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Interview: Star Trek Online's Ryon Levitt On Working On Star Trek, S24 Reflections Console Launch

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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There are certain franchises that we latch onto and hold dear. For me, it's The Lord of the Rings. I remember being so enamoured by the world Tolkien created that to this day inspire much of my imagination. For many others it was Star Trek. Ryon Levitt is in that camp for sure, and the Senior Designer on Star Trek Online gets to translate that love for Gene Rodenberry's world into something many die-hard Star Trek fans, and newcomers alike, will enjoy.

We were able to chat with Levitt on what it's like to create content for Star Trek Online, especially as someone who is living their dream, as well as some insight on what players can expect to see in S24: Reflections that Levitt had a hand in creating.

MMORPG: First off, can you talk about what it’s like to work on what sounds like a dream project for you, creating content for a Star Trek themed game like STO?

Ryon Levitt, Senior Designer, Star Trek Online: Ha. This is a short question with a potentially long answer. As you’ve mentioned - it’s like a dream. Ever since I was young, video games have been an important part of my life. Games like Ultima Online got me through the toughest years of my life. Furthermore, my father instilled in me a love of science and discovery at an early age. He actually named me after Orion, the Hunter, one of his favorite constellations. So I guess to a degree, there was always a bit of astronomy in my blood. 

Growing up, characters like Jean-Luc Picard, Geordi La Forge, Data, and Guinan were heroes to me. They were living on a spaceship doing space things. How cool was that?! And they lived in a future where people worked, not for money, but for the good of the whole. I am a firm believer of the Jewish concept of Tikun Olam. Literally it means “Heal the World,” but more colloquially, it means leaving the world in a better place than we found it. When you think about it, that’s very much in line with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of our possible future.

So now I have a chance to make the games that help others the way games helped me when I was younger. Pairing that with a chance to work on an IP like Star Trek, and not only write for the license, but also MEET the illustrious actors that I had only previously seen on television… Well, let’s just say that such an opportunity doesn’t happen every day. It truly is a blessing to wake up in the morning and think, “I’m making something that people will love, FOR people who care greatly that I do it right, and WITH people who are so talented and brilliant.”

I come from a family of architects. They made houses; I make worlds.

How has your journey in the industry helped prepare you for the role you’re in now at Cryptic? What other games have you worked on and how has that helped influence how you approach your work on STO?

"My first real design job in the industry was with Koei Tecmo as a level designer on Samurai Warriors 3 for the Nintendo Wii. My lead had previous level design experience with Three Kingdoms Online in Singapore. He taught me a lot about scale as it pertains to player perception. For example, if your character is 5 ft tall, a doorway that is 7 ft tall, while realistic, will look wrong to players, thanks to the 3rd person camera. For it to look and feel right, the doorway needs to be at least 10 ft tall. I also learned a lot about slopes - which ones look climbable and which ones don’t.

My own first experience with MMORPGs was on Dungeons & Dragons Online. There I learned a lot about working on a live game and interacting with players. It really is an entirely different beast than working on a box title that is done once it goes out to print. I learned about scaling encounters for multiple players and using lighting to lead players. I also learned that I’m terrible at eyeballing prop placement - thank goodness for environment artists and their skills.

In the end, all of these experiences have helped me when designing experiences for players on STO. Whether I use the skills directly, or they help me speak the same language as the environment art team."

When approaching working on new content for STO, what are some of the key things you try to consider before jumping into it?

"The main things I tend to consider are: a) Where does this fit in the big picture? b) What’s something new that I can incorporate into this piece of content? c) What can I make with the time allotted? and d) How do I make sure all this ends up being fun for the player?

It’s obviously very important for any piece of content to fit with the greater narrative of the game, and it’s definitely not a good idea to sign up for more than is actually achievable. Ignoring these two principles is just setting myself up for failure. At the same time, I also like trying new things out. Some of my favorite pieces of content I’ve made were based on some new mechanic or element. The episode “Quark’s Lucky Seven” had me going wild with our tech that let players interact in the game as characters from the show. Plus I loved having the opportunity to write a comedy. In “The Khitomer Discord”, the moving wall of death was really exciting to see when it came together. “Measures of Morality” was a massive undertaking, combining and twisting well-known STO stories. And I will always have a place in my heart for the Dodongo-feeding mechanic of “Days of Doom.” It’s important to me that missions and Task Force Operations are fun for as many players as possible."

Most recently, you worked on remastering the TOS missions for the Season 24 update. Can you talk a bit about how you approached these missions and their remastering, and why you felt it was important to tackle this as part of the update?

"Our main goal for the remaster was making the TOS starting experience a more positive initial experience for new players. This involved smoothing out difficulty spikes, improving visuals (the environment team did a great job) and improving the overall messaging for the missions to make sure players knew what they were doing. With it being the 55th anniversary of The Original Series, we wanted to make sure that any players who were coming in to make a character from that era had the best experience possible. "

What were some of the highlights for you going back through these TOS missions? Did anything really stand out to you specifically while working on the remaster?

