(last updated on April 29, 2014)
This is NOT a review, but it IS a very long unabashed rundown of my two-week experience playing Star Trek Online, a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game from Cryptic Entertainment. And yes, I did actually gain some useful insights from it.[sto]:http://startrekonline.com Earlier this spring the price of [Star Trek Online][sto] (STO) had dropped to $29.99. This game has been on my radar for a while, but since it is a MMORPG like World of Warcraft (WOW) I didn’t pick it up because they are huge time sucks. It didn’t hurt that the game was getting average reviews everywhere, so I kept away. Then about a month ago, a free playable demo was made available, which gave me a taste of the game. I downloaded and tried it out, and after completing the first episode was curious enough to buy a license. Technically, I rationalized, the purchase of this game was a deductible business expense, because I make a living doing interactive design and development. MMOs are on everyone’s mind, and there has even been serious attention paid to it at the prestigious TED conference. I watched Jane McGonigal give a spirited presentation on the possibilities that the application of game design techniques to world problems. I believe this too. Knowing how easily bored I become with games, I figured I would quickly become bored of the play mechanics and move on.
I didn’t expect to be sucked in by the powers of my own imagination. I’ve been playing quite a lot of STO, but I’ve also been taking note of why I’ve been playing it. I’ve happened to learn quite a bit about myself in the process.
The Visibility of Goals
In my “real” work, I’ve been trying to concentrate my blogging, personal relationships, existing services, and future products into the semblance of a self-sustaining community of peers. It’s very slow work punctuated with occasional moments of satisfaction, and no clear timeframe because I am engaged simultaneously in search as I am executing my plans. I identified this once as the difference between search and build, and as much as I’d like to stay focused on building, my mind is wired to be in search mode. Therefore, I find the building work to be less than satisfying in itself.
By comparison, in a game like STO or WOW is like having your future clearly laid before you. Every action you do in the game has a measurable reward, and you can see the rewards stack toward the next level of achievement, which automatically unlocks greater capabilities and opportunities. There is always something new to look forward to, up to the point where the game developers have created content. In the context of my terminology, the game itself provides the “build mode tools”, which unlocks the ability to search. Plus, since it is an MMO, there are thousands of other real players who are doing the same thing you are, albeit using different strategies and toolsets. Those other people provide both a barometer for your own rate of achievement, and as you get to know a few of the players they serve as a built-in “success team”. While you’re in-game, the things you do and discuss together are generally about achieving things in that context. That’s built-in peer support, using a common vocabulary supported by a polished set of tools.
The Guts to Tell The Story
To get to this point, you need tremendous insight into the nature of the problem. In the real world, that usually means asking someone you think might have the answers, and spending a lot of time trying things out by yourself. Some of us never actually get even that far. In the context of game design, though, you get to make up those rules, and refine them through exhaustive play testing. Players are all too happy to donate their time because they’re enjoying themselves, and there is no penalty other than the opportunity cost of not doing something else. To apply these techniques to real-world problems, there perhaps is a link between game design and applied behavioral fields like organizational development, with disciplines like experience design, emotional design, and communication design providing a source for process and practitioners, as do more specialized sources such as magic and showmanship, but I think the key element is having the guts to tell a story that people can buy into. And here game designers have an advantage too: as entertainment, the story in a game either pulls you in or it doesn’t, and taking risks in storytelling doesn’t have repercussions on people’s actual livelihood. But in the real world, having the guts to tell a story people believe means you are putting yourself on the line. It’s leadership. It’s political. It’s impossible to appeal to everyone, and yet everyone has the right to cast their judgment on you.
An interesting thing about STO is that much of the game’s story has already been written, and that story had some guts to begin with. There are eleven movies and hundreds of episodes of television spanning multiple series for the past 30 years, not to mention the thousands and thousands of pages of fiction (both commercially published and fan-written) that have expanded on the essential themes of the Star Trek universe. I’m not a Trekker, Trekkie, or fanboy, but even I know that there is a Code of Conduct in Starfleet, that the will to do what is right under dangerous constraints is what brings out our best, and that good teamwork and relationships help us persevere more than they hinder. I can get behind that, and this is what I brought with me into the game environment itself.
