Interview: Star Trek Online’s Al Rivera on Discovery’s Awakening and beyond

    
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The Federation’s past is meeting its future this week with the rollout of Awakening for Star Trek Online. Set in the “present” timeline of 2410, Awakening connects to the Discovery era with the controversial mycelial network and series regular Anthony Rapp, who plays a holographic version of his character, Paul Stamets.

To illuminate the course that Star Trek Online has been on over the past year, Cryptic Lead Designer Al Rivera sat down with us to talk about how the game is handling the developments of the TV series, the new reward track system, exploring the cosmos, and more.

Massively Overpowered: It does seem like STO has been all about Star Trek Discovery this past year. While that makes sense, considering the popularity of a currently-airing TV series, some players who dislike Discovery are concerned that STO will be getting nothing but Discovery-themed content from here on out. Can you speak to this? Are there any plans to continue the game-created timeline apart from this?

Al Rivera: The best thing about Star Trek Online is that it represents all eras and timelines of Star Trek. We have spent the last nine or so years building complex and engaging stories based on The Next Generation, The Original Series, The Kelvin timeline, Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine — as well as many entirely original stories.

Although there are still tons of material to explore, right now Discovery is important to Star Trek and a huge opportunity for us to explore the stories the show presents. Leveraging a live show with new characters, storylines, ships and tech is a huge opportunity. It’s like a shot of Vitamin B. All of the sudden, there is so much new material to explore. It’s fresh and beautiful, and the actors are really engaged with our stories. We’ve found that they really care about these characters. There is still so much more to explore. Age of Discovery takes place during the same time as the show – 2256. We are mostly done with that timeline, although we have a few things we may come back to in the future.

Right now, we are focusing on a new story arc that takes place in our main timeline of 2410. This story features Discovery characters, but is specific to Star Trek Online. We will probably continue this for about a year and see where that takes us. But whatever era inspires us, we tell STO stories. Sometimes we use TNG, DS9, or Discovery characters, but we use them all to tell STO stories. If you enjoy the way STO tells stories, you’ll enjoy what we are creating. In the future, we will likely start exploring the Picard show, Season 3 of Discovery, the new Section 31 show, maybe even the animated shows or whatever else CBS brings us. And in between, we may do another Voyager-themed story, or more DS9 or TNG content. They may even all overlap and intertwine. In the end, we just go wherever we can tell the best stories.

Will the new Picard and other Star Trek series throw a monkey wrench in the events and timeline established by the game over the past decade? How will Cryptic handle these prime timeline differences?

We see it as more of an opportunity, rather than an obstacle. We are working really closely with the CBS writers, so we are very much aware of what is coming down the pike <insert Christopher Pike joke here>.

Most of what they are doing doesn’t affect us. There are some minor things that we will probably just retcon to stay consistent with canon and call it a day. There may some bigger changes that require more consideration. It’s just too early to say. The CBS writers are going to continue to write great stories and if they do something huge that becomes just impossible for us to explore, we’ll figure out a way around it.

For example, if they say Earth blows up in 2401 (no they are not blowing up Earth, I am just making a hypothetical), that’s something we can’t just retcon. Instead, we just start off in an alternate timeline, and if we want to tell a story in whatever universe the Earth blew up, we just hop over to that universe. It’s basically what we did with the Kelvin timeline.

We’ll just continue to tell great stories and represent all of Star Trek. Everything CBS does just adds more characters, stories, ships and opportunities for us to make STO even more engaging.

What has the Cryptic team liked about the approach that Discovery is taking with Star Trek? Is it difficult to integrate the more gritty and less utopian Starfleet show into the game?

We all love Star Trek: Discovery. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. Every iteration of Star Trek is different. Each is a reflection of the times. I guess some might think Discovery is more gritty, but I am not sure I would agree with that description. I personally don’t necessarily think it is less utopian. It takes place in a time of war just like Deep Space Nine. DS9 was considered edgy when it first came out. Now it is beloved. I don’t think Discovery is more gritty or less utopian than Deep Space Nine.

In Season 1 Michael makes a mistake in the beginning and she doesn’t even know if she made her choice out of emotion or logic. But the whole season is a redemption arc for her, and the whole time she sticks with her Federation values. In the end, she stops the war with those values. In Season 2, we are introduced to Captain Pike, who couldn’t be more idealistic and utopian if he was made of apple pie (some say he is).

There is nothing particularly challenging about telling a Discovery-themed story in STO. It feels different, but so do our DS9, or The Original Series (TOS) stories. And as a game, we naturally have a lot of conflict and “pew-pew” Action. Big epic conflicts work really well for us. Honestly, TOS may have been the biggest challenge because it lacked big conflict. The bigger challenge with Discovery is that their story is really tight. It’s basically one 15-hour movie.

With most Star Trek series, there are unfinished story lines or mysteries and we presume some time passes between episodes. For instance, there was a bunch of loose threads like the Blue Gill parasites in TNG: “Conspiracy,” the Iconians, the Vaadwaur, the Hur’q, or whatever. These are prime things for STO to explore, and we have. But there are very little loose threads in Discovery. So finding opportunity there can present a challenge. So we have just have to be more clever. I think it’s all worked really well.

How do you write and direct currently starring actors, such as Anthony Rapp, in a way that’s both consistent to the game and the series?

I think this ties a little into the previous question about Discovery. I don’t think we write or direct the Discovery actors any differently than our other Star Trek actors. Like you say, the challenge is that their stories are still developing on the show. Sometimes we don’t know if a character is going to die, or, say, turn out to be evil from a Mirror Universe, so we just have to work closer with the CBS writers.

With older shows, we already know everything that we’ll most likely ever know about those characters. But with Discovery, we really have to check in with CBS. Sometimes we propose a story and they say, “No, we are going to do X and Y with that character, so hold off on that for now.” Or sometimes they offer a different alternative or direction.

Honestly, for the most part, we are in sync with them enough that it is hardly ever an issue. We also have some tricks up our sleeves. For instance, Anthony Rapp in STO actually plays a holographic version of Stamets in 2410. He is every bit Paul Stamets, but we can kind-of take his character in whatever direction we want with him because he is a copy. If we wanted to make him evil, or kill him off, it’s no harm or foul to the show. Not that we would want to do something that extreme, but it provides us with a way to pursue a different direction if we wanted to.

Are the developers getting headaches from trying to pull together all of the different Star Trek eras (James Kirk era, Discovery era, Picard era, etc.) into a playable field?

Anything can be explained with enough science – time travel, alternate universes, flashback episodes, holodeck simulations, whatever. It’s science fiction, it’s pretty easy and quite simply, it’s fun. Star Trek Online is a theme park. Whatever your favorite Star Trek is, we represent it, and you can live in it.

Are patrols meant to fill the role of exploring-type content in Star Trek Online? Are there any plans to bring back an exploration system?

Patrols are a solo friendly repeatable instant-action feature. As for exploration, it already exists in STO. All our missions are based on exploration. You go in a mission and explore strange new worlds.

I think the episode “Sunrise” in the Future Proof story arc is a perfect example. You go on a mission of exploration guiding Kuumaarke from the Lukari — a new wide-eye civilization eager to see what is out there. Along the way you encounter cosmozoans like the gekli space whales and the space-jellies. Then you encounter a planet that reached the height of the bronze age and then was suddenly wiped out. You explore the ruins and find evidence that Star Fleet was there hundreds of years ago.

I’m spoiling too much, but you get the point. That is how we deliver exploration in STO –through narrative. Just like the show. We think it is the best experience for the game and it’s what we’re focusing on most for the time being, but who knows what the future may bring.

What was the thought behind changing the reward track system? Is it now easier for players to understand and separate from the mass of information that the game throws upon login?

I think you might be referring to the new Event System that launches with Awakening. We completely overhauled the Event System. Previously we used to use the Reputation System to run events, but the system was never designed for that purpose. As a result, it was overly complicated and not very accessible.

