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Star Trek Online Developer Blog

The folks from Cryptic Studios' Star Trek Online have started this exciting new developer blog here at MMORPG.com.

Author: Awenyddion

Going Someplace New by Daniel Stahl

Posted by Awenyddion Friday June 12 2009 at 8:03PM
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Hello, my name is Daniel Stahl and I’m a producer on Star Trek Online.

Ask any Star Trek fan to quote the opening to the TV show and you’ll hear the words “…to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

It’s a defining characteristic and mission statement in Star Trek. Explore. Go out there and see what you find.

As a producer, it begs the question, “How?”  How can you explore someplace new in an MMO where there are zones and maps and contacts and missions that everyone seems to have access to over the course of their character’s career? Most game content is hand created by a staff of designers and artists who spend time placing things where they should be, making sure that there is a natural progression to what you do. It is a lot of work just to make a single planetary system.

In order to make a game universe where players can go somewhere no one else has gone before, we’d have to make more maps than we physically have time for and we would have to keep making them until the end of time. So how can we deliver on this concept?


To answer this question we turned to the Star Trek movies for inspiration and found the Genesis Program.

In the movie cannon the Genesis program used technology to convert nothing into something. “Life from Lifelessness.” This was the Creation device that Khan threatened to destroy the Enterprise with and what eventually spawned the Genesis planet.


Star Trek Online has embraced the concept of Genesis as a method to generate planets and systems that no one has seen before. But as with any technology it requires a lot of brainstorming, engineering, and testing to make it work right.

The core concept of Genesis in Star Trek Online is to create places for you to go without requiring hours of art and development time for each location. In a lot of ways, when we think of Genesis we think of the Holodeck computer.
 
On the Next Generation TV show, when a character wanted to go someplace on the Holodeck, they would describe to the computer the locale.

“Computer, load up a beach on the shores of Risa” is all the character would have to say, and then a few seconds later, they are standing on the beaches of Risa.

But it often didn’t end there. Sometimes the characters would further iterate descriptions to the computer to fine tune the Holodeck program.

“Computer, add a cabana and a mariachi band. … Oh and set the local time to sunset.”

A few seconds later there’s a holographic band playing music next to your cabana.

Describing what you want in real terms is the key to the Genesis System in Star Trek Online.

“Give me an M class planet with a Federation complex set up in the mountains where some scientists are milling about ...”
“… Now add a bunch of Klingons attacking the complex …”
“... Oh, and make sure the Klingons brought some Targs!”
“… Now make sure one of the Klingons is a badass Dahar master”
“… And how about a really funny looking Ferengi running around screaming!”

I can keep on going for days like this. But that’s the point.

By building tools that automatically create what comes out of our designer’s brains in descriptive words, it allows us to use Genesis to generate locations that are in essence the direct results of our imaginations.

This is the technology that will allow us to generate the thousands of unexplored worlds that no one has ever been to yet without requiring a small nation of artists and designers to make.

It is a testimony to the spirit of Star Trek that the technology we are using to create these worlds is a direct inspiration from the show itself.

It only begs the question, “I wonder what is out there …”

The Anatomy of an STO Play Test - Craig

Posted by Awenyddion Friday June 5 2009 at 8:32PM
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Each week, the entire Star Trek Online team gets together for an internal play test. It’s an incredibly important part of the development cycle, and I think our fans should know more about how we use our experience to shape the game and make it better. We play together every Tuesday for about an hour. Obviously, certain teams play the game quite a bit more than that, but Tuesdays are a special day where everyone on the team – Art, SW, Deign, Audio, Concept Art, Production, QA, OCR – is required to play our game. We get to really focus on key elements we’re adding to the game, and to sit down and have real discussions about what we’re working on.

We assemble a build of the game late Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon we drop what we’re doing and get into a conference room to go over what we’re testing that week. We go over what the major changes and additions over the last week have been to the game, what content we’re going to play and what is the particular focus during the play session.

We spend about an hour playing, and then everybody gets back into the same room. We spend another 15 or 30 minutes gathering as much feedback from the team as possible. What did we like? What didn’t we like? Most importantly - did we have fun? It’s important to talk about the good stuff in addition to the bad, so we can stress the “likes” in future tests.

