It's been a while, yet again, and this time I have no good reason for it. It's not illness or complications. It is one thing. Star Trek Online. The Open Beta consumed me, which gave way to the Headstart consuming me, and then Launch, and here we are now. If I have had a computer open, it is to play this game. I am obsessed, and I am not only not ashamed but proud of it.
I took vacation so that I could bury myself in the game. And, admittedly, in various car repairs. So I am both poor and obsessed, but rich in spirit.
Needless to say, I like the game. I like it a lot. And I'm not alone. One report Atari has issued indicated one million active accounts after Launch. That's pretty freakin' huge. And the game has had congestion issues which have led to Queues to get in, because the concurrent users continues to be monumental -- which means a much larger than expected percentage of the total player base is actually in the game playing -- or trying to be -- at any one time. People are trying to play, and after they play they're coming back for more.
Naturally, this has led inexorably to claims the game is doomed. DOOOOOOOMED! After all, if people are having to wait in queues to play, they'll be turned off by Cryptic's unprofessionalism and leave.
That's right. This game is doomed because it's too crowded.
This is the kind of problem developers dream of having.
This is not to say, however, that the game doesn't have problems that need resolving. It has them, all right, and it does indeed need to fix them and build upon them. In a lot of cases they're stuff that another six months in development would have helped -- content issues, some gameplay bugs and the like. But, for various reasons that was not to be (most of them spelled A-T-A-R-I and M-O-N-E-Y if some of the interim shareholder reports are to be believed), so the question becomes simple:
Look, this is a hit. You don't get to a million users, all trying desperately to play, and call it anything but a hit. But as others smarter than I have said, MMOs aren't a sprint -- they're a marathon. In six months or a year you're still going to want to have hundreds of thousands of players. What's worse, a good number of the most dedicated players aren't going to be contributing to the bottom line any more. See, there was a 'Lifetime Subscription Deal' which mean that for two hundred and fifty bucks you got to have extra character slots, plus the ability to have your Captain be a 'Liberated Borg,' plus you'd never have to pay the monthly fee. The true believers, the hungry gameplayers and the far game thinkers grabbed that deal. Hell, I grabbed that deal, representing most of my personal 'fun' money for the next half year, honestly speaking.
And that's fine and dandy, but that means at least tens of thousands of players -- maybe more -- who are both going to be demanding and who aren't going to contribute fifteen bucks a month to the game. That means Cryptic needs needs needs needs needs to hold on to the teeming masses who aren't hardcore believers and fans of Star Trek Online to keep paying the bills. And that means the next 12 months are crucial to the success of this game.
These are the same issues plaguing unqualified hit games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, it's worth noting -- huge initial sales, followed by steep dropoffs in subscriptions moving forward. And it's very unlikely that Star Trek Online will grow in subscriptions past the six month mark right now. In order to gain the kind of forward momentum and actual subscriber growth that something like World of Warcraft enjoys, Star Trek Online is going to need to do more development moving forward than it did previous to release. It needs more people working on the game, in other words. Not only can't they rest on their laurels, they need to start cultivating fields and planting more laurel trees stat.
To their credit, they seem to know this. Right as we opened Headstart, they began to tease the first free content update. High end/endgame content. "Raidisodes" which will require teams to complete, with the depth of the full "episode" style mission-arcs. The Borg. More playable species. Klingon PvE content (exploration style, which means they can explore strange, new worlds... seek out new life forms and new civilizations... and conquer them for the honor and glory of the empire! Kai kassai!), et cetera et cetera. That's good. It's a start -- a palpable start.
But it's not enough. It can't begin to be enough. They need way more than they're even implying.
Here then is my humble offering: a course they could set through the choppy postlaunch waters, if you will. There are many like it, but these are mine.
1. Hire at least two more full content development teams. Look, the head writer of Star Trek Online -- Christine "Kestrel" Thompson -- is fantastic. She really is. If you haven't yet gotten out of the Sirius Sector Block, and are convinced the game is nothing more than "destroy six Orion ships," you haven't begun to understand where this game is going. About the time you step through the Guardian of Forever or find yourself staring down the hungry maw of one of the most iconic and horrible threats to come out of Star Trek you realize the game's got depth. When you actually get a reasonable explanation for the horrific 'physics' behind the destruction of Romulus in last summer's Star Trek movie, you're into full-on thrilled territory.
