Thursday, September 11, 2008

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

With development on Star Trek Online progressing over at Cryptic, I'd like to take another look at the notion of "technology levels" as a gameplay feature.

As we fly through the galaxy in our mighty starships, we're likely to encounter civilizations at differing stages of technological development. Some will be less advanced than our faction (Federation and Klingon to start), while some are likely to be more advanced.

Should being able to classify the technology levels of the different civilizations we know and discover be part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online?

Classification systems are not foreign to Star Trek. For example, there's the well-known (in the Trekiverse) system for planetary classification that describes the habitability of planets, in which planets like Earth are described as "Minshara-class" or just "M-class." So why not offer something similar for classifying the level of technological sophistication of the inhabitants of a planet?

Let's say the answer is a tentative "maybe" and consider some possible ways to classify the level of technology of both known and alien civilizations in the Star Trek universe.


The first and most obvious classification (from the Federation point of view, anyway) is whether or not a civilization has made its first faster-than-light journey. In fact, distinguishing between pre-warp and warp-capable civilizations is considered so important to Starfleet that it forms the basis of their Prime Directive. So if the Prime Directive is part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online, then being able to classify a civilization according to the following scheme:

0. Pre-warp
1. Warp-capable
is a minimum requirement.

We could, however, be a bit more creative than that. If exploration is to be a meaningful part of this game, then it's not unreasonable that players ought to be able to study new civilizations in order to properly classify them. Doing so might even provide in-game rewards. (I'd be careful not to take that too far. however. Not every gamer is an Achiever, and not every gamer wants the kinds of accumulable in-game rewards that are valued by Achievers.)

For that to work as interesting gameplay, a more detailed classification system is probably in order. Players would need to spend some time (and perhaps, through their characters, use some kind of Survey skill) to determine the most likely technology level classification code for a newly-encountered civilization.


The usual way of doing this is to identify key technologies whose widespread adoption within a civilization signals a critical point in that civilization's progress. (Note: Some people dispute whether the development of increasingly advanced technology should always be considered "progress." That's not an unfair concern, but it's outside the scope of this thread which is intended to be a relatively simple look at possible gameplay in an MMORPG. I'm not against exploring the notion of other ways of defining "progress," but I'd prefer to wait on that until we've considered the simple version of this question first.)

So here's a starter suggestion for a short list of technological advances that could serve to define the level of development of civilizations in Star Trek Online:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. simple hand tools
2. machine tools
3. nuclear power
4. networked computers
5. warp drive
6. matter/energy conversion
7. subspace power
8. intergalactic travel
9. non-corporeal sentience
For purposes of MMORPG gameplay, we might even want to consider a more detailed classification system:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. fire/wheel
2. roads
3. printing press
4. combustion engine
5. nuclear power
6. networked computers
7. fusion power
8. warp drive
9. antimatter power
A. matter/energy conversion
B. sentient programs (incl. androids)
C. subspace power
D. Dyson spheres
E. intergalactic travel
F. non-corporeal sentience
Some notes on these suggested technologies: first, they're all applied technologies; they don't include theoretical/intellectual advances such as mathematics, Newton's laws of gravity, or the general theory of relativity. Those things absolutely are important, but they're harder to see when you're assessing some alien civilization than a practically applied technology like a hammer or a nuclear power plant. (The same holds for other kinds of civilizational advancement, but I'll get to that in the "Non-Technological Scales" section below.)

Also, while I've tried to stay true to what's been seen in Star Trek, there seems to be a gap between the technology of A.D. 2400 and the tech level needed to build something as monumental as a Dyson sphere. So I've tried to suggest a couple of "new" technologies that seem to fit into the Star Trek universe, such as "subspace power" and "intergalactic travel." Also, there seem to be a lot of lifeforms based on energy in the Star Trek universe, some of which definitely evolved from "lower" life forms... so that seems like a natural end-point for technological progress.

Once the members of your civilization can turn at will into amorphous blobs of glowiness that can go anywhere and become anything, you're pretty much done with conventional measures of technological progress....


Another way of classifying the technology level of a society was proposed by the Russian cosmologist Nikolai Kardashev.

This Kardashev scale, while probably not based directly on the ideas of anthropologist Leslie White, does expand on White's notion that a culture's technological capability is directly proportional to the amount of energy it consumes.

Kardashev proposed three tiers of civilizations -- Types I, II, and III -- each of which uses about 1010 (ten to the tenth power) more power than the previous tier. Others who followed Kardashev added Type 0 and Type IV classifications, leading to a system as follows:

Type 0 can harness only some of the power available on a planet (about a megawatt)
Type I can harness all the power available on a planet (about 1016 watts)
Type II can harness all the power available from a star (about 1026 W)
Type III can harness all the power available from a galaxy (about 1036 W)
Type IV can harness all the power available throughout a universe (roughly 1046 W)
To give you an idea of how this energy-technology scale might be applied, Carl Sagan once calculated that the most advanced portions of humanity (as of about 1980) were about seven-tenths of the way toward becoming a Type I civilization.

