Monday, April 30, 2007

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG 2

Originally Posted by knightofhyrule730:
in the show, the only people who seem to have knowledge of more than one thing is usually the captain and the second in command. (exculsion: Data/B-4) ie: you never saw worf playing around in engineering, nor did you see geordi running around with security taking out intruders.
Hmm. I'm not so sure about this.

One of the things Trek correctly copied from real world navies is that you don't get assigned command of an expensive vessel without having learned your way around the things. Junior line officers are expected to learn everything about ships and the people who run them. That means poring over tech manuals until your eyes cross; it's crawling through the bowels of a ship to see how things actually work; it's knowing naval tradition; it's taking a turn as a watch officer.

By the time you're an XO or a commander of an active duty ship, you know all these things and more without even thinking about them. And I always thought that Star Trek modeled this kind of thing pretty well.

In early episodes of TNG, for example, Geordi served as helmsman. When he took over as Chief Engineer, Worf was assigned helm duties. Only later (after Tasha Yar's untimely demise) did Worf take over as Security/Tactical officer. Other episodes showed Dr. Crusher standing a night watch or actually commanding the Enterprise (TNG: "Descent"). On Dr. Crusher's recommendation, Deanna Troi would take and (eventually) pass the bridge officer examination to earn promotion to Commander (TNG: "Thine Own Self"). And in the VOY "future" episode "Timeless", we saw Geordi as a Captain commanding his own ship.

So I think there's reasonable evidence from Star Trek that officers -- especially those seeking command assignments or promotion to the higher ranks -- are in fact expected to have experience of multiple fields related to ship's operations. It's an open question whether Star Trek Online would benefit from implementing that as a gameplay feature, but I think there's evidence that doing so would be supported by canon.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG 1

Something that bugs me about most MMORPGs is that their designers seem to hate generalists.

It turns out that I'm a classic Explorer -- my enjoyment of a game comes from playing with different systems to see how they work, traveling to different places to see what they look like, and so on. So my problem with most games is that they completely marginalize this approach to gameplay, choosing instead a design ("classes") that strictly limits what you can what you can do according to your class and level.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that kind of thing stifling. I'm familiar with the ancient argument: "but there have to be classes so that players know their role in combat groups." So who says every game's character progression system has to be all about combat?

I like the idea of being able to pick up lots of different abilities from different fields. I know that means I'll never be able to enjoy the "uber" content that's constantly being developed for the dedicated level-grinders, but I'm OK with that because as a generalist, I get to see a lot more different types of gameplay than a specialist.

But that only happens if the game's design allows me to pick and choose abilities. The conventional MMORPG "pick a class, any class... and STAY THERE" design makes that impossible.

It's tempting to claim that Star Trek Online will be a better or more successful game if it allows players to gain abilities from different professional tracks. But I don't know that. All I can say is that I'd be a lot more likely to play that game than one that stuffs me into a class box and chains the lid shut.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

--Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay 1

One of the most-debated questions about Star Trek Online was whether it needs to copy many of the conventional features of existing MMORPGs in order to be successful. I can't come right out and say it shouldn't, but I think that's at least as debatable a business strategy as excessively radical innovation.

In terms of winning significant market share, there are basically only two effective approaches:

  • be the first to make one product that combines the best features of other successful products
  • define a new market segment by being the first to offer a product with a desirable new capability
That first approach is what's usually called the "second-mover advantage." It's the notion of letting other people take the risks of trying new ideas, watching what sells, and then grabbing the best-selling ideas and combining them into a single product.

The first to do a good job of this often wins big. But there's a hidden corollary: there is no such thing as a "third-mover advantage."

Once the best ideas from a broad range of related individual products are combined into a unified product, that product will usually dominate its market segment. Attempts to copy that unified product usually fail, however, since why should anyone switch to it when what they've got already supplies most of what they want?

Fortunately, that still leaves innovation as a viable strategy. So rather than trying to achieve an illusory third-mover advantage ("just like WoW, only better!"), there is at least a plausible business justification for looking for opportunities for new forms of gameplay beyond copying World of Warcraft (which IMO locked up the second-mover advantage in Achiever-oriented MMORPGs).

That doesn't mean a Star Trek MMORPG must discard every single convention of current MMORPGs regardless of utility, and no one has suggested any such thing. What it means is being willing to question specific conventions, and, if there's an opportunity to try something different that could be very popular with the target audience, consider how it might be integrated into the overall game.

This could be exactly the right moment -- and Star Trek could be exactly the right license -- to move the MMORPG market past the XP/loot-centric games currently dominating it. Not to "totally change the genre," but to advance the art in several places in order to make a game that's successful because it's more than just a clone.

Which brings me to:

Originally Posted by Mountainforest:
In my experience games (in general) that have tried very hard to stick with their canon have failed enormously. ... A lot of people here believe that STO needs to take huge steps away from it's genre towards canon in order to succeed. I can't name one game that tried to pull something like this of and succeed.
In a lot of cases I'd actually agree with you here, but I think a Star Trek MMORPG is a special case.

In making a MMORPG from a second- (or lower-) tier license, the MMORPG formula clearly has to predominate. The number of likely players from the MMORPG world is vastly greater than the number of people likely to try the game based on the strength of the license.

But Star Trek is one of the Big Three first-tier licenses. (The other two being Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.) Even taking into account the growth of MMORPG subscriber numbers, even taking into account Asian games/gamers, I believe that there are still many more fans of Star Trek around the world than there are current players of MMORPGs. Not all of these fans have computers and modems, but I'll bet that plenty of them do. (They are Star Trek fans, after all. :) )

This means the Star Trek fanbase can't be ignored as an important driver of game features for a Star Trek MMORPG. I agree that a slavish adherence to canon in making a MMORPG based on most licenses would be a mistake... but that's not the situation we have here. For the many Star Trek fans, canon matters. As I said above, that doesn't mean throwing out everything that makes a MMORPG a MMORPG -- it means recognizing that you cannot fail to include features that allow players to experience key aspects of the license. If that means shedding some now-conventional MMORPG mechanic like the utterly brain-dead tank/nuker/healer+aggro model of combat, then so be it.

For a game like Star Trek Online to maximize subscriberships, the canon is going to have to yield a little bit to MMORPG conventions to help it appeal to current online gamers. But MMORPG conventions are going to have to give way in some places to Star Trek canon, too.

In short, I don't believe anybody thinks Star Trek Online should be either a pure Star Trek simulator or a copycat MMORPG.

What's needed is a game that smartly balances (if I may say it) the Best of Both Worlds.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG 1

A subject that came up in talking about how player organizations might be implemented in a Star Trek MMORPG was the "span of control" problem.

Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
You can delegate down to others to handle organising people ingame of course, but the primary leader overall needs to know as much as possible.
According to biz-management types, that's actually a common misconception.

In fact, if you try to funnel all information up to the top of the pyramid, the leader gets so swamped by trivia that it becomes impossible to make good decisions. It also increases the chances that the leader will start micromanaging in the misguided belief that all that information must be acted on.

Part of the the value of a hierarchical system is that it delegates control downward. But it serves a useful purpose in the other direction as well; it filters information flowing upward so that only the stuff that actually requires the leader's attention gets through.

In a Star Trek context, if the captain is hearing that the neutrino flux has drifted by 0.03 microns in plasma junction J203b, and normal variation is something like ±0.1 microns, then somebody's not doing their job. The people who should be responsible for handling that low-level kind of thing clearly aren't doing so. Because they're letting that trivia rise to the level of consuming the leader's valuable time, they're degrading the effectiveness of the entire organization. When group leaders -- who should be concentrating on big-picture decisions -- to have to deal with very specific, hands-on issues, the group doesn't get full value out of that leader's experience and abilities.

There are some exceptions to this, of course. For example, only survival situations require the efficiency of a hierarchical organization -- if you're just thinking about what color to paint the walls, maybe a consensus model of organization would be better. It's also true that you have to be careful in filtering information upwards so that subordinates don't turn into mere yes-men. This creates the situation I call the "Reality Distortion Field," in which top-level decision-makers get so surrounded by people insulating them from reality that their decisions cease to have any value.

I suspect we've all had run-ins with people or organizations suffering from excessively high RDF values....

That said, the bottom line here is that it's not enough to be able to tell subordinates what to do -- leaders have to be able to trust their people to do their assigned jobs. Leaders are still responsible for the overall outcome, but if they're trying to manage all information themselves they're going to get whipped by a group that's more efficient because its people take (and are trusted to exercise) personal responsibility for their assigned tasks and goals.

Originally Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
I don't think it inherently matters how involved an Admiral is in the majority of things - but a Commodore role could be more useful to represent command staff of a guild who aren't admirals. Of course, there are many other variables to consider, so it's not as easy as it sounds.
It matters if the kinds of gameplay offered change according to rank (as I've suggested elsewhere), but that's not a given. If advancement in Star Trek Online is just leveling up to be able to fight enemies with multiplied stats, then sure, we might as well allow all players to earn the rank of Emperor-Admiral of All Time and Space and give them all +10 Phasers of Vorpal Doom. Personally, I'd prefer rank in ST:O to be an indicator of actual, demonstrated responsibility for the fun gameplay of others instead of just who leveled up the fastest so they could order other people around.

It'll be interesting to see which way Star Trek Online goes on this issue of "guild/clan" structures vs. Starfleet ranks. Maybe they'll find a way to elegantly merge the two kinds of organization....

Civil War in the United Federation of Planets +

Originally Posted by eventhorizen:
I'm not sure I particularly agree with Flatfingers posts either. It seems an awfully simplistic analysis of only a cursory look at the most well known and widely recognisable states in history, but has some immense flaws.
Well, in my defense, I wasn't trying to provide an in-depth summary of Quigley's model. My aim wasn't to discuss civilizations per se, but to describe enough of the core concepts of an interesting model of civilizations to serve as one possible framework for thinking about how the Federation might find itself falling into civil war.

Not that I don't enjoy discussing this stuff in a friendly, "what do you think?" kind of way. I would, for example, take pretty strong exception to confusing states with civilizations; misdefining those could lead to some rather ahistorical conclusions.

In fact, I've been wondering lately whether Sid Meier's Civilization might be responsible for some of the confusion. I've really enjoyed that game, burning more hours on it in all its incarnations than I care to admit, but "France" and "Russia" and so on aren't civilizations! They're the political entities we call "states." Civ called these states "civilizations" because it needed a bunch of AI opponents and there haven't been enough real civilizations to fill the bill. And neither "States" nor "Nation-States" was as good a marketing title as "Civilization."

So I understand the likely reasoning, but I do wonder whether it's led a lot of people to mistakenly believe that nations like Nepal and Burkina Faso and the U.S. are "civilizations" when they are no such thing.

Even worse, I wonder if people now believe that places like France and Germany are so culturally different from each other (despite the whole EU thing) as to be considered different civilizations when they're actually different but related states within Western civilization. And that matters because creating false distinctions makes it harder to talk usefully about the real differences that distinguish true civilizations from each other -- something that's become pretty important lately.

But as noted, this thread is for talking about how a civil war in the Federation might be useful as a plot device for Star Trek Online, so let me get back to that.

Actually, there will probably be gamers who bump into this page and immediately wonder what in the world we're babbling about. "...? Dude, it's just a game! Who cares whether it's Federation citizens or Red Lectroids from Planet Ten, just tell me who to shoot so I can be Lord High Admiral of the Universe as fast as possible."

If these folks are going to constitute a significant proportion of those who subscribe to play Star Trek Online -- or, more pointedly, if ST:O's developer is actually thinking of trying to attract such gamers with features -- then maybe what we really need is something in between a "clash of civilizations" and "it's just a game." As a practical matter, probably the best route is just to devise some justification that sounds plausible in both a real-world and Star Trek sense, and then simply say, "here's why" and move on to designing and implementing actual gameplay features.

