‘Cryptic’ Does Not Stand For Quality. #sto #fail

Bed Bug
Sweet dreams: don't let the STO bugs bite.

I haven’t been playing Star Trek Online much lately, and what time I have spent has been marred by bugs new and old. From bugs in recent special events to those around for months–and even since beta, this growing infestation is sucking the fun out of the game for me. Consider these cases:

Cryptic recently hyped its remastered episodes in a week-long event.  One of those episodes, Stranded in Space, was remastered months ago and had a laundry list of bugs from the minor, like the double engine trails on the Azura, to the infuriating, like the security accolade mission consistently breaking in multiplayer runs.  None of these bugs were fixed for the special event. Cryptic really should fix content before they spotlight it like that; otherwise, they end up spotlighting the bugs more than the content.

One of the new rewards for playing Stranded In Space is a device that calls a freighter providing access to mail, bank, etc.  I played the mission, got the reward, and tried it. Nice. I played some more and swapped it back into a device slot–an annoyance which hints at a kludged implementation.  The countdown was still on 4 hours.  OK, maybe it has to stay slotted to count down.  I left it in the slot and played more: still 4 hours on the countdown.  I reported it as a bug and got back the boilerplate “this is a known problem and please be patient”. An advertised feature in a small release should not be that difficult to deliver correctly.

This week’s sale is 50% off extra slots, including extra bridge officer slots. There happens to be another months-old bug where the extra slots don’t increase your maximum number of slots correctly, so you stop gaining slots as you approach level cap.  After three frustrating tickets later, I got no resolution like a goodwill refund for something being broken that I bought with real money. Now they’re featuring it on the store, and it’s still broken. And there’s no warning that it’s bugged and may not work for some players.

Cryptic broke the interaction between cloaking devices and dialog boxes in January 2011, probably by adding some special features to one of the Romulan featured episodes [Serious Cloak Bug thread, STO Forums]. If you’re cloaked or using Mask Energy Signature and you respond to a dialog box, you decloak. Cryptic’s FUD on the issue is that fixing it requires fixing every single interaction in the game.  Huh? They caused the bug my changing a base mechanic for a feature episode mission.  They aren’t willing to break or recode that one episode now to fix a bug that affects the entire game.

Beyond just concentrating on quality and bug fixing, Cryptic could spend some time to get their bug tracking and reporting system fully working. The bug system now appears to do a search for similar bugs before activating the submit button, but I’ve reported the same bug many times over months and never seen my earlier bug reports. There’s no way to browse the bugs database to see what’s broken, how many times it’s been reported, if any root-cause analysis has been done, or when the bug is likely to be addressed.

I have been on both sides of this problem in my professional life, and a well-run issue tracker that lets people see what problems there are and when they’re likely to get fixed is a big factor in building trust between developers and users. The fabled Cryptic transparency only includes new and fun things; they are particularly silent and ineffective on the less glamourous front of admitting and fixing mistakes.

Beating the Dead Horse of Rank in STO

Beating a Dead Horse -- Office Space (1999)Players have argued against the current STO rank system since beta, and you can still find several active threads on the topic in the forums on any given day. The problem is that rank is a finite list, but level keeps increasing as the game matures and raises the level cap.  It’s come up outside the STO forums most recently in my fleet’s forums and a blog post by Blue Kae.

Fixing the problem requires decoupling this hard relationship between rank and level, something I’ve proposed many times [Devs – this whole ‘Rank’ situation is getting absurd…, Posts 53 and 55].  Here’s an updated version of what I last posted to the forums.

Re-characterize level as Officer Efficiency Rating. It’s a number and unbounded; that eliminates all the “exhaust the names list” problems that most proposals just delay, not solve. It’s lore friendly; e.g., the TNG bridge crew is often either doing or dodging crew evaluations. It also ties nicely to item level requirements (i.e., “You must be XXX to use this item”) since you’d only give the best/most dangerous equipment to the most capable officers–which is not necessarily highest-ranking.

Players unlock rank titles at OER’s 1, 2, 10, 20, 30, and 40 for ENS, LTJG, LT, LCDR, CDR, and CAPT. Rank title is like the current achievement title but separate. Players can choose to set their current rank to whatever titles they have unlocked, giving RPers in particular a level of control they often ask for. Players would have an option to allow auto-assigning new ranks on level-up for those who don’t want to be bothered; I’d probably default that to “on” so new behavior matches current behavior as closely as possible. Rank title would have a separate toggle like achievement title for overhead display.

Bridge Officers would use the same system, but their rank title unlocks would be at 1, 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 instead. I originally didn’t have BOFFs as Captains, but if you check out the command leadership section of USS Enterprise (CVN 65),  both Captain and XO hold the rank of Captain.

Membership in a fleet also unlocks rank titles at different fleet levels. The default rank progression would be Fleet Commander (or Acting Fleet Captain for fleets using rank 1 as a probationary positon), Fleet Captain, Commodore (or Rear Admiral LH), Rear Admiral (or Rear Admiral UH), Vice Admiral, Admiral, Fleet Admiral. Personally, I like Commodore and hate the LH/UH designations, but others feel strongly against Commodore; this approach can satisfy both camps.

So why has Cryptic ignored this issue? Dstahl’s position is that it’s too much work because of the number of dialog and item text changes required [You won’t get away with this, Rear Admiral, Lower Half!, Post 51]. I think this is just a worse-case scenario meant to dissuade further unrest, and I’ve suggested ways to minimize and spread out the effort [Devs – this whole ‘Rank’ situation is getting absurd…, Post 51]. Given Cryptic’s similar rationalization and lack of action on a game-wide bug they introduced in the Romulan featured episode [Serious Cloaking Bug, Post 159], I doubt we’ll see any change in their position, and that attitude is partly why I’m on indefinite STO hiatus.

Orion’s Champion Proposal: Transparency Turbine-Style

The STO community lavishes praise on Cryptic for their transparency, but I think Turbine deserves at least as much credit–and perhaps more for not over-sharing. A case in point is Orion’s latest dev diary post about the upcoming changes to the Champion.

Orion’s Page – Blog Archive – Champion Proposal: Final Stages

Elf ChampionMy first LOTRO character was a champion based on a character from a LOTR-based NWN persistent world. Gameplay with that champion (rolled two years ago this month) felt a little lethargic and uninteresting compared to my eventual love, the runekeeper. I’ve dabbled with champions since then and liked what I’ve seen in changes to the class and overall combat engine.

From Orion’s latest post, this update to the champion class will be significant.  I’m not a big enough champion nerd to appreciate subtle changes in how skills and stances relate, but a few things stand out:  no more shields, no fervor penalty for two-handing, and far fewer on-defeat skills. That last one is big for me as a solo; I don’t get to use on-defeat skills as much wandering around alone.

My sense is this champion tune-up is on par with or bigger than what the runekeeper got a few months ago. Some of those runekeeper changes didn’t stand out in the dev diaries but ended up being fantastic; i.e., Master of Writs. Pairing solid posts like Orion’s with Turbine’s usually-well-delivered updates has me eager to roll a new champion and see how it feels when the time comes.

I’m not so eager for STO Season 4 and the Duty Roster System: Cryptic’s having problems in the discussion and delivery departments lately, and they’d do well to take a few pages from Turbine’s book. Turbine’s communications with the LOTRO community are more measured and better timed. It may help that the LOTRO community seems better behaved but no less passionate: their forums suffer less from heat/noise–except for those trash-talking PvMP forums, of course.

It also helps that forums.lotro.com supports RSS feeds to get around the heat, noise, and overload that trying to stay on top of STO’s forums inflicts on me.  Hint, hint.

Another STO Hiatus

I’m on another hiatus from Star Trek Online. Once again I find myself waiting to play the game STO could be (with the Season 4 update in July) rather than the game it is now. But it’s more than that this time. I’ve had a string of annoyances and disappointments with the game, customer support, the Foundry, and active participation in the forums. Perhaps my love for STO has finally died the death of a thousand cuts.

I’ve played STO enough to scratch off the veneer of Star Trek and see too much of the generic MMO RPG beneath. LOTRO and STO got my attention and my cash because of the intellectual property, not because I like MMOs.  Although the massively-multiplayer aspects can be fun sometimes, they’ve also been immersion-breaking, road-blocking, distracting, and even discouraging.  It feels like these games have all the limits of a computer-based game with none of the advantages of a real multi-player (tabletop) RPG.

It’s not clear what Atari divesting itself of Cryptic Studios means for the developer of STO.  Word in the forums is “business as usual” of course.  For me, I have to wonder if the game will last long enough to reach the break-even point for my lifetime subscription–especially given months of hiatus I’ve taken since launch. It seemed like an easy bet with such a big IP back then. Oh well.

I may pop into STO and LOTRO for a few hours here and there, but I’ll probably devote most of my game time to single-player games: a heavily modded The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Portals 1 & 2, and either Mass Effect or Dragon Age to psych me up for the  MMORPG that might be more RPG than MMO: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Here’s hoping!

