MMORPG.COM got a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the starships of Star Trek Online come to life and how an artist followed his passion for Star Trek. Donny Versiga designs starships and environments for Star Trek Online. His love for Star Trek began at a very young age, as he watched the series with his dad and often paused the show to sketch out the ships. Now he is responsible for generating the model, textures, and materials to either recreate the ships from the IP’s most popular series or create his own designs which will live on through canon. It’s a timely look behind the scenes as the posting of this article coincides with Star Trek Online: House Divided season 23 which launches this week!
MMORPG: In your bio it says you began creating digital 3D Star Trek models, sets, and ships as a hobby when you were 15 years old. What would you consider to be your “nexus event” that started this hobby and your passion for Star Trek as a whole?
Donny Versiga: Well, I’d been a Star Trek fan all my life. But when I was 15 years old, I took an interest in making custom user-made levels for the old 3D Star Wars game Dark Forces. I remember bringing a bunch of floppy disks to the school library and downloaded the software I needed and started learning the ins and outs of basic 3D modeling. I created and released a few Star Wars levels for Dark Forces, before moving onto using the engine of the follow-up game Jedi Knight. I created a Cloud City-based level for that game before I suddenly realized, “Hey, I can use this engine to bring to life some Star Trek interiors in 3D.” I began fiddling around with that a bit, but the commercial release of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force really motivated my efforts. I switched to the Quake III engine and began making more Star Trek mods for that game, albeit none that were ever released. But it was all good practice and experience for later when I’d eventually find myself in the industry without a degree.
MMORPG: What “tools” did you use when you were 15 years old and in contrast what tools do you use nowadays?
DV: Oh wow. I don’t think I ever used a proper 3D modeling package until I was in my late twenties. Back when I just started out, it was a process of making very basic geometry within the game engine itself. For the Jedi Knight engine, I used a program called JED, and for the Quake III engine, I used a program called Radiant. The tools were cumbersome and very underpowered compared to the professional modeling software of even that time but allowed making custom levels and geometry that were on par with other games of that era. It wasn’t until the release of Unreal 4 and my subsequent purchasing of programs like Autodesk 3ds Max and Substance Painter that I really understood the power of professional software and used that as a justification for investment. My work really took off then, as I was able to then craft more detailed and professional assets like ones, we were all beginning to see in more modern games.
MMORPG: How did you manage to get hired to the STO development team?
DV: My work started getting noticed due to my uptick in skill level from using the aforementioned professional tools. Most, if not all, of my work at that time was all Star Trek and Star Wars fan art, and I was seriously worried that having such a limited portfolio would prevent me from getting a job in the industry. Nevertheless, I created an online portfolio anyway and started applying for jobs. I also went to my first Star Trek convention in Las Vegas and handed out business cards, advertising myself as a 3D modeler specializing in Star Trek. I figured it couldn’t hurt to get my name out there. I’m not completely sure how Thomas Marrone of Star Trek Online became aware of my work, but I met someone who knew him, and I believe they told him about me at the convention. About a month after attending my second convention in 2015, I got a Facebook message from Thomas urging me to apply to the open spot on STO’s team. I was delightfully surprised; I explained to him I didn’t have any industry experience or formal training, but he assured me that my work and my passion for the franchise spoke for itself. After a few interviews, I was offered a job and the rest, as they say, is history.
MMORPG: What resources does your team use to get an IP starship into the game? Is it all based off just the TV shows?
DV: For newer stuff that’s currently in production, CBS will generally give us what they can, ranging from concept art, to schematics, to even their 3D production models. That really helps with crafting the newer ships, as they aren’t as well documented online by fans at this point. For the older stuff, there’s a plethora of behind-the-scenes images as well as the aforementioned schematics and artwork online already. So generally, it’s a mixture of what we’re given and what we can find. I personally like to go through ship-specific scenes of episodes or movies frame-by-frame to take reference screencaps, but generally it’s up to the individual artist to collect as much reference material as they think they’ll need.
MMORPG: Walk us through the typical process of getting a starship into the game.
