Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Evolution of Starship Class Designs in Star Trek

If you stare long enough at images of all Star Trek ships (excluding those from the Star Trek: Enterprise era), and then do a completely ridiculous amount of research and interpolation and outright guessing, I think it's possible to discern three major periods of Starfleet ship design, each period with a visibly different design ethic. Not surprisingly, these three periods correspond pretty well with TOS, TNG, and DS9/VOY.

Generation 1

According to my spreadsheet, Generation 1, from about 2240 (TOS) to about 2293 (ST:VI), started with the iconic Constitution class and ran through approximately 2288 with the Sydney class. These ships distinctively featured a saucer, an optional secondary hull, and slender, proportional-length warp nacelles.

(It might even be possible to see a generation 1.5, starting from about 2268 with the Miranda and original Constitution refit look first seen in ST:TMP that featured the angular warp nacelles. But the basic saucer/secondary hull/nacelles-on-pylons look remained pretty consistent, so I wouldn't call these second-generation designs.)

Generation 2

Generation 2 began in about 2320 with the Ambassador class and the New Orleans (ca. 2346) and Galaxy (ca. 2353) classes that soon followed it. The Nebula and Niagara classes, along with the strikingly different Akira class with its downswept pylons (perhaps a technology transfer from a Klingon Bird-of-Prey?), concluded this evolutionary line in the early 2360s. G2 "ended" shortly thereafter with the first great burst of experimentation from 2364 to 2366 that produced the almost-elegant Freedom class and the baroque Challenger, Cheyenne and Springfield classes.

Despite some variation among them, these ships together form a stylistic bridge between the fairly simple and clunky looks of the G1 ships and the highly refined and angular looks of the third-generation ships. The separate sections of the G2 ships were beginning to be more integrated, in some cases appearing to be fused together, foreshadowing the highly integrated designs of G3. Also, most of these ship classes sported the fat, stubby warp nacelles seen on the Galaxy class which, while more slender in G3 designs, remained (with the exception of the Sovereign) equally shortened in G3. However, G2 designs still retain the original G1 themes of a generally rounded saucer section and warp nacelles on pylons, and thus don't quite fit into either the piecemeal G1 or highly-integrated G3 design aesthetics.

Generation 3

Generation 3, from 2370 to 2374, was the second great burst of experimentation with forms by Starfleet naval architects. Although these ship classes shared some features, it's possible to see that they branch off into two divergent design paths. The first definining element of G3 ships was complete integration among the hull elements, finally ending Starfleet's long love affair with the saucer separation feature. The first line of G3 experimentation was driven by this new design aesthetic, and may be seen to flow from the highly integrated Akira design into the Defiant class, which took this concept to its logical conclusion by becoming an all-in-one design. The later Steamrunner and (somewhat less clearly) Norway classes appear to be additional variations on this theme, retaining the tight (or, in the case of the Norway, very-short-pylon) coupling of nacelles to the main hull but cutting out hull areas between the nacelles, perhaps to reduce mass in an effort to improve maneuverability.

The other design element generally common to G3 ships is the replacement of the rounded saucer section with an angular saucer or even an acutely triangular wedge. The Intrepid, Nova, Sovereign, and Prometheus followed this second design path (with the Saber as an intermediate experiment), generally retaining the warp-nacelles-on-pylons theme but shifting to a "saucer" that was not only integral but angled and stretched along the long axis (as opposed to saucers stretched along the transverse axis as was characteristic of G2 designs). These ship classes thus enjoyed a remarkably sleek and rakish appearance. In fact, these are, IMO, the most attractive of all the designs that Starfleet has ever produced. (Note: The Elkins and Yeager types [and note that these are "types," not classes] with their obvious Intrepid-based primary hulls also appear in this generation, but it's probably just as well to accept the invented story in the DS9TM which implies that these ships were pieced together by non-Starfleet shipyards to respond to the Borg/Klingon/Cardassian/Dominion threats. And we will not speak of the evil that is the "Curry-type" abomination.)