To get there, we need more than random, arbitrary events but less than a hardcore theory -- in short, what we need is a literary justification. If the point is to have a civil war within the Federation as part of a game, then all we really need is a reason for internal conflict that sounds good and serves as an effective driver for storytelling and action without having to fit neatly into some model of cultural morphology.

Examples given so far include:

  • extermination of the Borg as a species

  • extending membership in the Federation to the Romulan Star Empire

  • suspending the Prime Directive (shades of Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus) for the exigencies of total war

  • power-hungry politician (e.g., Caesar, Palpatine)

  • deliberately misattributed use of WMD such as a biogenic weapon

  • perceived failure of the Federation to insure the security of its member states

  • economic disaster (dangers of using warp drive or replicator technology)

  • discovery of widespread use of eugenics technology

  • Section 31 instigating a "phony war" ("Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.")

  • neural parasites return to destroy the Federation from within

  • negative popular reaction to militarization of Starfleet
Any other ideas? Bear in mind the two great requirements for effectiveness as a plot device:

  • It should evenly divide Federation members or citizens.

  • It should be severe enough to bring them to the brink of open conflict against each other.
Which immediately gives me another idea: the perceived subjugation of entities who might be sentient (androids, holograms). For example, if being an effective hologram means having the capability for self-programming, how far is that from free will? Would everybody in the Federation be OK with sending self-aware entities off to spend eternity scrubbing plasma conduits, even if doing so had significant economic value by freeing up humans from dangerous or tedious tasks?

"Holoslavery" would be a pretty direct analog to the "peculiar institution" that led to the U.S.'s War Between the States, and could be considered somewhat controversial. But Star Trek copied history and tackled controversial topics all the time. I think players of a Star Trek game would buy this.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Infinity: The Quest for Earth +

Originally Posted by eventhorizen
It might sound strange, but I am beginning to be drawn more towards game concepts that are commercially unsuccessful, that manage to stay afloat. A hotbed of innovation and experiment to try to make the game take off is what leads to first breakthrough game concepts.
Actually, it doesn't sound strange to me at all.

Not to get too far off-topic (I'll loop back to Infinity), but I'm with Greg Costikyan: this industry is doomed if the cost to produce good-quality games continues to rise faster than there are people willing to pay to play them.

We desperately need a low-cost indie system to allow new concepts to be tried. Our problem, compared to that of Hollywood, is that the complexity of making even a minimally deep game is significantly higher than that required to make a movie with reasonable production value. For the cost of a prosumer digital video camera, decent lighting and sound, and some nonlinear editing software, a perfectly watchable little movie can be made. It's not going to have Star Wars: Episode III special effects, but with the right story you don't need that.

The game design field has nothing comparable. The tools are way, way too expensive, or, when nothing appropriate exists to satisfy a specific need, have to be designed and built internally. All the art and sound and interactive assets have to be created from scratch, which takes time and costs money. And if it's a persistent-world game, you not only need to keep paying the artists and sound engineers and worldbuilders for ongoing game enhancements, you also need server engineers, you have to pay for server usage, and you've got community relations to manage. "Open source" projects aren't a solution; most people aren't willing or able to spend three years on an unpaid second job.

Unless you're willing to settle for simplicity (e.g., Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates or A Tale In The Desert), or your rich uncle left you enough zorkmids to afford to license a powerful game development engine, the cards are definitely stacked against the independent online game developer.

Which is why I'm watching Multiverse. They start out with an indie-friendly licensing model -- you don't pay 'em a cent until/unless you start charging, then they take 10%. If their game engine is both powerful enough and flexible enough to allow the development of quality online games in finite time by normal human beings, Multiverse could be exactly what independent developers need to try the crazy new ideas that could help reinvigorate the entire industry. Now that it's in beta, Multiverse has some games in the pipeline; we'll have to see what they look like and what it took to make them.

[Added 2008/03/28: I'm also watching Raph Koster's Areae to see how its Metaplace offering fares. I have the distinct feeling that the real purpose of Metaplace is to become The 3D Interface to the Web (as competition for Second Life and Google and probably Microsoft). But it seems they want to get there through a kind of build-your-own-Web-aware-games model, so it's certainly worth watching on that score alone.]

For now, it's great to see something like Infinity. I have no idea whether it'll wind up being playable, but the mere fact that it's coming together at all is perhaps grounds for some optimism.

I wish Infinity all the best -- the industry will be going in a helpful direction if it succeeds.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Infinity: The Search for Earth

I've been watching this privately developed game Infinity: The Quest for Earth for several months now, with the result that I have developed a major league love/hate relationship with it.

On the one hand, the technology is doing something that I've been pleading to see for years, which is to procedurally generate millions of star systems, including planets with detailed surfaces. This is a requirement for a science fiction game universe in which players can lead entire careers traveling among the stars to explore new worlds. Infinity proves that it's possible.

On the other hand, the decision that Infinity's gameplay will be completely player-driven -- we're talking full twitch-mode, zero RPG -- leaves me utterly and absolutely cold. While there's been some talk of non-combat gameplay, the focus on the combat prototype before anything else suggests that Infinity will quickly become a Hobbesian fighting game. I know that's appealing to some people, and that's fine; it's just not for me. And it seems like an awful waste of a technology that could make for an incredibly immersive RPG environment.

Finally, I find the Infinity forum rather depressing. I've watched people show up there excited enough about the prospects of a procedurally-generated universe to offer enthusiastic suggestions. But the response is almost always to shoot down these ideas with an "I've already thought of everything" attitude by the game's developer, or with a "how dare you question the developer" attitude by the local courtiers. It's unfortunate and unnecessary -- and in my opinion, unprofessional -- to squash the hopes of potential players in this way, especially when they bring so much goodwill to a game in development.

All that said, I remain very impressed with the technology behind Infinity. My hope is that the developer will choose to license it for a reasonable fee so that someone else can develop a different game around it.

Civil War in the United Federation of Planets +

The "identity crisis" the Federation might face is exactly the kind of thing I think of when I talk about "ethical exploration" as a primary theme of Star Trek. It's the question that goes right to the heart of any individual or group: Who are you when it really counts? The best gameplay I've ever experienced (and the best SF I've ever read, for that matter) has been driven by that level of humanistic storytelling. I'd love to see it play a major role in guiding the gameplay of Star Trek Online.

Actually, to take a step back for a moment, it's interesting that we all seem to be good with the idea that a Serious Threat to the Federation will be part of the game. It's not a requirement; you can make a perfectly good MMORPG without imposing some Looming Disaster... but it does seem like a pretty obvious idea, doesn't it?

If Star Trek Online's developer is thinking along these lines, then the big question is whether they're thinking mostly internal or external. External threats (the Dominion War) are great for slam-bang action. Internal threats (Section 31) are superb for meaningful story-driven roleplaying.

But maybe there's a threat that's both internal and external? Something that could drive both action and story in a massively multiplayer game for years to come...?

Me, I like the idea of a critical technology (such as warp drive or replicators) going kerflooey and the barbarians banging on the gates to take advantage of the problem, but that's me. I could easily go along with the Eugenics Wars Part II as long as this internal threat also had some external component.

And frankly, I'm still waiting for those darned neural parasites from TNG's "Conspiracy" to make their long-awaited reappearance. Maybe a civil war is fomented from inside the Federation itself.... (cue the spooky music)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Civil War in the United Federation of Planets 1

To consider how the Federation might break down, let's look first at how this happens in the real world. Republics become empires, and empires fall... but how?

This aspect of history -- what is it that causes civilizations to fail? -- is one that has fascinated me for years. The best answer I've seen yet came from a Georgetown University professor named Carroll Quigley.

Quigley's analysis (in his wonderful book, The Evolution of Civilizations) followed in particular the works of Spengler and Toynbee. For both Spengler and Toynbee, civilizations emerged, matured, decayed, and died, in that order and always.

As Quigley looked at Western civilization, however, he concluded that Western civilization didn't fit that one-way pattern, but had somehow recovered from challenges similar to those that had destroyed earlier civilizations. In fact, the West reinvented itself not just once, but twice.

To Quigley, this was undeniable evidence that Spengler and Toynbee, while right in many things, were wrong in this one critical thing: the decline and fall of a civilization is not inevitable.

From this, and from the related data of history, Quigley surmised the following:

1. Civilizations progress through roughly seven stages:

1. Mixture
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
4. Age of Conflict
5. Universal Empire
6. Decay
7. Invasion
2. Civilizations grow (in territory, population, wealth, and knowledge) as long as they have an "instrument of expansion." Examples of instruments are religious tribute (Mesopotamian civilization), political tribute (Egyptian), slavery (Classical), feudalism (Western), and capitalism (the West again). In each case the instrument allowed the civilization to invent (to produce a surplus beyond what's needed for survival), to save (to concentrate that surplus in a few hands so that it has more effect), and to invest (to apply the surplus to additional invention).

3. But all instruments institutionalize -- eventually, the special interests in whose hands the surplus is concentrated reduce their level of investing in further invention and begin retaining the surplus for themselves. As the public becomes discontented by a decline in the rate of expansion, the civilization enters the period of imperialist wars and popular irrationality that Quigley characterized as an Age of Conflict.

4. Unlike Spengler and Toynbee, Quigley believed history demonstrates that it's possible to recover from the institutionalization of an instrument of expansion, that civilizations can return to an age of Expansion. He concluded that there are two ways to do this: by reforming the broken institution back into a working instrument, or by circumventing the old institution with a new instrument of expansion. In either case, the civilization returns to the Expansion phase.

5. Civilizations that fail to reform or circumvent the institutionalization of their instrument of expansion proceed to becoming a Universal Empire. This appears to be a golden age, but only because the civilization's resources are being spent in a final burst of consumption. Once this happens, there's no going back -- that civilization will inevitably proceed to decay and be invaded, and its cultural assets will be divided among its conquerors.

All of which is probably way more than anybody wanted to know. But now we can look at the world of the Federation with an eye toward what could make it enter an Age of Conflict.

To do that, we first need to consider: What was the Federation's instrument of expansion? And second, who controls that instrument, and why would they begin to keep for themselves the surplus it creates?

My off-the-cuff guess for the instrument that allowed the Federation to expand would have to be "warp drive." I think replicator technology would actually have more of an impact in the real world, but in the world of Star Trek it's warp drive that has enabled the access to resources and cultures that enabled the Federation's remarkable expansion through the Alpha Quadrant. (Many Star Trek: Enterprise episodes seem to support the idea that effective warp drive actually allowed the creation of the Federation itself.)

So who in the Federation controls warp drive? Simple: Starfleet. But why would the people running Starfleet (and remember, these aren't just humans) start thinking of the rewards of warp drive as finite, and therefore that they only "win" by accumulating those rewards to themselves instead of reinvesting them back into invention that benefits the whole Federation? What limits to additional warp drive-fueled expansion has the Federation finally encountered?

I have some ideas there, but I'll leave these questions as an exercise for anyone who's managed to read all this. I will suggest, however, that a threat to warp drive capability is the kind of thing that could pose a grave and long-term danger to the Federation. As such, it could work well in driving the ongoing story action in a persistent-world Star Trek MMORPG.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Combat Modes and Player Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG


From the official statements given so far, it seems clear that the current vision for Star Trek Online includes combat, and plenty of it.

So it might be fun (and possibly even useful) for us to consider how that might work. What should the big-picture design for combat look like in a MMORPG that draws from Star Trek for its inspiration?

There've been some excellent threads on this subject already. I'd like to add to that conversation by suggesting that the guiding principle for designing combat in Star Trek Online should be this: there are different types of combat action, and the type of mission typically offered to a character is determined primarily by his or her Starfleet rank.

