The Game Archaeologist: Perpetual’s Star Trek Online

    
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If you’re among the legions of Trekkies, then you are almost certainly aware of Cryptic Studios’ Star Trek Online. Since early 2010, players have boldly gone where no one has gone before in this MMO that blends spaceship battles, ground combat, and faithful tie-ins to the long-running franchise. Star Trek Online appears to be thriving following a free-to-play adaptation and two expansions, and some see it as the only official continuation of the TV series right now.

But what players encounter in Star Trek Online is not what it originally started out as. You may or may not know that STO began development under Perpetual Entertainment, which handled the game for several years until it went bankrupt and passed the license and art assets to Cryptic.

It’s another tantalizing historical “what if?” scenario to think about what this game would look like if Perpetual had taken it to launch and beyond. But what did this version of Star Trek Online look like? Let’s investigate.

These are the voyages

Here’s something you really might not have known: Star Trek Online was originally going to be a Sony Online Entertainment MMO. Verant Interactive obtained the rights to do it in 2000 but decided shortly therafter to pursue another galactic MMO instead (Star Wars Galaxies, although you might not have heard of that either) (just kidding, please don’t set fire to my comments section).

Flash-forward a few years to arrive in the MMO arms race of 2004. Perpetual Entertainment announced that it would be dropping a new contestant into the ring with Star Trek Online. Perpetual had acquired the license from Viacom to make an MMO based on all of Star Trek’s movies and TV series, which instantly transformed this property into a serious contender. Initial plans were to go into beta testing in 2006 for an eventual 2007 release.

To explore strange new worlds

While our current iteration of Star Trek Online takes place 30 years following the events of the film Star Trek Nemesis, Perpetual’s vision was only 20 years afterward. Romulans, Klingons, and the Federation would have been getting along well enough to shift efforts into exploring the beta quadrant instead of fighting wars.

Much of what we know of Perpetual’s Star Trek Online comes out of a few interviews, mock screenshots, and concept art released from 2004 through 2007. Players would have taken on the role of an officer who would be part of a crew of a starship. Many species were bandied about as potential player races, including Human, Vulcan, Andorian, Bajoran, Tellarite, Bolian, Klingon, Cardassian, Ferengi, and Trill. A wider variety of classes was debated (including medical) before being boiled down into the current trio of tactical, science, and engineering roles.

While starships hosting several player characters was mentioned, it also looked as though STO would allow a player to own his or her own ship. The devs were obviously torn on the desire to push group-based activities as being more in the spirit of the ensemble shows and to allow players a more solo-friendly path based on the MMO trends at the time.

The proposed solution was that players could own smaller ships like fighters and minor spaceships, but the big ones — like the Galaxy class — would instead be adventure hubs with explorable, detailed interiors. Both the character and ship would have had a standard MMO avatar gear screen, with slots for items such as “super boots.”

To seek out new life and new civilizations

Outer space was designed to look visually stimulating, on par with what players would encounter on the ground. If you’ve ever wondered (or complained) about why Star Trek Online’s space portions are rainbow-tastic, the genesis of this design decision started long before Cryptic.

It wasn’t all going to be non-stop combat with brilliant laser light shows; Perpetual seemed committed to emulating the spirit of the show with activities such as planetary surveys and diplomatic missons.

It’s hard to say how many of the ideas kicked around during the pre-alpha period would have made it into the live game, but one tantalizing feature was the suggestion of using the holodeck for player-created stories and PvP wargames.

Connecting the online game to the franchise was a high priority for both Perpetual and Crytic. Jean-Luc Picard was rumored to be an ambassador NPC, and Miral Paris (who is in the current game) would have been a significant character as well. One major feather in Star Trek Online’s cap is that it secured the help of Michael Okuda, well-known for being the technical design wizard behind the look of The Next Generation and its spin-offs.

To boldly go

Creating an MMO to emulate the unique and specific model of the Star Trek franchise was a massive headache to some of its devs. “At first glance, Star Trek seems like the perfect setting for an MMO,” said former systems designer Eric Heimburg, “but appearances can be deceiving. It’s actually a huge landmine of problems.”

By 2006, the team had moved into production and was frequently showing Star Trek Online’s screenshots and demo to press and fans. Players got to see their first glimpse of starships like the Akira-class as well as interior layouts of the large ship hubs. However, development wasn’t progressing as quickly as originally promised, and the release date got pushed back to 2008, and then later to 2009.

