'Star Citizen' Devs Explain How SOCS Makes Space for Space in Alpha 3.8

Star Citizen has raised north of $250 million in pledges from millions of eager backers on the promise of a limitless virtual universe fit for exploration, combat, piracy, bounty hunting and anything a sci-fi fan might desire. But, in order to deliver on that all-encompassing vision, the space that players traverse has to be almost as boundless as the dark, starry depths itself. Key to making that dream a reality is a bleeding-edge technology called Object Container Streaming.

Simply put, OCS is a measure of intuitively loading sections of the Star Citizen universe as players encounter them by putting desired objects in actual boxes within the play space. While client OCS debuted last December, that technology has since been applied so servers in Serverside Object Container Streaming (SOCS), featured in the game's upcoming 3.8 alpha. The terms themselves may sound dry, but CIG Technical Director of Content Sean Tracy recently told Newsweek why this advancement may be one of the biggest technological milestones this game has seen to date.

Not Enough Space

The creative journey of SOCS began close to the inception of Star Citizen, and the technology was designed to solve a pretty substantial problem for the minds behind a limitless universe.

"The basic elevator pitch is we are out of space on the server. We can only load so much data at once. Every other game runs into the exact same problem, and everybody solves it in different ways. The general case for the last 20 years has been to hard load. That's the level paradigm. That is how games have been built for a long time now....

"When you're building a universe, that's obviously a lot of levels. That's a lot of data. At this point, we've got something north of 500,000 entities loaded on the server at one time. So you can imagine that that does increase the load, and we've actually gotten to a point that were out of memory," Tracy said.

This problem could be no better exemplified than the current partial deployment of the upcoming microTech planet. "We are so at the limit right now that we put microTech in, but we didn't put the Landing Zone in yet because we do need server OCS so we can have the rest of that Landing Zone," Tracy admitted. In other words, this game about space literally has no more to offer.

star citizen 38 microtech planet
'Star Citizen' update 3.8 brings the microTech ice planet to the game. It wouldn't fit in the game without SOCS technology. 'Star Citizen' is in alpha on PC. Cloud Imperium Games

That's because, in its current state, Star Citizen loads its entire solar system of planets onto the servers at once. So, as the game expands, even some of the most advanced PC workstations have had difficulties running it. As Tracy put it, the remedy for this quagmire is basic in concept but difficult in execution.

"Load what you need. It sounds so simple, but it just isn't. Because at this point now we're only loading on the server the Object Containers that are being interacted with or need to be persistent in any way. Before we had the whole universe, now we just have the tiny parts we need at every moment," Tracy described.

Different from the "segmented world" loading techniques used by many modern games where data chunks load around the player as they navigate smaller boundary-filled spaces, the Star Citizen universe is planned to be too large and vast to suit that strategy. Instead, SOCS is designed to be predictive and adaptive to player actions to only load what's necessary based on gameplay testing, internal metrics and real-time behavior.

On top of being intelligent, Tracy also describes SOCS as a system that's careful in how it loads its girth of data. "We got a lot of editing tech, we've got a lot of geometry types, we've got a lot of different type of stuff. And whether that's a weapon, whether that's a character, whether that's a game mode, whether that's a mission.... all of these have to be loaded, asynchronously as the Object Container comes in. And it can't block the main thread because you would feel slowdown or jittering and we didn't want to have that," the Tech Director explained. Tracy referenced this asynchronicity as the main hurdle that hindered the progress of SOCS' implementation.

More Content & Better Gameplay

But, with SOCS about to make its big debut in Alpha 3.8, problems of space and performance are about so subside in substantial ways. "Server OCS basically takes this huge load off the servers," Tracy explained, "they're like this mule that's been overburdened with planet after planet and Landing Zone after Landing Zone. We're taking that all off its back so clearly the mule's gonna be able to run faster." By loading less at once, the server demand is reduced.

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The surface of microTech features lush grasslands despite its cold temperatures. Cloud Imperium Games

So, not only does SOCS allow the Star Citizen universe to expand to include limitless content like the new microTech planet, but it also makes the game run more seamlessly than ever before. With less load to manage, everything happens faster.

"When I should have gotten it and it takes half a millisecond for [a character] to actually react, when I collide into something and it takes half a millisecond to react, we feel that. And usually how players describe that is clunky or unresponsive. That is the main feeling that starts to go away with server OCS." In that same vein, glitches resulting from strain, like unintentionally merged ships and strange AI behaviors, are reduced as well.

These improvements in overall fluidity trickle down to Star Citizen's ongoing development by lessening the server load times required to make individual edits to code. "What happens with server Object Container Streaming is now all of a sudden my iteration loop is seconds compared to five or seven minutes. It changes the entire world for a developer," Tracy said with a smile. "Now I can load up as much as I want and hone everything." With the changes server OCS brings, developers can effectively spend less time waiting for the universe to load and more time working, which means developers have a chance to create new content for players to experience much faster.

star citizen 38 microtech rocks
The coasts of microTech offer vistas unlike anything 'Star Citizen' has seen to date. Cloud Imperium Games

For Tracy and his colleagues, then, polishing up the foundation for OCS is a huge accomplishment. "I think the Object Container Paradigm is easily one of the most important things in Star Citizen, technology-wise," Tracy mused. "To accomplish the vision of multiple systems, hundreds of planets, this kind of thing... I'm sure there are other ways to make it possible, but to deliver on this vision, this is the most important component."

An Eye Toward the Future

But, as has always been the case with Star Citizen, there is still more work to be done on OCS and other technical quagmires. On the OCS side, for example, Tracy suggested that the technology could eventually lead to server counts beyond 50 players. However, backers shouldn't expect improvements on that level immediately.

"We want to do that stuff internally, find out where our sweet spot for performance is and go with that," Tracy cautioned. So lobby sizes may increase over time, but not substantially. For those cataclysmic gains, Tracy and his teams have their eyes set on a venture called server meshing instead. "We don't want to spend a ton of time getting server OCS just right so we can get to 150. Because why? We'll get to 1,000 with the other one."

star citizen 38 microtech mountain
These wide swaths of land push the limits of how large 'Star Citizen's Persistent Universe can actually be. Cloud Imperium Games

Heavily customized tech like server meshing and SOCS take extensive time to perfect, but Tracy remains committed to being part of CIG, a developer he feels is on the forefront of the technological landscape. In the past, that wasn't always the case.

"Even [at prior companies] working in one of the higher-level tech technical companies that was in, we were still so risk-averse that we couldn't do the crazy thing. We couldn't try the crazy thing. So I feel like we were never pushing the industry. Doing [the crazy thing for Star Citizen] is what gets me up in the morning." Star Citizen has always been a crazy ambitious concept, but as its technology comes online and ideas start to materialize, the minds behind its most complicated concepts seem content to bask in the insanity.

Star Citizen is in alpha now on PC. Alpha 3.8 releases soon.

What are your thoughts on server OCS and Star Citizen's technology? Can this vision become a reality? Tell us in the comments section!