The excitement continues to build as Star Trek Online entered closed beta less than two weeks ago. For part one of a two-part series on space and ground combat in Star Trek Online, Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich stopped in to chat about how ship-to-ship combat plays out in the final frontier. What role will ship type, speed, maneuverability, and tactics play in battle, and can your friends join in your encounter or instance at any time? What about loot and loot split in co-op combat? Will STO support user interface addons and flight sim-oriented peripherals? And, as importantly as any of these questions, how will Star Trek Online preserve the "bridge drama" and atmosphere that has made Star Trek ship combat so compelling for generations? The answers to these questions and more below!
Ten Ton Hammer: So when I think of what makes Star Trek space combat bracing, it wasn't the budget TNG visuals, it was the bridge drama. The ship takes a hit, sparks fly, the viewscreen fuzzes out, the guys in yellow shirts flying halfway across the screen, and someone yells that deck nine has sustained casualties. How do you preserve that "bridge drama" with the third-person perspective in Star Trek Online? Do voiceovers play a role?
Craig: We're playing with voiceovers in terms of giving you information about what is going on during combat. And we're testing that and seeing how it works: seeing how annoying it can be to be told that you shields are going down over and over again, and trying to find nice ways to get that in the game because as you pointed out, I think that having your bridge crew, having your bridge officers actually relay the information about what's going on is kind of a very important part of Star Trek.
I think one of the ways that we really kind of approach the combat is really by slowing it down. I mean... we looked at a lot of games that were out there--a lot of space sim games and even a lot of Star Trek games that came before, and a lot of them tried to make it into a dogfight, or tried to make it zippy, or tried to make it really fast and action-y. And we really tried to slow the pace of combat down to the point where you could be worrying about your shields, you could be worrying about: 'Okay, I've got to go into defensive mode for a little bit to get myself back into the state where I can jump back into battle,' and allow you to play with your power levels, allow you to worry about positioning. So we did many, many iterations to kind of slow the pace of combat down to try to get that 'this one thing went wrong, how am I going to react to that one specific part of combat?'
STO will make extensive use of space combat to tell its stories.
Ten Ton Hammer: How does space combat interact with story? Can you take damage to critical systems as you're working your way into an instance... and be maybe a little more limited in your options? Can you loot interesting things, you know tractor beam them aboard and equip them right away? We talked about docking a little bit, and the kinds of things that would be available to you there. But, maybe you could talk about, just in general, how the things that happen in combat affect or change or build up the story?
Craig: Some combat ends in total annihilation of your target and some combat is pretty much halted right at the end. You finish them off, but they're still there- you beam aboard their ship and try to take that ship over. We're trying to work in different ways of merging the story and combat. More than half of the game does take place in space, so half of the time, you are adventuring around and discovering things, and realizing what is going on.
Now, there's nothing in the game right now, that's like, 'Oh look, his shields are down, so the instance is going to play like this instead.' But there are environmental things. I mean, it happens all the time in Star Trek where: 'Oh look, our communications aren't working.' Or, 'We can't transport out of here.... we've got to find someplace where the transporters are going to work.' Or even with the gameplay itself. I know there is this one episode where you show up at this system, and it is just crawling with Klingons--there's just no way to take them on straight on. But, you do have to get to a destination on the other side of the system. And so, you end up skirting all of the Klingons and you have to stay within the nebula so that they can't actually detect you. So there are a lot of things about the story and about the environment that kind of change up how your ship behaves and how combat works.
Ten Ton Hammer: So, we know about the two different views: the astrometrics kind of "overworld" view of the game, and system space where combat occurs. As you're going along in the astrometrics overview, is there a chance that you could be attacked by random NPCs as you're going along?
Craig: I wouldn't call it randomly, but yes. It's not a Final Fantasy mechanic where you're flying along and it goes "doo-dlee-doo-dlee-doo" and it takes you into an instance. But, there are critters, there are enemy signals that you will see on the astrometrics view... you know, Klingons coming into Federation space to attack planets or the Borg down in the southernmost sectors. And you can engage them or you can try to avoid them. Yeah, there definitely are (just to use MMO parlance) there are wandering mobs in the astrometrics in the system space view.
