SPACE! The Ongoing Impressiveness of Open Space in Videogames

So…Star Citizen. For those of you haven’t heard, the guy behind the old Wing Commander games is making a new game, and it’s an incredibly ambitious and impressive looking affair. Go check out all the various footage of the game that’s available on the official site before we continue.

As is pretty evident, even from the extremely early look at Star Citizen we’ve been given, it’s shaping up to be a really impressive game. The visuals are fantastic all the way around, from the vastness of the virtual galaxy right down to the small physical movements the pilot makes when the player steers or controls the throttle. It’s also an incredibly vast game as far as the gameplay variety it offers. On the surface it’s a spaceship-flying action game, but that’s only the beginning; there’s plenty of opportunities to get out of your ship and explore on foot, often inside other large ships.

The craziest part about it is that it’s a crowdfunded game. While looking as ambitious as (or perhaps even more ambitious than) most of today’s triple-A games, it’s being made on a relatively modest budget that’s been donated by eager players. So how the heck are they planning on pulling such a huge project off on such a reasonable budget?

There’s been accusations from some of the more cynical pundits out there that the game is destined to under-deliver, and that it will fail to live up to the bold promises it has made. While there’s a possibility this will happen, there’s also a key factor that makes it more realistic in its ambitions than might be immediately obvious.

The most recent episode of the excellent Idle Thumbs podcast touched on this a little bit, and it’s a really interesting point: space games have a long, storied history of impressing the hell out of players in a way that seems super ahead of their time. Thinking all the way back to what is largely considered the first real video game, it was a game that took place exclusively in the vast, dark expanses of space – Spacewar. 

More recently than that, games like Wing Commander – a series created by the very same guy who’s making Star Citizen – have impressed us with their graphics and their expansiveness in ways that seem ahead of the rest of the industry at the time of their release.

It’s not a coincidence. There’s a reason some of the most impressive games throughout history have been games that take place in the outer reaches of deep space: it’s an easier environment to create in a convincing manner than almost any other. Again thinking back to Spacewar, doesn’t it make sense that the first thing we managed to make look accurate enough to be discernible on a black and white, super low-resolution screen would be the night sky? Imagine trying to simulate a forest or a city with just a few white blips on a black screen…doesn’t it sound almost completely impossible?

This reality has continued to be true all the way through gaming history. It became if anything more pronounced in the age of 3D games, when every visual piece of a game needed to be provided in the form of polygons and textures, which all take up valuable memory when the game is run. If we think of the assets required to simulate space – an asteroid here, and planet there – versus what’s required to simulate a jungle – trees, bushes, animals, flowers, dirt, topography, etc. – it’s easy to see how space can look much more impressive for a given poly count or memory size than anything else we’d care to simulate.

And that brings us back to Star Citizen. There can be no doubt that it’s a huge, impressive looking game…but what’s really required to bring the game’s environments to life? It runs on CryEngine 3, so all the lighting, physics, etc. are included in the engine they’re starting with. Beyond that, they need to model some spaceships, some asteroids and planets, and perhaps some space debris…that’s really about it. When we compare this to all of the art assets required for just one small village or town in a first-person shooter that takes place here on earth, it’s clear that space is much easier to build enormous environments in than any other locale would be.

So once again, as the latest entry in a long line of impressive space games, Star Citizen is poised to be a game that looks way ahead of it’s time. Many are sure to wonder how they pulled it off, not realizing how storied a history deep space games have in this regard.

It won’t stop with Star Citizen, either. The very nature of space’s vastness and minimalism make it easier to simulate (and build a game within) than anything else we’re familiar with. The lineage of mind-blowing space games will not end with Star Citizen – even if it fails to deliver on all of its promises – and we’re sure to see more amazing marvels of technology in future space games.

For now, let’s just cross our fingers and hope that Star Citizen is as good as it looks from the early footage we’ve seen. Despite the relative ease with which we can simulate space, there’s all manner of other hurdles that Star Citizen must get over, from story to mechanics to online infrastructure. One thing is guaranteed, though: even if it fails on all these accounts, it’s going to be a hell of a pretty looking game.

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