Cryptic's been developing its Star Trek MMO somewhat quietly while superhero stablemate Champions Online stole the limelight. It was only at gamescom back in August that we got our first proper look at the game, and very illuminating it was too. Now that Champions is out in the wild, though, Cryptic is ready to start dishing the dirt in detail on a game that could be out sooner than you think. We called up executive producer Craig Zinkievich to talk Klingons, betas, consoles, random content generation and finding people in chests. Or something.
Eurogamer: Champions Online - the other Cryptic MMO - is done and dusted and on shop shelves. Has that affected your team?
Craig Zinkievich: There has been no direct affect in terms of... If I was to take the hardcore executive producer stance, then I've lost no work cycles. The really cool thing is, though, that everything they find - every core instability, any backend tools - is immediately inherited by the Star Trek project, because we use the same core engine. Any issue that Champions has found, Star Trek automatically gets fixed. It's almost as if our core technology has already launched. So I guess that's affected us a little bit - it's eased my mind! And it's doing awesome.
Eurogamer: Did you work on City of Heroes?
Craig Zinkievich: Yeah; I've been with Cryptic since before City of Heroes. I was the producer on the two City of projects.
Eurogamer: It must be very different going from Spandex and cities to spaceships and planets and television-remote zappers! What was the hardest transition to make?
Craig Zinkievich: I am surprised that getting space combat feeling and looking good wasn't that hard, and in hindsight I'm not sure how that happened. But it wasn't that difficult to get space combat up and running and really, really fun.
At this point in the project, looking back, the hardest thing was probably getting ground combat to feel like Star Trek, and to feel different. I don't want to say we took it for granted, but it was the things that were most similar to games we made previously that have been hardest to make work well.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about ground combat! It doesn't look very tactical when characters stand face-to-face, zapping each other with a phaser until one keels over. Will there be ranged/melee weapon-swapping?
Craig Zinkievich: It is one of the things we're still playing with and that we're still adjusting. There is melee, there is ranged. When you do beam down to the planet on an away mission, you always have two weapons. One of those could be a melee weapon, or you could leave it open and use martial arts, which you can actually level up and get better at.
Eurogamer: Martial arts like Spock - he was handy with his hands! What other weapons can we wield?
Craig Zinkievich: Short weapons - knives; long weapons - there's a Vulcan polearm but its name escapes me; as well as, if you're on the Klingon side and have opened these things, you can get get Bat'leth [two-handed sword-staff thing]. Klingons definitely have a whole slew of weapons that we'll make available.
Eurogamer: Talking of Klingons: they appear to be a baddie in Star Trek Online. Have they got any friends?
Craig Zinkievich: In 2409, which is when the game takes place, the Khitomer Accord, which is the treaty between the Federation and the Klingons, has broken down. In the years leading up to it, the Alpha Quadrant has escalated to the point where the Klingons and the Federation are at war, so the Klingons are the baddies.
That being said, there are Klingons who are on the Federation side - you can't really make a Star Trek game these days without allowing people to live out their Worf fantasy. There are even missions where the Klingons and the Federation have to work together because other issues are going on. You don't always fight the Klingons, but they are a strong, bad arc throughout the game for the Federation players.
Eurogamer: I see! And forgive my ignorance, but can I be a Klingon?
Craig Zinkievich: Yes! We plan on shipping with the ability to play as Federation and play on the Klingon side. The Klingon gameplay is going to be drastically different to the Federation gameplay. It's going to be a lot more focused on PvP; their advancement is a little bit different - it is not a full-on story-driven game like the Federation.
Eurogamer: You mentioned unlock earlier - are the Klingons going to be available from the start?
Craig Zinkievich: The Klingon gameplay will unlock, but not deep in the game - it will take several hours to unlock the ability to create a Klingon player.
Eurogamer: It sounds like Monster Play from Lord of the Rings Online, which unlocks at 10 and provides a 'nasty' faction for the good guys to fight in PvP - at the appropriate levels. Is that what you're doing?
Craig Zinkievich: No, we'll be offering full-on character advancement: you will create a Klingon player, you will have his ship, he will level up. The content that they will be experiencing is a lot more focused on PvP - fighting the Federation, fighting House versus House within the Klingon empire. So it is a full-on character with advancement, with items, with bridge officers as well. So it's a lot more than the Monster Play.
