Star Trek Online, the MMORPG from Cryptic Games, has enjoyed an interesting launch. In the few months it's been out it's suffered criticism at the hands of both reviewers and, more importantly, paying customers. But it's also managed to garner a loyal fanbase that's currently spending an unhealthy amount of time going where no MMO player has gone before. Here, in a candid interview with VideoGamer.com, executive producer Craig Zinkievich talks frankly and openly about STO's successes and failures, and dishes the dirt on what players can expect from the next six months.
Q: Star Trek Online has been out for a couple of months now. What feature worked out best and what worked out least well?
Craig Zinkievich: Interesting. There are a lot of things in the game that worked out really well, that were risky, that ended up paying off. Space combat, pretty universally people like that, people think that's really cool. People enjoy the content. People get attached to their bridge officers, and the fact that you can swap in and out of your gear in order to spec yourself, activating different bridge officers at a time, a lot of those features worked out pretty well.
Things that didn't work out that well? Ground combat, still a little wonky at ship. There are a lot of things we're doing to address that, try to smooth that over, try to make that something players are excited about. The skill system is interesting, cool, but at launch it was a little opaque, to the point where some of the connections between the skills, the items and your abilities aren't as clear to the player as we could have made it. There are a lot of things we're doing UI wise in order to try and make that better. At launch the endgame: a little weak in terms of the content, what is there to do. But we've released the Borg Sector map, we've released two Special Task Forces over the last month, and we're going to be releasing another one next week. We're trying to address all of those shortcomings as fast as possible as opposed to launching and then ignoring the game for three or four months as we build another update. The goal with the live team right now is to get the biggest issues taken care of in the shortest time possible.
Q: When you looked at your forums in the days and weeks after launch, how did you react to it? How does the team gauge that opinion? Do you take it very seriously, or with a pinch of salt?
CZ: There are two different aspects of looking at the forums and what they mean. There's the side that is the purely emotional side. Everybody here on the team is so invested in this project. We had such a short time frame to develop in. Everybody down to the last member of the dev team I'm so proud of. They put their heart and soul into this project in order to try to get this out and make sure it is realised and something we can build upon as opposed to another vapourware MMO. After those long months of the team members trying hard, it is very difficult to take criticism. And of course forum type criticism is sometimes not the nicest phrased. It hits the team.
But at the same time, we get to see the positive things. We get to see the people who are really excited about it. So emotionally, you look at it and there's really nothing you can do. You can't emotionally take something with a grain of salt. Then, on the other hand - this is the greatest part of an MMO - we go to the forums and we look at that, and it's like, okay, this is what our customers want. This is what our customers are demanding. They want more endgame - let's focus on that. They want the ability to make the game a little bit difficult, they want the ability to have a death penalty, so let's look at those things and develop those things. They want ship interiors, they want more non-combat content. So all of those things we can look at and we can say, these are the people paying for the game, these are the people playing the game and liking it and are going to be here for the long term, let's focus on making them happy and keeping them around. So yeah, sometimes you have to wade through a little bit of vitriol. But you also look at that and say, okay, what is this person really upset about and how can we help the other people who are upset about it? What are the things we can do to address these issues?
Q: What was your reaction to press reviews and Star Trek Online's current Metacritic review score average (65/100)?
CZ: We knew that it was going to be a polarising game. Even through development we realised that some people were going to like it, some people were going to understand what we were doing and what sort of foundation we were laying for a long term-developed game. And then some people were going to look at it and just not understand it, or compare it to WOW (World of Warcraft) and MMOs that have been out for years and years. Some of the reviews were a little bit surprising. There were some things that we were like, but... but... that's not what we meant to do with that! But you have to look at a review and the things you're lacking in or the public sees you lacking in, your potential customers see you lacking in, and try to address those things. So yeah, some of the reviews were a blow, but some of the reviewers actually got it and understood what we were trying to do and realised what we did in the time we had to develop the project and where we could take this in the future.