DV: If it’s a canon ship, first there’s reference gathering. I usually spend a day or so doing as much research as I can for the ship I’m tasked to create. For the older ships, I’ll also spend some time researching the behind-the-scenes info of the ship, who designed it, who built the physical model, how many physical models were built and what are the differences between them, if any. For ships we design ourselves, this step usually isn’t required, but it is instead replaced by the actual design process. An artist will then begin modeling the ship, keeping our tech limitations and budgets in mind. For instance, due to our game running on a wide range of older PC and console hardware, we have limits for polygon budgets and texture memory limitations that must be adhered to. We also, at this point, decide which details will actually be modeled, and which will live only within the detail of the textures eventually applied to the ship. Once the model is finished, we then craft a new texture set for the ship in programs like Photoshop and Substance Designer. These textures are then compiled into a material in our game; more commonly known as “skins” by our player base. These materials follow the same basic design layout as all other ship materials, so they can more-or-less be used on any other ship in our game. We then engage in “UV Mapping,” which is a process where the material is then applied to the model. Once the artwork is complete, we spend time doing data setup, which consists of a wide variety of tasks, like setting up the points in which weapons/impulse trials/etc. emit from the ship, creating LODs (level-of-detail models), importing the geometry and textures into the game, and then creating a framework for the ship to actually work in our game, with optional things like windows and “skins” being programmed for the player to select. After that, the ship is handed off to our Animation, FX, and Systems Design teams to finish off, if needed. It’s quite an involved process, generally handled by one artist until it’s handed off to the other teams.
MMORPG: Tell us a few of the current in-game starships that are your own designs.
DV: Well, to be honest, there is only one ship in the game in which I’ve designed, the Shran class, which itself was a more “modern” version of the Magee class seen in Star Trek: Discovery. I actually don’t do a lot of designing myself, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m much more a craftsman than a designer. There’s a distinction there that not a lot of those outside the industry seem to understand. Design is an entirely different discipline than say, modeling/texturing a game asset. And one that I’m not well-trained in. However, there is another ship I designed that’s on its way; I just can’t say anything about that one yet :-)
MMORPG: How do your own designs get approved? Do they need to go through a Paramount/CBS approval board, etc.?
DV: We work pretty closely with Paramount/CBS on ship designs and the team generally doesn’t have any issues with any of our own designs that we add to the game. We as Star Trek fans also know what works and what doesn’t in the framework of the fictional universe. The Star Trek team does, however, like to review our storylines and view our artwork related to the newer shows to make sure it all aligns with their current priorities and vision as a whole.
MMORPG: I’m assuming there were some of your own designs that just didn’t make it into the game (maybe not yet). Were there any that stick out as being really disappointing to not get in?
DV: Not really! Like I mentioned, I’ve only designed two ships - one is already in-game, and the other is on its way ;-)
MMORPG: What’s involved with your own designs becoming canon? Is it just the fact that they are in the game or is there more to it?
DV: Well, Star Trek Online is considered soft canon. It generally isn’t recognized as part of the official Star Trek lore. It would take one of our designs or any element of our game being used in one of the television shows or movies for it to become official canon.
MMORPG: Which starship(s) are you most proud of and why?
DV: I’m really proud of my rebuild of the Galaxy class (Enterprise-D). Modeling the Galaxy class for a game was a highlight of my professional career, and one I’m not sure I’ll ever top. A close second was my rebuild of the Klingon D7/K’t’tinga classes (Klingon Battle Cruiser). I love updating or otherwise rebuilding our older models to be both more accurate and of a higher fidelity. With PC/Console power and the time we’re allotted for making ships being greater than they were when our game was originally released, we’re able to now craft more highly detailed and accurate versions of some of our older existing ships. It’s so satisfying to be able to finally give some of the more canon ships the justice they deserve.
MMORPG: Are there any starships that made it into the game that you always felt like you’d like another attempt at or just didn’t quite “hit the mark” for you?
DV: My first ship once officially moving to the ship team from the environment team was the Vulcan Scout Ship from Discovery. While I’m still satisfied with the model, I feel I could revisit the material/textures I made for that ship and improve them greatly. I was still getting used to material creation for ships back then and have learned so much since that I’d like another crack at it.
MMORPG: You also work on environments? What does this involve and how did you get into this area of the development stage?
