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AGC: Daron Stinnett & Co.

Dana Massey Posted:
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Star Trek Online: Interview from AGC

Exec. Producer Daron Stinnett, Lead Designer Glen Dahlgren and Lead Systems Designer John Yoo chat from Austin

AGC gave us the chance to catch up with the developers behind Star Trek Online. Lead Designer Glen Dahlgren and Executive Producer Daron Stinnett were joined by their recently hired Lead Systems Designer John Yoo at the conference.

Yoo was the Powers Lead on Cryptic Studio’s City of Villains and Items Designer for Blizzard’s World of WarCraft. His hiring represents a larger trend at Perpetual Entertainment as they bring more and more experienced MMORPG developers into the fold. Currently, the Star Trek Online team is up to 35 full-time developers, despite the early state of the game.

Stinnett was excited to tell us that the team had hit a stage where they could play some semblance of the game. They can play the game, add new features, test them and tune them. Until recently, they’d still been in a text simulation phase, but it is an entirely different beast to see systems in action.

The team is currently hard at work fleshing out combat, both space and avatar problems. The challenge they face is that very few MMORPGs have done space combat. They have a framework to learn from with their land-based combat, but only a few examples of space. The same rules do not apply. That is one of the main reasons they are so excited to have a graphical client running; they can see if what works on paper works in action.

With space combat, they’ve started from a very simple base: an auto-attack that fires phasers and photon torpedoes, etc. Then, from there, they’re going to try and distinguish themselves from the crowd.

“We don’t want to assume that those mechanics work until we see and feel it,” explained Stinnett.

The next big challenge for the development team is the creation of their first space zone. They’re looking to create a small slice of their game to test, expand, change and break. Once it’s fun, they’ll extrapolate it into a full world.

Space is the defining feature of Star Trek and the first priority of the development team. If they screw that up, they’re in trouble.

“It has to feel uniquely Star Trek,” admitted Stinnett.

When they landed a license as huge as Star Trek, Perpetual faced a huge challenge. Not only must they create a fun MMORPG, but they must also appease the hoards of fans that have their own distinct ideas on how Star Trek should be done.

The guys told us they were surprised to find that while the hardcore Star Trek fans are extremely passionate, they’re also quite flexible. Simply, they want a good game.

The quest for a good game rules everything Perpetual does, according to Stinnett. If it fits the Star Trek universe, but simply is not fun, they won’t do it. They’re making a game, not a simulation.

The collective nature of Star Trek also poses a challenge for Perpetual to tackle. Take Starfleet for example. Everyone wears a uniform. It’s tough to get character customization when working from a setting that casts many of its characters with similar physical characteristics. The team plans to use a faction system to diversify the players, both visually and in terms of story.

There are dozens of other basic assumptions that the team plans to examine before they really get their game down.

“We need to understand our gameplay before we build content around it,” Stinnett explained.

The first is the interaction between characters and ships. How do you go from one to the other? How do you combine them in missions? How does this affect exploration and discovery? All of these are major hurdles that they need to get just right if they want the game to feel like Star Trek.

They started from a basic assumption that players would spend half their time in space and half as characters, although it seems likely the balance will end up resembling the episodes themselves, where they go to land for very specific purposes as part of larger missions.

Another issue is space travel. How do you balance the infinity of space and the monotony of traveling through a vacuum with the need to make sure people do not feel lonely and are having fun?

“You should have the same kind of access to people as you would in a ground-based game,” declared the Executive Producer.

The team also addressed some minor debates circulating our boards about their screenshots. The images, according to Stinnett, are from a real client. They’re based on a live demo the team showed at an IGDA Conference.

Star Trek Online hit a stage where theory became practice and it is now that the real decisions and evolution of their systems begins.

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Dana Massey