Designing combat according to this principle will not only help attract fans of the show, it will lead to highly satisfying gameplay for many gamers. This is because "combat" requires more skills than just face-to-face fighting. Many players enjoy the simple personal combat simulated in online games, but waging a good fight also requires leadership and planning. Keying those different skills to Starfleet ranks will give different kinds of gamers the different kinds of competitive gameplay they enjoy, attracting more subscribers. It also makes effective use of an important element of the license, which again will help pull in subscribers.

The heart of this entire presentation is to suggest that there should be three major forms of combat gameplay content and skills, and that those forms should be grouped for Admirals, Captains and high-ranking officers, and everybody else. Specifically, the Admirals at Starfleet Headquarters would define the big-picture plans needed to solve big problems; officers up to Captain would implement the steps of those plans by leading groups of players in patrolling sectors and accomplishing critical space and ground missions; and everybody else (including non-Starfleet characters) would get to enjoy high-impact mission adventures.

In short:
  • thoughtful high-level direction from Admirals
  • energetic group leadership from Captains and other officers
  • exciting hands-on action from everybody else
There are several reasons why breaking gameplay up in this way would contribute to making Star Trek Online for the maximum number of players. The first is simply that this resembles how Starfleet works in the Star Trek universe. Using Starfleet ranks in expected ways will make Star Trek Online more appealing to Star Trek fans.

But this design also satisfies the goal that a Star Trek MMORPG must first and foremost be a fun MMORPG. If it isn't going to be a "starship simulator," then it certainly isn't going to be a "military simulator," either! Replicating every nuance of Star Trek's command hierarchy or real-world military doctrine wouldn't provide enough fun for the development effort that would be required.

On the other hand, the MMOG industry is already glutted with games that reduce combat down to spamming special moves of individual characters in a series of random, repetitive, and instantly forgotten encounters, and then calling the resulting slap-fight "tactics." You have the same fistfights over and over, trying to generate loot drops that will allow you to have... more fistfights. None of it means anything. There's nothing in-game that weaves tactical actions together into a larger purpose. Nothing about combat helps players feel they're an important part of a larger organization working toward a common goal.

Surely a Star Trek MMORPG can do better by finding the point of maximum fun between these extremes of hyper-realism and arbitrariness.

I think it can, and I think the three-tier system described in this document can help Star Trek Online hit that sweet spot between too complicated and too trivial. (Naturally, anyone who doesn't think this is the right direction for ST:O is welcome to suggest an alternative!)


To start with, although we don't want to try to simulate how real-world military forces are organized, it's a useful place to look for hints about how large, goal-oriented organizations actually function. We may wind up departing from that model, but it's not a bad place to start. (And please note that although much of the rest of this document will focus on military and combat concepts, they apply to any complex organization.)

Most modern military analysts find it useful to recognize four levels of control in military action. These levels show up because the behaviors necessary for organizational success aren't the same at all levels. Not all of the characteristics that make someone a good sergeant will also make that person a good general, and vice versa.

I'll have more to say on that subject in a bit, but for now it's just important to see that the different levels of any complex organization require different behaviors, and that in the military world it's become common to see four primary divisions among all these behaviors.

These four levels of action are tactics, operations, strategy, and grand strategy. To appreciate the differences between the first three of these terms, here's how the Wikipedia entry on "military tactics" puts it: "Tactics should be distinguished from military strategy, which is concerned with the overall means and plan for achieving a long-term outcome, and operational art, an intermediate level in which the aim is to convert the strategy into tactics."

Here's a table showing the four levels and the salient characteristics of each:

TacticsEnvironmentindividual - platoon~ 1-2 daysengagements
Operations Organizationcompany - brigadedays to weeksbattles
StrategyLogisticsdivision - armyweeks to monthscampaigns
Grand StrategyPoliticsall military forcesYearsWars

(Note: Although I've used the terms for components of ground forces in the Scale column, all the other types of military units -- Navy, Air Force, Space Marines, etc. -- work the same way.)

Having listed the levels, let's now look at each one in a little more detail. First, I'll discuss each level in terms of its real-world application and with respect to MMORPGs generally. Then we'll consider how each level suggests gameplay that would be fun for Star Trek Online.


Tactics are the hands-on use of local environmental resources to win short-range engagements. To put it another way, tactics are the art of using personal assets and nearby geographic features to defeat a small enemy force. Examples of ground-based tactical action include how to set and spring an ambush, how to detect an ambush, enfilade and defilade, how to move quietly through hostile territory, how to place mines for maximum effectiveness, how to capture a bridge intact, and how to rig charges to destroy a bridge or breach a barrier.

Note that all of these examples start with the word "how" -- that's not accidental. Tactics are all about "how," as opposed to "what" or "where" or "why," which are properly determined by the next military levels up.

This is a good point to discuss a common misconception about tactical gameplay in MMORPGs. Many gamers have come to believe that "tactics" means picking two or three of your character's current best skills to spam at your opponent. While that's part of tactical gameplay, it's only a subset of what's possible, which means that it misses opportunities for more enjoyable tactical gameplay.

A better way to think of tactics is that it's the art and science of using local environmental resources to their maximum advantage. Character abilities are resources, so they're correctly considered part of the local environment, but there are also terrain, weather (if outdoors), and ambient electromagnetic radiation (light, sound, heat, radio signals, etc.). All of these (and more) are features of the local environment that could be used to one's advantage in a combat situation if the game is designed to allow players to interact with them. So to limit the meaning of the word "tactics" solely to character abilities, rather than to the use of all environmental resources, is to unnecessarily limit the amount of fun that players can have at this level of combat gameplay.

For example, it's possible to hide behind a tree when line of sight is implemented. That's useful. But how many MMORPGs do you know that really implement stealth? How many MMORPGs allow you to ambush an enemy column from the cover of trees alongside a road in the dark, firing in enfilade from concealed positions to drive the adversary into a line of retreat that's studded with pre-placed mines? How would you respond if you were the sergeant leading a squad that got ambushed like this? What if starships could hide behind planets, or submerge in the upper layers of a gas giant, or mask their energy signature by using shields to survive in a star's photosphere? What if smaller ships have better maneuverability? What if "the Picard Maneuver" of very short warp jumps is possible? Can you think of ways to counter these maneuvers?

That's tactics, and tactical combat gameplay designers would produce better games by focusing on developing the rich environments needed to support actions like these instead of just adding another one-on-one, class-specific fistfight skill.


The Operations level is the level concerned with specifying battlefield objectives -- the "what," as in "What bridge should we take?" "What hills, if we take them, could block the enemy's resupply lines in this area?" "What training do we need to be prepared to carry out our mission?" -- and then coordinating the activities needed to achieve those objectives. Operations is the middle management of the military, developing battle plans that coordinate multiple tactical engagements to achieve superiority across an area of operations. Typical tasks at the operational level are to capture crucial production facilities and key nodes in a transportation network.

This is the level where you start benefiting from focused staff. Intelligence (S2) staffers acquire information about the battlefield environment and design counterintelligence operations; Operations (S3) staff plan and coordinate tactical engagements and conduct training; Logistics (S4) staff insure that supply, transportation, maintenance and services are adequate to successfully carry out operational plans. When all of these functions are part of a unified command, individual tactical engagements can be designed to work together to help achieve a goal of strategic importance. Operational planning and control thus enables each tactical victory to mean something beyond itself.

Obviously most MMORPGs don't offer anything like this. With no in-game support for operational-level planning and control, winning an individual fight is meaningless. Every victory vanishes like smoke -- the NPC respawns and it's like the engagement never even happened. There's no way to "make a difference" in such a game world.

That's primarily because most games aren't designed to let players achieve goals larger than winning individual tactical fights. In particular, most games with PvP combat don't offer any tools for operational play. PvPers are already too good (the thinking seems to go) -- letting them coordinate their fights would make them too powerful; it would be too hard to generate satisfying content for that level of play. Dark Age of Camelot, with its "Realm versus Realm" design, suggests that this is wrong, that it's perfectly feasible to offer fun operational-level gameplay, but it also points out that fun gameplay of this type isn't something that can be tacked on to the usual one-on-one design -- it needs to be baked into the game from the very start.

When operational play does show up, it's usually because guild leaders with a vision and lots of free time put the personal effort into making it happen. They're so dedicated to making the game fun for their guildmates that they will use external tools like wikis and spreadsheets and anything else they can think of to manage their resources and plan their combined operations. Because no designer thought to provide in-game tools to support this kind of gameplay, this valuable form of gameplay is left entirely outside the game world. A notable exception to this, however, is EVE Online, whose "corp" system explicitly supports operational-level teamwork. For many of EVE's players, this designed-in ability to coordinate with other players is what separates EVE Online from every other game.


The next level up in complexity is strategy. Successful strategic-level thinking is concerned with the deployment of multiple-unit task forces and the production and movement of materiel to achieve military dominance over an entire theater of operations. Strategy involves designing campaigns in which combined-arms forces conduct multiple operations to take and hold entire territories.

This is the level of the division, the corps, and the army. It's the level at which individual operations are melded together to achieve breakthrough victories. It's the level at which logistics -- the art and science of efficiently moving stuff from where it is to where it's needed most -- truly comes into its own as a necessary skill. When Napoleon (supposedly) said that "an army travels on its stomach," he was talking about logistics. As a crucial element of strategic thinking, logistics was the lever by which George C. Marshall helped move Allied forces to victory in the European Theater of Operations of World War II. Although the German army enjoyed numerous operational and tactical advantages (such as their superior tank units), Marshall negated those advantages by consistently ensuring that Allied resources were sent to positions of maximum effectiveness, while German resources were diverted to irrelevant or quixotic missions. Even if the outcome of the war in the ETO was certain, the superior strategy of the Allies achieved that outcome sooner and at less destructive cost.

What's interesting to note here is that the term "resources" is not limited to materiel like food, equipment, and supplies -- it also means people, the greatest resource of all. Making sure a person with the right skills is assigned to a key position can spell the difference between success and failure. Examples of this kind of strategic thinking include Marshall promoting Eisenhower two grades over his seniors so that he could lead all the Allied forces in Europe, as well as Eisenhower giving Patton command of the Third Army whose mission was to sweep through southern Normandy. Neither an operational- nor a tactical-style thinker would have made these assignments, but strategic thinking looks beyond both operational management and tactical action to identify the resources that can best accomplish the big-picture plan.

Strategic play, then, is about devising and executing plans for applying the appropriate resources to achieve victory across a broad front. Doing this kind of thing well is a very different challenge than either tactical action or operational leadership, and it requires a different kind of thinking that isn't often rewarded in MMORPGs. Just as there are people who are good at tactical action, and people who are good at operational leadership, there are also people who are good at strategic planning. (Nobody would still be making strategy games if somebody wasn't buying them!) So where are the MMORPGs that offer strategic-level gameplay opportunities for these kinds of gamers?


Finally, the highest level of military control is the "grand strategy" level, where military force is combined with political pressure to achieve a restructuring of power among nations or even civilizations, creating balance of power effects that may last for centuries. If strategy wins military campaigns, the successful grand strategy wins wars, or even achieves the highest form of victory -- conquest without a shot fired.

The grand strategy in Star Wars, for example, is devised and ordered by the Emperor Palpatine. Each step of his ascent to power was taken as part of a grand strategy of combined political manipulation and strategically-applied military force. Either of these alone would make him only Chancellor or General; together, they brought nearly an entire Empire within his grasp.

Grand strategy is a game of diplomatic carrots and military sticks, of feints and diversions, of public alliances and private threats. Needless to say, this isn't an area of gameplay that's commonly supported in MMORPGs. In fact, can anyone name any MMORPG that's ever been designed to let players have this kind of fun?


If Star Trek Online tried to slavishly model each of these levels as its combat gameplay, there probably wouldn't be much time left to implement anything else. So that's not the goal of this proposal -- the purpose here is to find the key aspects of this model that would make for a fun MMORPG that communicates the flavor of Star Trek.

Grand Strategy

Right off the bat that eliminates Grand Strategy as a playable level. First, there probably wouldn't be enough gamers reaching this level to make developing content for it worthwhile. Second, grand strategy probably isn't something that players of a MMORPG should be doing at all. If ST:O really were a simulation or a perfect sandbox world, OK; but it's not -- it's a game, and that means the developers need to be the ones to set the rules of the game.

For Star Trek Online, that means the developers, not players, need to hold the reins of grand strategy. The sudden, dramatic shifts in political alignment; the announcement of a terrible new threat; the top-level vision for Starfleet's mission -- all these are elements that the developers need to supply in order to keep the game fresh and dynamic. It also ensures that players can be guided toward new content (such as expansions) rather than passively watching them veer off in directions that ST:O's gameplay was never meant to go.

This still leaves strategic, operational, and tactical gameplay to players. Fortunately, these fit very nicely into what the Cytherians called the "hierarchical command structure!" of Starfleet. The goals I believe Star Trek Online's combat gameplay designers should have, then, are these: design tactical combat content for players with ranks up through Commander, design operational-level content for officers up through Captain, and design strategic gameplay for Admirals. And finally, and importantly, integrate all of these features deeply with each other so that every player's actions matter to the entire organization.

I'll have more to say in the next section about the way that ranks in ST:O can fit into this system. First, though, I'd like to take a focused look at the characteristics that make the tactical, operational and strategic levels of combat different from each other from a gameplay perspective.

Tactical Gameplay

Tactical play is about meeting the enemy face-to-face; it's about hands-on, adrenaline-pumping action. Most MMORPG players seem to prefer this kind of first-person mayhem, which implies a couple of things: first, that most of ST:O's content should be about face-to-face (or ship-to-ship) conflict, and second, that the majority of ST:O's service ranks should be associated with this style/level of combat gameplay.

An obvious example of tactical gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG would be picking up a compression rifle on an away mission and blazing away at a bad guy. But ST:O will apparently also offer plenty of ship-to-ship engagements, so firing ship's phasers or launching a full spread of photon torpedoes are also likely forms of tactical action. Helm control also falls into this category of hands-on gameplay. (For what it's worth, I believe that "tactical action" also encompasses non-combat gameplay like rerouting a ship's power systems in an emergency situation -- "I need warp drive in thirty seconds or we're all dead!" -- but for now we're just addressing pure combat.)

Operational Gameplay

Operational-level gameplay is also field work, but it's less about personally firing a phaser than about organizing the efforts of several phaser-wielding players for maximum advantage in a bigger fight. In a word, operational gameplay is about leadership. This level of combat combines the pleasure of coordinating the actions of others with the satisfaction of personally seeing the effects of your decision-making. This is the level of play desired by the leaders of combat guilds and clans in conventional MMORPGs. For the time and effort they're willing to put in, for the increase in fun that they bring to the players in their groups, these are often highly desirable players. It makes sense to attract them to ST:O by consciously designing content that fits their preferred playstyle.

Features supporting operational-level gameplay would include skills for leading away missions, tools for managing personnel, command of the larger starships, and abilities to unify the actions of the other players within their duty assignment (such as skills to improve the effectiveness of Tactical and Helm officers working together). The operational-level player will be responsible for coming up with plans to achieve the strategic goals assigned to them, and then directing other players so that those plans are executed successfully.

To fully enable this style of play, I believe it will be necessary to allow operational-level players to create missions for other players. Sometimes Starfleet Headquarters will order an operational-rank player to "go accomplish Mission X" as a specific quest, but the rest of the time these players would need some freedom to demonstrate group leadership. This could be done by SFHQ ordering these players to "patrol" duty in a particular theatre (perhaps as part of a storyline quest leading to pre-generated tactical missions) and then allowing them to create missions and assign them to the players under their command. (Note: although this would be similar to EVE Online's excellent "contract" feature, it's not inspired by it. As a player of SWG, I actually wrote a detailed design doc for a player mission system for that game back in 2004, so the idea's not unique to EVE. I address this important feature in more detail near the end of this document.)

Strategic Gameplay

Finally, there's the Strategic level, at which players will be able to make big-picture plans and decisions to the benefit (or detriment) of the entire Federation. Gameplay at this level is less about action (tactical play) or leadership (operational play) than about thoughtful long-range planning. Star Trek Online at this level would resemble strategy games, in which you win by carefully moving the right pieces into place at the right time... except that this kind of thing would be a lot more interesting in ST:O because the pieces being moved are the characters of other players, who will have their own ideas about how to accomplish their goals.

Typical strategic-level activities could be analyzing data about the movements of non-Federation forces, developing plans for acquiring valuable resources, building or moving starbases to exert influence over key star systems or sectors, transferring resources and equipment to supply depots to support contingencies of expansion or withdrawal, serving on promotion boards to evaluate candidates for the ranks of Captain and Admiral, assigning personnel to new vessels, assigning the characters of newly-subscribed players to existing vessels, assigning task forces of starships to patrol contested sectors or explore unknown sectors, and assigning particular starships or personnel to perform stategically critical missions.

In all of these cases, the goal of strategic play is to make the necessary logistical decisions that will generate the most benefit for the Federation over the long term. Clearly this isn't the kind of thing that will be every gamer's cup of tea, but it will be exactly the right set of opportunities for those players who are interested in and capable of this kind of high-level planning. And their gameplay will create the context in which the operational and tactical gameplay of others makes sense.

So, to sum all of this up as simply as possible: strategic gameplay is about thinking; tactical gameplay is about doing; and operational gameplay balances both doing and thinking. For different types of gamers, different types of gameplay, but all woven together to create a game that's fun for everyone to play together.

The final element of this concept will be to see how the various ranks of Starfleet service -- admirals, captains, and all officers and crew -- fit into this model of three distinct but interconnected gameplay preferences.


If you've read this far, one thing that should already be very clear is that the design of rank progression will play a crucial role in helping players of a Star Trek MMORPG enjoy themselves, because rank is what will define the nature of most of the content offered to a player. It's also an important element of the license. So I won't belabor the point, but I would like to highlight some aspects of rank as it fits into the concept of multiple different styles/levels of combat gameplay.

I have two key design suggestions regarding service ranks in Star Trek Online. The first is to associate certain ranks with specific playstyles, and the second is to allow players to gain proficiency levels within each of those styles instead of forcing promotion to a level of play that's not fun for them.

Associate Ranks with Gameplay Styles

The first design suggestion is to associate each of the Starfleet service ranks with one the three combat gameplay styles. Strategic content would be designed for Admirals; tactical content would be designed for players at all ranks up through Commander; and operational content would be aimed at all officers but focused on Captains. To look at this the other way around, if your character is a Crewman or Ensign, most of the mission assignments you receive will be tactical in nature -- you'll be given a specific task to perform or role to play on an away mission or starship. From Ensign on up to Captain, you'll receive more missions that require you organize the actions of the lower-ranked players assigned to your command. By the time you attain the lofty rank of Captain, you'll generally no longer be leading away missions or firing weapons yourself; you'll be responsible for directing teams of players in the most challenging and sensitive missions to achieve Starfleet's strategic goals.

Finally, there is the possibility that Star Trek Online players will be able to become Admirals. Should you be one of the few to win promotion to flag rank, the typical missions created for you should be to determine strategic goals, to define large-scale plans that will achieve those goals, and to give the orders that move the right people and equipment into place to insure that those plans are successfully implemented.

(Note: This assumes that player characters will begin as enlisted crew. If instead all player characters go through some form of "Starfleet Academy" -- probably a notional thing that happens at character creation -- then start their careers with the rank of Ensign so that only NPCs are enlisted crew, then the association of specific ranks with the three tiers of combat organization will be somewhat different. But the basic ideas work the same way -- ranks up through Commander start out getting tactical missions and become more operational with increasing rank, while Captains receive mostly orders for operational action with the occasional tactical or strategic mission.)

One interesting aspect of this model is that there's some overlap between the types of content available to the different ranks. All officer ranks, for example, might occasionally have some rank-appropriate operational content assigned to them (either by other players or by the game itself) to give them experience with that style of play. This taste of operational-level gameplay would allow newer officers to find out whether they like it enough to do it for most of their game time, as would be expected of Captain-rank players. Assigning the rare operational mission to a character of Admiral rank might serve to remind the player of the impact of their orders. Similarly, Captains might be given the occasional duty of developing a strategic plan or accomplishing a logistical goal within their assigned area of operations; again, this would give these players a chance to see whether the admiralty is attractive enough to them to seek promotion to that level.

Make Promotion Optional

This brings me to my second suggestion for designing the rank system, which is that players should not be promoted unless they want to be. Instead of "Starfleet" being a typical MMORPG class, in which increasing abilities come only by increasing one's level vertically within that class, ST:O would do better to allow for horizontal branching. A player who enjoys the kinds of content that come up at the Lieutenant service rank ought to be able to become a really good lieutenant; a petty officer or admiral who's happy where she is should be able to become a legendary petty officer or admiral; and so on. Instead of imposing a forced advancement system, players who've found the style of gameplay that they enjoy should be rewarded by offering them improved skills for engaging in that content type.

Consider the examples of James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard. In Kirk's case, he was promoted to Admiral, but riding a desk didn't appeal to him -- it clearly was not the role for which he was born, which was commanding a starship. Ultimately, Starfleet did the obvious right thing, and "busted" him back down to Captain so that he could take on the operational-level challenges for which he was clearly best suited. (On the other hand, Kirk demonstrated that some leaders are still very hands-on, so assigning the occasional advanced tactical mission to Captains in ST:O would also make sense.) In the case of Picard, apparently Starfleet had learned its lesson by his time and did not insist on promoting officers to Admiral unless they were ready for and interested in that very different type of service.

In summary, then, players of all ranks up to Captain would be field agents, while the step up to Admiral would be taken only by those players who understand that it calls more for big-picture thinking than hands-on doing. This will align the game ranks with playstyles so that all players are able to choose the gameplay that's the most fun for them.


There are several implications of implementing this three-tiered model of combat in a MMORPG that bear closer examination. One is that the power to send players off on difficult and dangerous missions has to be balanced by some form of personal responsibility for exercising that power. So there's a choice to be made: do other players get to decide who's allowed to give them orders or not?

In most MMORPGs, the answer is "not" because players don't get to tell other players what to do. So advancement within a class or profession doesn't require any other player's say-so. But in a game where I can tell you what to do, you have a significant stake in making sure I'm not going to repeatedly send you off on Kobayashi Maru missions just because I can. If I have that power for no other reason than because I leveled up the fastest, why should I care what I do to you?

But if you and other players have some say in whether I can gain the power to choose missions for you (assuming I want to be promoted), then that's a way to make sure the people who gain power are the ones who've proven that they will use it responsibly. Those who just want power in order to boss other people around would presumably be unhappy at being prevented from advancing in this way, and making customers unhappy is generally not desirable in a game... but the alternative of letting these players make everybody else unhappy is worse.

Rank should thus be awarded for good decision-making and for making sure that other players are having fun. In other words, increased power should be a reward for increased responsibility, because giving players either power or responsibility alone winds up being not-fun for somebody.

On a related issue, I suggested earlier that admirals could serve on a promotions board to decide who gets tapped for promotion to Captain or Admiral. That mechanism could serve the purpose of ensuring that those players who demonstrated responsibility in leadership would gain additional power... but what would prevent such a system from becoming a popularity contest, or a "good ol' boys club?" Some additional check or balance seems necessary to keep the highest-level players honest.

For that matter, when Star Trek Online first launches there won't be any Admirals... so who's going to do the promoting?

(The opposite side of this issue, which concerns the distribution of ranks once the game's been going for a while, may be less of a problem. Since not everyone will be interested in being promoted to the ranks that call for more operational or stategic gameplay, this model could actually help avoid the "too many chiefs and not enough indians" problem.)

