The executive producer of "Star Trek Online" told us about the hurdles the game faces for console development and cross-platform compatibility, as well as how much they're involved with the upcoming J.J. Abrams movie.
During New York Comic Con this past weekend, I met with Cryptic Studios' Craig Zinkievich, the executive producer of "Star Trek Online." We talked about how the console development is coming along, what console issues the team will face and how he balances Trekkie feedback.
MTV Multiplayer: How big is the team working on "Star Trek"?
Executive producer Craig Zinkievich: We share core resources [across the different games], and we basically have a core engine that allows us to take an MMO idea and get it up and running in six weeks. It's really awesome. Anybody can sit down and come up with a really good idea for an MMO, but MMOs are really hard technically to get down. So many start-ups over the past five years are destroyed by the technical hurdles. Basically, about a year ago, Cryptic's engine got to the point where we can take a team of four or five guys, throw out an idea for five or six weeks and have a fully-playable version. And so about a year ago when we got "Star Trek," that's exactly what we did. We have a core engine, the Cryptic engine, that allows us to do that, but you also need a dedicated design team, art team and software team that's really focused. The team right now is about 25 people.
MTV Multiplayer: The game is going to be on the PC and console. Are you doing simultaneous development for all platforms?
Zinkievich: Yes, I don't think you can split up teams. You also can't just add [consoles] on at the end. So while developing, you need to know it's going both places or you're not going to get it to both places.
MTV Multiplayer: Have you decided which consoles yet?
Zinkievich: It could be either [Xbox 360 or PS3], or both. [smiles]
MTV Multiplayer: What's the biggest challenge in console development?
Zinkievich: The biggest challenge of console development is probably space combat. We want space combat to be strategic, hence there's a lot of tweaking. It's positional. You need to get to the weak side of the ship, take out their shields, and hit them with photon torpedoes. You're going to be managing different power levels for different systems on your ship. You're going to be transferring power from your forward shields to your aft shields. It's a lot more of a paced strategic style, a lot of fiddling, and getting all that onto the controller in a way that's still really fun and exciting is probably the biggest console challenge.
MTV Multiplayer: What about the user interface on the console?
Zinkievich: As long as you know you have to get it on the console, it's okay. If you lose sight of that and just build a UI that looks great on a 1600 resolution monitor and then try to port it over to SD, you're in trouble. But UI issues haven't been a big deal.
Whenever you're making games it's a very creative process. It's an additive process. But you always do look around; you have to know what else is out there. You have to look at other games to figure out how they're doing their UI and how they're getting the complex deep stuff in there in a simple fashion.
MTV Multiplayer: So developing a game for PC and consoles, do you find certification for patches is going to be an issue?
Zinkievich: Both of the first parties, both Microsoft and Sony, are really excited about getting MMOs on their platform, and so we're working with them to see how all the stuff is going to work. ... It's got to be resolved.
MTV Multiplayer: Do you feel it's possible for "Star Trek Online" to have cross-platform compatibility?
Zinkievich: I think MMOs are all about people playing together, people making friends, and having that community online. Anything you can do to make people play together is good. From the technical side there is nothing keeping us from having console and PC players on the same servers. Right now, it's all from a business and first-party issue as to whether or not people will be able to play in the same universe. There's nothing technically keeping us from doing it.
MTV Multiplayer: Speaking on cross-platform compatibility, I recently spoke with the developers of "DC Universe Online" and they were concerned about communication issues between PC and console gamers. Do you think there could be issues as well?
Zinkievich: I think there could be issues, but if you look at any MMO, you can just sit down and go, "Okay, there's the PvPers, there's the carebears, there's the people who like to roleplay." You have those schisms in an MMO already. I'm a console player too, but I don't think I fit what you mean by "console player." You think the guy sitting with his buddies playing "Halo" on a Friday night; I don't think console players are one type of gamer either.
MTV Multiplayer: Okay, but more specifically, PC players have their friends on TeamSpeak, but console players are used to jumping in match to match with voice chat to anyone. Do you think players will have to learn how to communicate with each other?
