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The people who brought us Pirate Bay -- the very best in organized intellectual property theft -- have launched a new venture. And oddly enough, this one seems... legitimate, and potentially useful.

Well, that's not fair. Pirate Bay was useful. Man, was it useful. It's just, it was useful for stealing other people's shit. So, you know. Its usefulness was counterbalanced by its venality. But I digress.

Anyway, Flattr is a new and exciting way to show your appreciation to the creators and website types who you most like. Well, it will be, when it becomes available for you to try it. Or if you're on the beta list. Of course, until you're on the beta list, you can't either use Flattr to show your appreciation or set things up so Flattr users can show their appreciation to you, but again I digress. Let me start over in a new paragraph.

Flattr is a way to show your appreciation when you like something. You see, it lets you "flatter" the users. See? It's funny! But it also stands for 'Flat Rate,' which is the key to how it works. I know this because I watched a video explaining it. (If that link doesn't work for you -- Vimeo has trouble sometimes -- you can get it on Youtube as well.) This video compares it to birthday cake. So, I'm going to reiterate everything they said here, using their own metaphor, with my own bonus snark.

It's not my fault. It was a long day and I'm sober.

Each month, you "pay a small fee," which is to say you subscribe to Flattr. That gives you access to the magic, and gives you a base pool of cash -- in their metaphor, this fee makes up your birthday cake. Mmmmm... monthly subscription birthday cake.

Then, you go out into the wide world. But you don't bring your cake with you. You leave your cake back in the display case at Flattr headquarters. However, you are given a book of coupons, each representing that cake. Those coupons are infinite in number -- I told you it was magic -- so there's no reason not to hand them out to whoever you want to. You and your coupons go about your website business, going to webcomics, blogs, movie sites, porn sites -- you name it.

Now, let's say you visit a webcomic you like. We'll call it Anime Treacle. And you enjoy Anime Treacle greatly. And you notice that there's a Flattr logo sitting on their site with a number inside it. That is a magical box provided by the Flattr people to creators and website owners on the web. The box lets people slip coupons from their magical infinite coupon book into it, and it keeps track of how many it's gotten (that's the counter). If you like what you see on the website -- let's say Anime Treacle's delighted you with their happy romp through 2004 memes today -- you tear off a coupon and slip it into the box. And you skip along your merry way.

Now, at the end of each month, the Flattr Cake Van is loaded with all the birthday cakes that people bought with their subscription fees at the top of the month. And they drive out to all the creators who have one of the little boxes sitting on their website. They empty out the boxes, count up the coupons, figure out which ones go to what cakes, slice up the cakes -- dividing each cake into the same number of pieces as there are coupons given out against that cake -- and hand the resulting slices of cake to the creators in question.

Now, you have an infinite number of coupons, so you can divide your cake up just as much as you want. If you give out ten coupons -- I'm using their examples again -- then your cake is divided up into ten slices, and the ten sites you 'flattr' will each get one tenth of the cake. Not bad! If you give out just two coupons in a month, then your cake is cut in half and each of your favorites get half a freaking cake! That's awesome! And if you give out 100 coupons, your cake is divided into 100 razor thin slices of cake, each one nearly transparent, and your lucky recipients get... paper thin wafers of cake.

Remember, the cake is money. Your subscription fee, in other words, is divided up equally by the number of 'flattrs' you give out over the course of the month. If your subscription fee is a dollar (not counting whatever Flattr takes for themselves as part of the bargain, just to make things easy), and you give out one flattr in a month, that guy gets the whole dollar. Two flattrs means 50 cents each. Ten flattrs means each person gets a dime. One hundred flattrs means each person gets a penny.

The system works -- they say -- because of an old Swedish truism, which they tell us translates into "many small streams will form a large river." The tiny slivers of cake, when all mashed together into a single amalgam of cake, will add up into a decent slab of cake -- albeit one that's mushy and compressed because of all the different frostings mixing together. Really, it'll look more like candy lasagna. If someone makes something popular, there will be thousands of tiny bits of cake, and that person gets a windfall.

They're calling it "social micropayments," which has people mentioning Scott McCloud and Penny Arcade and old arguments long since passed by. I think this is unfortunate, because not only isn't this a micropayment system, it does the concept of micropayments a disservice.

