Development on the super-ambitious PC space sim Star Citizen isn't finished yet, but developer Cloud Imperium Games has now released the latest significant update to the ongoing alpha. Alpha 3.3, which launched today as part of the Star Citizen conference CitizenCon, adds a number of intriguing new features and content, including long-awaited "Face over IP" functionality. An evolution of Voice over IP, or VoIP, this new feature allows players to control their character's facial expression with their own using a webcam.
According to Cloud Imperium, this creates a "new level of immersion never before seen in other games, as well as a more traditional voice chat."
Cloud Imperium is working with the company Faceware Tech for Face over IP; they previously worked with Hazelight on the impressive-looking character models in A Way Out, while the company also made a digital version of a young Elton John that looks eerily close to real life.
Cloud Imperium production lead Eric Kieron told GameSpot that the Faceware tech does most of the under-the-hood heavy lifting, so the resource requirement on your PC is not significantly more than VoIP. "FoIP can use pretty much any standard webcam, although the better the camera, the better the results, to track several common 'reference points' on a face and track them in real time--eyes, nose, mouth, lips," Kieron said. "With those reference points serving as a 'map,' we can animate the corresponding pieces of an in-game character relatively easily."
Kieron also pointed out that FoIP is not a direct webcam view of your face, so if you tried to broadcast another body part or something else entirely--this is the internet, of course--it wouldn't work. "If you tried to broadcast something that wasn't a face, it wouldn't register and would just display an un-animated character face," he said.
Alpha 3.3 is a big update. Outside of FoIP, the patch adds a new mission type, "Scramble Race," which challenges players to race across the game's moons, as well as 10 new ships. Also in the update are more ship weapons and armor types. What's more, the update adds enemy AI on planets, so now you'll have to face off against enemy combatants on certain planets in Star Citizen's first-person shooter mode. Cloud Imperium has also added the ability to buy new ships with in-game currency instead of real money, while a backend change adds tech called Object Contain Streaming (OCS) that should help the game run more smoothly.
GameSpot chatted with Kieron about Star Citizen's new FoIP and other key parts of the big Alpha 3.3 update. He is the production lead of Cloud Imperium Games at the company's Los Angeles studio. The full interview follows below, and it also touches on the seemingly endless development of Star Citizen and some of the criticisms that the studio has received. Star Citizen is the most funded crowdfunded project of any kind in history, bringing in more than $194.5 million so far.
You can watch the CitizenCon stream live right here.
GameSpot: One of the coolest new features is Face Over IP. What kind of technical wizardry are you doing that allows for this, and are players going to need a super strong PC and fast connection to use it?
Kieron: Believe it or not, it doesn't. Faceware has done a lot of the heavy-lifting on the back-end and it actually doesn't take up significantly more bandwidth than voice over IP. They're running the machine vision portion of this, where our tech is responsible for the run-time rigging that allows universal playback on any machine. Basically, we map what Faceware tracks, run it on a separate server, and transfer the data into the game.
FoIP can use pretty much any standard webcam (although the better the camera, the better the results) to track several common "reference points" on a face and track them in real time (eyes, nose, mouth, lips, etc.) With those reference points serving as a "map," we can animate the corresponding pieces of an in-game character relatively easily.
This is still an early use of the technology, and we're sure we’ll end up with some pretty interesting moments, but I really think it’s going to be a lot of fun to play around with. Some of our testers have already been messing around with it and the results are pretty awesome to see.
How are you going to deal with the griefers who will undoubtedly stream other body parts or other things entirely? Is Face Over IP opt-in?
Face Over IP is not a direct webcam view, instead the character animates while you speak and make expressions, using facial recognition software. If you tried to broadcast something that wasn't a face, it wouldn't register and would just display an un-animated character face.
Do you envision Face Over IP becoming commonplace across games in the future?
Yes, I really do. We're really trying to push the boundaries with this one. I can't wait to see what our community does with it--I really think it'll be a meme factory and that our backers are going to have a lot of fun with it, and at the same time, it will be utilized as a tool to elevate the incredible videos that they've already been making. It's also just a lot of fun and unlike anything I've ever experienced in a video game before, making the player to player interaction more fun and really, more realistic.
Alpha 3.3 is a massive update, but what are the key things players need to know about it?
Alpha 3.3 launches Object Container Streaming, an immense piece of technology touches literally every part of our game. Players should notice performance increases from this, but it’s also one of the back-end tech keys that helps unlock the true potential of the Star Citizen Persistent Universe. This tech dynamically tells player computers to "stream" (process and render) individualized "containers" of space. Containers will expand and contract dynamically based on player count, activity, etc.
It's how we ensure that servers don't overload and make a buggy game for everyone, and how we're able to drop huge locations in the game like the Planet Hurston (3.1 million sq. kilometers). Getting OCS into the game has been in the works for years. It allows us to focus on content--we made 4 moons in Hurston in six weeks, 3.0 launched with 3 moons and it took a full year.
Also new is first-person shooter enemy AI. This populates the universe with enemy combatants. Now players will play through our different locales with actual CPU enemies who put them real danger.
"When people give us the amount of trust and support we see everyday, we know we owe it to them to show them how we're spending our time and their money" -- Kieron on Star Citizen's transparent development philosophy
And in-game ship buying with in-game currency. This is a huge, huge deal for us. You can buy an assortment of ships with earned in game currency from missions, trading, player interaction, etc. This is a huge part of the game loop and gives players a choice on how they want to experience Star Citizen. Further, it’s a dramatic change to our business model. When you can earn and buy every ship in the game, dedicated players will be able to grind for it all. This is our first iteration of how we’re rolling it out and we know it’s going to have a huge impact on the in-game economy as well, so expect tweaks, but it’s a big difference to how we operate both in the game and as a company.
Generally speaking, Star Citizen catches a lot of flak for being the game that is constantly in development with no end in sight. What's your response to that?
I think it's important to understand context. We've existed as a corporate entity for six years. Development has happened since the beginning, but the size of the team back then was pretty small. When Chris first pitched the game, the community's outpouring of support dictated that he not just make a game, but also create the company, the tools and everything that goes into a project of this size.
Star Citizen did and continues to do a great job of helping propel the movement toward transparent development. The game is developed out in the open and the developers speak frankly about the challenges of making such a big, ambitious game. Why is developing in this way so important to you?
It's everything to us. From the day Chris started this project, we've been committed to delivering our backers and our community a new type of game; the game we've all wanted to play. When people give us the amount of trust and support we see everyday, we know we owe it to them to show them how we're spending our time and their money. We want to give them the best damn space sim ever, and we're able to come to work every day and help make that happen.
We are so directly connected to the community that we can see and react to their feedback in real time. It’s incredible fuel, and we find the instant feedback loop incredibly rewarding. We get to make a game that we're confident people want, because they’re playing it already!
Anything else players should know?
Hurston and Lorville (our new planet and major city) are coming shortly in an incremental patch between now and the end of the year - we’ll also have an end of year 3.4 patch that adds even more content!