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The History of Star Citizen’s Derelict Ships from 2016 to 2022

Moons, planets, space. Millions of kilometers of land, and an unthinkable amount of space to explore. But if there’s nothing there, what’s the point? Today we take a look at one of the key features that will bring activity to Star Citizen.

A source of salvage, exploration, loot, platforming, and more. From their introduction till now, these crashed and destroyed ships on the ground and in space have developed into a pretty substantial part of the game and a good example of game development. Derelicts have scope-crept their way into the main focus of the game, and today I’m going to show you how that happened, why it’s important, and where this feature will go from here.

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Where Did Derelict Ships Come From?

If you fly around the game space in Star Citizen, you’ll notice there is a lot of time and effort put into visuals, details, and the atmosphere of the game. And a common complaint you’ll hear is that there’s plenty of space but not much to do. To those complaints first I’d remind them how little we’ve found exploring our own moon for years. But then I’d also point them to 2016 when we saw the very first derelict in-game.

This derelict was significant for 2 reasons, first, it was our first dynamic point of interest, or at least it felt dynamic. It was the first of these smaller POIs like caves, outposts, and crash sites. It was also significant because it was a major part of the change in the content we were seeing due to planet tech becoming part of the game. For those who don’t know, planet surfaces were not always planned to be in-game, but now they are, and CIG knows there needs to be stuff to do around them.

And yes, obviously derelicts also exist in space, but without planets, their importance likely would not be what it is today.

So, back in 2016 at Gamescom, we got to see our first derelict in play. The model was quickly spread to ground-side derelict ships by the end of the year. We actually hear a bit about how this process ballooned the importance of the feature a bit in this talk.

There’s obviously a little bit to be said about scope creep here. Many will say Star Citizen doesn’t suffer from scope creep, and I also believed it was in check. But there are certain game systems and features that grow in scale throughout the years as supporting features are brought online.

Derelicts were not part of the plan but were introduced for planet-side content, this, in turn, complicated the ship production process, required new tools to be made to procedurally build the wrecks, and would involve the addition of salvageable materials, AI who can interact with the areas, and a system that can maintain the site integrity of each derelict.

New Progress

From 2016 we jumped forward a year to the summer of 2017 when the initial batch of derelict ships and their wreckage elements were almost complete. This was the launch of derelict ships, this was derelicts T0. This feature was actually part of the content drought as CIG prepared for 3.0. At this point, we could only look at these ships and imagine the gameplay. We were informed that these ships actually didn’t require new broken parts to be made, all of the broken sections were already needed to be made for the damage pass. This is something that has obviously not remained true since then. At the time, materials were pre-baked in, which I believe is no longer the case with procedural material wear in-game.

We were also informed at the time that these wrecks were created to generate some mission scenarios. New areas for players to be drawn to for additional gameplay.

One month later, in July, we got another great look at derelict progress with the Caterpillar making progress. It was chosen as the first ship to try out due to it already having a planned modular nature. While that modularity still hasn’t come to fruition at the time of writing, the Caterpillar does still seem to be the testbed, being the first of the new generation of wrecks.

The development at the time on derelicts was focused on highlighting the story and scenario that caused each wreck. Star Citizen is being developed for continuous content, wrecks will be dynamically spawned and persist to allow players to rediscover old finds, and when players do come across these wrecks, first time or returning, they should be able to understand the story of how that ship ended up there.

In the past, I’ve come across many ships with confusing crashes. Some of them look like they were calmly placed where they lay, which is a bit disappointing and something I hope improves now that planet tech is a bit more agreeable.

Derelict Ships in The New Age of Star Citizen

While this first implementation launched back in 2018 with 3.0, bringing new places for players to visit, it was most definitely an alpha implementation. The general consensus was that this was a proof of working tech that provided some fun scenarios but would need to be expanded on in the future. We would need new materials, new ships, new biomes, things to do in these derelicts, and other features that needed to be applied to this new location type. Recognizing that feature growth we talked about in the beginning? Well so did CIG, so they actually went quiet on the feature for the most part until finally picking it back up for the next version. During this downtime, which lasted almost 4 years, a lot changed in the game. The way ships were made, the priorities of gameplay, the selection of POIs, the underlying technology driving the game, and all the extras that might be sprinkled throughout these areas.

So it made complete sense that at the beginning of 2022, with the introduction of derelicts T1, it was the additional features that took front and center. Loot was highlighted as a good reason to find these spots, hostile AI can make the situations more dangerous, and trip mines add a sense of suspense to the set-piece. With this new update to derelicts, static points of interest became more engaging showcases for various forms of gameplay. Along with caves, these now act as a playground for the design teams to implement new features and tech coming from the Squadron 42 focused teams. With these locations, we could see bounty hunting missions, exploration voyages, salvaging expeditions, and loot trips being tied in to make the entire game feel a bit more grounded. This falls in line with the new Montreal Sandbox Team, as their task seems to be fleshing out existing locations, with jobs like the hospital locations, building interiors, and derelicts being left up to them.

This sprint on the feature is focused on taking what was once some cool places to visit in the game, and turning them into wondrous and mysterious points of interest to explore. These were no longer mission locations, they were there as part of the verse. It seems to be focused on procedurally sampling ship pieces and systemically adding them to the terrain in various areas. I have no doubt this is still difficult given the size of these planets and the fact that the ship locations still need to be hand selected, but it does also seem like CIG is looking to standardize this derelict creation process.

So with the 3.16 branch of updates, derelicts Tier 1 has been implemented through the addition of a dozen different caterpillar crash sites. This disappointed me as I thought we’d see more variety, but I realize that this may be a sign that the creative process for these derelicts may have changed enough that they needed to start over with the caterpillar and work their way through every ship. This is frustrating but does seem to be the case given the new footage we’ve seen. Luckily, CIG has shown they are well underway on the next ship to follow. I do hope we can learn more from CIG about how the derelict process has changed, if it is separate from the damage pass each ship goes through, and how they plan on speeding up the process in the future, but we may never hear those answers.

What Does The Future Hold?

Instead, we can look at the future, or if you are watching this later, the present.

The plans for derelict ships going forward is 3 fold. We are looking at an expansion in ships, biomes, and stories. We actually already see some in-engine signs of new ship derelicts as our first introduction to derelicts Tier 2, most notably the Reclaimer, a ship that I’ve always imagined would make the best derelict. As for biomes, while we’ve seen plenty of concept art, and we know there are more biomes coming with pyro and Nyx in the next couple of years, I don’t think we’ll see these wildly different biomes soon. As for the stories and scenarios, we find these ships in, we’ve seen that CIG has the potential, and we know they want to make it happen. They also plan on these wrecks being persistent, able to be visited by everybody as they are created. Something that adds a lot of weight to the passing of time in-game. We will have to see if they can really build locations that feel alive and captivating.

These new derelicts are going to be a major part of the game, they’ve truly grown in importance and capability since their 2016 introduction, and are turning into a showcase for other features in the game as well. At the time of writing, we are currently amidst a sprint to add more Tier 1 derelicts to the game in a 3-quarter period, and I’m going to be watching how this unfolds closely. The development of this feature looks to be a possible sign of how major features will be implemented at this stage. CIG likes to try different approaches to how they implement these things into the game, and this seems like one to watch.

The journey that this feature has taken to get here is an interesting one, and I think it’s just public-facing enough to show how much a feature can change and grow to accommodate the game at that time. As I’m not a game developer, I have no idea if this is normal for such a major feature, but from what I’ve seen, it is. I’m excited for what the future holds in this feature, and I hope it develops quickly from here, even in alpha.


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