Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

The way things are going in online game design these days, I have a feeling I know where the design of Star Trek Online seems to be headed in terms of "pure" MMORPG versus "pure" Star Trek experience. Naturally, I think I also have a pretty good idea of where I think the design of this game should be heading:

What I'd like noticed is that there's not really all that much of a gap between where I suspect Star Trek Online is being designed and where I think it ought to be designed. In other words, I don't think my position that ST:O needs more canon- and simulation-oriented content is an extreme one -- in fact, what I think this game needs is actually more of a balance than the MMORPG-heavy designs we've seen (from former developer Perpetual Entertainment).

The reality is that my preference is not for something so excessively Star Trek as to be a slideshow or a high-fidelity simulation of every trivial detail of life as a Starfleet officer, but a MMORPG that works equally well for gamers and Star Trek fans alike.

I understand that Star Trek Online is first and foremost a game. The question is, how much of ST:O will be pure MMORPG gameplay that could work in any game, and how much will be gameplay that uniquely exploits the themes and iconic elements of Star Trek?

I'm looking for a game that is consciously designed to offer a more balanced mix of gameplay features based on core Star Trek elements than what I currently perceive. That doesn't mean I think "Star Trek Online is doomed!" or any such thing. It just means that right now, based on currently available information and filtered through my personal preconceptions and beliefs about online games and the correct target audience for a Star Trek MMORPG, it appears to me that ST:O is likely to wind up being a bit too much conventional MMORPG and not enough Star Trek experience.

If some Official Star Trek Online Developer says tomorrow, "Oh, and we're now finalizing the design for our exploration engine, which will insure that there'll always be surprising and cool Star Trek science you can do with your starship if that's what you enjoy," then my perception will change for the better. I'll happily shift that "where I think ST:O is heading" pointer closer to the "where I think ST:O should be headed" setting.

On the other hand, if the next infodumps reveal (for example) that Starfleet branches are designed primarily as Tank, Nuker and Healer combat roles, or that the usual MMORPG aggro system will be implemented, or that most missions will be pre-scripted for combat only, or that most random encounters will reward players for shooting first and asking questions later, or that collecting loot from defeated enemies will contribute to player/ship power, or that "crafting" will consist of combining objects to make new objects useful only in combat... well. In these cases, I will without apology shift that "where ST:O seems to be headed" pointer leftward.

This brings me to an important point: In terms of communicating the lore of an IP, there is an enormous difference between gameplay and text/images/audio. Having the latter doesn't hurt, but revealing the unique aspects of a cherished franchise through gameplay is vastly more powerful. ("Narrative through environment and gameplay" is why both BioShock and Portal won so many awards in 2007. Why should online games be immune to what works?)

If the gameplay of Star Trek Online is primarily conventional MMORPG features, and the Star Trek aspects that get implemented are mostly text and graphics and ripped sound effects, then that is not a game that properly balances MMORPG and Star Trek. Eye candy and Majel Barrett's voice do not a good Star Trek MMORPG make.

In short, I don't want to just see and hear Star Trek things in a Star Trek MMORPG -- I want to do Star Trek things. In addition to the usual MMORPG stuff (i.e., repetitive hypercompetitive destruction), players of Star Trek Online need real exploratory and social content distributed through every feature and location of the game.

The more I hear about significant cooperative, constructive, non-combat gameplay activities reflective of the best Star Trek episodes that will be implemented in Star Trek Online to balance the necessary "kill it and take its stuff" MMORPG gameplay, the closer I will perceive this game to be to the vision of a good game -- a good Star Trek game. And I'll be happy to promote it as such to anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen.