As the Iconian conflict sets in for Star Trek Online players, I had a chance to catch up with Star Trek Online’s Lead Designer, Al Rivera, to talk about what goes into making an MMO’s story, how far ahead the team has to be, and how story disputes are settled.
Magicman (MM): For our readers that may not know you, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do day to day on Star Trek Online?
Al Rivera (AR): My name is Al Rivera. I am the lead designer of Star Trek Online. I’ve been on STO from day one, so maybe about 7 years now. The design team reports to me, including systems designers, the content designers and our writer. I am in charge of all aspects of design including the story, the missions, the NPC bad guys, player ships, skills, rewards, combat and non-combat systems, etc. I work with the other leads to plan what we are doing next, and then present that framework to the design team who then pitch their ideas and execute on that plan. I review the content and systems and help to guide and polish it to completion.
MM: Before we get to the upcoming Iconian conflict, can we get a sneak peek behind the writing curtain? Since MMOs are constantly evolving, I imagine you have to have an overall story plan well in advance that gets fleshed out over time. How does the whole process flow behind the scenes and how far ahead of actual live content are you usually writing?
AR: We generally have the story planned out one to two years in advance. The further out the story plan is, the more likely it will be modified based on any number of factors such as new ideas, business strategies, or other unforeseen events. For the most part, we have full details of those stories planned at least six months in advance. For instance, our story plan through October is already locked in and all the actual missions are mostly complete, with a few later pieces partly completed. Beyond October, we have a solid framework on the main story beats we want to hit all the way into middle of 2016. We know what the main story is past that, but have not fleshed out the framework.
Some ideas are planned even further ahead, such as the Iconian war. We generally knew what we wanted to do with them before we launched the game more than five years ago. We just didn’t know exactly when it would happen. There are many story plots like that in our plan – things that need to happen, but exactly when they happen is fluid. Some of them are one-off stories that are waiting for the right opportunity. Some are waiting for a Star Trek actor’s availability. Some just keep getting postponed for scheduling reasons. Some just get scrapped or repurposed.
As for the process, it simply involves a lot of brainstorming with the executive producer, the writer, and the other leads. We start with the big story ideas we want to tell, like the Iconian War, or a new playable faction, or a new quadrant. Then we reference the IP and look for species and events that would resonate well with the story we want to tell. Then we look at the schedule.
As a free to play MMO, there are several business factors that need consideration, such as when we need to release a piece of content, or season, or expansion. We also need to consider regular scheduled events (like the summer and winter event), as well as system releases and ship releases. For example, if we are going to release a new crafting system, or a new ship, how can we integrate it into the story? Once we have our cadence, we then work out how we can break up and modify our story plan into separate missions and then we plan the main events that have to happen in each mission. This is presented to a content designer who fleshes out the gameplay around those events. With lots of reviews, communication, and whole lot of luck, the story slowly comes to life.
MM: Let’s visit Delta Rising for a minute. How has that story line progressed and set the stage for the Iconians?
AR: There were several factors going into Delta Rising that were important to progress the Iconian story. First, the Iconian conflict is a galactic one. So we had to bring the Delta Quadrant into play to see how the Iconians have affected that region of space. It was important to show that in order to succeed, the galaxy needs to be united. Bringing all the races of the Delta Quadrant together was a key element for the player’s victory.
The Delta Quadrant also gave us an opportunity to tie the canon of Voyager into the Iconian conflict. We see how one mistake by the Voyager crew, the awakening of the Vaadwaur in “Dragon’s Teeth,” had galactic repercussions. Just before Delta Rising, you thwart the Iconians plans and the player meets an Iconian for the first time – with dire results. The Iconian warns you to not interfere again. At the end of Delta Rising, you stop the Vaadwaur and again thwart the Iconians’ plans. Those actions will not go unnoticed. You also free Sela, voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Denise Crosby. Sela says she has been held prisoner by the Iconians. She is an unlikely ally, but will be an important player in the Iconian war.
MM: The Iconians are described on Alpha Wiki as being “generally described as a race of conquerors, though recently some scholars disputed this claim as a distortion perpetuated by species that feared and demonized their advanced technology.” How are the Iconians going to be portrayed when they make their appearance in Star Trek Online?
AR: In the canon, it is unclear what really happened 200,000 years ago. As Picard says, history is often rewritten by the victors. So far in Star Trek Online, it has been pretty clear that the Iconian motivations have been manipulative and hostile. In fact, the last time the players encountered an Iconian, she stepped through a gateway, warned the player to not interfere, and then proceeded to disintegrate much of the Klingon High Council with the wave of her hand. It’s safe to say that when the Iconians make their move, they will be adversarial. However, the players still don’t know all the details of the Iconians’ motivations, their culture, or what really happened 200,000 years ago. There is still much to be discovered.
MM: Star Trek Online encourages players to have a hand in the story telling (The Foundry). How does this actually work within the framework of building the game’s story?
AR: The Foundry allows players to make their own playable missions that other players can play – either through a special UI, or by simply flying up to a planet and seeing a list of available player-generated missions. Cryptic does not monitor or regulate the stories players create. They can create any stories they like, and sometimes those stories conflict with the game’s main story – often because the players simply don’t know what we are going to do next. Player Foundry missions are rated by other players, so the best ones rise to the top. It’s generally a self-regulating system. We only intervene when there is an exploit or something about the mission is found to be offensive or otherwise violates the terms of service.
MM: Are there things that you, just as a Star Trek fan, want to implement into the game’s story just for your own amusement?
AR: I prefer not to take advantage of the IP and add silly or campy elements to the game just for my own amusement. Although I guess some might say that is a matter of opinion. We are making a game based on an IP people adore, and I think they much rather have an immersive canonical experience than my or anyone else’s pet project. We try to integrate and reference IP events into our story as much as possible. We believe that is what our players most want to see.
But probably what amused me the most was creating the tribbles. If you are not familiar with Star Trek Online, you can find tribbles in the game. You can also find and replicate all manner of foods. If a tribble is in your inventory with your food, it will eat your food and then reproduce. The resulting tribble is based on what its parent was and what it ate.
MM: What has been your favorite story line thus far that you’ve penned? Did players enjoy it as much as you thought they would?
AR: First, I won’t take credit for having “penned” anything. All our stories are built by several contributors – from the leads, to the content designers, to our writer. Each has a part in “penning” the story. That being said, it’s hard to pick a favorite. My favorites are always those that leverage the canon and truly surprise the player.
Warning, spoiler ahead. One of my favorite story moments is when the player discovered the Vaadwaur are infected with the neural parasites when one bursts through an overseer’s chest. The neural parasites are creatures we have not seen since season one of The Next Generation. It gave us an opportunity to merge stories from Voyager and TNG. It’s an exciting fanboy moment and I think it really surprised the players.
MM: If you had absolute control, what from the Star Trek universe would you bring to Star Trek Online story wise that hasn’t been brought into the game yet?
AR: There is so much canon in Star Trek Online already. You can visit Risa; encounter salt vampires; find out what happened to the 2,800 missing Dominion ships; fight a mugato; go through the Guardian of Forever; visit and defend Deep Space 9 and the Bajoran Wormhole; help a prisoner escape Rura Penthe. There are hundreds of playable ships, and many more to fight against. I think anyone new to the game would be surprised how many canon species, ships, locations and story elements already exist. Someone might think we might run out of reference material, but with so many TV series and movies, there are still years of canon stories to explore.
But to get back to your question, the two things that come to mind that I still want to explore are the whale probe and V-Ger. We have already placed some hints for that later.
My thanks to Al Rivera for taking time to sit down and chat with us.