Ten Ton Hammer: Will they pursue you at all? Will you see those signals move toward you?
Craig: Yes. Some of the signals will actually move away from you, and you have to chase them down. But some of them will see you and engage and then draw you into combat. So, yes... it's really kind of up to the player. You can go right at them, but yeah, they come after you. They end up aggroing you just as if they noticed you and you noticed them. They'll just react how they are programmed to react. You may see a bunch of Klingons and then they turn to attack you. Now the cool thing is that that encounter ends up turning into a location on the astrometric map, where other players who are flying by and who are flying around in sector space can see that activity, that there's something going on there, and they can actually jump in and help out.
Ten Ton Hammer: Will those encounters kind of scale to the size and composition of your group? Or are they designed for a solo player?
Craig: They're actually designed for more than a solo player. So, a solo player getting jumped by one of them... it's one of things where we want... I mean, if players see this on the map, it's one of the things that they should think, 'I'm going to go help that guy, I'm going to go help out.' You can actually tell how many guys are in there. It's actually really hard for a single guy so if you get jumped as a solo player, you're probably going to try to get out of there as soon as possible. Or hope that other people are coming to help you. So, definitely, it scales.
Ten Ton Hammer: How much of space combat is damage dealing versus positioning, and by that I mean either impacting your enemy's mobility or getting yourself in good position to attack effectively?
Craig: There are a lot of abilities in the game that are like hold abilities, like tractor beam. You've got to have a tractor beam when you're in space, and you can kind of keep your enemy still and really work on one of his shields. But the way that it works is that you are always moving. When you're staying still, it's actually detrimental--you end up taking more damage. The enemies can do more damage to you if you're not moving. They can get your vital systems easier, and so... space combat is always about moving around, so there's always a positional aspect to it. I wouldn't say it's about keeping your enemy still, but it's really about trying to find your enemy's weakest shields, really kind of work on there, really try to get your team to bring down that shield, and really go to his hull on his vulnerable side. And kind of trying to keep you... position your ship, maneuver your ship, so that you can keep doing that.
Ten Ton Hammer: Okay. And when it comes to these more random encounters, is hit-and-run tactics a valid way to play?
Craig: I think hit-and-run is actually kind of difficult if you go up against a kind of encounter that has more guys in it that you should be able to take. You could try, but it's very hard to pull just one guy out of an encounter right now. If you go into an encounter with three ships, you're going to be fighting those three ships. And, they're going to maneuver around you so that they can take you down. It's not as easy as just hit-and-run, pull one-guy, go back, and pull another guy. If you aggro one guy within a squadron, they're all going to know that you're there, and they're all going to pay attention.
Ten Ton Hammer: How do you escape from these encounters? Is it just a matter of getting far enough away that the encounter ends and you're back in the astrometrics overview?
Craig: Yeah. Basically, the way to escape one of these encounters is to fly far enough away so that you can go back into warp space, so that you can go back into warp speed again.
Speed and maneuverability is as important as firepower in Star Trek Online.
Ten Ton Hammer: Let's talk about the different kinds of speed in the game and how speed affects combat tactics.
Craig: So there are basically three different speed that you move in Star Trek Online. You travel at warp speed, and whenever you're at warp, you're in the astrometric view. That is, you're never in system space travelling at warp speed. Your fast mode when you're in system space is full impulse. It's kind of like putting all of your energy into your engines and so that, you know, you can fly around at faster speed. You can go between points of interest within a system, you can go out and explore that system at a little bit higher rate.
That being said, when you are at full impulse, all your power's to your engine, so you have very little to your shields, and none to your weapons. And transferring power over to them takes time, so you don't full impulse into combat. You pretty much full impulse kind of right out of range, let your systems charge back up again, and then go into combat. But, during combat, you're going at less than quarter impulse when you're going into combat. You can change your throttle, you can change your speed, you can still transfer energy to your engines so that you end up going faster. You get to the encounter, and then figure out how fast you're going to go to get into battle.
Ten Ton Hammer: And, you have to take your power away from your weapons and shields to go back to full impulse again once you're in combat?