Eurogamer: Are there any other big factions joining the fray? The trendy thing to do these days is sling a third contender into the ring.
Craig Zinkievich: At launch there will only be two playable factions.
Eurogamer: And more to follow?
Craig Zinkievich: Oh yeah, definitely. As we developed the game we made a list of all the races, all the different factions people want to play: the Romulan Star Empire, the Cardassians will come back - there's a huge number who want to play as them, but not within the Star Fleet, not within the Federation. So, plenty of different factions that can be and will be added after launch.
Eurogamer: Talking about "after launch" - how much planning has gone into that already? Is there A Plan?
Craig Zinkievich: We definitely have a, er, sketch for the first year after launch. But one of the things we did learn with City of Heroes was that the more detailed you get with the plan, the more useless it is. Ha.
The really cool thing is launching the game and then all of a sudden you don't have a team of 50 developers trying to figure out what to do, you have hundreds of thousands of players saying, "This is what we want!" So you definitely have to make sure you're flexible and that you really pay attention to what your audience ends up wanting.
Eurogamer: How much can we read into how City of Heroes expanded to how Star Trek Online will?
Craig Zinkievich: User-generated content is something that is really, really exciting and has a whole lot of potential - you can see how amazing that would be for something like Star Trek Online. But if we are doing anything like that then we haven't made any announcements! Ha ha.
Eurogamer: Star Trek Online has a random generator - a genesis system - that populates the planets of the universe. Aren't you worried that by leaving content in the hands of an engine that quantity will be churned out over quality - that Star Trek Online will be shallow and sterile?
Craig Zinkievich: If that is the only content that you are planning on, then yeah, you are probably doomed to failure. But one of the things we've done in order to build the genesis system is to make sure that each bit we make, our internal developers get to use it to make cooler content with... You give them the tools to use it a little bit and and it increases their productivity because they don't have to worry about doing any of the rote stuff any more - just the cool stuff. And then you fold that back into the genesis system.
I don't think that at any point our genesis content will replace what our artists and designers can do; it's really an adjunct to it. No matter how cool the genesis content gets - and it is actually really awesome - there will be stuff in the game that is hand-tweaked, hand-touched, that moves the player along, that is that story-driven content. Doing the procedurally-generated content is really there as a choice.
Eurogamer: Another thing that struck me is that you fly around on your ship with your crew (AI "pets"), or you explore a planet with a friend and some crew, but it never sounds like you're interacting with a lot of people. Space might feel like that, but where are we going to get the MMO hustle and bustle from?
Craig Zinkievich: Yes, this game is an MMO, and we want to make sure that players run into other players and experience content with them. There are definitely social hubs in the game: Earth's space dock is the big, huge space station outside of Earth that is the Star Fleet headquarters, and that is the major social place that players will constantly be going back to.
There is an over-world view, which we call sector space, which is what the game looks like when travelling at really high warp speeds between systems. In this astro-metric view you see all the other players within this sector and where they are and how they're moving along and whether or not they're being chased down by some Klingons, or whether or not they're going to the same system as you to try and solve the same problem. It gives you all those chances to team up with and see all those other people.
It really is an MMO. Fleet actions - huge persistent attacks - where you've got to help a star base under attack by the Klingons: you're not going there by yourself, you know. You'll need 10, 15, 20 guys to get through.
Eurogamer: Ooh, that sounds very endgame. What other stuff will we do at that level?
Craig Zinkievich: Another MMO philosophy of ours is to make sure people have choice. People can do what they want to do when they're in the game, and that applies to our endgame. There is raid content; story-driven episodes for a hardcore team of five people; PvP content with a reward structure; high-end PvE exploration content with its own rewards.
Eurogamer: Rewards! What sort of things will I get? Tighter tops? New crew members in treasure chests? Obviously there's experience and money to gain.
