Friday, March 20, 2009

Engineering Crafting Modes in a Star Trek MMORPG


What might Engineering-specific crafting look like as actual gameplay in Star Trek Online?

To put it another way, if he encountered a technological problem, what would Scotty do? In a game set in the Star Trek universe, what might those gamers who want to play an Engineer character like Scotty want to be able to do as gameplay?

To get a handle on that, we need to define what we mean by "Engineering" in a Star Trek MMORPG. As a rough definition, I'd say that means wanting to be able to change the functionality of technological systems in ways that are fun as pure gameplay, and to experience mission and story content from that technology-manipulating perspective as set in the distinctive Star Trek universe.

On that basis, I suggest that Engineering in Star Trek Online should be focused on the repair, maintenance, and enhancement of technological devices. In essence, STO Engineering would be three games in one. (There'd also be a special fourth game for Engineers... but I'll get to that in a bit. Keep reading!)

So which of these is truly "crafting?" Enhancement is an obvious possibility... but what if all three activities, while distinctively different in their results, were so similar in presentation that we might talk about "repair crafting," "maintenance crafting," and "enhancement crafting" of devices?

First we need to consider the question: what is a device?


Devices would have several design features suitable for Engineering-oriented gameplay activities:

1. Every device would be an example of a device type, where each device type has a distinctly different predefined primary effect.

2. Device types would be part of a hierarchy of objects. For example, a Starfleet-issue Type 2 hand phaser would be a type of device at the end of the hierarchy: Personal Devices -> Tools -> Personal Weapons -> Pistols -> Energy Pistols -> Hand Phaser, Type 2.

3. Every device would be "complex," not in the sense of being hard to understand, but rather in that it's composed of multiple elemental components.

4. The types of elemental components used would determine the precise nature of the device's primary effect. Changing one kind of component for another component of the same kind but a different type -- with a different effect -- would be "enhancement crafting."

5. The quality of individual components would determine the basic effectiveness of that device. Repairing a damaged component or replacing a destroyed component with a similar component would be "repair crafting."

6. The connections between components would determine the extra effectiveness of that device. Rearranging and reweighting connections between components would be "maintenance crafting."

7. Elemental components would also belong to a specific hierarchy, allowing them to be grouped into families of components with similar purposes and form factors, but moderately different effects. For example, the hierarchy: Components -> Energy Sources -> Power Cells -> Power Cell, Small -> Small Plasma Power Cell would mean that any Small Plasma Power Cell could be plugged into a device whose schematic requires a "Power Cell, Small", but a Small Fusion Power Cell (as another child of the "Power Cell, Small" family of components) would also work, albeit with some moderate change in the device's behavior.


To see how those gameplay modes might work in Star Trek Online, let's take a look at an example of a device which an Engineering-oriented character might want to repair, enhance, and maintain: a Starfleet-issue Type 2 hand phaser.

If we wanted to make these things really fun to play with, we'd let them have an interesting number of elemental components:

  • barrel
  • receiver
  • grip
  • trigger
  • power cell
  • prefire chamber
  • phase emitter crystal
  • output controls
  • phasing regulator (programmable)
Standard versions of each of these components would be available from replicators (at whatever cost is normal for each type of component), while advanced and exotic versions could potentially be crafted or obtained as gifts or through trade (or, perhaps, as loot from destroyed foes). "Engineering crafting" (of any variety) would consist of breaking down the Type 2 hand phaser into its components.

I imagine this being done through a rag-doll interface much like that used in many games for equipping characters. The main window would display the slots corresponding to all possible components for that device, and each slot would be filled with whatever component is currently being used in that device. Another window would display an image of the completed device (which could be affected by the nature of the components used), while yet another window would show the various text and numeric information that describes that device and its effective characteristics.


Repair Crafting

For repair crafting, an Engineer would first need to disassemble the dysfunctional device in order to expose the faulty component(s). Let's say the prefire chamber of a Type 2 hand phaser has become corroded. The Engineer might want to try to repair the damaged component. If successful, the phaser could be restored to fully operational functionality. If the component is too badly damaged to be repaired, a replacement would need to be obtained.

