2010 is shaping up into a stellar year for science fiction MMO fans. Not only do we have BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic to salivate over, but there's also Cryptic's Star Trek Online, too. Following up from our extensive gamescom preview, we nabbed executive producer Craig Zinkievich for a massive interview on all things Starfleet, Federation and Klingon. Here, in the first part of our interview, we talk levelling, PvP and what players can expect from their first hour with the game.
VideoGamer.com: What have you guys been up to since gamescom in August?
Craig Zinkievich: Since gamescom we've gone through several internal milestones. For the most part where we are with the game right now is at the core content, the core advancement. The majority of the game is in and solid. The team right now is playing through the game, adding in the little systems around the core of the game, iterating on the content we have, polishing it up and getting it locked down and ready to go.
VideoGamer.com: It sounds like you're quite close then?
CZ: Oh yeah, definitely.
VideoGamer.com: At this stage can you pull out something that clearly doesn't work?
CZ: There are different levels of things not working, right? We've only been talking about the code side of things! We'll just talk about game design. Sometimes things aren't working as we expected them to, but what it takes is getting other people in the game and saying, 'okay, why don't you notice this? Why don't you use this? Why isn't this part of how you play the game?', and then trying to either elevate that feature, that system, trying to get it in their face a little bit more. I liken it to good PR within the game: whether or not you teach it in the tutorial, maybe the UI isn't delivering the system. So there are times when you, before you end up ripping the system out, look at, okay why isn't it working? The designers who know the game and know that it's there enjoy the system, but maybe it's just other people don't know it's there, other people don't know how to use it, maybe it's a little bit too opaque for other people. Sometimes before you tend to rip things out, as long as there is a strong following with the team on that, you try to do a PR pass with it. Okay, let's get this in people's faces.
In terms of ripping stuff out, it is a decision we make about certain things. At different stages of the product in any product cycle you have different options. Sometimes there is a "rip it out and let's redo it from scratch". You go back to square one, you rip that system out, you get either the same people or new people in the room and try to redesign or figure out what that system is. Often times when you design the system in the first place, you ended up having multiple choices there. You were like, 'well we could do this or we could do this, let's go with this first'. And so sometimes there are already other plans on the table. [tense change]
VideoGamer.com: Can you give me an example of something that was particularly heart-breaking to rip out?
CZ: Initially, we put sub-system targeting in the game, across the board, so that any ship could say, 'okay I'm going to target their weapons systems and I'm going to knock their weapons systems out, and they're going to be targeting my sub-systems and I'm going to have to react and tell people to go and fix those sub-systems'. That was a core part of what we imagined space combat to be like. As we built space combat and added little features to space combat... I mean you saw it at gamescom, it's pretty complicated! There's a lot of stuff to do. There's a lot of gameplay just with the throttles, the shields, the powers, the weapons and the bridge officers. So when we got to the point where we added in sub-system targeting, most people who played it were like, 'well I'm either not using it that much and I feel bad because I'm probably supposed to and it's probably a core part of the gameplay', or they were using it at the detriment to systems that were stronger elements within the game. It's the type of thing where we put it in, we started playing with it and it was like, 'no this just isn't working. This isn't what we expected it to be. This doesn't have that feel.' We ended up cutting it from the Cruiser Class and the Escort Class, and it's a fundamental part of the Science Ship gameplay. We said, 'okay let's put it over here. Everybody doesn't do it, just some people do it'. And then we took that feel, because you've got to have the idea of targeting those sub-systems, we ended up making those bridge officer powers for everybody else. A Cruiser guy could end up having a science officer who's good at targeting other people's engines. You can use that as just a quick power. We ended up folding that system into other systems we had. That was one where it was like, 'wow, it didn't work out at all like we expected it to do first pass.'
VideoGamer.com: One of the things a lot of fans are excited about is being able to play as a Klingon in the opposite faction, but we don't know as much about how that is going to work as we do of playing as a Federation Captain. I know Klingon gameplay is more PvP focused, but can you give us some more detail on exactly how that's going to work?
CZ: In a month or two, PR cycle wise, we're going to end up focusing on the Klingons. It's either November or December is a big Klingon focus. But in terms of advancement, in terms of bridge officers and the mechanics, skill-based kits and weapons, they are similar to the Federation in terms of the way you advance through the game. On the content side, though, it is drastically different. They are a lot more PvP focused, a lot less PvE and they gain the far majority of their advancement through PvP. But we'll talk more about that in a couple of months.
