Next February marks Star Trek Online's fifth anniversary. It's hard to believe it's been that long, especially given the fact that, on launch, STO was less than spectacularly received by the masses and, in fact, only managed to gather a 65 rating on Metacritic. Many games would have closed under the pressure but developer Cryptic Studios and publisher Perfect World Entertainment were determined to bring an authentic Star Trek experience to gamers around the world. With an amazing IP like Star Trek, the two were interested in capitalizing on the MMO market and with bringing in new MMO players from the gigantic worldwide fan base.
In other words, Cryptic and PWE did not give up.
Recently, Lead Designer Al Rivera and I spent an hour or so speaking about Star Trek Online, where it has come from, where it is now and what the future holds.
Cryptic scored the Star Trek IP from Perpetual Games after it went bankrupt in 2008. By July, Cryptic was ready to announce that it was working on a brand new Star Trek Online. In the months between then and February 2010, an entire game was developed and launched by a team of only twenty-five people. While Cryptic had done much the same with its initial game, Champions Online, the stakes for STO were much higher with a large and very vocal fan base based on decades of Star Trek lore.
"We launched STO in a small way. We were missing key features and brought a lower quality in terms of graphics and systems that we wouldn't accept today. Revolutionary space combat was something that had to be built over time." Al said. "We were a small company and had few resources but we were proud of what we'd done."
Star Trek Online launched in February 2010 and, as mentioned above, it struggled out the gate for many of the reasons Rivera mentioned. As a subscription based game, STO struggled for about a year and a half before Cryptic Studios was purchased by Perfect World Entertainment in May of 2011. It was, according to Rivera, a game changer.
"Being purchased by PWE changed everything. They brought in free to play knowledge, strategies and capital. Our team effectively doubled from twenty-five to nearly fifty."
In January 2012, Star Trek Online was ready for a change and a hybrid-free to play model was adopted. The subscription based revenue model was scrapped in favor of opening up the game to everyone, though premium memberships (aka subscriptions) could be purchased.
"Free to play was a HUGE success for us. We were able to make the game accessible to people who weren't able to play before. Accessible to all means that all content is free. We don't sell expansions and we don't place barriers to entry. Anything that players buy is there to enhance their game but is not required. We do not want to beat you over the head with sales and such. We want to tease you enough to make things enticing but not required in any way for a great experience."
Even free players can take advantage of the premium options available in the cash shop. By collecting the in-game resource called dilithium, players can use it to trade for Zen, the currency needed to purchase items from the shop. What this does, according to Rivera, is remove the barrier that leads people to call STO "pay to win".
"Since we went F2P, the game has been ridiculously successful," Al said. "It has been 'steady' at worst. You launch new content, get a big bump, then level out. We've been steady with up ticks and people keep coming back to STO over time to see what's new. We're excited and proud of that. We made a commitment to improving the game and we have."
"We started with small fixes such as ground combat. But to make larger improvements, we needed to build a robust end game. We needed to make sure people had things to do at the end. We have done that over this past couple of years and once the end game was established, we wanted to focus on story. We added a faction and story-based content complete with celebrity actors from the series and with content specifically focused around them."
Cryptic recently removed all randomly generated content and will rebuild it from the ground up to bring a new exploration game and something that will fulfill that role.
In the meantime, Rivera reminded, there is the Foundry.
"The Foundry gives players a chance to create. Most of what has been made is better than what originally came with the game," Al laughed. "When we re-release randomly generated content, it will be very high quality."
"We've also been upgrading systems like character creation, the skill system, crafting -- big systems and big content that we want to improve and replace."
If all that isn't enough, Cryptic is also hard at work on the game's next expansion, "Delta Rising" that will take place thirty years after Voyager's return from the Delta Quadrant. DR will see several members of the television cast brought on board to voice their characters in the game.
"We are taking players to Delta Quadrant and giving them a level increase and new story-driven, highly polished missions (ed. note: already on Tribble). We are bring in five Voyager actors for a huge reunion. There is so much story to be told in that quadrant."
"We're bringing in Tier 6 ships, new end-game talent trees that offer Captains horizontal specialization. There will be new bridge officers, a new specialist Intelligence bridge officer and much more."
"Most importantly, we will be adding content to Delta Quadrant over the next eighteen months --- both features and story. Players can probably expect a lot of story content over the next year on a very regular basis. There won't just be season updates, but more regular and frequent updates. It will continue the story (two big teasers at the end of Delta Rising will usher in the fifth anniversary and beyond) and we have a tight, cohesive story planned for the next year and a half."
Rivera wrapped up the interview by saying, "We've invested a lot to deliver an authentic Star Trek experience -- we are diehard Star Trek fans ourselves and take the IP seriously and hold it very precious. We spend a lot of time watching the shows, the movies and look for untold nuggets of story to tell. We want payers to get an excellent story and to travel the world thinking, "Wow! That's from that show" or "That's something I always wanted to know about!""
Star Trek Online is the best of what today's MMOs should be: Launch and improve and find an audience. Please that audience and the game succeeds. It seems that Cryptic has done just that.
Do you play STO? Have you played and do you go back to check out new content when it launches? tell us what you think in the comments!