Captain's Log: Anticipating STO's future in user-generated content

Hey there, folks! Welcome back to another edition of Captain's Log, Massively's rarely-coherent-but-always-fun look at Star Trek Online. I have had just the busiest darn week, you betcha. I spent all weekend at New York Comic Con, where I saw more than a few folks dressed to the nines in Star Trek gear, and then I started a shiny new day job on Monday. Phew!

I've been thinking a lot about user-generated content lately. In a recent interview, STO Executive Producer Daniel Stahl offers a few details on the subject, in which we learn a bit about the forthcoming system's abilities and limitations. What do we know about STO's UGC tools? What do we still not know -- mainly, when can we get in there and start crafting our own missions? Why, follow me past the jump to find out.
Worst. Abbreviation. Ever.

The UGC tools have been a hot topic for weeks, even as I dearly wish the brain trust at Cryptic Studios would devise a less UG-ly (ha) moniker for them. How about, I don't know, the player-devised add-on (PDA) tools? Or the system for inventing cool extra missions (SIC EM)?

...Fine, then. UGC it is. For now.

What we already know

Before his recent interview, Stahl already had released a few concrete bits of information on the in-the-works UGC system. In the August 9th edition of Ask Cryptic, he revealed that STO's developers were working to launch UGC tools in beta form with Season 3. He also said one of their long-term goals would be to allow players to use those tools to fully customize their starship interiors.

Stahl also said at the time that he had personally created the basic structure of the daily patrol missions in the Defera Sector using the UGC toolset.

And in his September state of the game letter, Stahl told fans that he has an "entire team" working on the tools.

What we know now

  • Development time -- The devs at Cryptic have been working on the UGC tools for a while now. "Almost a year," Stahl says, which is a good deal longer than I had thought. And why is that?
  • Original purpose -- Dubbed the Genesis project (do I really have to explain that one?), the UGC system was originally an internal "iteration tool" that would allow a content designer to create solar systems, missions and the like without needing an artist to make stuff for him. "We used the Genesis tool as a starting point for nearly every location in the game and then added in the rest of the mission content manually," Stahl says.
  • Limitations -- Stahl has said before that the UGC toolset won't replicate all the creative powers of the development team. Now we also know we won't be able to import models or textures into STO, but since I hadn't even considered the possibility, I can't say I'm too sad. The real bummer is that we won't be able to create missions inside our starships at first. "We do not see any new interior interactions hitting the game," Stahl says, "until at least season 4 or 5." Darn it! I thought from the get-go that starship interiors, fairly bereft of content at the moment, would suit user-generated non-combat missions perfectly. Not so fast, my friend!
  • Corporate approval -- The people at Cryptic have to run the content they intend to add to STO, such as the Tholian design I mentioned last week, past CBS. So how are the network suits cool with all the content with which players theoretically will bombard STO, once the UGC tools go live? Apparently they "recognize the fan base has a strong following of players who want to tell their own stories in the Star Trek Universe," Stahl says. Of course, excitement isn't the same as relinquishing all control, and the developers will implement some system for approving, rating and, when necessary, removing player-made content.

Other random tidbits

Before I finish up, a slight digression. The interview touches on a few other topics, some of which puzzled me, even as I fantasized about building my own missions.

  • Klingons -- "We will be supporting the KDF as a PvP faction and cleaning up [their] PvE missions," Stahl says. Wait, what? We're still calling Klingons a PvP faction instead of an unjustly underdeveloped PvE faction? Blurgh!
  • Empty space -- "Not every planet is going to be as diverse and interesting as the next," Stahl says. "We purposely made some planets to be light on content, because that is what you find when you explore the galaxy." The criticism of that one kind of writes itself.

So when do we get it?

Season 4 is set for "the beginning of April," Stahl says. I'm not sure that necessarily qualifies as news. Sure, Cryptic's STO development calendar doesn't reach nearly that far, so it's new information... but a release window so far off is severely subject to change. It's nice that they have a basic target for Season 4, but I'm much more interested in Season 3's projected release date. At least that one has a better chance of being accurate.

Actually, while I'm on the subject, a question just pooped popped into my head. (Note: I have accidentally misspelled "popped" as "pooped." I'm sure that fortuitously amusing typo won't survive the scrutiny of Massively's fabulous Bree Royce, and so I preserve it for posterity parenthetically. [You win this round, posterity! -Bree]) If Season 4 is aimed at early April, that probably positions Season 3 for a December or January release. That would leave a healthy few months between updates.

Considering World of Warcraft's next expansion launches December 7th, does it make sense for Cryptic to release perhaps its most anticipated update around the same time?

On the one hand, the UGC system expected with Season 3 is likely the most exciting feature in all of STO. On the other, Cataclysm is Cataclysm. If they release player-creation tools with Season 3 sometime in December or January, could the folks at Cryptic be shooting themselves in the foot -- or planting themselves more firmly on the map? If you can survive such badly mixed metaphors, let me know what you think.
Less trustworthy than a Ferengi loan shark and more useless than a neutered Tribble, Ryan Greene beams Captain's Log straight into your mind every Thursday, filling your brainhole with news, opinions and reckless speculation about Star Trek Online. If you have comments, suggestions for the column or insults too creative for Massively's commenting policy, send a transmission to ryan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.