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. :)

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