Friday, July 6, 2007

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Should Star Trek Online implement a defined system of cultural technology levels?

For example, consider the planet Arret III, on which we've just discovered a single pre-warp civilization numbering roughly six billion souls. They have computers capable of teraflop speeds but not isograted (or duotronic) circuits; they can do basic organ replacements but not full-scale human genetic engineering; they have chemical-powered rockets but not impulse or warp drives.

A tech level classification system would give us a way to say, "Ah, that's a tech level 8 civilization. The Prime Directive says we can't mess with them until they reach tech level 9 and are contacted officially by a Federation representative."

Does anyone else think there might be some value in having something like this classification system in Star Trek Online?

The concept of a system of planetary classification is an established bit of Star Trek lore. "M-class" planets, for example, have been mentioned many times.

So what about tech levels? This could turn into a useful bit of information to have if the Prime Directive is going to have any impact on gameplay.

We could go the easy route and simply classify cultures as either "pre-warp" or "starfaring." But it seems to me that this classification model would be too simple to offer some interesting gameplay opportunities.

What if figuring out a newly-discovered culture's technology level were part of a survey minigame? Exploration ships could warp into the outer reaches of an unexplored star system and start taking passive scans of the area, identifying each of the star's planets (if any) by type. Gradually you could work your way through each planet in the system, charting the details. If passive scans revealed no (apparent) signs of intelligent life, you could switch to active scans to catalog the mineral and organic resources found on each world.

And if intelligent life is found? Then it's time to analyze the passive sensor readings to classify the apparent technology level of the species you've encountered. That determination will then drive a lot of the subsequent gameplay -- if they seem to be pre-warp, do you switch to active scans and maybe even landing parties and hope to avoid a Prime Directive infraction? If they're post-warp, do you make first contact, or do you just collect data and let somebody with a Galaxy-class ship make the initial diplomatic overtures?

If there's anything like a Federation economy, how about using a planet's general tech level to determine (in part) the kinds of goods typically available there, or the kinds of goods that sell well there?

The point to all of this is to suggest that a considerable amount of enjoyable gameplay becomes possible once you accept the idea that something like a "technology level" is in the game. If you've got that, it implies a lot of other detailed information about planets and lifeforms, which in turn implies that players can discover and document that information.

Assuming for the moment that anyone's still with me :), there are a few additional questions.

1. If tech levels make sense for a ST game, should cultures/planets be classified with just one tech level? Or should a general tech level be calculated as an average of a culture's level of advancement in various specific technologies, such as transportation, communication, energy production, computers, military hardware, and so on?

2. How would we classify the tech level of a Balkanized planet with multiple civilizations at different tech levels? Pick the highest (especially if they're close to their first warp 1 flight)? Calculate an average?

3. Should civilizations at a particular tech level be able to increase their tech level during the course of Star Trek Online's lifespan? Wouldn't it be interesting if a pre-warp culture were to make their initial warp 1 flight and suddenly become a new candidate for admission to the Federation?

4. It's also worth pointing out that Star Trek uses the "pre-warp/warp-capable" distinction to decide whether a culture is ready for the shock of learning that they're not alone in the universe. That's a convenient shorthand for a TV show, but in reality, we wouldn't do it that way. Rather than using tech level as an indirect guide to a culture's openness to galactic life, we'd simply study that aspect directly. (Covertly, but directly.)


All this said, it's pretty obvious that I'm making a raftload of assumptions. I'm assuming that there'll be unexplored worlds in ST:O, that there'll be new species to discover and study and make contact with and that doing so will be a valid form of gameplay with actual content for those who enjoy this kind of thing. In short, I'm assuming that some of the gameplay of Star Trek Online will be about seeking out "new life and new civilizations."

Will everyone be interested in this? Of course not. Some gamers will prefer to be out fighting things, while others will want to spend their time roleplaying with other people. And it will be good for ST:O to offer those kinds of features.

That doesn't mean that it wouldn't be equally good to offer still other players gameplay that allows them to be explorers. I don't know for certain whether ST:O will or won't do so. So I'm posing this question as an optimist. I'm hoping that the kind of physical and cultural exploration I'm briefly outlining here will be a meaningful part of the gameplay.