Finding Hidden Depths of Physical Endurance
The first weekend after I bought the full game license, I ended up staying up for 14 hours in a row, forgetting that I had an event the next morning. I grabbed a couple hours of sleep, went to the event, and then when I got home I got another couple of hours of shuteye. Upon waking, I thought I would “play a mission or two” before going to sleep at a reasonable time. You can probably guess what happened, but I was amazed to discover that despite my tiredness, I had been able to maintain focus and attention on this game for another 12 hours. “Oh, that’s just obsession” you could say. What I find that very remarkable, though, is that this shows that my brain is again misrepresenting what the body is capable of, like it did when I first started going to the gym and I wanted to stop after five minutes on the Stepper. I eventually learned to push past that, and now I readily ignore it.
The takeaway is this: if my brain/body can keep operating to play STO when I’m supposedly tied, apparently there are huge reserves of energy that I have not tapped. The next time I feel like “taking a nap before starting something”, it’s quite possible that I should just ignore it and push through. I do find naps useful for doing a mental reset and have allowed myself to take them when I feel they would do me good, but I will have to be more mindful in the future.
There is also the possibility that a good game experience does a lot of the hard work of maintaining focus and direction, because the highly-structured feedback mechanism allows your brain to operate in a purer problem-solving mode. If more tasks were like that, perhaps they wouldn’t be so tedious. This is not an original idea, of course, but it is one that I had never applied deliberately as a system. I have dabbled in the idea of creating game-style mechanism in my own productivity tools, but I have stopped short from developing a comprehensive system. What it all comes down to is whether or not you can make progress visible and tie it to visceral goals within the context of a greater desire to achieve strategic victory. The “game” merely consists of presentation that acknowledges these desires, and provides props that makes those desires quantifiable. Throw in a little showmanship and a rules engine, and you have yourself a game that could produce genuine results.
Making Great from Good
STO got an average rating on Metacritic, and after having played the game I can see why. It’s not lacking or bad in any major way, but it is pretty average in many respects when compared to the super-polished AAA titles from a big development studio. That said, STO does present the Star Trek universe well enough that you can create your own meanings and goals in it. In other words, it’s a great imaginative playground. The ships, for example, look pretty good to me even on my older-generation hardware. The environment design is probably the sparsest element of the game, as are the ground-based missions which feel tacked on, but there are enough elements in place to allow one’s imagination to take root.
For me, the shocking discovery is that I just like being in the Star Trek Universe. Apparently I’ve watched enough episodes of the various television shows and seen enough of the movies to recognize the Starfleet Code of Conduct as something cool. Also, one of my best friends has said to me if Starfleet actually existed, she’d be the first person to sign up. I’m not sure if I would do the same, but just knowing someone who WOULD, with full knowledge of the dangers and uncertainty, gave me pause for thought. Do I have the guts for it?
What I found really interesting about my reaction to Star Trek Online was that once I was in a passably-rendered version of its universe, I wanted to play within its boundaries out of a kind of respect and excitement. I haven’t felt like this about anything since I was a kid. There are morals and ideas in STO that are resonating with things that I like. The game play and game experience may be not quite as polished as, say, World of Warcraft, but it’s polished enough to trigger that part of me that sees with the inner eye of my imagination, filling in the gaps with the possibilities I believe are inherent in the medium.
When I was in my tweens, I started playing computer games on old 8-bit microcomputers like the TRS-80 and Apple II. Graphics were primitive, and to make up for it you had to make use of your imagination to “see” what the games of that time were trying to convey. Some of them strictly used text to tell stories, resulting in the Adventure style of gaming. Others used blocks of color to represent what was going on symbolically on a map, which eventually became the Strategy gaming style. Many games pushed the limits of the technology to present reality as best as they could, which required tremendous imagination on the part of the game player and a mastery of visual slight-of-hand on the part of the game designer. Remember Night Driver? This is one of the first games that really pulled off the sleight-of-hand on very limited hardware, simulating a 3D night driving experience at a time where such things had never been seen. I remember being enthralled by the simplicity and cleverness of it.
