I know, I’m completely unimaginitive when it comes to blog post titles. Alright, so, let me just jump right into this, because I’ve been thinking about it all week, while reading various articles and blog posts talking about Star Trek Online, and I honestly don’t understand why people are so negative about this game JUST because Cryptic’s last game did not succeed. I am not seeing any of the things that caused me to quit Champions Online. Or, to be more accurate, the same problems technically still exist, but I don’t think they apply because the game is so different.
1. Skill System and Respecs.
Let’s start with the biggest one.
Now, obviously, Star Trek Online has no respecs yet, they will be implemented later. But this does not worry me in the slightest because of the way the base skill system is set up.
In Champions Online, the skill system was the basis for the entire reason I (and I’m not the only one by far) was so angry about them charging for respecs on the C-Store. And in the end, it is the single most important thing I blame for the game’s failure. Your lack of end-game content doesn’t matter when people are turned off of the game before they get there. As many people have said in the past, WoW didn’t have a lot of end-game content when it was first released, and look at where it is now.
I’ll boil it down to one thing: too many choices too early in the game. Yes, most other games lock you into a single class from the start. But classes have such set archetypes for a reason. People don’t have to understand the game mechanics to understand that a priest is a support class, that a rogue’s basic gameplay revolves around sneaking around and stabbing things for massive damage.
I believe that one of the reasons WoW pulls in new players so well is that it doesn’t really offer any early-game choices that have lasting impact. All of your spells are determined solely by your class, every mage is going to learn the same ones. You’re not forced to choose whether you’d rather learn Frostbolt or Arcane Missiles, you learn both of them and get to decide for yourself which one you’d rather use more. You can’t even look at your talents until you’re level 10, and by then you have a better idea of your preferences for certain spells, and the initial respec costs are trivial, only becoming really expensive if you continue to respec repeatedly.
Champions asks you to choose between something like 18 different powersets right off the bat, based on nothing more than cosmetic things like whether you’d rather be throwing fireballs or shadow bolts, with very little information on what the gameplay differences between them are (and there are definitely gameplay differences). And as you level up, you choose from a vast list of potential powers, including not only your own powerset, but any of the other ones as well. The number of potential combinations is staggering.
Having a customizable powerset is great, right? Unfortunately, it was easy to make your character either so overpowered that elite mobs were easily soloable, or so underpowered that you’d barely have a chance against normal mobs, completely by accident. The powers you’ve chosen are the bread and butter of how effective your character is. And you’re basically, through the sheer cost of unlearning your powers, permanently locked in to these choices.
As a fresh character, you do not have enough money to change your decisions immediately after learning them, if you should decide that you’ve made a mistake and would rather have learned a different ability. As your character earns more money, and sneaks closer to being able to afford to unlearn a skill, they will probably level up, causing the the respec costs to increase, staying just out of your grasp. And the more choices you’ve made since the one you don’t like, the more expensive it is to change them, because you can only unlearn the most recently learned skill, and then the one before that, and so on — even if you’re just going to relearn all the ones between when you’re done anyway. They’re in the way, and have to be removed individually before you can change the one in the middle.
It gets so insane for a new character to try out different things that it’s usually more time-efficient to simply create a new character and relearn different skills the second time around. And I don’t WANT to create a new character! Part of an MMO is becoming attached to your avatar, especially so with a game like Champions with such a vibrant character creation system. You spend literally HOURS poring over every tiny little detail of your character, you’re so proud to send them out into the world, so proud to see them through the tutorial zone. And trust me, that tutorial zone becomes an order of magnitude less fun every time I played through it with a new character just because I wanted to change my skills around.
I think this would have been a much less serious problem if there had just been some kind of system in place to give you free respecs at certain level intervals, say every 10th level. If you decide that you aren’t liking the direction your character’s powers are going by the time you get to level 10, or you decide that you aren’t using the power you learned at level 8 as much as you thought you would, you can change your build around at level 10. Or even the ability to unlearn one specific power without having to mess with the rest of them. I feel rather silly using a full respec just to change one power I learned at level 8 while keeping the rest of them the same.
