Interview / Star Trek Online executive producer Craig Zinkievich

There have been a lot of reports speculating on just how good Star Trek Online is going to be when it is released this fall. We’ve covered the story with trailers, news, and footage of the race creator, but we at TVGB wanted a chance to speak with the developers ourselves in order to gain a better understanding of just how sweet our D-7 Class Battle cruiser could be.

Luckily, the people at Cryptic are very accommodating. At Comic Con, I sat down with Craig Zinkievich, Star Trek Online’s executive producer. Being in charge of something as anticipated as ST Online is a heavy burden to bear, in that Zinkievich will probably be hated and loved by thousands of fans no matter what he does. Over the course of a half hour, we spoke about designing killer MMOs, what Craig really likes about Star Trek, and the inevitable death threats implicit in dealing with Trekkies.

That VideoGame Blog’s John Slefinger (TVGB): Let’s start at the beginning. What is the setting of Star Trek Online? Where are you placing the players?

Craig Zinkievich (CZ): The game takes place in 2409, which is 30 years post Star Trek Nemesis. The courts have broken down, so the Klingons and the Federation are on the verge of an all out war, and there is an ancient threat that everyone is going to have to worry about. So the setting is familiar, but in the near future for the big fans of the movies.

TVGB: Are you basing the art direction on any version of the series?

CZ: It’s post-Nemesis. We’ve looked at Voyager and updated it thirty years by taking it along the generational path, and figured out what things will look like in the future.

TVGB: Right. Given that setting, how are you going to make Star Trek Online stand out from the other MMOs out there?

CZ: You get to play in the Star Trek universe. Everyone is a captain. You can start as an officer in Star Fleet, or an officer in the Klingon Defense Force. You are captain of your ship. You fly your ship, chart courses, and go where you please. We also have ground play. You can beam down to stations or planets if you like.

Space gameplay is strategically based. You’re going to be positioning yourself to make you get on your enemy’s weakest side, bring down his shields and let loose a proton barrage, all the while managing your power levels. Ground play is a little bit more fast paced and action packed.

TVGB: To what degree can you customize your own ship and crew for all that exploring?

CZ: There are definitely different roles to play. As a captain you choose a career path, whether or not you go into the sciences, engineering or tactical. But your role is more that just what you are. Along with your ship, you have bridge officers, which are MMO pets. They’re AI controlled when you’re on an away team, but you name these guys, give them attributes, level them up, and choose what equipment they carry.

TVGB: How many people can you bring down on an away team?

CZ: An away team has 5 characters. So if I’m teamed up with 2 other players, there will be two slots for our bridge officers.

TVGB: So you wouldn’t have a massive away team–

CZ: No, the maximum is five. Fifty guys aren’t going to beam down together.

TVGB: What about the ships?

CZ: I can change the cosmetics of the ship along with the hardware underneath. It’s very important to me in Star Trek that you can customize the way you want to play. Like the away teams, I choose the role I play with my ships by choosing what equipment or starship I use in a given day. Maybe I pick up a tactical ship, a Defiant Class ship and go DPS heavy on that.

Certain ships can hold more equipment, but as they get more advanced, they also get more specified.

TVGB: How big do these ships get?

CZ: No one is going to play Star Trek Online to fly around in a shuttle craft. We’ll start you out in a light cruiser, and you can move up to the point where you’re flying Sovereign Class starships.

TVGB: Are there other aspects to the game other than combat?

CZ: Obviously there are going to be social places like Deep Space 9 where you meet up with your team and see other people. There is the Klingon Front where the Klingons and the Federation are fighting, so there will be social opportunities there as well. There will also be crafting and diplomacy.

TVGB: Tell me more about the Klingon Front. Will that be a constant PvP battle that you can join whenever you like?

CZ: We want to make sure that there is PvP content there, but there is also PvE content along that front. There will also be indirect PvP content, where the things that you do along the Front shift the battle for everyone.

TVGB: I was curious about that. Can you capture territory? Might the Klingons overwhelm Star Fleet or the other way around?

CZ: The neutral zone is going to end up being static and sitting there as PvP, but the areas outside of that, we plan on having fluctuate based on who’s winning the overall battle.

TVGB: Is there an end goal? If the Klingons and the Federation are fighting…what if the players come to an understanding and start singing Kum ba Yah?

CZ: I think the cool thing about MMOs is that you can change the game and add to it depending on what your audience wants. Listening to the community is important, so if something like that were to happen, we have a team of developers who could change the universe as necessary.

TVGB: What kind of personal touches do you bring to the game? Is there something about Star Trek that you feel passionate about?

CZ: Star Trek is so many things to so many people, so we want to make sure that we hit as much of that as possible so that they get that true Star Trek experience. For me, what excites me is not going and fighting Klingons or being a high ranking member of the Federation. I just want to get in my ship and go someplace where no one has gone before. So we have a lot of procedurally generated content so that I can pick a star, go to it, and find something totally new to the game.

TVGB: So in order to have made this game, did you have to go through all of the old movies and shows?

CZ: As soon as we got the license, we didn’t just buy all of the DVDs and just start churning through it…trekkies just popped out of the woodwork. As soon as the rumor that Cryptic may have the license to make an online game started, there were people in my office showing me a picture of themselves at 12 years old at the Comic Con saying that they had to work on the project. So I’m really confident with the people on the team. Not to mention that the Star Trek fanbase is so active.

TVGB: I was hoping you would bring up the fans. Do you ever check out their online forums?

CZ: You have to listen to the fans and find out what they want. Sometimes you have to make a decision that not everyone is going to like, but you can’t ignore the trekkies.

TVGB: Do you ever get intimidated about dealing with particularly angry fans?

CZ: I would much rather have a community that is so passionate that they argue about details within the game than a community that doesn’t care. It’s daunting sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

TVGB: I’ve been reading some of the forums and boards, and I get the sense some aren’t happy that everyone starts out the game as a captain. Did you ever think about having people start more humbly?

CZ: We did…we thought about having people play different roles on the ships. We didn’t think that having people start as the guy in the transporter room who sits around, waits, and then turns a knob…I mean 15 minutes into the game, people were saying ‘i want to be a captain’. So we thought, ok, let’s give them what they want. The majority of the people we asked said they wanted to go out with our friends, form a fleet, and then explore new worlds. And so we figured we’d focus, rather than, on every single aspect, i mean, do you need to be a barber or a bartender? We figured we’d focus on the core aspect of the game–the core desire of the majority of the players.

TVGB: Will there be a financial system?

CZ: There will be an economy. People say there is no economy in the Star Trek universe, but really there is. Even within the Federation itself, there’s an idea of replicator credits or transformer credits. Joe Deli Worker can’t just go out and buy a Galaxy Class Star Ship. I mean, and then you know just from the series there’s a galactic economy.

TVGB: So how does that work into the game?

CZ: I think there will be a lot of other advancement within the game in the way that you discover items and bridge officers, rather than ‘I killed a Klingon, i get 5 dollars.’ The game is definitely not like that. But you do earn credits through Star Fleet or the Klingon Defense Force.

TVGB: I’ve heard about episodic content. Can you tell me more about them?

CZ: The episodes are really really cool. So there’s a lot of different content in the game, but the majority of story based content is not your typical MMO. You know, ‘Go kill 5 Oozles, come back and I’ll give you 10 gold.’

When we designed the game, we didn’t take an MMO and figure out how we could slap Star Trek onto it. We looked at Star Trek and thought, “Ok, what is Star Trek, what are the very important aspects about it, and how can we build a game around it?” One of the things we noticed right off the bat is that in an episode of the series, they’re all over the place. They start off on their ship and something happens. They beam down, explore, and find some enemies. Or they find some space station that’s on fire. Then they beam back to their ship for that climactic battle at the end. That’s how we set up our episodes, so that you’re never caught in a killing field for hours. You’re always on the move.

TVGB: Ok, sweet. So when are we going to see a Beta?

CZ: Soon. That’s all I can say.

TVGB: No date on that?

CZ: Nope, no date on release, but it’s all sooner than you think.