However, Thompson is just one person, and the content development team she works with is already maxxed out trying to keep ahead of her vision. No matter how good the rapid development tools they have are, a lot needs to happen to turn an outline into a coherent and engaging story.
So. Priority number one for Cryptic needs to be hiring more content-specific development teams. Not add more developers to the existing teams, but whole new teams. Give Thompson a well-deserved raise and make her both Head Writer and Editor, while Craig Zinkovich stays the Executive Producer. In effect, make Zinkovich into Rick Berman (or Gene Roddenberry if you can't stand to consider Rick Berman, ignoring for a moment that he was responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed Trek as well as some of the most panned stuff) and make Thompson into Brannon Braga or Ronald D. Moore, with multiple dedicated writing/art teams doing nothing but content development underneath them. This leads us to point two....
2. Create multiple 'sequel series' in Star Trek Online. One of the cool dimensions of Star Trek Online is the "Episode" Structure. See, an Episode, in game terms, is a multiple-mission arc, usually with both space and ground components, wherein you work your way through a story -- the idea being this is a one or two-part episode of a television series. These episodes are interrelated, and connect together to form 'seasons' that correspond with the level requirements of the missions. Season 1, for example, is a Klingon-heavy season (with bonus Gorn, Orions and Nausicaans). Season two brings us into Romulan territory with the Romulans, Remans and-- well, but that would be telling. Season three heads out to Cardassian space and Deep Space Nine. And so on, and so forth.
This is smart. Brilliant even. Kudos to the whole team for the concept. Well done.
So what happens when you get to the last episode of the last season?
It's not enough to have 'endgame' episodes, now with bonus team requirements. Up until that day you hit maximum level in your stunningly powerful starship, you are the star of your own Star Trek series. You have seen your Bridge Officers develop. You have your logs. But where do you go from there?
Well, the current development team is working on that -- working on ways to push beyond that maximum level. Working on ways to give you more late game and endgame content. But the other option in an MMO has always -- always -- been to roll a new character and try something different with them. You've had your Dwarf Rogue? Try a Human Priest or an Elf Hunter instead -- or jump the fence and go with a Troll or Orc. Here's all new places, quests, stuff to do, things to see. You can do this many, many times before you run out.
In Star Trek Online, on the Federation side, you can roll your new Captain -- go with a different race and specialty maybe. Replace your human tactical officer with a new Vulcan science officer, say....
...and proceed to do the exact same episodes in the exact same order you did the first time.
Oh, there's other stuff to do. You can run exploration content and get perks and advancement, or Deep Space Encounters -- little mini fleet actions -- or PvP PvP PvP. But if you're looking for the game you just played from Ensign to Rear Admiral, there are no more surprises left.
And if you want to be a Klingon? Well, like I said in my last post on the subject -- they're in the game, and that's all they are. You can do some cursory PvE content (with exploration 'on the way), and you can fight other Klingon players or Federation players in a variety of scenarios. In fact, they'd like it very much if you'd do just that, because without you all those Feds who want to try out PvP have very little to do.
So. The solution is this. Sequel 'series.'
Remember point one? Hire at least two more full content development teams? This is why. One team should do nothing but Klingon development. PvE development, mind. Their task is to create a full story of all the necessary 'seasons' of episodes from Level 1 (not 5, as it currently stands) to Endgame, all for Klingons. Period. The second team does the same thing on the Federation side. Have them create a new starting area -- say in a spacedock on Vulcan instead of a spacedock over Earth -- with all the episodes to make up all the seasons to go from 1 to endgame on the other side. Focus on the Gorn to start with -- go in depth on what's going on in their subjugated state. Or focus on the Orions. Or heck -- do lower level Romulan content for a much lower Klingonesque storyline.
And then -- and this is key -- don't let people who haven't played through the PvE content in the 'main' storyline touch the new content. In fact, when a player plays the last episode of the last season in the current content, automatically unlock a new character slot for him and unlock the ability to play through the new series. If someone wants a single character to play through both, he'll need to team with someone who has the other series. (In effect, 'guest starring' in their series.)
When these are done, do them again. And again. Do a Cardassian-focused series based out of Andor. Do an Orion-based series based out of Risa. On the Klingon side, do a series based out of Rura Penthe.
And don't charge extra for these series. These are being developed purely as new and fresh content for existing players. Don't create new Sectors or environments -- use the vaunted Genesis engine and build these out of the current stuff you have. Yes, there will need to be ongoing art and other assets created for the new episodes. There's no getting around that. That's why you need new, dedicated teams that do nothing but develop them.
