Star Trek Online officially came out on Tuesday and, if the one million player accounts created for the MMO game are any indication, it’s resonating very favorably with the Trek fanbase. I spoke with Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich about STO‘s first few days, its development, future plans, weird stuff he’s seen, and where he thinks Star Wars Galaxies went off the rails.
ARE MORE PEOPLE CHOOSING TO PLAY AS HUMAN OR KLINGON CAPTAINS?
CZ: Right now we’re seeing about a 80/20, 85/15 split between Federation and Klingon but we kind of knew that. The difference in the gameplay between the two factions is pretty stark. The Klingon faction is really focused on the PvP (Player versus Player) aspect of the game though with the Federation you can PvP as well.
ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THAT BALANCE OR ARE YOU PLANNING TO GIVE NEW PLAYERS MORE INCENTIVE TO CHOOSE KLINGONS?
CZ: I think we’re happy with it right now. The cool challenge with MMOs and the fun part of MMOs in general is to continually add content and to expand everybody’s gameplay experience. So yeah, we definitely have plans in the near and mid term to add a lot more content to the Klingon side, to allow them to customize their ships more, to allow them a lot more of the PvE (Player versus Environment) experience.
WHAT IN THE NEAR FUTURE WILL YOU BE ADDING TO THE GAME?
CZ: Over the next week or so we’re releasing the Borg sector where you can go and meet up with the Omega Fleet and try to take the fight to the Borg. After that, every few weeks we’ll do raid updates, sending out these “raid-isodes”. Within the first couple of months after the launch we’re looking forward to releasing our first update to the game. That thing will have new PvP maps, new fleet actions, as well as some other things. There will be some more downtime social activities included too.
HAVE THE WAYS THAT PEOPLE ARE PLAYING STAR TREK ONLINE SURPRISED YOU? I READ ABOUT A GUY WHO IS COMPLAINING THAT HE’S REACHED THE MAX LEVEL ALREADY AND NOW HAS NOTHING TO DO.
CZ: The guy getting to Level 45 in (a few) days is not abnormal off of our leveling curve considering the amount of time that people have put in. After the first weekend—we had started off on Friday morning—somebody had put in 63 hours of gameplay on a character by Sunday night. That’s crazy! But for the most part the leveling speed doesn’t surprise us. The thing that surprises us and is really my personal love about working on a MMO is all the emergent gameplay that happens. You give people these tools to customize. You give them a universe where they can hang out with other people and weird stuff starts to happen. For instance, in the open beta, you would go into the astrometric sector space overworld view of the game and there was always a trivia contest going on. Now we didn’t put in any tools in the game for them to administer these contests. We didn’t really do anything other than give these people a place to hang out and chat but there are people running trivia contests and giving out rewards. There are people in Earth space dock who make really, really small characters as short as you can, around 3-feet tall and they’re playing hide and seek. We never imagined that people would do this. Those are the things that take us off guard and really make us feel happy that we provided a world where people can do this.
CONSIDERING THE KINDS OF AUDIENCES YOU’RE ADDRESING IN THIS GAME—TREKKIES AND MMO FANS—WAS THERE EVEN MORE PRESSURE FOR YOU TO GET THE GAME RIGHT?
CZ: I think there was. I think there were times when the responsibility of making this game was a big, huge weight. The Star Trek community is awesome and amazing. They love to talk about the i.p. and the things in the universe and argue about it. But in the end they’re so accepting of anyone who’s passionate about it. Everybody on the team here is a really hardcore Star Trek fan so while this is a big mountain to climb with big responsibilities, it’s a chance of a lifetime to work on such a cool franchise, to be able to add to that universe.
I’VE NOTICED PEOPLE ARE PARTICULARLY OBSESSED WITH WHAT STARFLEET UNIFORMS THEIR AVATARS ARE WEARING. ARE THERE PLANS TO ADD EVEN MORE?
CZ: Definitely throughout the life of the project we’re going to add more styles, get some sort of advancement in there as well as other costume and species options.
WAS THERE MUCH DEBATE OVER WHAT TIME PERIOD TO USE FOR THIS GAME? YOU ULTIMATELY ARRIVED AT 30 YEARS AFTER THE STAR TREK: NEMESIS FILM.
