Captain's Log: An interview with Star Trek Online's artists

STO TS destroyer
This week I will be (yes I know, finally) finishing up with my series of interviews with the developers of Star Trek Online. I traveled to Cryptic Studios last July and had the opportunity to meet with several of the people responsible for the game, especially the new expansion, The Legacy of Romulus.

In this column I'll be outlining my conversation with three Star Trek Online artists: Environment Artist Nick (Tumerboy) Duguid, User Interface Artist Thomas (TheCrypticCat) Marrone, and Ship Artist Ian (JamJamz) Richards. So join us past the jump to see what it took to bring the look of Legacy of Romulus to life.

STO Corvette
The first question out of the gate came from reader Justin Lowmaster, who wanted to ask Richards if he could design a Saurian ship that looked like a Saurian brandy bottle. Richards was glad for the icebreaker as I could see it in his eyes that he feared a demanding question about a Tier 5 Constitution class ship. Through his laughter, Richards responded by saying that he highly doubted that CBS would give Cryptic the approval for such a design but that he appreciated the question nonetheless.

STO Scimitar Thalaron ready
The discussion turned to Richards' recent work on the Scimitar dreadnought 3-pack, which was set for release at the time the interview was taken. Richards was pleased by the design and the amount of detail he felt like he was able to put into the ships, especially the fact that so many of those details were seen in the film Star Trek: The Next Generation – Nemesis. My interviewees explained that the exception to that was the lack of a dead android on the bridge of the ship. As you can imagine, the conversation took a wild turn to the creative side as all three artists bandied about their joke ideas for the placement of an android near the thalaron weapon charger only to have him reduced to a pile of ashes at indeterminate frequencies.

I asked Richards about his greatest challenge on creating the Scimitar and her counterparts for the game. Richards confessed the toughest part of designing the vessel was actually trying to find decent reference material on the ship from the film. Since the ship was created in the film using CGI, there were no physical models accessible to refer to, nor was there any particularly clear or well-lit shot of the vessel that could be viewed in greater detail. Apparently the CGI models were lost to the wind after the film was completed, and they have not been seen since. As a result, Richards was forced to come up with many of the details of the ships' visual appearance, and it became an extremely time-consuming process.

STO UI sample
At the time of our interview, UI Artist Thomas Marrone had just "given birth" to the completely overhauled UI in the game. While he was relieved that the UI had been generally well received and he was beginning to relax somewhat from the mountain of work the project had become, he had also begun working on the new summer event on Risa and was proud of his work on the new UI for carriers, which have since been implemented into the game. Captains now have the ability to monitor the health of their carrier pets once they've been deployed. Individual pets also rank up the longer they survive, and their abilities' effectiveness increases. So carrier captains now have a clear reason to protect their fighter or shuttle squadrons, whereas before they merely just launched a new wing when they were destroyed.

Marrone told me he is currently working on support for the new ships as well as what was also just implemented, the new icons for all of the preexisting consoles. As many players are now well-aware, all of the console icons have been changed to reflect their use and function in a more streamlined way. For example, engineering consoles all have a faint yellow background, tactical consoles appear red, and science is denoted by blue. Each console icon also now has a smaller icon within it that will reflect what type of weapon or system it affects. A tactical console for projectile weapons can now be differentiated between photon, quantum, etc., merely by looking at the smaller indicator on in the icon.

STO Risa event jet pack
Finally, we got to speak with Environmental Artist Nick Duguid. I asked Nick whether or not he was exhausted after the months-long push for the LoR expansion, but Duguid surprised me by admitting that things were actually easier on him than for others, mainly because so much of the environment team's work had to be done much earlier in the development process.

It was interesting to hear about the cyclical nature of the game's design. Duguid explained that the environment team does its work before the design team goes in and "does their thing." Once bugs are exposed and dealt with, the environment designers remain essentially hands-off with the server branch. They can't create anything new on the branch without risking exposing that work when the patch is pushed. The same happens for the design team, but in reverse. Once a branch is moved into place (released), then they start the same process all over again; environment goes in while development waits, and when environment is done, they wait until the development team finishes and the new content is pushed.

STO Reman Grenna
At the time of the conversation, the Season Eight content was still highly secretive. When I attempted to push for a sneak peek, Duguid told me that he was highly confident "that there will be more environments in it, and maybe [they'll] move some triangles around." Again, after the laughter died down, all three artists said that they were excited about the upcoming material and the implementation of more ships.

We talked briefly about the changes that have occurred at Cryptic since my previous visit over a year ago. The STO team has doubled in that time, and I was curious how such a quick expansion of the team was settling in. Was the team's growth a burden on top of trying to jump into a huge new project like LoR? The men all denied that the growth was in any way a bad thing; to the contrary they all believed that the influx of new blood and new resources is exactly what allowed them all to believe that the new goals could be achieved.

They told me that although many of the new team members are not Trekkies per se, they are learning very, very quickly. It was Richards who admitted that he was not a Trek fan when he was hired at Cryptic, but he has quickly become well-versed in all things canon just by the baptism-by-fire he endured at the studio.

STO Corvette at Risa
Marrone said that in contrast to Richards, he was always "that guy" during walk-arounds when team members used to share their work with their other team-mates as a way to familiarize themselves with the current projects. Marrone told me that inevitably he'd be the person who would nit-pick another design to assure that it fit within the Trek universe.

That seemed to be another thing all men agreed upon: Since the expansion of the team, they haven't had the opportunity to resume those walk-arounds. They all seemed to miss them a great deal because they gave artists and other developers insight as to the work everyone else was doing, as well as gave everyone another opportunity to keep mistakes from happening before they were pushed to the game.

Finally, I asked them what they were most proud of in their work to bring Legacy of Romulus to bear. The three men laughed again, and oddly, both Duguid and Marrone immediately deferred to Richards and said simultaneously, "How many ships did you guys do?" Richards admitted that he was most proud of the sheer number of ships he and his team were able to crank out for the release of the new Romulan faction, but he also reminded me that the devs are far from done. That statement, of course, has since been verified by the subsequent implementation of the Mirror Universe lockbox ships, the time ships, veteran ships, the Suliban cell ship, the Scimitar, and others.

Duguid said, and Marrone agreed, that they were most proud of the "team stuff." Duguid said that he was very excited to see that they had been given time and money and most of all trust from the higher powers to be able to produce the quality content that he always knew they could. As he put it, "Just to be able to do this and to get the reception that [we have], has [been] just wonderful."

STO Romulan/Reman singularity core
I would like to thank Nick Duguid, Ian Richards, and Thomas Marrone for taking time to chat with me and to share with us just a snapshot of what they get to do for STO. I would also like to take one more opportunity to thank everyone at Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment for making the visit so illuminating.

And now here we are, standing on the precipice of more content to be released over the coming months. A new Featured Episode that will bridge the story gap between the Iconians and the upcoming Voth should be in our near future. The Season Eight material, which will feature the Voth and the new Dyson Sphere space adventure zone and a new fleet holding, should be out by the end of the year. As information comes in, I'll be right here to write about it. As always, thank you for reading, and until next week, 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 terilynn@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.