Craig: Yeah, you end up having to be out of combat to go full impulse. But you can transfer all your energy to your engines, you can actually use officer abilities, like "emergency power to engines," to give you a speed burst to kind of get out of combat again if you need to.
Ten Ton Hammer: I imagine all of your tactics change depending upon what kind of ship you are piloting.
Craig: Exactly. All those numbers change based on what configuration of ship you have, and as well as what equipment you end up putting on your ship. So if you end up using a whole bunch of energy credits to get that really good impulse engine, you're going to end up going faster that somebody who doesn't have that equipment. All of the strategies, all of your speed, is really based upon how you're going to end up equipping your ship.
So, I kind of described the very basic approach: you go full impulse to just outside of range, and then you go into combat at a slower rate. There are people here who end up building their ship in a way that they full impulse way into combat. They know that their weapons are going to be offline but what they want to do is they want to close that distance because the phasers that they have do more damage the closer you are to your enemy. Their weapons are going to be down for three to four seconds, but they can absorb that damage (maybe they have some consoles on their ship that increase the rate at which energy transfers between systems), and then they're really focused on beam weapons, so they want to be as close as possible. So really dependent on how you outfit your ship and the abilities of those ships. I mean there are just a myriad of different strategies that can come up with.
Ten Ton Hammer: Okay. And how does loot work, when you're with a group? Split evenly, round robin?
Craig: We end up doing kind of loot sharing whenever a drop happens. There's round robin and chancing based on the level discrepancies between players. The loot basically drops for a certain person within the group. And they can deal with trading or not trading, but we kind of round robin it so that it's kind of a fair loot drop. So... I'm not going to be able to steal your loot.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is that something that the group leader will be able to choose? You know, whether it's round robin or percentage chance to loot, or something like that?
Craig: Yeah--hopefully, by launch, we'll have the standard loot-sharing choices that other MMOs have, but right now, it's round robin.
Ten Ton Hammer: I wanted to ask you about supporting peripherals. Champions Online makes great use of an XBox controller. A lot of games that have a flying element to them have support for head-tracking peripherals and other gadgets. Have you decided on what kind of peripherals the games going to support yet?
Communication and coordination will play an important role in STO combat, but specific peripheral and addon support remains a question mark.
Craig: We haven't announced any deals or any official support yet. But, yeah, we're definitely looking in the X360 controller, because a lot of people have those and they work really well. As well as, I mean, joysticks and other controllers like that, but I don't have any announcements right now. We'll try to get as many in as possible before we have to ship, and then keep adding them in afterwards as the community asks for support.
Ten Ton Hammer: What about voice chat? Do you suspect players will use voice chat much more in combat than text chat?
Craig: Yeah, I think that people will use voice chat a lot more readily in combat than text chat, but we don't plan on having any integrate voice at launch. Whenever we talked to the community about it or whenever we discuss it with MMO players in general, most people have--you know, they have their favorite, they have their Ventrilo server for their guild, or they already have their voice chat that they have and that they enjoy and they plan on using for whatever MMO they're going to be in. So... it's something we don't plan on putting in for launch.
Ten Ton Hammer: What's your stance on user-interface add-ons? Are you going to be open to that, do you think? Or, is that something that's yet to be determined?
Craig: It is yet to be determined. The engine that we use to do our U.I. is a proprietary engine internally that's actually really powerful, and really cool scripting-wise. But, whether or not, we'll be able to kind of expose that and get that out to the public by launch is something that we're not quite sure about right now.
Ten Ton Hammer: Okay. And, along with that, will you allow players to macro certain maneuvers? Do you think you might allow, keyboard shortcuts or macros or things like that?
Craig: You can pretty much bind anything within the game command-wise to a key that you want it to be on. We do have limited macro support, and we're going to kind of have to make sure that the macro support that we expose doesn't actually remove the fun from the game. That you can't actually macro away the game part of it. So, that's something we're evaluating right now.
Our thanks to Craig Zinkievich for taking the time (and braving the flu) at Cryptic Studios to speak with Ten Ton Hammer last week!