Friday, August 1, 2008

Star Trek Online: A Simulationist Manifesto

One of the complaints that always seems to be leveled against Star Trek fans asking for Star Trek Online to be faithful to their concept of the license is that they supposedly are demanding a "Star Trek simulator." This is usually followed by the diversionary claim that what the Star Trek fans really want from STO is a glorified chat room in which what little gameplay there is will be about scrubbing plasma conduits and watching the dials on the matter/antimatter reaction assembly.

We're never going to get past this silly level of chatter until we have a shared understanding of what we mean by "simulation."

To start with, "simulation" means a heck of a lot more than just "complicated starship controls."

What we're really talking about when we ask for simulationist features in Star Trek Online is for unique aspects of the world of Star Trek to be implemented as features of the gameworld. Not the trivial stuff -- virtually no one has ever seriously insisted that Jeffries tubes simply must be implemented or they won't play -- but the operational features, the things that characters in the world of Star Trek can do that help tell interesting stories.

Certainly that includes wanting starships to be implemented as large, mobile, multi-person, multi-system tools. Starships are a major story-telling tool in Star Trek; it would be a mistake not to implement them as high-functionality systems. (It's a big hint to Cryptic that detailed starship controls are the first thing everybody seems to think of when the subject of "simulating Star Trek" comes up.)

But simulating Star Trek goes far beyond just starships. And it doesn't only benefit the simulationist gamers and hardcore Star Trek fans.


For one thing, Star Trek is also about cultures and organizations. The point of having starships is to be able to go to new places and meet interesting people (and survive the trip!). What's the current state of relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire? Heck, what's the current state of the Klingon Empire? Is Martok still running the show? What challenges is he facing, both internally and externally? Military? Political? Technological? Economic? Social? All of the above?

And what about the Romulans? Who are they allied with currently, and why? (And for what benefit, and how long will the alliance last?)

What about the smaller political entities? Are they moving toward joining up with the Federation, or are they looking elsewhere for support? Why? What does the strategic map of near-Federation space look like? Where are the key resources, and who holds them, and what do they want?

Nor should we forget the Federation itself. What's the prevailing attitude among Fed citizens -- war-weariness and a growing distrust of contact with new worlds, or great eagerness and energy for expansion? And what is Starfleet's position on this? Who's running the Admiralty these days, and what's their agenda? Will characters in Starfleet in STO be able to earn the Starfleet ranks we saw characters gain in the TV shows and movies?

Simulating this level of social-factional reality pays off big in a character-driven gameworld. It's not just making stuff up because somebody thinks that making stuff up is fun, or to have some cheesy "story" text available to dump on people when they take missions. Simulating large-scale NPC factions -- in both their motivations and their actions -- is valuable because that provides a vast source of material to support both storytelling and action within the Star Trek context.


"Simulation" is also about mimicking some aspects of physical reality as portrayed in Star Trek. It's about having planets that act like planets, with varying gravity, rotation periods, temperatures, atmospheres, seasons, and weather; it's about plants and lifeforms whose forms and behaviors are appropriate for their environment; it's about planetoid fields going 'round and stars going nova; it's about having millions of worlds to visit so that there's always something unexpected to be found in the game even if some players try to learn and publicize every secret on Day One.

Simulating physical phenomena also extends to both the macro and micro levels. Space in the world of Star Trek seems to be littered with objects and fields and particles and even lifeforms; you can't back up your mighty starship without bumping into something that wants to eat you, mate with you, or turn subspace inside-out.

Spending the time to simulate this part of Star Trek is valuable, too. It's necessary to be able to tell many of the stories that Star Trek is noted for. But having lots of different kinds of materials and energies (most of which should have gameplay effects) will also provide a lot more interesting things to do, both in space and on away missions. What if you can mask your ship's energy signature by hiding in the photosphere of a star? What if you can blind your opponent's sensors by ducking into a Mutara-type nebula? What if you can lure a pursuer into a cloud of metreon particles and set it alight? What if the kelbonite in those rock formations on Planet X prevents your tricorders from detecting an escaped spy?

Again, Simulationists don't favor implementing world-y features like these merely because they think that slavishly recreating such stuff from a TV show is "cool." It's for the practical purpose of bringing the literary world (in this case, Star Trek) to life; it's for generating surprises to explore; it's for providing rich environments for brilliant tactical action.


This is the "running a starship" thing that people think about, but it's also about "what tools are there," and "how does stuff work?"

Starships in Star Trek, even down to the runabouts, are fairly complex systems. Operating such devices requires some knowledge of navigation, piloting (helm control), sensors, power systems, warp drive, impulse drive, deflectors, and emergency systems like transporters and space suits. Starfleet vessels also require knowledge of offensive tactical systems such as direct-fire beams (phasers) and torpedoes. There are also science and medical facilities that can be used to gather knowledge and interact with objects.

And then there are all the other bits of high-tech gadgetry that Star Trek is known for. How many ways can a hand phaser be used? Is there anything you can't do with a tricorder? What happens to a transporter system if you don't keep the Heisenberg compensator in alignment?

Star Trek is about characters exploring their world, and an important aspect of that is science. It's why Shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison and physicist Stephen Hawking have appeared in episodes of Star Trek -- they understand that the joy of scientific exploration is a big part of what has given Star Trek its long appeal. So where does doing science fit into Star Trek Online if none of the requirements for it are simulated, if there is no technology for doing science, if there's no vast array of physical phenomena to study with tricorders and ship's sensors?

The world of Star Trek is filled with technogizmos like these, even to the point having its own word: "treknology." Implementing these technological devices and processes in Star Trek Online isn't something to do for its own sake, but because it both makes the gameworld feel right to those who enjoy the show, and it provides unique (license-based) opportunities for action-oriented fun to those who care more about pure MMORPG gameplay.


My point is that "simulation" does not mean arbitrarily making starships complicated. It's about taking many of the familiar parts of a highly detailed literary franchise and implementing them as elements of a multiplayer game. Doing this serves roleplayers and explorers and combat-oriented gamers alike by insuring that there's a huge source of license-specific features for generating and influencing gameplay.

When simulating the best bits of Star Trek means not only that the gameworld feels more real to fans but also that there are more fun things to do, why should we not hope for lots of simulation from Cryptic's version of Star Trek Online?

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