Running the play tests achieves a number of things:

  1. Improves game stability. It’s so easy when you have a team of 30-plus people adding features and content to a game simultaneously, the stability of a product can drop off a cliff. You come back a couple weeks later and nothing is playable. None of the bugs are really huge, but the more you have, the more they add up to a huge problem. The frequency with which you force people to take a look at a game really helps with its stability. It lets people say, “Oh yeah, I’m making a game. When I put this feature in, I need to make sure it works. QA’s not going to give me a bug, everyone on the team is going to see this crappy bug I put in without testing it.”
  2. Increases focus. It’s really important to see your progress on a constant basis. Anybody can sit in a room and design systems to their heart’s content, design the most complicated game possible. But really, until you get what you design in the game, until you play it and other people see it, you really don’t know what works and what doesn’t. For example, in space combat, there’s a huge list of features that we really want in space combat, and some of the features we imagined were the most important have turned out to be secondary and even tertiary systems. It’s getting stuff out there that keeps you from getting off the rails. It’s right in your face.
  3. Gets the team in sync. If the project is going well, if we’re making good progress, if we’ve got a lot of good content coming down the pipe, the team feels it and morale is up. If we have crappy play tests and they’re unstable and they break and the content isn’t quite that good, the team might get depressed about it. But they realize, “OK, this is the final product, so I’m going to step up and take a little ownership and I’m gonna make this thing better.”

This Week's Focus

These play tests are often the first time a lot of people are getting feedback on whatever they worked on that week. That’s really exciting; you can see people step up and ask questions of the people who had comments about their quest or system. It’s really personal; they’re getting direct feedback.

We focused on a lot of different issues this week. It was a number of little things; we didn’t focus on the content as much as a bunch of tiny changes we’ve made over the past week.

We made some pretty substantial changes to the weapons on the ground, and we added a few new ones. We changed some of the special items on the ground; these are the powers that you end up having that are your career powers, your specialization powers. So if you’re a Tactical officer, you have Aimed Shot and stealth powers. If you’re an Engineer, you have shield buffing powers and some other things like that.

And then there was a brand new ship configuration that some people tried this week.

The gameplay continues to get better and better, and the content that goes in goes in right the first time a lot more often than it doesn’t. As we add new ship configurations and new bridge officers for you to play with, the depth of space and ground combat just continues to astound everybody. We come up with new strategies daily.

Having these weekly play tests have allowed us to have a much more stable game, help us iterate on the features, and really generate a much more fun game on weekly basis. Everyone here at Cryptic Studios loves making games. We all really wanna be in the games industry, and on a weekly basis, these tests get people into the product they're making.

 

Route 66 to Cryptic: A Cryptic Newbie's Take on STO - Joe "Rekhan" Blancato

Posted by Awenyddion Monday May 11 2009 at 7:55PM
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I got the phone call about two months ago. The good people at Cryptic HR phoned me with a job offer, and across the country I went, like a modern-day Tom Joad fleeing home for greener pastures in sunny California. Only instead of picking grapes and cursing creditors, I’m managing two communities ... and cursing creditors – some things never change.

Prior to my time at Cryptic, I was a game journalist. I ran my own gig at Giant Realm before the economy changed my plans for me, and before then I was an editor at The Escapist. Other than the tabletop game I created with a friend of mine, the closest I ever really got to game design was sitting in back rooms at conventions, prying information from developers large and small, then delivering what I learned to readers just as hungry for tidbits as I was.

Then came the Holy Grail: The chance to help make games instead of just talking about them. Truth be told, it wasn’t really a career I knew I was interested in until I got the chance to interview at Cryptic. I was happy in my role as a journalist, but once this new door opened, I was beyond excited to step through.

So here I am, wide-eyed and eager. I get to sit in meetings with Bill Roper and Jack Emmert and Craig Zinkievich every week – that’s access I would’ve killed for six months ago. The company is gigantic compared to a press shop. We have over 200 people here on the team; the largest company I worked for prior to this had 40. There’s free food and coffee and Star Trek episode screenings, and it’s awesome.

