Star Trek Online’s September State of the Game

Despite Guild Wars 2 dominating my gaming time lately, I have been popping into STO every couple of days to check in on the fleet and setup some duty officer assignments. I’ve also been keeping track of updates and news including the recent September State of the Game.

Aside from the usual talk about the successes of Season 6 and plans moving forward, the following quote was what stuck with me the most.

We’ve been very lucky to land some great talent from 38 Studios and Paragon Studios.

I know a lot of people haven’t been happy with Perfect World and STO’s move to free-to-play, which I think can be summed up with the word lockboxes, but it does seem to be working for Cryptic. Their team has grown quite a bit this year, it’s actually doubled if I remember right from an interview I listened to, and seeing that Cryptic’s been able to pick up some developers who unfortunately lost their jobs when other studios were shutdown seems like a good thing all around.

I guess I wasn’t too far off in February after all.

Locked Boxes

So yesterday Massively did what they should have done instead of their pseudo-news post regarding STO developer Borticus’  comments on lock boxes, and published an editorial in their regular Perfect Ten column and that focused on lock boxes. While I’m not a fan of lock boxes myself, I can see where market realities make them a necessary evil, but it’s most definitely a slippery slope.

Anyway, as Justin says in his article, lock boxes are gambling. You are paying real and/or in-game (varying by MMO) money for a chance to win a prize. That’s no different from a slot machine in Vegas, buying a state lottery ticket, or buying a raffle ticket at a school fundraiser. But like many other activities, gambling itself isn’t wrong, it’s that it can be abused.

I take issue with Justin’s second point though, where he mentions that the house always wins. This is the point where I think lock boxes diverge from other examples of gambling, since it’s not costing the developer anything to “pay out” like it is a casino. I also don’t see any sinister intentions behind not publishing odds. Truthfully, I don’t think developers know with any certainty what the odds are on winning a particular item from a lock box. Random number generators can be a little goofy at times, and I guarantee if they did post odds that there would be lot’s of players double checking those odds and raising a ruckus if their results were at all different.

I also disagree with his comment about feeling like deleting a lock box was a waste. I have the opposite reaction. I enjoy deleting lock boxes in Star Trek Online because I know I won’t be opening them, the Exchange is saturated with them so they don’t sell, and they take up valuable inventory space.

I do agree that the legality issue is in its early days, and hopefully the practice doesn’t get any games banned from some countries. Like F2P itself, I think lock boxes are a trend that’s going to be around for a while and if you can’t ignore or tolerate them, then you’ll need to take a break and wait for the direction of the industry to shift again.

Lock boxes are tacky, but in my opinion they are more jarring to see in Lord of the Rings Online than STO. Fair or not, Middle-earth is a more serious setting in my mind and I have less tolerance for commercialism in it than I do with STO or any other MMO. But even as tacky as they are, I don’t see lock boxes as tarnishing the F2P model. Personally, I find Turbine’s habit of putting items in their store to fix not-fun gameplay mechanics rather than actually fixing them much more tarnishing than lock box keys. I can ignore and delete boxes after all, but it’s much harder to ignore the progressively ridiculous number X of monsters I have to slay for deed Y.

As far as public sentiment and private actions, I think it’s really a wash. It’s the same reason why no one can really gauge the overall reaction to the end of Mass Effect 3. Unhappy people are motivated to be vocal, and happy people have moved on. Lot’s of MMO players claim to hate lock boxes and post daily on forums about how much they hate them. But forum goers are a small percentage of players in any game, and I would bet money that a size-able number of those haters still buy keys and open boxes. In the end, all a developer has to go on is their metrics. They know how many accounts they have, how many players that have on a nightly basis, how many boxes are dropping, how many keys are being purchased, and how many boxes are being opened. Apparently those numbers point to lock boxes being worthwhile, otherwise they’d be gone.

Honestly, I’ve gotten bored with the entire topic and its surrounding drama. It’s been beaten to death and nothing new’s been added to the conversation recently except for one thing. Lock boxes are only one step removed from RMT. So far MMO developers have been pretty careful to make sure that money only flows into the system, and I assume that’s to avoid government regulation and taxation (not/never been/don’t want to be a lawyer so I could be wrong). Blizzard though has started to experiment with that in Diablo 3, and I’m sure if that goes well then we’ll see the practice tried out in MMOs as well.

The upside of downtime.

Star Trek Online went down unexpectedly last night for a few hours. I only ran into the tail end of the outage as I was working on some Enterprise model kits, so it didn’t actually impact my playtime much, but I did realize something.

There really are a lot of people playing STO since the F2P relaunch.

Now, I pretty much already knew this because there’s been a noticeable bump in the number of ships orbiting Earth Spacedock and DS9,as well as a major increase in sector space traffic. But seeing how fast the outage thread grew last night really highlighted for me how much the playerbase has grown.

