Sunday, November 22, 2009

No J.J. Abrams Version of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Star Trek Online MMORPG

We chat with Craig Zinkievich, executive producer at Cryptic Studios, about making a game for Trekkers and competing with World of Warcraft

Set 30 years after Star Trek: Nemesis (the last film before the J.J. Abrams reboot), Star Trek Online puts you in the shoes of a captain in a newly sparked war between the goody-two-shoes Federation and savage Klingon empire. The promise of exploring the final frontier, massive space battles, and obscure Star Trek references fills us with geeky glee. We went down to Cryptic Studios’ offices to play the game and quiz Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich to ensure that fans of Star Trek and MMOs are getting the best of both worlds.

Maximum PC: It looks like Star Trek Online is focusing more on action, as opposed to boring bits like interstellar diplomacy.

Craig Zinkievich: The game is set in 2409, about 30 years after the events of the Star Trek: Nemesis movie. A lot of stuff has happened since then. The Borg have returned to the Alpha Quadrant, bent on assimilation. The Romulan Empire still exists, but they have to deal with the fact that they don’t have a home world – so there’s a power vacuum there. The most important aspect is that the Kitomer Accord – the treaty between the Klingon Empire and Federation – has broken down. In STO, you play either as a Captain in Starfleet, the military wing of the Federation, or the Klingon Defense Force.

We’ve really tried to make the content in Star Trek Online feel as though you’re in one of the Star Trek shows or movies. You’re never just in one place. You can be on a ship, get a distress call, beam down to a planet, then beam up to a satellite that’s on fire, and finally back to your ship for a climactic space battle. You’re constantly moving between ground and space to really get that cinematic feel.

The biggest challenge in creating STO is that it’s two whole games—you have your ground combat and your space combat. But the game demands it; you have to go back and forth, and I think it’ll be the strongest aspect of the game.

On Space Combat

CZ: Space combat is very much like the shows. It’s not a dogfight—you’re not zipping around. You’re in huge 1,000-meter starships with hundreds of crew onboard. In the shows, it’s all about tactics and positioning. It’s about bolstering a shield that’s taken damage, transferring power from your deflector dish to your weapons or engines at the right time. It’s about knocking your enemy’s shields down with phasers and taking them out with photon torpedoes.

Each ship has four directional shields – though some of the smaller ships only have one shield. All weapons in STO have facing and firing arcs to them. For example, a ship can have forward facing photo torpedoes with a 90 degree arc, and two phaser banks with broad-side arcs. So in battle, you would flank broadside along your enemy to use both phasers to knock down enemy shields and then turn toward the enemy to finish them off.

MPC: Is the point of the battle to destroy the ship?

CZ: Yes, because it’s wartime, the battle does come down to destroying your enemy’s ship. Most of the time, they don’t give up at the end. There are certain instances there the enemy will surrender to move the story along, but most of the time it’s a fight to the death.

MPC: How does respawn work, then, if your ship is destroyed?

CZ: Well, first and foremost, it’s a game. We thought of a whole bunch of different ways to do interesting things for respawn, but it really came down to getting players back into the action. You don’t lose your ship [if it blows up]; you just respawn at the beginning of the map with a little damage done to your systems. But overall, we don’t want you to spend 80 hours getting that Sovereign class vessel, get owned, and then lose that ship.

MPC: How does your crew and shuttles factor into the gameplay?

CZ: Each ship has a crew bar, which affects your hull regeneration rate – how fast you can repair systems that get damaged. There are certain powers that allow you to send boarding parties to other ships with shuttles, which takes crew. You can even send healing parties to repair other vessels during co-op.

The really cool powers come from your bridge officers. Like the shows, it’s all about the people—who’s there on the bridge during a crisis defines how the ship deals with it. You have a roster of bridge officers (starting off with one) that you can upgrade over time. These guys are like MMO pets, but taken to the next level. You name them, customize their look, give them equipment, and level them up with new skills and specializations. And the skills they have really end up defining what role you play in missions.

