Next in this series of interviews conducted on my visit to Cryptic Studios in Los Gatos, California, last month is a chat with Daniel Stahl, Executive Producer of Star Trek Online.
I first asked Stahl to give me an overview of his responsibilities as Executive Producer, as there are many people who are either new to STO (or even to gaming overall) who may not have a clear understanding of his role entails.
He stated his job is "similar to making movies." He has several direct reports, the first being the software person or the person responsible for the team of people who actually create the code for the game. The second is the Content Lead, who is responsible for new missions, new features, and anything to with player experience. Finally, the Quality Assurance team also reports to him.
He said to look at it from a film-making viewpoint. "You're investing someone's money, and he trusts you to ensure that the money he's spending is well-spent. In this case, you have Perfect World investing in Cryptic Studios and Cryptic Studios trusting me that I'm managing those resources and its dollars, the make-up of the team, how many people we have, and how it's all translating into the final vision. It's a lot to think about."
I reminded him that a film Executive Producer also holds a lot of power and creative control over her projects. I asked him how much creative control he actually wields in STO. "What it really boils down to is I think the Executive Producer has to be very collaborative," he answered. "I have to build consensus across all the investments coming into the game. In addition to the head-count budget that we have, I have a lot of leeway to sort of set our path, but I have to be able to build confidence in my plan. It's not like I can go to left field and say 'I want to do this.' I have to build a business case for it."
He mentioned that it's been beneficial for the game to have so many people on the team who are "in love with Star Trek" and that any company could have any producer "who could do the job, but if he's not passionate about it, it's just not the same."
"The average employee noticed no difference," he told me. "It was really management and executives who had to go through the most change; the average employee is sitting at the same desk he's been sitting at for the past four years, and his paycheck is coming from the same company that it's always come from." He noted that the executives were a bit more stressed during the sale. Why? "Because we were trying to figure out where we were going to land, and PWE was the best fit for us, so we were very, very happy to sign a deal with them."
I asked him whether or not PWE's reputation for running free-to-play MMOs was considered to be a hindrance or a help to the future of STO. Stahl stated that he had actually become interested in the F2P model long before the PWE purchase of Cryptic and specifically recalled when Turbine switched Lord of the Rings Online to F2P. He is a lifetime subscription holder (and was at the time of the F2P conversion) and played the game a lot.
Stahl took a great interest in LotRO's handling of the conversion as well as the numbers that were coming out. He says felt that the F2P model was better for consumers and set out this example: "Say you pay $60 for a game. You will have an expectation as to what that $60 is going to get you, and you may stay for a month because you're going to want to get your $60 out of it. But if you don't pay anything, there's no incentive for you to stay at all -- you really have to like the game.
"What I've found is that free-to-play has been liberating in how we look at the game and how we approach it because 90% of the players don't pay anything, but the benefits to the game are from the added community and the added socialization. It's almost as if the health of the game goes up with so many more players. So that's a benefit, and working with Perfect World allowed us to validate some of our theories. And honestly, we took Champions Online free-to-play before the Perfect World purchase, and we had a little bit of data and tried to learn from that. I've always been a really big fan of free-to-play, and we were wanting to take STO free-to-play before Perfect World purchased us."
Stahl said that when the idea to put The Foundry into STO first arose, there was a bit of concern over exactly how to do it. While other games have editing tools, he admits those tools can be very daunting, especially for a new user. "We've been trying to find a balance between complexity and simplicity so we can get a lot of people in there. What made sense with Star Trek, and honestly, if we hadn't have had Star Trek, I'm not sure we would have even made The Foundry because Star Trek lends itself to fan-fiction and telling stories. Our game is much more about telling stories than many other games are, so with Star Trek, the thought was that with no new series on the horizon, the Foundry could be a really good outlet for those people who wanted to produce their own Star Trek episodes, and we wanted to be able to provide that in a controlled manner. I think it was a good first step from where we want to be, which is to let people make their own Star Trek episodes.
"So when Perfect World saw the tool, it wasn't a matter of 'Oh we're really happy you built the Foundry'; they were more fascinated by it because it's hard to measure, right? It's hard to measure what the impact of The Foundry is. It's not something you have to pay for. You have to have a subscription for it, yes, but it's all deferred and relative costs in revenue. So when you ask whether The Foundry has done anything for Star Trek Online, you have argue these very ethereal things like retention and driving customer satisfaction, and those aren't easy things to measure."
To tie things up, I asked him what he would like STO to be for a new MMO player. Surprisingly, Stahl said, "There's an opportunity that we're missing, to allow people who just want to be in the Star Trek universe to just make a character and pop into the universe and not have a lot of expectations of what to do, to let them visit the places they just want to visit. So they can experience Star Trek without having the game tacked on to that. That is an experience I desperately want to get in there in the future. Not near future, but at some point. It's been bugging me that there are tons of people out there who may not want to play an MMO but want to have fun in the Star Trek universe." He further stated that he thinks "there's an opportunity to build something that is different from an MMO into Star Trek Online that is really more of a social experience."
I would like to thank Dan for his time during my visit! Next week I will continue with my interviews at Cryptic with my discussion with STO's Lead Writer, Christine Thompson. Until then, live long and prosper!
Incoming communique from Starfleet Headquarters: Captain's Log is now transmitting direct from Terilynn Shull every Monday, providing news, rumors, and dev interviews about Star Trek Online. Beam communications to email@example.com.