Interview: Star Trek Online’s Al Rivera on the looming Iconians

Fighting the good fight... in really, really ugly armor.
The Iconians are coming to Star Trek Online, and if you’ve been playing the game during the past five years, you know that’s a big deal. A new reputation is being added in Season 10 to support the war against them, and players will have plenty to deal with as the villains behind the scenes for the game’s entire history move into the forefront. That means a whole lot of plots to wrap up and an almost mythical race from the franchise as a whole that Star Trek Online has to deliver on.

We had the opportunity to ask lead designer Al Rivera a few questions about designing the Iconians and the ramifications for bringing the demons of air and darkness into the game in the flesh. It’s a big challenge, after all. If you’ve been curious about how the team is taking fragments and legends and bringing them into the game, read on past the break.

Stop; hammertime.Massively Overpowered: With players finally facing the Iconians, is there any worry that the race won’t live up to being as threatening as their hinted appearances thus far have been?

Al Rivera: When you build up an enemy for five years, that concern does cross your mind. But we put a lot of effort and resources into trying to make the Iconians really epic. Their character and ship models are dazzling, and their abilities and technology really capture the IP: gateways, probes, demons of air and darkness. They should also be the most challenging enemies the players have faced. But I think what will carry them is the story. They are disturbingly powerful and truly frightening.

Was the move to the Delta Quadrant part of a specific effort to tie things together more thoroughly before facing the Iconians?

It was always our intention to go to the Delta Quadrant. The Iconians are a galactic threat, and it was important to introduce the Delta Quadrant to show the Iconians’ reach and influence before the player faces off against them. One of the themes that keep recurring with the Iconian story is unity. The Iconians were defeated 200,000 years ago when the entire galaxy united against them. For the last five years in Star Trek Online, the Iconians have been working to destabilize any alliances. Toward the end of the Delta Rising story arc, the player needs to build an alliance with all the species of the Delta Quadrant. Only then can they defeat the Iconian puppets, the Vaadwaur. It is likely you will see this theme again.

A lot of settings have powerful forces manipulating events behind the scenes; what makes the Iconians unique in this regard?

The Iconians have had 200,000 years to plan their strategy and make their move. They are ancient and timeless, and to say they are patient is an understatement. Because they are so ancient, we are able to make all sorts of connections to canon events. We made strong connections to Enterprise, Voyager, and The Next Generation. Their influence is far-reaching not only across the galaxy but throughout the entire Star Trek canon timeline. When you experience the story from the beginning, you will see that so many unanswered questions from the TV shows are explained by the Iconian story.

In the end, we are writing a story for Star Trek fans, so we wanted the story to be recognizable and resonate for them. We wanted them to see something and say “hey, I remember that.” There is a great video on YouTube where a fan recorded a playthrough of our episode “Sphere of Influence,” which stars Michael Dorn as his character, Worf. In that episode, there is a reveal of this table. The table was built to match the table where Worf and the other members of the Enterprise Crew were captured and experimented on. It represents a noticeable trauma in Worf’s character since he and the other Enterprise crewmembers were tortured and violated and then had their memories erased. Until you see that table, you don’t know where you are or who the bad guy is. Then you and Worf see the table, and Worf says “I know this room.” The player in the YouTube video completely loses it when he sees that. Instantly, he knows where he is and what the players are up against. It’s a powerful moment in the story and it shows the player how far the Iconians’ reach extends. I don’t think there are a lot of opportunities in fiction to draw upon so much canonical history as we have with Star Trek.

Day to die status: Pretty good.What can players expect in terms of Iconian technology and philosophies?

The Iconians are so advanced that their technology seems like magic, but there are very few Iconians left. In the past, we have seen the Iconians use servitor races as chess pieces. The Elachi, first seen on Enterprise in “Silent Enemy,” are their special ops soldiers. The Solanea, first seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation in “Schisms,” are their scientists. The Iconians are responsible for the neural parasites seen in “Conspiracy” (TNG). These parasites are a biological weapon of infiltration.

Now the Iconians are coming in full force with their Heralds. The Heralds are not like other races the Iconians have used. They were not conquered, manipulated, or enslaved. The Heralds are the Iconians’ personal servants and guards. They are originally from Iconia. They are a lesser species that the Iconians have built an almost symbiotic relationship with, but they are not beasts. They are sentient, powerful, and entrusted with the Iconians’ greatest technology and weapons. They worship the Iconians. You can think of them almost like holy warriors (or unholy if you prefer).

Their technology is ancient and almost medieval. Of course, being demons of air and darkness, the Heralds and Iconians will use gateways to great effect in combat.

As for philosophies, the Iconians feel that they were betrayed 200,000 years ago. They were virtually exterminated by all the races of their time. These are angry gods whose followers turned their backs on them. They want to rule over us because they see us as spoiled, rebellious children. There is still so much about what happened 200,000 years ago that still needs to be discovered.

Even demons of air and darkness are gender-coded for human sensibilities.While the Iconians were often mentioned throughout Star Trek series, they’ve never been seen before Star Trek Online. Did this make the race more of a challenge, to add something largely new to the mythos?

Not really. It’s rare you get such a blank slate to work with. We know they use gateways to appear instantly anywhere. We know they were wiped out 200,000 years ago when all the races rose up against them. We know they were referred to as demons of air and darkness. We know they have probes that can infect an alien computer like an aggressive virus. That’s actually a lot to work with. From there, we asked ourselves several questions. What would they be doing all this time? What would their motivation be? Assuming they are manipulating events from behind the scenes, what events from the canon could we say were actually Iconian influence? We knew if we were true to the canon, and we could have it make sense, we could build a believable story that people would accept as part of the mythos.

Players have been leading up to this encounter for some time; is there some level of finality to this particular storyline?

As an MMO, and as science fiction, nothing is truly “final.” But this is the final conflict of the Iconian war. Although there will be far reaching repercussions, players can expect closure to this five-year mission.

Are the Iconians more challenging to write for than the other antagonistic species in the game, or less?

I don’t think they are any more or less challenging to write for than any other antagonist. But I think the expectations are higher, so we have invested a lot of thought energy into delivering a story that will not disappoint and will feel very trek. The challenge was to integrate all the previous antagonists for the past five years into the Iconian story.

What do you think players will find the most surprising when they meet the Iconians face to face?

That this is not a battle that can be won with conventional methods. Iconians are not like other sentient races. Players will have to make great sacrifices and they will have to expand their understanding of the galaxy is to survive.

Thanks for your time!

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