Developer Diary: Star Trek Online
By Jeremy Mattson, Principal Artist, Cryptic Studios
Cryptic details the ins and outs
of creating a character in upcoming MMO
It’s amazing to think that not too
long we were just a handful of guys in a tiny run-down office with not much more
than an idea: a super hero MMO called City of Heroes. Fast forward about nine
years and Star Trek Online will be the seventh game I’ve been a part of here at
Cryptic and the fourth game that I’ve helped ship. I have to say that I think
Cryptic has really come into its own with STO; it’s definitely the pinnacle of
our achievements so far.
My name is Jeremy Mattson and I’m a
Principal Artist at Cryptic and a member of the character team on STO. Working
on Massively Multiplayer games is a little bit of a different experience for a
game artist to say the least. We’ve got a few challenges you might not find in
other types of games but our biggest challenge is the sheer amount of content we
have to create. In STO we have hundreds of characters that players will see
throughout the game. So we have to come up with ways to not only get the job
done but also make sure that our artwork is competitive with all of the great
looking games out there. One of the ways we do this is by building things
We started making our characters
modularly in the City of Heroes days.
Back then it was my job to develop
the costume creator for that game.
When we started the project I was
making the heroes and Chris Chamberlain (who was the only other character artist
on the team) was making the villains. While Chris was taking a more traditional
one-off approach with the villains; I was building everything to go into a
system. Set up similar to paper dolls: head, hairstyle, shirts, pants shoes etc.
players could mix and match and change colors to get the look they wanted for
their hero. It was a pretty fun system. About mid-way through the project we
were realizing that the costume creator wasn’t just fun to play with but it was
actually shaping up to be a powerful development tool. Soon just about every
character we made was going through the costume creator. From then on we were
making the majority of the characters modularly. So when a designer would say I
need ‘hero X’ we’d look at the request and figure out what new assets we’d need
and what existing things we could leverage. Most of the time we’d be able to
give them what they needed by just creating a few new parts. The rest was done
with scaling the body, adding a unique color scheme and things like that. It
saved us a ton of time and that’s basically how we do things for all of our
games now. Although what we’re doing now in many ways is light years beyond what
we did then.
Matt Highison, our Character Lead,
has taken the same basic approach in character creation for STO. Uniforms are
categorized just like you’d expect: jackets, pants, shoes, gloves etc. But where
STO character creation really shines is our Alien Gen system. We’ve basically
taken every alien species the team has created for the game, disassembled them
and put their parts into a system that allows you to mix and match to create
some pretty amazing stuff. It’s really powerful and a ton of fun to play with.
For instance with Alien-Gen you can start with a Benzite face, add a Denobulan
forehead, put on some Ocampa ears, add a tattoo and blammo! A never-before-seen
Star Trek alien is born at your fingertips. It’s tons of fun to just sit and hit
the random button over and over… and over. And much like the CoH costume
creator was, it’s a great time saving dev tool. It takes some extra thought and
some set up time but now we can make the games non-player characters super fast,
in some cases they can just be randomly generated. Another great thing about
building a system like this is that every piece that gets added makes the system
even more powerful. But it’s not without its downsides.
STO’s Alien Gen: Start with a
Benzite base, add a Denobulan forehead, Tellarite nose, Ocampa ears, a tattoo,
color and some scaling and you’ve created your very own, never-before-seen Star
Trek alien species.
In order to make characters
modularly there’s a lot of set up involved, only about half of the character
artists job is actually making the art.
We’re constantly thinking about
compatibility between all of the pieces, for instance all of the hairstyles have
to work with all of the ears and vice-versa. And some artists have trouble
getting used to being part of a team that is making pieces for a system rather
than making their own one-off characters. Luckily we’ve been able to alleviate
this last problem a bit on STO. Using the Jem’Hadar as an example the artist
gets to make the entire Jem’Hadar character first and then break him up into
pieces for the system. So we get to spend some time sculpting something we can
be proud of as well as making costume pieces. It works out pretty well. The
positives definitely outweigh the negatives and in the end the game is that much
At Cryptic our games have always
been about customization and trying to give players the tools they need to
create whatever character they want.
STO definitely stays true to that.
Our Alien-Gen system is in some ways the most powerful customization tool we’ve
ever made. I think players are going to have a blast coming up with new alien
species for themselves and their bridge crew. Lucky for me, it turns out that
making something this much fun for players makes my job a little bit easier too.