DV: My first job on STO was actually on the environment team! Since my background was creating ship interiors, I felt it was a better fit for me at the time than crafting the ship exteriors. Environment work on STO is actually a broad discipline: it folds asset creation, world-building, lighting, and level design into one role. I really enjoyed the work, but it was a bit intense so when a role opened up on the ship team, I decided to give it a shot. I’m quite happy and comfortable now as a full-time ship artist, but I do an occasional stint on the environment team to help out when needed. It serves as a nice break from time to time.
MMORPG: How do you fulfill your passion for Star Trek outside of STO? Do you read books, play Star Trek board games, etc.?
DV: I actually do my own personal Star Trek modeling outside of STO using the Unreal game engine! It helps keep my skills fresh and up to date knowing how to use modern game engines and newer modeling/texturing processes. You can see this artwork on my Artstation page (https://www.artstation.com/donnyversiga). In addition, I go to Star Trek conventions when I can dress up in cosplay, read books, play Trek video games from the 90s/early 00s, and generally just immerse myself in the franchise.
MMORPG: Your bio mentions you’re into cosplay. What are some of your favorite “personal cosplay moments”? And do you limit your cosplay strictly to Star Trek?
DV: My favorite cosplay is my “Monster Maroon” captain’s uniform from the TOS movies. It was a dream of mine as a kid to one day own one of those uniforms, and when I got a chance to purchase a professional grade version, I plopped down my money so fast it was laughable. As to the second question, most of my cosplay is Trek, but I have a Star Wars TIE Fighter Pilot cosplay I acquired/assembled last summer and am currently considering sourcing an Indiana Jones outfit. Also working out at the gym/eating healthy to attain that Harrison Ford body circa Temple of Doom ;-)
MMORPG: You’re also into gaming. What are your favorite games outside of STO?
DV: I really enjoy immersive first-person games; anything that just completely transports you to another place and time or fictional universe. Currently, I’m going through my second playthrough of Cyberpunk 2077, but I also love the series of Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Mafia, Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. I also love space flight sims and have been pumping endless hours into Elite: Dangerous, complete with a VR headset and HOTAS (joystick/throttle) setup!
MMORPG: You’re also an advocate for self-growth and mental health awareness. Are these crusades something you’ve taken an active role in?
DV: Absolutely. First off, I’m a 9-year recovered alcoholic/addict. My journey of self-growth began the day I became sober. I also struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my childhood and adult life and have made so much progress in overcoming those things as well. I see a therapist weekly, take anti-depressants, meditate daily, and practice gratitude and mindfulness throughout my day. I make a point to openly talk about my experiences, especially involving alcoholism/addiction and therapy because there’s such a stigma surrounding those topics. I talk about these things, not just when someone reaches out to me for help, but in everyday conversation. These things are part of my life, so I talk about them as if they’re normal, because for the majority of people they are. I want people around me to feel comfortable talking about these things as well, or at the very least understand that whatever they’re going through, is nothing to be ashamed of. In addition to coaching those that have reached out for help with quitting drinking or drugs, I’ve actually had people at Cryptic approach me and ask for help in finding a therapist; something that probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t openly talk about my continued participation in weekly therapy sessions. Knowing that my stories help others means the world to me; If I can truly help others live long and prosper, I’ll consider my time on this earth well spent.
MMORPG: That's all I had unless you wanted to add anything, Donny.
DV: I think that covers it. Thanks for the opportunity!
About Donny Versiga:
Staff Starship Artist
Donny Versiga is a Staff Starship Artist and occasional Environment Artist for Star Trek Online, Cryptic Studios’ free-to-play massively multiplayer roleplaying game. A life-long hard-core Star Trek fan, he began creating digital 3D Star Trek models, sets, and ships as a hobby when he was 15 years old. His dedication and passion for his craft eventually lead him to finding a home and career at Cryptic Studios. In addition to his work on Star Trek Online, Donny often spends nights and weekends creating more 3D sci-fi art for fun with the Unreal game engine. Donny also enjoys cosplay, gaming, and is an advocate for self-growth and mental health awareness.
Bio image credit: Robin Luera/Instagram