On an operational starship or starbase, a new component could simply be replicated. But if such an advanced source of stock components isn't available, the Engineer might be reduced to trying to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins. :) In that case, the Engineer would have the option of playing the enhancement crafting minigame.

Enhancement Crafting

For enhancement crafting, an Engineer would deliberately replace existing components with different components, or add components to empty slots. Rather than trying to restore a device to standard functionality, enhancement crafting would be more exploratory -- the Engineer would be experimenting to see what happens when unexpected components are used, or attempting to compensate for necessary but unavailable components with improvised versions.

Using different components than the "stock" components, an Engineer could significantly alter the primary effect of a device. The device would retain its basic function -- a weapon would still be a weapon; a sensor would still be a sensor; and so on -- but the specific form of that effect could be changed greatly.

For example, by replacing the stock Small Plasma Power Cell in a standard Type 2 hand phaser with a Small Fusion Power Cell, a directed-fire effect similar to (though differing from) that of a Klingon disruptor pistol could be produced. Perhaps such a weapon, if it were also modified to replace the stock phase emitter crystal with an exceptionally rare modified crystal from Varos IX (and had some unusual maintenance changes made as well), could become a rare and terrible Varon-T disruptor.

Maintenance Crafting

Finally, rather than restoring standard functionality or producing new functionality, an Engineer might want to try to optimize or maximize the existing functionality of a device -- this is where maintenance crafting would be useful. In this mode, an Engineer would manipulate the connections between the components of a device. This would simulate adjusting the fittings and tweaking the notional "glue" that holds together a device's various components.

I imagine this looking something like lines drawn between some -- but not all -- of the components existing in the Component Window of the Engineering Crafting screen for a given device, with each line drawn in green, yellow, or red to indicate the strength of that connection. The player of an Engineering character would be able to change which components are connected by moving the lines between components. And the strength of connections could also be modified.

In either case, the gameplay in this mode would come from two design features: first, the specific connections between the specific components in a device would be filtered through a complex calculation to produce an efficiency rating for that device. And second, moving a line (i.e., taking away a connection between two components to make a different connection) would, through a related calculation, adjust the weightings of all other existing connections.

The combination of these two rules would create an interesting minigame of efficiency maximization for devices as players attempt to find the optimal combination of connections and connection strengths for a device. (This would be similar to the kinds of efforts Geordie made in TNG: "Force of Nature" as he competed with an old classmate to see who could achieve the highest warp power conversion level.)

Note 1: In most technologically advanced (Information Age and later) devices, at least one component should always be a programmable component (such as the "phasing regulator" I proposed for the Type 2 hand phaser above). Including a programmable component would allow Science-oriented characters (or Engineers with the appropriate Science skills) to create and modify subroutines that condition the inputs or alter the outputs of devices in useful ways. If playing with components is "Scotty crafting," modifying a device's subroutines might be considered "Spock crafting." Perhaps I'll write another essay soon on that subject.... :)

Note 2: The suggestions I've made for an Engineering crafting interface might need to be tweaked somewhat to allow users of console controllers to easily perform the kinds of component manipulations I've described.


Some players are uncomfortable with gameplay that relies heavily on player skills. There are gamers who enjoy being able to play any part of the game to a high level of effectiveness as long as the attributes and skills of their character allow that level of effectiveness, even if they themselves don't personally possess the requisite attributes and/or skills. So it's useful to think about how character skills might play a role in each of the three Engineering Crafting modes I've suggested above.

An obvious skill for a repair crafting mode is a Repair skill. Perhaps a higher level of skill in Repair might allow an Engineer a better chance of restoring a damaged component to its stock state. As another possibility, we might imagine a Logistics skill that allows a character to improve their odds of successfully using their faction's requisitioning system to obtain needed replacement components. (A character with a high Logistics skill level could be fantastically useful as a "scrounger.")

Enhancement crafting might benefit from a character skill such as Improvisation, which would allow the use of more kinds of components in a component slot. Even simpler might be to disable some components slots for a device for any character without an Improvisation skill -- earning subsequent levels in this skill could switch on additional component slots in a device, allowing the player of an Engineering character with this skill to produce a much wider range of novel device functions than a character who chooses not to acquire levels in that skill.

