Star Trek is featured in many of my earliest memories. Sitting on a carpeted cream floor while my brother and dad sat on a beige sofa behind me, watching Voyager was a staple in our household. Every Sunday, like clockwork.
Star Trek’s stories have always been able to capture the imaginations of generations. From Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, and today with Discovery and Picard, Star Trek continues to be topical and consistently enjoyed from decade to decade. And talking of decades, Star Trek Online, the free-to-play MMORPG, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
We had the opportunity to talk to Jesse Heinig, an eight-year-veteran senior game designer on Star Trek Online about the game’s past, and its future. Translating a beloved franchise into game form holds its own trials and tribulations, but with ten years of dedicated and loving service to Star Trek’s lore and worldbuilding, Star Trek Online has certainly earned its place at any Trekkie’s table. Here’s what Heinig has to say about the MMORPG.
When you look back on ten years of Star Trek Online, what’s your overwhelming single emotion?
Gratitude. Ten years is a very long time for a live game to be successful. That people still love this game means we’re doing a lot of things right. We’ve gotten to work with a beloved property, telling stories in the mold of Star Trek. It’s a wonderful experience that we feel very fortunate to have had. On a personal level, it’s also humbling to work with so many intelligent, enthusiastic people, and to have our work so well-received by players.
What’s been the most difficult moment in the last ten years?
For me, working on the Dyson sphere. We tried something very different with its interior – flying inside an environment and developing interesting bites of content that could pop up on the map, like in open-world games – but one of the big hurdles is that flying a starship around an open 3D space is very different from running about on flat ground. Communicating where to go was very challenging, and setting up all the data was a time-consuming undertaking with many opportunities for mistakes.
For the team as a whole, our most difficult feat was probably the transition to console. Star Trek Online was made purely as a PC game, and there are plenty of ports on the market that don’t do well. Our programmers worked out how to get the game to play on consoles very quickly, all things considered, but then our UI specialists had to rework the experience for controllers. Our QA team had to retest every mission, faction, and starship. We had to develop the power queuing system – which lets your ships use powers when certain conditions are met – from scratch, and set up conditions for every space power in the game. It was a huge hurdle both technologically and in person-power.
What were your criteria for success when you embarked upon this project?
Over the years I’ve really felt that our barometer for success is simple: release engaging material that tells stories and provides participation in the Star Trek universe. My goal was to take the threads that Star Trek gave us and, with the team, weave them into compelling new stories.
Have you met those criteria? Or, having been going for ten years, perhaps it might be better to ask if there any ways in which you feel you haven’t done so?
I think we’ve met our criteria for success: people keep playing and enjoying the game, making their own captains, talking about how they feel like they’re ‘in Star Trek,’ making videos about our episodes, and talking about our stories and releases. For many years we served as active content while Star Trek didn’t have new shows on television. Now that gap has been bridged and I’m pleased that this gives us new directions to explore, even while people can still find the experiences that they love from the original series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise in our missions.
The area we’re working on is in bringing up the level of fidelity for a lot of our early content. We’ve improved the engine and dedicated ourselves to more complex missions as we’ve developed the game over time. Old missions have simpler stories, fewer incidences of unconventional content, and less detailed environments, yet many of these missions are the first pieces of content that new players experience.
Your Steam reviews are 76% positive. To what do you attribute this reception among the community?
Many of our players are just enthusiastic Star Trek aficionados. Our data supports the notion that many people who play Star Trek Online are enthusiasts who might not even play other games, but they love the Star Trek universe. Since we do our best to create ships and environments as they appear in the shows and movies, and we try to introduce story elements that hit the kinds of issues that Star Trek explores, it makes sense that fans would enjoy our work.
As a free-to-play game, Star Trek Online is also designed to be approachable. Anyone should be able to play, any time. This can be a great strength, though it comes with limitations. Some people come in with simple expectations: ‘I’m going to be in the Star Trek universe, doing missions and meeting other people and sharing adventures with them.’ The experience they get is what they expect!