There are many people, though, that took it very literally and observed that it didn’t look anywhere as good as a real driving experience. I also remember showing the most advanced computer games of the 80s and 90s to people and having them react with less enthusiasm than I. “That doesn’t look real”, they might say, or “The animation is not as good as Disney” and so forth. To me, though, I saw each attempt to convey image and sound through the primitive devices of the time as heroic. It’s my version of modern art, and it’s only because I know the history of computer hardware, software, and interaction that I can see these games in the light they were intended. To everyone else, the art of video games has been inaccessible until relatively recently, now that games approach ever-higher levels of visual realism. Or maybe they aren’t…I’m too close to it, and for me the possibilities sometimes cloud what is really there. Take the trailer for Red Dead Redemption, which I think looks amazing from a gamer’s perspective; this game is the current state-of-the-art in interactive presentation from everything I’ve read (I have yet to play it). But honestly: would it stack up, presentation-wise, to even an older movie like The Magnificent Seven? Perhaps in terms of art direction and design it would, as they clearly spent a lot of time on it, but in terms of depicting human emotion it doesn’t quite get there, and you never forget that you’re playing a video game. But this is just my opinion. Achieving suspension of belief is a tricky thing when you are trying to depict people realistically (i.e. The Uncanny Valley)…but I digress.
When I was trying the demo out, I created a bunch of throwaway characters to try each of the different character specializations. The character creation process involves choosing a race, gender, and skill specialization. You also have a lot of leeway in designing how your character looks (see this video link) in a huge variety of ways, so long as its humanoid.
I had heard that Cryptic Entertainment (the company that developed STO) was known for the flexibility of its character generation system. I went through all the options for the male and female characters, and as I am partial to redheads and strong female characters, started paying particular attention to the image of a stubborn red-headed woman with pigtails that was somewhat misunderstood by people. She’s pretty but doesn’t really believe it because she is fixated on elements of her physique and personality that aren’t as all-important as she thinks. There are a lot of people who think like that, and I should include myself with them. Anyway, I gave her a wide chin and heavy jaw, a big forehead and a somewhat substantial nose topping bulbous lips. At this point, she resembled a hearty lumberjack woman, so I dialed back the parameters a bit to be less “Jennifer Aniston” and more “Katee Sackhoff/Jennifer Garner”, who all have strong faces.
So, what does stubbornness look like? I recalled an observation from a friend who discovered that her compact body type was well-suited to a particular kind of martial art; instead of flashy kicks and punches, it’s all about developing internal strength. I’d also noticed that many players in the STO universe have chosen to create females of the tall and slender large-breasted variety, so I thought it would be fun to make a SHORT character that looked more like a regular person. As she was a tactical officer, I reasoned that she must have had to work hard to develop upper body strength to make up for her lack of height and bulk. That suggested a gymnast / massage therapist build, with broad well-developed shoulders and arms on her compact build. To round things out, I gave her a few “problem areas” to obsess about: a slightly-protruding stomach, thickish thighs, and slightly-gangly arms with largish hands that don’t look comfortable unless they are doing something. And of course, these are the elements that make this character a unique person in my mind, and that is an important element of beauty.
As a finishing touch, I picked a uniform customization based on my scooter’s black and white color scheme. And because attitude is everything, I considered what would be a good default “stance” for the character. The standard stance is like a “standing lightly at attention” posture, but there are others like “brawler”, “stern”, “feminine”, “cute”, and so forth. I tried them all, and picked “Twitchy” because it gave the character an intensity that was unusual in the STO player universe. And it imbued her with a new personality characteristic: impatience.
I am terrible at picking names, so I hit the “Random Name” button a bunch of times until I saw something that seems to fit with the character design. “Hildebrandt” sounded vaguely Scandinavian, which seemed to fit the whole Pippi Longstocking vibe that underlies all this stubborn redheadedness. I also have a friend named Elise who hates it when people mispronounce her name in a certain way, so I picked a similar name “Elza” to give this character similar fits in her backstory. The middle name “Paulina” came up randomly, and that sounded like a good grandmother name. And with a name like “Elza Paulina Hildebrandt”, I imagined the school-age version of the character wanting to choose her own name. She might have been taunted by other kids, which would single her out for her large head and bright red hair and called her “Pippi Pee Pee” or something like that. “Piper” would be the name she chose for herself. I am sure I have heard of a Star Trek or comic book character with red hair that has the same name, but I can’t place it.
