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Star Trek Online: An Interview With Al Rivera And Bill Yeatts

By Christopher Bowman on September 19, 2019 | Interviews | Comments

Star Trek Online: An Interview With Al Rivera And Bill Yeatts

Recently, Star Trek Online released its Awakening update, bringing with it an all new episode, patrols, a new Task Force Operation and more. Within the new episode, players get to interact with Commander Paul Stamets from the USS Discovery, complete with Anthony Rapp reprising his role within the game. We had the chance to talk to Al Rivera, the lead designer of STO as well as the Bill Yeatts, STO’s art director about the update, as well as what it was like to work with Anthony Rapp on the project.

You can check out the full interview below. Enjoy!

With the success of Star Trek Discovery season 2, was it an easy transition to bring the story aspects of Discovery into Star Trek Online for Awakening, beyond the original Discovery updates that have been implemented into STO?

Al Rivera: I don’t think the second season of Discovery necessarily had any impact on the ease of bringing Discovery stories to Star Trek Online. We were in talks with CBS, the writers and the show’s creator, Alex Kurtzman, back when the first season launched. This means we have had our stories worked out as far back as February 2018. We plan our stories far in advance, up to 1-2 years ahead of time. Our story arcs are all connected and it just takes that much time to prepare them.

Our Discovery Stories have several characters from the show, but the episodes are not specifically about either season of Discovery. They are about the characters, their backstories and events that are personal to them. Otherwise, our Discovery-themed content is based on STO stories.

What the second season of Discovery really did for us was introduce a lot of toys. Some examples are the new Section 31 ship, Georgiou’s gear, not to mention the new Enterprise. There are also lots of interesting things from Season 2 like the giant Sphere, the Ba’ul, Kaminar, Kelpiens, Control, Saurians. The Red Angel and so much more. We look forward to exploring those in the future.

Bill Yeatts: I would agree with Al, the success of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season didn’t necessarily make it easier to incorporate content, but we did rely on how they portrayed the Mycelial Network to dictate the visuals in Awakening from day one. We did take a few liberties with this fantastic realm to fill it out and make it into a play space.  One example of this was the idea of having the islands float in space. This helped define the surreal nature of the Mycelial Network while keeping the feel you got from watching the fifth episode of Season 2, “Saints of Imperfection.”

I am sure a lot of us would like to know, how was it to be working with Anthony Rapp, and indeed any previous Star Trek cast member in the past, for their voice-acting roles in Star Trek Online?

AR: We were really fortunate to work with Anthony Rapp and several other Discovery cast members. It’s honestly really surreal. It’s hard to explain what it is like to build a Star Trek story, script or character art, then have the actors breathe life into it. When we are in the recording studio, you could hear cheers from the team as the actor nails a line. It’s an amazing feeling and a great honor to be a part of such a beloved franchise – we are all huge fans.

 

Anthony was amazing. We had a chance to go on stage with him at Star Trek Las Vegas. He is a gamer and he just gets it. He is a pro and his delivery during the recording was perfect. All the Discovery actors are amazing. For them, these characters are still fresh in their minds and they are really invested in them. Each brought something amazing to their session. Mary Wiseman has so expertly crafted her character Tilly. Our writer creates a script and when you read it, you think “Yeah, I can see how this sounds like Tilly.” Then when she reads it, she ad-libs and add her own quirks and energy that only she can do. It was just magical and we all couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.

Jason Isaacs and Rekha Sharma also reprised their roles as Lorca and Landry for our Discovery content. Jason was a machine. A one-take wonder. You can tell he is very experienced at what he does. When Rekha did her lines, she wanted to come into the studio. Her story is an origin story of her character Ellen Landry. It’s a sad and painful story about loss and trauma. As she read her lines, we were actually in tears. We showed her the final product on stage at STLV a couple a couple months ago and she started crying. It’s very powerful. She really brought her A-game.

Are there ever any sessions for the voice-acting where you have thought that it was so good, or so goofy, that you wanted to make and release a behind the scenes video of what happens during a voice session?

AR: We sometimes film behind-the-scenes footage of the actors recording. If you check the STO blog or our YouTube channel, you can probably find them. It’s always super fun.