Q: It's been well documented that you didn't have as much time to develop STO as other MMO developers have enjoyed when creating other MMOs. Would it be fair to say the game released too early?
CZ: It released when it had to release. We had a contractual obligation. The gears were in motion. I don't ever want to look at the time we developed the project in and use that as an excuse. To use that as an excuse for any of the places where the game might have been lacking or where the reviews had issues with the game - that is not my intention. That being said, the goal with an MMO and the cool thing about it, is to get it out there and then build it with the community, and to build it with the customers and make it into a game they want that game to be, and take that game in that direction. So we see the game evolving and changing after launch. That was our intention. We launched the game as a really fun game, and it has a lot of directions where it can go and a lot of things that can be expanded upon. So no, I'm happy with when we launched.
Q: In February Atari put out a press release announcing one million Star Trek Online accounts had been registered. How did that make you and the team feel?
CZ: The reception to the game, the number of people who have tried the game, the number of people who've stuck, we're really happy after the first seven, eight weeks to see who's still here, who's still playing the game on a regular basis, and to look at those metrics, the team is really excited. We have that quorum, that nugget of people that is going to keep this game around for a very long time, and allow us to continue to change and develop and draw new players into the game. I'm really happy with the reception on the ground, the number of people who daily play the game, how populous it is on the weekend, how excited the community is on the forums. The reception to the game has been really good.
Q: Can you discuss concurrent users (CCU)? Has it met your expectations?
CZ: Without actually going into concrete numbers, the one interesting thing about the populous that we're seeing right now is that it is a higher CCU percentage wise to the subscribers to most games that we know of. Usually you're between the 10 and 15 to 20 per cent range of people online at the same time. But we're finding our CCU percentages are much higher. The people playing Star Trek Online, a lot of them are coming to the game and then hanging out in the game for a long period of time and using it as a social place as well. We're really happy with the CCUs.
Q: Can you tell us how many people are paying to play STO? People like to compare that number with the equivalent from other MMOs. How do you view that?
CZ: We don't tend to talk about numbers. It's something in the industry that, personally I'm not quite sure why it's a gigantic secret, why people hold that a little close. They're for the most part worried that those numbers might be analysed in a way that isn't favourable. Myself, I think it's just interesting data. But at Cryptic we don't reveal our numbers. That being said, the most difficult thing is looking at those numbers, and then people use those numbers to gauge success of a game, right? And there are all sorts of different ways that a game is actually successful. What are the goals of the game? Games with different budgets, games with different goals, games with different expectations as to what their community will be and what they want it to be - it's a lot more complex of a question to gauge the success of a game than just looking at the subscriber numbers, I think.
Q: Leading on from that, is Star Trek Online successful as of now?
CZ: We have a really good community. We've hit the numbers we expected to in terms of subscribers, in terms of going forward, in terms of giving us a group of people that has enough mass behind it to keep this game going for a very long time and keep a really nice live team with it.
Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from Season One Common Ground update?
CZ: For the most part, aside from a couple of little post-launch glitches that we fixed and crushed as soon as we could, it's been received very well. People like the new Fleet Actions we put in. People like the Fed v Fev PvP. Most of all, the reaction we're getting back is not, oh my god, look how gigantic this is, or, this is perfect, this is what the game needs, but, oh man, I can't believe the devs are still doing this much. I can't believe that this soon after there's this much stuff to do. It has let the community know that, no we're here, we're still working, we're still adding things, we're still doing things to the game, and don't expect this game to go silent for any period of time. There are going to be constant updates and things addressing the game and evolving the game as time goes on. So for the most part people are excited that this soon after launch we've put something out of this size.
Q: How often will these updates be released?