Even with progress being made, it wasn’t enough to prop up the company from impending disintigration. Perpetual was hit by layoffs in December 2006 and stopped working on its other title, Gods & Heroes, in an attempt to finish Star Trek Online before the studio ran out of funds. To make matters worse, Perpetual was slammed with a nasty, high-profile lawsuit by a public relations firm for “breach of contract, fraudulent transfer, and fraud.” Apparently, Perpetual had transferred its STO assets to a side company that it whipped up, named P2 Entertainment, in a doomed attempt to put the game outside of current legal scuffles and to keep money from those it owed. The suit was later settled, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

In short, Perpetual crashed by the end of 2007 and was forced to lay off its team and sell off the license and art assets to Cryptic in January 2008. While it was a solid IP for Cryptic, the acquisition meant that the studio was legally obligated to create an MMO within two years or face losing the license. This explains STO’s “rushed” feel and its early 2010 release.

The Star Trek Online that we ended up with wasn’t 100% different than Perpetual’s version, but part of me does wonder what it would have been like to play a Star Trek MMO that had less combat and more of a social world.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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digi_owl
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digi_owl

Cannonshop digi_owl AlienAbductionVolunteer A Dad Supreme And short term is sadly all that beancounters care about in this day and age.

Cannonshop
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Cannonshop

Durenas Cannonshop ONly until they re-release the right lockbox in an event, then your Fed/Rom can get Leech too, without having to be a ‘durrty klink’.

CastagereShaikura
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CastagereShaikura

Defector1980 Pretty much what most people do.

Cannonshop
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Cannonshop

digi_owl AlienAbductionVolunteer A Dad Supreme problem I see with that hypothesis, is that their model really isn’t geared to make money-at least, not in any sustainable way.  All the new ships are expensive and come with ‘tricks’ that are dubious in the game meta.  many have traits that don’t work well together, or flat don’t work well at all. Meanwhile, the UI changes in the last three years have dis-encouraged variable play in favour of repetitive grinding, they eliminated Exploration and really haven’t done any ‘easter eggs’ to appeal to the ‘explorer’ type gamer personality.  ALL missions are railroads with only one option (mostly kill stuff)-even to the point that a lot of TREK fans complain, and eventually depart.  They moved everything to drop-downs so you dont’ see players congregating at Roxy anymore (or other locations), dis-encouraging the social gamer type because zone chat is filled with appeals for you to violate the terms of service and buy stuff from gold-farmer outfits. (My ignore list is so full that I’ve taken, as many have, to turning off zone entirely).

This is not how you make a lot of money unless you’re fixing to shut down and dodge creditors in the next ten months.  The episodes they HAVE done must’ve cost a bloody fortune-SGA dues ain’t cheap, and Cryptic won’t work with non-union talent anymore.

People talk about how the social zones are underutilized, but that’s an impact of a shift to a single-player style with…just about everything.  you can log in, do every available queue that might pop, on multiple alts, and never say so much as “hi” or ‘gg’, fill all your projects (if you have the money), collect any item there, and never have to actually interact with a single other living soul.

and there isn’t a single piece of content you can do, that actually requires you to use anything but the basic Starfleet Cruiser at tier five, rocking beams on all eight points.

Nothing.

there’s not a single mssion or STF or Queue where having a cloak, for instance, might permit you to do thigns a little differently, or where having good point-damage is as useful as spamming AOE. beams from a slow orbit.

all of that, means that a good chunk of those ships aren’t selling for more than their traits.

there are, of course, only so many traits you can put on a character, and the oens that are worth it to most of the targeted demographic are already out there.  this makes the model of selling power for big bux a short-term solution at BEST.

digi_owl
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digi_owl

AlienAbductionVolunteer digi_owl A Dad Supreme I guess PWE is leaning on them to up their profits. Noticed that the latest update to Neverwinter was a short rehash of existing maps for a “big name” story, and a couple of new queued for group instances.

mysecretid
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mysecretid

Peregrine_Falcon 
This. Absolutely this.
Perpetual had extremely nice concept art going for them, and they talked up the Star Trek concept well enough, but even former employees were out there saying, immediately after the fact, that the company had very little of an actual game build going, prior to to Cryptic buying up their existing assets, and basically putting an NDA on further discussion of that deal.
Don’t believe me? Use your Google-Fu and chase it down for yourself. I’m not your Mom. :-)

Perpetual released only two actual early screenshots that I remember, just prior to things going over to Cryptic, and I for one (who haunted the Perpetual Star Trek forum like the dedicated Trek nerd I was) was somewhat shocked by how unimpressive the screenshots  were..
Cartoony snail aliens, and “Super Boots” as gear seemed quite far removed from the majestic pre-production art we’d been seeing up to that point.