Another point, which I have deferred to this section to keep things relatively simple, is that the developer may be thinking of letting players in Science or Engineering/Ops or Medical branches advance in rank through non-combat missions. Although I've focused on Command in my discussion so far, I also noted in passing that the tactical/operational/strategic model don't apply only to combat. Acting, organizing, and planning are things that an organization of any significant size has to do, whether military or commercial or scientific.

So if the developer allows branch advancement through the ranks, there's no reason why Medical, Engineering/Ops, and Science branch players couldn't also be given rank-affecting missions that fit into the tactical/operational/strategic model. Although the risk to a character's life and limb may not be as great, so advancement might be slower, it's still necessary for some players to actively affect the game world (tactics), for others to organize group activity (operations), and for still others to plan combined operations for maximum effectiveness toward an organizational goal (strategy). Those non-combat contributions to a game deserve to be rewarded through rank promotion, too.

Lastly, what about soloers? In a Star Trek Online where gameplay is so much about organized action, what place will there be for the players who like the idea of gaining advanced rank within Starfleet, but who can't or don't want to spend time as a member of a group?

I'm open to suggestions on this point.


An essay of this length implies that I think the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG should go absolutely nuts and offer huge quantities of every one of the different levels/styles of gameplay described here. I don't think that. I'm not calling for more combat content than the typical major MMORPG -- there's already more than enough of that. What I'm calling for is more focused combat content. I'm suggesting that designing combat content from the very start to be more directed to specific, well-understood and popular gameplay styles will pay off in more (and happier) subscribers.

The old MMORPG concept of "combat" as nothing more than random fistfights is no longer good enough. Creating tactical-level gameplay within an overall model of combat that includes operational and strategic gameplay satisfies multiple design goals: it creates a MMORPG that offers players more interesting opportunities to interact; it creates a game world that will feel like Star Trek; and it leads the entire MMORPG industry toward a combat system that's more fun because it answers the question, "Why am I fighting this enemy?"

To achieve those ends, I'm proposing that the combat model for Star Trek Online be designed so that tactical combat contributes to operations, operations contribute to strategic play, strategic play gives meaning to operational play, operational play gives context to tactical play, and the rank/level system doesn't force players out of each of these different styles of gameplay. This is not a call for massive amounts of new content -- it's an observation that the content at each level becomes more valuable when it's focused on helping players feel like what they're doing matters in the game world.

I believe the design outlined here would not only give combat players the meaningful game they've been longing for, it would also extract significant value from the Star Trek license. Either would be great; together they would give a Star Trek MMORPG a broad appeal no other game could match.

The only problem is that I'd wind up broke because I lost my job from playing Star Trek Online all day, but man, it would be worth it. :)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What Is Star Trek?

I've been able to boil down my concept of "what is Star Trek?" to two words: ethical exploration.

I like this definition because it doesn't just convey the concept of "exploring ethically" (although that's a highly visible aspect of Star Trek) -- it's also about exploring our ethical beliefs. Star Trek at its best was never afraid to ask the big questions, and insisted that those questions are inevitable when you travel beyond the fields you know. The true explorer knows there'll be hard decisions to make about the right uses of advanced technological power, and welcomes such questions because facing them directly is how we grow.

The great thing about this -- if it's as emblematic of Star Trek as I think it is -- is that it's something new to the MMORPG world, but not so new that people would have a hard time getting into it. Most MMORPGs are about hitting each other with pointed sticks and taking the loser's stuff, but the better angels of our nature still exist. Isn't it about time someone offered a game that spoke to both sides of our humanity?

More specifically, it's time some smart developer made a MMORPG that rewards constructive play, rather than yet another game in a crowded marketplace of games that are only about destruction. Star Trek would seem to be tailor-made for this! Instead of killing other living things and seeing who can most rapidly collect the most stuff, Star Trek's ethos is cooperative and constructive -- go see what's out there, and share it with your friends.

Of course there are going to be bad guys in the galaxy who only understand force. Nothing in the Federation charter says you can't defend yourself when someone attacks you, so a Star Trek MMORPG need have no shortage of armed combat for those who are focused on that kind of thing. But a Star Trek Online is also a rare chance to offer something more, to communicate Star Trek's vision of ethical exploration. That doesn't just make for fun gameplay (who wouldn't want to figure out how to use the deflector array to open a gateway to fluidic space?); it's also a golden opportunity to tell truly compelling stories by occasionally asking players to make tough ethical choices.

The value of that last feature should not be dismissed. A major reason for the success of BioWare's single-player RPG Knights of the Old Republic was that the action in the game wasn't just action for its own sake -- your choices had ethical consequences. What you did affected your available choices later. It mattered. The lightsaber action was fun, but it was the ethical component of the gameplay that made KOTOR stand out.

Well, why should the Star Wars franchise have all the fun?

The ethical exploration that IMO is fundamental to the Star Trek license is just begging to be fully implemented in a MMORPG. Such a game has a chance to grab that part of the online gamer audience (of whom I'm one) that has had enough of mindless shoot-'em-ups and "casual players need not apply" loot raids and is ready for something that challenges their hearts and minds. I don't pretend to know exactly what percentage of the total online gamer population that is, but we're out here, we're not negligible, we're solvent, and we're ready to send our money to any developer who treats with respect our desire for an intelligent MMORPG in which ethical exploration drives the gameplay.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Starship Operations in a Star Trek MMORPG


Welcome! What follows is a design vision of how groups of players can work together aboard starships in a way that powerfully communicates the spirit of Star Trek.

The "complex and functional places" approach to designing starship gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG has not been a popular one with previous Star Trek Online developers. For example, Daron Stinnett of the now-defunct Perpetual Entertainment said, "Space gameplay will [be] from an exterior point of view where you’ll have the best understanding of the tactical situation. This is a result of gameplay testing where we determined that playing from a interior point of view put the player at a significant disadvantage." The usual summary of this position was, "Star Trek Online will not be a starship simulator."

With respect, I think that position needs to be challenged, and it needs to be challenged hard. Why is tactical effectiveness for the combat-oriented gamers dictating for everyone else the design of one of the most crucial elements of a Star Trek MMORPG? Why not "simulate" some of the cooler aspects of operating Star Trek starships? That's one of the things people enjoy the most about Star Trek! Using the advanced technology aboard a starship to solve problems has always been an essential part of what makes Star Trek fun. Lose that, and you instantly lose a significant portion of Star Trek's appeal. Offering a conventional tactical combat MMORPG as the only interface to the wonderful ships of Star Trek won't make up the difference.

Of course an online game will be different from a TV show or movie. Some things will need to be cut; that's understood. And it's also understood that there will be some gamers who only want to experience ST:O as a tactical combat game. Supporting them is fine, but what about everybody else? What about the people for whom the spirit of Star Trek is its humanism and intelligence in creative problem-solving? How does making a tactical fighting game with a Star Trek skin serve their interests?

The problem with designing Star Trek Online's starships as just mobile spawn points in a 3rd-person tactical fighting game is that this fails to make full use of the Star Trek license. As the example of Star Wars Galaxies shows all too painfully, if a game makes too many compromises to conventional MMORPG play, rather than insisting on features that capture the spirit of the license, the many people who were drawn to the license won't be attracted enough to the game to subscribe to it (and stay subscribed). That might work for a combat-only World of Warcraft, but who here truly believes that Star Trek is that kind of license?

So of all the things to cut, such a critical part of the Star Trek experience as starship operation should not be on the hit list. Not only does that eliminate a core Star Trek experience, it fails to take advantage of a rare opportunity to offer innovative and enjoyable group gameplay beyond the conventional tactical combat of every other MMORPG. Not letting players work together to operate the systems of their ships means fewer subscribers to the game because there's not enough stuff to do that feels like Star Trek. Nobody will win when that happens.

I don't just mean "ST:O needs to do ship interiors," either. I'm not talking about how stuff looks. It's nice if ship interiors are rendered prettily, but enabling players to wander around inside a ship and stare at the walls is not what this proposal is after. What I will be discussing here is functionality. Players of a Star Trek MMORPG need and expect to be able to interact with the individual systems of their ships: modifying shield harmonics, transporting objects with strange bio-signatures, reprogramming the sensor array to pick up a garbled and faint distress signal -- the looks of such things are far less important than the gameplay content of letting players do the things that characters in the Star Trek universe are supposed to be able to do.

I believe whoever eventually develops Star Trek Online will find that many of the people who come to such a game for the Star Trek experience will expect starship operations to be a core gameplay element. Those potential subscribers will be disappointed if they discover that the core design focus for starships is "exciting" destruction. A fully satisfying Star Trek MMORPG needs the exploration-focused group vehicles that are a fundamental part of Star Trek, and it needs them to be standard-issue by design.

I realize that this proposal runs counter to the prevailing "we're not going to make a Star Trek simulator" attitude, and I'm definitely not trying to annoy anyone, so I won't be offended if the general feeling is that I've wasted my time on all this. Even if the core vision described here has no chance of being applied in a Star Trek Online, perhaps some of the associated ideas may prove useful elsewhere. And if nothing else, I had fun developing these ideas -- it's been an interesting exercise in systems design.

So to anyone who's suffered through this introduction and who braves the following exposition -- thank you! I hope you find something you like here.


In the universe of Star Trek, characters always face challenges.

Sometimes these challenges are physical, requiring the character to face a fear of injury or death. Sometimes the challenges are social, such as negotiating a peace treaty, establishing a trade agreement, or initiating a first contact. And sometimes the challenges are ethical, as when a character's fidelity to the Prime Directive is tested. If Star Trek Online's gameplay fairly represents the license, we can expect to see plenty of all these types of situations.

But the Trek mythos is nearly unique in popular fiction in how often characters are required to surmount intellectual challenges -- in particular, technological challenges. In the world of Trek, there are innumerable occasions when neither brute force nor diplomatic savoir-faire will work -- the only way to solve a difficult problem is through the creative use of advanced tools.

I think the path to providing fun intellectual challenges to ST:O players can be summed up in one simple word: "crafting." Not crafting in the sense of manufacturing, of making stuff to sell in an in-game economy, but crafting in its larger sense of creating interesting new things. The art and science of crafting is the exploration of technology... and that, in the service of an ethic of curiosity about and respect for sentient beings, is exactly what Star Trek has always been about.

In short, Star Trek Online needs crafting. And the best way to get it is by designing all of the hardware and software objects in the game -- especially including starships and their systems -- to be decomposable into components that can then be recombined in novel ways.

Although this concept should apply to every object, from handheld tools to warp cores, by far the most important vehicle for it is the starship. Not only are starships crammed with groovy technogadgets and clever software programs, they are full of that most glorious of resources: systems. For all their advanced hardware and software, without the systems that organize and control those things a starship would just be a box full of parts. When they're pieces of an intelligently-designed system, however, and those systems are operated by people, the whole supersystem becomes more than just the sum of its parts -- it becomes an incredibly powerful tool for exploration.

Working with the many systems that constitute this exploratory tool is what characters in the Trek universe do. They travel to distant places, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and they use the powerful systems of their starships to solve the problems that explorers inevitably encounter.

Which means that to see how crafting can work in ST:O, we need to look at how Trek characters use a starship's systems. Anyone who's tried their hand at designing a starship knows that there are many pieces, but how do those pieces fit together as an organized collection of systems? And how do Trek characters interact with those systems to achieve specific goals?

The answer is analysis and synthesis -- break it down, then put it back together again. So our first step will be to enumerate the best-known systems of Star Trek starships. Then we'll examine those systems according to their organizational structure. Finally, we'll consider the functional interactions that bring these systems together to form a fully operational starship. At that point we'll have a good idea of how a starship works, which will enable us to discuss in a concrete way how players can interact with these systems.

Ultimately this should demonstrate how starships are a crucial mechanism for enabling players to craft new things in ST:O in a way that's both consistent with the spirit of Star Trek and fun as a set of MMORPG features.


