The Foundry: Savior of Star Trek Online?

Updated Thu, Dec 23, 2010 by borticus

ack gack uck
STO gasping for air?
No longer!
Since the launch of Star Trek Online in February 2010, the game and its developer (Cryptic Studios) have been suffering from a steady decline in overall consumer confidence. For a game that once boasted so many concurrent users that hardware stability and connection woes were a common concern, we certainly don't hear much from the STO community these days, and the press that does come out is generally short on praise for this iconic title.

That is all about to change.

A few weeks back, Cryptic Studios opened up their player-authored content creation engine, The Foundry, for use on their public test server. And while players' opinions on the capabilities and ease-of-use of this tool are split, nobody can deny the impact that this robust mechanic is adding to a game that has otherwise been teetering on the edge of obscurity.

The most obvious and immediate effect that the launch of this tool will have is in the sudden increase in content available to the players. Since the content in STO has been called a relative drought when compared alongside top-shelf MMOGs like WoW, EQ2, DDO, LOTRO, etc., the influx of a whole swath of new playable content for players is an extremely important factor to consider. A single well-crafted mission can take Cryptic's in-house content designers days or weeks of development time to create, test and launch, but may require nothing more than a few hours' work for a skilled Foundry user since they are not required to submit to an excrutiating QA process or management review before publishing the mission to their fellow players.

It's a valid concern that due to this lack of professional polish, many of the missions created in the Foundry will end up barely meeting even the lowest of low expectations. In fact, over the past few weeks, I've had the displeasure of playing through approximately a dozen
out of 4
cringe-worthy missions filled to the brim with atrocious plots, rampant grammatical and spelling errors, undefeatable bugs, and groan-worthy story concepts. However, I'm happy to report that due to the player review system present in the Foundry system, I was able to review these missions' scorecards (out of 4 stars) and read other players' reviews and comments. In every case, I knew what I was getting myself into, because I was not the first to experience the pain of these poorly crafted missions and those that had come before me had made their opinions clear.

This is a system that has already been widely used in communities across the internet. Shopping sites like Amazon and NewEgg routinely feature the reviews and ratings of their customers on each item they sell, allowing consumers to shop in smarter ways by tapping into a worldwide network of other shoppers. And of course, such a rating system is not new to user-generated content having been developed and introduced alongside City of Heroes' Architect system several years ago.

By utilizing a similar rating and review system in STO a self-policed system has begun to emerge where content created by players is also played by players, rated and critiqued by players, and ultimately either filtered out of the system due to poor ratings or elevated to a form of "featured" status by appearing at the top of related searches.

And the player-created episodes that earn this vaunted honor are indeed incredible! I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a number of the top-most rated player-generated missions currently available, and was simply blown away by the creativity and ingenuity that some of STO's players have already demonstrated. Some of the missions I played through even rivaled or exceeded the quality of similar developer-created content available elsewhere in the game.

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.
One brilliant example is a mission by the name of "The Longing" which at many points feels like an homage to the movie Star Trek: Generations. In this mission, you're tasked with defending an apparently worthless colony from an attack by the enigmatic and ruthless Borg, only to find out that the true villain is a deeply grief-stricken colonist that has lured the Borg there in order to join his wife among their ranks of assimilated drones. Much the same as ST:G's villain sought to achieve his ultimate bliss by re-entering the Nexus at any cost, this deranged engineer is willing to place the entire colony at risk for the chance to be re-united with his former love, regardless of the prices he must pay. The pathos and depth of this character is so real that I felt the slightest pang of regret when I was forced to destroy him after he'd ultimately achieved his goal of joining the Collective, in order to save the rest of his colony from a similar fate.

This mission was crafted by a single player. Not an entire development team. Cryptic Studios didn't have to pay the players' wages, or spend their QA time readying the mission for release. They simply made sure the Foundry tools worked and hoped for the best. And magic happened.

Now, I'll be honest - for every mission like "The Longing" there will probably end up being a hundred eye-rollingly terrible episodes. But that's still one more mission that amounts to about an hour's worth of new content for every single player in STO. Even at such a low ratio of play-worthy:groan-worthy, you're still looking at a worst-case scenario of dozens or even hundreds of top-notch Trek experiences rolling out to the playerbase upon the official launch of The Foundry.

To put that even further into perspective, Cryptic Studios has only managed to add probably fewer than 30 new missions since it's launch almost a year ago despite having a dedicated content creation team. This number is likely to be dwarfed at least ten-fold within the first week of The Foundry's public launch. And that's only counting the good missions.

Get a "piece of the action" you can call your very own ...
create it in the Foundry!
Content drought? Not any longer! By putting the power of creation into the hands of the rabid Star Trek fanbase which is well-known for its fan fiction and roleplaying efforts, any concerns over content and replay value are being directly addressed, if not completely eliminated.

Additionally, with the launch of this versatile toolset, the community of STO is about to get a serious boost in viability and necessity. You see, in order for any new missions to be played and rotated into a featured slot, they must obtain positive reviews by players willing to take a chance on unplayed and unreviewed missions. This means that, by extension, authors of these new player-created missions will be trying their best to advertise their missions to fleetmates, friends, groups, random players, and STO fans in forums all over the web, in hopes of eventually dethroning an established well-reviewed episode and taking their place among the pantheon of awesome missions.

In other words, it won't matter how good the missions are, if nobody plays them. And while this may sound like a negative statement on the surface, it is actually a boon to a community that has otherwise become highly insular, cliquish and isolated from one another due primarily to the heavily-instanced nature of the game's server architecture. These social boundaries are going to have to come crashing down, as authors of new Star Trek epics will seek the means to get their stories heard and experienced by as many people as possible.

And new communities will spring into existence, as well! With any robust modding tool, experts will emerge from the rabble that are willing and anxious to share their knowledge with others and bring more users into their fold. We've seen it happen in every game that's ever offered user-friendly content creation tools: Neverwinter Nights, City of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies, Quake, Half-Life, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and so many more. Each of these titles have developed long-term dedicated players and content creators simply by offering the tools that put the power of creation into the hands of the users.

It's not always just about creating, either. Sometimes it's as simple as a random player experiencing a mission that they particularly enjoyed or disliked, and contacting the author to share their commentary. From there, acquaintances can blossom into friendships, and sometimes even more.
Any tool that encourages the interaction of one player with another is a tool that encourages the growth and strength of the community those players belong to.

But I suppose many of you haven't read this article merely for the rhetorical theories and projections I've been sharing up until this point. More to the point, is the Foundry worth the hype?


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