GDC Studio Visit: The Directions of STO
While in San Francisco at the Game Developer's Conference, Managing Editor Jon Wood had the opportunity to attend a press event at Perpetual Entertainment, the makers of Star Trek Online. In this article, Jon looks at how the direction of the game fits in with the legend of its IP.
Last night, members of the press were treated to a visit to Perpetual Studios' offices in downtown San Francisco. During that time, we got a hands-on look at Gods and Heroes (the subject of another article) and a look at some of what they're doing with Star Trek Online.
While we didn't get to look at the game itself (they're still in a very early stage of development), we did get a chance to look at the game's assets: race models, ships, planets, and the like. It was enough to get a good idea of the feel of this new incarnation of the Star Trek franchise.
For folks who might not know, Star Trek Online is set about 20 years after the movie, Star Trek Nemesis. Setting the game outside of the direct timeline of the movies and the television show gives Perpetual the opportunity to branch out and put their own stamp on the Trek universe. As with any IP, that can be a risky business. The games industry is full of tales of IPs gone horribly wrong, where the spirit of the original incarnation is lost because the company was more interested in capitalizing on the brand recognition of the IP than they were about making a solid game that would entertain fans and non fans alike.
As a Star Trek fan, I can honestly say that I am enjoying what I'm seeing from Perpetual. The new uniforms, for example, seem to be a combination of the war-time jacket uniforms that debuted in Deep Space Nine and the popular, more form-fitting costumes of the later seasons of The Next Generation. To me, this is a logical progression that sets the game apart from its television predecessors while at the same time retains the familiar feel that Trek fans have come to know and love. In fact, that would be a good way to describe the direction that STO seems to be taking; familiar, but different. Heck, just look at the new Starfleet emblem.
One of the highlights of the evening, for me, was having the chance to take a look at some of the concept art that was on display for us. Ships, planets, and races (both playable and NPC) covered the walls of one of the rooms in the studio. Browsing along, I saw: burly, mean-looking Klingons and stout, almost dwarf-like Tellerites posted on the wall near some of the most unique starship designs that I could imagine. Starfleet, it seems, has gone through an evolution of design in the 20 years between the game and Nemesis. The ships are sleeker, more interesting versions of the vessels that we are used to seeing. The new version of the Enterprise (I suppose it must be NCC-1701-F or G) provides the same stark contrast to its predecessor as the Enterprise D did to the much-beloved ship from the Original Series. The neck of the ship (between the drive and saucer sections) has been elongated and curved, but the original feel remains intact with a deflector array (that piece on the bottom front of the ship) that looks surprisingly like the one from the Enterprise D and a large saucer section. These new ship designs (the Enterprise is only one of many new classes of Starfleet vessel) stood next to familiar designs like the Defiant class ships, Maquis Fighters and a ship that looked a lot like the Voyager's Delta Flyer. Again, this keeps with Star Trek tradition as The Next Generation often saw an Excelsior class ship (from the Original Series movies) running alongside the newer, bigger, better Enterprise D.
Throughout the evening, it became clearer and clearer that Perpetual was taking full advantage of the fact that they were not held to the limitations of a film or a television series in terms of the look of the game. Remember the Gorn? That species that Kirk (and later Archer) had to battle that, even in the recently produced Enterprise series, looked more like a guy in a rubber mask than a threatening monster? Well, the concept drawing of the Gorn that I saw bore enough resemblance to be recognizable, but was edgier, more hunched, less human, and looked more like a dangerous beast than a laughable, campy monster. One of the biggest complaints that I've heard from people about Star Trek is that the aliens are just "Humans with crinkly noses". While it's true that in the world of prosthetics and make-up an actor can only be made to look so inhuman, the same isn't true in the world of video games. Darren Stinnett, the game's Executive Producer, told me that they wanted each race to be distinctly recognizable from a distance. If you see a Klingon from far away, for example, you should know that it's a Klingon before you get close enough to see his head ridges. If the drawings that I saw bare any resemblance to what we will eventually see on our screens, they have managed to accomplish that goal without really changing the race. A few small tweaks and suddenly you can believe that these aren't just Humans in make-up, but real, living, breathing aliens.
Clearly, it's too early to tell or even speculate about the success of the game, but when I looked at those displays last night, when I heard the game's theme music play (Trek fans will be happy to know that they've abandoned the lyrics in Enterprise in favor of a more traditional sounding theme), the Trekkie in me got a little bit excited about the prospect of living in Perpetual's Star Trek universe.