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Captain's Log: Should Star Trek Online fans fear the competition?

Ryan Greene

Good afternoon, cadets and admirals. Welcome to this week's edition of Captain's Log, your ever-expanding guide to Star Trek Online. Last time, we discussed some basics of ground combat, and I promised more to come. But I've decided to change course a bit, so we'll cover those next week.

Instead, I thought it might be fun to discuss what's on every Earth nerd's mind right now: E3! The Electronic Entertainment Expo has engines on full impulse this week in Los Angeles, and amid all the grand news we don't care about -- I was counting on the 3DS to not be totally awesome so I wouldn't have to replace my DSiXL! Curses! -- the MMO news is flying fast and furious. With all the news and shiny images of forthcoming space-based MMOs, should fans worry that STO's days are numbered?

The short answer is no, STO fans shouldn't panic, particularly with all the improvements Cryptic Studios have up their sleeves. STO's days aren't numbered, per se, any more than all MMOs' days are numbered. The MMO market seems to grow more crowded and cutthroat every month, and that saturation maybe isn't such a great thing for the longevity of particular MMOs. I think it certainly cramps the breathing room developers sometimes count on to stabilize their games and to build a dedicated audience.

Science fiction MMOs have traditionally been -- or seemed to be -- in fairly short supply. Anarchy Online got things started. EVE Online and Star Wars Galaxies showed what sci-fi MMOs could do. Tabula Rasa came and went quickly. And Stargate Worlds never even saw the light of day.

STO released with few serious competitors and has benefited from time to grow and mature. Cryptic's newest MMO has encountered some heavy turbulence in its five months of existence, but the developers continue to make good on their promises to offer more content, and quickly.

But E3 is here to remind us that the sci-fi MMO space is about to explode. With a veritable fleet of spacey MMOs on the horizon, I'm sure Cryptic are feeling the pressure. So should we be worried? Let's consider the forthcoming competitors, as well as the content Cryptic have planned for STO, and decide for ourselves whether our favorite Star Trek MMO is in trouble.

Battlestar Galactica Online

Based on the SciFi Channel -- SyFy? Bleh. -- series, Battlestar Galactica Online is a browser-based, free-to-play title from Bigpoint. In both the 1978 original and the contemporary retooling, the Battlestar Galactica is a giant starship on which the remnants of humanity search the universe for the fabled colony of Earth. They're pursued by a race of robot jerks called Cylons.

According to Massively's interview with Bigpoint's head of games (awesome title), Philip Reisberger, BSG Online will allow players to choose the human or Cylon faction and then do Battlestar-ish things, such as dogfighting with other ships, and MMO-ish things, such as mining asteroids for resources.

  • Release window
Sept. 2010

  • Cause for alarm?
Minimal. Battlestar Galactica has its fans, sure, and the game sounds like fun. But BSG Online is essentially a free, browser-based version of EVE Online with a fraction of the depth, and I can't see it taking the sci-fi MMO world by storm. It'll be great fan service and maybe a blast to play, and that's that. Plus, STO already has a race of evil cyborg jerks.

Black Prophecy

Reakktor Media's starfighter MMO is another F2P title. Essentially an action-heavy shooter with spaceships, Black Prophecy will feature lots of shooting and explosions.

  • Release window
None yet, as far as I know. But the game is in closed beta now, so it can't be all that terribly distant, right?

  • Cause for alarm?
Again, minimal. Black Prophecy's E3 trailer looks gorgeous and the game could be a blast, but I just don't see an F2P dogfighter unseating established MMOs, including STO. It does look awesome, though.

EVE Online Incarna

So this doesn't qualify as a new MMO or E3 news, but it's worth mentioning here. EVE Online, that titan of space sims, lacks physical avatars. All gameplay occurs from the perspective of your ship, and your capsuleer character is just a humanoid portrait in the corner. Incarna is set to change that by introducing a massive expansion featuring playable avatars, with whom players will be able to explore space stations and do other stuff.

  • Release window
Eventually. CCP Games first announced work on the feature in 2006, with a projected release in 2008. Some hints now suggest a Summer 2011 release.

  • Cause for alarm?
Moderate. EVE Online is one popular game, but the lack of playable characters is hard for many to digest. The game also boasts a wicked learning curve, which can scare off all but the most dedicated spaceship jockeys. Some EVE experts suspect Incarna might lower the barriers for entry and entice the previously unwilling to give the game a try. But on the plus side, by the time Incarna releases, Cryptic will have had plenty of time to add heaps of new content to STO, which already includes fully realized avatars.

Jumpgate Evolution

A fan favorite among Massively readers, Jumpgate Evolution has been mired in development hell for what seems like forever. Originally slated for June 2009, JGE has flirted with our game radars, sometimes showing progress, sometimes disappearing for months at a time. In early June, developer NetDevil announced sweeping changes to the game, just in time for E3.

  • Release window
Who knows?

  • Cause for alarm?
Hard to say, but probably minimal. Massively's E3 hands-on experience was very positive, but the release date remains a mystery. And whenever JGE does see the light of day, we expect it to draw far more comparisons to EVE than to STO.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Now this one's the doozy. Bioware, current champion of Western RPGs, are hard at work on the wildly, wildly anticipated SW:TOR. Set more than 3,500 years before the travesty of the prequels, SW:TOR pits the shining Galactic Republic against a cruel Sith Empire for all the marbles. Players will choose the good guys or the not-so-good guys and adventure through a story-driven Star Wars galaxy.

  • Release window
Spring 2011

  • Cause for alarm?
Of all the sci-fi MMOs out there, SW:TOR worries me the most by far. By all accounts, we can expect that Bioware plus Star Wars equals success. Enough success that Cryptic should sweat?

First of all, many fans of STO won't be interested in a Star Wars game, for obvious reasons. Second of all, SW:TOR right now appears limited to ground combat. Bioware announced personal starships at E3, and Massively's interview with Executive Producer Rich Vogel uncovered hints that space combat might be in the works, but that's it. Vogel suggested that starship combat could go either way, at least for launch. And starship combat is STO's true specialty, so a sci-fi MMO without space combat won't blow STO out of the sky. But then, many consider ground combat to be STO's weak link, so a forceful showing by SW:TOR is something to worry about.

Honorable Mention -- Warhammer 40K: Dark Millenium Online

With a gorgeous trailer and some much-anticipated gameplay information, Warhammer 40K made a helluva splash at E3. Based on the table-top game, Warhammer 40K is set in the future and boasts plenty of sci-fi elements, from laser guns to giant robots. And while I think it looks awesome, I don't see it gunning for those in the mood for a space-based MMO, so don't sweat this one. Yet.

What do you think?

The sci-fi genre is about to become very crowded in the next year, so should Cryptic be worried? I know I'll get plenty of "Cryptic sucks space rocks, STO can burn" comments for this one, but it's worth considering. Cryptic has a lot in store for STO -- the July update alone will be massive, adding starship interiors and raising the level cap to 51 -- so will it be enough to keep the game growing in the face of mounting competition? I say yes, assuming Cryptic maintain their dedication over the next year. How about you?

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