Nov 15

Superluminal Communication in Star Citizen

Star Citizen Spectrum

I have participated in many discussions about in-game communications since the presentation on Star Citizen Spectrum at CitizenCon this year. One thing that keeps coming up is whether or not there will be Superluminal Communication. While I find any conversation about Star Citizen captivating, I find this subject particularly interesting for three reasons:

  • I believe in-game communication is one of the most important frontiers for improving immersion.
  • Faster than light communication is dealt with in almost every space-based science fiction universe.
  • Chris Roberts has said on multiple occasions there will be no FTL communication system in-game.

This is, as I will explain, one of the few areas where I disagree with Chris Robert’s vision for the gameplay experience. I get what he’s going for in terms of mechanics, but I don’t believe it will work in any multiplayer scenario because nobody will resist the temptation to leverage third-party systems to gain competitive advantage.

In-Game Voice Communications

In the beginning, there was silence. Well, mostly because my beginning with video games was pre-online gaming. Ever since we got online, for a long while, things have been pretty noisy.

In my experience, in the world of online PC gaming, the first significant breakthrough was voice comms. Instant side-voice (each side in PvP has their own channel) using some form of highly compressed, noisy VoIP, which had features and feel equivalent to a typical business meeting held online at the time. Just listen to the second half of the now famous ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ video, and you’ll get the picture. Just bunch of players shouting over each other to be heard in a virtual ‘room’ with no difference in volume or effects to simulate the acoustics of their environment. By the way, I’m sticking to PC Gaming in this exploration, but console is not much different.

As time went by things got a little more sophisticated, in my experience. Arma II, one of my all-time favorite games, introduced the notion of ‘channels’ so larger groups could scope and separate comms but this was completely dependent on voluntary compliance and it left a ‘global’ channel open to any individual player but it could be difficult to identify who was using it. This was an obvious vector for griefers and so we’d spend many sessions explaining to our teammates how to ‘mute that guy’ and then the wrong people would get muted and before you know it communications would fall apart.

Eventually, third party comms started to crowd into the space because they offered a much higher degree of functionality and control. Teamspeak is my favorite early example, but there are others. These systems allowed much better control and the ability to create password protected, ad-hoc channels and highly detailed permissions. Teamspeak, and others like it, also offered better sound quality and less problems with lag, but the overall experience was still just like VoIP. You felt like you were in the same room with your fellow players…And it was a room with zero reverb.

ACRE ScreenshotFinally, other third party developers began to tackle the issue of spatial acoustics. The earliest example I am familiar with is a mod called ACRE for Arma/Teamspeak. ACRE, which stand for Advanced Combat Radio Environment, actually deals with two separate but equally important audio considerations, direct comms and radio communications. The list of features is impressive, particularly for a free mod:

  • Direct sound
    • Environmental occlusion, including vehicles and buildings
    • Multichannel audio for multiuser communications
    • Whisper and shout
    • A virtual language feature allowing mission makers to designate languages and translators
    • 3d Propagation
  • Radios
    • Radios with external speakers
    • Highly detailed simulations of real life, multichannel combat radio systems
    • Customizable radio preset configurations
    • Vehicle intercoms

That second bullet under radios is a whopper. What it means, and I have experienced this, is you have to pick the right radio in game for a specific job. Trying to reach battalion command on a 343 squad com? Unlikely. Trying to reach air support on channel 3 when they are listening on channel 9? Not gonna work. Trying to reach your team on the wrong side of a mountain range? Expect difficulty. These are the conditions of radio communications in real life and the immersion is uncanny.

And that brings us up to the present time. What’s interesting is Star Citizen, like most science fiction universes, takes place at a time where technology is far more advanced than our own.

Superluminal Communication in Science Fiction

As I mentioned earlier, the second reason this topic is so interesting to me is the fact that it has been dealt with in every space-based sci-fi universe I’m aware of. The simple fact is, most of these stories take place over massive, interstellar distances, but also require the ability to communicate for the plot to make sense. Traditionally, the problem has been addressed in one of two ways, simply ignore it or create a pseudo-scientific mechanism for communication. In either case FTL comms always exists.

Takeshi KovacsIn Richard K. Morgan‘s Takeshi Kovacs novels colonies maintain contact with each other via hyperspatial needlecast, a technology which moves information “…so close to instantaneously that scientists are still arguing about the terminology”. Isaac Asimov solved the problem with his hyper-wave relay in the Foundation series. Larry Niven later used the same term in his Known Space series of novels and short stories, notably in the Ringworld and associated Fleet of Worlds series.

Back over to video games, Mass Effect explains instantaneous communication is possible using quantum-entanglement devices placed in the communication rooms of starships.

There are many more examples. The point is, this theme has been hashed and rehashed in science fiction and almost always comes out the same way: superluminal communication is necessary to tell a story on the scale of interstellar spacetime and human life. Any space-based sci-fi plot would be problematic without it.

No Superluminal Communication in Star Citizen

Chris Roberts has confirmed on multiple occasions, most recently, in March of 2016, that FTL communications will not be part of the Star Citizen Universe.

