Ben Fritz, who writes for our sister blog Company Town, recently went to Northern California to get the lowdown on the new “Star Trek” online game. Here’s what he found out:
At the offices of video game developer Cryptic Studios in Northern California, certain rooms look like a Trekkie’s nirvana: Posters from the television series “Deep Space 9” and movies “Generations” and “Nemesis” line the walls, along with original sketches of the Borg Queen and new designs for Federation ships.
Those who became Trekkies in the last year, however, might not be so dazzled. There are no posters, no sketches, and almost no trace of last year’s J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Trek” movie that relaunched the dormant franchise.
In Star Trek Online, which Cryptic and publisher Atari have just released after more than two years of production, there’s no evidence of the Abrams film that went back in time to tell the story of youthful Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy. Instead, the game is set in 2409, about 20 years after 2002′s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the final movie starring the “Next Generation” cast.
Like the ultra-successful World of Warcraft, Cryptic’s new title is a massive multi-player online (MMO) game, in which players pay $15 a month to interact in a virtual world. For Star Trek Online, that includes flying through space at warp 9 and beaming down to alien planets.
Many video games based on movies and TV shows find their fates decided by the vagaries of Hollywood. Last year’s hit Batman: Arkham Asylum benefited from the massive success of “The Dark Knight” in 2008, even though it features a new story. French publisher Ubisoft’s plan to produce a “Heroes” video game, however, was scrapped after ratings for the NBC series tanked.
So the pool of fans for Star Trek Online is exponentially larger than a year ago thanks to the success of the new movie. But because the new “Star Trek” is so different from the old version on which the game is based, the game may have a tough time appealing to a new generation of Trekkies.
“The time line’s different, but a lot of the elements are iconic stuff that you find in the new movie, the old movies and the TV shows,” said John Needham, chief executive of Cryptic.
Among the iconic details found in Star Trek Online: the Enterprise, Klingons, the planet Vulcan and Borg cubes. There are even nods to Trek’s less serious moments, like a mission involving Tribbles, the adorable fuzzballs that once overran the original Enterprise, and “red shirts,” anonymous crew members in red uniforms who beam down on missions and inevitably end up dead. There are plenty of familiar elements missing, though. Most notably, Capts. Kirk and Picard and their crews. In the game’s time period, most characters would be old or deceased, but in a future when time travel is de rigueur, that’s not necessarily an impediment. Needham said the decision was primarily financial. Star Trek Online cost about $15 million to produce and launch, and the added expense of hiring William Shatner and Chris Pine (Kirk) or Patrick Stewart (Picard) for a few days or weeks wasn’t in the budget.
Instead, Cryptic recruited two generations of Spock to do a few hours of voice work, though not exactly in-character. The original series’ Leonard Nimoy performs an introductory narration for the game, and newbie Spock Zachary Quinto portrays a hologram that teaches newcomers how to play.
“My character is definitely influenced by Spock, but I don’t think I would have done it if it meant playing the same person I was in the movie,” said Quinto, who added that the game will be his only Trek-related project until a big-screen sequel.
On the afternoon of Jan. 26 at Cryptic’s office in Los Gatos, it was chaos on Earth spacedock. More than 17,000 people were playing in the final hours of a “beta” testing period for Star Trek Online and as a celebration, the developers had allowed hundreds of Klingons and Borg to attack Earth, leading to a massive phaser fight in the space station orbiting the planet. “This is awesome!” enthused game producer Dan Stahl, whose Klingon character was hiding in a corner blasting Starfleet officers.
All-out firefights are not typical in Star Trek Online. But players’ enthusiasm for them illustrates one of the game’s primary tensions: The “Star Trek” movies and television shows focused on exploration, diplomacy and questions about what it means to be human, concepts that don’t translate easily to interactive media.
“This is a game, so it’s overwhelmingly about combat,” executive producer Craig Zinkievich said.
Most missions (called “episodes” in Star Trek Online) consist of starship-on-starship battles and phaser fights on alien planets.
Like other MMOs, socialization is also a big theme. Players can join up for episodes and even throw dance parties on the “pleasure planet” Risa.
The game attempts to remain consistent with 35 years of “Star Trek” lore, right down to a detailed map of the galaxy, not surprising because it was crafted by a team of about 70 hard-core Trekkies. Zinkievich, wearing a faded blue Enterprise T-shirt at work, noted that creating Star Trek Online has been more than just an opportunity to rewatch hundreds of TV episodes and movies for research. It has also put him in charge of a time line that died on the big screen; in Star Trek Online, the universe that fans loved for 35 years didn’t blow up along with the planet Vulcan, as it did in Abrams’ film.
If enough people subscribe to the game — Needham said it could be a success with as few as 50,000 subscribers per month, compared to more than 11 million for Warcraft — the 80 to 120 hours of story included with the game disc will continue through new episodes delivered via the Internet. Zinkievich said he’s particularly excited about opportunities for time travel, including visits to historic “Trek” moments.
“Until the next J.J. Abrams movie,” noted Needham, “this is one of the very few avenues for ‘Star Trek’ fans.”
– Ben Fritz
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Star Trek Online images (Cryptic studios). Photo of the game during beta testing and of models by Robert Durell / For The Times