So let's get started, already! Here's the list of popularly recognized shipboard systems as I've developed it so far:

  • Command
    • Helm
    • Conn
    • Navigation
    • Saucer Separation

  • Engineering
    • Power
      • Matter/Antimatter Reaction Assembly (M/ARA)
      • Electro-Plasma Power Distribution System (EPS)
    • Propulsion
      • Warp Drive (incl. transwarp & slipstream)
      • Impulse Drive
      • Reaction Control System (RCS) Thrusters
    • Defenses
      • Deflector
      • Shields
      • Armor
      • Cloaking Device [non-Federation]
    • Auxiliary
      • Environmental / Life Support
      • Artificial Gravity
      • Inertial Dampener
      • Transporter
      • Force Field
      • Tractor Beam
      • Holoemitter
      • Replicator
      • Escape Pods
      • Self-Destruct
    • Structural
  • Operations (Ops)
    • Computer
      • Core
      • Processing Nodes
      • Optical Data Network (ODN)
      • Library Data
    • Sensors
      • Short-range
        • Active
        • Passive
      • Long-range
    • Astrometrics / Stellar Cartography
    • Fighter Operations
    • Shuttle Operations
    • Cargo Operations

  • Tactical
    • Tactical Sensors
    • Targeting
    • Direct-fire Weapons
      • Phasers
      • Disruptors [non-Federation]
    • Torpedoes
      • Photon
      • Quantum
      • Plasma [non-Federation]
  • Security
    • Internal Security Sensors
    • Hazard Teams
  • Communications
  • Science
    • Computing
    • Research & Analysis
    • Physics
    • Life Sciences
  • Medical
    • Pathology
    • Sick Bay

The first thing to observe about this list is that I've divided up shipboard systems into basically the standard branches: Command/Helm, Engineering/Operations, Tactical/Security, and Science/Medical. These correspond to the modern era uniform colors: Command and Helm in red, Engineering and Ops in gold, Tactical and Security in purple, and Science and Medical in blue or teal.

With the exception of Tactical/Security (discussed below), I think this list of managed systems fits the accepted conventions for Trek organization in the modern era; that is, from 2351 through at least 2405 according to the excellent "Spike's Star Trek Page" of uniforms. But there are a number of reasonable questions that could be raised.

The first concerns the inclusion of Medical as a subsystem of Science. After all, the medical staff from ST:TNG onward wore teal- or green-colored uniforms rather than blue. For that matter, they probably have their own department within SFHQ (I expect someone can tell us that for sure). But for purposes of simplicity and consistency within ST:O as a game, it seemed to make sense to include Medical as one of the major departments within the Science branch despite their wearing the teal/green uniforms rather than the standard blue of Science. Does anyone feel strongly otherwise?

Speaking of Medical, where's the Ship's Counselor? I went back and forth on this one for a while, but ultimately concluded that while it might be an appropriate role on a ship's Table of Organization, there's no "ship system" that is operated by a Counselor. (Having an office doesn't count.) Since ship systems are what I'm trying to represent here, I decided that Ship's Counselor didn't need to be shown. But I'm open to alternative viewpoints on this one, too.

Another issue I had to wrestle with is the relative paucity of Science systems. When does a duty posting include enough scientific activity to need a Science Officer? In reviewing the various Trekanalia, I found that there's very little consistency on when a posting might or might not include a Science Officer to handle a large science department. The original NX-01 Enterprise included a Science Officer. So did the Constitution-class Enterprises, as did Deep Space Nine. But neither the Galaxy- nor Sovereign-class Enterprises had a dedicated Science Officer (rather surprising for the NCC 1701-D), nor did Voyager. In the latter cases, science seems to have been one of the (many) responsibilities of the Ops officer. (There's also a story that Gene Roddenberry didn't like the way Brent Spiner looked as Data in Science blue. Putting Data in the gold uniform wound up creating the concept of the Operations department.) To try to reflect this, I've assigned the systems related to applied sciences to Ops, and the basic sciences that remained (including Medical) I assigned to the Science branch. That meant Ops got Astrometrics / Stellar Cartography. I think that makes sense, but moving it to Science (under Physics?) might be worthwhile if there's a good case to be made for it.

Yet another reasonable question might be why Ops and Engineering (and Tactical/Security) are divvied up the way they are. With a few exceptions (primarily Shuttle Ops and Cargo Ops), all these systems are maintained by Engineering but used by Ops or Tactical... so who "owns" them? Given the practical need to balance these departments so that no one wound up with too many responsibilities, I chose to organize their systems on the basis of whether an individual system was primarily related to information collection or operational processes -- either of those went to Ops, everything else went to Engineering. The exception was Communications, which somehow wound up being a duty of the Tactical officer. So obviously this distribution of the subsystems is somewhat arbitrary, but I think it's a pretty close approximation of what the Ops officers on the various TV shows did. It also seems to produce a reasonably balanced grouping of systems within each department, which is important for gameplay. Still, if someone wants to quibble, there's room to do so.

Something most Star Trek fans will have noticed is that although modern era (Star Trek: The Next Generation and "later") shows have Tactical/Security personnel in the same gold-colored uniforms as Engineering/Ops personnel, this is something that probably ought to be changed for an online game. (And change is not without precedent here -- after all, TNG+ changed Security from the "redshirts" they were in the original Star Trek series to the newer gold uniforms.) To minimize disruption to the modern uniform colors, and since red was already taken (by Command), purple seemed like an appropriate choice to once again distinguish Tactical and Security personnel from staff in other departments of Starfleet.

A final item worth pointing out is that not all starships will implement all the systems shown above. The bigger ships will have most of them, but smaller ships won't. For instance, an in-system tug might have multiple tractor beam emitters but no torpedo launchers or warp drive. And even most of the bigger starships won't require a "space boss" to manage fighter operations because only a few ships are carriers. (I'm assuming carriers can exist in ST:O even though they never got much use in any of the TV shows or movies... and why not, I wonder?) So the fact that some ship system is on this list doesn't mean it's installed on a particular ship. I'm just listing the possibilities.

OK, then -- taking into account all these exceptions and questions, how do these systems look to you? I didn't go into great detail -- for example, I didn't list "densitometer" as a type of passive short-range Sensor, or "dilithium articulation frame" as part of the Warp system -- because I was trying to list operational systems, not specific devices. With that distinction in mind, are there any systems I failed to list that ought to be included? Are there things I listed that shouldn't be there? And what about the organization of the systems I did list -- in your opinion, are they shown where they should be, or is there a more appropriate way to group them?


Assuming this list is reasonably close to the kinds of things that players would like to be able to do on a Trek starship, let's now move up a level and look at how these systems are organized in terms of shipboard personnel:

A diagram of the proposed organizational structure of key starship systems in a Star Trek MMORPG

The Command branch includes Command functions plus Helm and Navigation systems. Personnel assigned to Command and Helm departments wear red uniforms. Note that serving at the Helm of a starship is usually considered an important milestone in a career path eventually leading to command.

Engineering, Operations and Tactical departments share numerous systems -- Engineering maintains them, while Ops and Tactical use them. (This distinction will be made apparent again in the functional diagram of systems that follows this discussion.) That said, Engineering and Ops typically handle support systems, while Tactical/Security officers focus primarily on offensive and defensive systems.

Engineering/Ops systems thus include the crucial support systems of a starship: Power generation, Computer services, Sensors, Propulsion, and several other valuable subsystems which I've aggregated as Auxiliary systems. Personnel assigned to both Engineering and Ops wear gold uniforms to reflect their close working relationship.

Tactical (offensive/security) and Defensive systems are the purview of Tactical/Security officers, who wear the new purple uniforms to indicate their special responsibilities for preserving the ship and her crew from all threats, external and internal.

Under Sciences generally are Medical and the specific Science units of Life Sciences and Physics. Ships of any size will usually have a Medical department (and some ships, such as the future Hope-class ships as seen in ST:TNG "All Good Things", may have large Medical contingents). Personnel assigned to the Medical department have in the past worn Science blue (or a light-blue variant), but after the 2370s began wearing teal-colored uniforms. That usage is preserved here.

Ships designed for long-range exploration and of a sufficient size are likely to have Physics and Life Sciences departments. Physics and Life Sciences departments will report to the Science Officer if one is posted; otherwise they will be under the direction of the primary Operations officer. General Science officers wear blue uniforms.

Each of these branches is represented at Starfleet Headquarters by appropriate members of the admiralty, who are responsible for setting policy and making high-level personnel assignments for each branch under the direction of SFHQ leadership.

Star Trek fans will have observed once again that this organizational arrangement makes a significant alteration to Starfleet's TNG+ era branch organization. Instead of sharing a department (and the gold uniform) with Engineering and Ops, for the purposes of designing an online game based on Star Trek I would (as I mentioned previously) give Tactical/Security personnel their own department and put them in spiffy new purple uniforms. Not only would this better reflect the distinct life-or-death kind of decision-making performed by Tactical/Security officers, from a gameplay standpoint it would shift some of the systems from the overloaded gold-branch to a separate branch. This would reflect the unique responsibility of Tactical/Security officers for the defense of the ship and its personnel.

With these organizational assignments in mind, let's next consider the functional structure of a ship's key systems.


This next diagram offers one possible interpretation of how the different systems of a large starship could interact:

A diagram of the proposed functional structure of key starship systems in a Star Trek MMORPG

Obviously this diagram is a little busy, but that does serve to make the point of how deeply interconnected all of the many systems of a starship are with each other. There are a lot of things to do on a working starship!

The key resources that need to be communicated are control, power and information. Command receives information from the officers in charge of the ship's key systems and gives control commands to these officers. Power must be supplied to each of a ship's systems as requested (under the watchful eye of the Ops officer). And the computer not only provides control to certain systems (such as Power), its primary function is to provide information to any systems that ask for it through a control request. Finally, some systems (such as Sensors and Auxiliary, or Medical and Life Sciences) share information directly with each other.

This complexity is not arbitrary. The reason why starships are able to function so effectively in the hostile space between the stars is because their systems are so well integrated -- the systems that need to talk to each other are connected so that they can do so. And because there are so many connections, there is redundancy of control. If a system is damaged, it is often possible to route control or power or information around the problem. (We'll examine this in more detail in a moment.)

You'll also notice that I've grouped certain systems into "elements." For example, the Helm element contains the Helm system (comprised of Conn and Navigation) and the Propulsion system; the Tactical element includes Tactical and Defense systems; and so on. (For various reasons, the Command system is its own element.) This additional level of organization helps to show the interplay among high-level systems during the actual operation of a starship -- some connections are closer than others.

Another somewhat subtler aspect of the functionality diagram that bears comment is that while the Command element normally controls the other elements, in a pinch those elements can operate autonomously. In other words, with Helm being its own element, the duty helmsman has the capability to take action without control from the Command element if warranted by circumstances. And the same applies to Ops, Engineering, Tactical and Science -- in a pinch, each of these elements might be called on to save the day, and each is capable of doing so. There might be an inquiry afterwards, but the capability is there by design for those occasions when it's needed. So although there are obviously a lot of connections between systems, those systems are also grouped in ways that enable ship elements to function when cut off from other elements.

A last point on this diagram is in some ways the reverse of the previous point (but they're not mutually exclusive). Although elements are to some degree independent of each other, there are also many connections between elements. Not only does this support the concept of rerouting power and information, it also enables the related concept of allowing control of systems by alternate elements. For example, a severe ion storm might cut off some parts of a ship from other parts -- if the Helm system were destroyed and its duty officer lost, the Tactical officer might be called on to maneuver the ship to safety. Having multiple connections to systems would allow the Tactical officer to command the ship's computer to route power to the propulsion system, as shown in the functional diagram. It might not be efficient, but it might be just enough.


