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First Anniversary Interview

William Murphy Posted:
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I’m sure it doesn’t need saying that it’s been an up and down year for Star Trek Online and Cryptic Studios. But let’s start off on the high notes: what’s the highlight of the first year’s live service for STO? Your favorite moments through year one?

Dan Stahl:

I actually think it's been a great up, up, up year for us.

Certainly, we launched to critical reception that was lower than we would have wanted, but the game has definitely not gone downhill from there. We've gone uphill the entire time and at an incredible rate. Even MMORPG’s own rating of Star Trek Online has improved, while other MMOs floundered, have seen an exodus of users, or were outright cancelled. It's a testament to the game and the team's hard work that Star Trek Online is still on target a year after launch, hitting goal after goal, and that our subscriber base is as healthy as ever.

This is why I think my personal favorite highlight of the year was reading reports on our anniversary... They detailed how many people are playing STO, the improvements we made and how much better the game is, overall. That made me smile knowing we have not only hit, but exceeded our internal goals for where we wanted to be at our first anniversary.


Now, how about the downers. As part of the development team, what is your own personal worst moment since launching the game?

Dan Stahl:

To be honest, the biggest downer is always related to vitriol in comments on popular gaming sites like MMORPG.com. These sometimes come from gamers who personally attack the development team and, in some cases, use their anonymity and anger to carelessly trash the hard work of passionate individuals.

The game may not be your favorite and by honestly evaluating our game, even we have owned up to issues and review scores. But, we continue to make improvements to address feedback players have with the game. And our playing fans really appreciate that, I think.

So, it's a huge downer when some people continue to post uninformed, demeaning or hateful comments for no apparent reason. Sure, it's the Internet. It happens. But, some of the comments that have been sent to me personally are so hateful and full of ill will that it causes some grief.

We’ve learned to take note of constructive feedback and shrug it off when it is less than useful, but sometimes I just wish there was more civility in criticism. After all, we do work very hard to make STO bigger and better. If you look at our record of releases and new features and improvements over the past year, I think our work speaks for itself.


Champions Online has recently launched its Free-for-All version of the game, in part of a growing trend towards what we like to call “Freemium” games. I know you’ve been asked this time and again, but what does that mean for STO?

Dan Stahl:

Allowing players to try games for free has proven to be successful in a variety of venues. In some ways, the success of traditional downloadable demos has led to a natural desire for MMOs to offer similar trial offers. A big question driving discussions about that and how to turn trials into free products was, “How much of the game can you play free?” Where you draw that line is where business models are emerging.

One way to look at the free to play business model is to make the concession that instead of limiting the content a player has access to in the demo, you allow them to experience all the content in the game, and instead limit access to other elements of gameplay that could drive a purchase or subscription. So, where previously a conventional demo was meant to give a small bite of gameplay in hopes that you’d purchase the full game, a free to play game allows you take a much bigger bite of gameplay in the hopes that you’ll subscribe to the full game, and if not, at least purchase something in the meantime.

The benefit is that where previously a potential consumer would spend a very limited amount of time with a demo and then be forced into a decision to either buy the full game or walk away, now players can spend a lot more time with the free to play game and even make smaller purchases before ultimately making a decision of whether to subscribe to the game or not. Even that decision is not necessary. There is no blocker to experiencing more content, like a demo had.

All of this works on the backbone architecture assumption that ultimately players will want to purchase items or pay the subscription. The ongoing revenue must make up for the cost of floating the larger than normal percentage of free players.

Having read about the success that Turbine has had with DDO and LOTRO, and now seeing the numbers ourselves with Champions Online: Free for All, the model is definitely, in the words of Mr. Spock, “Fascinating.”

I’m just as curious as you are as to what this could mean for the future of Star Trek Online.


In Turbine’s case it seemed that DDO’s switch to Freemium was a precursor to LotRO making the leap too. What kinds of things are being looked at for STO to make this transition, or not?

Dan Stahl:

Working on a project with a fiscal budget and defined overhead costs, the resources for continued development of the game are based on revenue projections tied to subscriptions and micro-transactions.

In order to continue developing Star Trek Online at the pace we are now, we need to continue to hit our projected goals so that we can continue to pay salaries, licensing fees, and overhead costs. As a side note, Bill Roper recently posted an interesting article on Gamasutra about the finances of MMOs. Without going into specifics, I can say that those elements definitely come into play here.

Moving Champions Online to a free to play model was done based on new projections of how Champions would perform with this new type of model. What the studio is looking at now is validating those projections and seeing if the expectations were correct for how the game performs after the transition. This takes time and adjustment and the STO team is definitely watching closely to see how they perform.


One of the complaints against STO at launch was that for Star Trek fans, the game seemed to be too much about the action. In the year since and going forward what steps has the team taken to bring home a more Star Trek oriented feel for the entire game? Something that seems more rooted in Roddenberry’s vision.

Dan Stahl:

The complaints were far more specific than that, and I feel it is an over-generalization to say that the game was too focused on action. Gene Roddenberry’s pitch for Star Trek was that it was to be an Action-Adventure drama that focused on the idea that there must be “Parallel Worlds” in the universe that would allow us to see similarity in ourselves. At many times in the original series, those similarities revolved around war and the social issues of the 60s. Star Trek Online is just as much a mirror to today’s world as the original series was to the time in which it was made.

The real issue you are alluding to is that Star Trek Online skirts and crosses the line for how Starfleet has been portrayed as an organization throughout the various TV shows and Movies. Despite the fact that nearly every Star Trek video game to date has feature starship combat, there are so many missions in Star Trek Online that it starts to become unbelievable that Starfleet would resort to so much conflict, even though it is for gameplay purposes. Add to this the enormous amount of dialog players receive in all these missions and it becomes difficult to have a consistent feeling to what players expected from the TV shows.

There is a big difference between the joys of space combat and the role-playing decisions players want to make so that they feel involved in the social issues being portrayed by the game.

Ultimately, most players want Star Trek to be about storytelling and the moral decision making of single player RPGs over the multiplayer, group-combat focus found in MMOs.

This is why Star Trek Online has been focusing our efforts on telling more single player stories where players get to make more decisions and become involved in the issues instead of just using their phasers to solve every conflict. Doing so makes the game feel a little less like an MMO, but it is what most of our players are asking for, and we are working to strike the balance between group gameplay and single player decision making.

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William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.