Glen Dahlgren here, Design Director on STO, and it's my pleasure to give you a peek into another aspect of our design process.
Because of our recent press release, you may already be aware that we're working with yet another experienced Star Trek designer: Andrew Probert, the guy who designed the Enterprise D, Next Gen's original Starship. But you're certainly not familiar with the intimate details of HOW he is contributing - and that's what I'd like to discuss.
While we're very excited to have the opportunity to create brand-new ships and technology (and we will be doing so), one of our goals for STO is to bring alive the iconic people, things, and places from Star Trek's shows and movies - that with which you're already very familiar. An obvious target is the Galaxy-class Starship, the anchor of TNG. Who doesn't want to wander those halls, walk around that bridge, or explore the holodeck? And how about visiting some of the places that the show only hinted at, like the Cetacean (dolphin) quarters or the immense double-barreled main computer core?
So we know we want to explore the Galaxy-class ship, but what function should it serve in an MMO? Despite the relatively few extras we saw wandering its halls on the show, the ship theoretically housed and serviced thousands of people. Effectively, it's a flying city - and indeed, a Galaxy-class ship will be one of our many hubs: inter-connected foci of content that provide infrastructure, social centers, and launching points for missions (although they are certainly not the only source of these things). This is one of the ways we can give players the important experience of ship life.
The truth is, in order to make this ship into a living, breathing, functioning MMO city, we needed to answer the questions the show didn't. How are thousands of people supposed to use that single sick bay (with a waiting room that holds only about three)? Where do crewmen meet? What do they do for fun - all pack into the tiny bar of Ten Forward? Where are all the freakin' windows, and how are you supposed to remember what's behind what door? It's very possible that much of this was addressed off screen, but we needed to bring it all to the foreground.
So, what is this ship? It's certainly not the Enterprise D, which by 2400 is so much landfill. No, this is another ship in that class with slightly different build-out. Many of the familiar places are there, but some were constructed with slight variations. Several new spaces have been added, due to the ship's mission as an important center for both Starfleet and the Federation, stationed long-term in a single, vital area.
Assuming that this new Galaxy-class ship had been refitted for different service requirements than those of the Enterprise-D, there would naturally be changes to the layout. So what are these changes? Or more precisely, what changes did we want to make to support important player actions in this hub?
Our first brainstormed list spelled out all of the possible things that players would need or want to do in a hub. These actions included healing, visiting their quarters, buying/selling/trading, getting missions, engaging in hobbies, resupplying, chatting, and lots more. In order to establish the areas that supported all of these actions, we did the following:
1) We first looked at canon to find established (and hopefully well-known) areas of the Galaxy-class. Clear matches like Sick Bay, the Bridge, and Ten-Forward called out to be included.
2) We searched through both sets of Enterprise-D blueprints (Sternbach's and Whitefire's) to see if there were other, previously designed rooms that fit the bills - even if these rooms weren't canon (defined by if we've actually seen or heard reference to the area in a show or movie). We sure found more labs than we ever expected!
3) Failing both of these, we created our own areas, but made sure they made sense in relation to other known associated rooms.
The next list identified canon or blueprint-established rooms that looked cool or fun to explore, but weren't quite as crucial. This process gave us known spaces like Jefferies' tubes, and less-familiar but intriguing areas like the Aquatic Lab.
The end result was a bag full of vital, interesting, or just plain cool building blocks.
But a bag full of rooms only gets us so far. These rooms needed to exist in larger contexts that collected them by function. These collections became our decks.
Based on what we saw on the show, the Enterprise's decks were labeled mostly by number, and rooms tended to be somewhat haphazardly located. We needed something more solid to act as the backbone for our hub. When a turbolift drops you off at a deck, you want to know where you are, and what can be found nearby. It can be quite frustrating to have to search the whole ship to find the one lab you're looking for.
