[This post was written about month ago when STO was first launched. I tried to age it like a fine wine ... which didn't work. So I might as well post it before it spoils completely! But anyway, the server issues mentioned below are much improved now.]
Mixed Bag of Fun and Crap
Confusing. Buggy. Laggy. Did I mention confusing? And yet … here I am waiting for the servers to come back up.
As I write this, it is Friday night at 2:30am and the Star Trek Online servers are down. They have been down for hours. The game was patched at least twice today, with huge hundred-meg patches each time. My naive inner voice says, “Maybe they fixed the quest bugs!” but in reality I know they’re just trying to get new hardware working. Something has gone very wrong and they’re scrambling to fix it.
The launch has been problematic. Tons of downtime. Problems with the billing server. Severe lag in some parts of the game. But the space combat is fun.
I had to Google where a great many quest NPCs were because the in-game maps are cryptic and terrible. I had to ask other players for help about how to advance my crew members’ level, and how to increase in rank, and I spent twenty minutes remapping the keyboard keys because Cryptic doesn’t playtest for lefties. But it doesn’t matter because the space combat is fun.
The ground combat is not fun. It’s not bad per se. It just isn’t anything to write home about: it’s boring. The space combat, though, has just the right amount of tactics and pacing to keep you glued to your chair, killing Klingons until the wee hours of the night. Why is it fun? It just is: the moment-to-moment activities are entertaining. Okay, it starts off a bit slow and it takes a bit too long to open up the next ship — but the payoff is great.
Space combat cribs extremely heavily from Star Fleet Command, but who wouldn’t use that as their starting point? It’s the best of the Star Trek space games by a large margin.
A Very Special Audience
This game hits a very specialized audience. Sandra is a Star Trek fan and an avid MMO player; she would be an ideal target audience for this game. Except that they used vaguely-3D space combat … just 3D enough to make her seasick whenever she tries to fly anywhere.
A lot of people get seasick when navigating in 3D. It’s one of the things they teach you in any gaming school. Cryptic had to know this. So they made a very specific choice: “Fuck those guys! We’re making a 3D space game for the nerds who like epic space battles.” That’s what they did, and it paid off in fun. Nerds like me think this is a fun game.
But this game is far from being even as accessible as other major MMOs. Sandra can play WoW for 12 hours straight but she can’t handle STO for more than 15 minutes. I hope they weren’t expecting to gather the casual gaming crowd with this thing.
Also, if you don’t like Star Trek, don’t bother. I have a friend who is loving the game, who admits to “doing the voices” during fights. He loves the game. (Yelling things like “Emergency power to the starboard shields!” or “Dammit I need those torpedos now!” definitely makes the game more fun, unless of course people around you are pointing and laughing.)
Another friend couldn’t get past the tedious beginning to get to the good parts. To enjoy STO you need to like Star Trek and space battles and not get seasick when the camera swings around and have a bit of patience to wade through some dull bits.
Amazing Achievement Even With Help
I worked as a designer on STO when the license was owned by Perpetual. Perpetual disintegrated (because their engineering department failed to make an MMO engine), and the license was sold to Cryptic. I assume Cryptic obtained all of Perpetual’s assets and docs as part of the handoff, because the game has many little touches that come right out of our original docs.
Just as an example, I worked on the character classes, races, and traits, and many of the bits I had planned are in the game. For instance, Bolians have acidic blood when they get hit by melee attacks. That was one of mine. Not special or important, but recognizable. There are too many for it to be a coincidence — and yes, it is awesome to see random bits of my design docs in the game.
On a larger scale, they reused Perpetual’s notion of how Warp Space works. They obviously used the mock-up screens we had made. However, in our design, the blue ribbons that flow along the map were highways that increase speed. In Cryptic’s STO, they seem to just be pretty ribbons of light.
However, there are big differences too. Perpetual had designed the ground game to some extent, including the three classes as seen in Cryptic’s version, but the big thing that Perpetual didn’t have was a fun space game. When I abandoned Perpetual’s sinking ship, we still had no fun space-combat prototype.
We were, of course, playing tons of Starfleet Command, but we were running in random directions, trying to do too many things at once. We argued, “You should be able to beam a PC bridge crew onto your ship, and take stations!” or “If the ship is severely damaged, the captain should be able to rush off the bridge and put out the engineering fires!” and on and on. In other words: we had just begun to brainstorm what would be fun space combat in an MMO.
Cryptic must have spent a good amount of energy making the space game fun. They certainly didn’t crib from Perpetual’s notes there. This was all Cryptic. And it’s the best part of the game. So hats off to them!
