Lootcritter here: What started as a few comments on the state of the game, and our expectations on the upcoming release of the episode “Echos of Light” in r/sto, Staff game designer Jesse Heinig and SirBoulevard joined the growing conversation on the status and future of exploration in Star Trek Online. While I have some very strong opinions on the matter – exploration is at the heart of everything Star Trek – the game has taken a step back in the past year while they re-evaluate how and when a fuller exploration system will return to the game. It is very much something that Star Trek Online is actively discussing, but sadly is still very much in the whiteboard stages (Aug 2016).
That conversation spurred SirBoulevard to offer his opinion on the matter. Jesse’s comments on Reddit are noted here for context.
SirBoulevard is a prolific foundry author, co-leader of the E.W.O.C. fleet, he’s a guy who thinks he can build a canon build and DPS at the same time. We might be concerned about his mental health, but luckily the voices in his head have some good ideas.
STO: To Explore Strange New Worlds
Exploration. It has become that one word in STO that’s akin to a boogeyman. Where is the exploration content? Those of us who have been with STO for a long time might remember the old exploration clusters, semi-randomized missions that were bluntly, kinda terrible. If you want to remember why they were horrible: The Borg searching for Artifacts of their Third Dynasty. Cryptic’s official reason for removing those clusters was that it wasn’t up to their standards, and that’s legit. The old clusters were basically one of 4-5 types of missions, usually kill or scan five things. To redo exploration right would mean distancing themselves from that and starting from scratch.
Now, before we go further, Jesse Heinig (aka Trekhead) from Cryptic actually weighed in on this while I was talking about this subject and I want to include his lengthy response before going forward:
“Doing exploration well is HARD and TIME-CONSUMING.
The fundamental problem is that gamifying exploration means that you are taking a vast system and trying to tease out ways to make it engaging and meaningful.
One of the difficulties of No Man’s Sky, I feel, is that since everything is totally randomly generated from a broad palette, it all feels like a large mish-mash of STUFF and none of it matters.
You’ll notice that many games use minigames as shorthand for doing mind-numbing, boring, and repetitive tasks. You don’t actually click “Work the bilge-pump!” a million times in a fun game; you do some other gamey task that substitutes for working the bilge-pump a million times. In real exploration there are days, weeks, or months of tedium, and there’s no guarantee that you will find something actually interesting or meaningful. There’s no Fountain of Youth or Lost City of Gold out there. There’s just more dry hills and grassy plains. To get around this you need your exploration stuff to not be random, but rather semi-random, with the system recognizing that there are “high points” that need to be seeded in there. It’s just like any other form of dramatic pacing; you must vary the pacing from time to time, or it becomes boring.
So the player has to make interesting choices, they have to have a meaningful end, and they need to be challenging in some way – the player needs to be engaged so that they are interacting with the game. (If you’re not interacting with it, it may be media, but it’s arguably not a game.) Exploration of the generic “Go out into space and find random stuff” involves lots of stuff that is just boring: Flying around empty space. Scanning and finding nothing cool. Beaming to empty planets with no people. It’s like the beginning of “First Contact” where Picard angrily tosses the PADD on the table and decries that cataloging gaseous anomalies is SO IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING when they should be using their ship and their skills for something better.
So, exploration is a central part of Star Trek, though in the fiction it’s the conceit of “We are going exploring… and on the way we ran into this problem.” But we can’t just make a million episodes that are the “problem of the day.” There’s not enough money and time to make enough episodes to sustain that, and we’ve already seen that procedurally-generated content is very same-same and tedious.
It is a tough problem, but not an intractable one. We do think about it a lot… and we would prefer to do it well, as opposed to releasing something that’s just bad.”
- Jesse “Trekhead” Heinig, Cryptic Studios Design Team for Star Trek Online
Now, that’s important to keep in mind. Exploration is a major challenge for anyone or any company. If you think its easy, I’ll just tell you to go into the foundry and make an open world map instance. I guarantee you a good one will take you weeks or months to do properly with those limited tools, with the resources of the actual dev team it gets infinitely more complex.
So lets take a look at some of the successful exploration systems other games have done, and if they’re applicable to STO.
#1) The Skyrim Format (Open World RPG)
Ah, Skyrim, at the time of writing this, its only a week away from coming back to my computer in 64bit HD AND a few months away from being portable on the Nintendo Switch. Its hard to argue that when you say gaming exploration Bethesda’s open world format is one of the top two on the list (With the other being the similar style Grand Theft Auto open worlds of Rockstar). Craggy, snowy mountains to the ocean shores, to deep green forests, it was a truly massive world. But it also has some deep problems.
First, this format requires constant tuning at both the macroscopic and microscopic level. Each area has to be built by hand, but it also needs to have its internalized quests, storylines, and gameplay mesh with the overall quests, storylines, and gameplay.
