By PWE_BranFlakes @ January 24, 2014 at 12:00pm
((Recently, this thread was opened to collect player suggestions on topics that they would like to get the inside scoop on – for this month, nakedsnake001’s topic of “a look at how the STO team creates a new ship from start to finish” was chosen.))
Welcome to this extensive STO ship creation blog! Over the course of this blog, the Star Trek Online development team will be detailing the entire process of creating the 4-Year Anniversary ships for the game. We’ll be covering everything from the initial request to make the ships, through the multiple levels of their creation, and finishing this up on how the ships get live to you. My name is Steve Ricossa, the Lead Producer for STO, and I’ll be starting off with how the initial request comes through to create a ship (or ships, in this case) and how we decide on what to make.
Initial Request/Decision to Make a Ship
By Steve “SalamiInferno” Ricossa, Jr., Lead Producer
The initial request for these ships comes from the Leads Team six or more months ahead of when the ship will actually go live; in the case of the anniversary ships, we knew we needed it much farther in advance. At the point where we decide that a ship needs to get made, we don’t know what it is or what it will be, just that we need it. Since this is an anniversary ship, the release date gets blocked into an internal calendar and I schedule a meeting a couple of months before the ship’s actual release so the Leads and Systems Team can decide what the ship will actually be. In the planning meeting we talk about which ships we’ve made recently, and if it’s been a while since we’ve made a certain type of ship.
Since these ships are centered around the anniversary, we discussed which direction to go in from an IP perspective. The story continues where our most recent Feature Episode “Sphere of Influence” left off, and is still focused on the alliance’s actions in the Solanae Dyson Sphere. Several options were presented in the meeting, but the most appealing was mixing Dyson technology with alliance technology. The driving conflict in the Sphere is over the incredibly advanced technology within it, and it would make sense for each faction to take that technology and integrate it with their own. The question that still remained, however, was how were the ships created fictionally? Were they Dyson in origin but mixed with alliance tech? Or vice versa? In general we were happy with the design direction, but we needed to create concept art of many different options so we could make a final decision to complete this step.
The STO Concept Art Team
The conceptual design of a new ship is always an exciting process; it takes input and inspiration from many sources, and results in a new creation that is at once both recognizable and refreshingly new.
The starting point for any new design is the touchstone of basic stylistic elements for that ship’s given faction. A good example is the Federation’s combination of saucer and signature nacelles. These building blocks give us the basic starting silhouette and elements for any new design.
The next step is a discussion of our new ship’s capabilities and its class. Is it an escort, with an aggressive forward posture? Or is it a science vessel, with a prominent deflector? What kinds of weapons or unique functions does the ship need to visually communicate? Sometimes, an existing ship from the canon is referenced as an example of the overall style, size, and attitude that will inspire us throughout the design process.
From here, the next step is for the concept artist to generate a series of rough thumbnail sketches, working closely with the Art Lead, the Ship Team, and the Design Lead. These sketches provide a large number of quick variations on a theme for review. Then, we select the elements that work best and combine them in further concept art revisions, as we narrow the field to a single design which best communicates the feel or attitude for the new ship.
The Dyson Science Destroyers gave us a unique opportunity to push this design process even further outside the usual boundaries, creating a new fusion of powerful alien technology and familiar faction-based elements. Here, we incorporated key common design elements found within the Solanae Dyson Sphere – interlocking geometric patterns, webbing and latticework to provide negative space, overlapping plates, and a sharp contrast between pearl, obsidian and indigo textures.
The result allowed us to stretch the artistic boundaries while remaining true to the core design principles of our respective factions, creating truly unique designs that also fit firmly within the Star Trek universe.
By Christine “Kestrel” Thompson, Lead Writer
While the Concept Art and Systems Teams are working on both the artistic and functional design of the ship, we’re already working on the lore as well.
Where did this ship come from? Who designed it? What makes it different? Why was it made? If there is a special weapon or console, how does it fit into the lore we’ve already established for the faction that will be using the ship? If there’s a concept sketch or preliminary art ready, I’ll often use that as a basis for the lore as well. The Dyson Science Destroyers are sleek and futuristic looking, so their lore needed to reflect the advanced technology.
For these ships, we knew they were based on technology found by alliance teams in the Solanae Dyson Sphere, but that it wouldn’t rely on Omega particles. It made sense that a joint team of engineers would work on the ships, but the alliance is fragile and there are still conflicts. So each faction would put their own spin on the ship, giving us the differing appearances for a group of ships that are very similar under the hull plating.
Also, because of its appearance in “A Step Between Stars,” these ships had to be able to withstand some extremely harsh conditions. Materials used in the sphere’s construction are more advanced than the standard alloys used in ship construction, so mentioning that they were used to build this new class of ship provided the justification we needed for utilizing the ship in the episode.