CZ: I wish there was one single example to point to right now, but over the next six months to a year it's going to be us doing a lot of different things. For example, you have the Season One update that just went out. Over the next few months there are big issues that we want to address, that we want to get out, and quite frankly, we don't want the community to wait until there's an opportune marketing PR time to put those things out. We want to do these things and get it right out to the players. Things like difficulty slider, death penalty, being able to trade and do more training with your Bridge Officers, working on Memory Alpha and expanding that as the players want to see that expanded, and, of course, more Special Task Forces coming. All of those things pretty much as soon as they're ready to go they're going to our test shard. As soon as the community likes it, as soon as we've tweaked it and it's doing what we wanted to see, that stuff is going to be pushed live. We're not packaging all that stuff up as much as doing these rolling enhancements to the game.
That being said, we do have Season Two planned for mid to late July right now. That's going to end up being bigger content wise than the Season One update. There's going to be new episodes to play, a new system where there's a lot more non-combat content in the game, as well as working on trying to get compelling ship interiors in the game and expand on what we have with the bridges there. So, we're doing all sorts of different things. You have this Season One quick update, we have these rolling enhancements, and then a bigger Season Two update coming in July. The dev team is still hitting on all cylinders and trying to react and add new stuff into the game as fast as possible. So expect a lot of stuff going out over the next six months.
Q: You mentioned Season Two will bring some non-combat content. Can you go into any more detail about that?
CZ: There are certain places within the game where already there is non-combat. There are certain episodes where you go down and you're investigating crimes or trying to solve diplomatic problems. We got a whole lot of feedback at the end of closed beta, during open beta and even after launch that people really like the non-combat, want a lot more of the Star Trek role-playing get in and trying to figure out a problem, get in and explore those new worlds, meet those new alien races, perhaps do some anthropology on strange alien races and star clusters, or even that pinnacle of a diplomatic Star Trek officer, which is to be that one that makes first contact with an alien species. We looked at that, and that was one of the big things that players felt was lacking. They wanted more of that within this Star Trek game to make it feel and read Star Trek.
We're focusing on trying to add a whole lot of that content in and wrap it up into a system we're tentatively calling the Prime Directive system, where you'll be able to do these anthropology missions, search out new warp capable species, and a lot more non-combat, diplomatic investigative episodes within the normal arc of the game. We're really working hard on that stuff.
Q: One thing that's great about the Star Trek shows is that they're great dramas that involve lots of characters who talk to each other a lot. But that's not conducive to translating into a tradition MMORPG experience. Was that a design challenge you faced during development?
CZ: In making any game striking a balance between the drama and the RP side of things and the actual moment to moment gameplay is important. With an MMO, and rightfully so we had to focus on that moment to moment, we had to make sure we had that and we got that taken care of and that was the trunk of the content within the game. And then add the drama, the just talking missions. People actually really like that, really enjoy those things. Maybe not necessarily as the core of the gameplay, because after a while you realise you're just going through dialogue trees, but aside all of those other things, and on top of those other things. It is vital for the Star Trek license, for the IP, to address those things, to put that experience in. We launched the game and people expected that and people want a whole lot more of that, and so we're more than happy to take that challenge and address those concerns.
Q: The console version of Champions Online, Cryptic's other MMO, has been scrapped. Where are we at with the console version of Star Trek Online?
CZ: It's pretty much in the same boat as the Champions console version right now. It's something we can readily do in terms of technology. We've had it up and running on certain consoles, and had plans and designs in order to take advantage of those platforms. But as it stands right now it's a little difficult to make that final leap on the business side of things. So, currently, just like Champions, the console version of Star Trek Online is on the backburner.
Q: Finally, say I'm a Star Trek fan who bought the game, played it on a trial basis, but didn't subscribe. Why should I return to the game and start paying to play?
CZ: You say you're a Star Trek fan, so I go towards the let's get a lot more of the non-combat social aspects in and just say, look those are things we're adding, those are things we're putting in the game, and the game is always evolving. If there's something you've always wanted out of this game and it was lacking, get to our forums, talk about those things, get the community excited about those things. Really, we are listening. If you go to the Star Trek Online forums we're in constant contact and in dialogue with our community. Make your voice heard! We'll try to address those issues and add what you want to the game.
The Season One: Common Ground update is out now. For more info, hit up the official site.