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Captain's Log: Why Star Trek Online is kind of a mess right now

Eliot Lefebvre
11.30.14
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I haven't had nearly as much time to play Star Trek Online lately as I would have liked; I've had other projects to work on, other games to play, and a lot of holiday stuff going on. So my main captain, who's been trekkin' around since launch, is still woefully underleveled. I accept entirely that this is my own fault, but I haven't been stressing out over it; I have no need to rush up to the cap.

That attitude is helped substantially by the fact that the people who are rushing up to the cap or already did rush up are awash with complaints. The speed of leveling. The speed of upgrade mechanics. How the Tier 5 and Tier 6 ships interact. The price of items. The amount of mission content. Gaining new specialization points at the cap. Sure, some of it is pretty normal complaining, but there's a general sense of discontent with the game at the moment. And I'm honestly not surprised because this problem was always going to crop up, and it could have been managed so much better.



Let's start by putting something in perspective: Star Trek Online increased its level cap five months after launch. The level cap subsequently remained the same for more than four years. And if we're going to be honest with ourselves, that cap was starting to get pretty messy.

In some ways it was a very good thing, of course. The cap was fleshed out. There was a lot to do. People largely enjoyed what existed at the level cap. But at the same time, there were signs of how bloated the level cap was becoming. The sheer number of Tier 5 ships hinted at that alone; it was messy to introduce new ships, new reputations, new missions, anything. There was a substantial power gap between freshly capped characters and characters who had been 50 since shortly after the game launched.

Delta Rising was faced with that challenge. It was designed to change the level cap without destroying what already existed at the level cap, which is the usual go-to solution in games that raise the cap. When you look at the changes that the expansion made, you can sort of see how every piece of the puzzle -- queue changes, upgrading ships, upgrading items -- all ties into that central goal of keeping the previous cap content relevant.

This leads to one of the two major problems the game is suffering from right now: Balance is a complete mess. Relative power levels are wildly inconsistent. The queues seem to have schizophrenic difficulty curve, not helped one bit by the fact that optional objectives aren't functioning properly. Upgrades come along at a glacial pace. Earning more specialization points is unnecessarily difficult. Nothing has been tuned to the level that it was by the four-year mark.



Thankfully, you guys didn't do this.
But then, that's kind of the reason, isn't it? After four years, the developers had plenty of time to get all of those balance issues hammered out. The Star Trek Online we all got used to playing was the product of a long period of refinement, and the extra 10 levels of the game have not yet gone through the amount of balance that they need. It's partly the fault of the developers, but it's also partly just the nature of changing the cap. Mechanics that were once carefully balanced start showing their cracks; the numerous solutions meant to hammer the old endgame into a working state aren't performing that function now that we have a new level cap. It's unpleasant, admittedly, but it's kind of predictable.

The other problem, though, is best pointed out by the T5u and T6 split: As many players have pointed out, the T6 ships are crazy expensive for what is at this point minimal benefit when you consider the price of just upgrading a Tier 5 ship.

Honestly, this would have been my personal reason not to expand the level cap in the first case. Tier 5 ships have always been expensive, and players have had four years to acquire them. Players have grown accustomed to what's there. The designers obviously didn't want to make all of those purchases worthless, but they also wanted to give you good reason to get new ships. So what we got was a compromise system that benefits, well, no one.


It's sure not benefitting me, I can't fly this ship.  Seriously, Cryptic.  Anything that allows me to fly this thing, we're good.  Call me.  We will talk.
This is a regular theme of the stuff added in Delta Rising. You can upgrade items, but it's slow and tedious to do so, an attempt to account for all of those Mark XII items rewarded while also slowing down the pace of actually upgrading to unwelcome levels. Queues are all scaled up, which means that you're doing the same queues you've always done. By trying to make all of the old stuff relevant while making the new stuff attractive, the devs have created content that's in an odd half-measured space. You want a new ship but you don't want to pay the price for it; you want new gear but it takes so long to upgrade. And so on.

While there's no way to make four years of polish come around in one patch, there were better solutions available here. I appreciate, for example, trying to keep old reputations relevant at the new cap, but this in-between state doesn't help anyone.

Ultimately, a better solution might have been to introduce specializations without actively scaling up the level cap, giving us new ships but not giving us another whole tier on top of it. The effort to marry new vertical progression to old horizontal options feels unsteady and not all that satisfying. Obviously, it wouldn't have been even remotely acceptable to have all of those purchased T5 ships become irrelevant, but what we currently have is an effort to have our cake and eat it too.

So here's hoping that gets toned down over the next four years. Sooner would be better.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Until next time, I'll be leveling up all over again, albeit slowly. I regret nothing.

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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