Warp capability probably occurs about a third of the way past attaining Type I status. So the major races of the Star Trek universe might be said to be just a couple of clicks before entering the Type II tech level.

Type III civilizations, Type IV, and beyond are essentially beyond our speculative comprehension. It's impossible to know with any certainty what a human could do -- or become -- with so much power.

Join the Q continuum, maybe...?


Finally, it needs to be acknowledged that technology is not the only -- or best -- measure of the degree of "advancement" of a civilization.

The late Georgetown University historian Carroll Quigley, in his excellent book The Evolution of Civilizations (about which I've written more here in a Star Trek Online context), discussed how different civilizations might be distinguished from one another. Quigley, while noting that any division of characteristic high-level qualities is arbitrary and imperfect, suggested six key qualities against which the development of civilizations could be measured: Intellectual, Religious, Social, Economic, Political, and Military.

For various reasons, I actually prefer to extend this classification system to span eight characteristic qualities, ranging from the most abstract to the most concrete:

Intellectual: The need for comprehension
Technological: The need for control of the physical world
Ethical: The need for control of human motives
Religious: The need for psychological security
Social: The need for community
Economic: The need for material security
Political: The need to organize power relationships
Military: The need for group security
Just as I broke down the Technology quality into numerous key artifacts, we could do the same with each of the seven other qualities listed above. For the Economic quality, for example, we might identify concepts and organizational inventions like currency, capitalism, fractional-reserve banking and the public corporation as key markers of progress within that quality.

Through gameplay in which our characters can observe these qualities in each new civilization we discover, we could build up a reasonably effective picture of how every civilization stacks up against our own factional civilization. It wouldn't tell us everything directly -- for example, are the people in this alien civilization I just encountered typically friendly to strangers, or are they as xenophobic as the Malcorians in the TNG episode "First Contact"? So there could be other factors worth noting about new civilizations than these eight qualities.

That said, using this multi-frequency kind of cultural assessment model in a Star Trek MMORPG, whether it's the eight qualities suggested above or not, is preferable to a purely technological metric. It's not only a more adequate measure of "progress," in a way it's better for Star Trek Online because it creates more opportunities for gameplay for those who enjoy exploration. Clandestine observation of new cultures to assess their qualities played a role in numerous Star Trek TV episodes and at least one movie. So having several different kinds of qualities that can be monitored and recorded by an exploration-oriented character in a Survey role could turn out to be a lot of fun. (It could also be useful in generating appropriate qualities for bridge NPCs adopted from newly-discovered worlds.)


A system like this obviously has some edge cases and things that might change over the course of gameplay. That raises several questions:

1. Should civilizations 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? What about as an average of a civilization's progress across several different kinds of scales (as noted above), including technological, social, economic and other bands?

2. How should the tech level be determined for a Balkanized planet on which exist multiple civilizations at different tech levels? Should the tech level of the civilization with the highest tech level be used (especially if they're close to their first warp 1 flight)? Or should an average tech level be calculated? Or is there some other approach to defining a specific tech level that would be more fun?

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 a First Contact mission, or even -- after suitable diplomacy -- for admission to the Federation or a competing faction?

4. Cryptic has said that in their version of Star Trek Online we may be able to "adopt" as characters in our NPC bridge crew some members of cultures on new worlds we discover. Should those characters come only from worlds that are warp-capable?


I know that some are going to think this is overkill, that defining every faction/civilization in terms of specific levels within eight different qualities will take way too much development time for not enough benefit.

In particular I know it'll seem strangely excessive to the more combat-oriented players. But I think it's safe to guess that Star Trek Online will be designed to offer plenty of the kill-it-and-take-its-stuff content that the Acheivers among us typically enjoy. The kind of richly-detailed world features I'm talking about here are for the Explorers, who -- in this particular game, with its particular license -- require an equivalent amount of content that's as enjoyable to them as competition/acquisition is to the Achievers.

So my goal here is to describe some different ways of implementing one core gamplay idea: allow player characters to assess the level of advancement of newly-discovered alien civilizations. We've been told that exploration will be an important part of the game that Cryptic is making -- well, designing the many civilizations in this game to have unique cultural qualities is one way of helping to create plenty of solid, enjoyable exploration content to enjoy.

I'm looking forward (though not without some reservations born of experience) to seeing just how deep Cryptic's verbal commitment to "exploration" as an important part of Star Trek Online actually goes. Tech levels won't necessarily be a part of that design, but it might help if they were.

No comments:

Post a Comment