Relay's newest writer, CommanderLlama, does a post-mortem of Sea of Thieves with an eye towards Star Citizen's Multicrew future
I have some serious problems with Sea of Thieves. Since its first whispers four or five years ago, I kept my ears to the ground of development in much the same way I do with Star Citizen. Sometimes I followed it very closely, sometimes life got busy and things rolled along without me. I played the earliest Tech Alpha tests. I played the Beta tests. On paper, there was a lot to get excited about:
Gorgeous aesthetic with a low impact on performance
First-person multicrew gameplay, online co-op with friends and strangers
A big, open world sandbox archipelago ripe for adventure
All of the above, and as pirates!
Holy crap, what an Age of Gaming Wonders we live in, quoth my 2015 self. On one hand, I’m watching the largest video game crowdfunding experiment of all-time create a space game - nay, virtual universe - of many people’s dreams. On the other, someone is finally making a big budget, first-person, open world, online PvPvE pirate game.
I openly admit that my opinion of Sea of Thieves is controversial, but after reading a multitude of critical and user reviews of the launch version of the game, it is definitely not contrarian. The paper specification for the game was superb. In reality however, there is a lot to be bummed about now that it’s out:
A big, open, empty sandbox archipelago ripe for encroaching boredom
A matchmaking system with a focus on frustration and relogging
No in-game systems to support social structures or guide player behaviour and thus, a focus on “Free-For-All” and “Kill-On-Sight” mentality
No fishing (Editor’s Note: HOW THE HELL DO YOU LAUNCH A BOAT GAME WITHOUT FISHING?!?&^%@#$)
An insultingly repetitive PvE game loop that is grindy and unrewarding
No vertical progression of any kind, and an almost non-existent horizontal progression system as well
These concerns were already mounting when I got to play the Tech Alpha, and future releases served only to breed more. However, this will not be my treatise on all the things right or wrong with Sea of Thieves. The former is a short essay and the latter could fill chapters of a game design textbook. If you want a more focused laser of sass and criticism, I’m somewhere on the Sea of Thieves official forums.
Oh, it is so very pretty. But can I like, do something interesting please?
So why am I writing about Sea of Thieves with a target audience of Star Citizen fans? Because every game is a lesson. From Tetris to Call of Duty to Sea of Thieves to The Sims to World of Warcraft and anywhere else we look, we can learn lessons, ask questions, and apply them to the future. Whether it’s game systems, gameplay mechanics, aesthetics, social structures, development, publishing, infrastructure, and anything else that goes into the wonderful art and science of games and their development, we can learn, iterate, and synthesis for the future. Star Citizen is not an original project; It is the nascent and growing sum of decades of video games and their development. That’s art and science in a nutshell.
Whoosh, getting borderline philosophical there, had to pull myself back from the abyss. Let’s course correct. Sea of Thieves and Star Citizen have enough things, particularly gameplay, in common to be worthy of case study.
** Like big, like REALLY big, okay? Like SO MANY TAMRIEL’S big.
*** In the Persistent Universe at least, the thing most people mean when they say “Star Citizen”. By the by, PvPvE stands for Player vs. Player vs. Environment, a mixture of elements allowing both PvP and PvE (questing, exploring, bots/AI) gameplay.
**** As a Rare producer may describe it, Sea of Thieves has a deep and complex array of gameplay activities. In reality, I can count them on - and they don’t fill - one hand.
***** Cheap being a relative and changing term. The “whole” Star Citizen package comprising a future single player game (Squadron 42) and access to the Alpha Persistent Universe (PU) runs you $65 USD, or $45 USD for just the PU. Sea of Thieves has launched with permanent access for $60 USD, or monthly subscription-based access by the $10 USD/month Xbox Game Pass.
Feature-wise, Star Citizen is set to overshadow Sea of Thieves many times over. Despite their commonalities, they are different beasts. And despite the heavy criticism laid at the feet of Sea of Thieves at launch, I believe it gets one set of mechanics mostly right: Multicrew. Star Citizen needs to do the same, and so I argue CIG and fans need to take long, hard looks at games like Sea of Thieves for lessons and answers.