I also made a virtual version of me. The design of Zemed, my alter ego, is based on the key areas that I think distinguish my appearance: lack of hair, puffy cheeks, and a squat build. The body proportions are similar too, though the STO character designer does not excel at making fat people, featuring a generous stomach, stubby legs, and a bulky torso. I maximized the head size and neck bulk in relation to the body. The backstory I gave Zemed (a name I made up) was that he likes gourmet food and eats too much of it. Like his distant ancestor, he went through engineering training. Unlike me, he stuck with it. Not surprisingly, I played this character for a few hours before getting bored of the Engineering career path. Piper, with her direct tactical approach, was a lot more fun to play, and I found I was starting to enjoy fabricating her back story from elements I was experiencing in the game. There is a tab in the player profile for a public biography, which players in-game can click on when they see someone interesting and want to know more about them. Most of the time the biography is left blank, but I am not one to leave fields blank if I can help it. I wrote up the following, which is based on the personality details and events in the game that I’d collected:
Elza “Piper” Hildebrandt joined Starfleet originally to further her studies in astrophysics, but her impatience with slow-moving academics made her future in traditional institutions uncertain. She found her energies directed toward the tactical career path, where the will to execute an inspired plan is regarded as a virtue, not a shortcut. Physically, Piper is short for a Starfleet officer. She wears her hair in pigtails to compensate for what she regards as an overly-large head, but the combined effect imparts a childlike first impression. As it turns out, this does accurately describe Piper’s nature, but she is ALL BUSINESS when the uniform is on. She has grown used to overcoming the first impressions of others, and earned her command in a field promotion aboard the U.S.S. Dunham against the Borg during the Khitomer Crisis. Off-duty, though, she is quite lazy and passes the time watching people and starships go by. She tends to keep to herself. Piper is a Pisces, and restores Constellation Class cruisers in her spare time.
This has been an unexpected introduction to creating fiction, by using the MMO game universe as the framework for developing the motivations and personalities of characters. I have done similar things before with actual people, guessing the motivations that underlie our decision-making process, but it’s rare that I take it into fiction. And in a way, it isn’t fiction, because I am merely embellishing what is actually happening to my character in the STO universe.
I am being such a huge nerd about this that I suspect there’s something underlying all of this. First, I had to acknowledge that the character had become important to me. At first, I wondered if it just wasn’t the preferable option to looking at my own fat virtual butt in-game all the time, and truthfully there is some of that. However, having gotten to know Piper’s backstory, I find that the same compulsion of wanting to understand people is kicking in. As a result, I now have a sense of obligation to the character.
Documenting the Action
I’m compelled to document important events when I can, and the STO world triggered the same reaction. Every time I was struck by something that caught my eye, I took a screen shot. STO starts with an episode called The Khitomer Conflict, and this is your introduction to the game controls both in space and on the ground. Your character is assigned to a light cruiser (the U.S.S. Dunham, named after a character of a TV show I like) that is pulled into an encounter with the Borg. She’s commanded to beam aboard a neighboring Federation vessel and help repel the invaders. Piper obligingly does her duty, interacting with transporter beams and disabling Borg in hand-to-hand combat.
Meanwhile, Piper’s commanding officer was killed back on the home ship during another Borg assault wave, and she assumes command as the highest ranking surviving officer. After successfully dispatching the Borg threat in a combined fleet action in space, Piper is given command of the ship, and the game begins for real.
