Confession: I have logged an embarrassing number of hours on Star Trek Online since it went free-to-play earlier this year. I’d played and enjoyed the game when it first released two years ago, just not $15 a month enjoyed. But to its credit, STO was and is the only MMO that’s ever really got me considering paying that subscription fee.
Star Trek Online has its issues, sure. Even now after two years of marked improvement, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are some problems that really stand out, though: heck, a week ago, a Cryptic developer singled out PvP as a part of the game that still sucks. And that is a very, very fair assessment. Because it does.
So let’s take a break from talking about your World of Warcrafts and Guild Wars 2s and Old Republics (actually, does anyone care about that one anymore?) and break down what a sort of niche MMO can do to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Here’s the thing: I quite like Star Trek Online. I am an unapologetic Trekkie. I’ve had numerous times these last few months that I just needed to blow some stuff up with photon torpedoes. I still dream vaguely of landing a design position on the game after more than one rejection over the years – to the point that even Cryptic’s recruitment website seems tired of me. (Seriously: the website has told me I can’t apply for things because I’ve already applied, when I can pretty much assure you that’s not the case.)
Anyway. What Star Trek Online has going for it, aside from the IP, of course, is a lot of solid stuff. The space combat is really very good, and very Trek, even if some missions could use some fine-tuning when it comes to encounter balance. The narrative content, especially in “feature episodes”, is well beyond what you’d expect to find in an MMO. And the Foundry is great – a great tool for UGC with a lot of options and some really good stuff out there.
Where Star Trek Online goes iffy (or even bad) is its attempts to shoehorn itself into a traditional MMO structure. This was especially apparent at release, and maybe that was fair at the time because Cryptic hoped to capture the “MMO audience” that so embraced WoW. And while the overall game could hardly be accused of being a WoW clone (save for the ground combat, which basically was), it definitely wasn’t helped by a number of WoW-established genre conventions that simply didn’t work too well, for one reason or the other.
So as I mentioned one of the worst offenders right now is PvP (and, in my opinion, many PvE scenarios built for lots of players). It’s true that participation is incredibly sparse in PvP scenarios in particular. And while some newer Fleet Actions (PvE scenarios built specifically for teams of players) are really quite fun, some old ones still linger and are, basically, a complete nightmare. There’s a reason this part of the game looks like a complete failure – because it really is.
Problem one: from the get-go, the multi-faction model did not really work very well. That might not be any fault of Cryptic’s (though I never played Klingon until recently, and now the experience is lame), but there’s just a lot more players who are going to want to play Federation characters. This was always the case. And though there are Federation vs. Federation PvPs (styled as “war games”), the initial idea that PvP would reflect the ongoing war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire just sort of died on the table.
There are no real incentives besides experience. The “war” does not evolve in any way – as some were hoping – based on the outcome of PvP. The scenarios are trite and poorly designed. And, of course, half of them are saddled with the ground combat system, which has only recently become “tolerable” instead of “terrible.”
Fleet Actions, meanwhile, seem to have been designed with tedium being the goal. Again, this applies mainly to the first ones, though they still exist as quests eventually. The thought here appears to have been “combat with such a ridiculously stupid number of enemies that you’ll need a bunch of players will cause people to play this!” But it actually just causes people to not play them. Seriously, a lot of PvE objectives in those Fleet Actions are, literally, “Kill 90 Cruisers.” In a game that prides itself (mostly deservedly) on story-driven missions and objectives, this kind of design is just piss-poor.
Apparently they’ve got some kind of plan to “save” PvP. Good luck. At this point I’m not sure there are many players who want it saved. But I could be wrong. Still, there’s a few things that could go a long way to fixing some of this:
- End the War. The war between the Federation and the Klingons always seemed contrived to duplicate WoW‘s conditions, but it’s never really worked. Besides, the major threats – the Dominion, the Undine, and the Borg – can be fought alongside players from both factions. At this point dismantling factions entirely would probably be too dramatic, but ending the conceit of the war between the Federation and the Klingons would be a start. This way, PvP scenarios could matchmake more freely, and those of us who are tired of this stupid narrative thread will be happy too.