In Sea of Thieves, you can set sail alone, or crew up with one to three additional players. There are two types of ship in the game, the smaller Sloop designed for one or two players, and the larger Galleon designed for three or four players. These are the limits of the Crew System, but you could pile on as many players as the server has onto your ships too. This is abnormal, but possible. Concrete information on servers in Sea of Thieves is hard to come by, but servers apparently host up to six ships each. The ship type can vary, so it’s somewhere between six Sloops (6 player server), or six Galleons (up to 24 player server), and in reality it’ll be some mixture of players quite spread out and all very eager to kill one another on sight.
Gameplay is all about having Stuff To Do, a satisfying game loop that is engaging, rewarding, and dynamic. In the multicrew gameplay available in Sea of Thieves and increasingly Star Citizen, that Stuff To Do and game loop needs to encourage teamwork and communication. It boils down to a set of tasks requiring time and resource management. A Sloop can be studied as the equivalent of a 1 or 2 crew ship in Star Citizen, perhaps something akin to a Freelancer all the way down to an Aurora. So what is there to do on a Sloop? Whether engaging in PvE, PvP, or a mixture of both, Sloop tasks come down to:
With a tightly designed little Sloop and just a few player items, there’s a pretty dynamic pile of Stuff To Do on a Sea of Thieves ship, and a lot of it is relatable to gameplay and crew roles we want to see in Star Citizen (although the coat of paint will be different). If you take a look at the above table, you can probably already match Tasks that are available in the Star Citizen Alpha. I’ll get into that later.
For now, also factor in Time as a Cost too. Time is always a factor in performing all Tasks, because it takes Time to do said Tasks, and it also takes Time to go in between Tasks. A Sloop is small, and Time between Tasks is brief, except for when you’re leaving the ship entirely to Carry Treasure/Animals or other voyage-related explorations. At worst, the Crow’s Nest or plugging up holes in the deepest bowels of the Hold bring the highest Time costs, and in the middle of PvP they are very significant costs.
The Galleon is quite a bit larger than the Sloop. It’s a deck and two holds instead of a deck and one hold. Three sails instead of one. Eight cannons instead of two. As you’ve potentially quadrupled the number of players involved, the bureaucracy gets increasingly complex. More and better communication is required, and on any three or four player ship worth its salt, a Captain role must be created. There’s no game systems supporting a Captain, the crew are who they are, free to act as they wish. One crew can get vote kicked into the Brig, a sad and common tactic for three player Galleons that want to stay that way (Rare has admitted they want to find a solution for this). An efficient ship must self-organize or sink, and one bad egg can stink up the whole place for everyone. A poorly organized Galleon is a delicious floating meal for hungry pirates, while an efficient Galleon is a force to be reckoned with.
The Galleon (left) and the Sloop (right) in Sea of Thieves. The perspective is slightly off in this comparison, the Sloop screenshot is a little closer. The Cannons offer some scale.
Thankfully, Star Citizen may dodge some of the problems that arise in the above social situations. The biggest feature slated on the map for this is NPC Hires, which I fondly label as “Jobbies” harking back to my days on Puzzle Pirates many years ago. Even with a bigger ship, you can just choose to solo by hiring a bunch of Jobbies. They may not be as good as human players, but there will be a range of expertises available for different costs, and they’ll normally get the job done. In Sea of Thieves, the poor solo pirate stuck on a Galleon is the worst situation to be in, by comparison, and with the kind of crews random matchmaking drums up, you’ll feel like a solo pirate on a Galleon all too often.
One thing Sea of Thieves is struggling with is something I call Downtime. Downtime translates to the lulls, the out of combat, the travel times, the times where there’s nothing pressing to do. Downtime is common when travelling more than a couple islands away, if ships are by chance spread apart and there’s no PvP for a long time, and it’s readily apparent in efficient crews. When using the exact same ship for 1-2 player crews or 3-4 player crews, the Stuff To Do never changed for the given ship type.
