Captain's Log: Star Trek Online's Foundry foibles

STO NX 01 Plymouth header
I hate writing about brouhahas in Star Trek Online mainly because they're usually just a passing event that either peters out with time or gets changed so quickly that by the time my column gets posted, everything becomes moot. However, this time around I'm pretty confident that a recent change with regard to The Foundry, the user generated content tool in Star Trek Online, may actually be just the tip of the iceberg.

The Foundry has had more than its fair share of technological nightmares to overcome in the two years that it has existed in STO. It is an incredible tool, one that allows authors to create their own playable content, and yet it suffers from some of the most serious flaws in the game, flaws that became apparent when the tool was used with the intention of getting easy rewards instead of the personal satisfaction of play. So where will the Foundry end up in the future?

STO Andorian Kumari
Before you get all defensive

By using the term "personal satisfaction of play," I am not implying that one type of content is superior to another. Let me make that perfectly clear. If there is one thing that playing MMOs, especially STO, has taught me, it's that there are almost as many playstyles as there are people. And it's in that spirit of IDIC that I move forward in this column.

However, let me also clarify that I have a very personal definition of what is considered to be an "exploit" mission in the Foundry -- that being a mission that requires virtually no effort on behalf of the player in order to complete. It is not, I repeat, it is not what I call a "grinder" mission -- a mission that requires a player to kill hordes of enemy mobs. Grinder missions have just as much right to exist as story-based missions do. Both require actual player interaction to achieve success.

STO Club 47
Now that we have that cleared up

Since the Foundry was launched, authors have used it to create, at least in my opinion, simply some of the very best, thought-provoking, Trek-inspired, stunning missions the game has ever seen. It has also been used to create some of the most embarrassing, painful, stomach-turning tripe I've ever played. It is not unlike the world of fanfiction: There is a lot of incredible stuff out there, but you have to wade through a thicket of talentless hacks to get to it.

Unfortunately, that's another big problem with the Foundry: Finding a quality mission that a player would be personally interested in simply isn't easy. Yes there is a 5-star rating system, but who rates the missions? What one player believes is an amazing 5-star action-packed gonzo-battle-orgy certainly won't appeal to those who loathe lifting a weapon at all and who rate a peaceful diplomatic mission the same way. So over the past two years, the ratings have pretty much averaged out amongst all missions and likely will continue to do so.

Currently there is no means to search a mission by type or content. It is impossible for a player to seek out a Foundry mission using identifiers that help him narrow down the daunting list with which he is presented. Unless he hears about a mission via a non-affiliated website or by word-of-mouth, he's pretty much taking a chance that any mission he selects might appeal to him. It's the Foundry's Achilles' heel.

STO Standoff at Dera
With no way to adequately seek out a style of mission, players are initially presented with a list of top-rated quests. Unfortunately, since older missions tend to have their ratings averaged out over time, only freshly minted (and usually artificially rated) missions make it to the top of the list.

It is possible to hunt for missions by author's name, but that still doesn't mean that every mission by that author will appeal to every player. Currently there is no possible way for a player to search for and find a battle-focused mission as opposed to story-driven mission using the current UI. Until the rating system is eliminated and a way can be found to differentiate missions and make them searchable on their actual content, the Foundry's search tool is as useful as mammary glands on a bull. It simply provides no real substance.

STO McGregor log in
Is a technical solution to exploit Foundry missions even possible?

I've asked myself this question time and time again. The answer is that I don't think so, not with the current technology. The technology in place actually needs to have some of those exploitable loopholes available so authors aren't limited in the stories they can tell.

This is pretty much at the heart of the problem: the ability to have two or more NPC mobs fight against each other. There are very good reasons for making this feature available in the tool set. It allows authors to enhance their tales by having two NPC factions (Romulans and Klingons, for example) fighting against each other in a mission. For story-telling purposes, it's absolutely necessary to have this feature.

Enemy mobs are scalable, meaning that they can be "costumed" as any enemy, but their fighting tactics and damage are that of the costumed enemy mob. For example, Gorn are low-level enemies in the game, meant to be an adversary for low-level Federation characters. However if a Foundry author wants to make the fight more challenging for higher-leveled players, he can costume Romulan mobs as Gorn, thereby achieving the look of the Gorn but the fighting abilities and damage of the Romulans.

If an author pits two or more relatively balanced NPC enemy mobs against each other, they will destroy each other, requiring the player to do absolutely nothing to clear the field. This is what's known as the AFK exploit. A player can choose one of these exploit missions, beginning a mission that has an alleged goal of taking out the enemy faction mobs, but then merely sitting in the zone while the enemy mobs do the dirty work for him. Once the field is clear, he can then move to the mission complete marker, collect the rewards for the mission, and then do it all over again.

STO view from ESD
The foundation for the kerfuffle had been laid

Until recently, 50 fleet marks were rewarded to players who undertook the repeatable Investigate Officer Report Foundry mission. Since the reward's implementation several months ago, a few exploit Foundry authors created numerous versions of the AFK exploit. Cryptic faced an outcry from the Foundry authors whose legitimate missions were being shoved aside in the ratings list in favor of those with the easy take.

Although Executive Producer Daniel Stahl also referenced rewards data as an additional reason, the team did remove fleet marks as a reward from the mission wrapper and replaced them with a scaling dilithium reward. The wrath has yet to die down.

Initially I was very unhappy about the removal of the FM from the IOR mission wrapper. It was, for the most part, the only reliable source of fleet marks for me as I do not like pew pew missions. I was more than happy to jump into the Foundry and play a long, dialogue-heavy, story-based mission in order to get a reward that I could contribute to my fleet. There are only two fleet-based missions that I can queue for, and to be honest, I really hate them. I find them boring. I'm just not a "shooty" girl. I never have been. However, that's not to say I don't appreciate a good, brainless, 40-mob-kill-fest-grinder when the mood does strike me, but it has to be a 40-mob-kill-fest that I have to work to eliminate not a 40-mob-kill-fest that some NPC group does for me.

STO Wells MU
The problem is more complicated than most players comprehend. In order to maintain the sanctity of the Foundry tool-set that allows authors to tell compelling and believable Star Trek tales, we need to have the ability to reflect two NPC parties in battle. It's a tough Catch-22 for Cryptic devs; how do they provide a malleable and useful tool to the Foundry community that has an inherent aspect that others can use to exploit the game?

And as much as I hate to admit it, Cryptic did what it needed to do. It needed to take away the reward for making the exploit missions. That's all it can do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the new scalable dilithium reward will solve this problem either. Exploiters will do as exploiters will do: find ways to take advantage of the flaws to obtain in-game currency without having to force themselves to actually play the game.

Alas, the rest of us will continue to see our fun spoiled by the rotten apples that infest our barrel.

Until next week, live long and prosper.

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This article was originally published on Massively.