Entry 1.0 - Hailing Frequencies Open
(a.k.a. "The Coolest Thing"
Stardate 60998.6 (July 19, 2007)
Welcome to the first edition of the STO DevLog, a periodic behind-the-scenes look into the development of Perpetual Entertainment's Star Trek Online. During the months before we're ready to roll out STO in a big, BIG way, we hope you'll make the DevLog the place to go for informative, entertaining, and intriguing peeks into the making of the most ambitious Star Trek game in the history of the galaxy.
I'm your host and STO Story Lead, Mike Stemmle. I'm also, as my friends, family, and coworkers can attest, an unabashedly rabid Trekkie. How rabid? Let's just say that music from Star Trek: The Motion Picture was played during my wedding ceremony and leave it at that, okay?
As a big ol' Star Trek fan, you'd think that the coolest part of my job is working with Gene Roddenberry's fabulous creations. And make no mistake, wiling away one's days adding to the legends of Kirk, Picard, and Sisko (among hundreds of others) is an exceptionally spiffy way to make a living.
But it's not the coolest thing.
The coolest thing about working on a project like Star Trek Online is the host of unexpected little surprises that emerge as the game takes shape. Because STO is such a large undertaking ("massive," even), it's pert-near impossible to keep one's eyes focused on every single aspect of its development at all times. A fortuitous consequence of this phenomenon is that sometimes I don't get a look at a lot of the really keen stuff going on in the game until it's nearly fully-formed.
Exhibit A: Recently, I was absolutely floored by a demonstration of how we'll be crafting our exotic alien environments. For years, the process of constructing believable landscapes (alien or otherwise) has been a grueling, painful endeavor. But these days technological advances have come along to help designers and "world builders" rapidly assemble huge environments that look like they were shaped by natural forces, while simultaneously providing all the necessary gameplay "Points of Interest" laid out by the design team. Here's how it more or less works:
World and story designers talk for a long time about what they want to do on a planet. This is a mysterious process that involves french fries, meetings, and much frozen yogurt. It eventually produces a somewhat drab (but very informative) wiki page like this:
Taking cues from the wiki page, a world designer creates a rough 2D map of a planet's layout, which highlights the dangerous areas, the safe paths, the significant structures/towns/cities, and anything else an artist might need to know. These first maps tend to be both colorful and crude:
A world artist takes the designer's 2D sketch and uses it to quickly create "height maps" of the landscape, which are more than a little bit eerie and foggy:
The world artist takes this height map, and uses it to extrude a rough 3D layout of the area. The resulting map looks remarkably like it was carved out of a block of strawberry ice cream.
The world artist and world designer pore over ice cream map, iterating on it until they're happy with the overall shape of the world.
The now-finished height map is fed into World Machine, an intensely insane piece of software that generates realistic landscapes using height maps and user-configurable "rule sets." These rule sets govern things like "Rocks on this planet are powdery" or "Mountains on this planet are 90% eroded" or "Streams in this area are stagnant." By carefully configuring these rules, our artists can swiftly create an absurd range of environments, from the striking deserts of Vulcan to the sodden swamps of Ferenginar, to everything in between and beyond:
Once all the rules are in place, World Machine procedurally applies them to the height map (among other inputs), and begins to generate a landscape. Thanks to our artists' suite of recently-purchased 64-bit machines, this process only takes about 20 minutes, giving our artists just enough time to squeeze in a quick round of Guitar Hero II check their company email.
When the World Machine is finished, an amazingly detailed in-game landscape pops out, ready to be populated with surly Klingons, giant radiation towers, and maybe even a tribble or three. Thanks to the blazing speed of World Machine, any major changes we need to make to the landscape at this point can easily be made in less than a half-hour. Just to wet your whistles, here's a small tease of a typical in-engine terrain generated by the World Machine:
Pretty cool, eh wot? It reminds me a bit of a quote from Wrath of Khan:
DOCTOR MCCOY: According to myth, the Earth was created in 6 days. Now, watch out, here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in 6 minutes!
We're not down to the six minute mark yet, but we're getting there.
Join us again next time on the DevLog, when we'll have some more interesting looks into the Star Trek Online development experience. But before we go, here's a completely random, utterly cool "Star Trek Online Image of the Moment," brought to you by concept artist extraordinaire Rob Brown:
Mike Stemmle, Emergency Story Hologram
PS Special thanks to Adam Murguia, Dan Fuller, and Greg Faillace for their help with the imagery and tech clarifications.
Mike Stemmle is the Story Lead on Star Trek Online. He has spent much of the past two years deep in the plak tow.