In the meantime, the original team(s) develop content just as they are now -- new high level/endgame content. And of course, new expansions - the kind of expansions that give us entirely new factions to play. Those can be for pay. If you let me not only play as a Cardassian but play as a Cardassian in the Obsidian Order serving the True Way and the fragmented Alpha Quadrant castoffs of the Dominion War (with bonus Breen!), I will happily give you another fifty dollars for the privilege.
But right now, work on ways to let players go from Ensign to Admiral in entirely different series, each new old unlocking the new. If someone wants to play through the old content of a given series again, let them. Some people love to do that kind of thing. But for someone who wants something new around every corner, there should be a chance for them to have it.
3. Develop new stuff for the Cryptic Store, and release it on a set and regular schedule. Right at the beginning, as we were all trying to unlock our preorder content so we could take our new Constitution Class ships and Joined Trill out for a spin (for the record? Both rock.) we discovered that someone had been added to the Cryptic Store. This made sense, since a number of the 'preorder' packages put out by different vendors included Cryptic Points that could be spent in the store -- I remember Cryptic not having anything in the Cryptic Store on day one of Champions Online, and wondering what good the free points I had for it would do me.
Well, the stuff in the store now? Are unlocks that let Federation players make Klingon and Ferengi Starfleet Officers.
For my lights, this is a perfect use of the Cryptic Store. You don't need a Klingon Starfleet Captain (you can get Klingon Bridge Officers without buying them from the Cryptic Store) to enjoy the rich taste of Star Trek Online, but it's worth the less than three bucks it costs if you want it. I have never been anti-microtransaction. So long as the game can be played without the purchases, then go for it, I say.
Well, the Cryptic Store needs to have regular infusions of new stuff -- stuff that costs just a little bit of cash mangled through Cryptic's own currency -- to keep our interest. And that stuff should be cool while being moderately resource-light to create. New playable species are -- like I said -- perfect. We can easily see Orions joining Starfleet. That should be in there. Humans and Andorians should be in the store as well -- purchasable for the Klingon Defense Force.
Or, take the very popular (and cool) preorder original Constitution Class ship. I have that from my own preorder bonuses, and it's great. It takes the place of my Tier 1 Miranda, and it's neat. I have blue phasers and nostalgia wrapped up in an off-white hull, and at the same time with the exception of an engineering console slot, I have no real advantage over other players. A well kitted out Miranda is just as effective in combat as a well kitted out original Constitution class ship.
So, extend that. For example -- a lot of people have asked for an Excelsior class ship. The Vesper looks a bit like a squashed Excelsior, but it's not an Excelsior (as flown by Sulu, not to mention the Enterprise-B that Kirk died on or half the non-Enterprise ships on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Fine. Put an Excelsior in the store for, say, 340 points. For a few dollars, someone could buy one. Have it as a 'replacement ship' for Tier 3 -- don't let someone climb into their Excelsior until they make Captain. Give it an extra console slot. Now here you are, with a replacement starship that's iconic and fun, yet inexpensive. It might not be the four-nacelled Constellation class knockoffs currently at Tier 2, but it would be distinctive enough to make recognizing it simple.
Do that same thing elsewhere. Want to fly a Nebula? Make it a Tier 5 replacement for the Luna. Want an original D-7 Battlecruiser from the original series in place of your initial Bird of Prey? Just a couple bucks.
Add in distinctive ship paint patterns in the store, distinctive costume sets for your characters, additional character slots, additional costume slots for your characters (and for your bridge crew -- more expensive to pay for the additional database space), and designate a specific day of the week new C-Store content drops, and you have a never-ending cycle of enthusiasm. And bitching, from the anti-microtransaction crowd, but trust me you're going to have that no matter what. And that trickle of cash will naturally help pay for point 2's additional development teams and give Jack Emmert a bigger money bin to swim in, and both of those are fine by me.
Also, Wednesday would very very very much like it if there could be Star Trek: The Motion Picture pajama-style uniforms and Deltans in that store. I'd like them too, mind.
(Other things that could go in? Enterprise era jumpsuits, the suede 'Captain's Jacket' Picard wore for the last few years of TNG, the Captain's Vest that Kirk and Scotty wore near the end of the original cast's movie era, the white 'plug suit' radiation suits from the movie era, the variation Captain's Vest Picard wore in Insurrection and Sisko wore the last couple of years of Deep Space 9, a specific 'lightning bolt' ship paint design a la the I.S.S. Enterprise from the two part "In a Mirror Darkly" episodes of Enterprise, Porthos the beagle or Spot the cat who can follow you around a Starbase....)