The limitation ins that we’re bringing in a very large audience with a very long-running game, so we have to be mindful of the limitations of hardware and software. As a multiplayer game we have to worry about how many textures the user can load, the responsiveness they get with a high ping, and how big a download a patch will be. We’re trying to produce a beautiful, accurate-looking game while being mindful of the kind of memory and performance issues that we’ll run into.
As an example, the TV model of the U.S.S. Discovery is something on the order of one hundred times as many polygons as our game model. The show can pre-render all its shots and make them super detailed and beautiful. We have to render everything on the fly in-engine. We’re not trying to compete with super-slick, high-production current games, but for some players if you aren’t pushing the limit on their top-of-the-line video card and high-speed internet, then your game just isn’t good enough. Others want the game to be a responsive first-person shooter, or offer lots of PvP, which, again, we’re not. We’re a Star Trek game for people who want to experience the life of a starship captain carrying out missions in the Star Trek universe.
So there are some who just aren’t going to connect with the game, but overall I think having three-quarters of the people who play our game on Steam happy with it is a pretty good success rate!
Why do so many licensed games struggle to satisfy fans?
First, you’re beholden to the franchise itself. If the owner doesn’t like what you’re doing, you’re back to square one—and if you have a production schedule and a budget, this can be bad; you wind up making last-minute compromises and restarts and nobody is happy with the quality.
Second, your playerbase has built-in expectations. With Star Trek especially, fans can be very enthusiastic about the details of the world. If they feel that you didn’t do it right, they can be very upset, and word of mouth can quickly doom you.
Third, your game has to be good! In earlier years of game design we’d see studios buy expensive licenses and assume that they could shovel out a subpar game and expect the license to carry it. A game is an investment of time and often of money, so people want more than shovelware. The gameplay must be rewarding in itself while also being true to the IP.
In short, with a licensed property, the fans love the property for a set of reasons. You need to love it too, and understand the reasons, if you want your game to succeed.
How has the community evolved over the course of the last decade, beyond simply its size?
Early in our release the community didn’t know what to expect. The game came out, we had all these missions and convoluted systems, and people were still trying to decide what they wanted to see. Now that we have a well-established release cadence, players have a good idea of what to expect, and the community reflects that. People are eager to see where we go and they like to give feedback about our additions to the game. A lot of players love spotting new starships and waiting to see how we bring them in.
Early in the game’s lifecycle our community was very traditional MMOish—what are the classes like? What’s the endgame gear? How do we organise raids against the crystalline entity? Very logistical in their approach. Now the community responds more to the story. They guess which characters we’ll have, which actors we’ll bring in, and where the story will go.
How have you navigated the challenges of adapting a television IP to the gaming medium?
We’re fortunate that CBS is quite permissive with us. They do still give us feedback and have certain elements we’re not allowed to touch, but putting care and love into our work has paid dividends because they trust us to represent the property well. That’s a huge boon because it means that our approval process is usually quite straightforward.
The bigger challenge is making sure that we try to navigate being both true to Star Trek and fun as a game. Star Trek does a lot of political drama, a lot of diplomacy, a lot of ‘what if?’ with roundtable discussions and monologues. We do touch on these kinds of ambassadorial missions and moral conundrums, while also peppering in starship and ground combat. Generally we weave back and forth between the two, to make sure that Star Trek fans are getting both sides of that equation.
Star Trek has lots of loose threads for us to pull. A starship goes and visits a planet, fixes a problem, and the show never goes back there again—this is a great chance for us to step in and ask ‘What happens next?’
Something that comes up from time to time is that CBS can decide it wants to do a story that contradicts our existing material. With ten years of development we have a lot going on in the game! If Discovery or Picard decides that they want to go explore a part of the Star Trek universe that we’d used, they might make changes or decide that it works differently than what we did. In such a case we have to think how we can make our story fit this new information. Fortunately this is rare!
What limitations are there on designing your own quests and storylines?
First, it has to fit the Star Trek universe. We can’t and wouldn’t do a storyline that radically changes the underpinnings of a well-established species, or one that overhauls the principles of the Federation.