Craig Zinkievich: Exactly, so besides from just your experience and skill points, there's like tons of rewards in the game. There's all the equipment you need - your weapons, your kit, your armour, your personal shields - as well as all those things for your bridge officers. Towards the end of the game when you have 10 to 15 bridge officers, you have to equip them all too, so you've got a bevy of characters you have to outfit. Additionally, all the equipment on your ship: the weapons, the shields, the impulse engines, the deflector dish, the consoles on your ship - the ships themselves are unlocked as time goes on. But in order to get more ships within the tier you're in, those are things you're going to be working towards.
What did I miss? Oh, bridge officers - you mentioned that; finding that special alien race who make really, really good engineers, out at the edge of space, and working for them to the point where they'll allow you to recruit bridge officers. Those are loot also. So there's lots and lots of loot to go after.
Eurogamer: Did you ever consider taking fights to the bridge - having invading parties duke it out with captains like those silly old pirates did?
Craig Zinkievich: There are ship-based battles in the game! Not on your ship - you end up having to beam over to other people, or have to beam over to a distressed Federation ship. So there's definitely interiors and other ships you beam on. But we wanted to make sure that when we put player ships into the game, that the player has a lot of control over what that ship looks like and what the layout is.
We figure we'll do that stuff post-launch.
Eurogamer: Will there ever be a time when me and my five friends or me and my thirty friends, depending on how popular I am, occupy the same ship or the same starbase? Is that a guild goal?
Craig Zinkievich: There are guilds, we call them Fleets. You can imagine that they have all the standard guild mechanisms that are in MMOs.
When we got the licence we did think about whether or not we wanted to go multiple players on the ship or not. Instead of trying to bite off more than we can chew, and either never deliver the game or deliver a really thin experience, we decided to focus on the captain and get that right.
When we make decisions, we make sure that eventually maybe we can add - that people can maybe pilot the same ship and be different officers on the same bridge. But for now, at launch, everybody will be a captain, and that goes for Fleets too.
Eurogamer: And how is development going? When we last saw the game, in August, beta was going to be "really soon". We're now a couple of months on; where's our beta?
Craig Zinkievich: We are taking beta applications now, and started taking them at the beginning of September. We are, um, just on the doorstep of going into closed beta. I don't know if it's alpha, but we do have people outside of the company already playing the game. We're in the home-stretch in terms of developing the game. We're definitely moving into the lock-down and feedback stage. It's really, really exciting.
Eurogamer: Speaking of launch, have you narrowed a date down at all? Is it Q1 2010? A lot of people say "early 2010" only to release their game in August.
Craig Zinkievich: Yeah. What I'm allowed to say is that it's early 2010, and most everybody on the planet will believe it's early 2010. It's not a July "early 2010", it's definitely early 2010.
Eurogamer: Star Trek Online is also coming to consoles. I take it by that you mean Xbox 360 is a shoe-in. Is it coming to PS3 as well?
Craig Zinkievich: We haven't announced which consoles it's going to be on. It will not launch simultaneously on consoles and PC, but we haven't announced which consoles yet, at all.
Eurogamer: We follow consoles MMO development closely, as no-one has managed to deliver one yet, apart from Final Fantasy XI. What reassurance can you give our readers that Star Trek Online is really happening on console and within an acceptable time-frame - not two or three years. It's starting to get silly!
Craig Zinkievich: I can only speak for the development side of things. When it comes to the business, I'll be honest, the business part of bringing MMOs to consoles has been really sticky... Trying to get Sony, trying to get Microsoft to really understand MMOs; really understand what needs to happen for MMOs, and then figure out all the business aspects of those games, has really been a difficulty for all of the MMO developers.
Final Fantasy [XI] has been on the Xbox 360 for a while, but so many exceptions were made for that game, because at the time, the Xbox was trying to take market share and whatnot. So when it comes to the business, to how the first-parties - Microsoft and Sony - support MMOs, and what technologies we need in order to have our games run well, networking-wise and chat-wise and all that sort of stuff - those have been the really big hangups.
In terms of actually developing the game on the consoles? I mean Champions runs on the console right now; Star Trek Online runs on the consoles right now; our engine - the Cryptic Engine - runs on the consoles. So I can guarantee that internally I can have Star Trek Online running on the consoles because I know I can, and we've done it. But it's that [business] side that I can't speak for. I can give you guarantees that if you really, really want, someone can come here and play it!
Star Trek Online is due out in early 2010 on PC.