Star Trek Online: Am I Just Playing a Game Here?

Game design theorists call the study of gameplay “funativity”, and this is becoming known as the field of ludology–what makes games fun, why do we play them, and how does one create a fun game that will (most likely) be worth some money for a studio? These are questions that not even the masters of this new academic field can answer yet, so young is the field. Game theory, however, has far-reaching and widespread adoption in many other fields, so there is something to our desire to play (as adults).

Star Trek Online is one game that tries very, very hard to be a game, while forgetting that it is a popular universe–and gamers want the universe, not the game. Developed by Cryptic Studios under license from Paramount, published by Atari–a nameplate for Vivendi–by today’s standards, STO is a pretty good game. Touted as a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), it is really just a session-based online game with more in common with Diablo and Starcraft than World of Warcraft–a true non-session MMOG. What this means is that, despite your ability to see many other players in the game, you will never actually play with more than about 32 players at a time–maximum. Gameplay, in practice, is rather more like playing solo alongside a few others, to whom you’ll give a wave in passing.

Here’s the problem with STO: It tries too hard to be World of Warcraft, when it should be Star Trek. No one who goes to the trouble of buying STO and creating an account is going in expecting to go on a 40-player raid in a high-end raid dungeon. The STO version of which is an enemy starbase or basically just an area of space into which random Klingon ships appear, somewhat endlessly (to get around server load, Cryptic will only allow players to engage server-controlled enemy ships in waves–sorry Trek fans, there’s no Wolf 359 available here, although it makes me wonder why not? The battles are meaningless because it’s every bit like players circle-strafing each other–in starships. There is no fleet action, because there’s no commander, which is idiotic. Even in a real MMOG like WoW, there is a raid leader who directs the team.

The first problem with STO is, it doesn’t feel at all like the Star Trek universe, which is made up of hierarchical military organizations with Grand Admirals and such at the top and various levels of officers who go up in rank and earn commands with more and more responsibility. On a typical starship, like a U.S. Navy vessel, there really are only a handful of officers–perhaps a few dozen among thousands of enlisted crew members. All officers must attend Starfleet Academy, while enlisted crew simply show up at a recruiting center and go through basic training. None of this is simulated in the game; instead, there is random chaos as thousands of players work in tandem to complete missions in order to gain influence points to buy new starships, crew, and more advanced gear–with no upper command structure and no real cooperation. A starship captain does not receive orders–you’ll receive suggestions, with pretty please on top.

This gameplay video supposedly represents a battle for space station Deep Space Nine (circa 1999), despite the fact that the game is set in the future with a war between the Federation and Klingon Empire waging. Is this Sisko-era DS9 or some future battle meant to resemble the Dominion War? One cannot know in this schizophrenic game. Are we in the TOS era, TNG, DS9, Voyager, or Enterprise, or the fictional future in which STO takes place? Why, then, can players choose a Constitution-class starship when engaging modern Klingon cruisers, something no Fleet Admiral would tolerate–and no sane person would want to do–imagine a WWII-era battleship going up against a modern carrier–such as CV-65 Enterprise with 90 F-18 Hornet fighter jets, satellite and GPS, and so on? I concede that this is for the TOS fans, but the universe does not support the premise.

Cryptic should be congratulated for taking on an all-but-impossible challenge, to bring the Star Trek universe to the MMOG genre–no easy task, and almost certain to fail before getting up & running, but they did make it work, for better or worse. The question is: is this Star Trek, or is it WoW [or insert your favorite MMORPG] Trek? I’m afraid that this is, first of all, not an MMOG, and second, it’s not Star Trek, so it fails on both accounts. Sure, there’s some gameplay here, but it doesn’t last very long, because this game has no depth and no heart. So, what can Cryptic do to improve the game before it goes under? That much, at least, is a foregone conclusion–the question is when, not if.

First, for explorers and true fans, STO needs show-specific servers covering the four time periods represented: Archer, Kirk, Picard/Sisko/Janeway (the LCARS generation), and if they must, the badly-written and even worse-executed future Trek universe represented in the game (which, IMO, should simply be scrapped like an obsolete starship). This is the only way to please the demanding public, and it would not require anything more than some period-specific artwork and new episodic missions. On each server, the player should start out at Starfleet Academy and go through the RPG process of acquiring a starship command, and then explore the vast galaxy. Not a holographic subspace filled with other players, but a real representation of the vastness of space and the ability to explore planets. Sadly, this is not doable in STO without some re-engineering. But, the existing platform could be molded to more resemble this sort of gameplay, within the confines of the engine.

As a fan of TOS–which was before my time but I watched it in syndication through the 70s–I applaud Cryptic’s choice to create a war between the Federation and the good-ole bad guys, the Klingons, and understand the need to set this in the future to avoid any existing “canon timeline” discrepancies. But, there just isn’t any war here! The Klingon missions and gameplay is just so incomplete that players grow bored with their Klingon characters after a while, and understandably so–unless they just want to create a PvP character.

Secondly, for the ADHD gamers, STO needs guided gameplay wrapped around the hierarchical command structure that is Trek (in all of its flavors). Whenever there’s a major military action taking place, all players should be directed, and it should feel every bit like a massive-scale war, where you won’t know what’s really going on from the trenches, so to speak. I’m talking about invasions from the Planetkillers, Species 8592838472983, Dominion, Borg, etc.

Thirdly, the “visit a town and upgrade your gear” mindset that is an RPG asset should be done away with, because it’s LAME. When buying ship upgrades I can’t help but feel that I’m equipping my retribution paladin with a new level 264 epic gear set, because that’s exactly how it feels. What’s next in STO, arenas for PvP-only gameplay? In a word, YES, that is already in place. In Star Trek, you don’t go to a starbase and buy new crew members, new phasers, or a new ship, and go cruising down main street with it.

There is one interesting side effect of this game–fan machinima! In this video, someone has acquired Kirk’s Enterprise, Picard’s Enterprise, and Janeway’s Voyager (through a time travel manipulation, no doubt), to take on the Borg, which is just plain funny!

I just have to ask the people at Cryptic: Have you ever actually watched Star Trek, or are you all just a bunch of WoW players who thought you could pull off this kind of gameplay in spaceships? Gimme a break. Kudos for your efforts, but deserved spankings for bad execution.

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