How Star Trek Online Could Have Been Better

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.

9 Responses to How Star Trek Online Could Have Been Better

  1. The only flaw with this is that you need buddies to do anything. I can’t get all my friends to agree on pizza flavors, much less when to play a game. There’d need to be some way for my engineer to do things without needing other folks otherwise we’re going to end up with six ships in the whole quadrant by the time the month is done.

  2. ggodo, I think the way to handle that is to make it so the crew can have NPC officers who are utilitarian but just can’t get to 110%. That way you would have an incentive to shop around for PC officers to act as your department heads (assuming you’re the captain). Maybe there would be bonuses for crew cohesion, the more often you have the same crew working together the better your ship’s total socres would be.

    You could also make it so that a few players have different characters on the ship. So Tactical, Engineering and Helm would be important in a fight but when dealing with exploration, you take over ass first officer, science officer and doctor or some such assemble af team members. That way a player won’t be SOL just because his character has a limited role in a specific mission.

    I really like the idea Ed. I think that would be a helluvalotta fun!

  3. I think that idea would be pretty good. Sorta like the Henchmen in Guild Wars. PvP is going to end up requiring a team of teams, but be more awesome for it. If only I could get my optimism up high enough to think it’ll actually work.

  4. I’m pretty sure the original strategy for Star Trek Online mirrored Ed’s “each person has a role on the ship” concept. However, the objections mirrored ggodo’s and they scrapped it to a more solo-friendly experience. Too bad.

    Sadly, Ed hit the nail on the head with his lamentation about the true spirit of Star Trek lost in a violence-oriented game. Part of what made Star Trek so appealing to many people is the humanity of the characters. Making each person a phaser-toting soldier leaves that to the wayside. Did they forget that Picard spent 7 seasons trying to convince Q that humans weren’t the uber-violent race he accused them of being? Also, too bad.

  5. The thing is, you can’t really solo the game anyway, unless you want to slog through 45 minutes of grinding enemy shields down every night.

    What they need to do is just say, “Yeah, it’s a freaking MULTIplayer game, you can’t play solo.” And then build a robust system into the game that makes it easy and intuitive to find other people to join your crew…specifically other people you WANT to join your crew.

    Ideally, you’d have your “guild” model, where you and your buddies crew the same ship together all the time, but for the casual player, you’d log on and then enter yourself into a sort of crew roster. Crews looking for members could search the roster and find out what skills you have, how long you’ve been playing the game, your level, and maybe some kind of player rating like Xbox Live uses (but, one that actually functions in some meaningful way).

    Crews seeking members could also be in a roster, so you could search for crews in need of a ship’s doctor, and then see similar information about that ship’s current crew. This would encourage people to work together, improving pick-up teams by making sure people could choose who they want on the team, and making it unwise to be a total d-bag because the rating system would make it hard to get on a crew.

    Every MMORPG I’ve played either has some kind of retardedly primitive player/team search method, or none at all. And this is a core feature of these games! I’ve given up on a lot of them because I couldn’t be bothered to figure out what esoteric chat channel and commands I needed to use to find a team, plus having to decipher the game’s particular abbreviated jargon. “M34 ScaPo lf millfarm/elg team.” Uh, yeah.

  6. You know the whole ‘Q’ thing was just a contrived pile of shit. the whole federation at that time was all preachy new age pacifism , just like the vulcans – who apparently only went in for logic because they nearly destroyed their world. Did Q (or any of his brethren) ever visit them? or are they OK now because they embraced a logical pacifism? if so why is the Federation a target? or even just humanity? they have embraced generally the same principles – prime directive and all that. did Q ever visit the Klingons? the Borg? evidently not. if so, based on the test he enumerated, they would have to fail. He threatened to destroy humanity for not passing his test, yet he hasn’t bothered to destroy the Borg.

    In short Q is just a bully who enjoyed making ants squirm. Every time I watch a Q episode I get pissed off.

  7. I dunno. If I was Q, I’d probably do the same thing. The humans/Federation seem to be the only ones who term themselves as “explorers.” They’re traveling the galaxy for knowledge and to make friends. I’d mess with the pretentious bastards, too.

  8. Yeah, Q is a dick, but it’d be no fun at all to harrass the Borg. Look at all the Borg in Voyager, and how fun was that? Very little. If I where a godlike entity bent on harassing lesser civilizations I’d at least harass the fun ones. Like Klingons or Romulans.

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