Some skills include tractor beams, which can hold enemies in place during combat, or high yield torpedoes that deal super damage. Each officer has one ability to begin with, but as you level them up, they get up to four skills. Each officer seat can also be upgraded, too. Officers in Ensign seats can only use one skill, while those in Lieutenant or Commander seats can activate more of their skills at once. With bigger ships, you gain more weapon slots and more bridge officer seats as well. The maximum is six officers with 12 skills total.

MPC: How does ship upgrading work?

CZ: Players start off with a generic Light Cruiser ship. Several hours into the game, you replace that with one of three different classes of ships – Engineering, Science, and Tactical, each with five tiers that you can advance through. Every ship has weapons, deflector shields, impulse engines, and Officer seats, all of which can be upgraded. But when you actually reach a different tier of ship, you get a new ship [of that class] entirely.

MPC: Can you re-spec your ship in the middle of the game?

CZ: You can change ship classes at any time if you want to try a different style of play. You just use your Starfleet “merit” and buy the ship at a Space dock. You don’t lose the previous ships that you had, either. You’ll always have the Light Cruiser, for example, if you wanted to use it for a specific mission. One night you could use a Defiant class ship for a quick space battle, and the next night, you could change to a Science class ship – the healer – to support your guild. You can really change what role you play on the fly.

MPC: So there are 16 different ship types in the game?

CZ: Yes, there are 16 total configurations total, from three ship classes with five ships in each tier, plus the first Light Cruiser. But within each configuration, we want you to be able to customize your ship’s appearance.

MPC: Like designing your character in any other MMO.

CZ: Yes, but still want you to be able to look at somebody’s ship, and know what configuration and class that ship is in.

MPC: Does the game have the “hot rod” style Enterprise from the new Star Trek movie?

CZ: [Laughs] No, we don’t have the new J. J. Abrams “hot rod” ship in the game yet, but we do have access to that in terms of our license. We’re focusing on filling out and rounding out what [the Federation of] 2409 looks like.

[Craig then loads up several ships on a computer, including ones based on the Intrepid, Excelsior, Miranda, and even Prometheus classes that will be recognizable to hardcore Star Trek fans.]

Our artists have done a fantastic job designing these ships and the elements that’ll let you customize each configuration.

Away Mission Gameplay

MPC: Let's talk about the ground-based away missions.

CZ: When you go down to a ground mission, you always play in a five-person away team. If you’re playing by yourself, you beam down with four bridge officers. If you’re teaming up with other players, you’re going to all go as captains.

MPC: Sounds like that would be against protocol!

CZ: Yeah, it’s funny. You have protocols like the Prime Directive, but those things never come up in the shows unless they have to break them! So, yes, you’re constantly breaking protocol by beaming down, but it wouldn’t be fun just to sit on your ship.

But this is another one of those places where you can change your style of play depending on which Bridge officers you slot. You can choose to bring medical officers if you’re playing with a Leroy Jenkins-type player one night, or bring a tactical officer if you’re going on the offensive.

MPC: Which player in a party gets to decide who to bring down, if you’re not playing with a full roster?

CZ: The team leader gets to assign which players go in the away team slots, and who has control of extra slots.

MPC: And the biggest group you can play with is five players?

CZ: Exactly, it’s five people per normal instanced team, which is the same for instanced space battles. There are larger persistent areas, like large fleet actions, where you can have dozens of ships. The same goes with large away missions, where you can have several teams [of five players each] on one planet at once.

Bridge officers on the ground are fully-functional MMO pets. They’ll follow you, use their abilities, and go into combat. If you want to, you can micro-manage them. You can tell them to stay in one spot, be aggressive, and even set their targets before combat. You can ask them to use special abilities on the ground, like healing or setting down minefields. Ground combat is fast-paced run-and-gun. It’s about maneuvering around your enemies and flanking them from the side, which does more damage. As a Captain, you can equip yourself with two weapons that you can switch at will, including melee weapons and martial arts skills.