Zinkievich: Maybe? MMO players already know how voicechat works and fits in an MMO. It's an interesting question but I don't know what the learning curve for a typical console player will be in an MMO.
MTV Multiplayer: Is there an issue in regards to PC gamers used to having macros or mods, how is regulating that with consoles?
Zinkievich: It's an interesting question that we even have debates within the company on. I think what to do is to get stuff out there and see what happens. It's the type of thing where it's new ground, so who knows.
MTV Multiplayer: Who came up with the story?
Zinkievich: We were working really close with CBS, which owns the license. With their licensing team, they know the universe really well. A lot our team is just crazy fans. When we got the license, people just came out of the woodwork saying, "I've got to work on this project! I have a uniform at home. Look, here's my 3D chess set!" So, we have a lot of people who are really familiar, and it's a universe and a franchise that the fans have provided so much history and so much input for us. I think the resources from the internet alone can get anybody up to speed on what's going on.
It takes place in 2409, 30 years after the last movie, "Star Trek: Nemesis." We picked that for a couple of reasons. We think deep-down that people want to play in that universe. People want to be a part of that universe, but they don't want to replay stories they already know. They may be a part of it, but they want to change the story and they want to participate in the story, it's not just, "Okay, I'm going to go play that episode." Setting it in the future allowed us to provide that new and yet familiar experience to people. And at the same time, at the end of "Nemesis" everyone was kind of happy, peace was there but peace never stays long in any place. Even in the Star Trek universe. The Khitomer Accords has broken down, the Klingons are at the Federation's throat, and they're on the verge of all-out war. The universe is a much more dangerous place with a lot more conflict 30 years in the future.
MTV Multiplayer: Is the story in "Star Trek Online" part of the official canon?
Zinkievich: What is the official canon is really an argument that anyone can have. For us all the shows and movies are canon. But you can get in an argument with any of the fans about how even some of the shows may have small contradictions in them. We want to make sure that we follow that timeline, and we're true to that timeline. We see the shows and movies as canon. We're reading the novels now; the novels are considered soft canon with a lot of more conflicts in there. You can never call yourself "canon," but we can't take a 90-degree angle and go it's all totally different.
MTV Multiplayer: How much are you consulting with authors or fans, besides CBS?
Zinkievich: We talked to a lot of people about the storylines, but CBS is kind of the brain trust. They know what's going on in the novels. They know the shows really well. It's great to have that knowledge base to be able to go to them. They also know what's coming out so we can stay true to that.
MTV Multiplayer: In terms of fan feedback, how much do you incorporate and how much do you have to just turn off?
Zinkievich: The community that we have is awesome. I think the Star Trek fan base is one of a kind and they are amazing to work with. They are nit-picky, but even people on the team are nit-picky saying things like oh that's not the right color. We have guys like that on the development staff. Your community is your core audience; they are going to be the ones playing the game you can't tune them out. You have to make your decisions, and you have to go with what you think is the right thing to do. But at the same time, their feedback is invaluable. If we didn't have a driving community, first off, you wouldn't have a game, but you'd never know if you were doing the right things. You have to listen to your community.
MTV Multiplayer: Has there been any involvement with people working on the movie, like J.J. Abrams?
Zinkievich: We've talked to [J.J. Abrams' production company] Bad Robot a little bit. We worked with CBS to make sure anything they've been doing matches up with what we're doing, but there aren't massive tie-ins. "Star Trek Online" isn't going to come out with everybody looking exactly like in the movie. It's not a movie game; it's really continuing the franchise.
MTV Multiplayer: Have you spoken to Leonard Nimoy or William Shatner lately?
Zinkievich: We actually had Leonard Nimoy with us when we announced Cryptic Studios had the game. We worked with him on that. We're going to continue to work with him. We've been in contact with a number of people who have been involved with the franchise, and it's really cool to talk to those guys.
MTV Multiplayer: Are we going to see Captain Kirk resurrected in "Star Trek Online"? I only ask because he was reportedly angry that he wasn't asked to be involved in the new movie, even though he died in "Star Trek 6."
Zinkievich: [laughs] You probably will not. I think you'll see events and settings, and relatives of the known characters. But we're in the future where the majority of the known characters have passed on.