What’s also great is how much a lot of what I do as an online community representative feels like game journalism. I still talk to developers and share what they say with people. I post updates directly to a website, feed them out on Twitter and Facebook, and plan what we say and when we say it. And to make things better, I get to talk directly with our customers, which has been incredibly educational.

Spending time with the Star Trek Online community has taught me exactly how little I know about Star Trek. I’m a fan of the shows and can’t wait for the Abrams movie, but the knowledge some of our community members have is encyclopedic. I really dig that; it keeps us all on our toes. If we break canon, we hear about it. That’s a good thing, since we’re dedicated to creating a Star Trek experience, not just a great MMO experience.

In that vein, we’ve been doing a lot to reach out to Star Trek fans. The entire community team rocks Twitter, we’ve been running IRC trivia contests where we give out beta keys, and we pose Kobayashi Maru scenarios to the community every week. Just this week we instituted Talk Trek with Cryptic, where we invite the community to comment along with us on a pre-selected Star Trek episode. We’re always looking for new ways to engage our users, beyond the standard screenshot format. (Not to discount the traditional outreach stuff, though: We’re always updating the site with new images.)

I didn’t think I’d ever wind up on this side of the development/journalism fence, but it’s been a pretty great ride so far, and I’m looking forward to guiding the community up to and through launch.
 

To know where you are, first you have to know how you got here.

After Cryptic secured the Star Trek license, Jack Emmert asked me to write up some ideas of what happened in the Star Trek Universe before our game begins. Star Trek Online begins in the year 2409, which is about 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. So there's a big gap in the history that's not covered by any of the canon sources.

Starting with "what happens in a 30-year span in the Star Trek Universe" was just too big. There's so much history, and so many different races and factions … it was a lot to wrap my brain around all at once.

So I started breaking it down. I took one race or group of races at a time, and started working on their stories. What happened to the Klingons? How were the Cardassians recovering from the Dominion War? Where were Laas and the missing 98 changelings, and what did they want? What was the Federation doing when all of this was going on? What about the Gorn, or the Orions? And so on.

Then, once I had all of these individual stories down, I started seeing how they would interact, and what changed from the interaction. When the Klingons and the Gorn start fighting, what would the Federation do? How would that change the situation?

We knew the story would be fairly Romulan heavy in the first years after the events of Nemesis, because there was a leadership vacuum and multiple characters that could fill that void. But we didn’t want the story to be "Romulans, Romulans, Romulans" all the time, so there had to be a point where it could move aside and let other stories step into the spotlight.

I had a solid idea of what could happen by the time we started discussing the story of Star Trek Online. There are plotlines that run throughout the game, and we wanted to lay the groundwork for those in the Path to 2409 history.

Our work on the plot for STO was a big help for the timeline. We had the beginning (with all of the series and movies); now we had an end. The question was what happened in the middle?

The best writing is a collaborative process, and we've got a great team here at Cryptic. We have story meetings were a group of designers and producers talk about everything from the plot of a specific Episode to how everything is going to fit together over hours and hours of gameplay. Can we add a reference to one or more of the shows here? What should we do with that character? Hey, what about that loose end from TNG? Can we work with it?

The day we figured out that "Race X" was behind everything was a breakthrough. (Nope, I'm not going to tell you who Race X is. Play the game and find out.) Now we needed to drop hints about their influence on events. Another afternoon, Al Rivera (STO's lead designer) and I took over a conference room and filled the whiteboards with notes as we worked out all the moves that the different factions would make. Now you'll find hints to many of the Episodes and stories that you'll see in STO in The Path to 2409.

We work closely with CBS, and some of their team has been up here at Cryptic several times to help us brainstorm and work out the detail of the Path to 2409 and the stories in the game. Also, they've helped us get in touch with some of the other licensees working on Star Trek such as IDW, who produces the Trek comics. We're trying to make STO fit in with what's going on in the Trek Universe as much as we can. Events that happen in other media will have an effect on the game.

So I went back and revised the timeline, changed some of the players, dropped some ideas and added others. And then I did it again. And again.