If you want to set sail on a voyage, kill some skeletons, get some treasure, and bring the haul back to an outpost for gold and reputation, there is a fairly static list of Tasks to complete. This is the design equivalent of walking a knife’s edge, and it shows. As the learning curve of Sea of Thieves abates after a handful of hours, Erris and I sit upon our Sloop as it sails between islands. Thumbs twiddle. Erris laments of missed fishing opportunities. We wait. The ship density in Sea of Thieves is low enough that while PvP is an ever-present possibility, you could also go over an hour or more without seeing another ship. Goofing off aside, there is little to do with Downtime in Sea of Thieves.
There’s more to Downtime, because it also exists within tasks too. On the Helm, once the heading is set, aside from minor course corrects or a rare storm, now what does the Helmsman do? Once the sails are down and angled, do we really need three people to scout? Roles in Sea of Thieves aren’t assigned or enforced by the game, crew just do what needs to be done. As you level up in Sea of Thieves and you gain access to longer voyages, and Downtime increases. A more serious flaw that plays into the increasing Downtime is that treasure remains quite randomized. On high level voyages, you’ll still be digging up the lowest level chests that give a pittance. A side point, but that is bad and Rare hopefully addresses that. Don’t do this.
How much of this is applicable to Star Citizen? A lot of differences creep in at this point. Star Citizen will have more players, more NPCs (Sea of Thieves has no NPC ships), a wider variety of mission types, a highly simulated interstellar economy, and what looks like a fairly enormous path of progression (which, in my head, starts in an Aurora MR with empty pockets and hundreds of hours later ends up in an a 890 Jump holding up four 600i’s which in turn hold up an Endeavour where I run science experiments on unsuspecting watermelons).
Well, in a ‘Verse as big as advertised, designers still need to think carefully about Downtime (composed of Travel Time, Encounter Rate, and Stuff To Do), about Tasks, Outcomes, Costs, and Multicrew in general. In my humble opinion, Multicrew will comprise one of the most important pillars of Star Citizen gameplay. Too much Downtime is simply boredom. Different people have different tolerance levels for Downtime and boredom, of course. Just the right level of boredom can even be relaxing. Star Citizen is trying to be fifty things, but on average it should be like any old gameplay loop: Engaging, rewarding, and dynamic.
A game like Star Citizen isn’t trying to be a fast-paced arena shooter, pulse-pounding and never letting up until match end. At the same time, Star Citizen shouldn’t try to be a truck simulator where the main game is waiting (unless you specifically sign up to be a space trucker). In the Multicrew scenario, what this means is you don’t want crew standing around with no tasks to accomplish for too long, nor do you want too many tasks to accomplish all the time. Cue savage imagery of bulkheads and reflux capacitors blowing up on every quantum just to satisfy the Engineer role.
When I dwell on these concepts, they can come to feel like minutia, but they are critically important. To all the Citizens out there eager to be mercenaries, freelancers, and crew-for-hire on other people’s ships: You will want fun things to do! Erm, I hope that for you, at least. And if you’re brought onto a Constellation as an Engineer, and there’s a few low intensity combat encounters spaced out between fifteen to thirty minute travel times and no significant damage is taken, exactly for how long will that be fun? The answer is, it depends how much Stuff there is To Do for every crew member on every ship, and how much multitasking is available between roles.
The above are mere anecdotes, and they aren’t as critically important when all of the fun is coming from the social angle. If you’re in a fun crew, you’re probably going to have a fun time. Problem solved. But as is often brought up in screeching matches on the Sea of Thieves official forums, or anywhere else the topic of multiplayer gameplay “wide as the ocean and deep as a puddle” is discussed, you can have fun with fun people, two sticks, some rocks, and a bit of string. It’s reasonable to expect a little more. Going beyond the anecdotes and the terrible analogies, there’s grounding for this in plain old psychology.
Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow concept is a mental state that every game designer should want every gamer to be in as much as possible. Coined in 1975 and iterated on for decades, it is described as a state of high immersion, focus, and enjoyment. It’s a common state where one loses sense of spacetime, and one comes out of it saying things like, “Whoa, it’s 4am? Meh, just one more turn…”. Flow is pretty common in video games, and it’s probably one of the major reasons people find them so awesome. Entering another reality whisks our attention away. At the same time, games that rip you out of flow usually wind up getting criticized for whatever offending feature or character did so. The game is brutally unforgiving and doesn’t let up. The game is boring and nothing challenging is happening. This character is stupid and doesn’t fit the game at all. The game crashes to desktop. Oops.
