MassivelyOP interview: Talking ship design with Star Trek Online’s Donny Versiga

If you play Star Trek Online, you know that ship collecting is one of the major pastimes of captains all over the Federation and beyond. As such, Donny Versiga, Staff Starship Artist for STO, has a very important job. He’s a lifelong Star Trek fan, as evidenced by his impressive Starfleet cosplays you can check out over on his Twitter feed. Massively OP recently sat down with him – virtually! – to chat about designing ships for Cryptic’s long-running Star Trek MMORPG. We’re touching on everything from how Cryptic picks which ones to add to the game and ships the designers would love to add and haven’t.

Massively OP: Let’s get the most important question out of the way first: Who is your favorite captain, and why?

Donny Versiga: Oh, this is a tough one to answer, even though I find myself answering it often. Mind you, if the question were “Who is the best captain?” I’d have to say Picard or Janeway. But my favorite captain would have to be James T. Kirk. He was my first captain, and growing up, he was my own “superhero” when other kids were obsessing over comic books. Sure, he was brash at times and has his faults, but he was the first fictional leader I’d really ever been exposed and looked up to, and I just don’t know if he’ll ever be knocked off his pedestal as my favorite captain.

If you had to pick just one ship you’ve worked on to command, what would it be?

I’d have to say the Constitution-class Refit. Although I’ve never modeled it for Star Trek: Online, I have modeled it for fun at home, and I think it’s also my favorite ship due to it both being my favorite captain’s command and a refinement of the original Star Trek ship!






Which do you like better: To model a ship we’ve seen in one of the series/movies, or something totally original to STO?

I definitely favor modeling canon ships and jump at any opportunity to do so. This isn’t to say I haven’t had a blast modeling ships like the Gagarin class or when I got to design the Shran class.

With Klingons, Romulans, Dominion, and no less than three flavors of Federation all available as playable factions, not to mention myriad other races’ ships represented in the cash shop, there is no shortage of unique vessels flying around out there. What’s your favorite race to design for?

The Federation. I know it’s probably a standard answer, but it’s the faction that I best know the design language for and feel the most comfortable with.

How does Cryptic decide which ships to put into the game? Do you just come into the office one morning and say, “Hey, I was watching Star Trek: Picard last night and saw this cool ship and thought we should totally put that in the game!” or does CBS mandate that certain important ships appear?

Over the years, we’ve developed a really great working relationship with the team at CBS. From time to time, they may suggest we add one of the newer ships to our game, but it’s never required. It’s more of a collaborative process. For me personally, I usually make whatever I’m assigned. But I do have a close relationship with the Ship Team lead, Thomas Marrone, and I make sure to tell him if there’s a new ship I’d really like to model or an existing ship I’d like to re-model. He’s been great at finding ways to get me those assignments, if it aligns with scheduling and whatnot.

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Are there any ships you’d really like to see in the game that you just haven’t been able to get to yet? (Also, when do I get to fly a California Class?)

I think everything I’ve ever wanted to fly is in the game already, but there are a few I’d like to remaster/re-model. I’ll keep those a secret for now, in case they come to fruition. Other than that, I’d like to design some new TOS or TMP era ships from the ground-up, as that’s my favorite era of Trek. The California Class? We’ll just have to wait and see!

I can imagine how you look at something from the series, say, the Voth ships from Voyager, and imagine what a Voth carrier or science ship would look like, but how do you go about creating ships for races that were never even seen on screen, like the Tzenkethi?

Usually, fresh new designs are created by our wonderfully talented concept artist, Hector Ortiz. He does all the heavy lifting, as far as designing goes. Generally, we start by getting all the devs involved with ships in a room and discussing what a ship should look like, given the species and class of the ship. So, to continue your example for the case of Tzenkethi, it was taking what we’d already established the Tzenkethi species to look like, and then imagine how their ships would appear given their physical traits and culture. We then take into account what class or role the ship would have (command, support, carrier, scout, etc.) and any special abilities it may possess. Hector then takes all this brainstormed info and begins to make thumbnail sketches of ships. He’ll usually do a pass of about 20 of them, and then we all give feedback on which we like best.

We take the consensus, and then he’ll do 3-D block-outs of the few we liked, and upon another review we’ll decide which single design we think is the best direction to go, sometimes getting him to take details of one or more rough designs and combine them with another. Hector then produces a wonderful series of full-color drawings of the ship alongside his rough 3-D model for the ship team to then model at our required resolution and also build materials (if needed) to apply to the ship to get it as close to his concept as possible. It’s great that he provides his rough 3-D models because it gives us something to start with as far as scale/proportion. Now, there are times when a member of the ship team has to design a ship themselves, and the process is pretty similar, albeit less refined as it would be if Hector were doing the designing.






How, if at all, does this job change the way you watch the series? Do you end up pausing the show to inspect the details on the ships a lot?

Sure, if I get assigned one of the ships from the newer shows like Picard or Discovery, I always load up the episodes it’s featured in on my PC and take frame-by-frame screenshots of the ship in question. I like working with as much reference material as possible. Some of the newer ships aren’t as documented online as the ships of Trek’s past, so if we don’t get adequate reference from CBS, screenshots of the show are a very valuable resource. But, while casually watching the show, I generally don’t pause to take note. It would ruin my immersion! There’s always time for research later.

You’ve also done some environment art during your time at Cryptic. How does modeling ship interiors compare to their exteriors?

Designing ship interiors is a much more involved process, and environment time is always a bit more scarce than ship time, I’ve found. Due to the time crunch, you have to maximize the efficiency of your modeling and reuse as many assets as possible. This is something that our environment team has become more flexible with since I’ve moved to the ship team, and I think that was necessary to increase the fidelity of our new environments/interiors across the board. But also, think of making ship exteriors as making a character, whereas making ship interiors is making an environment. They are two different disciplines requiring two very different skill-sets.

Recently, the team has been going back and updating the look of certain ships to be more accurate to what we see in the series. What is that process like?

his is actually one of my favorite processes. First, we take the older model and examine it closely. We take note of its weaknesses compared to more modern, higher fidelity game assets, and see if there are ways we can make the model more accurate to what we saw in the shows or movies. As PC/console hardware power has increased over the years, the amount of detail we can provide per ship has increased with it so there may be instances where we can double or even triple the amount of geometric detail a ship has. As a result, this now means that geometric details we normally “bake” into the ship’s flat texture can now actually be three-dimensionally modeled. The resulting textures we make for the ships can therefore be less “gamey” or noisy. Both of these enhancements provide a more realistic rendering of the ship. The gap between game models (or low-polygon) and movie/TV models (or high-polygon) models is closing, so some of the old tricks we used to use to make a ship or other model more detailed than it really is are slowly phasing out.

Thank you so much for your time, Donny! Keep up the fabulous work! Peace and long life.

Thank you! Live long and prosper!

For more Star Trek Online fun, be sure to check out Massively OP’s Stream Team, as they boldly go where no stream has gone before tonight at 5 p.m. EDT!

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