For the first month, it was okay. The patches were rebalancing the classes so much that they gave us free respecs every week or two anyway. But then they stopped doing that, and as I mentioned, they cheated me out of my last remaining free patch respec during the free Halloween weekend. It is possible to get a full respec in-game, but the cost in in-game currency is prohibitively expensive, and the UI does not make it any easier — there’s no “select the point you’d like to go back to and pay the total sum,” you’re forced to select and unlearn each power individually.
Is there any wonder in this situation that people were angry about having to pay for respecs using microtransactions? The whole skill system seemed to be designed specifically to require many respecs until you figured out what you wanted your character to be, but the game deliberately prevents you from being able to do so.
Now Star Trek Online, from what little I’ve seen (to be fair, I still have not reached level 10) does not force these difficult decisions on you from the start. Though I think it would be interesting to have a mainstream MMO that would actually allow you to learn everything if you played long enough, I was not surprised whatsoever by the addition of the skill point cap and the future implementation of respecs. However, the respec system in STO does not worry me in the slightest. I actually expect them to offer respecs in the same way as Champions, through microtransactions, but I’m still not worried. Why is that?
I am earning skill points as I play, and I’m spending them on things. However, even though I cannot unlearn these points once I have put them in, I am not worried that the choices I am making will turn out to be mistakes. I am not learning abilities that may not be as useful as they sound or overlooking other abilities, because skill points are spent on passive benefits, like WoW talents but much more general in scope. All of my active abilities are tied directly to equipment or bridge officers, which are easily changed. If I want to use a medical tricorder to heal someone instead of destroying shields with a tachyon harmonic, all I have to do is equip the medical tricorder.
There are three “classes” (red shirts, yellow shirts and blue shirts) but in the space half of the game they are, as far as I can tell, completely irrelevant. Any character can pilot any ship, and the only differences you will have from the other classes will be the types of special abilities (via Kit equipment) you have access to when on ground missions. All skill points are spent in passive benefits that are incredibly nonspecific when you are below level 10 (such as a skill that slightly increases hull strength, speed and maneuverability for all ships) and then becoming more and more specific as you get to the higher level brackets (such as a skill that increases those stats further for Science-type ships, and later specifically Deep-Space Science vessels). All of the low-level skills are useful to all players, and until you’re trying to min-max your spec at end-game, it doesn’t matter which ones you learn.
So basically, in Star Trek Online, your character does not begin to specialize, and you are not required to make any permanent decisions that you might regret, until you have been playing the game for quite some time and have had a chance to understand more of the game mechanics. So unlike Champions, I do not find myself worried about my skills, or the impending respec system, because I don’t see it affecting me until I’m at the level cap.
In Champions Online, I was quite uncertain as to what exactly the items were supposed to BE from a lore perspective. As an example, I’d equip a “Lightning Strike” (that had an icon that looks like a bare, muscular male chest) to my Primary Defense slot, and it would reduce the threat caused by my attacks by increasing my “Presence” stat. Yeah, it’s confusing. I mean, it’s a neat idea that superheroes get stronger based on things that happened to them, but how exactly do I equip and unequip the fact that I got struck by lightning? Or grew a third eye? Or received training by some super-secret organization? As equipment, it is a pure abstraction.
Star Trek has enough of a lore background to make all of the equipment understandable. Oh, this? It’s a medical tricorder. You wave it over someone’s head and they’re healed. The concept is totally believable because it happened in the shows on a regular basis. This piece of ship equipment I just picked up is a more powerful impulse engine, which improves my speed and how well I can turn. My mind is able to latch on to these concepts. I defeat an enemy vessel, find an intact disruptor cannon in the remaining rubble, and beam it into my cargo hold to be installed onto my ship at a later time. Ships only drop ship loot, and ground missions only drop ground loot. Kill a Klingon, loot the bottle of Targ milk he was carrying in his pocket.
3. Inventory Management.
Star Trek Online obviously borrows heavily from Champions as far as interface goes, but one thing I am glad they have gotten rid of is the idiotic bag system that divided my inventory into separate panels that I could not have open at the same time, that I had to completely empty of all items in order to upgrade to a larger version.
No, in Star Trek Online, you have one bag panel (it seems to represent your ship’s cargo hold, I think, though this is never officially explained as far as I’ve seen), it does not appear to be expandable, but I haven’t had any issues with running out of room yet. You have a bank at Earth Starbase that has approximately the same amount of space as your bag.
You can equip four types of consumable items each to yourself and each of your crew members, and your officers will automatically use them when necessary to heal themselves or boost their own damage. Equipping these items removes them from your bag, so even if you’re not planning to use any of those hyposprays or shield generators, you can stick them in your own personal item bar and they won’t take up any space. Your ship can equip its own items too, so that you can have them ready on your action bar when you need a quick boost of emergency power to a specific system. And again, they won’t take up space.
In Champions Online, you could get around the inventory limitation by simply mailing items to yourself. Mail never expired, and each piece of mail could hold something like five items. Anything that was not soulbound, you could simply mail to yourself and forget about it for a while. I haven’t found the mail in Star Trek Online, but I hear that it does exist, so maybe this is still a problem — but like I said, I haven’t really been having any issues with that yet.
Now, to be fair, the auction UI in Star Trek Online suffers from many of the same issues as the one in Champions Online. You still cannot sort the results whatsoever, stacks of items do not display their price per item — which is extremely important when the stack size and item cost are very small and on opposite sides of the panel, and combined with the previous inability to sort the list by stack size or price.
I am only calling them “auctions” out of a sense of MMO consistency, for the Cryptic-style AH has no bidding, simply a flat buyout price. Star Trek Online follows this pattern. Items do not have a duration or a cost to post them, meaning that you can post them and then leave them there indefinitely. I actually find this to be preferable to the WoW system where you have to put in a bid cost and a buyout cost, and constantly be taking items out of the mail and into your bags and onto the AH again — it’s time-consuming and annoying.
You may think “well then, with everybody in the entire game playing on the same server, the auction house is going to become hopelessly bloated over time as people just post everything they find for some extravagant price and leave it there, just to get it out of their bag, all the better if someone buys it eventually!” While this was certainly true of Champions, STO has implemented a fix to this problem that is elegant in its simplicity: you can only have 20 auctions up at the same time. You can take them down whenever you want for no cost, and replace them with other items or repost them at a different price if they aren’t selling.
Where in WoW your incentive to post things fairly is partly the deposit money you would lose if they don’t sell, and partly the annoyance of having to collect and repost the item later. In STO your incentive is that your auction slots are limited, which gives them value. You only want to post your better items, to maximize the amount of money you can get. This limits people putting useless junk on the AH — though I haven’t actually *found* any completely useless junk yet, in that way it’s like Champions, no such thing as vendor trash. At least it minimizes people putting up individual items. And the other half of the incentive to price things fairly is that if they sell sooner, you can replace them with other items rather than having that valuable auction slot be occupied for a long time.
Of course, the economy is far from stable, I’m seeing items sold by a vendor in the next section of the station for 100 credits being sold for as much as 100,000 credits. Hopefully people will get over this silliness eventually.
Anyway, since there’s no bidding or durations, the mail system is completely uninvolved here. You buy something from the AH, or cancel one of your own auctions, it goes directly into your bag. Auctions don’t expire so they won’t fill up your mailbox and force you to sit there collecting mail. As far as I can tell, the money from your successful auctions goes directly into your bag, though it’ll still send you an automated message through the in-game mail so that you can keep track of the bookkeeping if you so desire.
Perhaps this was also implemented in Champions after I stopped playing. I would find this information optimistic but irrelevant, since it did not occur when it might have mattered.
