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Interview with Daron Stinnett

Dana Massey Posted:
Interviews 0

An interview with the driving force being Perpetual's flagship title

Daron Stinnett is the Producer of Star Trek Online. This industry veteran was previously the subject of a developer profile on our site. Today, we have an interview with him that focuses in on what you truly want to know: Star Trek Online. To go with the interview we also have two screenshots from the game (which are also included in this article).

MMORPG.com: You’re obviously a long way away from retail launch. Can you give us a general update on where you are in production and when in a general sense you anticipated major milestones (alpha, beta, launch) will come?
Daron Stinnett:

We are an early phase of development where we are working on our design, prototyping our new ideas, laying down foundation for our tools and technology framework, and doing a lot of planning. We have quite a bit of company technology, tools, and processes to draw upon, so we expect to be in full scale production by this summer and begin our initial public beta tests in the summer of 2007.

MMORPG.com: The Star Trek universe is filled with unique races and passionate fans will undoubtedly be extremely upset if any are skipped at launch. With the realities of a production in mind, obviously you cannot please everyone. What races are you going to concentrate on and why?
Daron Stinnett:

Playable races are those that you might expect to see on a Starfleet starship and will likely include Human, Vulcan, Klingon, Bajoran, Bolian, Trill, Tellarite, Andorian. The controversial issue is our decision to have Star Trek Online focus exclusively on Starfleet at launch. The immense scope of MMOs means that if you want to build a multi-faction game, then those factions had better be carbon copies of each other from a game mechanics point of view. But the "coat of paint" approach just doesn't work with Star Trek. Starfleet is very unique, as are the other factions and we didn't feel that anyone wanted a watered down experience in order to achieve a multi-faction game. Starfleet, with its focus on starship life, space combat, exploration, and away missions, presents a challenge to MMO conventions that has pushed us to come up with fresh ideas that will give players a very new online experience. And ultimately, innovative gameplay and respect for our license are the things that will provide the greatest value for players.

MMORPG.com: By choosing to do space and land-based content, you’re essentially making two games. Can you talk about your general goals in regards to the land-based aspects of the game?
Daron Stinnett:

We're committed to doing both space and ground for Star Trek Online because it is the right thing to do. But you're right to point this out as a challenge for the development team. Building two games at once is hardly a recipe for success, so we've put a lot of effort into figuring out how to unify the mechanics between the two environments, while maintaining the unique flavor of each.

We also want to avoid creating two kinds of games from the player perspective, so we are building a world where players will feel equally capable in either arena. Just as it is in the series, we expect player characters to move freely between the two environments. This will enable us to weave space and ground gameplay together in a single mission. For example, its not hard to imagine mission that takes place within a derelict Borg Cube that allows the player to complete that mission either on foot or by ship, or a combination of both. The possibilities are endless and we're planning on giving players a lot more mission variety than they are used to.

MMORPG.com: And in space?
Daron Stinnett:

Both space and ground combat have similar RPG style combat mechanics, but the similarities end there. Like a mount in land-based MMOs, your starship will speed you across the galaxy to destinations unknown. And of course starships are so much more than mounts since they are also upgradeable combat platforms that also happen to have accommodations for your friends. Players will have the choice to go it alone, group with other ships, or form a crew to maximize the combat power of any single ship. And at higher levels, Admirals will have the ability to form armadas that can be a combination of crewed capital ships and escort ships to tackle high level missions.

MMORPG.com: Space combat is an issue I’ve seen many readers discuss. What are your plans in this area?
Daron Stinnett:

We made the decision a while ago to focus space combat on teamwork and strategy rather than the aerobatics of space flight. This has been a controversial decision, but its one we're sticking to because we don't want STO become a combat flight-sim, which would inevitably happen if we asked players to navigate with a full six degrees of freedom.

MMORPG.com: “Realism” vs. Fun is often a debate in fantasy MMORPGs. With Star Trek you have a similar challenge. How do you intend to balance the creation of a “realistic” Star Trek universe vs. a fun game?
Daron Stinnett:

You've pointed to one of the most challenging aspects of making a Star Trek MMORPG. Part of the appeal of Star Trek is its realism. At the same time, we're committed to making a game that is entertaining regardless of your level of enthusiasm for Star Trek. This means that core gameplay features can never be considered fun just because they are modeled after Star Trek. In other words, our gameplay needs to stand on its own as a satisfying gameplay experience. Sometimes this goal drives us to bend or even break the established rules of Star Trek. But most of the time, our twin goals of achieving fun gameplay while respecting the values of Star Trek drives us to find truly unique solutions that both satisfy the needs of the license and happen to advance the genre.