Mary Wiseman was particularly memorable because when she plays Tilly, every line just makes you smile. But when she plays her Mirror Universe counterpart, Captain Killy, she is just wicked. I also remember when Jeffrey Combs first started talking to us, he just started talking in character as the Ferengi, Brunt. He just started improvising as he engaged in a conversation with us. You could tell he was having a good time. That would have been fun to share, but unfortunately there is no recording of it because we didn’t expect it.

What kind of new ships can we expect for the upcoming update?

BY: All of them. If you see it on screen, you will eventually see it in the game. We also make alternate versions of the ships. Our ship team likes to take the Discovery era ships, which are from 2256, and make modernized versions of them to fit with our 2410 story line. We have hundreds upon hundreds of playable ships in the game, so many that we’ve lost count at this point.

There are still several ships from Discovery you will see in the game soon and as the new shows come out, we will add those ships as well. We’ve also partnered with IDW Publishing to bring some of the ships from the Star Trek comics to the game. A variant of the U.S.S. Somerville just debuted in Awakening and will be available to players soon. We also just released the U.S.S. Kelvin and the D7 from the Kelvin universe. The folks at STLV also got a sneak peek of a few others that will be on the way soon.

What does the process of designing a new ship or a new planet look like when it comes to Star Trek Online?

BY: For starships, we begin with several thumbnail sketches and narrow it down to a shape which both meets the functional and aesthetic feel that matches the idea of the ship. Once we have chosen a specific direction, our concept artist blocks out the ship in 3D so we can see how everything fits together. At this phase, the ships are basically still simple shapes. We continue with feedback and refinement in this 3D phase and the ship gains a more refined shape and more detail. Once the detail level gets to a point where all of the stakeholders like the look, the concept artist goes back to 2D and a final high quality 2D concept is painted. Once we have the final concept, we hand that off to a 3D artist who creates the game asset. Some ships require custom VFX so that typically happens next. Once all of the elements are assembled, we fly it around in game and determine if any visual tweaks are needed. There are more technical details, but that is basically it.

For planets, we actually have a system where one of our artists will generate the design and we’ll continue to use it everywhere. We do sometimes make custom planets, but for the most part we use this system. Depending on the planet’s theme, you might have different options to create the look you want. We also choose the type of planet. The other related features of the space map vary based on gameplay needs and desired visual aesthetics. In terms of a process for this, we begin with a very basic idea of the space map, then fill the space with things that guide the player and perform as functional gameplay elements. Once the map is functional, we begin to revise the look until we reach our desired quality level. I am somewhat simplifying the process, but I think this gives a decent overview of it.

One of the greatest things I thought the team at Cryptic did was have the late Leonard Nimoy offer his voice talents for each different area you went into with a bit of a story of the region, have you thought to do something similar for the Discovery Era updates with a character from that time period, such as Anson Mount or maybe even Ethan Peck?

AR: Whenever a new high profile actor records, we have them read those lines, as well as the level-up “congratulations” line. If you play different factions, you will hear different versions. Mary Wiseman reads them for Discovery characters as Tilly, Denise Crosby reads for the Romulan faction as Sela, and René Auberjonois and Jeffrey Combs read for the Jem’Hadar faction as Odo and Weyoun. So yes, we do this, but it’s based on your faction. As we get other actors, we may update some with those characters, but Leonard Nimoy will always be the one to read for 2409 Federation characters – we will never change that.

BY: We always get excited when we have an opportunity to work with the talented people involved with Star Trek franchise, especially the ones fans love most.

How do you go about choosing which voice-actor to feature in the updates for STO?

AR: It’s a long process. We usually meet them in advance and try to gauge their interest in being a part of Star Trek Online. Which actors we choose depends on the story. As I mentioned, we plan our stories years ahead of time. We start with where we want to end and how we want to start. Then we start to fill in the middle. How much “middle” is based on different factors – how often we want to release an update, how big that release might be, when we want it release, etc. Then we try to weave in as many character as we can. We usually only have one actor for each episode, so we can craft the story about them. We want our Stories to be relevant and emotionally impactful to that character. That means when we are planning Stories in advance, we also make Plan B and C, in case that actor is not available for some reason.