You see, the core idea behind micropayments is you cut out all the middlemen. Instead of charging $3.95 for your comic book, you charge people a quarter because you don't have to pay a distributor, an editor, marketers et al. (This is an idealized example -- I know I'm oversimplifying.) People get the same content for a quarter that they once paid four bucks for, so they're getting a tremendous deal. At the same time, the creator's getting as much or more money per transaction, and because the transactions are so cheap, lots more people buy in and you get more money! Huzzah! Cake for everyone.

It was a really neat idea, and its only real failing was it didn't work. No true system emerged that would let people easily pay micropayments, and for the most part people weren't willing to pay micropayments in the first place. Even today, they enrage some people. Trust me. I play MMOs. If you have a microtransactions store that lets people, oh, unlock a Playable Klingon on the Federation Side, that infuriates some people, because they're already paying a subscription fee, damn it! If you want to charge for new things, make the game free to play! And then there are eighty forum posts arguing both sides of the issue and calling each other unoriginal names and finally someone locks the thread.

The key to the micropayment process is simple: the creator is setting a value for his content. The consumer then plunks their quarter down and gets the content. Values are clear and set.

Flattr doesn't do this. In fact, Flattr does the opposite. With Flattr, the creator has no say in what his content is worth -- and certainly can't lock it away unless someone clicks the Flattr button. An individual flattr is given when someone actively likes what they see.

This isn't a micropayment. This is busking, pure and simple. This is a street musician sitting out on a sidewalk playing his music for free, and people toss whatever change they feel like tossing into their instrument case.

But even that breaks down, because people aren't tossing in their spare change -- they're tossing in promissary notes for indeteriminate amounts. In fact, the people tossing flattrs into the instrument case don't even know how much they're giving. They have no idea how many of these they're going to give out before the month is up. They don't have to keep track. I'm sure they're not even encouraged to keep track. And whether they give 1 flattr out a month, or 100,000, the counters on the creator's website will go up the same amount.

To complicate things more, we don't know how much a subscription is right now. (The video says it will be "a small fee.") I rather suspect we will all be able to set our own rates -- we'll make as large or small a cake as we feel comfortable doing. Some people -- richer than I -- will stick a hundred bucks into Flattr each month. Others will put a buck or two in. I'm sure there will be more of the latter than the former.

So. Some people will be stingy with their flattrs, no matter how little or much they're paying in. They're going to wait for the truly exceptional things, and then give it out. That way, at the end of the month there will be more for the really good folks. Other people will give them out absolutely willy nilly. If they have a favorite webcomic, they'll give it a flattr every day without fail, even if it's kind of weak one day. It doesn't cost anything, and the ego boost of having that counter go up will be nice, right? Others will fall in-between.

And the creator will have no idea which is which. He'll know how many people in a month liked his website enough to click the button, but he won't know how much it's worth until the Cake Van drives by at the start of the next month. Will it buy them groceries? Maybe. Maybe not.

Flattr, in other words, will take the nasty business of thinking about how much you want to donate to a site you like, and just let you donate. It will give you that warm feeling of having contributed, but there won't be any accounting (even to yourself) of just what that donation is.

That's not a revolution. And it's not "micropayments done right." It's not micropayments at all. It's the equivalent of those little doodad presents you can 'buy' and 'give' on Facebook, without even the doodads. It is bulk good will.

Will I put a Flattr icon on the site? Probably. There's no good reason not to. Will that Flattr icon take in more money than Project Wonderful ads? Probably not. Will it bother me when it doesn't go up? Yes. Will it be meaningful when it does? Maybe, and maybe not.

I suspect this will be a fad for a little while, and then it will all but die out except for hardcore users. In the end, Flattry will get creators exactly nowhere.

Okay, that pun was beneath me. Look, you try ending one of these things.

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.

How obsessed?

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:

What next?

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?

Look closely.

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.

Captain Teegan of the U.S.S. Fort Kent(All pictures are screenshots taken by me while in Star Trek Online. Click on the thumbnails to get full sized easily looked at pictures and junk.)

So here we are. It's January. Earlier this week, Star Trek Online went into Open Beta after being in Closed Beta since October.