We built a brand new slick event system from the ground up. From this new UI, you can access any content associated with the event. There are clear descriptions of the event, a list of rewards, and instructions on what you need to do. Progress is tracked automatically. Participation and the rewards are account wide, so you can start with one character and continue the event with another character. The system will launch with the new Mycelial Crisis Event. When a player participates in the new mission featuring Anthony Rapp, the associated Mycelium patrols or the new Mycelium Task Force Operation, they will earn progress towards earning a new Tier 6 Elachi ship.

The new system was designed to be very flexible and modular for us, so it can be modified by us to make different styles of events in the future. There is a lot more to the system, and the whole thing is designed with accessibility in mind, so less experienced players should not be overwhelmed and can just concentrate on playing the game instead of managing a complex UI. We really look forward to players getting their hands on it. We think they are really going to enjoy it.

Has Cryptic made a play to get one of the lead roles of any of the series? How come we haven’t seen Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko, Archer, or Michael in the game yet as voice actors?

When it comes to working with Star Trek cast members, timing is everything, and actor availability is really limited. Our recording window is usually tight. Coordinating with big leads is logistically challenging at best. However, we recently landed our first captain — Jason Isaacs recently reprised his role as Captain Gabriel Lorca (both prime and mirror version) in last season’s Rise of Discovery. It was a real honor to work with him. I think you can expect more surprises like this in the future.

Has there been any thought to creating a different type of player-created mission system, a la the Foundry?

The Foundry was one of the most unique features of our game, and one of the most beloved by the playerbase. Unfortunately, the system was built in a different time and with different technical specifications, and as we continually move to modernize Star Trek Online and work to bring our players the best possible experiences, that system began to create more technical challenges than it was feasible to fix. We all spent months working to try and find a way to save it, and we were terribly saddened to have to bring the Foundry to an end.

There are no current plans to find a replacement for it, for similar reasons. But with the close of that chapter, we’ve been able to put resources towards improving the game in ways like our new Events system, removing huge pain points that have been in the game for years and giving the players new ways to play the game. And I’m incredibly heartened to see that the Foundry community, and the friendships and stories that it built, are still thriving. Those players have found new ways, from short fiction to even programming their own games, to continue the legacy of the Foundry, and we’re incredibly proud of them and the work they create.

What has been the biggest challenge that the Star Trek Online team has faced in the past year, and how is it approaching that challenge?

As I mentioned before, creating narrative for a live show has presented challenges we have never had to face before, but we are excited by the new possibilities it presents. It’s proven to be much more difficult to write stories for characters and event that are not complete. At times, we have had to shift gears to accommodate, but we wouldn’t trade in the opportunity to work with a live show. We can’t want to dig into the Picard show and all the other new shows coming. This is what we call good problems.

Could you share some statistics with us? What’s the most popular playable ship? The most popular race? The most popular faction?

It’s funny, because it feels like this changes on a daily basis sometimes. The majority of players in our game play Federation, which makes sense. There hasn’t yet been a Star Trek show or movie to focus on any of the other major powers as main characters, and people tend to play the characters they identify with the most. We recently allowed players to pick a free Tier 6 ship for completing three featured Task Force Operation events, and the three most popular ships there were the Gargarin, the Avenger, and the Cardassian Intel Battlecruiser, which probably means those are the popular ships right this minute, but it changes as players tinker with their builds and discover new possibilities.

What does Cryptic hope to accomplish with Awakening? How will this help to advance the game going forward?

There is a lot for players to explore with Awakening. Stamets’ story really gives the 2410 Discovery Arc some good momentum. It’s a story that will have a huge impact over the next year. As we’ve already discussed, the update also introduces a slick new Event system which will make participation in events much easier for all players. We will kick that system off with the new Mycelium Event, which will give players lots of flexibility on how they want to earn a new ship.

The new Patrol system really brings a new style of content to STO. We have had patrols before, but this is really all new. Patrols are a solo friendly repeatable instant-action feature. They are light on narrative, but they support a backstory, so this makes it relatively easy for us to craft more in the future. They are super fun to play and we thing players are going to love them. Honestly, I’m constantly blown away by the quality of storytelling in our game, and Awakening has one of the missions I’m the most proud of so far.