So, even after all these points, it's fair to ask: would starships in ST:O really need to be this complicated? I think so. In the first place, this level of complexity in a starship's form and function is a critical aspect of many Trek storylines. People and their relationships are always the most important thing, but the technology -- in particular, the operation of a starship -- helps to highlight those stories. If that's not a core component of ST:O, it just won't feel like Star Trek.

Dramatic effect comes into play here as well. Probably the two most common words regarding ship systems in all of the Trek shows are "reroute" and "divert." It seems like captains are always directing their Ops officer or Chief Engineer to reroute power around damaged systems or divert all available power to a key surviving system. It would be very strange, I think, if a game that allowed players to be responsible for various ship systems didn't include this capability, or the similar requirement that nearly all ship's systems require an active link to the ship's computer. (How many times have we heard exclamations like "The starboard power coupling's gone!" or "I've lost helm control!" when a critical system loses its access to power or the main computer?)

Implementing starships in ST:O according to the functional structure diagram above would support this dramatic redirection of ship resources. Players with the appropriate authority, like their fictional counterparts, could help save the ship and its mission by diverting power from life support to the shields at a critical moment, or by restoring helm control by rerouting it to a workstation in Engineering that still has computer access, and so on. These kinds of actions would be creative tasks that would allow ship's personnel to shine by devising novel solutions to tough problems... just like they do on Star Trek.

An important second reason for giving starships some serious depth is that many of those who'll be drawn to a game like ST:O will, I think, be the kind of people who find complex systems more interesting (read: more fun) than trivially simple objects. Certainly there's room for simple objects in any MMORPG. But ST:O, if it's really going to honor the Star Trek ethos of exploration, is exactly the right game to offer more exploratory depth for the people who appreciate that kind of play.


Which brings us -- finally! -- to "crafting."

Here's the summary: many of the tasks performed on a starship are routine. I call these "control tasks" to indicate that they're about normal control of ship systems. These are things like repair tasks or general maintenance. For the most part, this is one thing even I can agree is best not implemented in a game!

But some tasks can't be accomplished by routine actions. I call these "creative tasks" to highlight their dependence on creative thinking and novel solutions to unexpected and difficult problems. This is what ST:O's design should be focused on offering to players, because this is what makes characters in the Star Trek universe special.

Creative tasks break down into two kinds: new ways of using existing tools (where "tools" means hardware devices and software programs), and the development of new tools. In turn, the development of new tools comes in two flavors: writing short programs to alter an existing device's default behavior, and creating new devices.

Here's how this looks in outline form:

  • Control tasks
  • Creative tasks
    • New processes
    • New tools
      • New programs
      • New devices

The creation of new programs and devices is what I mean by "crafting" in the world of Star Trek. Using existing tools in new ways to solve a problem is definitely a creative task, and I hope ST:O is designed to reward that kind of gameplay. But it's also important for ST:O to reward the fabrication of new things, which is a little closer to the notion of crafting in current MMORPGs (and so may be more familiar to current online gamers).

To provide a better idea of these categorizations, here are some examples of each type of creative task from the various Star Trek TV shows and movies.

New uses of existing tools:

  • Spock recreates a transporter mishap to retrieve personnel from the mirror universe (ST:TOS, "Mirror, Mirror")
  • Scotty and Spock adapt the transporter system to accept power from the impulse drive (ST:TOS, "The Enemy Within")
  • "The Picard Maneuver," a very short warp jump to confuse sub-lightspeed sensors (ST:TNG, "The Battle")
  • Picard applies ship's thrusters to use an asteroid's gravity in a slingshot effect (ST:TNG, "Booby Trap")
  • The ship's phasers are used to perform a kind of Caesarian section on a space alien (ST:TNG, "Galaxy's Child")
  • Geordi "sours the milk" of an alien by changing the frequency of the ship's energy (ST:TNG, "Galaxy's Child")
  • Data uses a very sensitive phase discriminator to precisely control a subspace force field (ST:TNG, "Time's Arrow, Part 1")
  • Scotty survives 75 years in a transporter buffer by recycling his pattern (ST:TNG, "Relics")
  • Picard disables the safety protocols in the holodeck to use a submachinegun to kill two Borg (ST:First Contact)
  • Torres locks onto a person's bone marrow when a conventional transport lock fails (ST:VOY, "Scorpion, Part 1")
New programs:

  • Kirk as a cadet reprograms the "Kobayashi Maru" simulation to be able to win (ref. in ST:The Wrath Of Khan)
  • Data writes and adds a romantic relationships subroutine to his programming (ST:TNG, "In Theory")
  • Lefler has Wesley manually sequence subroutines to recalibrate a detector (ST:TNG, "The Game")
  • Wesley reprograms an antimatter regulator to spray chili sauce (ref. in ST:TNG, "The Game")
  • Wesley programs a site-to-site transport routine (ST:TNG, "The Game")
  • Ezri Dax and Kellin reprogram the Jem'Hadar "Houdini" mines (ST:DS9, "The Siege of AR-558")
  • Torres alters a missile's goals (ST:VOY, "Dreadnought")
  • The holographic Doctor creates numerous additions to his program (e.g., ST:VOY, "Darkling" & "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy")

New devices:

  • Kirk builds a crude cannon in his fight with the Gorn (ST:TOS, "Arena")
  • Spock constructs a mnemonic memory circuit using "stone knives and bearskins" (ST:TOS, "The City on the Edge of Forever")
  • Dr. Daystrom builds M5 to replace (unsuccessfully) an entire starship's crew (ST:TOS, "The Ultimate Computer")
  • Barclay invents a neural interface to the Enterprise main computer (ST:TNG, "The Nth Degree")
  • Data constructs an android daughter (ST:TNG, "The Offspring")
  • Bashir develops an in-utero vaccine to cure a Dominion-produced disease (ST:DS9, "The Quickening")
  • The Doctor develops Borg-inspired nanoprobes to treat Harry Kim's cell degradation (ST:VOY, "Scorpion, Part 2")
  • Kim (with Seven of Nine) constructs an Astrometrics lab (ST:VOY, "Year of Hell, Part 1")
  • Paris designs and builds the Delta Flyer (ST:VOY, "Extreme Risk")
  • Seven of Nine designs and builds a containment system to hold the Omega molecules (ST:VOY, "The Omega Directive")
The point to listing all these examples is to demonstrate that the creative use of technology to solve problems is a fundamental part of Star Trek. Exploration means encountering new situations that don't respond to old ways of doing things. Being able to adapt to the unexpected is thus a hallmark of the explorer.

What's important to see here is that this creative adaptability -- building new tools and using them in new ways -- is both interesting to do in its own right and exciting when told as a story. Solving a problem that only occurred because we made the deliberate choice to expand the horizons of our knowledge makes for a dramatic story. All the best Star Trek episodes and movies showed that creative problem-solving is fun and dramatic.

Because Star Trek Online will be interactive, it needs both of those things even more than the TV shows and movies. Implementing starships that are detailed enough to give players many tools for solving challenging problems can insure that ST:O players enjoy all the fun and drama of Star Trek, and then some.


Now let's look a little more closely at the twin crafting concepts of making new devices and writing new programs that change the functionality of devices.

New devices are a Trek staple. One of the side effects of having stories based on advanced technology is that if you need a "McGuffin" for a story, you can simply declare that it exists. Name it with some bit of plausible pseudo-scientific gibberish and you're good to go.

The result of this in Trek is that new devices (new to both the characters and to viewers/players) show up all the time. It's part of Star Trek; there's always some new gizmo that's useful or dangerous (or both) to contend with, or a need to make a new device to solve an urgent problem. So it's only natural that new devices play a meaningful role in a Star Trek MMORPG as well.

There are two ways to accomplish this. One is for ST:O developers to make like Star Trek writers and pre-invent all the new devices that players will ever encounter (perhaps through away missions). That would keep everything canon, but it could chew up a lot of development time. Even worse, no matter how many devices are written by the developers, players will discover virtually all of them in a few months. Once the pregenerated content has been burned through, then what?

The other approach is to let players create their own new devices. This would also require significant development time to do it right, but it has the advantage of being dynamic content that changes for every player and thus never gets stale. It would also do a much better job of letting ST:O players feel like characters in the Star Trek universe because it lets players do what they've seen Star Trek characters frequently doing.

The key to letting players make new devices is for the developers to create basic components, to build the standard set of supplied devices (including starships) out of these components, and to give players a way to take devices apart and put them back together again in new ways and with new components for modified or new functionality.

Suppose you've just finished trading with a representative of the Kylari homeworld, and one of the things you picked up is a subspace phase modulator assembly. Your existing phase modulator is pretty good, but it looks like your subspace scans might be a little more accurate if you could figure out how to integrate this new device into your sensor system. At this point in a TV episode, your ship would get a distress call from somewhere in subspace -- wouldn't it be cool if you could save the day by analyzing the inputs and outputs of the old and new devices and work out how to replace the old one with the new one so that you can find the vessel lost in a subspace inversion?

Or maybe you pick up an improved phase capacitor lattice on an away mission. If devices are built from components, you might be able to field-strip your phaser to use the new capacitor lattice for (say) improved collimation (i.e., more thermal damage but at a significantly higher power drain). By being able to break down devices into components and using different components of the appropriate type to rebuild devices, players could use their ingenuity to solve technological problems just like characters in Star Trek.

But of course all this needs to work within the context of a massively multiplayer game. To keep a device-making ability from getting out of hand so that Federation players don't rapidly wind up with hand-held plasma torpedo launchers, several kinds of constraints could be considered:

  • only characters with Engineering or Ops experience have the skills necessary to tinker
  • many components have specialized interfaces (reducing the number of other components they can be connected to)
  • Federation devices tend to take only Federation components (ditto for Klingon devices, Romulan, etc.)
  • standard-issue gear is required for away missions
  • new devices must go through a lengthy process to become standard issue gear
These rules could definitely be tweaked; I'm just listing some ideas to acknowledge that there'd need to be reasonable limits on creating new devices. Not so much that this important aspect of Star Trek loses its impact, but just enough so that Federation gear still feels like Federation gear after the game has been going for a few years.

The other concept needed to support crafting in ST:O is programming. At least as often as characters invent new devices -- and probably more so -- they also change how devices behave by modifying the programming that binds devices together into complex systems.

Sometimes you can get what you need by issuing a normal command to a device, such as "EPS manifold R-27, change your output route from EPS junction 34-A to 34-B" or "deflector emitter, apply a frequency modulation of 72.831 megacycles per second to the next tachyon pulse" and so on. That's the kind of thing I call "new processes."

But there are also times when changing a particular device's output isn't enough -- you need to change how an entire system behaves on an ongoing basis. That's when the programs controlling the standard behaviors of systems need to be altered, either with modifications or with completely new programs.

As the examples earlier showed, this kind of system-modification goes on all the time in Star Trek shows and movies. Being able to tweak how a system performs over time is a common task. It's not a "control task" because it's something out of the ordinary, but it's common as a plot feature in Star Trek fiction. It's also an interesting gameplay feature. Consequently, ST:O would benefit from including it as well.

As with devices, the most satisfactory way to let players program systems is for the developers to build systems of devices with default programming, and then allow players to change those system-control programs. In effect, ST:O would have its own standard computer language for controlling and connecting devices. Complex systems (such as warp drives and sensor arrays) would be built by Perpetual out of devices and programs that reside on the local computers that connect those devices. When a player finds that the default system isn't sufficient, he or she could rewrite its programming to improve it, making it more efficient or giving it new capabilities.


Naturally this feature needs to be carefully considered for how it would work in a massively multiplayer online game. One of the most common objections to letting players develop their own programs is that some players will choose to use this power to annoy other players. It's a fair objection, but I think there are also a couple of good responses that can be made to it.