"Actually, it was wild working on this content. I started working at Cryptic only a few months before we started Agents of Yesterday, the game’s third major expansion which included all the TOS episodes. Though I didn’t create these missions myself, I did help out with some of the content. Looking at these missions now, I can really see how much I’ve grown in these past six years. There were at least a few AI scripts that I made back then that had to be completely redone this time around. Live and learn, right?"

You mention that the final sequence of The Battle of Caleb IV was simply too hard, causing players to die, respawn only to die again. How did you tweak this to make it seem more gradual and not as much a massive difficulty spike as you describe? Why was this important when revisiting these missions?

"The idea of that sequence is that you are rescuing your allied ships and then covering their escape because your warp drive has been damaged and you won’t be able to keep up with them. Additionally, this is where we “kill off” the character and take them to the future as a Temporal Agent. As such, killing them off early and then having them respawn just so they could die again felt pretty awkward. The first thing I did was slow down the escalation of Klingon reinforcements to give players a chance to rescue their allies without getting overwhelmed. Then, once their allies were rescued, we started to escalate combat. There is a 2 minute timer to try and survive, and if you succeed, you get an accolade. If at any point during those 2 minutes you die, we immediately trigger sending you to the future.

Overall, it feels significantly better than it previously did. This was also one of the parts I had “helped” with back in the day. So it was nice being able to clean up my mistakes."

One of the missions in the Terran Gambit, Firewall, was of your creation. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached creating this mission and what some of the feedback has been from those who have completed thus far?

“Firewall opens up the entire Terran Gambit story arc, so it was important to set the tone and get players excited about what is to come. Because this is a Mirror Universe story, I wanted to have the action take place in two versions of the same location, so half of the mission is set in the Prime Universe and the other half is in the Mirror Universe. We always knew we wanted to bring back Admiral Leeta - she’s a fun character and Chase Masterson is a pleasure to work with. So with these macro-decisions made, I put together a pitch to be greenlit, detailing the micro-decisions I wanted to make (for example having the mission take place in a top secret research base in the Izar System). There were some mechanics that had to go through a number of iterations, the sequence in the Prime Universe Engineering went through about 5 different setups before we found something that felt right. The battle in the Mirror Lab went through a number of balance tweaks before the fight was at a difficulty we were happy with.

Player feedback was very positive for “Firewall.” I had a chance to watch some players run through it on Twitch and YouTube, and I read some of the feedback on our forums and Reddit. And while you’re never going to please everyone, the general consensus was that most players were really excited about the Terran Gambit, especially when they saw the final cutscene of the episode. If you haven’t played the mission yet, it’s a doozy."

I think for many people out there, being able to work not just in games would be a dream come true, but also work on a franchise they care deeply about, like Star Trek is for you. Do you have any advice for those looking to get into the industry on how to start and eventually make it where you are today?

"My own entrance into the industry was equal parts luck and planning. My childhood dream was to make video games and in high school I found myself doing well at programming. I went to the University of Toronto under the advice of my guidance counsellor (I never considered studying out of the country before that). In school, I was introduced to the Dynasty Warriors games, and in my fourth year, I went to a job fair and found out that Koei had a Canadian branch that was previously used as an art studio, but was being opened as a development studio and would be hiring the following year. I decided to take an extra year of classes, allowing myself to be in the right place at the right time.

That being said, if you want to get into the industry, here’s my advice:

  1. Play games. Knowing what differentiates games (both from each other and from other industries) is very useful. It’s true for any development discipline - design, programming, the multitudes of art and audio disciplines. If you want to become a game writer, for example, being able to write a novel or stage-play isn’t going to translate one-to-one.
  2. Be adaptable. Nothing is ever going to go perfectly the first time. You will get feedback and will be expected to act on it. It’s important not to get married to your first attempts, or even your second ones. 
  3. Be sociable. You don’t have to be an extrovert to make video games, but you’re going to have to work with other people, so communication is key.
  4. Care about what you do. The old adage was to try to enter as QA and hope to be transferred to your role of choice. This is a bad way of looking at things. QA teams work just as hard as everyone else on the team, so if you want to join as QA, be awesome at it. And that’s true for any discipline. You are far more likely to be offered a chance to try something new if you show that you are a passionate team player that people want to work with. And nothing turns off people more than saying that you’re only doing this job because you want a different one.
  5. Learn. In school and out, we have many opportunities to better ourselves. Want to be a programmer? Learn a few popular languages. Want to model? Know the most common software. Understand theory and best practices. And as I said in tip #1, play games and learn what you can about how they were made. This goes doubly for the company you are applying to. Play their games so you can discuss them during your interview.
  6. Be patient, yet persistent. As I said, my entering the industry was a bit of a fluke. It’s not normally so quick. Expect to apply multiple times to multiple companies. It’s not the easiest industry to enter, but it is not impossible. And personally, I think it’s well worth it."

lotrlore

Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore