In downloading Star Trek Online, I intended to play a few hours and share some initial impressions about its translation of the license into a massively multiplayer experience. I’d never discovered the appeal of MMOs, despite sampling them in the past, so I was curious how a familiar license might change the genre for me. Many many hours (days?) of play later, however, I write this entry as Rear Admiral D’Kree of the advanced escort USS Chimera, nearly fully leveled up with only a handful of quests remaining. Given all the time spent to get there, I should use this space to praise STO‘s ability to immerse me in the venerable franchise.
Unfortunately, I’d rather argue that the game fails both in making the Star Trek universe an inhabitable virtual space and engendering community and participation within it. In panning STO, I’m a little late to the party. Many reviewers have already declared it “bland and shallow“, “simplistic and brainless“, and “boldly going nowhere.” However, the game further exemplifies Trevor Elkington’s notion of “self-defeating co-productions,” where licensed games fail because of irreconcilable goals to please both fans of cross-media licenses and fans of a specific game genre. Frankly, the problem here is less that developer Cryptic Entertainment served two masters, and more that the game proves ill-suited to serve either.
One major appeal of the MMO is its potential to offer expansive, continuous experiences of the Trek world. Yet I can visit more Trek locales just as immediately on television than I can in STO. I can orbit Earth in game, but can’t beam down to the familiar Starfleet Academy grounds . I can traverse the galaxy, but I can’t visit our closest neighbor, Mars. Instead, the universe is represented by a small number of confined spaces–like television soundstages–and countless loading screen separate them–like elliptical video edits. Granted, traversing all that space would make for undramatic television, but in an MMO, this inability to ontologically render the universe prohibits the pleasures offered by World of Warcraft, where one can experience every step of the journey in that world. While Jonathan Gray argues that many otherwise poor licensed games offer the pleasure of newly navigating continuous spaces between recognizable television set-pieces, STO provides neither a full complement of sets nor explorable empty space between them.
License aside, STO‘s design also disincentivizes the collaborative social relations TL Taylor places at the center of MMO gameplay. In STO, “instanced” gameplay generates multiple, parallel versions of the gamespace, negating the sense of singular, shared, co-populated social space. Automatic team assignment within instances additionally prevents relationship building and shared pre-mission strategizing. Players divided into small, server-determined groups usually proceed to shoot randomly at things without speaking to one another. AI crewmembers further make cooperation unnecessary, and players rarely even acknowledge one another’s co-presence. The best and worst mission is the Crystalline Entity fight; it is perhaps the only quest that requires massive cooperation between several players, but because players are not socialized to cooperate, and usually work at cross-purposes, it became almost impossible to beat. The social logic of MMOs–and heck, Star Trek–is betrayed by my self-reliant attainment of the final rank of Rear Admiral having made only two, fleeting social connections.
Both those friends quit the game in frustration. While self-defeating co-production might explain why they quit, it doesn’t quite explain why suckers like me persevere. Despite the game’s failures, I feel my specific interests in the property and the achievement possibilities laid before me by the game proved a powerful combination; as a longtime fan, I coveted the Defiant-class starship available only to higher ranking players, and that sufficed to motivate me through mediocrity (but also to deflate my interest once finally attained). But I’m still unsatisfied with this answer, and I’d like to think there’s another critical/cultural dynamic in play beyond my particular fan/achiever personality.