Thank you for taking the time to share with us, Al!

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Castagere Shaikura

I really liked this game before PWE took over. It really was special before all the rep grind and loot boxes. I try to get into it when they have new stories to play. But now I just don’t care or like how all over the place it is with the timelines. At first, it was set 30 or 40 years after Nemesis and to me, it should have stayed that way.

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EmberStar

I tried the new patrols. I don’t have a totally l33t “can do millions of DPS” build, but I do have a couple of captains with ships that are upgraded to well above what you’ll get without a *LOT* of grinding. (I have 36 captains, and about three of them have higher than Mk XII Very Rare quality weapons.) And on one of my most fully upgraded characters, the new patrols are most definitely NOT solo friendly. Enemies spawn in huge waves, right on top of you, and densely packed enough that there’s no way to pick them off one at a time. And of the missions I attempted, one spawns in waves of Breen with enough cruisers to constantly spam you with “subnucleonic beam,” which is a power that instantly nullifies all active powers and buffs, *and* throws in a debuff that makes them take even longer to recharge.

The mission are not, in my opinion, solo friendly at all. They’re certainly not solo friendly to the vast majority of my own characters. The story in them is also minimal, though it is voice acted. Which is both good and bad – I imagine that by day 20 of the event, many people will be roundly sick of listening to Madran the Ferengi grovel as they try to get their daily progress tokens.

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PanagiotisLial1

While DSC is not among my favorites, its still good as a theme. Their new episode happens in a new “realm” named mycelium network/dimention which they designed in a way looking very pretty(think a very improved version of new romulus flora, landscape and sky) and has a lot of environmental animation making it feel more alive. Storytelling is decent(yet a bit funny since they paint a fungus world the most vital for all dimentions existence…so hail Shroomy God of Creation) but most importantly fun with a high quality of voice acting.

I love the new patrol system and many patrols I tried give more than Argala used to give(7k in about as compared to around 4.5k). However I had a critical bug(I reported it) on search and rescue getting stuck on Defend the Lukari phase and not advancing on to move towards the rift and check on other ships.

The expansion introduces a few quite good ships too. The free Elachi Frigate and the D7 Destroyer + Fed USS Kelvin from Kelvin timeline. I do have one complaint however – more and more lately they start expansions giving us 1 or 2 episodes only whereas it was a lot more in the past.

I am also very curious what we will have in their 10th anniversary

Mewmew
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Mewmew

These guys sure love Star Trek. You can just feel it. They love their stories and worlds and that’s great. It makes STO more appealing because of it.

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agemyth 😩

I don’t play the game, so I probably won’t finish reading this whole interview, but I got a kick out of how plainly they stated what their process for keeping story canon working is. XD

Spoiler
”Most of what they are doing doesn’t affect us. There are some minor things that we will probably just retcon to stay consistent with canon and call it a day. There may some bigger changes that require more consideration. It’s just too early to say. The CBS writers are going to continue to write great stories and if they do something huge that becomes just impossible for us to explore, we’ll figure out a way around it.

For example, if they say Earth blows up in 2401 (no they are not blowing up Earth, I am just making a hypothetical), that’s something we can’t just retcon. Instead, we just start off in an alternate timeline, and if we want to tell a story in whatever universe the Earth blew up, we just hop over to that universe. It’s basically what we did with the Kelvin timeline.”

I love it (not sarcasm).

flatline4400
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flatline4400

Ugh… I understand there’s probably all sorts of contractual issues, but shackling your game’s direction to a show (shows? Picard looks iffy already, and Sec.31 hasn’t gotten a series order [plus just dumb, dumb, dumb concept]) that can’t write itself out of a wet paper bag is just not a good idea.

The original STO post-Voyager stuff was my favourite thing about the game for a long time. Shame to see it basically abandoned.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

And yet the shows are the heart of Star Trek and where almost all of the game comes from. You’re pining for content that was from a show too.