VideoGamer.com: I've read that you unlock the Klingons. Can you tell me at this stage what you have to do to unlock them and how that's going to work?
CZ: The specifics we're saving, but I can tell you that it happens very soon into gameplay, just several hours into gameplay. Totally honestly, the reason why we're unlocking Klingons is because we didn't want to make two tutorials. The game is complex in space. There's a learning curve. You know reporting on games how much effort is put forth to making a tutorial and to make sure it gets the player in and is polished and nice, and is a teaching tool at the same time. It takes a lot of resources. It's the type of thing that, sadly from an MMO aspect, you spend all this time on it and then a week into live people are saying, 'can I skip the tutorial already?'. So we were just like, 'look, we're not going to spend the months and months it's going to take to make a Klingon tutorial. Let's just focus on the gameplay instead.'
VideoGamer.com: Take me through what a player will typically experience during their first hour of play.
CZ: Within the first hour of gameplay they're definitely getting space and ground constantly. They're going to spend some time in Earth Space Dock learning what that's about - that's the major Federation hub in the game. They end up there after the tutorial, so there's a bit of stuff to do there. They're going to gain a bridge officer. Basically during the tutorial you get your first bridge officer. Several hours into gameplay you get your second one. You'll end up getting your kit. You'll end up getting your second weapon. The rest of the game mechanically ends up filling out stage by stage so that we can wean you into the game. After that you will contact Starfleet and they will give you several options of things you could be doing out in space; things that you're supposed to be doing for the Federation. You can pick from there and either do episodic content, go straight to the exploration content or do some patrol content within the sectors right around earth.
VideoGamer.com: Some critics of the genre say MMOs start off slowly with little to do, but it sounds like you're packing a lot into the early stages.
CZ: One of the goals with the content in Star Trek Online is to make sure that no matter what, at any given time you have a choice of things to do. You're never in that grind valley where you're like, 'I don't know what to do. I guess I'll go out and kill some stuff and maybe I'll run into somebody who'll tell me some mission'. We always want you to be able to contact Starfleet and Starfleet is going to give you something that you can do. Starfleet is going to say, 'look go and explore more systems within this cluster. The Klingons are invading this sector - go out and patrol that area'. We always want to make sure that you're being directed to gameplay in Star Trek.
VideoGamer.com: What approach are you taking with the pace of levelling?
CZ: It's a skill based game, right? There are hundreds of skills and you're constantly getting skill points within the game and investing those in your character. That is the mechanic that is the advancement mechanic throughout the game. Each one of your skills has nine ranks. You have these skills and each of them has nine ranks. The idea is that through every 30 minutes of gameplay, you're ranking up one of these skills. You're basically filling in one of these boxes, making one of your skills better every 30 minutes. On a macro level of things, there are five ranks in the game that a Captain goes through. He starts off as a Lieutenant, then he goes Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain, then Admiral. Within each of these five ranks there are 10 classes. You have Lieutenant Class Five, Lieutenant Class Seven, and Commander Class Three. You end up having basically 50 levels throughout the game. Every two hours of gameplay you end up going onto the next level, approximately.
VideoGamer.com: It doesn't sound particularly grind focused, which is the main problem people who aren't fans of the genre have with it.
CZ: It's much more linear levelling progression. We want to make sure people feel on a constant basis they're getting that ding. By making sure there's always something to do, there's always some sort of directed gameplay, that people don't feel as though, 'okay I guess I'll just go out and grind until I ding', that there's always something that will make them go, 'oh, I'm going to do that tonight'.
VideoGamer.com: Can you tell us a bit more about PvP? What will a player have to go through to activate PvP or enter into an area where it can take place?
CZ: We will get a little bit more detail on PvP in the upcoming month or so, but I can tell you some things anyhow, because that's my prerogative! We do want to make sure that PvP is available early in the game and available to all players during the advancement of your character, so you don't have to wait till you're level 50 to PvP. There are PvP things you can do all the way throughout the game. We do have arenas within the game. We do have battleground type maps within the game which you can go and play and fight against the other faction. All sorts of different games within PvP, but we're going to get specific about that in a month or so.
VideoGamer.com: Does PvP relate to space and on-ground combat, or is it restricted to one or the other?
CZ: It is both.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where Craig reveals what role the Borg will play in Star Trek Online, and discusses comparisons with BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic.