Category Archives: sto

Economy does not lie in sparing money, but in spending it wisely

Captain’s log: a nice hunk of larch. It’s funny, you see, because “log” means both “a thick piece of tree trunk or branch, especially one cut for burning on a fire” and also “a full written record of a journey, a period of time, or an event”, so scientifically that was *hilarious*. Oh please yourselves. Following a series of exciting adventures, Starfleet have appointed me to the rank of Admiral and given me command of a new ship, one that doesn’t have big, tempting red buttons labelled “Abandon Ship” and “Self Destruct” on the arms of the captain’s chair. Due to budget cutbacks it is equipped with the most basic weapons, shields and engines from the Spacetesco Value range, but high command seem pretty relaxed about captains performing their own upgrades, so while my application to “Pimp My Spaceship” is being considered I have tasked my senior officers to review the spacedock market and make some recommendations to improve the performance of USS Hope Springs Eternal

“Good morning, men. And women. And aliens from tri-gendered species. And robots, and holograms and… whatever you are, in the corner”
“That’s a potted plant, sir”
“Very good, carry on… potting. Now, as you’re all well aware, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. Except where it does, a bit, sort of, or there’s some sort of bartering involving credits, or energy or… oh, look, it’s all vague enough that Cryptic can get away with a bunch of different currencies and an auction house and stuff. So, as a new crew, let’s go around the table, introduce ourselves, outline what upgrades you’d like to purchase from the market, and we’ll run the budget past Stevens of accounts. You in the red shirt first.”
“Thank you captain. I’m Alexei Vladimir Ilyich Dynamo Kiev Five Year Plan John Paul George Ringo Antonov, Chief Tactical Officer, nuclear wessel etc. I propose replacing the aft photon torpedo launcher with a quantum mine dispenser, upgrading the for’d launcher, and replacing the phaser arrays with plasma cannons fore, and plasma turrets aft. Total cost would be approximately 100,000 energy credits for a moderate upgrade. We can also equip the away team with new weapons and armour for 75,000 credits.”
“Excellent, next”
“Jings crivens, sir, I’m Angus McScotsman, Chief Engineering Officer, och aye the noo. I recommend fitting improved combat impulse engines for greater speed and manoeuvrability, and reconfiguring engineering consoles for maximum weapon power. There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose. Estimated cost, 70,000 energy credits.”
“Very good; you in the blue with the pointy ears”
“Well, sir, there is a theme I have on that scheme you have; a flight on the wings of a young girls dreams that flew too far away. Basically we get some shields for 50,000 credits. And some china for me to hold.”
“Thank you, Science Officer Decker. Now, you in the rather… extravagant uniform, what department are you again?”
“Petty Officer Llewelyn-Bowen, sir, Chief of Interior Décor. Now, as it’s the holiday season, I’m thinking ornaments, I’m thinking Vulcan incense, sleigh bells, Bolian candles, Targ fur earmuffs will look simply *fabulous*, we can kit out the whole bridge for a mere 750,000 energy credits.”
“Three quarters of a million credits?”
“Oh yes. If you think about it, the whole game situation of players putting a premium on cosmetic appearance and digital pseudo-rarity from limited time events and such fits in quite well with a post-economic society, if you sort of squint a bit. Tell you what, there’s a lovely jacket for sale. Brown, thigh length, very in this season, a snip at 300,000 credits.”
“So, I can either dramatically increase the effectiveness of both this starship and her away team, or get a jacket?”

Captain’s log, stardate: about a week later. Forced to retreat from confrontation with Klingon patrol, shields unable to withstand concentrated fire and weaponry insufficient to cause significant damage. Beamed down to planet to try and negotiate ceasefire, away team overpowered and captured. On the plus side, Counsellor Ilium said I looked very dashing in the new jacket.

Hope never abandons you, you abandon it

After hearing Tim & Jon talking about Star Trek Online on the rebooted How To Murder Time podcast (and Patrick Stewart talking about space exploration on The Infinite Monkey Cage), I thought I might get the old starship out of mothballs and boldy go where quite a lot of people have gone before but I haven’t been for a while. Melmoth brilliantly captured the problem of picking up old characters, and between space and ground hotbars, bridge officers, tactical kits and whatnot, none of which I could really remember, I wouldn’t have stood a chance in a fight with a Clanger, let alone a Klingon battle fleet. Fortunately Star Trek Online has a few nice low-key ways of getting back into the swing of things, such as Duty Officer missions.

Duty Officer missions concern the day-to-day management of a crew of hundreds that the TV series generally glossed over, apart from the classic episode “Annual Performance Evaluation Reviews on the Edge of Forever”; calibrating shields and weapons, hosting ambassadors, granting leave, searching for contraband, that sort of thing. Pack the crew off with a couple of clicks, they return in an hour or two with loot, brilliant.

After a couple of days I thought I really ought to leave Earth Spacedock, though, so with a bit of helpful advice I at least got some decent Bridge Officers slotted up to give USS Hope some useful combat abilities, and took a refresher on Space Combat Basics (1: point ship at enemy 2: mash ‘fire all weapons’ button) followed by Advanced Space Combat (3: point ship away from enemy and repeat step 2 with aft weapons) and Extremely Advanced Space Combat (4: press all number keys then Ctrl-all number keys to see if your Bridge Officers can do something helpful like buff your weapons or debuff enemy shields). There are many tactics and manoeuvres in the Star Trek canon but none really capture my Extremely Advanced Space Combat technique, so I might have to dub it The Zoso Manoeuvre:

“Mister Herring! Attack Pattern Omega. Ensign Izzard! Polarise the hull. Lieutenant Osho! Auxiliary to structural, deploy repair parties.”
“Erm, sir… we haven’t actually received any damage yet.”
“I know. But we probably will. Ensign Lee! Dispersal Pattern Beta.”
“Dispersal patterns are for quantum mines, sir”
“Yes sir. We’re not fitted with mines.”
“Right. Well, if we were fitted with them, deploy them in Dispersal Pattern Beta.”
“Yes sir.”
“Right, I think that’s clicked all the buttons. Oh wait a minute, what’s this one with the little picture of the starship and the arrows coming out of it? That looks useful, do that.”
“That’s… Abandon Ship, Captain.”
“Oh well, I’ve clicked it now. Off we go!”

And so it was that USS Hope II did a couple more days of Duty Officer missions before venturing into space again…

If you’ve heard this story before don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again

A couple of years before release, when we were getting the first glimpses of group conversations in Star Wars: The Old Republic, there was a bit of scepticism over how the Super Happy Mass Effect Conversation Wheel of Alignment Sparkle Time Fun (© Melmoth) would work with multiple players. At the time I didn’t think it was something that would translate well to a MMOG environment, but the first flashpoints (SWTOR dungeons/instances) really have that Bioware-RPG feeling for a group of players.

The Esseles and Black Talon flashpoints have a short introduction, a couple of conversations where each member of the group picks a response (a dice roll determines the response that’s used, with some sort of modifiers making sure everyone gets a chance to speak at some stage) and plenty of fairly standard MMOG action (clearing corridors of “trash” mobs, the odd boss here and there with shiny loot). At three or four points during the flashpoint there are more conversations, with decisions to take that affect how things play out, a nice set piece or two, a climactic confrontation, then home for tea and medals. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, taking the standard Bioware formula, adding another three players and sprinkling with MMOG-ness, but as with the proverbial swan it doubtless takes a lot of furious paddling below the surface to appear so effortless.

This week’s Star Trek Online expedition demonstrated a slightly less graceful implementation of story-driven group play, more of a thrashing sort-of-butterly stroke. Since the game went free-to-play, group nights have mostly been spent on “Feature Episodes”, linked missions that tell a story, at one point released on a weekly basis. I have to confess I haven’t entirely been paying attention to the exposition text from NPCs, I think there was an ambassador involved somewhere at the start, and probably some Klingons or something. I seem to recall a group of starship captains, each commanding a crew of hundreds and enough firepower to take decent sized chunks out of a planet, were responsible for a health & safety inspection in a night club at one point, but that might’ve just been a cheese-fuelled dream. Anyway, the specifics haven’t been terribly important as the missions generally boil down to entertaining bouts of Kirk-style diplomacy delivered with fists and photon torpedoes. We don’t stack Ferrero Rocher into a pyramid, we replace the hazelnut with antimatter and launch a full spread of them at anything that looks at us funny.

This week there was a newly released episode focusing on Deep Space Nine, so we toddled along to have a look at that. (Danger: the following contains vaguely remembered possible spoilers for that episode.) There’s a very important conference going on, and you’re sent to… all right, to be honest, I was mostly skipping the text again. Some missions have voiceover text, I think this latest Feature Episode includes it throughout, but it’s not really up to Bioware standards. Where SWTOR delivers brief, punchy, well-voiced cutscenes, STO shoves a dense block of text up in an oh-so-closable window. If you were sitting around a table playing a board game or RPG with others, handing out a short pamphlet and telling everyone to read it wouldn’t really be compelling gameplay, it doesn’t work well for an online group either. From what I could gather, in the best MMOG traditions the first part of the mission was to undertake some trivial tasks from some NPCs too lazy to walk around themselves: get some bootleg liquor, act as a virtual pimp and hoover someone’s starship. Our first instinct, “What would Kirk do?”, had to be abandoned when it proved impossible to either punch or snog our way to success, so we tried “What would Picard do?” After a very well received off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis we decided that wasn’t getting us anywhere either, and tried “What would Sisko do?” I was unsure of what this entailed, having only watched a few episodes of Deep Space Nine, but following the lead of our Trekkie/er/ist leader it seemed to be running around and clicking on anyone with something floating over their head.

Aside from the fact that this wouldn’t have been vastly compelling group content at the best of times, our elite away team instantly activated Plan Sperple and spread out across the station, randomly clicking on anything that looked clickable. It wasn’t clear if we were all supposed to talk to NPCs in turn, or if just one of us had to talk to them, or we were all supposed to talk to them simultaneously, or some mix of all of the above; we managed to render two of the optional goals uncompletable, either by speaking to the wrong people at the wrong time, or selecting the wrong dialogue option, or just giving the game a headache, we’re not really sure. Still, we managed the key objectives to move the mission forward, and got to participate in the pan-galactic conference of great importance. Instructed to take seats, we naturally jumped on top of the table as per the time honoured sport of “try and place your character in a ridiculous pose for the cutscene”, but sadly (as in SWTOR) the game forces your characters to preordained locations. A bunch of alien dudes with weird foreheads then droned unskippably on for a bit; those more in to Star Trek may have had more of an idea who they were, I can just about remember Klingons, though they seemed to be represented by a lizard-thing… Shockingly the delegates reached an impasse, so it was down to the Federation’s finest diplomats to sort things out! Unfortunately they weren’t available, so it fell to us instead, and once again we ran around the room frantically clicking on anyone clickable. This was surprisingly successful, though I have no idea what we said to anyone, we probably made completely contradictory promises that will lead to a galaxy-shattering war in the future, but it got us out of the conference room.

Finally, the action kicked in; the station was attacked! Much vworping of sirens and wobbling of the camera to simulate phaser hits. We had to escort the ambassadors to their shuttles, fighting through units of Some Bad Aliens in ground combat; despite a couple of overhauls ground combat is still a bit ropey in STO (much like Pirates of the Burning Sea), but at least it was more involving for the group. On reaching the shuttle bays, we then beamed up to our ships to ensure their escape, and that’s when the game really came into its own, space combat on a grand scale, waves of enemy ships, friendly Federation ships giving support, protecting the shuttles as they made their escape. It took a while to get going, but at least there was a strong finish.

In a world of identikit “use hotbar ability to cause damage” combat-heavy MMOGs, Cryptic at least make an effort to broaden the game content in keeping with the source material, and the first part of the mission would probably work quite well solo, especially for someone more into Deep Space Nine. Tipa has a far better write-up from the perspective of someone who actually has a clue about both STO and the Star Trek universe in general, reaching a similar conclusion. I think, with sufficient resources chucked at it, the STO episode could’ve worked well in the SWTOR engine, structuring the mission to keep the group together, increasing the interactivity of conversations, perhaps adding in bridge crew as more fleshed-out NPCs if not in a full group of human players, but such resources are probably prohibitive, especially if trying to get Feature Episodes out on a more frequent basis.

Even SWTOR seemed to run out of steam somewhat after the first flashpoint for each faction. Subsequent flashpoints have been far more linear without much of a story driving them. It’s hardly unusual for the best content in MMOGs to be front-loaded at launch with later gaps left to be grouted over in future updates; mid-level City of Heroes task forces featuring series of missions on similar maps against identical enemies, Lord of the Rings Online at launch when the fun of the Shire gave way to the desolate Lone-lands and attendant boar-grinding, post-Tortage Age of ConanSWTOR has more than sufficient content across two factions and eight classes for getting to the level cap, so subsequent flashpoints not living up to the high standards of the first is hardly the most heinous crime; it’ll be interesting to see if future updates bring more story-heavy branching flashpoints, or whether more repeatable content is seen as a better investment. Though Esseles and Black Talon have some replay value to see how the different branches pan out, story isn’t something that’ll keep players coming back twice a week like the chance of a loot drop from some big boss. From that perspective, story just gets in the way; I’m sure there are guides aplenty with loot tables and detailed instructions of which choices to make for optimal completion of Black Talon to allow displays of precision synchronised flashpoint-running from the Derbyshire Light Infantry:
“Squad! Atten-TION! By the left, quick MARCH! And HALT two three, click two three, space-skip space-skip select first reply two three, space-skip, space-skip space-skip select second reply two three, left TURN! Quick MARCH! Perkins, you ‘orrible little man, are you LISTENING to that NPC? You’re up on a charge!”

It’ll also be interesting to try the multiplayer features of Mass Effect 3. Star Wars: The Old Republic may turn out to be a little like Concorde, the ultimate development of story-heavy MMOGs, a fantastic achievement, but a bit of an evolutionary dead end that nobody can really afford to emulate (apart from a Soviet knock-off with a dubious safety record…) If multiplayer ME3 gives that same flashpoint-type experience with no subscription and the possibility of introducing new content as DLC, available on consoles as well, that could be a more sustainable model for the future.

Second hand point of view from the second hand news

Spinks was talking about the problems of role-centric gear, something I’m having a bit of an issue with in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not so much for my character, being a Sniper I only have the “Shooting People In The Face A Lot” role, more my companions. They require their own full sets of weapons, armour, earpieces, implants, heated towel rails etc. It was fairly straightforward at first when I was just accompanied by Kaliyo, especially as some missions offer companion-specific armour as a reward. Indeed it was quite nice to be able to use twice the number of random drops as normal, kitting her out in any suitable heavy armour that turned up (so long as it was aesthetically pleasing enough, of course). I’d look out choice bargains on the galactic trade network for both of us, put the armstech crafting skill to good use for weaponry, sometimes even give her some nice orange gear from planetary commendations if I was already well kitted up with heroic rewards or PvP stuff.

As your crew grows, though, so do their armouring requirements, and at higher levels it became more of an effort to keep myself in decent gear let alone everyone else. The sensible thing is probably to just use one companion and ignore the others, but it seems a bit of a waste (and strangely familiar) to always leave some of your team moping about the ship in their starting gear. Missions continue to offer upgrade options on occasion, but when you have a choice of six pairs of companion-specific boots it can be a bit of a struggle remembering what everyone is currently wearing and whether you care enough to get them some new stuff (not that they ever appreciate it; you’d think a flash pair of boots with vastly improved stats would net some Affection points, but nooo, they just want random bits of tat, the ingrates). Loot drops can still be helpful, but it seems that 82.6% of the armour I’ve found in the game is +Strength stuff, useless for any of my crew (I admit there might be some “other queue always moves faster”-type selective observation going on there).

Kaliyo remains my favourite companion personality-wise, we have a similar attitude to authority even if mine is generally well-meaning irreverence and hers is more credit-driven sociopathy; we get on fine so long as the conversations stay away from the profit opportunities of selling the rest of the crew. Capability-wise, though, I’ve found a healing companion is more effective, and my preferred healer has the added advantage of using exactly the same type of armour as me. This makes the armour upgrade process considerably easier:

“Oooh, that’s decent looking leg armour, Mr Commendation Vendor, I’ll take a set.”
*vanishes behind a nearby rock; sound of a zipper*
“Snazzy! Oh, hey Doc! Got an upgraded pair of trousers for you! Yeah, they’re still a bit warm, don’t worry about that…”

He must feel like a younger brother, always stuck with the cast-offs that don’t quite fit properly. Still, he should probably be grateful he isn’t in my Star Trek Online crew; armour is universal in that game, so when I get an upgrade for my Captain he passes his previous gear to the First Officer, who passes her gear to the primary Tactical Officer of the away team, who passes her gear to the Chief Science Officer, who passes his gear to the secondary Tactical Officer… by the time the tertiary Engineering Officer gets anything it’s about eighth hand. You have to hope that the 25th century laundry service is really good at getting out those ground-in stains…

Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall

I tried Star Trek Online back before Christmas in closed beta and wasn’t too impressed; the space combat was quite fun, but the ground-based missions were really clunky. It was reminiscent of Auto Assault, where bombing around in be-weaponed cars was excellent but running around towns felt tacked-on and superfluous. When STO hit open beta and there was a certain amount of raving I thought I should take another look, so with broadband finally restored and two week’s bandwidth allowance going spare I grabbed the latest client.

