This February marks the four-year anniversary of one my favorite games, Star Trek Online, the only MMO I can truly say I’ve logged hundreds of hours playing , making full use of my lifetime subscription that I regretted at first, but now greatly appreciate having purchased.I recently had the opportunity to speak to Stephen Ricossa, Lead Producer on Star Trek Online, about its history, successes, missteps, and what aspects of the game the Cryptic team is most proud of.
When it first launched in February,2010, Star Trek Online relied on a subscription model, and like many other subscription MMOs, it faced the notorious problem of churn; a term used to describe how MMOs often lose a large chunk of their player base after the first few months. Cryptic hoped to avoid that by making STO a larger and more robust game through frequent updates introducing the likes of The Duty Officer, Reputation and Fleet Progression systems. The team “went back and forth on strategies”, but Ricossa detailed how it wasn’t until the team was acquired by Perfect World that they saw the benefits a free-to-play model could offer.
Afterit first adopted a free to play model back in January, 2012, Cryptic saw an “immediate and significant increase” in players of all types giving STO a try, which in turn allowed them to experience many of the new features that Cryptic added over the game’s lifespan. Additionally,since pulling the plug on its subscription model, Star Trek Online has become a much more expansive MMO with a significantly larger player base than when it was operating under a subscription model. Each year has been “bigger than the last”, according to Ricossa, and Cryptic has seen its player base play the game longer, attend more short-term or seasonal events (such as STO‘s Christmas special events) and return more often to play through content updates.
When it comes to designing new updates for Star Trek Online, the team relies on a mix of player feedback, game metrics, and team input to determine what additions the game needs and the best way to achieve them.
“On a long term basis, we tend to come up with goals for a calendar year and then get more detailed as the year goes on,” Ricossa explained. “We may decide we want an endgame update, or a new player update, or an expansion similar to Legacy of Romulus. Once we have that figured out, we’ll brainstorm what we feel is the best way to achieve those goals.”
As huge Star Trek fans, Cryptic draws inspiration from every source it has available at its disposal when it comes to tying in new updates and content to established Star Trek canon. Typically, a member of the team will remember a particular episode or scene that relates to a piece of content being developed, and everyone on the project will then go re-watch the episode to ensure that no details get left out. Ricossa detailed how a good example of the team’s dedication would be the recent Legacy of Romulus expansion. When designing Legacy, the Cryptic team went back and reviewed every episode that featured the Romulans to get good ideas on how to best create content around the crafty and sly species. In addition, CBS, the owners of the Star Trek franchise, also jump in to offer suggestions as to what might make a great addition to the game. One such example are the Elachi, a new enemy introduced in Legacy that first made an appearance in the episode “Silent Enemy” from Enterprise.The network is a big fan of the aliens,and wanted to see them get more time in the spotlight, Ricossa said. Cryptic was happy to oblige, making them a major enemy in the Legacy expansion.
Surprisingly, one of the most difficult features of Star Trek Online that Cryptic has had the most trouble with updating or improving upon through the years hasn’t been balancing the PVP or balancing the various classes, but has actually been the game’s tutorials for its three factions. Ricossa detailed how tutorials are “the most important part” of a game, since many players decide on whether they’ll stick with the game or give it a pass by the time they’ve completed it – or sometimes before they reach that point. They can also “take two to three times as long as any other piece of content to create and test”because of how every one of its facets is critical to delivering a good first impression to a brand new player.
Along with changes to the tutorial and expansions like The Legacy of Romulus, one particular feature that Cryptic is most proud of has been The Foundry, an in-game editor that Cryptic first introduced to STO and later brought to its other title Neverwinter. With it, players have been able to make their own custom content to share with the community, and theSTO team has been continually impressed with what its player base has been able to create with the toolset. Players have used the tool to create “really interesting and exciting content” across Cryptic’s games, according to Ricossa, and the company has been impressed with the amount of dedication players have spent creating custom content.
“Everyone on the team has their own fan favorites, and from time-to-time someone will email out a new episode that everyone just has to play,” Ricossa said. “The players never cease to amaze us with what they accomplish, and we look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the Foundry.”
On January 30, Cryptic launched its newest update, Season 8.5, introducing a month-long event to celebrate its anniversary and a special mission featuring the voice talents of Tim Russ (better known as Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager. If you haven’t had a chance to experience Star Trek Onlineyet, or you tried it way back in the beginning, this might be the perfect time to beam yourself back up.