Taking the bad with the good.

I’ve been thinking more about last week’s post on Star Trek Online, F2P, and lock boxes. I’ve looted a few lock boxes since then and left them sitting in my cargo bay. I’m still not planning on spending money or dilithium on keys, but I’m not as bothered by having them show up as drops as I expected.

Judging by the number of messages I’m seeing in game announcing when someone wins a Galor, there are a lot of players spending money or dilithium on keys. I’m sure that having lock boxes as drops and keys in the store generates more sales than just having the boxes in the store. A player might not think to buy a box from the store, but if their in the game and loot a lock box then they’re more likely to purchase a key.

I’m still not a fan of the practice but there are a lot of people in game having fun with it. Besides, the more money that Cryptic and Perfect World makes, the more they can reinvest in the game. More money means more content designers creating story missions, more programmers adding features to the game engine, and more systems designers working on new game features.

The cost of business?

Cryptic’s announced another round of lottery boxes for Star Trek Online. I was mildly interested in them as I was reading through the Dev Diary, until I got to the part at the end where I read you need a key from the C-store in order to open them.


I really don’t like this. For starters, I’m not a gambler. I don’t like going to casinos or race tracks or buying scratch offs.

Beyond the gambling aspect, I prefer to have the store ties in games as minimal as possible, since I’m a subscriber. I can develop selective blindness so I can ignore the C-store and D-store buttons on the UI, they’re much more subtle than the gold bordered boxes Turbine uses in Lord of the Rings Online. But I really don’t like the idea of getting a lockbox as a loot drop from regular play and then having to go to the store to get a key to open it. Suddenly there’s something that is coming into my inventory which is directly pushing me towards the C-store. That’s okay for non-subscribers, after all Cryptic needs to make money both to stay in business and to reinvest in the game, but not for a subscriber.

Before F2P, C-store items were always nice optional things to have, and I spent money on quite a few uniforms, bridge packs, and ships. But as far as I can remember, there was never an item or mission that I came across in the game that directed me to go make a purchase, I always had to go to the store to seek it out.

So, depending on what the market looks like, I’ll either be discarding any lockboxes I get or putting them on the Exchange (too bad there’s no way to sell them for dilithium). Despite this lockbox stuff, I’m still completely excited for the start of The 2800 Feature Episode Series 4 this weekend. It’s like Star Trek is back on television!

Yet more surprises from Cryptic

As surprised as I  was about the release date announcement yesterday, today’s follow up is even more surprising. We’re getting the F2P patch a month before the actual F2P launch.

This is a mixed blessing as I thought it was good for the STO team to get an extra month of changes, fixes, and tuning in without inflicting instability on Holodeck players. However, it will be nice to finally get the Duty Officer system and other changes on the live server. It also helps keep players subscribed for one more month for those who were planning on dropping to silver accounts, and gives Cryptic a month long shakedown cruise before the (supposed) hordes of new players arrive.

If it all goes as planned, Star Trek Online should be able to open its free-to-play doors and be in the best possible shape.

The early stipend is not as much of a surprise to me.  That’s a pretty standard gesture that other studios have done as well,  both as a thank you and a way to keep any subscribers planning to switch account tiers around for one more month.

Star Trek Online announces F2P Launch Date

This announcement came out of left field. I really didn’t expect Cryptic to announce this for another few weeks. One the plus side, I think knowing that the free-to-play launch won’t be until January 17th of 2012 will help assuage some of the forum drama that’s been rampant lately with people worrying that Cryptic and Perfect World were going to try and launch in December.

The more interesting bit from the announcement is this quote from Stephen D’Angelo, Executive Producer on STO and Chief Technical Officer:

We’ve always wanted the game to be free-to-play, in fact we tried to make it free-to-play at the original launch, but our publisher (Atari) didn’t want us doing that so we didn’t do that.

I don’t completely believe that since STO was their second game for Atari and I never heard anyone at Cryptic say Champions was always intended as a F2P game. Then again, with the way sector space is laid out in blocks, maybe there is something to that. Certainly going with a combination of subscription and in-game store shows a muddling of both models.

Tribble storm brewing.

Raptr doesn’t track it, but I have been playing quite a bit of Star Trek Online recently, it’s just all been on the Tribble server. This is where the F2P testing is being done and I’ve been working on getting a new officer up to Lieutenant Commander so I can start playing around with the Duty Officer system.

If you’re interested in the game and you haven’t been reading the Path to F2P Dev Blogs, they’re worth checking out. For the most part, they’ve not contained a lot of new information, but they have been a good way to get a feel for the new interim Executive Producer, Stephen D’Angelo. The latest one, part 5, is about to cause a drama storm on the forums. Cryptic is planning to open the C-store for testing on Thursday, and as part of that testing they’re setting up Test Points for people to use to test out some of the F2P changes. Anyone with a character on Tribble will get some free points to spend, which is standard procedure. The other way people will get Test Points, is to buy Cryptic Points. Basically, if you buy a 500 point bundle for $6.25, you also get a matching 500 point bundle for Tribble.