First, a familiar part of shipboard Star Trek is the concept of the "authorization code" (or, in the case of command personnel, their command codes). Although we tend only to see these used in dramatic situations, it's been supposed that entering these codes is actually a standard action. When you start to use a terminal or workstation, the first thing you do is enter your auth code. This serves several purposes: one, it restricts your actions to only those which you are authorized to perform; two, it tags everything you do with your identity (and a timestamp); three, it can be used to lock hostiles out of sensitive systems; and four, it accesses all of the LCARS keypad configurations that you've predefined for performing specific activities. (More on that in a moment.)

The first three of these purposes serve the need for security. By restricting actions to users with appropriate privilege levels, and by logging permitted actions, the use of auth codes would limit griefing. (The third use of auth codes, to lock systems, might be griefed, however.) Still, players serving aboard a starship who use their power to compromise ship systems would likely be caught and shown to the nearest airlock. Even better, restricting systems to authorized (trusted) players only would make it harder for the typical griefer to do real damage. In any event, "programs" to operate ship systems are not at all the same thing as the macro and script commands used to automate player actions in some current MMORPGs -- you might be able to automate a ship, but characters couldn't turn themselves into AFK bots. (And even automating a starship is not without risk -- remember what happened when Dr. Daystrom plugged M5 into the Enterprise? Faulty programming of a starship's systems should have consequences.)

The second response to the "players will abuse the power to write programs" objection is to point out that, in many of the Trek shows, someone does abuse this power! Whether it's Spock faking library tapes (ST:TOS, "The Menagerie") or Ceska hiding a booby trap in Tuvok's mutiny simulation (ST:VOY, "Worst Case Scenario"), it seems like someone is always finding a way to circumvent the security features of starship computers. If ships in ST:O can be boarded by hostiles, or NPCs serving aboard player ships can ever turn out to be saboteurs, then allowing a certain amount of leeway in spoofing a ship's computer might actually prove to be a game feature that players would enjoy because it would let them live out the plot of a typical Star Trek episode.

Perhaps a more powerful objection to letting players write system-control programs is "people want to play a Star Trek game, not program virtual computers." That's absolutely true... for some people. Those who prefer more "physical" or social activities in the game world will no doubt be able to satisfy those interests, but I'm confident that there are other gamers (including people who like Star Trek) who would find equal enjoyment in the technological problem-solving in a Star Trek setting that ST:O could provide. For these gamers, the chance to save the day by reprogramming the transporter system to accept an unscannable material (for example) would be an incredibly satisfying experience.

Taken together, I believe that offering these forms of crafting -- the ability to create new devices and new programs to control a starship's systems -- is such an iconic part of Star Trek that it is crucial to ST:O's success. Allowing players to solve problems through the manipulation of advanced technology is a great way to help them feel like a part of the Star Trek universe.

Crafting as part of exploration is so fundamental to Star Trek that implementing it in ST:O will contribute significantly to getting the most value out of the Star Trek license.


There's one other point that's related to "crafting" creative solutions to difficult problems, but which isn't directly related to ship's systems. That being the case, I won't go into detail about it here, but it's worth mentioning. And that is the amazing variety of fields and particles and waves and energies that make up the Star Trek universe. (As someone has put it, "Star Trek is one of the greatest sources of technobabble ever." There's a reason why the neologism "treknobabble" was coined....)

From tachyons to polarons to chronotons to vertirons and beyond, Trek is overflowing with things that can be sensed and/or emitted. To truly allow ST:O to feel like Trek, players will need to be able to direct the various systems of their ships to detect these things and (when appropriate) to emit them in multiple modes. Space needs to be full of all these forms of matter and energy in order to give players materials for their ship's systems to operate on -- they are a prime source of challenges to be addressed in creative ways.

[I take up this subject in my customary insane level of detail in my later essay, Sensors and Star Trek Online.]


To close this subject of working with devices and programs and systems in a Star Trek game, a note about LCARS interfaces. While I expect some differences between how they work in film Trek and in a MMORPG (both for the sake of novelty and because a game will surely require some compromises to canon), I'd be shocked if shipboard interfaces didn't use some form of the LCARS visual interface. Unless ST:O is going to support full voice recognition, we might as well get some additional use out of all those Okudagrams!

So I assume that some version of the LCARS interface will be the means by which players operate ship systems. If so, the details of this interface are worth a few observations as they relate to performing control tasks and creative tasks.

Overall, I would suggest that some thought be given making certain functions part of a common user interface. In particular, I think every display panel should include at least the following components:

  • a login/logout control (see the "authorization code" discussion above)
  • a Config control to allow screen components to be reconfigured (and the new config to be canceled or saved)
  • a Function control that displays a list of saved configs for the current user
These aren't meant to constitute a complete list of common user components. I expect there'll be more; this is just a first crack at a definition -- feel free to suggest others! But these capabilities in particular would serve at least three useful purposes.

First, although every standard ship function should have a default LCARS layout, allowing players to create their own screen layout for any activity will allow them to perform their duties more efficiently. For example, Player A might want to configure a helm control layout in which impulse and warp controls are on the main screen and thruster controls are on a pop-up screen. But Player B might prefer to lay out her helm control screen so that all three modes are on the same page, with thruster controls on the left side because she's left-handed. And Player C might want to have several helm control layouts suited for different tactical situations. Allowing players to configure LCARS screens will go a long way toward personalizing the game for each player, increasing the sense of immersion in the Trek universe.

Another aspect of allowing players to configure screens is to support players with multiple shipboard responsibilities. Once they've configured layouts for each of their tasks, a player will be able to switch between functions by selecting the appropriate control. For example, an Ops officer could be monitoring sensor channels when a telltale lights up indicating that a shuttle launch is in progress. By pressing the Function control, then selecting the config for the Shuttle Ops function, the LCARS display for shuttle operations can be quickly displayed, allowing the Ops officer to inform the captain that yet another unscheduled shuttle launch has occurred. (Those seem to happen pretty regularly in the Star Trek universe, don't they?)

Lastly, allowing displays to be defined for individual users will let players bring up their preferred screens on whatever workstation they happen to be using. This will be especially helpful for those players whose duties take them all over the ship, as opposed to players whose functions have dedicated Bridge or Engineering stations.

In summary, this level of flexibility in control panel configurations would enable players to respond quickly to challenging situations with creative solutions. As the primary interface to modifying or using ship systems (in a game that probably won't include computer voice recognition), it's important to have a control system that players can tailor to their preferred styles of thinking and acting.


There's a final reason I'd like to mention for designing a Star Trek MMORPG so that players can manipulate the advanced technology aboard powerful starships: empowering characters generates interesting stories.

Technology in Star Trek has never been just about the gadgets -- it's always about when to use those gadgets and when not to. In other words, the high tech of Star Trek exists to raise questions (in dramatic form) about the right uses of power. This is the same premise that drives all good science fiction: when advanced technology lets you do nearly anything you like, under what conditions should you refrain from using your power? Should human limits still apply when machines can augment your senses and skills and even intelligence? (Star Trek's Borg ask this question in a startlingly direct way.)

Star Trek has always held that with power comes responsibility. When you have power over life and death, over time and space, and you choose to go exploring, your power over the people you encounter will generate ethical dilemmas. When is it right to use power, and when is restraint the right decision? This conflict drives many of Star Trek's best stories:

  • Kirk lets Edith Keeler die (ST:TOS, "The City on the Edge of Forever")
  • Is Data a person, who therefore has a right not to be disassembled by Starfleet? (ST:TNG, "The Measure of a Man")
  • Barclay ignores Picard's orders and brings the Enterprise to the Cytherians (ST:TNG, "The Nth Degree")
  • Picard changes history by sending his predecessor's ship back in time to its destruction (ST:TNG, "Yesterday's Enterprise")
  • Picard convinces a young culture that advanced technology does not make one a god (ST:TNG, "Who Watches the Watchers")
  • Q gives Picard the chance to be a different man by changing his personal history (ST:TNG, "Tapestry")
  • Jake Sisko changes the timeline to restore his father from a closed time-loop (ST:DS9, "The Visitor")
  • Sisko provokes the Romulans into declaring war on the Dominion (ST:DS9, "In the Pale Moonlight")
  • Bashir chooses to hide his genetic enhancements (ST:DS9, "Doctor Bashir, I Presume")
  • Janeway destroys Tuvix by restoring Tuvok and Neelix (ST:VOY, "Tuvix")
  • Chakotay and Harry defy Starfleet, changing the timeline to save Voyager (ST:VOY, "Timeless")
  • Admiral Janeway sends advanced technology back in time to Voyager (ST:VOY, "Endgame")
But not everyone chooses to use their technological and intellectual capabilities for selfless reasons. Some of the greatest villains in Star Trek have been those who chose to use their power without regard to the consequences to others:

  • Khan Noonien Singh lusts first for power, then for revenge (ST:TOS, "Space Seed" & ST:The Wrath of Khan)
  • The Terran Empire of the mirror universe rules by force (ST:TOS, "Mirror, Mirror" & several ST:DS9 episodes)
  • Although not precisely a "villain," many of the Q episodes explored omnipotence (ST:TNG, ST:DS9, ST:VOY)
  • Data's "brother," Lore, is willing to sacrifice anyone to achieve his ends (ST:TNG, "Datalore", "Brothers" and "Descent, Parts 1 & 2")
  • The ur-villains of Star Trek -- the Borg -- destroy other cultures by assimilating them into their own (ST:TNG & ST:VOY)
  • Dr. Soran destroys star systems to bring the Nexus to him (ST:Generations)
  • Gul Dukat comes to hate the Bajorans for rejecting his "compassionate" rule during the Occupation (ST:DS9, "Waltz")
  • The Female Shapeshifter leads the Dominion to conquer the "solids" of the Alpha Quadrant (ST:DS9)
  • Arronax of the Krenim rips entire civilizations out of time to restore his wife's life (ST:VOY, "Year of Hell, Parts 1 & 2")
  • Captain Ransom of the Equinox uses alien lifeforms for fuel (ST:VOY, "Equinox, Parts 1 and 2")
In particular, the Prime Directive has been the source of a vast amount of storytelling in Star Trek precisely because it places self-imposed limits on the use of power. stories testing the boundaries of the Prime Directive have been as valuable to Star Trek as stories testing the Three Laws of Robotics were to Isaac Asimov, and for the same reason: the intersection where hard-and-fast rules governing conduct meet the real world is where there's the most potential for conflict, and conflict makes for good storytelling.

How firmly do you hold to your principles that tell you to refrain from using power? What about when using that power could save you from destruction or relieve the suffering of innocents? When is it OK to bend your principles? How far can you bend them before they break? That's the conflict at the heart of great drama. It's been the source of many of the strongest stories in the Star Trek universe.

It can and should be the source of strong gameplay in Star Trek Online as well.


Which brings me at long last to my conclusion: implementing detailed and powerful starships for players to use in Star Trek Online is such an effective mechanism for bringing the spirit of the Star Trek license to life that it should be a key design feature, not dismissed as a "starship simulator."

Detailed and powerful player starships satisfy the two requirements for good storytelling in the Trek universe. The detail enables crafting that would offer Star Trek Online players what legendary game designer Sid Meier has called "interesting decisions." And the power ensures that those interesting decisions carry ethical weight. Without the detail or power, a core aspect of Star Trek is lost -- either it's not possible to generate creative technological solutions to problems, or those solutions are mere grinding without meaning. In either case, it won't feel like Star Trek, and it won't be a fun online computer game.

Yes, a Star Trek MMORPG must do more than just tell a good story -- it needs rules of play to make it a good game. Detailed starships and other devices enable good gameplay by offering a rich environment for crafting and tool-based problem solving. But why settle for merely good gameplay when it's possible to make a great game by ensuring that all of Star Trek Online's features are driven by the humanistic ideals of Star Trek?

A Star Trek MMORPG should be more than "just a game," just as Star Trek was more than "just a TV show." And it can be, if the player operation of detailed and powerful starships is a core design element.


To anyone who made it all the way here, my thanks. I appreciate your considering these ideas, and I hope you found something rewarding in the journey.