I wrote an article for io9.com today about how the story elements of Star Trek Online fit into the greater Star Trek mythos. Instead of just pointing you over there as usual, I’ve got a bit more to say on the subject — specifically, how I would design a “starship captain” MMORPG that’s very different from Star Trek Online.
The core problem with STO is that it acts like pretty much every other MMORPG. Your character moves through the game world, you target things with your mouse or the tab key, then you click various “powers” that affect your target or your teammates in some way. This holds true whether you’re fighting it out on the planet surface as part of an away team, or flying your Federation vessel around the Vega system battling space pirate battleships. Your starship is basically a stand-in for a flying character in your average MMORPG (that the game’s engine is based on the one used for Champions Online, which in turn has the City of Heroes engine as its ancestor is not a huge surprise).
I don’t want to pilot my ship around like a radio-controlled airplane, repeatedly clicking the phaser button while I gradually wear away at my opponent’s shields. That got boring very quickly. What a Star Trek game needs is some kind of useful exploration of the series’ core values: exploration, innovative problem solving and ethical dilemmas. How could this be accomplished within a MMORPG? Here’s how my Star Trek Online would look:
First, each player is not a captain. A ship needs a crew to operate, and actual players make up that crew. Being a captain is a major goal you have to work towards. In the meantime, there are plenty of exciting roles to fulfill in Starfleet. Chief Engineer, Security Officer, Tactical Operations Officer, Ship’s Doctor, Science Officer — each of these would have a specific function in any given situation. Actually playing out these functions would take the form of a variety of mini-games suitable to that position’s expertise. For example, let’s say you’re in the midst of combat. The player who enjoys space combat has taken the TacOps position, so while the Captain has the helm, TacOps gets to choose weapon arrays, firing sequences and controls targeting. Meanwhile, the chief engineer is working on something akin to a game of Bejeweled, but tied closely to the theme. He’s aligning the dilithium crystal matrices for optimal matter-antimatter reaction rates, for instance.
Different mission types would emphasize different skill sets. Not everything has to be a combat mission when failure or success depends on everyone helping the doctor win his minigame to solve the mystery of the de-evolutionary virus, or helping the science officer track down the culprit in the holodeck murder mystery. The minigames would be entwined, so that one player’s success in her game sets up a combo for another player. For example, the Science Officer hits a big score in a game that simulates decoding the enemy’s shield frequencies, giving the TacOps player a bonus to damage.
Another option, in place of the various minigames, would be something like a virtual collectible card game. Players would collect “cards” that they’d build into an “action deck.” If you’re the engineer, your deck would reflect that, with cards helpful in engineering tasks. If you had a crew that worked together regularly, the players could build complimentary decks that comboed into special bonuses.
What about the ethical dilemma aspect? That’s the trickiest. Assume that all players are part of the United Federation of Planets. However, within the Federation, each player is part of multiple factions. These factions layer in non-linear ways. There might be racial factions (ie, Human, Vulcan, Cardassian), occupation factions, rank factions, and additional factions tied to the game’s backstory. In each mission, there would be branching decision points, and the crew gets to vote on the decision, with each crew member’s vote weighted according to their relative success in the mission minigames.
Some decisions will gain a crew member standing within one or more of her factions, but a loss of standing with some other factions (for instance, your Vulcan faction approves of a logical decision to return to orbit, while your medical officer faction dislikes your failure to try a last-ditch rescue). Faction standing will open various special powers and other benefits, so players will always have difficult and interesting decisions to make.
The “crew member” vehicle team concept has been explored, with a fair amount of success, in military games. Tank crews with a commander, driver and gunner work in multiplayer games. There’s no reason this can’t be expanded into a starship crew. It would make for a much richer experience, with a far greater sense of camaraderie, than just dressing up superheroes as spaceships.