The simple version of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow model (1975), showing the idealized Flow Channel. In the context of video games, an ideal player experience would be the wobbling dotted line.
The flow model goes beyond just the flow state. Games can and should tickle a myriad of human emotions, but you don’t want too many negative emotions. Gamers should be coaxed into flow states, and then prodded with heightened periods of arousal and anxiety, then brought back down. It can go the other way, with gamers brought into flow state, and then gently laid down into states of relaxation. However, lay us down too gently, and we’ll get bored. Rile us up too much and we’ll find the game too stressful, and aren’t games supposed to be relaxing? There’s no simple algorithm for managing this, and then each unique individual brings their own psychology into the mix, with tolerance levels for every emotional state varying. It is probably the thing that keeps game designers up at night, although innovative lootbox mechanics occupy much of their recent time in the traditional industry.
Career Groups are defined on RSI as Ship Roles. They’re not Player Roles, but they will almost definitely play a part in what I’ve labelled Operator and Specialty Roles for players depending on the ship. Some ships have overlapping Career Groups, and these are further differentiated into more specialized Roles.
The Ship Career/Role Chart provided by RSI for Alpha 3.0.
It’s fuzzy, but Ship Careers/Roles aren’t Player Roles, even if they suggest novel gameplay. If you’re a Pilot, well… You might be a Pilot on a Fighter, or a Pilot on a Drop Ship, or a Pilot on a Refueling vessel, or a Pilot on a Racer. And so on. Ship Roles more decide what activity your ship is designed to excel at. It’s still vitally important, and it serves a good purpose for flow. On top of this, the player roles could shift dramatically depending on Ship Size. What a player is doing on a 1-2 crew Mining ship versus a 6-8 crew Mining ship will almost certainly differ.
I mentioned each unique individual bringing their own preferences and tolerances for flow and other mental states, and that’s where Ship Roles can win big. Choosing a ship, and therefore choosing a Ship Role, can be like matching your own preferences and temperament to a good career. This isn’t a perfect solution: if the game mechanics for Combat are too hardcore, well, someone might just want to engage in Combat but it’s just too frustrating for them. Likewise, someone else might want to deal in Transport, but there’s too much boring Downtime for them. While not perfect, it will be great to see these different roles and their supporting gameplay come online, so we can assess their breadth of experience.
Just what is Multicrew in Star Citizen? The concepts hark back to some of the earliest crowdfunding promises and design articles. We saw a massive concept Bengal Carrier and there was talk of players being able to take control of it. We saw a glimpse at Gamescom 2015, and we saw two Idris frigates face off at Gamescom 2017. Mining and salvage should be out this year. Multicrew is coming to Star Citizen, and it’s coming soon. Will it be fun? Despite all of the variety in the grand feature list for the game, most Citizens will still be on some ship, hurtling between some satellites between such and such solar bodies. Travel much outside the ship in deep space and it’ll be death (by exposure or by boredom, depending on your O2 reserves). A lot of Citizens will, therefore, have what’s on their ship and that’s it. The ships must provide engaging, rewarding, dynamic, and lasting fun for all.
I asked Relay’s own Nehkara for some thoughts on this, and he laid out some core concepts in private conversation. Do note that these are incomplete concepts, because Star Citizen itself is incomplete, and there’s not much Multicrew in the game right now. It’s actually harder to get this stuff into a tabular format, because Star Citizen Roles themselves seem like they’ll have to vary in an organic way based on Ship Size.
* In the capital ship context, this role is not implemented. But of course, fighter craft are.
** If you’ve got an Aurora, you’re technically a Captain. But in the context of a Capital Ship, this Role is not yet implemented.
*** The canonical example right now is the Flight Attendant Role for the Genesis Starliner, but many of the Ship Career Groups suggest unique gameplay.