So, no, Perpetual Trek was never a “great game which never got a chance”. It was barely out of concept. There’s nothing to miss,. They weren’t far enough along in the making of the game for anyone to credibly say that “Perpetual would’ve done it better than Cryptic”. 
I’m afraid that’s only wishful thinking on the part of some people who were very unhappy with the Star Trek game Cryptic ultimately did make. 
They’re certainly entitled to dislike what they choose, but there’s no “lost game” to be found here — chasing it is merely chasing a mirage.

I found the two Perpetual Trek screenshots as I was typing this, and I’ve attached them here  — compare these to the often breathtaking pre-production concept art we’d been seeing from Perpetual prior to that point. A lot of it’s still out on the net. Some of the art is so beautifully rendered, people thought they were screenshots at first, back in the day, but no.

Cheers,

Cannonshop
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Cannonshop

Peregrine_Falcon Damonvile 
it’s not the BEST thing that could be said.  It’s close to it, but not the best.  The artwork is very good, they spent a lot of time on the art.  They have hired voice-actors from the show several times, and those actors have actually said lines.  It’s very well promoted, and the current Community Manager is a highly competent and engaging CM (thiss was actually a problem with her predecessor, who wasn’t.)

and it’s built on a pretty competently designed core engine, one that handled (past tense) a great many things that the current game seems unable to deal with-but that means it probably has a good ‘foundation’.

The problems though…

They lost their QC department and teh CM has had to turn to player-volunteers to look for bugs-OFFICIALLY.  Their systems guys are apparent in their inability to grasp ‘balance’ and ‘powercreep management’ as concepts, much less on the execution end.(current systems dev Borticus actually lost it when a poster on the forums suggested one of his ideas wouldn’t address the problem it was supposed to, because it was addressing a non-problem.  He’s also been publicly overridden by the Lead Developer as the result of a question on radio.)

They release content on-time and on-schedule regardless of whether it’s even finished, has been tested, or works.

The Lead Developer not only doesn’t know what’s going on ‘in game’ (live), but has repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of such basics as what skills are on the character sheet, what they are supposed to do, this makes it somewhat easier to see how the frequent ‘unintended’ synergies keep cropping up.  (he’s actually been publicly embarrassed by questions on live podcasts more than once-and that’s on their virtually-a-house-organ “Priority One” podcast that fired a staffer for asking questions that were too hard.)

basically the worst thing you can have-a Lead Dev who doesn’t know his own game-and has been the Lead since before launch, outlasting all but the current Executive Producer…(middle management types that hang on really do define a company’s actual attitude and management attributes. I guess Al makes them money.)

Cannonshop
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Cannonshop

theblackmage75 one of the reasons people keep looking back at Perpetual’s effort, is that STO under Cryptic keeps having the “Start a new feature, abandon it” diesase.  Gateway-abandoned, Exploration-abandoned, PvP-long ago abandoned (it was nice of Ricossa to admit it finally).

There are so many features and User elements they started, then just lost funding/interest in.  Did you know there’s rudimentary x-box controller code in there? yes, there is.  Does it work? kind-of.  same for joystick support-the start of the parts are there, but it’s incomplete.  In 2010, Cryptic assured players that “We’ve just about got matchmaking ready”…it’s 2016, matchmaking is nowhere to be found.
The last time they tried to rebalance bridge officer powers was 2014.  The Dev assigned to that, left in the middle of the task for ‘other opportunities’.  Teh result is for the ‘space’ portion “one power rules all” (that would be Beam Fire At Will-which does everything and does it better than everything else.)

