Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In My Ideal Star Trek MMORPG....

The question came up on the official Star Trek Online forum of what our "ideal Star Trek Online experience" would look like.

After some thought, I realized that I did, in fact, have some fairly specific items on my wish list for this particular online gameworld. This essay is an enhanced version of the items I noted in that original list.

Before I go any further, it's important for those reading this to understand that the things I ask for describe only the gameplay experience I consider personally optimal. They're not necessarily what I think the play experience should be for all players... though I do believe -- and numerous comments on the STO forum confirm -- that I'm not the only person who'd enjoy playing the Star Trek MMORPG whose key features are outlined below.

So, that being said: in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, I'd like to be able to log in and enjoy gameplay that engages my head and my heart as much as my hands.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the iconic elements of Star Trek would be the starting point for developing gameplay. Conventional MMORPG mechanics (such as the class/level model of character advancement or the combat-centric tank/DPS/support+aggro roles) would under no circumstances be mindlessly cloned from other games and simply renamed with Star Trek terms. Let the mechanics of this game be inspired by what's uniquely fun about Star Trek. If it's fun gameplay, then it's fun gameplay regardless of whether other games do it or not.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the game would launch with a balance of combat and non-combat content, and the developers would commit to sustaining that balance throughout the lifespan of the game in all of the patches and expansions released. The gameworld would be designed to be experienced through the functional disciplines of Science/Medical, Tactical/Security, Engineering/Ops, and Command/Helm (and their non-Starfleet faction equivalents). There would always be roughly equal amounts of content available for every one of these four distinctively Star Trek modes of play throughout the entire advancement path of a character.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the rules of play for Starfleet-faction characters would actively promote the emergence of cooperative, creative, perceptive, thoughtful, and supportive behaviors in my fellow players. I'm tired of games that are nothing but nonstop killing and mindless chest-thumping competition; the gameplay in my ideal Star Trek Online would reward Starfleet characters in proportion to the degree to which they work with each other to defend and promote their factional values of reason, tolerance, curiosity and cooperation.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, Starfleet is the primary faction, and the core principles of the Federation (including tolerance and respect for the individual person and for other cultures) are unreservedly and unapologetically presented as the "right" principles when they are forced to come into conflict with competing principles. Non-Starfleet factions, beginning with the Klingon Defense Force, will be presented as having their own distinctive and consistent internal logic, and faction-related content will be created to be fun for those players who create characters in those factions. But Star Trek always focused on Starfleet, and my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would do likewise.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, exploration would be the primary gameplay motivator for Starfleet characters. Physical exploration would be supported by a large or semi-infinite number of star systems and worlds (whether pregenerated or generated on the fly). Intellectual and emotional discovery would be provided by a profusion of lifeforms and civilizations that can be discovered on new worlds and in space, all of which have highly varied characteristics, and the process of cataloguing these characteristics would be implemented as enjoyable gameplay. These variations would also be used to spark story-based gameplay in the Star Trek mode. The quest to expand knowledge would be valued as fun in and of itself, and not solely for its value in economic competition.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, many of the places and objects, lifeforms and cultures, and looks and sounds from Star Trek episodes will be replicated with reasonable fidelity and respect. The art and the lore -- the "feel" of Star Trek -- would be treated as though it was important to get it right. The "worldiness" of a MMORPG is no less important to me than the rules-based play set within that world, and in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG world content will not always be the loser in any conflict between the needs of "live in" and "play in."