Second, these kinds of level design typically take years as each piece of the level is crafted by artists, designers, and writers by hand, from scratch. Even with asset reuse, you need to change up how those assets interact with one another so that you don’t end up with the “all the houses have the same layout” problem that older games had.
Third, this format is dependent on the primary world map being the thing you explore. For STO the equivalent would be Sector Space. This would make a Star System equivalent to a dungeon or a city. For obvious reasons this would not mesh well with Star Trek’s model, which requires a space and ground portion of the game.
Feasibility: Extremely Low/Impossible
The Skyrim Format may be what most gamers think of when they think of exploration in gaming, but its just applicable to a game that also features space as an explorable space. In addition, the length of time required to build such a map is quite long, with the released-last-year Fallout 4 having started its development all the way back in 2009 after 3 was completed. While this format is like a chiseled sculpture: beautiful to look at it, its also a difficult and time consuming piece to create, which would mean the halting of all other STO development to accomplish. Pass.
#2) The Mass Effect Method
Ah, Mass Effect, a series that was explicitly designed as Star Trek if it was created from scratch today. There’s a lot to love there (besides the ending): from well-written characters, to great humor, some pretty decent third person cover shooter gameplay. But what most people forget is that Mass Effect 1 had a decent exploration system associated with it too. Now the Mako might get some shit, but that has more to do with some of the odd choices in how it functioned and a physics engine that wasn’t quite right, and Bioware has already announced that the Mako will be back for Andromeda and they intend to do it right this time.
But with the Mako came the ability to explore at least one planet in every system you visited. And I’m a fan of that mechanic. While you nearly always got a mission with each planet, you also had to find the location where to complete that mission on each planet (with several leading you on a chase across the world), and also take time to look for mineral deposits to survey, track down artifacts, and find hidden secrets.The only downside was that in ME1 these planets were pretty bare bones and were lacking in flora and details. ME2 revisited in briefly in
The only downside was that in ME1 these planets were pretty bare bones and were lacking in flora and details. ME2 revisited in briefly in Firewalker, and then explored better in Overlord which had hand-built world to explore in the Hammerhead.
Feasibility: Extremely High
I think the ME format is exactly what STO needs for ground based exploration. Its flexible and can be expanded upon in both Featured Episodes and general content beyond it. Worlds like this could be partially procedurally generated and hand modified to give the widest range of map variations.
#3) The EVE Online Method
Ah, EVE. It’s like STO’s evil twin. And the dark side does indeed have cookies, and politics, and intrigue, and losing hundreds of dollars of real money, and most impressively, a well thought out space exploration system.
EVE has an entire skill set devoted to exploration from orbit and it’s a truly amazing sight to behold. Your ships need to be equipped with probe bays, stocked with probes, and various other scanning equipment. In addition, Cloaking devices are often recommended as well to hide from extremely high-level NPCs that may be hiding near the planet.
On top of that, there is also a mechanic revolving around wormholes that send you to various areas of the galaxy, with the riskiest ones sending you in Unexplored Space (or W-space [short for Wormhole space] for those familiar with the game) that you can’t safely return from or get to as the wormholes shift.
Its in that last mechanic that EVE has taken on a strange emergent gameplay mechanic as several corporations set up homebases in W-Space beyond the NPC laws and regulations. It’s a pretty amazing development that shows how you could incorporate guild gameplay into exploration.
The EVE method couldn’t be transferred to STO in a 1:1 format. Wormholes couldn’t be used for instance. But you could hook it into the fleet system fairly easily, tie it in with the Duty Officer System, and having a whole set of gear based around sensors, probes, and exploration mechanics would be great.
I feel like this system would work best in the Gamma Quadrant, with the player needing to defend the territory from the Dominion. In addition, creating gameplay mechanics around probing and exploring a planet from space would be a great boon. Tie it in with the territory control mechanics from the battlezones and the fleet system and you could have a very robust gameplay mechanic here.
Probably the best way to handle exploration in STO would be a hybrid of the Mass Effect and EVE systems. Several sectors of systems that can explored and would require scanning from orbit. The locations could be claimed by an individual and by proxy their fleets. You could then explore a ground map that has locations of minerals, lifeforms, or pirate bases. Ground vehicles that function as mobile labs and tanks (more the Mako, less the Argo) could be used to speed up exploration processes.Some procedural generation could be done in this format, but it would need constant
Some procedural generation could be done in this format, but it would need constant maintenance and updates as well as some manual TLC. You could also establish trade lines, etc. But this doesn’t all have to be at once. A system like this could be made very modular and have new functions added over various seasons and provide long-term reasons to stay in-game.