I’m not sure if a strange inverse-nostalgia lowered my expectations to the point that not being physically poked in the eye was a plus, but the open beta seemed far better. Character creation was varied enough before, sticking mostly to the Star Trek “human with a bit of prosthetic work” alien option, and had been lightly buffed to a sheen with further options and a nice array of uniform elements. The only problem is it entirely ignores Star Trek canon and only allows your character to have two ears, and we all know that starship captains actually have three: a left ear, a right ear and a final front ear (sorry!) You get to enter a ship name along with a character name, though I’m not sure the more devoted Trekkie/er/ists would appreciate my Culture-inspired Lack of Gravitas.

The introductory mission was exactly the same tussle with the Borg as back in closed beta, bit of running around inside a starship, flying around shooting stuff, beaming down to a planet, but somehow left me wanting to keep playing instead of logging out after hitting the planet’s surface. Even though I’m not much of a Star Trek fan I could be tempted if there wasn’t much else on the go, but the SSV Normandy from Mass Effect 2 decloaking off the starboard bow I think I’m going to be a bit busy for a while…

KiaSA Leaks.

Our industry insider has once again infiltrated the inner sanctum of an MMO developer and has sent us here at KiaSA Towers the lowdown on some top secret features that will probably never make it into production. This time its from the Cryptic Studios’ Star Trek Online design board:

Shatner’s Girdle: They just couldn’t find a graphics processor powerful enough to hold all those pixels in such a densely compacted space.

Malfunctioning inertial dampening: No matter how hard they tried to coax their physics engine to do it, it simply refused to throw the player characters in the opposite direction to each other and, more importantly, the ship.

Personal inventory: Have you ever seen a Star Trek officer with pockets?

Alternate (sic) dimensions: They couldn’t run the risk of you running into someone from another version of the game where players didn’t have to grind the same tedious missions over and over. Besides, they’d need to have space on the server to store an entire secondary set of your crew with pointy beards. And the female avatars looked really weird with beards.

Replicators: “One of every top tier epic equipment item in the game, please.”

Expanded range of phaser settings:Oven left on at home‘ setting proved to be overpowered.

Tailoring: an early beta included a crafting skill that allowed players to produce cloth items with a machine on ship, but a number of problems prevented it ever working properly resulting in a slew of bug reports demanding the developers “Make it sew!”

Holodeck: This feature was going to allow players to create their own game content that other players could access through their ship’s holodeck. It was all going well, with various mini-games based upon Westerns, Nazi occupied France and fencing, until someone created a mini-game where your ship’s captain played a gamer who was playing STO on his computer. Alas this ripped a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum here in the real world, and Cryptic had to send a rerouted tachyon pulse through the game’s central database server in order to close that timeline down and set us off on our current timeline. Alas, in this timeline it appears that Tabula Rasa and Vanguard were utter failures, and Richard Garriot and Brad McQuaid are not the happily married benevolent rulers of Earth that they were.

The Computer:

“Run an analysis on this game’s data and make me a good game based on that data that isn’t entirely reliant on fans of the IP.
*beedle* “Estimated time to completion, three minutes, forty two seconds.”
“Send the result to my PC.”

Voice commands: Unfortunately players would just pick the mouse up and start talking into it, before moving on to shouting ‘Hello!’ in various and progressively louder ways. Alas, it was later discovered that Cryptic’s system ONLY… managed… to … pick up on… STRANGELY… intonated SENtences with pauses… IN… all the… wrong places entirely.

Rock Climbing skill: Players complained when the Vulcan science officer kept using crafted rocket boots to beat them to the summit.

Q: The first raid boss of the game was removed after an exploit was found whereupon he could be easily defeated with a simple script if your starship captain was a small bald Yorkshireman pretending to be a Frenchman. Later, after a fix was issued, a trans-dimensional bug caused him to issue players with weird gadgets like a shoe containing a radio transmitter and a watch that turned into a hedgehog.

Boldly: This was removed from the game when testers found that, due to a bug in the language, no players were able to boldly.