- Design for the STO players, not the WoW players. It’s hard to fault STO for trying to replicate the success of other games. But that’s not what they’ve got now. The people who are still playing Star Trek Online obviously enjoy it for some reason, so build the PvP events from what this game does best, not from what has made PvP in other MMO titles. Deathmatch and Capture the Flag scenarios are okay for a rainy day, I guess, but other games do it better. Find something uniquely STO – or, failing that, uniquely Trek – and take that approach. I have my own ideas on this, but I won’t go into them here.
- Make it Important. A lot of things that a player does in Star Trek Online feel super important because they’re written that way. The landscape of the game doesn’t change, of course, but why would you go spend time fragging each other when you could be saving the galaxy instead? Seriously, I’m not kidding about this one. PvP needs internal narrative, more than what it’s got before. All of them have a reason for being, though few feel very significant. I would observe that probably the stuff that gets played most are the Fleet Actions against the Borg. This is because they feel important (stopping the impending Borg invasion) and because the Borg are interesting as enemies and fun to fight. Alternately, if PvP did somehow change the game’s landscape, that could be cool, too.
A Piece of the Action
Some call Star Trek Online a “Massively Single-Player” game because, outside of specifically multiplayer components, most players solo. Sure, you see everyone around in sectors and starbases, and people socialize and stuff, but when it comes to dealing with missions there isn’t a lot of partying up. Clearly this works for a lot of the player base, but it probably isn’t what Cryptic hoped for – and, arguably, could be improved.
Don’t get me wrong: I like being able to solo pretty much everything when I want to. But I wouldn’t mind more incentive to play together. Some missions – mostly Featured Episodes – have secondary objectives that can only be completed by a certain type of character, and so you’d need a party of at least three to do them all. Do more of that. Update old missions. Introduce some kind of obvious rewards for partying up.
The key issue with this – though it is an “issue” that I find to be a strength of the game and hardly makes it unplayable – is that it is very easy to solo missions. (Well, not “easy”, because if you turn up the difficulty it can be quite tricky. But you do not need a party.) Part of this is the flexibility of character types. Though the three major classes – tactical, engineering, and science – roughly map to DPS, Tank, and Healer roles, the ability to choose any ship you have the rank for, and to have a crew of several of each type, mean that while you’ll excel at whatever your class excels at, you can cover your basic needs in the other categories.
The problem arises in the assumption that players in an MMO will party up automatically. This is not the case, of course; in other games they party up because they must, usually. The key for STO would be finding a way to better encourage partying up without, I think, jeopardizing the solo-ability of the game as it stands. Like…
- Special Mission Rewards. As I mentioned this is partially already in play in some Feature Episodes that have tactical, science, and engineering sub-objectives: a party could potentially complete them all, while a lone player could complete only one. But there could be some blanket rewards that would work for all missions in the game without having to redesign them. Perhaps you could earn an experience bonus or better overall drops if you’re partied with one or more other players, and that’s just a fairly simple answer.
- Distress Calls. Allow players to send distress calls when they find themselves stuck in a hard mission. I know I’ve sometimes found myself a bit outmatched, and I’d gladly invite an additional player – even a random one – to lend me a hand bringing down a damn Romulan Mogai escort or a team of dug-in Jem’Hadar soldiers. Let anyone in a given sector see the “distress calls” players have put out and let them join the instance. It won’t necessarily count as mission completion for the responder, but they could get, maybe, a nice reward. Answering some number of distress calls could easily be a daily mission besides.
- Improve Fleet Membership. Fleets (STO‘s guilds) are nice and people are in them, I suppose, but there’s not a lot of significant reason to join one unless you just feel like it (or, as is the case with many fleets, I think, are part of a pre-existing group that exists outside of STO). Presumably ships can be given fleet markings, but often these are not obvious enough for other players to see. Give fleets some nice incentives. Perhaps allow them to purchase a personal outpost with dilithium where they can go and have access to the usual starbase services (at least repairs, medical services, and commodities, possibly at a discount). Let Foundry missions be associated with certain fleets, if only for name recognition or organization. Maybe throw fleets a bone with C-Store discounts or a unique ship class that a fleet has to earn as a whole.
