Captain's Log Supplemental: Exploring the art design of Star Trek Online's Delta Rising races

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|09.26.14

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Captain's Log Supplemental: Exploring the art design of Star Trek Online's Delta Rising races
It's like the Yamato, only in a series I like.
If you asked me about my favorite antagonistic race through all of Voyager's seven-year run, my answer wouldn't have been any of the regular suspects. It would have been the Vaadwaur, and not just because of their funky appearance; the race really twisted the usual formula of a Star Trek one-off villain, and besides that, they had a culture that hinted at something very unusual in the show. I was kind of sad that they never showed up again after their one episode.

Obviously, I was happy to see one of my favorite races get the upgrade treatment in Star Trek Online. But that poses a problem just the same because it's not as if the producers on the show detailed dozens of ship classes and a huge amount of culture for a race that showed up for 50 minutes. I chatted with art director Brad Stokan about bringing these smaller races of Star Trek into a fully fleshed-out form in Star Trek Online, discussing both the Vaadwaur and the Kobali and how his team took a one-off guest appearance and made a full race out of it.The Kobali Youth Center is tragically underfunded.Stokan said that when dealing with races that have only been seen briefly, the team first sits down and, well, watches the episode(s) in which the species appears. No, it doesn't necessarily give many visuals, but it does allow for the team to get a sense of the race's culture and philosophy. In the case of the Kobali, the emphasis was placed on meditation, spirituality, and contemplation; the species reproduces through the dead of other species, but rather than being cavalier about it, they seem to place a high regard on the dead, maintaining a reverential respect.

That began to suggest an angle for the Kobali structural designs, especially when combined with the fact that the Kobali must have fairly advanced technology to sustain themselves on such an esoteric method of reproduction. The result was concept art mixing high-tech environments with a temple-like aesthetic, blending the two for a society with a small population. Color schemes are drawn in part from what is seen of the race in the episode and from what fits the emotional theme of a given race.

Once the concept art is in a good place, the team moves onto a mood painting showing what an environment should look like. That gives a clear picture for structures to be modeled and placed in the game, resulting in a look and feel for the race that is wholly consistent with what's seen on the small screen while still being distinct.

It's not always easy. Stokan mentioned that some of the early Kobali concepts involved more of a graveyard theme, explicitly tying in the angle of the dead, but that made the race seem far more sinister. The concepts worked from a consistency standpoint, but they painted a different picture of the race, and ultimately it just wasn't right for the game.

The Vaadwaur presented a different challenge. We see a fair amount of Vaadwaur technology in their one episode, and a fairly clear picture of their culture is presented; the challenge became updating and expanding the race while still keeping the sense that this race of conquerors was somewhat old and outdated. After all, keeping their technology outdated would mean that they posed little threat to anyone in the Delta Quadrant, much less the Federation or the KDF.

I just noticed... our hats have skulls on them.  Little skulls.  Hans, are we the baddies?Ultimately, the team went about this by ensuring that the ships and uniforms feel old. Rather than drawing from the usual Star Trek sweeping futuristic designs, the Vaadwaur ships were designed along the lines of old World War II battlecruisers with a healthy dose of 1950s art deco sci-fi stylings. The idea was to create ships that seemed as if they'd just had new engines and weapons slapped on with the same basic layout, layers of armor plating and an antiquated look evoking an older design aesthetic.

The theme even extended to tactics. On the ground, the Vaadwaur essentially set up for trench warfare and deploy their forces accordingly. Their designs are covered in olive and drab green, brutally utilitarian and functional. Even their uniforms are meant to resemble soldiers from World War I/II, as if their forces simply never adapted to fighting in a different way.

The species also is a bit different, physically, from its members' appearance on television; Stokan noted that while the show had to deal with putting makeup on human actors, the game has no such limitation. That meant exaggerating certain features, giving the Vaadwaur a slightly higher hairline and playing up their snake-like features.

When I asked Stokan about the biggest challenges the art team faced with designing elements for a little-seen species, he told me that the hardest ships to design are those from the core factions. While there are a lot of options for designing new Vaadwaur ships, the Federation and the KDF both have very distinctive lines, and there are already so many different ships for both that creating something both novel and visually interesting can be extremely difficult.

This is doubly true for the Federation design. Stokan showed me some of the huge pile of concept sketches that were used for the newest Federation ships. With so many existing designs, it's difficult to find one that still looks distinctly Federation but doesn't look too close to an existing class.

We also talked a bit about the new intel ship designs, which he mentioned should offer players quite a bit of variety in customization -- the lack of customization on some ships is a sticking point in development, and more customization is always being planned for players. Similarly, new ships are frequently designed with an eye toward potentially offering them to players in the future, keeping them visually interesting from multiple angles in case the design is later added to a lockbox or for direct purchase.

Last but not least, I asked him about designs moving forward, including the possibility for cross-factional designs with the Romulan Republic. He explained that the team has discussed it, but at the expansion's launch, the first focus is to make sure that the Romulans look distinct. It's a possibility for the future, just the same.

With years of development already in place, making new visuals that fit into STO while still fitting existing canon is a challenge. I, for one, love the new and upcoming designs, especially the Vaadwaur ships; you might feel differently. But hopefully a look behind the process at least helps explain why they look as they do, even if you don't care for them.

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Massively, as recorded monthly in Captain's Log by Eliot Lefebvre. Its continuing mission -- to explore strange new game systems in Star Trek Online. To seek out new content and new experiences. To boldly go where many captains may or may not already be going, but they seem to be having fun, right?
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