As another part of my research, I started reading the Trek novels. I'd been a Trek fan for years and I had seen all of the shows and movies, but I'd never read any of the books. Now I was reading at least one a week, and we were finding characters and situations in them that translated well with what we wanted to do with STO. I did another round of revisions to the master timeline, and now there are nods to the novels. But I always knew that there would be a point that the STO story would diverge from the novels, because I was always looking toward 2409 and the beginning of STO.

The result of all of this writing and re-writing is a massive document that has notes about everything that happens in 30 years in the Star Trek Universe. When I'm writing The Path for 2409 updates for the web site (www.startrekonline.com), I use this document as my guide. I know there's no way I could do it all from memory now.

That's the story behind the story. Keep watching for more updates to The Path to 2409 – the best is yet to come.
 

Writing for Star Trek Online - Christine "Kestrel" Thompson

Posted by Awenyddion Friday April 3 2009 at 1:47PM
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When I tell people that I'm the writer for Star Trek Online, one of the responses I get is "Cool! So you write fanfic all day?"

… Not exactly. I get to play in the toybox that is the Star Trek Universe, and that's fabulous. It's one of the deepest and most detailed and most fun sci-fi settings ever, and I'm thrilled to be able to write Trek stories. But writing for STO isn't like writing a Trek novel or a script. There are a completely different set of questions to consider.

One of the big differences is characterization. Star Trek, at its heart, is its characters. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Picard, Data, Sisko, Quark, Dax, Worf, Janeway … they're iconic. And what makes so many of the episodes great is not the basic plot, but how these great characters respond to a particular situation.

When you're writing for an MMORPG, to some extent you're writing a story without knowing who the main characters are. The most important characters in STO will be the ones the players create. The players are the ones who get to shape the universe, make the big moves, win the battle, save the world. They have to be the heart of the story.

So how do we do that? First, we make the player characters the turning point of every story. Other characters may respond to them, ask things of them, attempt to stop them, or even try to blow their ship into space junk. But in the end, it is the actions that the characters take in the course of an Episode that are what's important.

Also, we have to be very careful not to limit the player's choices when it comes to creating his or her character, ship and crew. Our Bridge Crew is a prime example of that. A lot of information in the Episodes comes from your Bridge Crew. Just like in an episode of one of the shows, it is your crew that informs you of a situation, provides more information, or offers options for action.

When I'm writing dialogue for a member of the Bridge Crew, I have to be very careful not to do anything that would block the player from creating the crew that he or she wants. If I write a speech from the point of view of a sassy, overconfident young officer from Cestus III, it's going to sound pretty ridiculous coming out of the mouth of a Vulcan, Tellarite or Klingon. I've got to be careful not to break the illusion.

But "doing no harm" to characterization isn't enough. Because we're leaving the door open for players to create the characters and Bridge Crew they want, we've got to make sure that everything else is as Trek as possible. The situations, the ships, the look of space, the bat'leth moves … we do a ton of research and work to make it all authentic.

So no, I don't write fanfic all day. I'd say I help create a place where the players can tell their own stories. And I can't wait to see what the players do with it.
 

Focusing the Experience - Craig Zinkievich

Posted by Awenyddion Monday March 16 2009 at 12:02PM
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After we got the license to Star Trek and the initial excitement died down – it was time to get to work. We picked a group of directors and designers to sketch out what we wanted to do with the game, and that group sat in a room for numerous 3 hour “lock in” sessions over the course of a couple weeks to hash out the core aspects of the game.

Right off the bat, we decided that we didn’t want to list all of the “standard” MMO features and then try to jam them into a Star Trek setting. The first meeting was us just listing all of the things that we, some as great fans, some as casual, and some who only had a rudimentary knowledge of Star Trek, expected to see or experience in the game.

What did the Universe require? What did the Universe want? Those were the things we wanted to shape into something that players could experience online. The whiteboards in the room filled very, very fast.

We made lists and lists of things that we thought needed to be in a Star Trek game. The races, the planets, the experiences, the ships, the gameplay, the different character roles – all the stuff you can imagine.

The Star Trek Universe is huge. Just looking at the list of things that we thought players would want to do within the game was daunting. Not only do you have starship captains, but you have first officers, engineers, medical officers, communications, etc … And the shows and movies don’t stop with the members of Starfleet; many of the show’s most famous characters don’t contribute directly to the day-to-day functioning of the ship or station. Sure, you need Mot to cut your hair, Guinan and Quark to serve you drinks – but do we need to allow players to stand in a transporter room all day and wait to beam another player to an interesting location?