CZ: Overall we were big fans of the shows and the movies. But at the same time we, as game developers, weren’t that interested in replaying them in a game. We didn’t want you to be a captain in a universe with someone like Picard or Kirk around. We wanted to give players the opportunity to be that leading star of a TV season in their mind, to be able to role-play and be THE captain. We also wanted to make sure it was close enough in that future so that there was familiarity for the fans and that they could understand where it was, that it was a familiar place but that it was a new universe. (We wanted to show them) new things that they don’t already know by heart and new places to explore in this universe.
DOES THIS MEAN PLAYERS WON’T BE BUMPING INTO ANY FAMILIAR FACES?
CZ: For the most part characters have either passed on or retired out of Starfleet. You do run into descendants of a lot of them. And it wouldn’t be Star Trek if you didn’t get to go back in time. There are episodes in the game where you time travel. In one particular episode, you fight alongside the original 1701 Enterprise. There are opportunities to see some of the familiar characters, ships and locations. You do get to communicate with Spock when he’s on the 1701 ship.
ARE YOU PLANNING TO HAVE A CONSOLE VERSION OF STAR TREK ONLINE?
CZ: We are looking into the possibilities of making a console version. The Cryptic technology runs on consoles right now and so we’re kind of evaluating that right now. It does come down to a business decision between Atari and the first parties like Microsoft and Sony to figure out what can happen there.
IS THERE A FAVORITE PAST TREK GAME THAT WAS AN INFLUENCE FOR STAR TREK ONLINE?
CZ: Star Trek: Bridge Commander was probably my favorite although I can’t say that it was a huge influence in terms of the gameplay in Star Trek Online. It was a really cool game for the hardcore Trek fan who really wanted a simulator. One of the things we were more interested in with the MMO was to really try to make compelling space and ground gameplay.
NEXT GENERATION OR THE ORIGINAL SERIES?
CZ: Definitely starting the project Next Generation was the series that got me hooked on Star Trek. I think now having gone through this project and having watched a lot more of the shows and watched them alongside my son I think The Original Series has a special place in my heart.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU LEARNED FROM STAR WARS GALAXIES, HOW IT LAUNCHED AND EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
CZ: I think the one big thing that MMOs learned from Star Wars Galaxies is to try to make sure you’re providing a focused and deep experience at launch. Star Wars Galaxies was unique. They tried to allow you to do everything: be a dancer, do all sorts of things that you can think of in the Star Wars universe. When faced with the same questions in the beginning of designing Star Trek Online, it was like ‘OK, do you make a game where you can be an engineer in the transporter room pressing buttons for a while, a bartender, or a Ferengi trader?’ We realized that it is a gigantic universe and that there’s so much stuff that we can provide to the players but if we try to do it all at once, we would end up failing and providing a thin game across a really broad range of things. So instead we focused on (making) everybody a captain. Everybody who’s watched the shows and movies has fantasized about piloting that ship, even if they want to be the engineer or the science guy, they want to pilot that ship at some point in time. At launch you definitely want to focus on that experience, make sure that it has deep and engaging gameplay. And as time goes on you can add those other things. We were really trying to make sure that the game is focused, has that one deep, rich experience as opposed to trying to go too broad. That was probably the one big thing we learned from Galaxies.
HOW LONG CAN THIS GAME LAST? YEARS?
CZ: Given what’s out there, yeah, if you get that audience, if you get that group of people who really falls in love with your game, that game can last for years and years and years. It’s exciting to be a developer and be able to add all of those extra things that you’ve always wanted to in the game. So yeah-hopefully years are ahead of us.
NOW THAT THEY’VE REBOOTED STAR TREK IN THE MOVIES, IT’S UP TO YOU TO CARRY ON THE PREVIOUS TREK UNIVERSE.
CZ: Right. And CBS made that clear to us when we got the license. They wanted to make sure we work closely with the novelizations and the comic books and all the other stories going on in the Prime Timeline. When it comes down to it, there isn’t another big movie or TV show for the original timeline planned and that’s where we can step in take up that responsibility. I don’t think the reboot lessens the passion people have for the original universe. I think it just increased it.