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Interview: Talking Star Trek Online With Senior Game Designer Jesse Heinig

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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Star Trek Online has hummed along now for over a decade, bringing players to space and allowing them to explore strange new worlds. The iconic Star Trek universe has been the backdrop of so much storytelling across multiple mediums, and has in turn inspired storytellers and, more specifically, game developers since the show debuted over half a century ago.

Star Trek Online’s talented team over at Cryptic Studios is full of developers inspired by the science fiction tentpole, and has poured that passion for Gene Roddenberry’s universe into their MMO at every turn. 

“I feel like it’s a marvelous opportunity to give back to a fandom that has given my life so much,” STO Senior Game Designer Jesse Heinig told MMORPG in an interview last week. Like many fans of both the sci-fi genre and Star Trek Online itself, Heinig grew up watching Star Trek, watching reruns with his father. 

Jesse’s career as a game developer spans years as well, working on the original Fallout series as well as the first two Call of Duty titles at Infinity Ward. He’s also worked creating tabletop games, specifically the Star Trek tabletop RPG for Cypher. For the last twelve years, Heinig has worked on Star Trek Online for Cryptic Studios, balancing different roles in his time with the MMO.

Through the years, he’s been able to craft stories and build content alongside the team at Cryptic in the Trek universe, as well as bring his passion for the science fiction genre of storytelling to the team. But it’s more than just crafting stories in the universe, rather it’s knowing that their contributions from Star Trek Online aren’t just some licensed property out there, but a part of the Star Trek canon.

The most recognizable facet of this is the inclusion of ships created for STO appearing in Star Trek: Picard. Four ships from the MMO were included in the show itself, bridging the traditional television medium and the MMO in a way that many might not have predicted. Indeed, it was also a closely guarded secret at Cryptic while talks were ongoing with the studio to include them. Not only was it cool for the studio to see their hard work appear on screen, but it brought with it something more: validation.

“That was a huge emotional win for the whole studio, the whole team,” Jesse told us when we asked what it was like for Cryptic to see their ships on the television show. “And it was something that had been kept really tightly under wraps by just a few people who were working on it.”

Jesse continued: “It was surprised to a lot of people. It was this huge win, a giant morale boost because it was validation. Our work is good enough to be included in the things people see on television. Our work matters. Our contributions to Star Trek are real contributions. We’re not just a licensor that they’re collecting a paycheck from.”

What made this all the more special was that the Picard team actually approached Star Trek Online and asked to use some of the ships from the game. As a result, it cultivated a feeling that Star Trek Online isn’t just some ancillary Trek property, but rather, as Jesse puts it, a “torchbearer” for the property.

“Everyone felt like this was a phenomenal moment, really a watershed moment. Star Trek Online being not just [an] associated Star Trek property, but being recognized as torchbearers who really care about the quality of what we do, who want to make things that are good enough that they can actually stand beside the Star Trek television series and be included in them.”

Boldly Going

It helps that the team at STO has a history of creating stories and experiences that could fit right inside the Trek universe. With such a wealth of information and stories to draw from, including the television series, Heinig and the team at Cryptic are able to craft unique stories that are both original, yet rooted in the overall universe.

Not only do the stories that the studio tells crafted from the grander Trek universe around STO, but oftentimes the inspiration comes from even the smallest detail. It helps too that Star Trek is seeing something of a renaissance in media today thanks to the myriad television shows coming out on platforms like Paramount+. Shows like the aforementioned Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discover, and Lower Decks help bring more inspiration to the team in addition to the series’ past. 

As a result, Cryptic is able to take a look at what the showrunners are saying and the stories they are telling and build upon that in interesting ways. 

“We were working in an area where we had a large library of shows and movies that we could draw from and we had pulled from a lot of the really big concept ideas in order to make our stories and we were sort of looking around going, ‘Okay, what else is there for us to do? What else can we use?’ And we started creating a few original story ideas. And then we’d look at other aspects of the Star Trek universe that we hadn’t really gotten into.

“Once we go this resurgence of new Star Trek shows, it was just opening up those floodgates and saying, ‘Congratulations, here are brand new official starships as seen on TV that you can put into your game. Here are new characters you can use.’ So it really opened up the floodgates on our ability to integrate new things without the fan base saying, ‘Oh, that wasn’t on TV. So I don’t care about it. I don’t care about what Cryptic makes up themselves. I just want the starships that we saw on the shows.’”

