I love Star Trek. I worked as the systems designer on Star Trek Online during its early preproduction period, and I was (and am) excited about the design we had come up with for the game. But that said, it seems that Perpetual is dying more all the time, and it looks like Perpetual will succumb to its mortal wounds before STO gets out the door.
That’d be a shame, but it wouldn’t be the first such tragedy to befall people who attempted a Star Trek MMO. There were two MMO attempts before this one, both by other companies which eventually collapsed.
At first glance, Star Trek seems like a perfect setting for an MMO. It ranks up with Star Wars, D&D, and Lord of the Rings as one of the top four nerd IPs that cross over into mainstream acceptance. But appearances can be deceiving. It’s actually a huge landmine of problems.
The Double Game
In order to do Star Trek right, you need to make two games in one. You need to make a space game and a ground game. This means Star Trek is a “double game.” What’s Star Trek without space battles? What’s Star Trek without away teams exploring strange new worlds? You need both. This is almost impossible to pull off, especially by a team that doesn’t have a stable engine to work from. Even SOE couldn’t pull this off for Star Wars Galaxies — they launched with only a ground game and added the space game later (to which most people cried “too little, too late”).
Space Is Hard To Do (Well)
Space MMO’s are actually relatively easy to code, but that doesn’t automatically make them fun. Space is inherently boring. This is a psychological problem: on Earth we have waterfalls, spooky forests, pits of magma, rivers, and on and on. We have hundreds of instantly-recognizable terrain features to use on the ground, and each of them comes with preconceived notions of how we should feel. (Dark forest = spooky, rickety bridge = tension, idyllic plain with butterflies = relaxing, etc.) We have a huge vocabulary of concepts that can act as shortcuts in world design.
However, in space, it’s hard to come up with more than a dozen easy-to-name features, and they don’t carry much emotional impact anyway. So even if you make up lots of space phenomena, players don’t feel differently about them. In the end, space tends to feel homogeneous. In order to overcome that, you have to work very very hard.
For Star Trek, this is compounded by many additional factors that make it even harder! For instance, there are insane size disparities. Players want to pilot capital ships like the Enterprise-D. But these ships are so ridiculously massive that they dwarf smaller ships that should also be pilotable, like Deep Space 9′s “Defiant”. Allowing both sizes of player ship would be like having playable races of tiny hobbits and 100-foot-tall giants in the same game. It’s not easy to make content that makes sense for both large and small, so you have to compromise. Everybody gets a big ship, or everybody gets a small ship. Or you split your content between big-ship content and small-ship content. Or you cheat on the sizes and all the purists complain.
Another big problem is that 3D space combat is actually very hard to comprehend by many people. It’s one of those “you get it or you don’t” things. So a space MMO needs to work out a compelling combat solution that’s fun for people even if they have a hard time telling north from south, let alone up from down.
Any of these problems can be solved, but it’s the compounding of problems that makes it tough. And we haven’t even talked about the fan expectations yet.
Fan Expectations Are Impossible To Meet
The hardcore fans want an MMO that is far different from a typical MMO, and I don’t just mean the difference between a space game and a fantasy game. Let’s just name a few places where the hardcore fan base’s expectations cause tension in the design:
- There’s tension about economy. Captain Picard famously said in “First Contact” that there is no money in the Federation and human beings no longer concern themselves with the acquisition of wealth. Purists want a game that meets this requirement, but your average WoW player would be pretty disappointed by a game without loot, money, trading, and auction houses.
- There’s tension about the setting. Star Trek is a Utopian future. It is in fact pretty much the only popular Utopian future — most sci fi worlds are pretty grim. MMO’s need conflict to drive them, but when you add permanent conflict to the Star Trek world, you damage that “Utopian” feel. In Star Trek, problems generally get solved within an hour and the world returns to a happy place once again. This puts extra requirements on MMO content creators.
- There’s tension about what you’re supposed to be doing in the game. A hardcore fan might want to be in a crew with 20 other people working together aboard the USS Enterprise, taking shifts in real-time, climbing through Jeffries Tubes repairing minor problems, and doing survey missions. A more casual fan just wants to be a Captain Kirk figure with their own ship, gallivanting across the sky killing bad guys and hitting on green chicks.
Okay, so you can find workable compromises for all of these with enough effort. But it gets worse when you realize that even the hardcore fans all have different takes on Star Trek. See, most fans like one series but not others — for instance, they may love Deep Space Nine but hate Voyager. However, the universe works pretty differently in each show, and you can only understand the big picture of Star Trek by taking every show into account. But they don’t want you to do that. (e.g., “Don’t use Voyager episodes as canon, that show ruined Star Trek!”) In other words, it’s basically impossible to make all Star Trek fans happy, or even a majority of them.
And should you even try? The active Star Trek fanbase has been plummeting for years, ever since Voyager ended. (“Enterprise” did not provide a noticeable boost in fans.) The next movie(s) may strengthen it, but that’s just a “maybe” for now. Right now, even if you could make all Star Trek fans happy somehow, you wouldn’t have a successful MMO. An MMO that costs 50 million to make simply must reach a larger audience. This means doing things like adding player economies and letting everybody be a ship captain — moves that piss off the hardcore Star Trek fans.
Star Trek MMO is a Kobayashi Maru
Making a fun and successful Star Trek MMO is incredibly hard. It will take brilliance, experience, patience, and lots of money to pull it off. Even if Perpetual had the game-shipping experience and monetary backing of a company like Blizzard or Turbine or SOE, the Star Trek IP would still be a tough nut to crack.
Although Perpetual has made some clever choices and has brilliant art, I suspect that their fiscal situation dooms them. This makes me very sad, for obvious reasons.
If Perpetual doesn’t make it to the finish line, that’ll make three failed attempts. Will we ever see a Star Trek MMO? I suspect it can only happen when there are cheap commercial MMO engines, so that making a “double game” isn’t such an insanely difficult undertaking, and so that the game can be monetarily successful even if it doesn’t go after the broadest-possible market. Some day…
EDIT: to clear up some misconceptions I’ve been seeing, I no longer work for Perpetual, although I wish them the best of luck. I wasn’t fired from Perpetual; I left when my wife was offered the position of Producer for EQ2. It was a difficult choice and not one I made lightly — I still have friends at Perpetual and I hope they make a great game. I just have a hard time being optimistic these days. :)