What I’ll do now is run down each and every Role outlined in the above table and get the lay of the land. The focus here are the same things I consider when I look at the Tasks available in Sea of Thieves. Roles weren’t defined in Sea of Thieves, everyone is just a bloody pirate. With concepts of ownership, Reputation, and eventual support for Organizations, Roles may end up much more defined in Star Citizen. For now, they’re pretty similar.
That this role will be an engaging and dynamic one is something I hardly need to argue. You can already be a pilot in Star Citizen Alpha right now. In single-seater fighters and smaller ships, the Pilot is everything. In two-crew ships, there will probably be a Pilot, and the second crew member fills a wide swathe of other roles: Turret Operator, Engineer, Soldier, or any Operator Roles offered.
As ship size increases, the logical path seems to be differentiation of the Pilot role. I’m a little ambivalent about that. You can count on teamwork and communication costs increasing as crew are added, but if newer, simpler roles are created by dividing up complex roles, that’s a possible danger zone for good ‘ol Downtime. A role on a capital ship that may have an expectation of being dedicated can’t be very simple, or it will be boring. On a medium sized ship, the same logic creates Pilots and Co-Pilots. The demanding and various nature of the singular Pilot role is a good candidate for establishing a flow state, so we might see the Pilot and Co-Pilot split up some duties to provide a more relaxing experience that can still be very engaging at times.
As far as the Pilot is concerned, it is the role for small and medium sized ships and there’s little to worry about. This is a good thing too, because it will probably be the most common role in Star Citizen by a wide margin.
This will be a role of vital importance on medium and larger ships, where an increasingly large fraction of that ship’s defensive capability comes from turret coverage. However, much like the pirate who sits idly on a Galleon’s Cannon station waiting for targets, in Star Citizen a Turret Operator seems to be a highly specialized role, and one with a very all-or-none style on the flow model. The ship is either in the heat of battle and very much needs the Turret Operator, or it doesn’t need a Turret Operator at all.
The upside of this is that Turret Operators become a temporary role, and that “Time to Move Between Tasks” concept from Sea of Thieves is a brief one. If a Turret Operator isn’t needed, then that Citizen can go do something else. There’s still some danger of boredom and apathy here. As the ship size gets larger, travel time within the ship increases. And as there are many crew, roles may become more specialized with less to go around for multitaskers. Designers can add variety to Turret Operators by mixing it with others on some ships: Perhaps a main turret could also house sensor suites to combine with a Scanner Operator, or any other Bridge Crew or Operator position, as long as there’s enough Tasks to go around for Pilots and Co-Pilots.
The quintessential “turret gameplay” reinforced a thousand times over in gaming history leads me to believe it can afford to be simple. Turret gameplay is usually just a point and shoot game, mingled with a little bit of resource management (overheat, ammo types, etc). Simple isn’t bad here, because the challenge of the task comes not from the turret operation itself but from the context and intensity of combat.
This is a pretty simple role, and every Citizen is a Soldier assuming they’re armed. Like Turret Operators, this is very much an all-or-none role on a ship. In battle, or during boarding actions, Soldiers become a suddenly vital position. The other 99% of the time, it’s all PT, patrols, and cleaning weapons. Soldiers, like Turret Operators before them, probably need other things to do on a ship. They’ll be multitaskers.
“I’m gonna shoot the shit outta that.” - A Star Citizen
In Sea of Thieves, with four players the complexity of teamwork required rises non-linearly compared to playing solo, or even with two. Now you’re fulfilling a role on a ship, but you also need to constantly update your team members about your work. There are no roles, but a Galleon must self-organize and raise up a Captain, or it will fail (catastrophically, in my experience). This trend will not lessen in Star Citizen. The Polaris corvette with 14 crew. The Idris frigate with 28. The Javelin destroyer with (cue spit drink) 80! Eighty bloody crew?!
A Captain, at least on capital ships, will likely be a role that requires minimal unique gameplay besides a seat on the bridge and some viewscreens. Even on the low end of the Polaris corvette, any good Captain will be receiving periodic updates from up to 13 other humans, or monitoring NPC hires in their places. They will need to synthesize that information in real-time and make decisions. As we consider the Idris and Javelin, we enter the realm that will be ruled almost solely by Organizations. This is beyond Multicrew, it is Entrepreneurial, and will probably come with increasing Tasks outside of the game too.