Stephen explains this as a way for Cryptic to get a realistic idea of how well they’re doing with pricing for F2P, since if players had an unlimited pool of free points then they would just buy everything. Since they’ll be using points they actually paid for, then they’ll value Tribble purchases just as much as Holodeck purchases.

I can see the logic in that, but I don’t think it’s worth the bad PR that’s bound to come from it. The thread is here if you want to keep tabs on the community reaction.

Star Trek Online F2P Details

Following up on their promises from last week, Cryptic published their current F2P plans for STO today. There’s the standard feature matrix giving an overview of their F2P model and an FAW page. There’s also a new subforum to handle questions from current subscribers. There’s no mention of a date or timeframe beyond the “this year” in the initial leak.

The features list and FAQ both mention several times that the details of F2P are subject to change depending on testing and feedback. Overall though, I imagine most of what they’ve outlined will be how the change happens.

The C-store is getting an itemization and price review. The FAQ says that ship prices will not go up, but I assume that consumable prices will based on how Champions Online’s store changed. A few of the premium species will become free (Ferengi, Rigelian, Pakled, and Tellarite) and some will become earnable in-game (Liberated Borg, Joined Trill, and Federation Klingon).

Lifetime and monthly subscribers will become gold players and still have access to everything they do now. They’ll start receiving a stipend of 400 C-store points every month, as long as they continue to subscribe.

New players and former subscribers will be silver players. Silver players will have access to all content: sectors, missions, foundry missions, fleet actions, featured episode series, and special task forces. They can join fleets. There are no restrictions on Federation character career paths, and they will be able to roll a Klingon Empire character. Silver players are limited to two characters slots, will not be able to create Foundry missions, and will not qualify for Veteran Rewards. Former subscribers can keep any existing Veteran unlocks. They will have limits on their in-game chat and mail until they’ve played twenty hours total across all characters on the account or bought C-store points. This is one of the limitations that may change depending on how well it handles problems with spammers.

The initial level unlock for the Klingon faction is being changed from level six (pretty sure about that) to level 25. This means the starting level for Klingon Empire characters will be 25 and existing characters under that level will get bumped to 25 (no one will lose low-level characters). Cryptic states this is to improve the Klingon faction experience, and I assume this is a temporary change until Cryptic and Perfect World develop enough Klingon content to make it a full-fledged faction. It’s honestly not a large speed bump as it’s less than a week of effort to hit level 25, but I can imagine this being one change that the community doesn’t like.

Overall, I think Cryptic’s plan is pretty solid. Existing subscribers will see very little change except for whatever happens with C-store pricing, and free players will be able to access all of the content in the game without paying a penny. The limitations all revolve around customization and convenience items.

Personally being a lifetime subscriber, I’m happy to start accruing some free points to spend in the C-store. Were I a monthly subscriber, I’m not sure if I would drop to silver or not. Overall the only benefits to staying subscribed are the stipend and the Veteran rewards, everything else can be unlocked via purchase except the Foundry editor. It really comes down to whether or not I feel that $15 a month is worth it to support further development in the game, and that’s something I’ve always felt strongly about since I bought a lifetime subscription.

PW planning STO F2P by end of year.

I caught a bit of news this evening from a tweet by Altexist. Perfect World just released the transcript of their Q2 2011 earnings call that had several interesting tidbits regarding Cryptic but there’s one quote in particular that’s got the STO forums jumping:

And also Star Trek Online, after the acquisition, in fact Cryptic is working on the free-to-play model for Star Trek Online. This is going to be launched by the end of this year as well.

Unfortunately that’s all the detail we have just now, as Cryptic itself isn’t ready to make any announcements according to Dan Stahl (from forum post):

I can neither confirm nor deny anything (until given approval to).

Update: Except Dan did post again later in the same thread with this:

There are certainly a lot of questions you may have about this news. The team is working on an FAQ and side by side comparison details that will spell out very clearly what this means for Lifetime and Subscription members. Until then, please stay tuned as we confirm all the details.

Update 2: Another follow up post from Dan:

The goal has been to leave subscriptions alone and ensure that you enjoy all the same benefits you have today (if not more). There will be more details on this soon.

Based on Dan’s comment, I assume we’ll see something official fairly soon.

I don’t think anyone’s surprised by the announcement, I’m certainly not. I’ve assumed that Champions successful shift to F2P meant STO would follow. I originally figured six months would be the “wait and see” time before Cryptic decided of the Champions experiment was a success. I’m sure the delay has been because of the Atari to Perfect World transition.

I do feel bad for the STO team that PW leaked the news in an earnings call, I’m sure there’s some scrambling going on in Los Gatos this evening.