Space combat is the core of the gameplay; it’s a lot more fun than ground combat, which feels chaotic and mushy and has terrible AI. And all other aspects of the game — such as crafting or exploring your ship — are barely there. They’re just little placeholder systems that are clearly supposed to be improved later.
The amazing thing is that they made this entire game in two years. Yes, they reused Champions’ engine. (It even has the same bugs as Champions had when it launched, so it’s obviously based on an older branch of Champions.) And yes, they cribbed from Perpetual’s docs and probably from anywhere else they could, too, because holy crap they had only two years to make a HUGE game. But I gotta say, for just two years of work, this is an amazing accomplishment and I am quite impressed at the team’s finesse.
Containing an entire space game and a ground game at once is an incredible undertaking. Now if only they’d spent another year finishing the game, they would have a knockout product that would … well, it’s too inaccessible to steal many players from WoW. It might have stolen some from EVE Online though … hmm, yeah, okay I agree: better to ship it now. They did at least do one crucial thing: launch with a core gameplay mechanic that is inherently fun.
Buggy, Confusing, Boring
That said, the game is a mechanics nightmare, with so many interactive parts that a million little quirks occur in the game. Here’s a bug report from their open beta just a few weeks ago:
So there I am, rescuing scientists from a burning science station. There are fires everywhere, so I rip some fire extinguishers off the wall, and pass them out to my away team- keeping one for myself, of course.
When we came to a fire, sometimes the team would try to find a way around; other times they would just stop at the fire, and go no further; and once in a while they would just run right in and catch on fire. The one thing they never tried was putting out the fires- well, if you want something done right… So I put them out myself, and we rescued the scientists.
A mission or two later, we’re down in the swamp, surrounded by Gorn warriors, mortars, and pet dinosaurs- I’m talking about some really nasty troops here, and the whole swamp was full of them. Luckily, I had my bridge crew with me! What would I do without these guys, right? They’re my brain trust, my A-Team! So the Gorn attack, and my crew charges into the fray (very outnumbered, mind you), and do the only thing that makes any sense in this situation. They use the fire extinguishers.
On Gorn assault troops.
I kid you not. They pulled out those fire extinguishers, and started spraying gray smoke everywhere! Much dying ensued. Not the kind I had hoped for, either.
After we rezzed, I went around the group and confiscated everyone’s firefighting equipment before we went back into battle. I just hope my ship never catches on fire, because we will be doomed.
I reproduced this awesome glitch myself and it is awesome. I gave one of my tactical officers a fire extinguisher, and every so often he breaks that sucker out and goes to town.
And there are a great many other funny stories to be had, especially on the ground combat (where you basically play a “pet class” role, managing four pet NPCs at all times). Some of them are intentional (try equipping Tribbles on your crew members), some not so much — I gave my science officer a bunch of medical hypos, and then watched in horror as he injected all of them into his body, one after another, like a burned out junkie.
Less amusingly, the game’s skills are a muddled mess. Buying the first point of training for any of your bridge crew actually decreases their effectiveness, according to the in-game GUI screen. Buying the second point brings them back up to where they were before you bought any points. Buying the third point is when they actually get better. This is, of course, a bug, even if they did it on purpose.
And certainly the worst problem is that the game doesn’t get to the exciting parts nearly fast enough. You will be stuck on your newbie ship for 12 hours or so of gameplay before you get the better ship with more options and interesting setups. This is a long time to be flying around in a ship with two phaser banks and one photon torpedo tube. They should definitely give you more options more quickly.
The Future: Brighter than Champions
The game is woefully imbalanced. Let’s just get that right out there. But they didn’t make the mistake they did on Champions, where they jacked up the difficulty through the roof on launch day. Kudos to learning from your mistakes, guys. It’s imbalanced, but it’s imbalanced in the player’s favor. They can slowly make the game harder until it reaches the desired point.
The ground combat is really boring. And I am sad to say that, because they obviously cribbed the basic ideas from design docs I wrote at Perpetual! But nevertheless, boring boring boring. To save it, they will need to cut out boring bits and add in new bits until they find more compelling moment-to-moment game mechanics. However, space combat has the spark of fun needed to carry this game forward in the meantime.
I thus predict a nice strong (200k?) audience for this intentionally niche game. When it comes out on XBox 360, with lots more polish, it could do even better. They just need to focus on bringing the fun mechanics to the light and fixing up all the broken and incomplete stuff.
This is a great game for being a part of the live team, because they will be able to make the game a lot better with relatively small amounts of effort. Good luck guys.