MMORPG.com: Licenses are a blessing and a curse. How much freedom does Perpetual Entertainment have in developing this game?
Daron Stinnett:

Paramount, and now CBS, have been wonderful to work with. They recognize that an MMORPG is one of the best ways to pay off on the Star Trek experience and they've been very supportive. Everyone understands that there are details of Star Trek that may have worked great for the show, but are a challenge for an MMORPG. To facilitate those changes, Paramount/CBS has put us in touch with the original show designers, like Mike Okuda and Andrew Probert, to update Star Trek to better meet the game's needs. Working with these guys has been a great experience and they are just as excited as we are to take Star Trek in a new direction.

MMORPG.com: Artistically, I’ve noticed you’ve already made some style changes to Starfleet uniforms. Can you talk a bit about the themes of the game from the perspective of art direction?
Daron Stinnett:

The uniforms are a good example of an area where we've needed to evolve the look of Star Trek to support the game. Star Trek uniforms from the shows tend to be very subtle in their variation, which of course works when you're filming close enough to make the actors themselves the stars of the show. But for an MMO, It's well understood that giving players the ability to customize their look as their character evolves is an important part of any MMO as is the ability to recognize player rank and specialty from a distance. So we have created new uniforms that are still very recognizable as Star Trek, but with recognition and customization features that will work well in our game world.

MMORPG.com: We’ve yet to see a screenshot from Star Trek Online. When do you believe screenshots will begin to make their way online? [Editor's Note: This question was obviously asked before the first screenshots began to flow.]
Daron Stinnett:

Recently, we've been focusing on look development, a process of creating real-time scenes that demonstrate the visual quality we expect for our various environments. The first environment we tackled was the interior of a starship and we've just recently released a few shots from that effort. Though it will likely be sometime towards the end of 2006 before we start releasing screenshots that show off gameplay.

Star Trek is a powerful license and it's not hard to imagine why it will make for a very exciting MMO. So though we have a lot of great material to show, we're moving cautiously because we know there is plenty of time to generate a high level of awareness. We really enjoy having a dedicated fan community to discuss our ideas with, and while it's really tempting to feed our ego by showing great images, we don't want to make the mistake of growing the community to a size that's beyond our capability to support this early in development. Keeping a low profile while supporting an "inner circle" fan community for such a highly anticipated product is a tricky balancing act, but we're confident that we have time to get our message out to the gaming public and when we're ready to do so, we'll come out swinging.

MMORPG.com: Given the early phase of production, there are assuredly still a lot of design decisions to be made. How much do you listen to your fans and how can those interested get their ideas seen?
Daron Stinnett:

We're already actively involved with our fan community. They've been a great source of ideas and an opportunity for us to get feedback on our plans. When I started last summer, the fan forums were populated mainly by hard core Star Trek fans. And it's been really enjoyable to see the community grow and become more diverse as more casual Star Trek fans and MMORPG players have joined the mix.

We haven't started up our own forums yet but there are some great fan sites out there that do have forums where anyone can discuss the game. We tend to frequent the most active sites by responding to posts and following the discussions. Many of the ideas floated in the discussions have influenced our thinking and to facilitate feedback, I've been writing a development update on our site (www.startrekonline.com) that gives everyone a preview of the design issues we'll be working on next.

It is a great opportunity to get involved early and influence a game's design, learn more about the game development process, and see a game come together in real-time. Releasing information and involving the community this early has been a risk for us though. Our fans will have to wait longer than usual to play the game they've been following. But we feel like the strategy has paid off by helping us design a better game and in continuing the long standing tradition of a close relationship between the fans and Star Trek.

Thank you to Daron for taking the time.

We'll continue to bring you up-to-date coverage of Star Trek Online, including more coverage from GDC in a few weeks.

If you want to comment on this article, you can do so here and on their hype meter.


Dana Massey