And, unlike many or even most folks, I've actually been in that Closed Beta almost from the beginning. My invite came in early October, which isn't quite the beginning but is near enough as no-nevermind. Certainly, I feel fortunate in that regard.

And so, I've seen a lot of changes and evolution, I've written forum posts and bug reports. I've tried my best to make it a better game. And now here I am and I can finally talk about it publicly.

Do you want the 'in a nutshell?' Okay. This is a good game. It's a lot of fun. It's pretty darn Star Trekish. I'm glad to have been a tester, I am preordered for the game, and I expect to be playing it for years to come.

Not everyone will agree with me on these facts -- which is understandable. The game isn't what I would have created if I were capable of creating a game. Neither is it the game you would have created. In the back of every gamer's head, every Star Trek fan's head, and every game-playing star trek fan's head is a nebulous half-formed idea of what a Star Trek Game should be. It's impossible for any of us to articulate what that is, because it's just a half-formed notion. However, you will know it when you see it. And when you look at Star Trek Online or any other game, you're going to have to leven your "this is so cool!" or "this sucks!" reaction with the sure knowledge that this game isn't that game in the back of your head. It can't be.

So. I'm going to go through some of my impressions of the game, and some of my beta experiences, and there will be lots of screenshots. Not screenshots generated by the press kits or PR folks at Cryptic, mind. These are the screen shots I took as I went along in the game. The ships you see in these shots are ones I created and piloted. The characters you see are either my Captains or their trusty Bridge Officers. That initial picture up in the corner? That's a perky red haired Trill Captain, crouching next to her Captain's chair on the bridge of the U.S.S. Fort Kent.

And at least one of those bridge officers? Is a tree. I totally made a Tree bridge officer. I am weirdly proud of this fact.

And, as this is going to be long and there will be many pictures, I am going to put it behind a 'click here to continue' wall. And I'm going to try and avoid just going over all the stuff that press previews and beta reviews and the like have done. This is "what Eric Burns-White liked as he went through the game." Sure, I like the whole "fight in space and then down on the ground in an episode" thing, but that didn't excite me nearly as much as "oh my God did that tribble reproduce?" and "Holy crap, I made a Tree bridge officer!"

Click on, if you dare. Or, you know, feel like it.

One of the most cogent folks I know, particularly in discussions of publishing and the internet, is Adam Tinworth. I've known Adam through a number of settings, but the one most germane to the discussion is as a business journalist. He's a very, very good one. He's also a fine hand with a fencing iron, I'm given to understand, and as someone who once upon a time stumbled through his share of sabre matches I can respect that, but it's not really a factor in the discussion at hand.

Well, Adam recently blogged about content and paywalls -- touching on the current issues with his usual skill and wisdom. Certainly, the topics he addresses in terms of journalism will resonate with anyone following the somewhat tragic conflict between newspaper cartoonists and web cartoonists. It's a good read.

However, it's not Adam's post, but a comment someone made to him about it that really gets to the heart of the matter. He posted a followup that included that comment, and I've never seen the core disconnect highlighted so well. With Adam's permission, I reproduce it here:

The model you have of your consumer's behaviour is wrong, they aren't using the internet as a way of reading a newspaper, they are using the internet, some of which consists of newspaper content, its a different thing. It was bad enough having to explain this in 1999, I find it a bit surprising it still needs saying in 2009.

That's it. That's the whole shooting match in a nutshell. That's why newspapers that are coming up with new paywall schemes will lose. That's why the internet will win. In the end, the process is inexorable, because the battle is not over content. It is over convenience.

Look at the Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia. I have had harsh words for Wikipedia in the past, and I stand by them, but I'll also be honest: I use Wikipedia every day. The Britannica, on the other hand, was the encyclopedia of record for much much longer than not only I've been alive but my father's been alive. When the Britannica went CD-ROM, I bought it, and bought a copy for my sister's children. It thrilled me that for a tiny amount of money I had access to this seminal resource.

I wouldn't dream of shelling that money out today, even though I (mostly) trust the Britannica's content above Wikipedia's. The Britannica isn't convenient. I can't just link to it when I'm making references to it. I can't just search it casually from any machine without having to fumble with passwords. It takes effort.

