if players aren't currently filling it).

Star Citizen screenshot
To illustrate the crafting process, we'll use the example of a laser. For a laser to come into being, it needs to be manufactured at a factory in a laser production node. The node needs raw materials to make the laser, so the node spawns missions on the mission board requesting those particular materials. These jobs are taken by others, and when the materials are delivered, the factory goes into production. Once the final product is done, it can be sold via a storefront, either exclusively right on the planet or far away. In order to get the product to outlying storefronts, players will have to do the transporting themselves. The crafter can take it himself or he can hire someone to make the delivery for him. He can even hire an escort for protection. At each step along this path, AI will fill the role if a live player is unavailable.

In the Star Citizen's economy, there's a role for everyone. Players can choose to own the factories, produce the goods, obtain the raw materials, transport the goods, run the storefronts, or even pirate the goods. Players can also contribute by overclocking ship components, which involves taking a basic item and improving it. Roberts says that players can make names for themselves in any of these areas, whether by creating a large economic empire or filling a smaller niche. And to help facilitate those who really want to delve into the economic aspect of the game, the game's planned companion app will allow players to manage all facets of their businesses even when they can't log in.

Additionally, if a factory is mismanaged and its owner can't pay his workers and is forced to lay them off, the population of the planet becomes unhappy. And an unhappy planet spawns more criminal missions, which increases piracy in the star system.

Lore, guilds, and PvP
After the exciting reveal about crafting and the economy, the discussion turned to a few other topics, including lore, guilds, and PvP.

When asked about his involvement in the creation of the extensive lore of Star Citizen's website, Roberts said that although he is not writing the stories directly, he is very hands-on in giving his input and overseeing the process. He also said that players will see characters like Kid Crimson and Cal Mason in the game. Star Citizen's lore and stories are a way to introduce people to how the world works through fiction instead of dry walls of text -- a tutorial, if you will, before actually getting into the finished game.

In terms of guilds, Roberts talked about having different levels of social structures, from small groups of you and your friends to large groups numbering in the hundreds. While there will be perks available for guilds (like special guild hangars), Roberts stated, "I don't want to make it like EVE where you have to be part of a big corp to really do anything."

Star Citizen screenshot
We also asked Roberts about the design of the game's proposed PvP/PvE slider and whether players could change it on the fly. Roberts answered that the design choice wasn't set, but his instinct is for players to only be able to change the slider when planetside, preventing them from dodging imminent PvP. The idea is to have planets be save points, while space has none. Players who have their slider set to PvP will find more live players in the population in their area, whereas those who set it to PvE will have more AI.

Coming soon (just not soon enough)
Itching to play? The good news is that players are expected to be able to get into aspects of the game before the year is out. Roberts explained that a hangar module that will allow for players to mess around with their ships in limited fashion is set for August, while a version of the game's dogfighting module is planned for December. More specifically, hangar module will allow players to access their hangars, check out their equipment, and even invite friends over. Then, come December, players will be able to get out and participate in dogfights. Roberts says that the full game will likely release toward the end of 2014.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

This article was originally published on Massively.