4. Communicate each of these well in advance, and improve communication in general. Right now, communication is Cryptic's kryptonite. They're just plain not good at announcing new products. Over on the Champions side, this has become a comedy of errors that has led -- possibly -- to at least one good community representative being fired for -- possibly -- saying too much.
And when there's a real problem -- say, the servers going down because eight hundred thousand people worldwide all try to play at once, and man isn't that the kind of problem a developer loves to fix? -- there is no easy or focused means by which that problem is acknowledged and information is spread. Right now, eventually a notice goes up on the Support page and someone posts a notice (eventually) on the forums -- but part of the problem is all of Cryptic's communications equipment is interconnected. The same authentication servers that log someone into the game also log them into the website or forum, and account information is bound up in there. So, when the server goes down, things like the forum search function die a horrible relooping death -- and right now the only official way to filter out Developer comments from a thousand angry forumites shouting at once that they can't log in is the "Dev Tracker," which needs that search function to work in the first place. So, when the server dies the Dev Tracker goes with it, right when the users most need a single place to go for updates on these issues.
(The Support page doesn't count for this -- once a notice goes up on the page, it rarely changes. It's nice to have the acknowledgement, but it's not enough.)
So, the already frustrating situation of the servers being down becomes infuriating for the average user when all Cryptic's pages take forever to load because they're sending calls to a broken server as part of the process and they can't filter out other other infuriated users from the decent updates on the situation.
That has to stop. Cryptic needs to fix that across the board, and they need to do it today.
One advantage they have is a gregarious and engaged developer community. Folks like Coderanger and Gozer (not, I'm given to understand, their real names) love to interact with the forum community one on one. But developers answering questions (and community managers managing that connection and passing info back and forth) are not a real communication strategy. Communication is as much marketing and perception as it is information, and that's problematic right now.
Finally, in addition to gameplay and expansion information and emergency information needed during outages, there also needs to be 'in-game' information updates on a smooth and regular process. Things like the old "Path to 2409" which stopped updating right when they went into Beta, stunningly enough, or ship class information pages, or details about who some of the movers and shakers in the 25th century Star Trek Online universe are. Right now, we get little bits here and there, but not nearly enough.
So, this point has three subpoints. We'll call them 4a, 4b and 4c.
4a. Create a 'clearinghouse page' for server status and regular updates during outages, completely independent from all other Cryptic webpages and their interdependencies, and have a designated person who updates it during downtimes regardless of the time of day. Really, this is basic. Take a basic, straight XHTML page with absolutely no database or other calls to the Cryptic servers, whether we're discussing the game server controller or the authentication server or streaming ads or anything else. Make it rock solid and loadable using techniques proved to work since, oh, 1997 with tens of thousands of hits per second hitting it. And have someone on duty in the customer service department 24 hours a day 7 days a week whose first priority whenever there is an outage to immediately update that server acknowledging the issue. Then, whenever an update comes out of netops or whoever else needs to be involved, that person posts it to that site immediately. It should have estimated downtime (expressed as times, not "two hours" or other things that are meaningless without referents" and should reassure the customer that Cryptic is both aware of the problem and working on it.
Hand in hand with that should be an official twitter account -- say, @startrekonlinestatus or the like -- that repeats the basics.
(As a side note, in the absence of either of these tools all STO players should know about @sto_devtrack -- this is a third party unofficial twitter replicator of the dev tracker posted over twitter that doesn't need the Dev Tracker working to keep churning stuff out. So for right now, if there's an outage and you want the latest words from the developers about it, this twitter account is your best friend.)
All this does, in the end, is give everyone a place to go that calmly acknowledges issues and makes it clear someone's working on them. There should be no comment fields or anything like them. People who want to vent about how the evil developers and their crappy servers are viciously keeping them from their game can go to the forums to do that, just like they do right now. For a huge number of players, just having some sense of what's going on and knowing someone knows about it and is trying to fix it is huge, and making and updating a page like this is trivial. And it will resolve one of the worst 'immediate' communication issues almost completely.