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself–and Spiders

Some new screenshots from the upcoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim include a giant spider.

The Dreaded Giant Spider from Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Dreaded Giant Spider from Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I found it through a Kotaku article that includes some other great shots. The best part of the article isn’t the amazing pictures or even the fact that this endless-waster-of-time is getting closer to release. It’s the comments.  About spiders. About really hating spiders.

If you ever thought a video game could not touch some deep human emotion, fear of spiders in this case, you were very, very wrong!

New Skyrim Shots Feature Orcs, Cat-People, And The Dreaded Giant Spider — Kotaku.com

Latest STOked Interview with Dan Stahl

The guys over at STOked just released the raw video of their latest interview with Dan Stahl on justin.tv.  Although the interview was supposed to focus on the just-released still-beta foundry, its 32 pre-edit minutes are also packed with non-Foundry information, some of which I’ll highlight after the embed:

The big news for the Foundry is wrapper missions like dailies that will direct players to select highly-rated Foundry missions.  These wrappers will provide rewards, the lack of which was a topic in Fleet Vent last night. Cryptic can tailor the reward to the captain (emblems being mentioned specifically) and prevent the exploit fest that would have happened if authors controlled mission rewards.  On the other side of the editor, authors with highly-rated missions may get more project slots. Both are excellent ideas to reward using what I feel is one of STO’s most unique features compared to other MMOs. Letting authors sell missions on the C-Store won’t happen soon, but the idea is out there.

Craig Zinkievich is back at Cryptic as COO.  I share Chris and Jeremy’s guarded reaction to the news. To be fair, some of the good things happening now in STO must have started under Zinc’s watch. He just wasn’t around for the credit.  On the other hand, behavioral patterns can quickly and unconsciously resurface when former colleagues are reintroduced into the groups they’d left. The STO team has definitely grown since Zinc departed; I hope his return doesn’t revive bad habits or past policies that the new STO team–and community–have grown beyond.

The Klingons will get plenty of attention in Season Four: Qo’noS is getting more of a redesign than an ESD-style make-over. That includes the Klingon Academy as the mechanics and culture bootcamp for players choosing to start their STO experience as Klingons. The new leveling progression will refer players to featured episodes, and it will include Klingon retellings (prequels and sequels, not shovel-ware faction swaps) of Starfleet missions with Klingon tie-ins; e.g., Saturday’s Child an Kuvah’magh.

The Duty Roster system may need a new name given the inevitable effect “duty” has on post-Beavis-and-Butthead geeks like the STOked guys. More seriously, it worries me to hear Stahl refer to it as being like a trading card game, something I’ve never liked for its mechanics or pusher-like card rarity marketing scheme. I’m also not happy to hear that the active roster will be linked to captains instead of ships. I understand Jeremy’s relief at not having to reallocate rosters when changing ships given the agony of bridge officers, abilities, equipment, and power trays that is switching ships. However, it’s another step to making starships less like characters themselves and more just hollow shells filled with “stuff” by excluding them from the duty roster system.  I proposed on the forums [ My Longish Proposal, Begging Heretic, Heretic Responds] and still hope to see workspaces or bays on ships that complement the duty roster system and reflect the ship’s inherent mission (sci, tac, eng).

Taking this with the latest Ask Cryptic and Engineering Report paints a picture of a game that’s growing from a developer with ambition.  Personally, I think somebody should take away Obama’s Secret Transparency Award and give it to Stahl instead.

Auxiliary Power Preset Work-around

With greater reliance on auxiliary power level settings for science skills, the lack of a “science mode” power preset is more noticeable.  For mouse-averse captains, this bind statement provides functionality similar to the existing presets:

/bind F12 “Genbuttonclick Powerlevel_preset_3$$GenSliderSetNotch Powerlevel_Auxiliary_Slider 1”

Pressing F12 will invoke the “Balanced” power preset, then increase auxiliary power to 100%; other subsystems will each have about 33% power. The power management control must be fully expanded for this to work.

Hopefully Cryptic will add a fifth power preset now that auxiliary power levels are so important to science captains.  Until then, I hope this helps other keyboard jockeys manage their power levels better.

Why does this statement invoke the Balanced preset?

It should be possible to explicitly set power levels in a single bind statement, but GetSliderSetNotch doesn’t work as expected; it moves the slider incrementally and appears to interfere with multiple invocations in a single statement, locked sliders or not. This might be an anti-exploit added by Cryptic because, as an article on sto-advanced.com [Power Settings, other than the defaults] shows, it’s possible to do a great many things in a single statement.

This article has been cross-posted to the STO forums; please add to the discussion there.