We identified a number of vital decks to serve as the core of our gameplay area, including those that serviced the three departments (science/medical, engineering, and security), as well as the bridge, crew quarters, recreation, and the main shuttle bay. And while our decks are still identified by number, they're also distinguished by other factors: color, lighting, architecture, signage, and even art hanging on the walls and planters on the floor. While everything still feels true to the show, you'll never mistake the science deck for security. Andrew's design talents were and continue to be invaluable in this effort.
So where are these decks located in the ship? We looked to the blueprints again, and while we did some consolidating, in most cases we found logical anchor rooms: iconic areas from which the remaining rooms could flow. We also took into account aesthetics and the opportunity to connect some decks with multi-level landmarks.
Now we had smaller bags of rooms, each targeted for a different deck. The process of arranging these rooms in a layout was intriguing. Naturally, we honored the blueprints when we could by building around central known fixtures like the multi-deck computer core; we actually ended up using some of these things as landmarks to help in navigation. Andrew was great in this process; he's got most of the ship design living in his head, and was immediately able to tell us if there were potential layout problems.
This may be obvious, but building a city isn't quite the same as building a television stage set. What we saw on the show was literally a maze of narrow corridors with mostly featureless doors. In the game, we'll have a large amount of people wandering around, trying to figure out where they are and looking for things to do, so we needed to keep a lot in mind, such as:
* Traffic. Can players move quickly and easily where they need to go? Do important places have more than one entrance or exit? What are the high-traffic paths?
* Key areas. Where will players need to continue to visit (that support important game systems)? Are there enough of these areas to justify building the deck? Are they easy to find?
* Scale. How large are these halls and rooms? Can they accommodate the number of people who might congregate there, especially in the key areas? Is there breathing room?
* Connectivity. Can you see the places you want to go, or is everything hidden by a wall or door? Are there windows or archways that open the space up a bit?
* Deck Entry and Exits. Does the deck have a central staging area that sets the tone, and allows players to decide where they want to go and what they want to do? Are there multiple convenient exit locations?
* Symmetry. Is the deck overly symmetrical? Can the symmetry confuse players who are trying to remember where rooms are?
* Landmarks. What elements in the layout can people use to establish and remember where they are?
Andrew, Ken Henderson (our art director), and I hashed through these issues and iterated a number of deck plans. I was mostly concerned with game-design and flow issues. Andrew helped nail down the look and location of both old and new spaces, and grounded them in TNG-era design. Ken paid attention to the details as well as technical construction concerns. Personally, I'm really happy with the end results.
The Concept Art
Once a deck's layout was nailed down, we moved on to drawing up concept art for the individual rooms. In some cases, reference was pulled straight out of TNG episodes; in others, we described to Andrew what the room needed to accomplish, and he delivered excellent line sketches in the same style, pictures that look as though they could have come out of the 'Art of Star Trek' book. While every one of these spaces might change as the design evolves and we discover more about how our game plays, this was a great first step.
The final product, our Galaxy class Starship hub, pays off on expectations, but also allows for some incredible new experiences - all in a ship that feels like an off-stage Enterprise-D. I'm thinking that our ship is potentially pretty close to what the original Trek designers would have created given the task of building a functioning city-ship and given an unlimited budget.
To illustrate this process, we're releasing the preliminary layout of our Science/Medical Deck. And not just the layout, but the concept art for a few of the rooms. But wait, there's more! Since this diagram contains so much information, we're going to open up the additional concept art over time, kind of like an advent calendar. We'll determine the time table soon, but I'm thinking every couple of weeks we'll reveal a new room - maybe even by taking a vote on what to open up next.
I want to make it clear that this material is concept art. We've yet to actually build these spaces in our engine, and there are issues like modularity, reuse, complexity, and detail level that we've yet to address. We're really excited to have this early view of what we might build, but like any material we release this early, these plans could easily change.
Speaking of which, the final phase of this process would be to take a concepted space and realize it in 3D. Even now, on the other side of the project, our art and tech guys are doing some incredible 'look development' work. They've taken a portion of one of our Galaxy-class hub spaces, modeled it, textured it, lighted it, and applied some incredible effects. While we're still early on, the results are already damn impressive.
Whew! Thanks for making it all the way to the end; I'll try to write less next time. Until then!