All MMOs have social groups, most called guilds. In Star Trek Online these groups are appropriately referred to as fleets due to the naval structure of the factional militaries. These social groups are extremely diverse, as diverse as the people who play the game. The trick is finding the right fit.
The fact is players don't have to join a fleet in Star Trek Online to access all of the playable content in the game. The game is extremely playable on a solo basis, and it's still very easy to team up with other players to take on missions that require such an effort.
If you are new to STO, especially if you are new to MMOs in general, I actually recommend that you hold off joining a fleet right away. I think it's best if a player levels a little bit first before jumping into what might be an overwhelming social situation. Once a player is comfortable with the way the game works and he's looking to have a reliable source for teaming with others, then that's the time to seek out a fleet.
But there are other reasons a player may desire to join a fleet, and since STO places such a heavy emphasis on fleets and their ability to provide players with weapons and consumables that cannot be obtained elsewhere, it almost feels as if belonging to a fleet is mandatory.
Let me be clear about this, though: STO is perfectly capable of being played and played well without all of the "high-end" gear that can be obtained via fleet outlets. Ultimately it's up to the player when and whether he chooses to join a fleet, and a lot of that decision will be based on what he values most in his gameplay.
One of what many players consider to be a downside to fleets in STO is the simple fact that there is an apparent bias toward larger fleets. Over a year ago Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment (the developer and publisher, respectively) implemented the current fleet system in to the game. While fleets had always existed before, they were always merely groups of players who banded together to enjoy the game.
Before the new fleet system was put into the game, players were able to obtain all of the best high-end gear and by playing what are called Stategic Task Force missions. Players teamed up with four other captains to take on the Borg in several different ground and space battles. At the time, the best ships were usually available either in the C-Store (ZEN Store) or by as a rare reward in a lockbox.
Since the change was implemented, some of the best gear and arguably the best and most powerful ships can be found only in the stores in high-tiered fleet holdings.
Players in fleets work on a communal basis to construct what are known as "holdings" in the game. For instance, fleets all have the ability to create visual group social areas like a starbase or embassy where they can go to meet socially in the game, obtain unique duty officer assignments, or buy unique high-end gear from the fleet stores.
Fleet holdings work a lot like the game's reputation systems for other factions. Players can earn a specific type of currency in the game called Fleet Marks, which in conjunction with other commodities can be donated to the construction projects selected by the fleet's leader(s).
As players donate to the projects, in return they are given Fleet Credits. Fleet Credits are used (in conjunction with dilithium) to buy high-end gear, weapons, and ships in the fleet holding's stores. Fleet Credit is bound to the character that donated to the projects. It cannot be sold or given away or mailed to another character. It also stays with the character even if the character changes fleets. As each successive tier is reached, the holding's visual appearance improves and certain capabilities are unlocked.
Large fleets have more members from whom they can receive project donations. This allows the large fleet's projects to be completed far more quickly than their smaller counterparts. The faster a fleet holding can advance in tier, the faster the fleet can unlock the unique stores and gain access to the items in those stores. It's also pretty fun to belong to a large group of like-minded players because it's fairly easy to find others to team up with to play large-scale raids and missions. Most large fleets have access to third-party voice chat systems that are easily downloadable (and free), making it easier for fleet members to coordinate their play.
Some of the disadvantages of belonging to a large fleet are that fleet holding projects actually fill so quickly it becomes practically impossible to donate to them. If a player can't donate to a project, he can't earn any Fleet Credit, and even though the fleet's stores might be unlocked, the player may not have enough Credits with which to buy the merchandise.
What about small fleets? Are they just a waste of time?
Of course not. The advantage of a small fleet is that the competition to donate to a small fleet's projects is far less a problem; therefore, earning Fleet Credits is a breeze. While small fleets may not have the depth of people readily available to team, they are usually just as social and friendly when they are available.
Their big downside is of course the fact that their fleet projects don't get finished very quickly, and as a consequence, their fleet stores aren't unlocked as quickly. Their inability to access high-end gear quickly makes it tempting for many small-fleet players to abandon them for their larger fleets where access to the high-end gear is virtually guaranteed.
The best advice I can offer is this: Try a few of them. Every single fleet in STO feels different from the next one. Some fleets are extremely social, and the game becomes the background for their social interaction. Some fleets are made of players who prefer to focus on teamed missions. Some fleets are composed of roleplayers, religious groups, LBGT interests, geographical locations, etc. The trick is to find a group of people whom you feel comfortable with. Don't let yourself feel trapped in a fleet you don't love because trust me, there's one out there for everyone.
Determine what it is that you want from the game. Do you need all the best gear as soon as you can get it? You might want to look for a larger fleet. Do you want more social interaction with less emphasis on gear, weapons, and loot? Then seek out a smaller fleet with people you enjoy.
The best place to start is in the game's forum. There is a fleet area where fleet leaders tend to "advertise" their respective groups. Many have independent websites and forums, so don't be afraid to read them and see whether they're the kind of people they seem to be and you'd feel comfortable playing with them. If not, move on. Don't feel bad because they weren't the right fit. Trust me, it's far worse for everyone involved if you stay in a fleet you don't like.
While I won't make any specific fleet recommendations, if you have any questions about fleets in general, don't hesitate to email me at the address below! 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.