As for maintenance crafting, this mode has a more apparent opportunity for character skills: increasing levels in a Maintenance skill (perhaps under some other more interesting name) would allow a character to add more connections between the components of a device, and/or could reduce the amount to which changing a connection reduces the strength of other connections. In other words, there could be a character skill that allows any player to become very good at tuning any device to its highest possible level of functionality.


What, you didn't think I'd forgotten about that, did you? ;)

In addition to individual devices (both portable and ship-mounted) that an Engineer might enjoy repairing, enhancing, and maintaining, there's one device in particular that is special: a starship.

In a similar way to how devices are made up of elemental components (and their functionality determined in large part by the nature of those components and their interconnections), a starship could be thought of as being a collection of interconnected complex devices. So: what if Engineers could play the same sorts of repair, enhancement, and maintenance games with the devices that make up a starship as they could with the individual devices themselves?

What if starships could be treated by Engineers as big devices, and the subsystems that comprise a starship -- hull, engines, sensors, computer, weapons, etc. -- could be manipulated as the "components" of that starship-device? How would the repair, enhancement, and maintenance modes work in this special Engineering gameplay environment?

Well, it's worth noting that the "enhancement" game with respect to starships has already been confirmed by Cryptic: it's the "ship customization" game! From what's been said, it seems that players will be able to trade out existing ship systems for new ones. If so, I think it's not unreasonable to believe that we might be able not only to improve existing capabilities in this way, by trading out different systems for new kinds of systems we could be able to give our ships new capabilities. Doesn't that sound like the enhancement crafting I described above for individual devices?

I think it's also pretty likely -- although to my knowledge no details have been mentioned on this subject yet -- that Engineering-oriented characters will be able to perform damage control (i.e., repair) on ship systems. If so, would that use the same ship systems interface as the "ship customization" feature?

And if that's the case, then would something like the "maintenance crafting" concept I described above (which similarly reuses one crafting interface for devices) make some sense as gameplay for maximizing the effectiveness of starships themselves?


Obviously this proposed gameplay feature has a number of detailed requirements. It could be a lot of work. Is it worth the effort? If something had to be cut in order to get any part of this idea, what's negotiable?

If the constraints of time until Launch Day prevent implementing all three of these modes of Engineering-oriented gameplay, I would suggest that the most important to implement is repair crafting, followed by enhancement crafting, followed in turn by maintenance crafting.

This doesn't mean I think maintenance crafting wouldn't be fun for many players naturally drawn to Engineering gameplay. I believe there are gamers who enjoy optimization minigames, which is essentially what a maintenance crafting mode is all about. This mode just isn't quite as valuable in a massively multiplayer game based on a technologically advanced IP as a gameplay activity based on repairing devices. Repair is both a very visible activity of engineers in Star Trek and a highly useful ability in a game that's obviously going to offer lots of combat gameplay, so if anything would make the cut, I'd think it would be a repair capability.

Another element I didn't cover in this proposal is how Engineers as commanders of their own vessels would use their skills when in space grouped with other ships. Repairing, enhancing and maintaining devices is relatively easy to understand as an avatar on an away team. And crafting the features of one's own ship seems equally desirable. But how should an Engineering-specialized character be allowed to affect the ships or devices of other players? This needs to be considered further.


Taken all together, these three modes of Engineering crafting -- repair, enhancement and maintenance -- would each offer a different but related set of gameplay opportunities. Each gameplay mode would not only provide pure rules-based Engineering-oriented gameplay activities, these three modes would also be fun for the knowledgeable Star Trek fan who has seen all three types of Engineering activities in the various TV shows and films.

Finally, because all three modes would share the same interface, some code reuse could be achieved (as opposed to developing three completely dissimilar systems). I believe this outline for a "Scotty crafting" system captures many of the wishes I've heard mentioned by those who've expressed an interest in this kind of gameplay. But I certainly don't expect it will satisfy everyone!

No comments:

Post a Comment