Jesse asks an interesting question though: “Where do you go from there?” Once everything has been built and introduced into STO, where does that leave you? That’s where being able to craft original new stories based on themes and influences from the existing shows comes into play, something we’re still seeing to this day. 

Because of the nature of Star Trek Online, the team is able to look at the shows themselves, past and present, and look to see where Star Trek  has been and where it’s going from here. The team can also look at the different elements in these shows and riff on them, expanding the universe and the lore by exploring places, themes, characters and more not really expanded upon in the show itself.

Heinig uses the example of a plant which appears in Star Trek V, Nimbus III, which is mentioned and never appears again. The team took that reference and ran with it, being able to essentially create adventures with a whole new planet not really explored anywhere else.

But it’s not just locations, but characters and story beats that can be riffed on as well. There are still character moments, as well as the broader themes of Star Trek that can be explored through STO’s storytelling.

“One of the Discovery-related episodes that we did called Beneath the Skin ties into the whole story from early Discovery of Stamets going to the Mycelial realm in order to rescue the Mycelial double of his murdered husband. And we say, ‘Okay, let’s play with this idea that Dr. Culver was turned into a mycelial doppelganger of himself and is coming to terms with the idea of ‘Am I the same Dr. Culver? Am I still a human being?’

“We did an entire episode on that idea of what makes you a person. What makes you distinct from the original. Does that mean you are any less if you are a copy?”

Variations on a theme

These themes central to Star Trek are ones that Jesse and I talked about which permeate science fiction, and the stories the developers at Cryptic are telling: human stories, inspirational stories about what mankind could be, especially given Trek’s origins during the Cold War.

“I always felt that Star Trek was unusual for its time because it was so inspirational. It was a science fiction series during the ‘60s in the Cold War when we thought that we were all going to be destroying in nuclear warfare that didn’t take a bleak look at futurism. Nor did it simply replicate the structures of colonial adventurism. You know, Rocket Ranger in space, who fights the alien that looks suspiciously like some foreigner and grabs the girl sortt of thing. [Star Trek] tried to take an idea of ‘What if things were actually better?’”

Being able to build on what makes Star Trek so aspirational and inspirational for many informs many of the storytelling elements and themes that the team builds upon, Jesse included. 

“I love the idea that I get to then give that inspiration back and say, ‘I’m going to explore questions of science fiction. Questions about how changes in our technology and understanding of the universe affect our society, and affect us as humanity or social issues that we have today? How might we look back on those in the future and say, we can solve this issue if only we do these things? Well, if we treat each other with respect and humanity devotes itself to being better?’ Being able to contribute stories like that, being able to craft characters that function according to these principles allows me to thenn share that vision forward with a new generation of Star Trek aficionados.”

This seems to be resonating with players, as Heinig tells me that Star Trek Online has been seeing some of its best player numbers in years, attributing this success to player enthusiasm to Trek’s resurgence. 

“ So, obviously in terms of where STO is generally going in the future, there will continue to be stories. The numbers don’t lie, Star Trek Online has been doing some of its best years ever in recent years, and people are really enthusiastic about the resurgence of Star Trek. And it gets people interested in the game and they want to show up, they want to play, and they want to see all of the favorite moments that they saw in the shows, or the characters and stories reflected in the game. And we deliver that and like I said: the data doesn’t lie. People like it.” 

So where does Star Trek Online go from here, especially with their own stories to tell? Thankfully, we have a little bit of information thanks to the recent reveal of the upcoming episode, Stormfall

Stormfall continues the Mirror Universe storyline that has been told in STO in recent updates, with players needing to uncover the Emperor of the Terran Empire’s plans. Everything being told in the Stormfall update and beyond is directly inspired by “core elements of the Star Trek mythos,” according to Heinig, and has ramifications that are “cosmically big.”

Stormfall is, of course, part of our huge Mirror Universe storyline in which we’re exploring the idea that the emperor of the Terran Empire has developed some sort of plan to engage some super weapon, with which he plans to take over the universe, or maybe even the multiverse, the entire cosmos multiple alternate realities. Who’s the Emperor? We don’t know.”

Without spoiling anything, Jesse says that players will be able to see just how big the Emperor’s plan is during the culmination of this storyline, maybe even realizing it’s bigger than they thought it would be at first glance. But from there? Star Trek Online, much like the broader Star Trek universe it inhabits, has a long future ahead of it, helmed by a team of developers, like Jesse, who are passionate about continuing to create stories that resonate with fans.

As Jesse puts it: “Don’t expect us to slow down anytime soon.”  


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