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September 27, 2007
AGDC 2007 - Star Trek Online – Early Whispers
 

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

When I last saw Star Trek Online, it was March and I was at Perpetual Entertainment's studios in San Francisco. There were a few early (and impressive) terrain builds, a handful of character sketches and a group of extremely excited designers and artists working on the project.

Fast forward to the Austin Game Developer's Conference, where I had the opportunity to sit down with Daron Stinnett, Executive Producer of Star Trek Online. Where was the project now? "We are in pre-production, so we have our tools and technology in place." said Daron, "We have our ground game-play prototyped, our space game-play prototyped, we have our art style set, we have the design of the world well understood and mapped out. We know where our players will be visiting and the races they'll meet along the way. In 2008 we are heading into production to produce the massive volume of assets needed to create this universe."

Star Trek Online will have classes similar to existing MMOGs, although they are called "professions". I asked if they will be tightly focused and defined, or if they'll have overlapping skills, allowing development of the quintessential "mage-tank". Stinson responded, "We are going to make pretty well-defined categories for the professions." They will fall into the main categories such as science, tactical, engineering, security, and then branch out from there into more classes, and more options for customization.

So, when do I get my first ship? "Everyone gets their own ship," said Daron, "Each player starts out with a small shuttle early on in the game, and then they graduate to successively larger ships as they gain in rank. They use that ship to get around the galaxy to fight against other enemy races, and to do missions for Starfleet on various planets. They will be able to group up with other players in space or on the ground."

So what does it take to get a ship of the size and prestige of a galaxy-class starship? "The largest ships, the ones that players dream of walking around on and working with, those are the equivalent of "player cities." It gives us a way to fill up these spaceships with real people instead of NPCs." The alternative would have required people who control massive ships to sit around in a hub somewhere looking for enough people to man something of that scale. Not exactly fun; we all hate waiting.

"We call these hubs," Daron continued. "Some are starships, some are space stations, some are regular cities or star-bases on the ground. They provide all the same services that you'd get in a typical MMOG city, such as finding groups, trading, buying, selling; it works really well with the universe." The hubs are all controlled by AI and are permanent fixtures in the game.

How many people are working on Star Trek Online? "About 40 right now, on the tail end of pre-production." replied Stinnett, "What comes next is adding a quantity of art assets and characters."

Do they have a ballpark figure on the development cycle yet? "We have a pretty good idea of what it is, but we are not announcing a release date quite yet, of course." he said, cannily, "When we are about a year out from launch, that's when we'll start the big press onslaught."

When I was at GenCon, some of the STO art that I saw, particularly for the player character models, was very stylized, not the ultra-realistic form adopted by many MMOGs. I believe that the unique and appealing art style will serve to make this game stand out from the crowd. Daron agreed, "In the (television) shows, you're limited by the need to have actors and expensive outfits - we're not limited by that. Our reaction has been 'this is the way they should have always been, the way Paramount would have loved to have made them, if they could have.' We didn't want players to have to get up close to figure out what race another player is."

Going by the concept art I saw, every race has a strongly differentiated body type, and can be as easily distinguished by their silhouette as by a close examination of facial form.

Now, the most important question, for me at least! Do I get to play a Klingon? "Yes. Absolutely." responded Daron, which meant that I allowed him to live for the rest of the interview. "We have not announced our playable races; we'll do that when we are ready to show what they look like." There will be several to choose from, seven in all.

I mentioned to Daron that I was surprised to see music brought in so early, as I'd heard some in March. "Actually, we haven't really started with the music for the game." he said, "One of the exciting things about this franchise is that people send a lot of stuff to us. A guy in Los Angeles composed that piece and sent it in as a submission. We were doing a video at the time and wanted a piece of music, called him up and asked permission to use it. Sure, he said! We get a lot of stuff like that." There are indeed a lot of Star Trek fans in our universe, and most of us have been waiting a long time for a good game to come to the franchise.

My next query was about group size; will three be as effective as eight? "It's not something we’ve finalized yet, but we're probably looking at a typical group size of five," said Stinnett, going on to say "We'll also have raids, called 'Armadas' and guilds, which we call 'Fleets'."

Will there be PvP in Star Trek Online? "Yes, we'll have consensual PvP in the regular game world and in the Holodeck, which we'll use for PvP matches," confirmed Daron. "We will also have large scale, free-for-all PvP servers."

The game is set in the era approximately twenty-five years past Star Trek: Nemesis, so it will take place in the future of Star Trek as we know it; after Picard's time. I was curious how the setting would influence PvP, particularly as Daron stated that players of all races are essentially on the same side, all a part of the Federation. Seems like a tame time, even for grumpy Klingons like me.

However, it looks like the STO crew is preparing to make things interesting. Though, as Daron explained, "There are different factions within the Federation, and PvP will also incorporate the concept of 'war games' as a pretext. We realized that players are going to want to battle it out regardless of the setting, and we have some very interesting fiction in development which will make PvP make sense on a broader scale."

He went on to comment that the Star Trek universe provides so many opportunities to twist things around in unexpected ways. Those of us who are fans of the various series know exactly what he's talking about. Nothing is impossible in Star Trek.

Holodecks alone will provide innumerable justifiable twists, and I was keen to hear what uses were planned for them. "We have not formalized our plans for the Holodeck yet, but of course it is the gateway to any mission in any era that you might imagine." said Daron, "We thought about doing things like allowing you to tour the interior of the Constellation-class ships. The experience of wandering around the world and experiencing this stuff is as compelling as the game-play."

As one who bought a full set of blueprints for the original Starship Enterprise, I can hardly wait to see what's in store in this galaxy. Until then, Qapla' Balth je'!*

*Honor and success, for you non-Klingons out there.

Star Trek Online: http://www.startrekonline.com/
Perpetual Entertainment: http://www.perpetual.com/

 
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