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, both space and planetary surfaces would be rich in environmental phenomena. These phenomena would be the particles, energies and other natural and artificial effects mentioned in the many episodes of Star Trek, most or all of which would have specific action-oriented functional effects on the characters and objects in the gameworld. Making these phenomena an active part of all environments in a Star Trek MMORPG would provide outstanding support for multiple forms of play: visual beauty, surveying and cataloguing, storytelling, puzzle-solving, and tactical combat.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the characters matter as people. Understanding them as people, discovering their similarities to us as well as their differences, would be recognized as being both good Star Trek and good gameplay. Accordingly, this game would allow me to explore those similarities and differences through emotionally engaging stories. The stories in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would be about things that matter. They would never be didactic, telling players what to think or feel, nor would the NPCs through whom these stories are told ever be used as mouthpieces for some developer's personal political opinions. The storytelling in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would treat players as adults who are capable of feeling and thinking like adults, and giving us opportunities to do so through interacting with well-characterized NPCs in storylines that resonate with all of us as human beings.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, science and engineering in particular would be treated with respect and appreciation. Gameplay involving the Science and Engineering divisions of Starfleet (and their non-Starfleet counterparts) would be created by people who understand science and engineering and appreciate their importance in the Star Trek universe. The developers assigned the task of designing and building gameplay around the Science and Engineering divisions would be enthusiastic about the opportunity to create constructive, creative, logic- and technology-based gameplay in a massively multiplayer persistent-world environment.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the starship is the central mechanism through which the content of the gameworld is accessed and experienced. Starships would be implemented with some key locations rendered as interiors; players would experience shipboard activities as an avatar interacting with other avatars in 1st- or 3rd-person perspective; and while no player would be forced into a support role on someone else's ship, friends who want to play together on one ship in specific roles would be able to do so. Away team missions would let players enjoy highly varied environments as a way to break up the shipboard play experience, but one's starship (of which there should be only three or perhaps four during a character's lifespan) should always feel like "home."

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, starships would be implemented as complex systems. That doesn't mean complicated interfaces, nor does it imply constant micromanagement -- it means that there would be depth in the functional behaviors of the subsystems and interconnections between subsystems that comprise the incredible artifact of advanced technology that is a working starship. Implementing starships as complex functional systems would create opportunities to solve problems in thoughtful and clever ways through the perceptive and creative use of those technological systems.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the high-level design of all combat systems would be assigned to someone who actually understands the military arts, preferably in both personal and theoretical settings. "Combat" would be understood to be not merely the artificial one-versus-one duels or small-group "boss fights" of other MMORPGs, but as tactical, operational, and strategic levels of lethal conflict in which each level requires and rewards very different playstyle interests. Combat in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would be designed from the ground up to distinguish between these styles of conflict resolution and make each one a distinct area of gameplay that supports and enhances the others.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, operational gameplay (helping to lead groups and player fleets) and strategic gameplay (long-term, wide-area management of resources valuable to one's faction) would be gameplay modes that are consciously designed to be distinct from tactical gameplay. The ranks in each faction would be keyed to each of these three gameplay modes, with the rank of Captain being the normal endpoint for advanced tactical play. Players would never be forced to accept promotion beyond Captain, which would shift them out of tactical play and into operational or strategic play, but those players who wished to take on greater levels of responsibility for the fun of other players would be supported by the rank structure and the overall design of conflict-based gameplay.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, starship combat would be designed to play out over a span of several minutes, with many opportunities for true tactical gameplay through applying the various technological systems and crew capabilities of a mighty starship to the environmental phenomena that exist in a particular location. Engagements would last long enough for smart decision-making to play a much more meaningful role in resolving combat situations than just who's got the bigger stick (as in current MMORPGs).

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, crafting would be implemented as a game of constructive creativity that is fun in and of itself, not as a game of manufacturing and sales where your gameplay products only have whatever value other players give them. While it can make perfect sense for other games, in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG crafting would absolutely not be a game of using fleet resources to crank out thousands of identical products to try to "win" some economic competition. Instead, there would be a limited game economy in which players are encouraged to use their personal creativity and the skills of their characters to individually handcraft new things for trade to other player characters.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, all of these things would be designed and implemented to create a total gameplay experience that is highly satisfying to people with different playstyles. Those who enjoy the simple competition/accumulation-oriented play so prominent in current MMORPGs would definitely be able to enjoy that kind of content in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG. Competition and the (limited) accumulation of value items are important aspects of the human condition and deserve a place in a well-developed gameworld. But in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, competitive/destructive gameplay will never be allowed to dominate the gameworld to the exclusion of cooperative/constructive content. Both are fun; and in the game I'd like to play, both would be energetically supported with a long-lasting balance of enjoyable content.

Those are the main things I personally would like to see in Star Trek Online.

Am I going to be disappointed to some degree when the Star Trek MMORPG that Cryptic is making finally ships? Sure. But I expect there'll also be plenty of things from this list that do appear in their game.

Hey, I can take "yes" for an answer. :)

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