Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Developer Diary: Star Trek Online Character Customization

Cryptic details the ins and outs of creating a character in upcoming MMO

It's amazing to think that not too long we were just a handful of guys in a tiny run-down office with not much more than an idea: a super hero MMO called City of Heroes. Fast forward about nine years and Star Trek Online will be the seventh game I've been a part of here at Cryptic and the fourth game that I've helped ship. I have to say that I think Cryptic has really come into its own with STO; it's definitely the pinnacle of our achievements so far.

My name is Jeremy Mattson and I'm a Principal Artist at Cryptic and a member of the character team on STO. Working on Massively Multiplayer games is a little bit of a different experience for a game artist to say the least. We've got a few challenges you might not find in other types of games but our biggest challenge is the sheer amount of content we have to create. In STO we have hundreds of characters that players will see throughout the game. So we have to come up with ways to not only get the job done but also make sure that our artwork is competitive with all of the great looking games out there. One of the ways we do this is by building things modularly.

We started making our characters modularly in the City of Heroes days.

Back then it was my job to develop the costume creator for that game.

When we started the project I was making the heroes and Chris Chamberlain (who was the only other character artist on the team) was making the villains. While Chris was taking a more traditional one-off approach with the villains; I was building everything to go into a system. Set up similar to paper dolls: head, hairstyle, shirts, pants shoes etc. players could mix and match and change colors to get the look they wanted for their hero. It was a pretty fun system. About mid-way through the project we were realizing that the costume creator wasn't just fun to play with but it was actually shaping up to be a powerful development tool. Soon just about every character we made was going through the costume creator. From then on we were making the majority of the characters modularly. So when a designer would say I need 'hero X' we'd look at the request and figure out what new assets we'd need and what existing things we could leverage. Most of the time we'd be able to give them what they needed by just creating a few new parts. The rest was done with scaling the body, adding a unique color scheme and things like that. It saved us a ton of time and that's basically how we do things for all of our games now. Although what we're doing now in many ways is light years beyond what we did then.

Matt Highison, our Character Lead, has taken the same basic approach in character creation for STO. Uniforms are categorized just like you'd expect: jackets, pants, shoes, gloves etc. But where STO character creation really shines is our Alien Gen system. We've basically taken every alien species the team has created for the game, disassembled them and put their parts into a system that allows you to mix and match to create some pretty amazing stuff. It's really powerful and a ton of fun to play with. For instance with Alien-Gen you can start with a Benzite face, add a Denobulan forehead, put on some Ocampa ears, add a tattoo and blammo! A never-before-seen Star Trek alien is born at your fingertips. It's tons of fun to just sit and hit the random button over and over... and over. And much like the CoH costume creator was, it's a great time saving dev tool. It takes some extra thought and some set up time but now we can make the games non-player characters super fast, in some cases they can just be randomly generated. Another great thing about building a system like this is that every piece that gets added makes the system even more powerful. But it's not without its downsides.

STO's Alien Gen: Start with a Benzite base, add a Denobulan forehead, Tellarite nose, Ocampa ears, a tattoo, color and some scaling and you've created your very own, never-before-seen Star Trek alien species.

In order to make characters modularly there's a lot of set up involved, only about half of the character artists job is actually making the art.

We're constantly thinking about compatibility between all of the pieces, for instance all of the hairstyles have to work with all of the ears and vice-versa. And some artists have trouble getting used to being part of a team that is making pieces for a system rather than making their own one-off characters. Luckily we've been able to alleviate this last problem a bit on STO. Using the Jem'Hadar as an example the artist gets to make the entire Jem'Hadar character first and then break him up into pieces for the system. So we get to spend some time sculpting something we can be proud of as well as making costume pieces. It works out pretty well. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives and in the end the game is that much better.

At Cryptic our games have always been about customization and trying to give players the tools they need to create whatever character they want.

STO definitely stays true to that. Our Alien-Gen system is in some ways the most powerful customization tool we've ever made. I think players are going to have a blast coming up with new alien species for themselves and their bridge crew. Lucky for me, it turns out that making something this much fun for players makes my job a little bit easier too.