STO's rocky road also features prominently in the latest state of the game letter from Cryptic Studios. Executive Producer Daniel Stahl offers some visions for the future of the game and drops some hints of what to expect in coming updates. He also comes this close to sharing frank information about STO's performance. So what does Stahl's vaguenesses imply, and what does Cryptic have in store for STO?
Better late than never
Sometimes I dislike Wednesdays and Thursdays. Sure, the former brings me new comic books, and the latter offers happy-hour-cheap margaritas, but the fine folks at Cryptic have taken to releasing information -- including the latest state of the game letter -- on Wednesdays and Thursdays, well after Captain's Log has gone to press. (Note: Bloggings don't go to press.) That leaves me discussing major-ish news a week late, which really grinds my gears.
So with all due apology to the portion of my readership who might already have pored over every turn of phrase in last week's letter, it's about time we pored over several turns of phrase in last week's letter.
Vague but telling
Before he gets to hints of the future, Dan Stahl takes his time discussing STO's past and present. On the one hand, he's happy about subscriber numbers and the release of weekly episodes. On the other hand, not everything's coming up roses. Bugs and complaints persist, and Klingons in particular still feel unloved. So to a certain extent, Stahl appears refreshingly honest in his letter to fans.
But he's also pretty vague, which is basically an invitation for us to pick apart a few talking points and uncover their veiled subtext.
Stahl has a few things to almost-say about subscriptions, and the first two might surprise some people.
Not only is Cryptic seeing "an increase in lifetime subscriptions," new players also "continue to log in for the first time." From a cynical viewpoint, those tidbits mean practically nothing. But on the lighter side, STO fans should be pleased, particularly with the increase in lifetime subs. That means fence-sitters -- including Massively's own Justin Olivetti -- have noticed the game's progress since launch and have responded by opening their wallets for the long haul.
But one sentence leaps out and demands consideration. In discussing some of the hardships the developers continue to address, including bugs and other issues, Stahl slips in four words: "Subscribers continue to churn." Remember what I said about swerving past Honestburg and veering instead into Vagueville? Well, no, I didn't say that, so I suppose you shouldn't remember. Anyway, I'm saying it now!
What does it mean that subscribers "continue to churn?" I suppose Stahl might mean that players are vocal in their criticism, but he says that more clearly elsewhere in the letter. I suspect "churning" is the least alarming euphemism he came up with for a poor subscriber-retention rate. Even as he touts the arrival of new subs, Stahl seems to hint at the sustained departure of older subs. And that ain't good.
"Statistical play data"
Stahl also mentions that the developers have "learned a lot from the little things[,] such as statistical play data and player habits," that will help them improve the game. Based on my doomy-gloomy interpretation of churning, that doesn't sound like such a little thing either.
This is totally conjecture, but it kind of sounds as if players aren't necessarily logging a whole lot of hours -- they're hopping in for dailies or for the new weekly episodes, as Stahl mentions, but not doing much else. Fleeing subscribers and unenthused players? The sky is falling! Again. Still. (Not really. This is all pure conjecture, remember?)
Microtransactions no more?
Nope. But even a microscopic (har) shift in Cryptic's business model, in a letter full of maybe-portents of kinda-trouble, is enough to set the death-knellers a-wassailing.
Framing it as the developers' listening to community feedback, Stahl announces a change for the generally loathed C-Store. Instead of Cryptic's just dropping the coolest new ships into the store for purchase, Stahl says his team has been "finding ways to ensure that coveted items such as ships can be obtained in game as well."
The sunnier souls among us might see that as a triumph of constructive criticism, but I hesitate. I mean, whether we like it or not, microtransactions are pretty lucrative. Developers spend relatively little time re-skinning an old starship, adjust stats, slap a $14 price tag on the thing and watch the profits roll in -- on top of the monthly sub price, in STO's case.
I'm simplifying, of course, but that's the basic idea. So are Stahl and company so worried about something they see in STO's sub numbers or "statistical play data" or whatever that they're being forced to adjust the most maddeningly profit-friendly aspect of STO's businss model? Again, I'm not jumping to accept the "we listened to y'all, yay" explanation -- in part because the per-character C-Store services, which utterly incensed players from the word go, are still available months later. Whatever happened to that feedback, guys?
The good stuff
So enough raining on the parade, because Stahl's state of the game letter ended on a positive note. A few of them, actually.
Refreshingly, Stahl admits that Klingons today suffer from an in-between status of sadness. "Now they are this odd mixture of mostly PvP progression with a little bit of PvE and a lot of odd missions and un-fun grinds," he says. But that will change. Klingon players can look forward to some vast lifestyle improvements -- but they've been waiting for those for a long time. Season 2 delivered some parity, for sure, but I wouldn't suggest Klingon players start holding their collective breath any time soon.
- Better loot -- "Loot matters[,] and we're making big strides to improve the items you receive for completing content in the game."
- New ground combat -- "We have a new ground combat mode in testing that allows you to switch to a target reticule and shoot your weapons where you are aiming."
- Revamped sector space -- Currently in development, Stahl describe it as "hotness."
- Improved class importance -- The devs are "finding ways to make your character class matter more."
- Redesigned remote-contact display -- Y'know, when you get quests from Starfleet? That'll look different, apparently. For whatever reason.
Less trustworthy than a Ferengi loan shark and more useless than a neutered Tribble, Ryan Greene beams Captain's Log straight into your mind every Thursday, filling your brainhole with news, opinions and reckless speculation about Star Trek Online. If you have comments, suggestions for the column or insults too creative for Massively's commenting policy, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org.