Exclusive Interview: Star Trek Online lead designer Al Rivera
Cryptic Studios – the folks behind Star Trek Online – are feeling pretty fine right now. Not only is their massively multiplayer online role-playing free-to-play video game still popular 13 years after its initial release (a lifetime or two in the world of games) but a few ships that originated in STO have made their way to live-action — notably, the Enterprise-F (introduced canonically in the Star Trek: Picard episode “Vox”) actually first appeared in the game back in 2014.
To talk about the game’s continued success and what it’s like seeing their work in Star Trek canon, we checked in with Star Trek Online‘s design lead, Al Rivera, about how he and his team craft stories for their game, how they attract their numerous guest stars, and carrying Star Trek’slegacy in a big way.
TrekNews.net: Star Trek Online has been going strong for 13 years now, which is mighty impressive. To what do you credit the game’s lasting appeal?
Al Rivera: Probably the number one thing is that everyone who works on this game is a really dedicated Star Trek fan. We know the franchise, we honor the franchise, and we’re respectful of the franchise. I think we connect with the fans in that way – I think we honor the stories, and we give everyone the opportunity to play the kind of Star Trek they want to play. We take a lot of stories that really haven’t been completely explored on screen, and we let people explore deeper parts of Star Trek that they always wanted to know about. We give you that fantasy that you can play Star Trek however you want.
I think we have two eras in Star Trek Online. In those first 10 years before Discovery came out, we were one of the only places where anyone could get Star Trek stories. We held the torch for Star Trek for a long time. Fans could see the actors they loved reprise their roles.
And then there’s the post-Discovery era. Star Trek itself had a renaissance, and that revitalized Star Trek Online for us. All of a sudden, all these returning fans and new fans came back to Star Trek with the TV shows – Discovery, Picard, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, and Prodigy. We were able to tap into those Star Trek fans and those Star Trek stories. That was really good for us. And that has really continued to increase the appeal of Star Trek Online because it was back in everyone’s zeitgeist again.
TrekNews.net: So, you’ve seen new or returning interest in the game since ships from the game started appearing on TV?
Al Rivera: The new shows have reinvigorated the fans in such a way. We’ve been taking ships from the old shows and now taking ships from the new shows and putting them in our game. We’ve built such a library and we’ve put so much effort and so much thought into our ships that the new shows, Picard particularly, have been bringing our original ships into their TV show. I think the fact that we have Star Trek Online fans working on Picard is very humbling and very exciting. They’re excited about what we’re doing so much that they want to put our stuff in their shows.
And that’s just a feedback loop, where players then see that and then they get excited, and they engage with the showrunners and the show artists that they’re excited to see that. And it just feedback loops on itself. People love their ships. So, whenever we can bring their favorite ships from the show into the game, or now vice versa, that’s just a huge win for everybody.
TrekNews.net: Who have been some of the most memorable guest stars you’ve had in your game? Any standout memories from the recording booth?
Al Rivera: I’ve lost track, but I think we have somewhere between 40 and 50 Star Trek alumni in Star Trek Online. Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Chase Masterson (Leeta from DS9) were two of the firsts. But our guest stars weren’t really part of the narrative until we brought in Denise Crosby. And Denise Crosby will always be special to me because she was one of the first to really engage with us narratively with her character.
She came back to the game many, many times as Sela and even as Tasha. And then it was just a whirlwind of so many different characters that we’ve brought in. Some of them I’m still starstruck to have had a chance to work with. Some have become friends of the company and personal friends. And some have been really kind to us and really kind to me. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ve become close friends with Chase Masterson, and she’s a wonderful person who runs her Pop Culture Hero Coalition charity. And we’ve done charity events with her, and she’s done a lot of work for us. And it’s hard to not mention Aron Eisenberg, who also became a good friend. When he passed, it was heartbreaking for the whole team. And that affected me and many people.
But there’s been so many that have really engaged with us, such as Rekha Sharma, who was Ellen Landry on Discovery, and Mary Chieffo, who’s L’Rell, the Klingon chancellor on Discovery. Both have really engaged with us and done a lot of work with us, and we’re really grateful to get to know them. J. G. Hertzler, who plays Martok, is a real standup guy. When fires came here to California, he offered if anyone needed a place to stay. Who does that? And Walter Koenig, right? Wow. We got a chance to work with Walter. That’s pretty outstanding. Not to mention working with Kate Mulgrew! It is never lost on me the privilege that I and the company have had to work with such iconic and wonderful people. We’ll always be grateful for that.
TrekNews.net: How do you go about approaching certain guest stars to be in your game? For example, do you craft the story first and then see who can come in, or do you secure the guest star first and then craft the story?
Al Rivera: That’s an interesting question. I would say actually both happen. Whenever we’ve had an opportunity to get to a Star Trek convention, it’s usually an opportunity for us to approach and meet different actors. And we probably already have some stories down the road that we have in mind that it might be interesting to have someone in, and they don’t all come to fruition. But it’s an opportunity for us to meet them and introduce ourselves and just get on their radar and gauge their reaction to see if it’s really something they want to do.