There are many away missions, some of them randomly generated, and some of them scripted as part of the game’s backstory of war among all the races in the Galaxy. STO takes place 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, and if that means nothing to you these two short videos will bring you up to speed: Part 1 Part 2
As Piper has advanced through the ranks, she’s gained access to a variety of starships. There are three kinds: Cruisers, Escorts, and Science Vessels. Cruisers and escorts are the favored choices of tactical officers like herself, because they can mete out the damage when battling other starships. Her first commission after the Dunham was the light cruiser U.S.S. Changsha, which is one of the Constellation class cruisers that she’s restored:
Upon promotion to Lieutenant Commander, she requisitioned the U.S.S. Belgravia, a tier-2 cruiser that is a good balance between shields and weaponry, which makes her a good ship for solo exploration. They are massive, though, and they have the lowest maneuverability.
Not shown is her second vessel the U.S.S. Komaki, an escort-class craft designed to deal a lot of damage (think “gunship”) with great agility, but they lack the staying power of a cruiser. Piper (or I, for that matter) didn’t find the play style to her liking, and decided to specialize in cruiser operations. Upon promotion to Commander, she took command of the U.S.S. San Crispino, a heavy cruiser I named after a famous gelaterie in Rome I hope to visit someday.
It’s designed to look retro. STO allows you to mix/match parts from different ships, creating a unique combination of parts video link. That’s why I chose the classic round saucer. However, over time I realized that it didn’t really “photograph” well, so I rationalized that a primary hull refit was necessary after a particularly nasty skirmish with three Gorn battleships. It costs in-game money to change a ship’s configuration after you first build it, but I was so much happier with the look.
One challenge of an MMO like Star Trek Online is that there are hundreds of parameters that affect the way your character and ship perform in the game. That’s the “RPG” (role playing game) part of the MMORPG acronym, and in practical terms it means that your need to know how these different numbers affect how well you can do something. I was reading up on this one day on the Internet, and read about the goofy-looking Science Vessels I’d seen occasionally, and read that they had the most powerful shields. As Piper’s backstory mentions an interest in astrophysics, I thought this was reason enough to save up the in-game moolah to buy a science ship and try it out. There’s a little bit of personal history here too: I keep discovering things that I was interested in when I was a child come back to me as an adult, and there is no escaping it. After a few days of playing it, I’ve found that I really LIKE the science ship class. It’s more maneuverable and has even more shield power than a cruiser, and I find that the weapons punch it carries is pretty adequate with the right upgrades. I updated Piper’s biography to take this new insight into account:
Recently Piper’s nostalgia for astrophysics led her to take leave aboard the science research vessel U.S.S. Albatross. Redirected by Starfleet to investigate a Romulan weapons research program, the Albatross and Piper found that they fit each other well when she assumed temporary command. While it is unusual for a tactical officer to command a science vessel, given Piper’s background it makes perfect sense, and Starfleet has assigned Piper to the U.S.S. Albatross on a permanent basis. Her former ship, the heavy cruiser U.S.S. San Crispino (named after a gelaterie she frequented as a cadet in Rome), is now commanded by bridge engineering officer Isatay.
The Albatross is a really goofy-looking ship, but that just makes me like it more.
People Watching and Identity Online
My interest in the game is finally starting to wane, primarily because some of the higher-level content of the game benefits from playing with other people. I haven’t met anyone to play with, and as in real life it’s tough to meet people online.
STO takes an interesting approach to its technical design in that a lot of the “massively multiplayer” part is really split into many tiny rooms called “instances”. This is one way to ensure stability and scalability without sacrificing performance, but it means that there are fewer people in any one place at the same time. For example, Starbase 1 is the main hub for players who are in the Federation, and it is kind of like a giant mall where everyone can go and do their shopping for new parts, etc. However, you need to be in the same instance. In general, I see no more than 40 people in an instance at one time, spread around the starbase. In World of Warcraft, there is much less instancing and the world is very continuous; you can see people doing stuff all over. WoW uses a much simpler character model, though, that doesn’t support the customization that STO has, but the penalty is that it taxes your computer more because it has to do a lot more math per vertex in the pre-rendering stage. This means framerates (and thus playability) drops like a rock when you have to display a lot of characters at the same time. Instancing might help control that by reducing the number of players that are in a location at any given time, but that is just my guess. My framerate numbers are not that great to begin with.