The Reality, or at least the dangers of Matchmaking Systems.
Anyone reading this far can probably detect the spectrum that Player Roles might lie along, a spectrum that is dependent on things like Stuff To Do, Ship Role, and Ship Size. In this way, my Table of Player Roles is deceiving because it struggles to lump things into nice neat boxes. In its most generalized state, I’d define an Operator as “unique gameplay that performs a small, specialized set of tasks.” Normally, you could conceive of this as a mini-game within the greater game. Harking back to Sea of Thieves for comparison, under this terminology you’d have things like Sail Operator, Helm Operator, Cannon Operator, and so on. What makes all of this a spectrum is that very specialized Operator Roles would lie at the opposite pole compared to a Pilot on a small ship. In the latter case, that Pilot is performing all tasks that aren’t automated.
Anyone who grew up on Star Trek, or has had the pleasure of playing Star Trek: Bridge Crew, can thus imagine what the Bridge Crew and Operator roles might be. Usually, you’ll be in charge of a couple resources, and optimizing their use, deployment, or balance. It may be power, shields, cargo, or scanning, but already I feel like we’re approaching a quagmire. There’s something to be said of the social element that will exist for Bridge Crew and Operators since they may need to communicate with the Captain or each other. However, I’ve already alluded to the consideration that too specialized a role could end up a detriment. If you’ve committed to making a Player Role a mini-game, then it is ideal for the mini-game itself to be inherently fun.
Much like the Turret Operator or Soldier who are an as-needed role, just how much finangling is needed moment-to-moment for the Bridge Crew and Operators? There aren’t always boxes to stack or energy modulations to… uh… modulate. So, what are these dedicated roles up to during the dreaded Downtime? If the answer is ‘waiting’, that’s a problem to tackle. One consideration here may be that, for instance, a Polaris may have a max crew of 14, but an optimal human crew may be less. Here, the word optimal doesn’t mean raw effectiveness, but best player engagement since the crew will have room to multitask and experience variety. This is actually quite possible, since CIG determines their minimum crew in a specific way. There’s no telling what highly skilled players will be able to accomplish, but we can be almost sure it will defy expectation. Too skeleton of a crew, however, and the ship will just lose effectiveness. The solo Galleon of Sea of Thieves all over again.
Real, captured Sea of Thieves gameplay of a solo Galleon pirate.
Based on 2015 design documents, repair gameplay seems fairly in-depth. On bigger ships with repair facilities, or on Support Career ships specializing in repair, the Engineer role becomes a sort of Repair Operator. Ships and ship modules will be composed of a multitude of components, each themselves composed of a multitude of raw or processed ingredients. There’s quite a measure of crafting concepts, memory, and organization involved in the imagined gameplay.
The Personal Multi-Tool that pretty much everyone will want to carry if they can, and the thing an Engineer is holding at all times in one hand, with a fresh mug of coffee in the other.
On smaller ships and in the small-time Engineer role, there will be the “Personal Multi-Tool,” known in many other games as the Magic Repair Gun (for Ships, as opposed to the Magic Healing Gun for meatbags). This is good, because my head was starting to swim when I imagined playing as the sole Engineer on a small capital ship. The latter seems like it would have a steep learning curve, and CIG needs to provide smaller time gigs. Remember, as well, that a lot of ships won’t have dedicated Engineer Roles, they’ll just have different crew multitaskers. Here, things like the Personal Multi-Tool fit perfectly. Hot off the heels of recent battle, Turret Operators can pop out of that Role, and run around the ship with fire extinguishers and multi-tools to put out flaming bulkheads, repair minor, and patch moderate levels of damage.
Based on the aged 2014 design documents, this could end up as an offshoot of the Soldier Role more than it is a unique activity. A lot of what makes you a space doctor, according to the documents, comes down to the gear you’re wearing. Most anyone should be able to drag teammates around (and it’s going to be so fun), and wearing the right diagnostic gear will let Medics properly assess different player damage states on a variety of body locations.