Most of them are interested in doing voice work. But even that doesn’t usually happen without some sort of idea about where we want to go. Most of the time what we will do though at this point – because we’ve had an opportunity to work with so many actors and work with so many agents and managers – is utilize the network we have at this point. And what we’ll do is plan a story arc often two years in advance, and say, “This is where we want this character and we want this character here and this character here.” We try to bring a new character in almost every season. And when we make those stories, we’re trying to make those stories very personal to that character.
We want to make sure we’re bringing this person in for a reason. We say, “Well, what if we don’t get person X? What do we do if they can’t sign or they’re not available?” And then we will have a Plan B and say, “Well, we can then maybe shift to this character and we’ll change the story this way.”
I would say 90 percent of the time we are able to get the person we want. Occasionally we can’t, and we end up having to shift the story. But once we’ve decided we want this actor and this is the story, either we have their direct contact info or we can easily just get ahold of their manager or agent, or we can reach out to CBS to get in contact with them and see what their interest is. And then we go into contract negotiations. It’s actually a pretty long process. It can easily take six months just to line up an actor. You don’t just call someone up and they show up the next week. We have to make sure they are interested before we can even start developing their likeness in the game, which can take a long time. It’s a six-to-12-month process to get someone in.
TrekNews.net: If you could snap your fingers and get any actor or actress from the Star Trek universe in your game, who would it be?
Al Rivera: I think the person would be Patrick Stewart. I’d just love to have Patrick Stewart in the game. This is a personal answer, not necessarily a company answer. I relate to Captain Picard, and I love listening to him talk at conventions or reading articles about him, his personal stories, the type of person he is, and what he represents for the franchise. I would love to have the opportunity to work with him.
TrekNews.net: We think STO’s stories are known for really delving into Star Trek lore. Talk a bit about the process of crafting these storylines and paying close attention to established continuity.
Al Rivera: I’ve watched every Star Trek multiple times, and there are many people on the team who have done the same. And even as the new shows come out, I’m always keeping an eye out. Particularly in the older shows, which were episodic, they tended to tell these stories that didn’t really get too deep. They’ll mention the Iconians two or three times on the show, or they’ll mention Tzenkethi a couple of times, or the Hur’q. Remember, the famous contagion episode in the first season of TNG with the blue gill parasites and the guy’s head blowing up? And at the end of that episode, they send out a signal and everyone says, “We don’t know what happened to it, it went to deep space.”
Those are the opportunities we just love. We don’t really know what happened to those species or characters. “Schisms” is another great example, where the crew was getting kidnapped into this other realm and the aliens prevailed, but we don’t know who they were or what they were about. What was all that about? Or the mushroom people, who we later called the Elachi, that were kidnapping people on the NX-01 Enterprise. What was that all about? When you see all those stories watching a show, those are like, yeah, let’s dive deeper into that. And how can we connect some of these threads to other stories or other moments in the show? So, we spend a lot of time doing that.
One that we haven’t done that’s a perfect example of these untold stories is the whale probe. We saw in The Voyage Home that the probe goes on its merry way and Kirk saves the Earth. But what was that probe about? Same thing with V’ger. We recently did a story about V’ger and what happened to V’ger after it merged with Decker and Ilia. Coming back to telling those stories, stories that people want to know more about, that’s what we do. It’s a little different with the new shows because the new shows aren’t so episodic. Episodic stories can’t explain everything in 45 minutes. But the new shows are an arc that feels like a giant 10-hour movie. They usually wrap up things pretty tightly, but there are always a few little things here and there. Like the jahSepp that lived in the mycelial realm in Discovery. We didn’t really learn much about them, so we told a bit more story about them and learned a little more about them.
And then the last part of that question is personal stories. All the characters have personal stories or something that they didn’t resolve themselves, or something that maybe affected them in some way. Ellen Landry, from Discovery, who was not a really nice person, gets killed by the tardigrade in the third or fourth episode. Why was she like that? How could she have risen to that level of command and been like that? We wanted to explore that story as a prequel about what happened to make her like that. It’s one of the stories I’m most proud of. Or like Sela finding out about what happened to her mother, Tasha. We told that story. It takes a long time. Crafting an arc can take months of meetings going back and forth of, “Hey, how can we do this?” And tying it all together from the beginning of the arc to the end of the arc is a fun and rewarding process.
TrekNews.net: Could you offer us any hint, even a cryptic one, of what’s to come in STO?
Al Rivera: What I will say is that a new arc is starting in May, and will continue for a couple of years. It’s a brand-new arc. It will involve returning characters as well as new characters. And we hope that we’ll surprise you!
TrekNews.net: Thanks so much for sitting down with us, Al.
Star Trek Online is available to play on PC, Xbox, and PlayStation.
You can download it for free at playstartrekonline.com.
You can follow Al Rivera on Twitter at @CaptainGeko.
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