They did their Voyager seasons and are onto other seasons right now. The game is based on all of Trek, though the new stuff being written right now has a lot of fans and is the most exciting for them to work on. Getting to work directly alongside the show runners, getting to give us stories that are relating to things we are currently watching on the new shows, it’s really cool and fun to experience.

You want them to stick with the one show you were into, just like the DS9 people, the ToS people, the TNG people, but they jump around to everything and are in the middle of Discovery right now. The Discovery content just pales in comparison to how much Voyager content is in the game at present, so they will be working on it and continuing to add to it for a while.

Voyager content was really fleshed out well and had a lot of attention for a while. If they went back to add anything, it should be to flesh out their time travel stuff, or Section 31, or The Original Series stuff.

Most of us have found the Discovery content to be their best work yet. There are so many positives to working with current shows. I went back and watched Voyager just to enhance my experience with the game through that content, and it was great, but we are on to other things at the moment. And like they said, nothing is abandoned, they may re-visit anything and any characters.

Discovery is hot and big right now, they’d be foolish to do anything other than Discovery content. We’re in the midst of it, the arc isn’t finished, either you enjoy STO for its story telling and gameplay or you don’t. You shouldn’t get attached to one thing though.

STO jumps all around so either you enjoy the story telling or don’t. It never sticks to any single type of content for long. They never had the opportunity to be working directly with current shows though either, and it would be a very poor decision not to jump at the chance to do that kind of thing.

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Natalyia

Anyone who doesn’t expect them to latch on to a live Star Trek series as inspiration for the game wasn’t being realistic. It makes all the sense in the world for them to do so, from every aspect I can think of (relationship with the IP-holder, free marketing, access to more voice-talent, new storylines/characters, etc…)

They’ve always done a great job of turning the sometimes-silly lemons abandoned/neglected Trek plotlines/plotholes left them into something better.

Sadly, for me, Discovery is just a big flat “nope.” – but that’s on me (and I would say CBS), but not on Cryptic. If/when they move on from Discovery content I’ll be back. Meantime, there’s other things to play for me.

However, I’ve no doubt they’re making as good a use of the new content as they have the old. There’s no way they’d have gotten as many ex-Trek actors to reprise their roles as extensively as they have over the years if the people in question didn’t feel like it was something worth doing – both for them, and the character they made come alive.

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partiesplayin

Altho sto and I have shared many memories over the years I’m so ready for an sto 2.0 . Entirely new engine, graphics, better open world environments , better exploration mechanics, more individualism opportunities ECT ECT. Sorta in the way the x series has evolved over the years . It would be a huge undertaking but if done right could be absolutely amazing and just isn’t possible on cryptics old engine and would require far to much to be feasible for the current game. An entirely new game would make more sense. If is just a pipe dream but one can only hope.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

Yeah I could see that, but with these same people working on the stories and all. They really do such a good job with the engine they have.

They absolutely love Star Trek too.

I would even gladly start everything over if we had a STO 2.0 with a proper space engine and things, more freedom to run around worlds even if they were randomized and didn’t have a lot going on outside of some small areas. I understand a lot of people wouldn’t feel that way (about starting over), but the truth is a new release gets a lot more new players than an updated game engine. For such a massive undertaking it should be an entirely new game – just with the same story writers as we have now.

It’s not that bad looking for a game as old as it is though. It was released 3 years before Neverwinter and yet looks so much better. I understand that is due to some improvements over the years but still it’s fairly decent looking for a game from 2010!

And really I’ll still play this one as long as they keep putting new content into it. I can’t see stopping anytime soon. So maybe we don’t need the new engine quite yet.

They could start to work on it in secret maybe so it would be ready sometime in the future :D We don’t want this Star Citizen situation where we’re waiting and waiting and waiting. Speaking of which, it should be a number of years after the official release of Star Citizen (whenever that does happen). Though Star Trek is unique and these guys are great writers, it would be better not to compete against another big space MMO release.