How should we choose what to put in and what not to? Did we have to make all of those roles available?
Now, you could design an MMO that tries to be everything. A game that tries to provide the ability to captain an spaceship, to be a first officer, to run a bar on DS9, to do deep space tribble trading or even to cut hair on a starship. We definitely didn’t want to make mini-games for all these things. We wanted to provide players a deep roleplaying experience in the Star Trek Universe, not Raving Rabbids - Star Trek Online Version.

But heck – if we made that many full-featured and deep games, we’d end up either never getting the game out to you guys or providing a huge range of thin and rather crappy experiences. Neither is an attractive option.

So you focus the experience. (Unlike this rambling devblog!) You pick what is important and focus your resources on making that as great as you can.

The hardest and most controversial decision we had to make was where to stop. Everyone in the room had an interest in pursuing a design where multiple players could work on a ship together. Someone could be captain, another navigator, a third person engineer, etc. So we thought about what that gameplay could be and what it would feel like. Someone pilots, someone works the weapons, someone is busy with the shields, etc. Could we make each of those experiences special and different from each other?

We could probably design and make something – but it added up to at least five or six totally different gameplay experiences that we’d have to deliver. The engineer couldn’t just worry about his systems when the battle turned sour – we’d have to come up with gameplay that someone would enjoy for hundreds of hours, for each of the jobs.

One undisputed fact about Star Trek Online was that as much as some people may want to be that engineering officer and play a supporting role on someone else’s ship, that almost EVERYONE at some point in time was going to want to be a Captain. Players would want to take the center seat and command their own starships.

It wasn’t easy – we argued, fought, waffled and fought some more – but that’s what we finally decided was our core, our kernel, to build the game around. We would make sure that as we designed and developed Star Trek Online, we wouldn’t do anything to close the door on being able to add player crew members, but for the launch, our focus was going to be making the coolest possible game with YOU as the Captain.
 

Jack Emmert – Taking on Star Trek Online

Posted by Awenyddion Friday February 27 2009 at 12:50PM
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We first became involved with Star Trek very tangentially. Cryptic Studios was looking around at various investment opportunities in the second half of 2007. We were working on Champions and were trying to decide our next steps. We happened to strike up a conversation with Francisco Partners; a great bunch of guys who introduced us to Perpetual. We’d of course heard of Perpetual and both of its projects (STO and Gods & Heroes). As MMO fans, we were looking forward to playing both games. People from both companies visited one another and showed off technology and development. Believe it or not, it’s pretty common to do this; the game industry is very congenial.

That’s about where things stood as 2007 came to a close. Our president, Michael Lewis, kept in touch with the folks at Perpetual because it never hurts to keep the lines of communication open, and we had let them know that if the Star Trek license ever happened to come free, we’d be interested. Many of us are big Star Trek fans, and a few I’d say are even proud to call themselves Trekkers.

Businesswise, there are very, very few IPs that fit the MMO genre better than Star Trek. It isn’t about a single story or narrative – it’s about a galactic community and how it interacts. Star Trek is a vast world teeming with interesting places and cool creatures. There’s mystery … and conflict. Historically, Trek hadn’t fared well in the video game world, so I think some people wrongly devalued the IP. In our minds, no game had really done justice to Star Trek. Plus, we already heard the rumblings of the forthcoming movie, so we knew interest in Star Trek was going to rise.

I’m not privy to what went on at Perpetual, other than what I have heard third-hand or read on the Internet. I had seen what they’d done in Star Trek, but that was about it. In early 2008, Perpetual decided to sell the license to us. Naturally, we were thrilled, but before we could finalize the deal there were a ton of hoops to jump through.

Unfortunately, it was a pretty open secret (at least online) that something was going on. Several web sites lamented the fact that no one would say anything, and we felt really bad about that. We wanted to let the fans know, but we couldn’t announce anything until everything had been signed.
That’s the story of how Star Trek ended up at Cryptic. Now, what we decided to do next is another story altogether …
 

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