One of the hardest things in creating the lore for a ship can be choosing its name. We need a name that invokes the inspirations that went into the ship, but also one that describes the ship’s use. Because the Dyson Science Destroyer was a hybrid, that was tricky. We had to make sure that the name described its multi-use function, but also ensure we didn’t name it something with a ridiculously long string of adjectives that ultimately didn’t make a lot of sense. Lots of emails fly back and forth between the team during the naming process, and we whittle down long lists of names until we find the right one.
By Ian “JamJamz” Richards, Ship Artist
Upon the completion of concepts, we can usually start building the ships in 3D right away, using a variety of software to complete this part of the task. Not all concepts we receive are completely fleshed out, so sometimes we get to fill in the blanks. While modeling the vessel we must consider a number of factors including potential variants, animation, special weapons and powers. Some of these things change over time, as development is an incredibly fluidic process. We must also model in such a way that adapts to our fairly unusual texturing techniques.
Simply modeling up a ship isn't all it takes; we then have to create the complex material that covers the surface of the 3D model. With ships, we build what are called “tiling textures.” While not an uncommon practice, its application with our customization system allows a huge variety of high frequency details to be changed by simply scrolling through a drop-down menu. This allows a high amount of detail while keeping systems requirements low, as various surfaces on the 3D model will use the same section of textures, albeit mirrored, scaled and rotated differently to appear unique. It also allows us to increase the amount of customization options. Nearly every ship in the entirety of Star Trek Online could theoretically share materials. There are over 60!
We take these textures and apply them to a material template, where we plug in specific textures to various nodes which help define reflectivity, luminosity, and specularity, among many others.
After creating the 3D model and material, the next step is to get the ship in-game and ready for primetime. This involves dealing with a pile of text files full of “not-art”. Throughout the process of getting the ship in-game, we set up what parts are, or are not, customizable, what kind of effects will be used, and the name of all the parts. This process also includes placement of nodes for effects purposes, which generally tallies up to over 80 individual nodes per vessel.
Upon completion of the laundry list of data setup, our end result is the flyable ship, in-game, ready to be given its stats.
Systems (Powers & Stats) Design
By Phil “Gorngonzolla” Zeleski, Systems Designer
We knew we wanted to make a “Dyson ship”, meaning a ship or ships built by the Dyson Joint Command, inspired by or empowered by technology found in the Solanae Dyson Sphere; however, we also needed to define what that meant. First, we examined which ship classes we’ve made recently to make sure we weren’t making too many of the same type of ship. Next, we considered what made the most logical sense for a ship class that would include Dyson technology. We tossed around the idea of the ship being an Engineer-y Science ship or a Science-y Cruiser, but ultimately we felt that had been done. Then we considered some other options: What about a Destroyer? How about a Warship (like the Breen Chell Grett)? What about a tactically-centric Science vessel? Then it hit us. Why don’t we make a Science ship that can transform between a full-on Science ship and a Destroyer with Science ship stats? That sounded the most interesting to us, and as it was also a type of ship that would allow us to make a variant for each faction, we explored what that would be like.
The keywords in our minds at this point were: “Transforming Science Destroyer.” What does that mean? I figured the best place to start is with a Science vessel’s stats. That means average hull, very high shield modifier, average turn rate and speed, and 3 Fore / 3 Aft weapon slots. We then decided it would favor Science and Tactical Bridge Officer seats over Engineering, and Science and Tactical Console slots over Engineering (due to its dual Tactical/Science nature). By default, this ship would be a Science vessel, but activating a power could transform it into a more Tactically-centric ship.
We wanted this ship to do something that we’ve never done before, so we came up with the idea of having the ship perform some dynamic bridge officer power swapping. We also wanted it to feature a special weapon that becomes available only when the ship entered Tactical Mode. This ship by default has a Commander Science seat and a Lt. Commander Tactical seat among its bridge officer stations. However, when the ship enters Tactical Mode, the two seats effectively switch. The Commander Science seat is downgraded to Lt. Commander Science, and the Lt. Commander Tactical is upgraded to Commander Tactical. Additionally, Tactical Mode also enables powerful Dual Heavy Proton Cannons, effectively giving the ship 4 Fore weapons and 3 Aft.
The end result is a ship that is very versatile and includes several features that haven’t been seen before in Star Trek Online. I hope this gives you a glimpse into the systems design process of building a starship. The Dyson Science Destroyers have been both a challenge, and a lot of fun to bring into the game.
Visual Effects (VFX)
By Chris Menard, VFX Artist
Making the FX for something like the anniversary ships takes a fair bit of coordination between art and design. We start by having many conversations that tend to start with “what if it did this…?” or “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” or “remember that thing from that episode…?”
Once the ships’ powers are designed and mocked up, we begin working out the details of what will be needed. Each ship has its own transformation mode requiring different animation, FX, and powers that all need to be crafted together to achieve the final result. Ship Consoles also go through this process as they add more special abilities to the ships that have them equipped.