RSI seems adamantly against the trend of regenerating health, and although we may see temporary buffs like “combat stims”, just about every crew will want one person sporting a Personal Med-Kit. Although the mechanics are a lot less clear compared to the depth of the more dedicated Engineer role, larger ships and specialized support ships will have medbays, and in these cases Medics may graduate into Ship Doctors.
The limits of Medic resuscitation haven’t been explored that I know of, but if RSI is against regenerating health, I feel safe hypothesizing they’ll be against Magic Video Game Revive.
With Medic syringes from Battlefield 1, it’s a wonder anyone even died in their version of WWI.
With the bed-based spawn system that can’t help but remind me of Minecraft, a good middle-ground for Medic resuscitation that won’t alter battlegrounds too much will be features like medbays as mobile respawn points, as opposed to across the system at your Hangar. There’s also enough room in the proposed damage state system, that limited and costly resuscitation may be viable, without resorting to magic.
Specialized ships and activities in the ‘Verse will bring on Specialty Roles. The Flight Attendant. The Scientist. The Miner. The Salvager. The Farmer. The Reporter. Judging from Ship Careers/Roles, some of these may just fit into the already above postulated Player Roles with just a few extensions. A lot of them, in capital ship form, are just a type of Operator. Others have the space to be as in-depth as the Engineer design documents, or more!
The Flight Attendant design documents give us a glimpse into a very specialized Role. Not going to lie, I was thinking about games like Cook, Serve, Delicious! or the business management aspects of The Sims over its sequels the whole time I was reading the design document. These types of gameplay cater to a particular crowd, but they’re definitely tried and true. Aside from Pilot or Farming, running a (space) airline seemed like one of the most in-depth and interesting Player Roles in all of Star Citizen ad I’m excited to see it in-game. One thing that came away unclear was how small and medium-time gameplay in this slice of the Transport industry would work. The only two “Passenger” ships available are the massive Genesis Starliner geared towards large groups, Organizations, or individuals praying desperately for their NPC Hires to stop glitching out on world geometry, and the MPUV-1P Drop ship that appears to be a short-range snub craft. It is unclear, as yet, exactly how other ships, variants, or components customization will fill the gap between the two current extremes.
The Endeavour design documents show us the kind of breadth and depth that may one day be available to Farmers and Scientists. The Endeavour’s Medical Module is every prospective Medic’s dream. As for the Organics Module, I’m not sure why there’s much of a ship-based farming economy given the size of the procedural planets… But I won’t let that get in the way of my dreams of playing Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and AgriCraft inside of a gigantic space game. If any designers do happen to be reading this, I hope the option to ‘open the shutters’ of the Organics Module is a thing. Save some power from the growers and just bask in the orbital glare of the local sun. I may be showing my bias for growing virtual crops when I say this, but the Discovery Module sounds like the most dull affair of the bunch. I’m not sure how long I’d find scanning a few degrees of a starfield at a time interesting. Even so, it’s clear that as a Scientist you’ll be an Information generator, and that’s an important part of the economy Star Citizen aims to create. All the more important that it’s fun, but we can always outsource it to NPC Hires if it’s not.
A Fuel mechanics document is hot off the presses in April 2018, painting a picture of the Future of Fuel. Looks like all the free rides folks are getting in the current Alpha will shift over time as gameplay supporting the Energy Industry come online. Fuel hunters will become cloud chasers, piling as big a variety of fuel tanks as they can onto their ships and hunting the rarest propellants. The document didn’t mention any mechanics for Quantum Fuel, just for sublight Fuel types. I wonder if that’s just leaving room for future upgrades, or if CIG wants something pivotal like FTL Fuel to remain under their strict control.
Players will figure out self-sufficiency, and the ones that work out the Fuel game to a high enough level of expertise and organization would suddenly have unlimited travel range on the cheap. As far as a Role goes, this seems mostly like minor decision-making: Pick the best fuels to scoop given the context and off you go, but you’re largely just a Pilot. There’s clearly some room to grow here. Adding to refinery mechanics on certain ships or at refinery nodes could still expand into a crafting system not unlike what Engineers will enjoy.