Which brings us to the non-immediate communication issues -- less emergency, more marketing. And that brings us to:
4b. There should be weekly updates on future development for Star Trek Online, right on the front page. Right now, PR is very haphazard. We don't know when we're going to get an update and when we do it's often stuff we've already heard. (For about a month before launch, 95% of the PR posts on the Star Trek Online website amounted to a post pointing out where other people had written about STO -- and 99% of that was information anyone interested in Star Trek Online already knew. The eighteenth time you read that tired joke of Craig Zinkovich's about how they considered having a guy level up by pushing a button in Transporter Room 3 every twenty minutes for twelve hours -- insert EvE Online subjoke B-9-Alpha here -- you were ready to spork your own eyes out.
At this point, the game is live. There are paying customers. And right now job number one of the public relations department isn't getting new subscribers. It's keeping the old ones. Those folks who weren't passionate or certain enough to fork out $250 for a Lifetime or even $100 for a yearly subscription, but are deciding with each monthly credit card bill to stay or leave. That's the folks they need right now, and those folks need something to look forward to. It isn't enough to give them a good game experience today. You have to convince them they'll have nothing but fun in six months, too.
So, alongside the above-mentioned regular influx of new content into the Cryptic store for people to spend points on, you need to have a weekly update on future projects. Things that do nothing but tease stuff that's going to be coming out, with everything from specific release dates for stuff coming out in the month (and pimping the new C-Store stuff that came out that week) to vague "look for this -- we hope -- in the Fall of 2011" mentions. Give people the sense that you've got a ton of content coming out, and that ton of content is progressing. Make the game eternally in a state of continued development and be proud of that fact. Give everything fun codenames like "Project: Targ Bait" or "Let This Be Your Next Battlefield." Have a weekly interview with someone on what's around the corner, and touch on things in the far pipeline. Most of all, give people a reason to keep coming back to your website often. When they've burned through all the pregenerated content on the site, are sick of Exploration and Deep Space Encounters and can't imagine going back to that freakin' "Ghost Ship" PvP map, give them hope for the future.
Of course, for this to work there needs to be new content coming out on a regular basis in a regular stream. See Points 1-3 above once more. Develop develop develop. There is no ending, there is only Zuul.
4c. Every week should also add in-game information and content to the main website. Do you see a trend here?
That's right. Weekly content, updated without fail. Right now, I'm proposing at least one new thing in the C-Store every week, a full update from the PR guys on what's coming up every week, and now something updating the Lore of the game every week. This goes all the way back to the core Webcomics truism: consistent updates are the key to audience retention.
In fact, let's make this a little plan. On wednesdays of each week, there should be a new piece of Lore. A "Path to 2409" update, say, whether a main year or supplemental. A new starship writeup for "Ships of the Line." A brief essay on Sela, or the new Klingon Chancellor, or Admiral Quinn. A report on the weird variety of new tribbles that a somewhat shady breeder has found in his travels. Science officer reports on the odd gravimetric forces that are shattering so many freakin' planets. All kinds of potential stuff.
Then on thursdays put something new in the C-Store. Big or small almost doesn't matter. It's just a quick thing so people have a reason to come back and see what it is.
Then on fridays we have the PR update, which makes mention of both the wednesday and thursday updates (hey, stuff to talk about automatically) plus appropriate tidbits about what's coming up -- what new wednesday content might be seen, what c-store stuff is close to release, and most of all what new free (and paid) expansions are coming with vague-to-specific timeframes for them. This gives people the weekend to discuss everything and a chance for the forums to declare it A) wonderful, B) the final doom of Star Trek Online, or C) both. And then we start over.
This is a lot of work. A lot of work. But that's what Cryptic signed on for. Right now, they have a million mouths to feed, and that means doing tons of cooking, right from the start.
Let me reiterate something I said up top. I love this game. I really do. It ate my brain and now I serve it as its host body, and I'm okay with that. This is not an angry, frothing letter about how Cryptic is doooooomed. But because I love this game -- and because I have a lifetime subscription -- I want to be playing it five years from now with great prospects for five more. That doesn't just mean the game today needs to be good. It means the game needs to keep getting better, keep upping replay value, keep increasing endgame talent, and keep adding stuff. And being much, much better about telling us about that stuff than they have been. They have the perfect chance to get started on this -- the game has outperformed expectations, which means they have money in the bank. That has to go into the long term health of the game.
Whether or not it does we just won't know yet. If they don't take this course through the post-launch waters, I hope the one they do take will be a good one -- because those seas are rough, and lots of big boats have gone down in them.
Are these nautical terms doing anything for you? Anything? Ah well. See you you at Spacedock.