The other reason the auction house in Champions was a failure was because there was actually no reason to buy things from other players. Every. Single. Quest. gave equipment as a reward, with a wide variety of attributes, and as a result I often had gear that perfectly matched my level and spec at all times, with gear slightly above my level waiting in my bank from higher-level quests that I would equip as soon as I leveled up. So I certainly didn’t need to buy gear.
The quest rewards I didn’t need were basically “disenchanted” into crafting materials — since almost every quest gave rewards for all three “crafting” categories, giving me a steady stream of materials. This allowed me to have my crafting skill maxed out for whatever level range I was simply by using the by-products of my questing. Though it was ultimately pointless because I couldn’t craft anything that actually had any useful stats. So I didn’t need to buy crafting supplies either.
My character in Champions was so self-sufficient economically that I couldn’t think of anything I might possibly want to buy on the auction house. Gear only increased my stats slightly, and since I was wtfpwning everything anyway, I didn’t see the point of spending precious respec moneys on minor gear upgrades that might be one or two points more specialized in my spec than what I was wearing — if I could even manage to figure out what items I was looking for, since as I mentioned, all of the items were extremely bizarre.
And when *I* can’t think of anything I wanted to buy, why would other people have anything they want to buy? I did manage to sell a good amount of crafting mats, presumably to people who were powerleveling crafting on their alts in order to get the one piece of gear that was accidentally a secondary gear item with the stats of a primary gear item. But I’d imagine the situation most people have is that they post every item they have on the auction house while never actually buying anything. This isn’t really a sustainable economic system.
In Star Trek Online, I’ve purchased a number of items. First of all, most quests are rewarding me with skill points and various credits, rather than items. So there are a number of holes in my equipment that are not upgraded to the highest level, and I’d like to repair these holes by buying things. Secondly, because your abilities are tied to your gear, I might want to purchase a particular type of weapon for my ship or a different type of kit for my main character. Thirdly, because the crafting in this game is nearly nonexistent (I’d consider it more of a badge-based upgrade/reputation system, personally, since it’s all done by trading in items to NPCs) that particular aspect of the economy is a nonissue.
What number was I on? Oh right…
5. Character Customization.
This is a low blow, for a game like Champions that more or less depended on its powerful character creator. I can’t tell you how many times I was browsing through the character creator and saw some really awesome costume piece, and was suddenly inspired to create a cool new character. I’d go playing around with different pieces, making first the head, then the chest, making them look just the way I wanted, then go to work on the legs, and realize that the leg piece to match the chest did not exist. I’d have to say that in the majority of cases where I wanted to make a character of a certain theme, using a set of matching pieces, not all of them actually existed.
Maybe this was less of a problem with male characters (I always get the feeling that the models for female characters are less polished just because fewer gamers are female and guys who play female characters don’t care about these things as much?) but I really felt like rather than make a number of full costume sets that they separated into individual pieces, they took the male skins and checked to see which ones looked okay on the female models, and any of the ones that didn’t they simply left out.
My character originally resorted to tiger stripes because the serpent stripe pattern that looked great on her head, chest and tail had no matching version for the legs for several months (and I think they only added it because I specifically complained about it so much) but even when they did add it, they only added it for normal-shaped legs, not the beast-style legs that I preferred to use. The awesome-looking two-tone serpent stripe pattern that existed for the tail and later the legs was not available for the chest or head, so I had to settle for the single version.
And why do I bring this up for Star Trek Online? Because in STO, everyone wears a uniform. Head pieces don’t have to match each other. My only cares about my costume are its accuracy to the show.
Speaking of which, I learned of a snazzy costume option today, that you can unlock if you enter the code “JIH MUSHA SOH” at this site. It’s the uniform from the Star Trek 2-6 movies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with Bridge Officers (it’s on the list, but it doesn’t work when you try to select it) though I’m hoping they’ll fix this soon.
It’s too snazzy for me to not wear, though.
