Captain's Log: Cryptic's Lead Designer responds to questions

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The weekend before Star Trek Online launched its free-to-play format, Cryptic Studios' Lead Designer, Al Rivera, responded to a lengthy list of player concerns, rants and questions via the STO community podcast PodcastUGC.

PodcastUGC usually focuses its broadcasts on issues revolving around the game's user generated content tool, The Foundry, but as of late the co-hosts of the show (including me!) have been desperate for specific Foundry issues to discuss due to the lack of changes since last year.

In the previous week's episode, I let my opinions fly along with my frustrations about what I felt was a severe lack of story-based content. I asked aloud, "What the hell have they been doing the past year?"

To our surprise, we were contacted by Al Rivera, who set aside his day off to talk with us about just that.

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Foundry origins and hopes for its future

We asked Rivera how the Foundry evolved for STO, and he revealed that the tool was originally developed for Cryptic's unreleased game, Neverwinter. But because that game lacked the means to fully test the tool, a modified version of it was pushed to STO. Trek fans have a creative history with the franchise, so the Foundry seemed a perfect fit to allow players to create their own missions -- in essence, to write their own Star Trek episodes.

Rivera admitted that the Foundry tool has not been updated since before Season 4; he went into great detail about how the company's engines work, how the development servers are parsed out between company teams, and why access to new features that are developed by the Neverwinter team aren't necessarily accessible by the STO team right away.

All in all, there do seem to be tool advancements coming down the pike, but the company representatives are reluctant to say exactly when those new features will be available to the STO team members so that they can inject those new features into the Foundry while keeping the tool stable.

However, Rivera did say that the company was hopeful that a means of featuring player missions could be put into place. He was also very complimentary of the Foundry authors and even reminded them to send in resumes if they had developed one or more highly acclaimed missions, as the company is seeking to employ people with just such skills.

The grab bag controversy: Will it end?

Rivera was bluntly honest about the grab bags that were introduced in the game last December. Simply put: Yes, they were a hit, and no, they will not be going away. Rivera explained that while the revenue-generating gimmicks were very successful, they were also used as a means to get ships into the game, ships that most likely never would have seen the light of the monitor before now. CBS did not approve the generalized use of the Jem'Hadar attack ships in game because company representatives felt that portraying a majority of Starfleet officers flying enemy vessels was counter to the image they want to convey. CBS was amenable, however, to allowing the ships to appear in "ultra rare" circumstances, making the Dominion ships the perfect choice for the STO's first game-of-chance.

He stated there was a possibility other atypical ships or items may make appearances via a grab-bag, especially items that CBS may be more open to allowing on an ultra-rare basis. The mention of a Tier-5 Constitution class came up as an example, but he confirmed that no formal discussions have occurred with CBS about any ship, let alone a "Tier-5 Connie."

However, Rivera was able to confirm that there are no plans to release the new Odyssey class ships in this fashion and reiterated that they will be available via in-game currency or for purchase in the C-Store.

Rivera was also adamant that the revenue generated by the grab bags will allow the team to put more time and money into hiring and development of more featured content that is necessary to keep players interested in the game.

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Romulan faction?

A lot of discussion was had about the potential for a third faction, but Rivera was pretty quick to halt the discussion by saying that plans for a third faction have not been made and will not be made until the team can finish what needs to be done with the Klingon faction that already exists.

He admitted that the Klingon faction is lacking in lower-level PvE content and that one of the goals for 2012 will be for the company to start filing in those gaps. He confirmed that a stand-alone Klingon mission will be released in the near future and that more work will be done on the Klingon faction throughout the year, but we couldn't goad him into disclosing specifics.

So in the long run, a Romulan faction is but a hope written on paper, but seeing a healthier Klingon faction can only be good for the game on the whole.

Exactly what has Cryptic been doing for the past year?

The question was blunt: Over the course of seven months (from August 2010 to March 2011), the game saw the introduction of 15 featured episodes plus nine related "daily" missions for a total of 24 missions. The game has not seen one mission introduced in the past year. The acting Executive Producer, Stephen D'Angelo, recently announced that there will be two Featured Episode series released during the course of 2012, meaning a probable total of 10 missions over the next 12 months. What were Cryptic personnel doing during the past year that made content releases at the pace that was seen before impossible?

Rivera, now free from previously imposed NDAs, seemed eager to explain. Yes, a lot of it goes back to what was a very rocky relationship between Atari (Cryptic's previous parent company) and Cryptic. Rivera stated that Atari "never really did understand" the MMORPG market or Cryptic's involvement in it. Since Atari was a retail box company, its executives had trouble comprehending the persistent need for money to be spent on the constant upgrade of a game that had already been released. Finally, when Atari announced it would be divesting itself of Cryptic, Cryptic essentially "went dark."

No money went into Cryptic at all. A hiring freeze was put into place, and it was hinted that the staff, which at one time had a roster in the mid-30s, fell to about 20 people. Those people continued to work on placing what content they could get into the game while they all struggled with yet another change of ownership.

Rivera stated unequivocally that Perfect World Entertainment understands the game's potential and has a much firmer grasp on what an MMORPG actually is. PWE has a proven track record of making money using a free-to-play format.

While Rivera didn't deny that STO had already been pegged as going F2P before the PWE purchase, PWE definitely sent the conversion into high gear the moment it became involved. Since then, the teams have been working non-stop on building the duty officer system, the economy, the new ships, and the featured episodes, the first of which are due for release late next month.

He also reminded us that D'Angelo is also CTO, and since he has taken on the additional role of EP, many of his other duties have understandably not been given his full attention. He reiterated once more that the company is now free of its Atari-imposed hiring freeze and is looking forward to rebuilding a full crew with intent to focus on those items outline by D'Angelo: Klingons, PvP, crafting and Foundry changes.

The interview contains an enormous amount of additional information, most of which I can't even touch on in my normal column here. I invite you to listen for yourself and hear what Rivera has to say about the current state of Cryptic and STO.

In the meantime, live long and prosper!

Incoming communique from Starfleet Headquarters: Captain's Log is now transmitting direct from Terilynn Shull every Saturday, providing news, rumors, and dev interviews about Star Trek Online. Beam communications to terilynn@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.