Star Citizen will not be a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. At least, it will not be a MMO in the way we think of them today, the way technology has forced MMOs to be in the past. In the past and up to today, MMOs run on a single shard, large or small. Everyone logged into that shard exists in the same shared reality. Their world is persistent, but only to them. Anyone not logged into a specific shard literally does not exist to any other shard. In order for anyone to interact with anyone else, they have to share a shard. It’s a way of looking at shard architecture that’s a bit antiquated. That is to say, it’s over a few years old. But it was completely understandable given the level of technology when the MMO concept was developed. Here’s what that architecture looks like in a simple graphic.
But there is a different way of looking at how this infrastructure works. Instead of separate, self-contained environments, each shard could interconnect with one another and share all the information contained within each. With the advances over the past decade in processor architectures, cloud computing and virtualization, there is no need to keep barriers between all these realities. With today’s technology, if Google and Amazon can disperse their server load over a network that spans the globe, so can a game company. It may even be a cooperative business endeavor. Here is what such an interconnected persistent universe looks like graphically.
Now, in all likelihood the open shard architecture would evenly distribute players across groups. And that is precisely what Star Citizen does. Take that smallest perforated circle above, the 100-player circle, and imagine all the larger circles filled with the smaller 100-player perforated circles. I’d have done that above except it became totally unreadable. So keeping in mind that each of the larger circles are populated by 100-player circles of their own, what does that represent?
In Star Citizen, the 1500-player circle could be a main planet within a galactic region. The 1500-players are spread throughout that planet, both on the surface and in orbit. The Star Citizen system will allocate all those players to one of the 100-player circles within that larger group. As players move around and interact with other players, Star Citizen will dynamically transfer them from 100-player group to 100-player group. These groups, in actuality game instances, will form and dissipate according to the game play happening in that part of the persistent universe. This dynamic instancing will be done completely in the background, without the players knowing. They will be automatically shuffled and reshuffled second by second as the game progresses.
The concept is fracking brilliant IMO. It is all outlined here in a post made by Chris Roberts at the very beginning. He runs through a hypothetical player event, trading steel between New Pittsburg and Terra, to illustrate how the system will work as that hypothetical player takes care of business. And this is the point where I really started to pay attention. In fact, I had to read it twice to make certain I hadn’t read it wrong. In essence, this system will run the same way whether the person is in effective solo player mode, or has thrown the gates wide open to MMO style play. Here’s how Chris Roberts describes it (emphasis mine.)
“Once I’ve plotted my nav course I would then engage auto-pilot and head towards my first “way” point on the path to my destination (a jump point, an interim space feature, like an asteroid belt and so on). At this point I’ve been handed back to the Galaxy Server, which is determining whether I will encounter a hostile, someone that has tagged me as a POI, or a predetermined encounter on the way, or if I’m going to run across ongoing battle instance that is relevant to me (some members of the instance are aligned against or with me). These encounters could be with an NPC or a live player(s) and are sorted on skill level and also – which is important to all of you that like a more single player experience and don’t want to deal with griefers – based on your player versus player (PvP) preference. So if you’ve set your game settings to be low PvP and you’re in a relatively safe area, you’ll likely have an NPC (PvE) encounter as opposed to a PvP one. Of course your ranking and any reputation you earn won’t be the same with a PvE encounter versus a PvP. My hope for this dynamic is that it will allow people to first play Star Citizen in a safer more single player open world style, but as they grow in confidence and want to test their mettle against other real players they can take the training wheels off and get into battles with real players. There will also be areas of the universe that no matter what your PvP setting is, will be PvP. These will be systems that are on the fringes of the policed galaxy and will be notorious for pirate and other illegal activity. They will also be the most lucrative areas – if you can survive.”
This, this, this, this, GODS DAMMIT this. Gamers love to test their metal against the best opponents possible. We all know no AI boss could ever be as cunning and dangerous as a real person. Sooner or later, almost all of us want to take the real human challenge on. But new bros want to do it when they are prepared, when they feel ready. By changing the paradigm of how MMOs can operate, Star Citizen can do that. By allowing solo play and multiplayer play to coexist side by side, dynamically instancing them into and out of the weave of the persistent shared universe, Star Citizen will provide the best of both worlds.
Is this as easy a thing to do as my simplistic graphics and short paragraphs portray it to be? Hell no. It is perhaps the most ambitious gaming architecture any company has ever attempted. Yet I am convinced Robert Space Industries can pull it off. And I’m not the only one. There are almost a half million people who’ve contributed nearly $44 million in the name of that vision. And in less than a month, we should see whether or not dynamic instancing within a persistent shared universe can really work. In order to match pilots in Arena Commander, the system will have to exercise the programming logic that will make dynamic instancing a reality.