Wikipedia is just there. It is always at hand. It is always easy to reach. And it's far more comprehensive on the kinds of minutia and trivia I really need an encyclopedia for than the Britannica could ever be. Is it a trusted source? No, not really. But it's a great launching point for an investigation if I need a trusted source, and for quick "at-hand" information it's simply unparalleled.

And as a result, several orders of magnitude more people check Wikipedia every hour than check the Britannica website every day. It's not that it's better. It's that it's convenient, when all you want to do is look something up quickly and then get back to the websurfing you were already doing.

I don't know very many people who read a newspaper cover to cover, whether online or on paper. But a lot of people read articles that are germane to them right at that moment. Articles get linked on twitter or Livejournal. Google gathers these things together and points people at them when they're interested. And news sources that accept that they're a brief stopover on one's daily web journey get far more traffic than news sources that make a person jump through hoops to get the news. Bring money into the equation, and suddenly that readership drops by another order of magnitude or two. Robert Murdoch and those like him may assert the value of their goods, and equally assert that content must be paid for, but the only thing they can possibly do is make their content irrelevant to the broader world that's coming.

Let me repeat that.

The only thing paywalls or other direct monetization can do for newspapers or any other topical content is make it irrelevant to the world of the internet age.

Let us say that Murdoch succeeds at making his newspapers secure against Google aggregation and other such things. What happens in that scenario? What does basic capitalism tell us happens in a situation like that? Simply put, someone else develops a product that fills the niche no longer being filled. Some other journalistic organization will step up, develop a model around online advertising or some other thing we haven't even heard of yet, and happily reap the benefits. And let us be crystal clear: that organization might have demonstrably inferior news coverage, and it will not matter. Just like Wikipedia and the Britannica, the convenient Internet stop will trump the more prestigious but less convenient news source.

Let me repeat that.

An inferior news source that is easy to reach and consume on the internet will trump superior news sources that are even slightly harder to reach. Every time.

This is true whether we're talking about the Wall Street Journal or Hi and Lois comic strips -- people are going to gravitate to those things that fit the activities they're already doing. If two newspaper articles -- or comic strips -- are equally available to the online reading public, then the relative merits of one versus the other will determine ultimate popularity. If one article -- or comic -- is freely accessible and the other one requires cumbersome registration or, worse yet, a paid subscription, then the freely accessible one will have monumentally more readers than the other, regardless of their relative quality.

People don't go to the Internet to read The New York Times (with rare exceptions). People go to the Internet, see a reference to a breaking news story, and hit The New York Times for the straight story about it. If the Times isn't available to be read, they won't pay a subscription to read it -- they'll go to the Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune, or the Miami Herald, or wherever is most convenient. And they will go to to get the pointer in question. All that putting a given paper behind a paywall will accomplish is a rerouting of that traffic to the free content available.

Until the day Publishers understand this basic principle, said so well above and expanded upon so clumsily by me, we will continue to have ridiculous wars between print and Internet journalists, cartoonists and all the rest. Those institutions that can innovate, monetize and produce will do okay in the emerging era. Those who can't will become smaller, niche organizations that ultimately will disappear or be consumed by their more successful brethren. If you don't believe me, ask the folks at the Britannica, which has been sold, split apart, rebranded, and retooled any number of times in an increasingly desperate attempt to remain in profit.

Or, if that's not enough, ask the folks at Microsoft Encarta. If, that is, you can get anyone to answer the phone -- which is unlikely, since they closed down entirely in October of this year -- all except the Japanese version, which closes on the last day of December this year.

I know this, for the record, because I read it on Wikipedia.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will remember.

We will remember rows and rows of brave men and boys who charged into a new kind of war, over trenches, facing machine guns that spat out lead faster and with less discrimination than ever before. War was thought of as a noble pastime before they began this fight. Its nobility died on French fields with so many others.

We will remember armies that hated one another by tradition and temperament coming together and forming alliances. The French and the English. The Democratic and the Communist. Always the human.

We will remember the men and women, girls and boys who took up arms when their country called, in every country around the world. Who went and fought and died for causes they could believe in and for no reason at all except that their leaders told them to go. We will remember their courage. We will remember their loyalty.

One day a year, let us take one moment of one day and just remember them.

Whether we name it for those we remember and call it Veterans or commemorate the act itself and call it Remembrance, this is the day we stop and remember.

It is eleven o'clock on the eleventh of November.

We remember.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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