There are probably other ways of imagining the design evolution of ships in the Star Trek universe that are equally or more valid than this one. (Especially considering that we're all trying to impose some kind of rationality on a 40-year sequence of stuff made up for TV shows and movies!) But I think there's some value in this three-generation model -- it's reasonably defensible based on ship appearance and rough chronology, and even if not perfect, it's at least a marginally plausible framework for thinking about the evolution of Starfleet design philosophy.

Which is fun. :)


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MMORPGs Without Roleplaying

I read some comments recently that today's gamers -- in particular, players of MMORPGs -- don't value roleplaying. They were reported as saying things like "it's creepy to think you are the toon" and "I'm playing the game, not the character".

I think these are accurate observations. The "RPG" part of MMORPG has atrophied and is about to fall off.

The current population of gamers simply isn't interested in the original D&D model of storytelling through action. Instead, they favor what I suppose we might as well call the WoW model of action-oriented materialism. The land of MMORPGs has been thoroughly colonized by the Achievers, and the rest of us are living in their world.

This has been a self-reinforcing process. Gamers who prefer rules-based acquisition over narrative-based storytelling come to roleplaying games; as they do, new games are released that cater more to these rules-focused gamers; the greater supply of rules-based games attracts more rules-focused gamers; and so on. I'm not implying that this is good or bad -- it's just how things appear to have gone.

As I've put it before, most of today's gamers (especially MMORPG players) see the avatar not as a character with a story, but as nothing more than a vehicle to be inhabited temporarily for accessing game content. "It's just a game." From this perspective, the avatar is merely a tool.

As a mere tool, the avatar could be anything -- a human person, a nightelf, a cyborg, a mech, a car, a cloud of particles from the Xlpnrx Galaxy -- whatever. The form of the tool is vastly less important than its functionality to the type of gamer whose enjoyment comes from collecting the most stuff by being the best at following the rules of the game.

The way I see it, the gamers whose enjoyment comes from experiencing a compelling story have always been in the minority. The first major multi-player roleplaying game -- D&D -- just happened to cater to the Narrativist interest of these folks. Within the world of roleplaying games at that time, these gamers looked like a majority merely because few others were playing this kind of game. But as more games followed D&D, and especially as roleplaying games moved onto the computer where there was no human DM to place the game's action in the context of an emotionally compelling story, games about "stuff" overtook and eventually overwhelmed games about story.

To anyone who naturally enjoys gameplay that's about following rules to collect stuff, this probably seems like a obviously sensible progression, and not like any kind of "problem" at all. Developers are just giving gamers what they say they want.

To us old-school types, however, we're left scrounging for leftovers in the wastebin like a bunch of crazy old bums. For each of the rare games published these days that offers more than lip service to storytelling and interesting characters and roleplaying -- BioWare being about the only developer consistently making such games as KOTOR and Mass Effect -- there are probably 10 or 20 "kill it and take its stuff" games.

And the ratio is even higher in the MMORPG world. Is there even one triple-A MMORPG that caters primarily to roleplayers? Really?


That's a pretty grim picture for those who enjoy action but prefer that it flow from and support a meaningful narrative about people. But I'm not convinced that we're doomed and might as well just stop playing games entirely.

For one thing, BioWare's acknowledged success could spawn some imitators. (If so, I hope they won't repeat BioWare's mistake of initially releasing roleplaying games like Mass Effect solely for consoles, but that's another essay.)

For another thing, we don't know that there's not some new technology on the horizon that could create a new playing field for story-driven gamers in a way similar to D&D. What if someone came up with a dramatically (and I use that word deliberately) improved model of NPC AI where the NPCs felt much more emotionally plausible? What if someone dreamed up a new roleplaying system that made it incredibly easy to build emotionally engaging content?

Such innovations could produce a new golden age of true roleplaying games. Narrativist and Simulationist gamers (who are still around, IMO, because those are innate motivations, not learned preferences) would be the first to explore these new game spaces. Later, of course, they'll be overrun (again) by the larger population of Gamist folks and Gamist games once they realize that this "new world" exists.

But until then, it'll be nice to be able to play interesting characters in immersive worlds again.

I'm such an optimist. :-)

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?