One thing is clear: Superluminal communication will be part of experience. The fact is, when it comes to PvP, the ability to communicate instantly is too much of an advantage to assume 3rd party systems will not be leveraged, a point Chris acknowledges. Frankly, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest everyone agrees that if it’s not part of the game functionality, players will just use the systems available outside the game.

What this means is CIG is willingly and knowingly abdicating an incredibly important part of the Star Citizen gameplay experience. As I asserted earlier, in-game communication is the biggest frontier for improving immersion, so this also means CIG has the chance to create the level of detailed accuracy now available in systems like ACRE, as part of the game, providing us with the immersion we all want so badly.

My hope is, at some point, CIG reverses course on this decision. What do you think? Do you believe in game communication is an important aspect of the overall experience? Do you agree that superluminal communication is widely accepted in sci-fi universe design?

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  1. Max

    I think SC is convinced that the much-touted “spectrum” will be so irresistible that even if it won’t completely displace external channels, it will become the default choice. I’m a good deal less convinced that everyone is as hyped about it as SC thinks, but hey – guess we’ll see. I for one don’t muti-play so it’s a bit of a moot point for me. I can tell you though that the obligatory integration requirements with some org’s own comms infrastructure makes me want to be part of one even less…

  2. Grim

    Wouldn’t Superluminal comms render the Herald obsolete as a gameplay device?

  3. Blackwatch

    As you said, it will happen whether SC adds it or not, so why bother putting resources into it? That market is bloated with products: Skype, Ventrillo, Mumble, Discord, Curse, Teamspeak. The niche is handled.

    What I think CIG’s decision is based upon is the absence of “local”. There will be no /zone, /local, etc, universe or even system-wide chat channels. All of the chat programs above require you know the people, you deliberately connect with them. It doesn’t allow for spam and unintended Intelligence. For example, in Eve, the moment you enter a system, everyone in that system knows you are there and can instantly act. That won’t exist in SC. I think that is CIG’s focus, creating realism in the fact that space is huge.

    Voice can always be added later without major redesigns, and it’s covered right now so shouldn’t be a high priority for CIG, at least IMHO.

    My 2 UEC, of course

  4. Tdsharkey

    Don’t forget the Traveller setting, which has many similarities to the ‘Verse. There is no FTL communication in that setting, and data / news travels as fast as ships (similar to the Herald) can carry it.

  5. Christoper Blair

    Interesting. Although I think you may be splitting hairs that don’t exist. Yeah, CR says no FTL and until someone actually proves FTL is possible than it is hard to argue CR on that decision. But we are dealing with distance scales that render current transmission technologies unusable. My mates are not going to wait around to hear what I’ve got to say.

    That said, it is clear that TS/Discord allow us to bridge that gap without a care. For example, my mateys may be far, far away and discover info that they can just relay to me over TS/Discord. No need to wait for an info runner.

    The question is mission creep. CR’s plate is already overflowing. And you want to add more?

    I don’t anticipate Spectrum will be anything to write home about. Maybe we will get surprised?

  6. Stalker J

    Let me start by saying that I agree most people will use third party VoIP for across the board instant communication. That being said, not including it in lore and keeping communication at sub-light speed does bring interesting gameplay elements. VoIP communications is about talking, third party apps won’t be able to relay most information that your instrument records. Ship position, ressource position, composition of asteroids, etc. One idea that SC “roles” is based on is to have them support each other. Sending the map of the star system or planet you just surveyed to your teammate three systems away is not something that can be done over VoIP. Sure, you can talk over a description of the overview but sending the map over might allow them to use it for something. Such as to plot a quantum drive Navpoint and allowing them to directly go somewhere they never visited before, directly. So, yes… in lore FTL comm might be more immersive and remove the non immersive use of VoIP. But yes, having non FTL comm also bring a lot of other opportunities and a different kind of immersion.

  7. aviphysics

    I talked with the guy that gave the Spectrum presentation after the show and he seemed to be taking a very nuanced approach.

    He indicated an understanding that Spectrum will need to compete with 3rd party apps and that the ability to communicate instantly with friends is important. He didn’t say for sure that they were going to do it that way, but I am inclined to believe that it is likely.

    The limit on range I suspect will have more to do with things like transmitting survey scans or coordinates, which can’t easily be sent through third party services.

  8. AlexanderDKB

    Your argument appears to be flawed.

    You talk about how immersive mod is for Arma which simulates the need for radios to communicate over distance and the operator and team mates need to coordinate channels and line of sight.

    Would this not foster the exact same desire to use a 3rd party tool? Yet, you praise this mod.

    Take a step back and think about the design beyond chat. In game missions, lore, and NPC actions will be based upon the lack of FTL communication.

    Sure, gamers will use a 3rd party chat solution. But that doesn’t mean they can send a chat to an NPC. Or complete a mission by telling another player the data they retrieved. And arriving at a planet outpost that’s been overrun by some disease or animals would be a surprise, because those NPCs couldn’t send FTL communication.

    Back again to the idea of immersion; the restrictions you admire in that Arma mod apply to more than communication. You see it in SC when you order a ship, put on a space suit, and then take off. You don’t spawn in a ship ready to go.

    Breaking away from this to avoid users jumping into a 3rd party tool is a compromise from this vision, and one that would need to compete directly with TS or Discord.

    If users want that experience, the solution exists. No need to rebuild that.

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