Likewise with “Faction” Development.  KDF debuted-and didn’t see any development until they debuted the Romulans almost three years later.  (With designs like the Varanus and the Bortasque, it’s not really a surprise that they were termed ‘unprofitable’ by Cryptic’s lead Developer, Al Rivera.)  Development of both Klingon and Romulan factions was cursory at best and stops after level 20, when you get to play rehashed missions you already played on your Federation character, with rehashed dialogue consisting mostly of title changes and the occasional “Rarr! Honor!! Glory!!! I’m an Idiot!!” slipped in there.

in simple terms, Cryptic makes big, ambitious plans, gets things about halfway done, puts it live without checking their feedback from the test servers (there really isn’t a reason to join the Beta except to see what broken shit is going to go live this quarter ahead of time), does a couple panic-fixes when something goes catastrophically wrong (which something is usually something we warned them would go wrong in comments), then ‘done’, it’s move on to the next big, ambitious project that they’re not going to actually finish before release.

but, unlike Perpetual yes, they actually START and get it “KIND OF” working before forgetting what they were doing, or driving someone key to quit, or firing them…

if it wasn’t Star Trek (and the ONLY star trek available aside from the movie theatre or CBS’ upcoming pay-per-view), this game would have likely died an ignominous and unmarked death. 

Star Trek Fans will spend money on the damnedest things, and stick with them, even wehn they suck rocks.  It’s like a license to print money to get the license to publish it-the fans are that nuts.  you have to do something REALLY poorly before they walk out.

So far, this is working for Cryptic-but for how long?  (well, it’s worked for six years, don’t expect any radical changes now!)

Durenas
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Durenas

Cannonshop Actually, the current meta is Romulan-KDF(buy the vandal destroyer and plunder its console) do marauding for contraband to make bank, buy T6 ships for the traits(morrigu, vastam, astika, etc) and get as many alts as possible to do admiralty on.

AlienAbductionVolunteer
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AlienAbductionVolunteer

digi_owl A Dad Supreme As a matter of fact, they are. Back around September 2014, some jerk that has a beef with Neverwinter decided to DDoS the servers. I think it was the STO community manager, Laughing Trendy, that admitted STO, CO, and NW were all on the same server. When Neverwinter went down, so did STO and CO. And this same jerk has been DDoSing the servers again on and off since about Jan 27, 2016. He posts on Twitter about it before starting the attack, and laughs at everyone.

As far as the game goes, the devs don’t listen. They put stuff up on the test server and despite massive reports of things being broken, it goes live anyway. It’s worse when it’s a big seasonal update or expansion. For example: before Delta Rising launched there were reports of system patrol missions that could be exploited for massive experience gain. This exploit went live anyway and the devs decided to ban people for abusing the game. Cryptic wound up having to reverse all bans (except the most egregious exploiters) because they found a lot of players didn’t exploit it and wound up being punished for no reason. (The infamous ‘Tau Dewa’ exploit)

And of course, some time after the Admirality system went live, they decided people were leveling up the campaigns too fast and put a 10k XP per campaign, per character, per day, limit on it in order to slow us down quite a bit.

Which is another thing that ticks me off to no end: deciding some time AFTER something goes live that something is too easy and/or quick for players to complete. Another example: some time after the R&D crafting revamp they decided players were getting a crafting school leveled up too fast because we could start the daily bonus research project 3 at a time in the same day for the same school. They limited it to 1 bonus project per school per day (on each character). Then some months later, due to constant complaints about it taking forever to level up all of the R&D schools they changed it back. Even with it the way it is it still takes friggen forever to level up all R&D schools on a single character. I have all but 1 school at level 20 on my main crafter, and this is over a year and a half since the revamp. Of course, I haven’t seen any plans or mention of making it take less time to level up R&D, so chock up another example of them being silent on player feedback and not giving a fuck.

The only saving grace to this game has been the community manager. She got a volunteer bug hunting team together and got the devs to actually start fixing their ship. It still takes them forever to fix some bugs. For example, they just recently fixed a bunch of bugs in the story episode ‘Cutting the Cord’. 2 of those bugs I reported back in 2013, and even found my old thread on the forums. If it wasn’t for Trendy, the game would be a whole hell of a lot buggier and unplayable.

And as others have pointed out, most PVE queues are hardly ever played. However, a few months ago the executive producer did an ask-me-anything on Reddit and said they have plans for 2016 to get players back into the queues. Well, I’m not into PvP, but how many years ago did they say they would fix it? Yeah. I’ll believe they’ll make players want to do the PVE queued stuff when I see it. Until then, I’m not holding my breath.

P.S. For 2015 it sure as hell felt we got more ships in the c-store (cash shop) and lock box crap than actual content. Every damn time we turned around there was a new set of ships they wanted us to buy.