The Star Trek universe caters to a whole lot of different interests. You've got your basic sci-fi fan, who enjoys the shows and movies but doesn't get super into them. You've also got your movie buffs, who perk up for showings of Wrath of Khan or Nemesis (ha!). Futurists marvel at the prophetic nature of old-school Trek tech, and casual fans used to flip on the boob tube to scope out Seven of Nine's ram scoops.
And of course, Star Trek has its die-hard fans, the Trekkers. (What's wrong with calling them "Trekkies," again?) I noticed a handful at New York Comic Con, traipsing about in their uniforms, snapping group pictures, scanning the Anime Festival next door for signs of intelligent life. And that got me to thinking about socializing in Star Trek Online. Why is it often so lonely in space?
Broken social scene
The social aspect of STO is not my favorite thing on earth. There, I said it. Ever since launch, I have felt that the folks at Cryptic Studios missed the mark a bit on the "multiplayer" part of the MMO equation.
Oh, and for the record, my discontent has never had to do with any lack of population. From the first days following STO's release through today, players have patrolled space in entirely sufficient numbers.
Finding other people has never been the issue. Finding reasons to find other people, though, has always vexed me.
Consider daily life in STO, especially during the leveling phase. First you complete a storyline mission or three, all in personal instances. Then you patrol a few systems -- and in the third system, you auto-join another player's patrol. Seven minutes later, the two of you finish the patrol and leave the system without exchanging a word.
Once again alone, you zip off to a nebula to explore a few randomly generated systems and gather up a handful of crafting mats. Finally, you head to Memory Alpha for some quality crafting time, and you actually run into other players, some of whom are flapping their gums in zone chat! Except your crafting takes three minutes, and then you're off again.
Socializing doesn't rank super high on the STO priority list, it seems.
Plenty to go around
So whom should we "blame" for such a situation -- the player at the keyboard, the developers behind the game or the society as a whole? Surprise! The answer is everyone, kind of.
Players are culpable because of the get-it-done-and-get-it-done-now attitude many of us bring to MMOs. Maybe you're a power player who blasts through content, or maybe you want to maximize the returns on your limited playing time. Whatever it is, you don't want to waste time gabby-doodlin' during routine content, such as system patrols.
The developers share the blame in STO's case for some strange design decisions. The game is full of missions that encourage heading off by oneself -- nebula exploration, for example. Meanwhile, group-centric content, particularly fleet actions, are chaotic and painful wastes of time. (They also don't automatically group players entering the instance, which doesn't help the situation.) The latter teaches some players pretty quickly to avoid major group content in favor of the former.
But MMO society at large is the worst offender.
Let's talk about World of Warcraft for a minute. Why? Because I'm in charge here!
In the heady days of Patch 3.3, the dudes at Blizzard introduced ye olde Dungeon Finder, effectively revolutionizing the finding of dungeons. Suddenly, getting into a dungeon group was a breeze, and zipping through dungeons was fabulously easy. And quick.
Running dungeons turned into something akin to an assembly line -- join up with random people from different servers, kill everything with as little fuss and muss as possible, and drop group immediately upon receiving the final loot. Suddenly, players were more anonymous, less connected. Out of the blue, it was common to complete eight or nine heroics in a day without exchanging any more pleasantries than "hey" and "good job, seeya."
A friend of mine calls the phenomenon the "Diablo-ification" of MMOs. As the theory goes, a formerly uber-social genre has grown over time to resemble the online play of Diablo 2, in which random people jumped into a game together only because the experience and loot rewards grew exponentially as more player joined a match. Socializing usually had little or nothing to do with the equation.
I don't agree completely, but his idea holds some truth, especially where STO is concerned. The game is hugely instanced, and as I said above, it's very much slanted toward soloing. Sure, the devs at Cryptic made the game, so one might throw all the blame at them. But they designed STO at least partially in response to the increasingly casual, anti-immersion crowd of MMOers. I can't blame the developers when, nine times out of ten, my random companions in patrol missions don't bother responding when I try to converse a little.
All is not bleak, of course! Theorizing is all well and good, but STO players are not all as anti-social as I might have made them sound. True, playing the game can get lonely in the outer reaches, but the art of conversation lives on, especially if you know where to look.
- Earth Spacedock and Qo'nos -- No-brainer here. You can always find folks hanging out in their respective home bases. Conversation can tend toward flame wars and other assorted idiocy, though, which gets old fast.
- Space sectors -- Zone chat often suffers from the same trollery, but that's true in any MMO, really. I wonder how things will change as the developers start "fixing" sector space in coming updates.
- Deep Space Nine -- My favorite place to find other people, which originally had more to do with my love for DS9 than anything else. But now the Dabo table attracts players at all hours of the day, so you can make friends while you fritter away energy credits.
- Special task force missions -- STFs require organized groups of players to complete, so you're guaranteed to spend time with others.
- PvP -- As with STFs, PvP means joining up with other players. Unfortunately, those players often are too focused on killing the enemy to talk much, especially in ground-combat scenarios.
- Fleets -- Naturally the best choice for de-lonelying STO. Fleet representatives are always advertising for members, and finding the right fleet is like a meta-game in and of itself.
So, readers, what do you think? Have I been too harsh on STO, or on MMOs in general? Where do you go to hang out and chat with other players? As always, try to keep it classy, commenters.
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 email@example.com.