Second, we tie closely to the schedule of what’s coming for Star Trek. When a new show or movie comes out, we want to be part of that—we want people who love the material to say ‘Wow! I really enjoyed that! I bet I’d enjoy experiencing it in a game!’ Naturally, while we have our own storylines, we try to make sure we’re including the most recent stories from Star Trek as well.
Third, we have to consider the amount of time and material that we have to work with. Our team’s full of highly skilled and dedicated people but at some point we have to produce a finished product, which means we have to complete it!
How closely do you work with CBS on your original content?
We vet a lot of our material through CBS. We’ll tell them which characters we want to use and what we want to do with them. Sometimes CBS says ‘No, you can’t do that with that ship’ or ‘You shouldn’t use that character right now.’ Generally they give us a lot of leeway—we’ve developed a lot of trust, because we try to be respectful of the ideas in Star Trek.
CBS does have some hard lines they won’t let us cross, which is fine; we have a whole universe to explore. Typically since we’re set in our own time period—the early 25th century—we can do our own stories as long as we’re mindful of characters and continuity. CBS generally doesn’t dictate stories to us; rather, we pitch our ideas to them, and once we get a go-ahead we turn them into digital reality.
Let’s consider the future. What do you still need to accomplish?
We have plenty of Star Trek threads to follow, from many shows. We haven’t really touched the original series movie era, aside from one or two small pieces like the emission-seeking torpedo. We’d like to revisit the Borg, and make them a really threatening enemy again. Many of our systems have been completed by players – long-time vets have engaged our reputation systems, our fleet systems, and our admiralty systems, and we need to give them new things to do!
We need to keep bringing up the quality of our older material while finding good stories to let us visit important places. Someday it would be wonderful for players to be able to visit Ferenginar, Tellar Prime, Trill, Orion, Gornar, and more. We’d need to craft stories to take players to those places and we’d need the time and resources to craft them!
We also need to look at how gameplay itself has changed over the last ten years. The MMO market today isn’t the same as it was in 2010. Players want different things and we need to respond, and while we’ve already done so – with our new Patrol system (which appeals to players who want a quick, high-action piece of content to play in just a few minutes) and our updated Campaign Events (which give you big rewards when you participate in a series of events) – we need to continue. We want to provide more interesting events with unique and distinctive gameplay and rewards, and to improve our gameplay experience so it’s easy for anyone to pick up the game, play, and stay.
Is there anything at a systemic or feature level that you still need to add or develop, or should we expect future updates to focus more on content?
We plan to keep making new content as long as we’re around, often tying into whatever show is current, and we’ll likely develop new systems to go with it. What form those systems will take is still part of our internal process, but these kinds of long-tail systems with rewards the whole way tend to be very attractive to players and give them a sense of accomplishment.
They also provide long-term goals. We’ve talked internally about doing some updates to the Duty Officer system, in order to make it easier to use and more focused, we’ve discussed expansions to Admiralty to provide other things for your fleet to do, and the possibility of new Recruitment-style events. These are all long-term projects but definitely within the sights as updates to keep our game vibrant.
You’ve recently added Discovery into the Star Trek Online experience. Can we assume there are plans to include Picard, too?
We’ve included elements of every live action Star Trek show to date, and I see no reason to expect that to change!
Do you hear about any details of TV shows before the public do? Or do you all watch with bated breath like us?
CBS is very tight with information. In the era of internet leaks, security is crucial. A few of our team have access to information from CBS. They get a lot of detail so we can plan our upcoming seasons in tandem with releases. Then specific pieces of information are delivered to designers like myself. We learn bits of lore, story points, or character development that are relevant to what we’re working on. There are still surprises and we all watch the shows together as a team!
Can we expect another ten years of Star Trek Online?
Ten years seems like a long time, but as the saying goes, ‘there are always… possibilities.’ I think as long as people enjoy what we have to offer and there are people who want to play games set in the Star Trek multiverse, we will continue to provide experiences for them.