Star Citizen can never be accused of being short on ambition. And so it is with the game's Quantum project. This aims to bring the SC Universe to life in an amazingly innovative way, by enabling millions of NPCs to populate it, and "live" there as independent actors.
Star Citizen is promising a wealth of new features and gameplay possibilities in the medium to long term, but perhaps the most intriguing for us is the Quantum project.
First talked about and demonstrated in-depth at CitizenCon in November last year by Tony Zurovec, this is the NPC system that will drive Star Citizen's economy, missions and to a large part, the entire experience of the game.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to players is that we understand that Quantum is envisaged as providing at least several hundred thousand Quanta - as the individual NPCs are known - per solar system, and even up to a million, depending on testing.
This would mean that a Star Citizen universe could feature tens of millions of active Quanta.
So, what's innovative about them? In effect, the Quantum project aims to bring a truly dynamic economic model to the Star Citizen universe, dynamic in that players and NPCs are effectively equivalent participants in the game, dynamic in that the economy is constantly adjusting to fit new facts created by players or NPCs or other events such as additions to the game. Dynamic in that NPCs - known as Quanta - will have their own character traits that dictate behaviour and respond to new opportunities, and even create missions for players to take - dynamically.
A true "simulation engine" in the words of Mr Zurovec.
Now, an important point to make here is to do with our general perception of what the term "NPC" means. This idea that many of us carry from our previous gaming experiences is one of static NPCs, that have little to no active function within a game other than to provide static missions, have scripted player interactions or to sell or buy items at preset prices, all with strictly limited, if any at all, effective agency within the game world.
What Zurovec's team is striving to achieve is considerably more abstract than that. The requirement they are meeting is for constantly-in-effect behaviour modelling system, that provides sense, variance and meaning to the Star Citizen world, without consuming so much computing power that it would only be playable inside an MIT laboratory.
The solution identified by Zurovec's team is to effectively make each NPC a data point, only actually rendered in the game when a human player is in proximity but in all other respects an active participant in Star Citizen, responding to economic and security imperatives and having a variety of different random character statistics, traits or needs, such as ambition, intelligence, happiness, aggression. That's right, as we understand it, there will be some lazy Quanta who will only get out of bed if a) there's work on their doorstep and b) it pays well. Others will take risks to amass wealth and power and be a proper challenge to players, evolving independently of them.
To clarify this a little further, the Quantum model can function as a system without any human players being involved at all. Miners would mine, space truckers would truck, processors would process, sellers would sell, consumers would consume, pirates would plunder and police would police.
The consumption part is interesting. The intention is for the game's economy to reflect the Quanta population's use and need for ingame items - ships, power plants, coolers, missiles etc. Again, having an effect exactly the same as a player characters.
Of course, all this wonderful automated behaviour does sit within variable rules set by the Cloud Imperium Games team. As Zurovec demonstrated in his CitizenCon presentation, simply making a small adjustment to the amount of a particular processed material required to produce a Power Plant can have wide-ranging consequences, with Quanta responding on many levels to this adjustment.
The fact is that a complex simulation still requires rules, however broad they may be. Equally, those rules will certainly need to be adjusted once the system meets live human players, as we all know how tough it is to anticipate the actions of creatures as random as humans.
Does a system such as Quantum limit player choices? Well, take a title such as Eve, with its player-driven economy. Many would argue that the problem of Eve's model is the difficulty of entry for new players, and the domination of the economy by a limited number of established players and their organisations, allowing for market manipulation and resource hoarding.
Quantum would allow a single human player to be alone in the Star Citizen world and still have interesting, dynamic and variable content, without any other players being present.
"We've got a lot more work to do before quantum is ready for integration with the rest of the game but it's one of the last big steps in setting us up for a completely dynamic and systemic universe," said Zurovec at CitizenCon.
Thinking around this subject has led us to the same place that we know a number of Star Citizen watchers have reached. When and if the Quantum project is successfully implemented, then CIG will have a prime piece of technology that has a wider application than Star Citizen alone. Personally, I'm looking forward to being a test subject. My main fear is that I'll end up more boring than an NPC.
In Star Citizen's Space, Quanta will be able to hear you scream - or at least they'll have the smarts to cash in on your favoured "secret" trade route.