The downside is, any system will take forever to make, and everyone is going to need to be patient. In the meantime, the PC players still have the Foundry, and everyone can look forward to STO’s regular releases until then. So let’s just hold on and see what the team comes up with.
Edited: Grammarly is getting fussy with WordPress. That’s my excuse for the repeating lines 😉
I really appreciate Jesse’s participation in the discussion on r/sto, and it’s good to know that they are taking the time to seriously consider the future of exploration in Star Trek Online. It was one of the topics of discussion I had with Salami Inferno in Vegas, and again with Laughing Trendy in Seattle. Like SirBoulevard, I’m happy to wait longer for something that will engage me.
I’d also kill to get a few minutes in front of the whiteboard in Star Trek Online’s offices 😉
Thanks again to SirBoulevard for his take on what might be possible.
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Introducing the Layers Deep system.
To start you will need: A large cork board. System cards. Some pins.
Write on your first card SHIP IN DISTRESS.
Pin it to the top of one cork board.
Now lay out a few cards below this. (As many as you have ideas for what could happen next)
SHIP UNDER ATTACK
SHIP DAMAGED BY ANOMALY
SHIP DEBRIS (YOU’RE TOO LATE) – END
…and so on.
Under each of these possibilities lay more cards detailing what further adventures might spring from each, but also make sure that each possibility has a premature ending: THIS IS MOST IMPORTANT.
Lets explore first tier possibilities – Ship Under Attack, for example.
PLAYER CHASES OFF ATTACKERS – TRACES THEM TO THEIR BASE
PLAYER DESTROYS ATTACKERS – BEAM ABOARD TO ASSIST REPELLING BOARDERS
PLAYER DESTROYS PIRATE ATTACKERS – END
Each layer of cards, and the more cards in each layer, provides more variety and unpredictability so that each time the player encounters what seems like the same adventure they will be pleasantly surprised at being unable to predict the outcome. Each layer also has a chance of bringing an early climax/anti-climax to the adventure which is an important part of keeping the player guessing. This makes the player want to embark on more exploration adventures as the challenge is to find encounters which go many layers deep. And the deeper the plot allows them to go, the bigger the rewards.
FIGHT DEFENDING SHIPS AND BOARD BASE
PIRATES SCUTTLE BASE – PLAYERS GIVE CHASE
DISABLE PIRATE BASE AND ESCAPING SLAVE TRANSPORTS
DISCOVER SATELLITE BROADCASTING A PHANTOM SIGNAL TO FOOL SENSORS – END
For a lot of players the thrill of playing scripted episodes disappears after the first run through. That’s a lot of work by Cryptic for so little replayability. Cryptic could even scrap the traditional episodic content and dedicate those man-hours to adding more content to the exploration system.
– With each weekly patch more content can be patched into the system to keep the possibilities growing.
– There is the possibility to sneak more nuanced, scripted content into the deeper recesses of some layers to make them feel even more involving and rewarding.
– Give Foundry creators access to generate their own Layers Deep trees to exponentially add more exploration content to the game.
– Death finally has a consequence! The player has failed and, instead of respawning, is ejected from the current adventure and will now never know how deep the rabbit hole might have gone and what lucrative rewards they missed out on.
– Sector space finally gets used in endgame again! Because instead of mostly jumping into queues from ESD we Admirals will be out trawling the space lanes, hoping at some point our scanners or comms set us on a course for adventures for which we can’t guess the outcome.
– Cryptic could go wild and create tailored Exploration variants of every ship in game for us to buy and enjoy. (What’d you expect? All this work isn’t going to pay for itself!)
– Over time they could add more mechanics to the exploration system, much as they have done for queues by introducing the Reputation system, plus there should be very nice rewards for reaching deeper layers. Something on a par with Omega Particles. Who wouldn’t want to explore?
– To keep the exploration system from emptying the queues have the queues reward 1 exploration token. Make 1 token the limit so players don’t stockpile. This will keep players alternating between the queues and exploring, if exploring is what they wish to do.
DEFEAT BASE PERSONNEL, DISABLE SELF-DESTRUCT, DOWNLOAD INFO ON UPCOMING PIRATE OPERATIONS
DEFEAT BASE PERSONNEL, DISABLE SELF-DESTRUCT, DOWNLOAD INFO ON PIRATE BASE NETWORK
DEFEAT BASE PERSONNEL – PIRATE COMMANDER ESCAPES TO SPACE
DEFEAT BASE PERSONNEL AND FIGHT COMMANDER GROUND – END
As you can see, Exploration needn’t be thought of as an insolvable problem, but an opportunity to enhance player content and enjoyment overall. It requires a fair bit of work, but it is work that can start showing fruit after only a handful of content is introduced and can be grown over time, just like Episode content, but with the added benefit of replayability. Unpredictability is the heart of exploration and that’s what the Layers Deep system delivers.