My bridge officers will stick to the TNG-movie uniforms they’re currently wearing. I wish I could wear the uniforms from the actual TNG series, rather than choosing between the cloth movie ones and like 10 different versions of the ugly futuristic rubberized-looking uniforms. And while they’re at it, make the black uniform colors more black. Everything feels like a shade of gray right now. I’m actually finding that the dark blues and brown-yellows are darker than the color that seems to be meant to be black. Maybe I should tweak my gamma settings. I have the Original Series uniforms from the preorder, but they don’t work on bridge officers either, and the pants for that set make my character’s calves look huge and bulky. Maybe I need to mess with some leg scaling options somewhere.
But as I was saying, Star Trek Online doesn’t have to worry about very specialized costume pieces matching other very specialized costume pieces.
6. Group Content.
If I’m such a solo-oriented player, why was I so upset that Champions had no group content? Because it was the main feature I had been excited about before the game’s release. Not for grouping with random strangers, but for grouping with the two people who matter most to me.
One of the main problems the three of us (Khoa, Best Friend and myself) have when playing MMOs together is how much each of us actually wants to play. I tend to play the most, though Khoa can level an alt to the level cap in an amazingly short time if he really gets inspired, and Best Friend tends to play the least. It is very difficult for us to play together when we do play the same MMO, because Khoa and I have a tendency to progress faster and the three of us are only ever in the same level range if we’re deliberately limiting ourselves for that purpose. So you know, if we ARE playing together, it’s usually two alts and one person’s main.
One of the coolest things I heard about Champions before it came out was the Sidekick system, where you could scale your level up or down to someone in your group, so that your stats would act as if you were their level. You still wouldn’t have the same number of skills, but you wouldn’t be a completely useless follower just leeching loot (or the opposite, you wouldn’t be a high-level player wtfpwning everything and making it no fun for the lowbie) and I thought, this is perfect! I could play as much as I wanted to, and level up as high as I want, and then when we want to play together, I could just sidekick myself down to their level and we could help each other out with group quests.
It was only made better by the other group-related news I heard, that instances would scale based on how many players you had, so that you could run them with three people, but if you went in with five, more adds would spawn and increase the difficulty. Perfect! Three-person instances! And we just happen to run as a three-person team, with Khoa preferring to be a tank and myself the healer.
Unfortunately, it turned out that pretty much everything in the game was soloable, and you didn’t actually need to be in a group for anything. I’m pretty sure all of these 3-person instances they were talking about were at end-game, out of a fear that people would quit once they reached the level cap. However, none of us were patient enough to stick with the solo content long enough to get to anything that we might have needed to work together to take down.
Now, every single quest in Star Trek Online is instanced and scripted. Every system you explore will consist of “enter system, complete objectives, then leave” and when other players enter the instance to begin the quest at the same time, you are automatically grouped with them, and the number of enemies will scale with the number of players, resulting in epic space battles.
However, I turned off this auto-grouping, because the inevitable “gogogogo” nature of MMO strangers was interfering with my ability to enjoy the story behind the quests. The other players had already sprinted on ahead and repaired all of the geological survey equipment or whatever before I was even done reading the quest text. The auto-grouping is not very intelligent about what TYPE of quests it groups you for, and will occasionally stick you in a 5-person group for a mission that has absolutely no combat, leaving you to desperately follow along as the other players complete all of the objectives.
Star Trek Online doesn’t need group content so much. Your character is quite self-sufficient in its abilities, and considering that the shows were pretty much built on the concept of one ship and its crew against crazy unknown situations, it’s downright bizarre to be working together with other ships to solve them. “Solo MMO” seems like an oxymoron, but I rather like the idea. Having other people there opens up the possibility of multiplayer if I so desire in the future, but for the most part I’m exploring the galaxy by myself.
However, because every single mission scales based on the number of players, if Best Friend wanted to play with me we could do our quests together and still have the same level of difficulty, rather than things becoming trivially easy just because there are two of us.
I do not believe that Star Trek Online suffers from the same problems that Champions did. I have a lot of hope for the game, and I think it has a lot of potential. Time will tell if it turns out to have different problems later on, or if the same problems crop up when I reach higher levels. I’ll definitely be posting again, whether my opinion on the matter changes or not.