So lately, my mission has been not to advance through the game as quickly as possible, but to find out where the social hubs are in the game. I also have been just watching people. When I see an interesting-looking character in the game, I click on the “information” icon and see if there is a biography. This is a fairly rare occurrence, but every once in a while you come across someone who’s taken the time to craft some kind of presence and personality, and it is gratifying to see. Piper was actually complimented by another player for the detail in her bio, and it turns out that there are a few RP guilds (“role playing” groups) that use the environment as a framework for storytelling as well. The idea of actually roleplaying as Piper, though, makes me uncomfortable because of the cross-gender issue: is this somehow disrespectful to women playing the game? And is it creeeeepy? And also, pretending that I am someone else is very foreign to me; I have tried to become as transparent as possible in being MYSELF, and it’s been hard work. So I don’t know, but it was nice that someone noticed.
That said, having identified an area that I was uncomfortable with, I am compelled to try to address it. So why not flesh out Piper’s backstory a little more, spinning a narrative around the activities of visiting Starbase 1.
After catching up with the Admiral and arranging for R&R on the Research Science Vessel Albatross, Piper takes a few moments to address a number of ensigns in the Stateroom as part of a ceremony acknowledging her most recent promotion. Surely, a screenshot moment!
[Dave: Taking screenshots involving characters is actually quite difficult, because the controls of character expression (called “emotes”) are very crude. You can not make a character look at anything and have the sense that there is any awareness there, so you have to try to time the screenshots and position the camera view so the eyes APPEAR to be looking at you. It’s not unlike taking real photos. The MMO that masters facial expression as part of its basic presentation is going to be a huge hit, as Neal Stephenson implied in his seminal cyberpunk novel Snowcrash.]
The Albatross is not yet in spacedock, so Piper kills some time perched on a balcony overlooking the main entrance area to Starbase 1. [Dave: This is a good vantage point for clicking on biography profiles, too.]
Utterly bored, Piper beams back to her own ship and visits with her Bridge Officers. Corpsa, the blunt Andorian tactical officer that has served with Piper since the Khitomer Conflict, is quite used to Piper’s restlessness and stoically ignores her antics. Piper takes the hint and heads back to Starbase to pick up a few extra things at The Exchange, where some kind of party is going on.
On the way back from the Exchange, Piper runs into her academy classmate Maddie, who tells her she’ll never “catch a man” if she keeps on hiding herself away on her ship. Maddie is always going on about this, and that’s why she works on the base: to maximize her chances of meeting the right guy.
[Dave: “Maddie” is a non-player character (NPC) that is just standing around pretending she’s talking to another NPC, like a piece of background scenery.]
Maddie then drags Piper on an expedition to shoot new pictures for her dating profile, much to her irritation, but she figures it can’t hurt. Life is short, times are busy. Why not harness the power of the Federation Dating Network? She’s going on leave! Maybe she’ll meet someone! Or maybe she will become a famous spinster like Admiral Janeway.
“Don’t slouch so much, Piper! For heaven’s sake, try to look happy about this! Did you HAVE to wear your Tactical Kit with your dress uniform? It’s so 2399!” “Oh, I like this green outfit, try this instead…I like how the green brings out your eyes and hair. Guys love long hair too. You should wear it down more.” “Really, would it KILL you to SMILE? Sheesh! What do you mean you’re already smiling? Ok, I guess that’s as good as we’re gonna get. Now, let’s go mingle!”
Mingling, which Piper was never good at, doesn’t go particularly well, though she catches the attention of a skeevy guy in robes and his dopey friend. Piper’s impatience boils over, when another character actually circles around her and CROUCHES DOWN to look at her ass. [Dave: This actually did happen, and I was shocked! I asked a few women friends if they notice this kind of thing from us guys in real life, and apparently it’s just as obvious even if we think we’re being, uh, smooth.]
Piper heads up to the lounge for some much-needed alone time, contemplating the view. Maddie exhausts her, but she’s practically family after everything they’ve been through together. After collecting her thoughts, Piper is notified that the Alabtross has finally arrived in spacedock, and she can finally begin her vacation. She’s looking forward to spending time looking at the stars, just like she did when she was a little girl, except this time on a fully-equipped research vessel that can bring them up close and personal.