Star Trek Online has been offering sci-fi inclined MMO fans a chance to live out the fantasy of captaining their own starship for almost four years now. Since it's launch in 2009 the game has undergone some significant changes, via regular content updates and a shifting financial model. We talked with the game's lead producer, Stephen Ricossa, to find out more about the game, its recent history, and what's coming in the future of the MMORPG.
"Star Trek Online is an MMO about living in the Star Trek Universe," Ricossa told us, explaining the draw of the game and the lure of the IP. "You engage in diplomacy, visit exciting IP locations, and engage in amazing ship combat. You're hitting the highlights of what everyone loved about the show and picking up story threads from episodes throughout all of the series. Aside from the IP related Star Trek draw, we have an expansive fleet [guild] progression system and a robust personal progression end-game system that's full of content tied to some epic end-game rewards. All in all we feel we've grown to provide a really Trek experience for the players, and really for ourselves because we're huge Trek fans."
The latest content update, The Sphere, was released recently to "generally positive" feedback from the community. The game's lead producer gives us a few tantalizing details: "We introduced the largest ever ship in Star Trek history and let players fight outside of it, punch a hole in the side and then take it out from the inside. Aside from being an incredible set piece, it's just an unbelievably fun mission that takes place on one gigantic map."
Ricossa talked about other new additions that appeared in the latest update: "Another big fan favorite out of this Season  was the Voth Battlezone, a ground territory control based zone where a team of 20 players and 40 bridge officers test their skill against entrenched Voth troops. We've heard nothing but positive things out of this brand new type of content, and we're definitely looking to create a new version in the future. All in all we're really happy with the player response with the Season and how many players are logging on to enjoy it."
Keeping an audience happy is the most important thing for an MMO hoping to retain a strong player base, especially when you consider how competitive the landscape is at the moment. Ricossa explained how Star Trek Online had been evolving over the last three years with the aim of keeping fans coming back for more: "I would categorize the changes that Star Trek Online has undergone in the last four years as extraordinary. STO has grown and improved with every single update, so much so that sometimes it just feels like a completely different game than what shipped in February of 2009."
He continued: "Our team had so many plans for features and content that just couldn't fit into the launch schedule and finally being able to create them and get them out to the players is what growing a live game is all about."
Part of the game's continued success is undoubtedly the shift to free-to-play. Ricossa described the change of financial model as "monumental for the game", stating that since they made the move player numbers and retention have increased. "Prior to our free to play launch we were up and running well for two years," he explained, "but opening it up for anyone to try really broadened our appeal. We've increased the number of players that try out STO, that stick around after they try it, and that are regularly playing."
So the transition was a firm success, but that doesn't mean that they've turned their back on the old financial model completely. "We still offer subscriptions," he added, "and we offer some great incentives for doing so, our goal is to hope people understand the value that is added to the game if they subscribe. If they choose not to subscribe that's fine as well, I believe the future of this space is giving players a choice in how or if they want to spend to support the game they play."
Part of the appeal of Star Trek Online stems from the television shows and the successful movies. With the recently released films from J.J. Abrams once again swinging the spotlight on the franchise, we wanted to know whether there were any plans to bring more of the events from the recent movies into the STO timeline. Sadly, for fans of the latest movies, it doesn't look like it's going to happen.
"Our rights to the Star Trek license covers all of the prime universe movies and television shows, so the two most recent films are not [included in the deal]. We're all fans of the new movies, so maybe one day we'll be able to get some of that stuff into the game. There are some fun story lines and exciting ships that would be great to explore."
While we were on the subject, we also asked about the Namco Bandai title that accompanied the release of the most recent film, Into Darkness: "I think it had some impressive graphics and they really did some great work with the voice overs from the whole cast. I think the plan for creating a third person action shooter based Star Trek game is an incredibly fun idea, and I'm glad it got an opportunity to be made," Ricossa said, perhaps diplomatically.
Fans (or Trekkies) are well known for their dedication to the Star Trek universe. Ricossa explained how the studio makes sure that they stick to canon and create content that'll appeal to their committed audience. "We debate the canon, our favorite ships, favorite episodes, and favorite Captain's as often as any other trek fan on the internet."
"The fact that so many of us are huge fans makes working on this game a labor of love, and no one wants us to honor the IP more than we do," we were told, before it was made clear that the team is also closely watched from on high. "Aside from our own desire to do well, CBS checks in with us regularly to make sure everything we do works within their confines for the IP. We work closely together to ensure our plot points work for them, and that the look and feel of the game matches what they're after for the IP."
"The Deferi is a great example of a race we conceptualized, pitched, and created that CBS felt fits within the Star Trek Universe and could definitely fit into the game. In general, we have the freedom to move in whichever direction we want as long as it feels Trek and we ultimately get CBS approval," Ricossa declared.
And what about the unwritten future for the MMO? "In the near term we're not planning to add any additional factions, but that doesn't preclude us from seeing the need for a new one in the future," we were told when asking about the three playable factions already on offer (Romulan Republic, Klingon Defense Force and Federation).
"Most of our players make the choice on which faction to play based on their preference while watching the show," Ricossa explained when discussing the differences between the three. "That said the gameplay differences between the factions make the choices between factions interesting. The Federation goes for breadth over depth, and to that end cover a wider variety of ship types and tactics. They have extremely limited cloaking capabilities, though access to the largest number of cruiser class ships and science abilities in the game. The Klingons are offensively focused and employ cloaking to give them an advantage in combat. They field some of the largest, toughest ships in the game while simultaneously possessing some of the highest damage lowest hull strength combinations in the game. There are definitely some unique gameplay options here."
We were then given a fuller explanation of what the most recently added faction brings to the table: "The Romulans create ships that are so large they dwarfs all other playable ships, while also providing each ship with battle cloak since Romulans are true masters of cloaking technology. Though those reasons aren't the main gameplay advantages of the Romulans. They power their massive ships with a singularity core, essentially a black hole warp drive. This singularity core gives them access to five interesting and unique abilities that give them some great flexibility in combat."
Federation and Klingon players are spoilt for choice when it comes to the different playable races on offer, Romulan players less so (although there is the alien creator that adds some variety). The reason behind the decision was the "tightly crafted story arc", and while Cryptic aren't planning on adding more options in this direction, they're also not ruling anything out ("if something that really fits comes to mind we're definitely open to it").
Finally, when we asked what was next for the MMO, Ricossa hinted at something that Trek fans will be excited about. "I can't get into too many details, but we have something really cool planned for everyone," he teased. "Our next update would be our Anniversary Event coming early next year. This event should not only be a fun celebration of the anniversary, but also move the story from the Dyson Sphere forward."
Star Trek Online is free-to-play and available to download now. For more information on the sci-fi MMO, or to sign up, you can head this way.