MPC: And what kinds of things are you doing on away missions? Just killing everyone?

CZ: Just think of all the myriad things you’ve seen in an episode of Star Trek. For example, after you dispatch Klingon ships above a planet, you may have to beam down to the planet to save the locals from the Klingon landing party. Some missions ask you to recover artifacts and others have you following people back in time.

MPC: What type of loot will you be able to collect from missions and random exploration?

CZ: With bridge officers, they all have a paper doll that needs to be equipped with armor, personal shields, weapons, and other tools, which you’ll find on your missions. The same goes with your own character avatar. There are plenty of items and loot that you’ll find within the game, which you can sell or trade at spaceports. You can even find potential bridge officers.

MPC: Like an alien that you meet on a random world.

CZ: Yes. Another one of the loot items that is very important on the ground missions is your kit, which is a career-limited loot item. The kit gives you really cool powers on the ground, like Security Escort, which lets you beam in extra NPC characters for this mission.

MPC: A bunch of red shirts?

CZ: Exactly! They should have a much higher aggressiveness factor. These kits end up defining your role. Medical science players can deploy stasis fields with their medical tricorders. And over time, as you level them up, each kit can have up to four powers.

MPC: Will you be allowed to team up with friends who are at a much higher or lower level than your character?

CZ: The missions themselves are set level, and you can bring in a range of levels to play in them. Like City of Heroes, we have a sidekick system that lets your team scale to one level, with the experience rewards scaled along the same line as well.

MPC: What will be the level cap for the game?

CZ: We don’t have levels, per se. We have five ranks in the game, ranging from Lieutenant to Admiral. Each of those has 10 sub-ranks, so that ends up being 50 “levels.” And that’s indicated by the pins on your uniform, just like on the show.

MPC: You mentioned spaceports. Do you mean space stations like Deep Space Nine?

CZ: There are several large social hubs within the game. Earth Space Dock is probably the largest one for the Federation. That’s where you go to repair your ship, visit the auction house, and get access to new ships. There are major ones like Deep Space Nine, and minor ones like Memory Alpha, which have similar amenities.

MPC: Sounds like you’re including a lot of details from the shows.

CZ: In almost all of the content that we’ve made, there are Star Trek references, like a familiar character’s grandson or something that was alluded to once in an episode. We have pretty hardcore writers who end up getting all of those references in.

The Genesis Device

MPC: In terms of art assets and content creation, how much of that is crafted by designers and how much is randomly generated?

CZ: If you’re going to make a Star Trek MMO, you’ve to let players boldly go where no one has gone before, right? So we needed to make hundreds and thousands of planetary systems that you could explore. We did that by creating a Genesis game engine that could procedurally generate maps and systems.

Not all of the content is automatically generated. A good deal is first procedurally generated, and then given to our artists to hand-craft to coincide with story-driven missions. The pure procedurally generated content is more for exploration, when you want to make contact with someone who’s never heard of the Federation before. Genesis has been a really powerful toolset that allows us to create the foundation for our artists and designers to add the really cool content, as opposed to spending their time on the more boring tasks.

MPC: Do players then experience the same content or see different worlds when completing mission on their own?

CZ: The main episodic story content will be the same for all players. There are also Patrol missions, which will also be the same for everyone. But the exploration content, when you go to star cluster, for example, will be different for each player. There may be some similarities, but you’ll end up seeing different stuff.

MPC: How much of the Star Trek universe can you explore?

CZ: The game is split into four hubs – Federation/Klingon (where you start), Romulan, Cardassian, and finally Borg at the end. We liken each of these hubs to a season of Star Trek, each season with a set number of episode missions based there. Each will have major and minor story arcs, as well as one-off episodes. There’s an overarching story arc for the whole game, so that always shows up in each hub, story-wise.