The capabilities of the ships change depending on the mode you’re in. This makes one of the first challenges giving each mode’s powers a distinct look. Whether it is an attack in one mode or a buff in the other, it creates a visual language that players can read and react to. The console powers provide another challenge of needing to have FX powers that look new and cool. I find myself referencing the various Star Trek series quite often for inspiration on how an effect should look and feel. In the end, my job is to make sure that when you click a button, something cool happens, and that it looks epic.
Internal QA Testing
By Daryl Hall, QA Lead
In general, ship testing is a mix of the mundane and the new. That is, each ship has a number of standard features that must be checked, as well as new features developed specifically for each ship. The vast majority of the mundane tests are captured in our ship test plan, which is one of our more detailed test plans.
The interesting part comes when testing any new powers or mechanics that invariably shows up on new ships. The mode-switching of the Dyson Science Destroyers is totally new, and like everything new, it requires QA to think about how to break, exploit, min-max, or otherwise bend it into something unintended. This exploratory testing tends to happen early in the development cycle. At that point, the ship powers are “done,” but not much else. The ship usually doesn’t have final costumes, FX, or audio (placeholders are used), so QA focuses on the new powers, how the ship “feels,” and how it fits into its intended role. In those early stages, QA and the ship designers talk directly and iterate on each of the powers until it feels like the ship is in a good place, based on its overall design.
Later in the cycle, when the ship is being finalized, QA runs all of its standard checks, making sure there aren’t any anomalous issues before the ship becomes available to the public. Once the ship passes QA checks, we clear it to leave spacedock on its way to the final frontier, you, our players.
By Brandon “BranFlakes” Felczer, Community Manager
As you’ve read thus far, creating a ship from start to finish is a huge undertaking with many intricate steps. In addition to our intensive internal testing, most of our recent ship releases (since the Vesta line of Multi-Mission Reconnaissance Explorers) have also included volunteer focus testing by members of the community, your peers.
For this type of testing, we look for players who have a history of testing new additions on Tribble and/ or providing succinct, constructive (positive and negative) feedback regarding additions. The chosen community members playtest the new ship(s) in group and solo play, focusing on PvP, PvE (STFs, Fleet Actions, queued events, episodes, etc.), powers, console abilities, ship stats, special items/ mechanics, costumes, and more.
In addition to the above focuses, we also seek out feedback on specific aspects of a new ship. For the Dyson Science Destroyers, this includes transforming in and out of Tactical Mode, the brand-new Solanae Secondary Deflector, and the Dual Heavy Proton Cannons.
During the testing period, focus test members are invited to provide their feedback to the development team via a private forum. This also allows for the opportunity of testers to talk with each other about their feedback and thoughts, ask additional questions, and plan coordinated testing sessions. While any changes and updates that are made to the ship(s) are decided on by the Dev team, focus group feedback is strongly considered.
Interested in joining a future focus test? Continue to provide constructive feedback on your Tribble playtests in the Tribble forums and you never know – you might even be selected to join us for future testing!
Pre-Launch and Going Live
By Trevor “CaptainSmirk” McNesby, Community Management Specialist
One of the most exciting aspects of the ship development cycle is the point when it’s finally time to reveal our latest creation to the playerbase, and we typically sit down several weeks before our initial reveal to decide on a release plan.
The first item on the plan is the initial reveal. This can happen via several different channels, including: the Friday Screenshot, a Feature Episode Trailer, a blog similar to this, an exclusive reveal on StarTrek.com, and others. For this, the community team will first need access to the ships internally to familiarize ourselves with them before taking the winning screenshot to be used in the reveal. In regards to the Dyson Science Destroyers, we decided that this blog would be the perfect avenue for introducing them for the first time.
The second item on the plan includes decisions how we are going to get detailed information about the ship(s) out to the community. For this, we typically decide to create a series of Dev Blogs consisting of copy written by our Ship Artists and Systems Designers. Additionally, if a new mechanic is being introduced with the ship, it will have its own dedicated blog (e.g. cruiser commands). While this blog you’re currently reading is serving as our Art blog for the Dyson Science Destroyers, we do have blogs planned to be posted next week that will discuss the new secondary deflector mechanic and the ships’ stats and abilities.
Dev Blogs are typically written (by the Dev writing it) a week in advance before they are published, if not before that – this allows the community team to have the most up-to-date development information, time to review it and make an edit pass, time to take all the screenshots used, and to have it localized into French and German. STO is fully localized into these languages, and the localized versions of the blogs are released simultaneously in all 3 languages.
Next, we submit design requests to our publishing design teams to have launcher ads made, as well as any images that will be used in our bi-weekly newsletters.
Lastly, launch day, the day we’ve all been waiting for! We prepare a “Now Available” news article, post it once the ship is live, make any created ads available for viewing in the launcher, and celebrate in-game with players.
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We hope you’ve enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how we make ships and are just as excited about these exciting new ships as we are. As mentioned, more details about them, including stats and abilities, will be posted in a Dev Blog during the middle of next week, and we look forward to seeing you flying a Dyson Science Destroyer in-game soon!
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