Star Trek Online: A Look Back and Ahead
By Don Burrito
Star Trek Online officially launched on February 2, 2010. At the time, I was twenty years old, but I had already been waiting for a game like STO for over eight years. This game had a lot of hype to live up to for Star Trek gamers like myself. Now five years later, I wanted to use my first “Fan Dance” blog post to go back and review some of the highs and lows of STO over the years, and to also give my opinion on the future of the game.
At first, the game had a lot of rough edges. It was simply incomplete. However, the state of the game at launch cannot be fully blamed on Cryptic Studios. The development team had an almost impossible task from day one of receiving the license from CBS — release the game in one year. After several years’ worth of blunders and the ultimate bankruptcy of the previous studio, Perpetual Entertainment, CBS wanted the game released as soon as possible. This led to many features that Cryptic had planned for STO to not be added until later — sometimes years later.
The first year after launch still had several high points. With the release of Season 1: Common Ground came the first versions of the Special Task Force (STFs) missions. The STFs are Star Trek Online’s version of raids or dungeons, in which teams of five players join together to fight off very tough enemies. These first versions included both ground and space portions, and usually took over thirty minutes to complete. Season 2: Ancient Enemies brought the first level cap increase and Featured Episode series. And at the very end of the year, Season 3: Genesis brought a great deal of more Klingon faction content. The lack of content for the Klingon faction was one of the biggest things that Cryptic had to leave out of the game at launch, but Season 3 started to correct that. It was after that though, when things went decidedly downhill for a while.
Year two was a very tough year for the STO player-base. On the upside, it was the year in which the Foundry, the User Generated Content system, was added. The Foundry allowed the players to create their own stories in the STO universe. Some of these missions are even better than the main storyline missions — even though the authors don’t have the same level of tools as the developers. However, to this day, the second year is still commonly called the “Year of Hell”, referring to the Voyager episode of the same name in which everything seemed to go wrong. Once again though, there wasn’t much that Cryptic could do, though most players did not know that at the time. Atari, the then owners of Cryptic Studios, no longer wanted their own game design studio, as they wanted to be more flexible and work on more casual and mobile games. Cryptic was finally purchased from Atari by Perfect World Entertainment in May of 2011. However almost zero new playable content was added for the rest of the year as Cryptic and Perfect World worked on converting STO from a pay-to-play subscription based model, to a free-to-play model. The only season release during this period was Season 4: Crossfire which added the new “shooter mode” and included a much needed revamp of the Klingon home world map Qo’noS.
In year three things started to turn around again. The free-to-play conversion finally went live just weeks before the second anniversary with Season 5: Call to Arms. It brought along a complete skill tree revamp, a consolidation of many different currencies into just a few, and added the first event system and the Duty Officer system. Then, Season 6: Under Siege added the first Fleet Holding to the game: a Fleet Starbase, and several new PvE queues. Season 7: New Romulus even added a completely new sector block and the first of many Reputation systems. It also was a direct lead up to the first full on expansion to STO.
Legacy of Romulus was announced in March of 2013, and released two months later in May. For the first time since launch a new playable faction was added: the Romulans. They were given their own storyline up to a point, and then players would have to choose to align themselves with either the Federation or Klingon faction. The expansion also brought along several more revamps, from the UI to traits. In November of the same year, Season 8: The Sphere took players to part of the Delta Quadrant for the first time to fight a new enemy: the Voth. It introduced the first space battlezone, a new ground battlezone, and was the first season to include a revamp of the early Federation storyline missions. And right before the fourth anniversary the first half-season release, Season 8.5, expanded upon the content from Season 8 and added the Ship Management and Loadout systems.
The fourth year of STO began with the release of Season 9: A New Accord. Its main feature was a new Featured Episode in which the three main factions came together to fight off an Undine attack on Earth Spacedock and Qo’noS. In the end, a new peace treaty was signed between the Federation and the Klingons, which put an end to the war that had been the main focus of the game to that point. It also finally moved the game from the year 2409 to 2410, included a redesigned Earth Spacedock and Kit system, and revamped several more storyline missions. The revamp of the Kit system was the first major upgrade to ground combat in several years, and finally began to get players excited about playing ground missions again. Year four also had a half-season release, Season 9.5, which added a redesigned crafting and Duty Officer system. And in one of the more controversial decisions by Cryptic over the years, it also removed the Cluster Exploration system and Memory Alpha from the game completely. This upset a lot of players, but keep reading on to learn my feelings on the subject.
Just a few months ago the second expansion, Delta Rising, was released. Delta Rising added a large section of the Delta Quadrant, and introduced multiple races that had not been seen since Star Trek: Voyager. It also featured voiceovers from many of the main Voyager cast members, and raised the level cap again for the first time in four years. With the level cap increase came many other changes, some good and some bad. The first Captain Specialization trees were added, but the rate of leveling was significantly reduced. This rate change has led a large portion of the players that participate on the STO forums to be up in arms. They felt that STO had turned into a huge “grindfest”, in which players are not earning enough rewards for time and effort spent. However, the developers have mentioned in several forum posts that they are actively working on XP rewards throughout the game, and hope to have things evened out in the next few months.
And that brings us to today, the fifth anniversary of the release of Star Trek Online, and the beginning of its sixth year of existence. If you made it through my history lesson, you have learned or been reminded that STO has had plenty of ups and downs, but it is still here. Some players once again are concerned about the game’s future, but here are some of my thoughts as to some of the changes, and why I think STO will still be around another five years from now.
As I mentioned, there have been several controversial changes to STO in just the last year. However, I fully believe that most of these changes were necessary. The Exploration system, while interesting in certain ways, was outdated. It was a mechanic that was never completed, and doing so three years after it was introduced would have taken way too much of the developers time. I also believe that the leveling rate needed to be slowed. For quite a while you could play one mission and gain a full level. If you also used the Duty Officer system you would level at a much higher rate than was intended, and would reach the old level cap before finishing much of the main storyline. Granted, the rate of leveling from 1-50 is still fast, and 50-60 might be too slow, but I believe the developers when they say that they will get this evened out soon. They can only do so much so quickly, but they have done a wonderful job the last two years bringing many of the game’s older missions and features up to date. This latest update for the fifth anniversary included more revamps, this time it was the Romulan Mystery storyline and the Bridge Officer training system. The only large part of the game that still needs major work is the Klingon faction, but that’s for a later blog.
Now that most of the old portions of STO have been revamped, the developers are finally able to focus more time and resources on new content. The amount of new content that has already been added while they were also doing revamps leaves me feeling confident about STO’s future. From all of the interviews I have heard and read I can conclude that the developers are still very interested in making STO the best that it can be, even with the amount of frustration coming their way from some players. Not all studios and their developers stay this excited about their work when confronted this way, but Cryptic has so far. And this week it was announced that Stephen Ricossa, aka Salami Inferno, has been promoted to the position of Executive Producer for STO. Mr. Ricossa has been around since the pre-development days of the game, and I believe he will do a fine job in his new position. He even went ahead and gave us the first bit of information about the upcoming release of Season 10. It will include a total redevelopment of sector space by combining many separate Sector Space maps to include whole quadrants. This is something that players of STO have been asking for since the earliest development, and it is finally being made into reality.
I’m really looking forward to these next few years to see in what direction that Cryptic and Perfect World takes the game. And I wholeheartedly believe I will be here in another five years to write another blog like this one. Let’s see what the future holds.
Don has spent time hosting and co-hosting several different podcasts over the years about Star Trek Online, as well as DJ-ing for several gaming radio stations.