Each hub is split in sectors, where are high-level maps that you’ll use to fly between planets and spaceports. This is one of the persistent areas where you’ll see hundreds of ships flying around, in addition to the large fleet action zones.

Making the Game Appealing to Star Trek Fans

MPC: What kinds of compromises did you have to make for this to appeal to both MMO players and Star Trek fans who might never have played an MMO?

CZ: There are some compromises we’ve had to make, license-wise, like adding many phaser weapons variations [in addition to the two main types in Star Trek canon]. In terms of gameplay, our goal is to make a really deep MMO that doesn’t scare away someone who has never played an MMO before. For example, the power-level interface has a complex mode where you can move individual power bars, but there’s also a mode where you can use preset power levels for offensive or defensive stances.

MPC: Do you base the content on materials like the Star Trek technical manuals and the Klingon language?

CZ: We definitely use the technical manuals to get the scale right. We don’t have plans to translate the game into Klingon, but who knows, maybe we’ll figure out a way to get the community to localize it for us.

MPC: What about playing as the Klingons

CZ: We’re not ready to reveal too much, but the Klingon gameplay will be drastically different from the Federation. It’ll open up a couple of hours into the game, and will be more PVP focused.

MPC: Is there going to be a lot of interaction between the two factions?

CZ: Yes, through the PVP and the indirect PVP gameplay throughout the Neutral Zone. But the storyline on the Klingon side is not the same as the one on the Federation side.

The 800-Pound MMO in the Room

MPC: When you’re designing a new MMO, how do you design it to compete with World of Warcraft?

CZ: I don’t know if there will ever be another World of Warcraft [-sized game]. The fact that WoW has so many subscribers is awesome, because it’s exposed so many people to MMOs. Whether or not there will be another game that gets millions upon millions of subscribers isn’t really [our concern]—we didn’t sit down and ask ourselves how we could steal WoW subscribers.

We first asked ourselves how we could make a decent MMO, how we could develop a reasonable business model, and have reasonable expectations. And then, we tried to make it the MMO that the Star Trek universe deserves.

MPC: And what business models work, if you don’t want to compete with WoW?

CZ: You can look at games like Warhammer and Conan, which launched with a few hundred thousand purchases. You can have a pretty nice business with a few hundred thousand users, or even fewer. So, I don’t think many people going into the MMO market sanely think they need 10 million subscribers to make money.

MPC: Is it a chicken-and-egg scenario where you need to have enough subscriber revenue to make new content to attract new subscribers?

CZ: Definitely. There’s a barrier. From our experience, if you don’t break 100,000 subscribers at any point in time, your game tends to just go away. Most games that don’t break that 100,000-subscriber mark tend to just be flashes in the pan. But once you do, you tend to get a really solid fan base with enough revenue to keep adding to the game, and things go pretty well.

MPC: What do you think about different business models, like opting for micro-transactions instead of subscriptions?

CZ: We like the subscription model, and will probably be using that in the near term. We are looking at micro-transactions and how that would work – Star Trek will have micro-transactions, but most of those will be cosmetic things. Some will augment gameplay, but won’t replace any gameplay.

MPC: Is there a risk in Cryptic having multiple MMOs in the market at the same time?

CZ: I don’t think there’s a risk as long as long as the products are different. If we were making fantasy MMO after fantasy MMO and competing with ourselves, we’d eventually run into problems. I also don’t think that we’re banking of people to play our games based on our name, either. We just want to make games that we want to play, and hope that other people will want to play as well.

MPC: How do you determine the long-term plans for an MMO, given the uncertainty of success?

CZ: We don’t have life spans on our games, and we go into the first year with an expansion and update plan. That being said, though, from our experience, the longer you plan ahead, the more likely the plan is useless, because the subscribers will tell you what they like and dislike, and what they want to see more of. So, even though we put a plan out there, we have to be flexible and listen to our captive audience. Which is kind of the cool part about making MMOs. [Once it’s released], it’s not just us making the game—everyone contributes.