Love it or hate it, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek changed the IP's landscape forever. ZAM asks STO's producer if these changes might influence the MMO.
One year ago this month, Cryptic Studios announced it had taken over development of Star Trek Online. Originally conceived back in 2004, Perpetual Entertainment acquired the rights to the IP and worked on the MMO's development for four years, until it folded in 2008. The license and some of the game's assets were then handed over to Cryptic Studios (owned by Atari), and the 'Trek community breathed a collective sigh of relief.
A few months before the announcement, news of STO's progress was getting sketchy. The game's development slowed to a crawl and left fans to wonder whether it would ever see a launch, or simply fade away as another vaporware failure. Last summer, fans finally received the news they were waiting for when Cryptic Studios announced it had picked up development.
However, STO's new developer was tasked with re-building much of the game itself, from the ground up. Launch schedule aside, the Star Trek franchise is an almost religious-like following for hundreds of thousands of fans. Considering the polarized reactions to J. J. Abrams' flashier, sexier and re-imagined Star Trek released in May, it's no surprise that many fans are wondering—now more than ever—what "flavor" of 'Trek is in store for them.
If for some crazy reason you still haven't seen the new movie and don't want to be spoiled, bookmark this story and come back later. Mass spoilage ensues.
Being both a J.J. Abrams and a Star Trek fan, I kind of feel sorry for the guy. Abrams was charged with his own "Mission: Impossible"; to create a new Star Trek movie that would not only draw Trekkers into theaters, but the same audience as the modern Transformers movie as well (e.g., pretty much every man, woman and child on earth). In that regard, Abrams knocked it out of the park. His prequel and reboot of the Star Trek movie series was a blockbuster success and is still the third highest-grossing film of the year, as of press time.
The movie was met remarkably well by critics, the majority of whom praised the fact that you didn't have to be a fan of the series to enjoy the film. The young, attractive cast looked like an ensemble you'd typically see in an average WB show, and Abrams packed in enough action and pop culture to appeal to the younger generation. It's definitely not your dad's Star Trek; an intentional move to reboot the aging franchise that might have otherwise only appealed to older sci-fi and 'Trek fans.
But just like Star Wars and other zealously-followed IPs, there's one thing that writers and directors all came to realize over the years: you don't want to mess with the die-hard fans. Despite Abrams' new film receiving critical acclaim and box office success, the forums and blogosphere were set ablaze with debate after its public debut. Many old-school or die-hard 'Trek fans felt the new movie's "alternate reality" premise was tired and nonsensical; a desperate play to re-invigorate the IP among younger audiences.
Created by Gene Roddenberry, the original Star Trek series of the 1960s—and its subsequent series like ST:TNG and Deep Space Nine—have always aspired to be more intellectual TV shows than most. One of the main reasons Star Trek stood the test of time and went on to become one of the most popular sci-fi franchises ever made was because it asked its audience to think, instead of just zoning out to watch mindless, space-opera drivel. The stories captured the imagination and engaged the inquisitive, while raising thought-provoking questions and ethical dialogue.
To sum up the original debate, many of those long-time fans felt that Abrams' new Star Trek had dumbed-down the series, forsaking its intellectual roots for wider accessibility. Granted, you can always bring up the cheese factor with movies like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (otherwise known as Star Trek: Free Willy amongst critical fans). But for the most part, Star Trek has always been about putting your metaphorical "thinking cap" on while you watch, unlike many Hollywood shows and flicks.
After Abrams' film hit theaters, sci-fi and 'Trek gamer fans all wondered how this new movie might affect Cryptic's upcoming Star Trek Online (if at all). Since the latest movie dove into the deep end of alternate realities and timelines, it begged the question, "Will the time-traveling events in Abrams' movie affect or change the STO universe or story?"
As we covered in an earlier report, Cryptic Studios released a "timeline" graphic in response to the community's questions. The graphic (shown below; click to enlarge) highlights 400 years of Federation history from 2009 to 2409. Cryptic uses the graphic to illustrate how the events of the new movie will coexist with STO, yet remain separate from one another.
At first glance, it seems like that's that, and the new movie won't have any effect on the upcoming MMO. The fan community refers to the traditional Star Trek story and timeline as the "prime" universe, while the new, "alternate" timeline remains independent. However, ZAM recently had the chance to dig a little deeper and get some exclusive information from Craig Zinkievich, Executive Producer of Star Trek Online. He revealed that, although the game wouldn't plunge players into the "Abrams universe" at launch, the reboot's story "has had some major impacts on the prime universe" in which the MMO takes place.
"In the new movie, Romulus is destroyed by a supernova, throwing the Romulan Empire into chaos," Zinkievich says via email. "That's the event that sets Nero on his path. Destroying the homeworld of one of the major powers in the Universe has a big, big effect on everything and everyone around it. The Romulans are in chaos, the Klingons want to settle old scores, the Cardassians are still recovering from the Dominion War and are choosing which path their race will walk, and the Federation is trying to hold it all together. The destruction of Romulus is the flashpoint for much of the instability and conflict in 2409 and we'll be exploring it, and the aftereffects, in many of the storylines for our game."
Zinkievich's description does seem to be a little vague, but it confirms that the alternate timeline will—at least—have some impact on the "prime" universe we'll see in STO. As he mentions, STO begins in 2409, after all of the TV series and movies thus far (excluding any of the oddball time travel story arcs). The game opens on fresh, uncharted ground; it's liberating for the MMO, but many of the hardcore "lore and continuity critics" might be skeptical of that liberty. After all, we don't know exactly how much creative freedom CBS/Paramount allowed in agreement to license out STO. It's entirely possible that the major storylines in STO will be adopted as canon in the "official" Star Trek universe, and could influence future TV series, movies or other media.
But assuming that any major continuity events are tightly-controlled by the rights holders, many of those hardcore 'Trek fans have also wondered how the theme of Abrams' reboot might influence the upcoming MMO. Studded with an abundance of glitz and glamour, the movie feels a bit unfamiliar to 'Trek fans, despite its crazy success and appeal to the younger demographics.
Don't get me wrong; I liked the movie a lot. I even thought Abrams drew inspiration from a lot of what made the original series so ground-breaking (the original Star Trek is renowned for making sci-fi sexy—often analogized to an "old Western in space"). But Abrams' movie took these elements to a whole new level, and if STO turns out to favor those same elements for the sake of accessibility, it wouldn't be the same Star Trek that two generations grew up with. In response to that concern, Zinkievich urges hardcore fans not to worry.
"We've set Star Trek Online in 2409, which is 30 years in the 'future' of the prime timeline," he says. "Because we haven't moved too far into the future, the game will feel familiar to diehard fans of the shows. That being said, one of the reasons we chose to move the timeline was that it gave us a chance to update the uniforms and advance technology to update the look and feel much like the new movie did for its era. Look at our standard Starfleet uniforms as an example—I think they do a great job of being true to Starfleet, but new and exciting too."
Zinkievich points out that the future time period also allows the developers to explore many of fans' favorite story arcs; something that they would normally have to wait for in a new TV show or movie. It's a valid point; what 'Trek fan wouldn't like to pick up where things left off, and play out the continuation of those stories themselves?
"The move to 2409 allows us to change the political landscape," Zinkievich says. "Everything's not the same as it was at the end of DS9. Old enmities have flared, and new ones have sprung up. There are new leaders for many of the major factions, and new alliances between familiar races. The Romulan homeworld is gone, and overall, the Alpha and Beta quadrants are much more dangerous and volatile than they were 30 years ago. I think that 'familiar but unexpected' vibe will appeal to fans of the new movie as well as those who have been watching the shows from the beginning."
Despite the fact that we know STO will at least begin in the "prime" timeline, Zinkievich again alludes that we might be in for quite a bit of material based on Abrams' story. That means we already have a major stage set to launch from; whether or not it's the right stage remains to be seen.
Regardless, my gut tells me STO has a lot of potential. I believe it will give existing fans the chance to explore a lot of the Star Trek lore and story arcs that we wouldn't be able to experience any other way—especially now that we're more likely to see rebooted stories on the big screen, rather than a new TV show or film set in the "prime" timeline.
I still come across the occasional screen cap or video that pangs the Trekker in me, like the character creation trailer released awhile ago. I don't know if I like the idea of players being able to "add to the universe" and "create your own race" like the video describes. I realize it's an MMO and there has to be differentiation between characters, but having the ability to toss in dozens of new, hybrid races irks me a bit. I suppose you can write it off by saying they're just the children of a new generation of inter-racial parents; one of the many new elements we'll be seeing in Star Trek's future.
Hell, as long as I can create my own little Jolene Blalock-looking Vulcan to look at all day long, I suppose I can live with Cryptic taking a few liberties here and there. As long as the developers don't create an unfamiliar MMO that might as well not even have the name "Star Trek" in its title, I think most fans will embrace the future with open arms.