BY: Ultimately, we want talent that enable us to tell relevant compelling Trek stories. We look for actors who want to be a part of STO and are also available for the work. Al is the mastermind behind all of this. He is our lead designer one moment and suddenly becomes a talent acquisition expert. I have seen him work, it is somewhat amazing. I watched him meet with Anthony at STLV last year and now he is the star of Awakening.

After the next season of Discovery shoots us farther into the future than any other Trek show before it, will we be seeing any update in STO that takes us to the same period, with all the new and crazy looking ships that must be there in the future?

AR: I am sure we will, in some form or another. As I have always said, Star Trek represents every era, time period and universe of Star Trek. I am certain we will see the ships, aliens, characters and Stories from the next season in Star Trek Online. Whether that means time travel, it is just too early to say.

BY: STO is all things Star Trek, so eventually yes.

What would you say the best practice would be for aspiring game artists and designers out there who want to break into a game like STO and become a member of the staff? What types of program knowledge would you suggest focusing on?

AR: That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked that. It is important for young people to aspire to pursue their dreams. There are lots of options now, far more than there was even just a few years ago.

First, get a degree. Learn math, lots of math. Read books – fiction and non-fiction. Study psychology, history, science, astronomy, everything. You’d be surprised how often those subjects become relevant in game development. Between your studies, read blogs and podcasts on game design. There are several good ones out there. Watch movies and TV. Pop culture is relevant culture.

If you are an artist, get a degree in Art. Study digital arts but don’t slack on your drawing skills or other traditional media. Make sure you build a portfolio and keep it online. Create art that is relevant for gaming, but don’t forget about non-gaming art. There are lots of fields to pursue if you want to be a game artist. You could be an animator, an FX artist, a hard surface artist, an environment artist, a character artist, a technical artist, or even a concept artist or UI artist. Think about what interest you the most.

For engineers, it’s pretty simple. Get a degree in engineering. A master’s degree is really what you need to compete. You are most likely going to need to know C++ and more. Good engineers are hard to come by. It’s never a bad field to get into.

As a designer myself, I have several suggestions. For designers, there are several vocational schools that specialize in game design. Cryptic Studios has hired several of them right out of these schools. Now colleges and universities are starting to develop curriculums and degrees in game design. There is so much more you can do to prepare. Design and build your own game. It doesn’t even have to be a video game. Design a board game or a card game. There are also lots of games that have editors to make levels or mods for them, and there are several engines that you can download for free to make your own game. If you are serious about making games, don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity. Start making games on your own. Make time to do it on your own and show initiative.

And above all, no matter what your discipline, play games. Don’t just play the same type of game. Play all kinds of games. Play board games, card games, and video games of all genres. Expand your horizons. Play lots of indie game, and play games you don’t think you would like.

Finally, put all your work and thoughts on a website. If you’re an artist, publish your portfolio. If you are a designer, publish your work – your mods, your card and board games, your levels you created in another game. Hopefully you make a project with a friend or as part of your school curriculum. Then, start applying and take whatever comes along. If you work hard, and show initiative, an opportunity will come along. Good luck!

BY: Game development is a passion and part of a great industry for any person who can find their niche within it.  You typically have to prove in some fashion that you are qualified and the best candidate for that niche. Al has mentioned a few avenues that are on point. Math is not typically a pre-req for art though. This is a technical business though. Even though we are in the business of making fun, it is still software development and it is hard to get away from the technical side of things. One thing I would recommend for artists is be sure to compare your art to the art in a game that you would love to work on. When your art meets or exceeds that quality bar, you are probably ready to be able to contribute to that product.  

Can we expect to see some updates for the upcoming Picard series entered into Star Trek Online at some point in the future? Maybe visiting Picard’s vineyard on Earth, or something else along those lines?

AR: Absolutely. Just like the next season of Discovery, STO will leverage everything CBS is releasing, including Picard, and any new show or movie they may release. For 10 years, STO has been telling Star Trek Stories based on more than 50 years of history. Now we get to tell a Star Trek story based on a multitude of contemporary new shows and characters. This is truly a golden age to be a Star Trek fan.

BY: It is all a matter of when, not if.

I would like to thank Al and Bill for the time they took out of their busy schedules, and we appreciate it a lot.

 


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