A MISC Starfarer Pilot celebrating another epic haul, bruv.
Mining mechanics have also been described, and we can postulate that Salvage fits somewhere in the range of experience of its Industrial Ship Role cousins. A lot of the mining mechanics read as stylizations of Operator roles. Much like the resource mining game from Mass Effect 2, it looks like each station’s focus is on monitoring status screens and picking the right moments to act. The responsibilities are quite differentiated, which might end up a little dull after a while, but at least it will require a lot of teamwork and the social points help.
Spot the Mining Mini-Game! A popular pastime for crew enduring long quantum travel.
What about the Reporting Ship Role? Well, not too sure how that’ll work. It may be a novel social Role, or something sort of like observational Exploration/Touring, but I’m grasping at straws there. Since it’s sitting in the Support group of Ship Roles, it may be quite niche. It seems very likely to occupy an “Information-generating” niche of the economy too.
The big enemy of this article was something I called Downtime. It’s a murky name for a fuzzy concept. It’s my word for what happens when games knock you too far out of flow state, sliding down into control, relaxation, boredom, apathy, and then going to do something else with your life. Despite all of the incredible variety I’ve described about Star Citizen, Downtime will persist. It is the monster found in the gaps. For such a complex game, CIG is in for one heck of a balancing act. Ensuring rich experiences in ship roles seems like the primary way to find optimal Downtime. Remember, it’s not completely bad! If we want aspects of Star Citizen to be relaxing in some instances, then some Downtime is okay. How much? It depends, but a way to tackle that is hopefully Ship Roles. Some Ship Roles can be relaxing, some can be stressful, and some can be just right. People with different personalities can still find the right match in the ‘Verse.
Almost every Citizen would like to be somewhere in the Llama Zone when they play games. However, specific but hopefully not too common circumstances can push the player experience further. The threat of very dangerous PvPers might cause Anxiety. Very safe missions in High Security areas might cause Relaxation (but hopefully not Boredom).
Encounter Rate and Travel Time are two big beasts that play heavily into Downtime, and they’re somewhat external to what I’ve focused on here. Encounter Rate is simply how often “the action” will show up. It may be NPC interdiction, or an ambush on a planet, or PvP, or any number of things. The how often is what matters. Encounter Rate that’s too low means increasing Downtime and the danger of boredom. An Encounter Rate that’s too high means low Downtime, but it could be frustrating and eventually, unforgiving. Star Citizen will hopefully have things to play with here, features such as System Security levels and Reputation. If players and crews can pick and tweak their Encounter Rate to some extent, problem damn near solved.
Travel Time is a big one. The ‘Verse is huge, and purports to get almost unimaginably large someday. Systems that take tens of minute to cross. An expanding ‘Verse of around one hundred systems. Even in a straight line, we might be talking about travel times in the half hour to one hour range for even short interstellar hops. For the long haulers, explorers, and particular breed of temperament: multiple hours. During Travel Time, a lot of the ship roles I outlined above are rendered null. In the future, especially as honeymoon phases with the game wear off, Citizens will want Stuff To Do, and most don’t want to wait too long to get at it.
American Truck Simulator at Hour 1. And Hour 10. And Hour 100! And Hour 1000!!! I’m having a bit of trouble fitting this one into the Flow model, but then no conceptual model is perfect.
This ends up feeling like a rock and a hard place. Why was Star Citizen built so big if it’s too big to be fun to travel across? No point shrinking things now, but care needs to be taken in assessing player enjoyment with regards to Travel Time. Travel Time is practically synonymous with Downtime, the majority will not be demanding big stretches of it. I’ve heard a few answers to this: The ‘Verse may be a long haul to travel across, but you don’t need to travel across all of it at once. There will be (Truck!) stops for fuel, stops for battle, and other measures of variety. On top of that, whole player lives and careers could play out in a system or two, because that’s just how bloody massive Star Citizen is. If that ends up true, then I’m fighting ghosts to some extent here.
Just keep the Box Delivery Person’s fun in mind while designing this thing, okay?