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How Star Trek Online managed to live long and prosper

In a decade when many licensed MMOs struggled and died, lead designer Al Rivera discusses why Cryptic Studios' voyage to the final frontier has survived

When World of Warcraft took the world by storm, engaging ten of millions of fans with an interactive shared world, the potential of the MMORPG sparked the imaginations (and eye-embedded dollar signs) of many a Hollywood IP holder.

Some, inevitably, fell by the wayside. The Matrix Online, Pirates of the Caribbean, Marvel Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies -- each of these failed to prevent their userbase from declining and ultimately closed (in some cases, just a few years after they launched).

Others, however, have endured. Star Wars: The Old Republic -- while considerably younger than most MMOs on the market -- continues to draw in fans of George Lucas' universe, while Lord of the Rings Online has gone beyond the story of the original novels. DC Universe Online somehow delivers on the superhero fantasy that its rival could not.

Among the survivors is Star Trek Online, which last week celebrated its tenth anniversary.

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Al Rivera, Cryptic Studios

There are many factors behind the game's endurance -- not the least of which was the inevitable switch to free-to-play -- but lead designer Al Rivera tells GamesIndustry.biz the most important has been Cryptic Studios' refusal to stay static. New content has been released every three to four months, making it difficult for players to run out of things to enjoy. Above all, the team has endeavoured to stay adaptable.

"It is good to have a plan, and to understand what your players want, but it is also very important to be ready to pivot at any time," says Rivera. "The audience changes, the industry changes, and expectations change. You have to be ready to read the tea leaves and adjust when it's necessary, but at the same time, don't change the fundamentals of what players love about your game. That is probably one of the hardest things to manage, but also where we have been most strategically successful."

New content is laid out into seasons and episodes, harking to the properties' TV routes, creating an ongoing narrative within the world of Star Trek Online. If players exhaust this content, Rivera proudly points to the robust endgame, with replayable missions and raids, both on the ground and among the stars, catering to solo players and groups alike. There are also regular events, either annual or one-off, in between major expansions and content drops to shake things up.

Of course it helps that the game is built on one of the longest-running sci-fi franchises in existence.

The developers are not only able to draw on 50 years of existing episodes, novels, comics, and movies, but also have access to the actors that front them -- most recently adding Jeri Ryan (of Voyager and Picard fame) and Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek Discovery's central heroine Michael Burnham) in the tenth anniversary Legacy update.

While the MMO has received a fresh wave of both interest and content from streaming series Discovery and Picard, Rivera says it was the JJ Abrams movies, starting in 2009, that really demonstrated the opportunity for Star Trek Online.

"Every time there is new Star Trek, it gives us tons of new things to leverage," he says. "It gives us more stories, characters, locations, ships and gear to leverage into our game. It also keeps the game current.

"With Discovery, Picard, and others shows in the pipeline, we have more material than we can keep up with. Star Trek Online could easily last another ten years"

"[The franchise's history] has been a gold mine of creativity for us. But having new high production value shows with high caliber acting talent is like having your own personal muse. We are constantly inspired by the new shows and watching them and saying to ourselves, 'We have to get that ship,' or 'We need to finish that story,' or 'We need to bring in that actor.' We also get to work more closely with CBS and their other partners like IDW comics, and Eaglemoss starship models. Right now, it's just a huge bounty for us."

One ongoing challenge is the contrasting tones of the source material and the MMORPG space. Historically, Star Trek has been less focused on action and more on exploration, moral dilemmas, solving mysteries and character-driven stories -- there is many an episode where a phaser is never even fired. Whereas, video games (and particularly MMOs) tend to be undeniably driven by combat, the core gameplay loop being to strengthen both your character and inventory in order to confront bigger and tougher baddies.

It's a balancing act, but one that Rivera is confident the Cryptic team has managed to achieve: "Content creators should play to the strengths of their medium. Television shows and movies should play to their strengths, and comics should play to theirs. Star Trek Online is a video game. That means there will be lots of action and combat.

"But that doesn't mean we sacrifice story. Most of our missions could be episodes in the television show and we interlace the narrative with combat. Star Trek Online missions have lots of intrigue, mystery, exploration, and adventure. This is where you will encounter Star Trek alumni actors. The stories are deep, and meaningful with morality plays to ponder. Some are joyous and some will make you cry. They are all very Star Trek, and our big arcs typically conclude with a very Star Trek-style, very poignant solution. It's not about just blowing up that big bad."

While the nature of video games necessitates more combat than the TV show, Cryptic Studios has taken care to ensure narrative is still at the forefront

While the nature of video games necessitates more combat than the TV show, Cryptic Studios has taken care to ensure narrative is still at the forefront

This brings up another balancing act: appealing to the more passive fans of Star Trek's TV and movies and the active players of MMORPGs. Granted, there's inevitable crossover between the two, but there will still be aspiring Picards and Kirks who want to live out their Starfleet fantasies despite their lack of experience with the medium. How has Cryptic appealed to and retained this group?

"I don't think our strategy is fundamentally different because it is a Star Trek game," Rivera says. "Cryptic Studios builds games that are accessible to all gamers, not just hardcore gamers. If a player puts in the time and effort, they will succeed and progress in our games. You don't need to be an elite player. We build worlds for enthusiasts.

"As for Star Trek fans, we make sure the lore is aligned and respectful with the canon. That is something we take extremely seriously. If you are a Star Trek fan, you are going to experience every tiny bit of lore and nuance you could possibly imagine. If you can think of a race, location, piece of gear, or obscure piece of lore, it's probably already in Star Trek Online.

"If you are not familiar with Star Trek, that's fine. You may not get every Easter egg, but the stories and world are complete enough and internally consistent so you can enjoy it without knowing anything about Star Trek. Sometimes that simply means being a little more expositional. We never assume all our players know the nuanced back story."

With the first decade behind it, Star Trek has already surpassed a key milestone that many MMOs do not. And the recent surge of interest in the series thanks to CBS' new shows means there's no loss of momentum as Cryptic Studios focuses on the years ahead.

"Star Trek Online is a very healthy game with no signs of slowing down," says Rivera. "Now, with Discovery, Picard, and soon Lower Decks, and several others shows in the pipeline, we have more material than we can keep up with. We are working closer than ever with CBS, and are able to bring very contemporary stories quickly to the player. Star Trek Online could easily last another ten years."

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