Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inside Star Trek Online: PvE Content

Welcome to the first of a three-part feature on Cryptic Studios' upcoming Star Trek Online. In this first entry, we'll be tackling how STO handles the story and questing game, aka the PvE (Player versus Environment) content. Check back with us soon for features on the PvP system and on STO's endgame.

Star Trek Online drives content in two different ways. Firstly, it strives to make the player feel that they are taking part in one of the movies or television shows. Secondly, the game will always direct the player along by presenting a variety of content options. The idea is to never have the player come across one of those "what do I do now?" moments that inevitably lead to shelving the game and moving on to more directed (and ultimately more fun) alternatives.

The primary story-driven PvE content comes in the form of Episodes. These should take roughly 45 to 75 minutes per episode and take place across multiple mission maps, offering a mix of both space- and ground-based action.

The five-act dramatic structure is the template behind nearly all of STO's episode designs, just as it was for most of the television shows. While the episodes aren't all structurally built around five different maps, the format provided Cryptic with an easy template to follow, and the episodes should mimic the feel of the shows.

Flexibility is key to how things are structured. The idea is to make all of the technical stuff going on behind the scenes painless, so you never have to worry about player matching, getting locked out of your missions, and so on. You can always rejoin an episode if you leave before it's done, even if you jumped into an episode to help someone else. If they leave, it still works for you. You may not get credit for your personal mission, but there's no need to kick you out if someone leaves. In fact, there's a whole system of secondary mission rewards in place to provide incentives for players to replay story content while helping others.

At any given time you're free to set the main story aside and just do some exploring, which is where Cryptic's Genesis System comes into play. Genesis procedurally generated thousands of maps, including terrain, system maps, interiors, and so on. The idea here was to create the feeling that you'd never visit the same place twice while trekkin' through the vastness of space. Episodes have their fair share of conflict written into the storylines, so exploration content goes after the other feel of Star Trek, the part that isn't always about phasers and bloodshed. If you remember the episodes where the captain would help local populations with their problems, you have the right idea.
Once Genesis created that enormous quantity of scenarios, and Cryptic generated lots and lots of stories to serve as backbones for missions. The team then took those stories, added variables (perhaps changing the alien race you're dealing with), and built missions around them. The Genesis System was so powerful and created so much content that it strained Cryptic's ability to get it into the game.

When you don't have the time for Episode content, but still want more of a hand-directed experience, there's the Sector Patrol option. These maps are set up so that they feel vast, yet always different from one another. There are lots of missions with one task, playable in 15 minutes or less per map. There are also plenty with twists, but you shouldn't expect plot twists as heavy as those in the Episodes.

Fleet actions are like the Open Missions from Champions Online; large, ongoing battles that you can jump into any time. These are big static maps that take groups of teams and put them together. Smaller tasks can be accomplished by solo players or smaller groups, and they lead to progressively more difficult goals. Ideally, the smaller teams lump together to tackle those.

While you can always follow your friends into whatever type of content you like, STO also makes it easy to meet up with other Captains. The game makes heavy use of open instancing, so if you're playing solo and head to P'Jem, or receive a hail from the Klingons and start fighting them, you're not necessarily locked into a solo encounter. If another player comes in a few minutes after you, then will end up in the same instance. There's lots of this auto-teaming behavior in the open worlds of other games, but STO applies this to the instanced content as well. A side effect is that it makes these instanced worlds feel persistent, more like in an MMO.

With so many content options at your fingertips, it's clear that Star Trek Online intends for you to always have something new to do. Any way you decide to play the game is perfectly viable, as all paths towards progression are equivalent. You can work towards becoming an Admiral by participating in the story episodes, taking part in fleet actions, exploring the galaxy, or by dedicating yourself to PvP. The choice is up to you.