Where No One Has Gone Before
I keep coming back to this point: Star Trek Online needs to break free of its reliance on MMO tropes. Whatever could be said about the wisdom of using some of WoW‘s conventions at release, it’s clear that the result of some of these decisions is lackluster. STO excels elsewhere, and whatever has continued to drive Cryptic to cram it into the traditional MMO mold – whether some kind of market wisdom or even just an affection for these tropes from the developers themselves – needs to be left behind.
The game appears designed as an MMO that happens to be Star Trek. That’s actually been a pitfall of lots of Trek games over the years, because Star Trek isn’t exactly something that easily fits into the frag-everything-that-moves mentality of many game genres. Cryptic can be forgiven for this approach for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being handed a game that was already years in development and having to start more or less from scratch to get it out of development hell. But two years in Star Trek Online has an established audience, and a rhythm that works one way or the other.
The next necessary step is not to try to fix the parts of the usual MMO equation that don’t work, but to fix the parts of the Star Trek Online experience that don’t work and improve further those that do. I’d argue that PvP has never really been part of the STO experience in practice. Committing time and resources to fixing it considerably seems almost like the result of slavish devotion to the idea that an MMO needs PvP, when clearly it doesn’t; STO has persisted essentially without it for the past two years, since so few people play it. What Cryptic needs is the wherewithal to explore being something different, truly different. To seek out new ways to engage its existing player base and maybe draw in others who were turned off by its obvious attempts to emulate existing MMOs while falling so short, but might be open to something entirely else. To boldly go their own damn way, whether or not it’s been done before.
E-mail the author at dix(at)tap-repeatedly.com! Like, if you want to party up or something.
Fantastic article. I love reading about MMOs from people who actually know something about them, because I completely do not. This doesn’t stop clients from hiring me to voice my opinions on them, of course, but ssshhhhhh.
Dix, if you keep giving good design advice like this away for free, people will take advantage of you!
I really wanted to like STO, but the game felt too isolating at launch. To me the problem is pretty fundamental: it was a mistake for the developers to make every player the captain of their own ship. The Star Trek shows were always about a tight-knit crew; the feelings you want to instill in the player are camaraderie and team spirit. You just can’t have that with bots. The game needed to take the Puzzle Pirates approach and make crews the “guild” unit of the game, with many players cooperating in the operation of a single starship.
I can understand the reasons why they didn’t go that way — it’s the same thinking that leads so many MMOs to try to treat every individual player like the “chosen one — but I think they missed the opportunity to create something that evokes the feeling of the TV shows. The one thing I shouldn’t feel when living the Star Trek dream is lonely.
@Adam – it is, regrettably, no less isolating. For the years when STO was under development by Perpetual Entertainment, pre-Cryptic, I was a vocal proponent of the “players as crew” model, and I think that’s what they were pursuing. A design challenge, to be sure, and maybe that’s part of the reason they never finished the game. Cryptic’s decision to go with “player as captain” brought the idea more in-line with the MMO mainstream, which I don’t condone so much as understand.
On the other hand, what Cryptic chose to focus on was making the game fairly narrative, which doesn’t happen much in MMOs, and in that I think they’ve done okay. That would be very difficult to do if your crew was made of PCs. Shared narrative works well when you’ve got everybody in a room around a gaming table, but very poorly when you’re remote. I think, in this, they had to decide what to sacrifice.
The result is that players captain their own ships, and that’s cool and well-executed and I think still preserves a different kind of Trek feel. I would like to see them implement more character into Bridge Officers somehow (I have a few ideas on that I won’t go into here), and I think it’s critical to the game that they find ways to make the game more social than it is, because it is really neat to join up with a bunch of other starships in answering a distress call regarding the Borg. That part of the game is salvageable.
Dix did you ever see Artemis? I’m no Trekkie and don’t get especially excited by space ship games, but it sounds like a lot of fun to me if you’re playing it with the right people.
I’ve seen video of it in action. It does look super fun with the right little group. When Perpetual was doing STO and still in the design stages, the concept was kind of similar (though obviously MMO). But that was in, like, 2004.