Star Trek Online Engineering Update – August 2010

One of the really nice things about Star Trek Online is that the developers try and do monthly Engineering Reports, which detail upcoming changes and content that are in testing, development, design or on hold.  They’re a really great source of information, and its nice for the community to know exactly what’s being worked on.

The August Engineering report went live the other day, and includes some nice updates.

There’s a few things due to come out in the next few weeks that I’m quite excited about.  The new weekly episodes sounds like they’ll be excellent for adding much-needed new storyline missions to the game.  Since hitting Vice Admiral I’ve been replaying the game with a new character, and doing strong story-based missions like City on the Edge of Never (time travelling, genetically augmented Klingons who try to change history) and the missions in the Romulan sector that deal with the Hobus explosion and the Romulan’s research into Borg technology are very satisfying, so more missions with that kind of attention to moving the plot of the wider universe along will be very welcome.

The upcoming addition of the two Excelsior ships is also welcome, as the Excelsior is one of my favourite starship designs.  And I do appreciate how the developers are trying to find a compromise between the game and the C-Store, putting the original style Excelsior in the game at tier 3 (Commander level) available for purchase with energy credits, while the Admiral level tier 5 version must be bought in the C-Store.  I appreciate how the devs are trying to listen to the community’s unrest with the C-Store exclusive items in this way.

Talking of which, while I assume they’ll end up C-Store exclusive, its also nice to see Enterprise get some love, as the NX-01 Enterprise and that show’s uniforms are also in development, along with the uniforms from Star Trek The Motion Picture (won’t excite that many, but I’ve always liked Kirk’s Admiral uniform from that film that recently got nicely referenced in last year’s movie).  Finally the fact they’re working on new minigames is welcome, as they’ll nicely beef up some of the social areas, like the new ship interiors.  Dabo has been a really nice addition to Deep Space Nine.

However, aside from the new missions and vanity items, the thing that’s been best I think, is the change in focus for the developers over the coming months, moving away from a lot of this new content, to give more focus towards polish and bug fixes.

Its been a widely held assumption by the player base that the game was rushed out the door early, and that’s shown in terms of the lack of content, and the bugs and stability issues that the game has.    With the last 6 months or so seeing the advent of more missions and game content, the time seems right for the development team to start stomping on some of the issues that have been plaguing the game recently.

In fairness, a lot of the game is playable, so I don’t mean to cast a bad picture here, but there are some issues that have been dragging the game down.  The recently revamped PvP interface will hopefully help address the issues with that side, however one of the big sticking points for me has been the issues in the star clusters.

Star clusters take the shape of dynamically generated missions, and they’ve been one of my favourite tasks when levelling up, as they grant you badges of exploration that can be used to purchase green-level equipment at the Sol Starbase, and so are a nice way of quickly beefing up the weapons on a new ship.  These also form a large part of the end game content, offering Vice Admirals the chance to earn merits they can spend on new equipment and ships.  However, since season 2 debuted , there’s been a few issues with them.  They no longer seem to support teaming, so you can only solo your cluster missions, and the ability to exit a mission and continue it at a later date is also broken.

Now, this is only one aspect of the game.  Normal systems, task forces, fleet actions etc all still work fine, but a lot of players rely on the cluster missions, which means there’s been a lot of heated discussion generated in the forums, and that doesn’t really help the game.

The good news is that over the last couple of days, the devs have managed to get in some forum time, and are reassuring players that these issues (which have found to be complex, hence the time being taken to fix them) are being resolved.   Their own frustration with these bugs is evident, but from a player point of view, its just nice to know that the player base’s concerns are not going unnoticed and fixes are in the works.   And its for these reasons that I think switching the development focus to polish is a good thing.  Content-wise the game’s got a good platform now for further additions, so taking this point to stop, and make sure the worst of the kinks are worked out means the developers can then go onto focus on producing new quality content on a stable base.   This makes a lot of sense, and while the atmosphere in the forums is a little disgruntled at the moment, I think in the long term this is definitely the strategy that will pay off the best, rather than just continuing to provide new content while the bugs just linger around.

Communication is really the key to all of this.  Part of the reason the forums got so heated was the lack of developer response.  Now, I don’t blame the developers for this, as presumably they didn’t have the time to post on the forums as they were busy trying to actually fix the issues, but the shift in tone on the forums over the last couple of days has been obvious to me.   The engineering reports are a great tool for not only generating excitement over new content in the works, but also reassuring the playerbase and, to an extent humanising the developers.  Its easy for forums to rail on a group of faceless developers, but when you’ve got dstahl (the chief developer) posting on the forums about being so frustrated with bugs that he started re-coding things from scratch, it really helps to underline that these are real people, working hard to give the fans of the game the fun experience they’re after.   I really think Star Trek Online has been one of the best games I’ve seen for this kind of direct developer interaction, and I really hope it continues, as to me, it really adds to the experience of being a player in this game.

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