Star Trek: Bridge Crew from Ubisoft and its Red Storm studio could be one of the most interesting social virtual reality games coming your way.
This sim comes out on May 30 for Oculus Rift with Touch, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR (PSVR). It will have full cross-platform multiplayer. I was able to play a few missions with my fellow game journalists at a preview event at Ubisoft in San Francisco. And I also interview creative director Red Storm’s David Votypka, who also worked on Ubisoft’s Werewolves Within VR that debuted last fall.
Bridge Crew is a sit-down game, almost like a physical tabletop experience. Four players come together in multiplayer to run the bridge of a Starship. My team commanded the bridge of the starship Aegis, but you can also play on the original bridge of the Enterprise from the TV series.
Through voice communication, you can shot commands and answer queries from fellow players. Each player has a domain, like Tactical, Engineering, Helm, or Captain. You take your ship into guided missions, either to explore or fight, and sometimes a bit of both.
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After playing a few hilarious missions, I sat down with Votypka. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How far back did you start on this project, and thinking about VR in general?
David Votypka: For me personally, I started thinking about VR maybe 20 years ago. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I worked in VR for a bit in the ‘90s. I went to school for it. Then it died off for about 15 years. I was working in games, and when it came back I talked to Ubisoft and Red Storm, threw some ideas out there. That’s when the ideas for both Werewolves Within and Star Trek Bridge Crew got started.
It was a long process of prototyping and exploring and pitching the projects. We started that thinking as early as the end of 2014. The development started a bit more into 2015.
GamesBeat: Sitting down with a group of four people doesn’t seem like it would be the first idea that pops into your head for VR.
Votypka: It’s true. All those years I was thinking about VR, one thing I didn’t think about at all was the idea of social VR. I saw a couple—there are some crew-based games out there. That was one sense of an idea. But Michael Abrash from Oculus, he gave a speech at Carnegie Mellon. He said there are still a lot of open questions about VR, but one thing he was certain of is that it will be our most social medium ever. I thought, “Really?”
We’d been doing some online multiplayer work around deepening social interactions outside of VR at Red Storm. We took one of those prototypes and adapted it to VR and sat across the table from each other. We thought, “Wow, it feels like another person is there.” The movement is real. It’s much different from an animated avatar. That’s where we started thinking about building games around the social presence VR brings.
GamesBeat: This is landing after Werewolves Within and Eagle Flight. Did you pull anything from earlier VR projects that you learned?
Votypka: One example, when Werewolves launched, one thing we found is the amount of time people spent playing and being in VR was much higher than most people expected. At the beginning of VR, there was talk about how experiences should be maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and after that people need a break. But we see people playing Werewolves Within for hours. That gave us confidence about how long a Star Trek mission could be before people needed a break.
Another thing we see in Werewolves Within is that the community is super positive. They’re very helpful. It’s friendly right now, which is interesting. Also, strangers have a great time playing together, which was a huge question mark when we designed the game. For Werewolves you need at least five people to play. Star Trek we designed for one to four players, so you can play by yourself or with just one friend and two NPCs. There’s more flexibility in it. But you might still have fun pickup matches with strangers you meet online.
GamesBeat: Sitting down was a bit strange. Did you think about going for a more active game at any point, something with more movement around?
Votypka: Certainly people talk to us about how they’d like to get up and walk around the bridge. There are a couple of things there. One, we would have to put gameplay at the stations on the back wall, so the game would have needed a bigger scope. But second, when you’re talking about shipping multiplatform VR, not all of them support a room-scale experience. That was another good reason to keep it seated.
Ultimately the gameplay is about operating your station and acting as a crew together. That’s why we went for that angle, at least with this game.
GamesBeat: When did the Star Trek idea intersect with the gameplay prototype?
Votypka: Really early. We were thinking about crew-based games. A couple of designers, Hunter Janes and Chris Curry at Red Storm, pitched me on a crew-based idea. And then I was talking to the Ubisoft licensing folks. They sent me a deck of movies coming up and so on, and Star Trek was in there. I couldn’t think of a better example of a crew-based experience. The brand and VR go hand in hand together.
GamesBeat: Did you have to invent some things? There’s not exactly a standard Star Trek bridge, or standard assignments for what the control and displays mean.
Votypka: Definitely. On the Aegis, we have these nice glass touch screens. Even in the new films, you just get fleeting shots of what those screens are. We got a lot of assets from CBS, actually, but we still had the freedom to design those for our gameplay purposes.
On the original bridge we really want it to be authentic. The helm station has 36 candy-colored buttons on it, and that’s about it. There are no labels. We mapped our gameplay to that and gave them these little pop-up help tips. When you watch those original series shows—we were trying to figure out, okay, what’s the phasers button? But the actors pushed a different one in every episode. They never hit the same button twice. I suppose that gave us a little flexibility to put it where it naturally felt organized.
GamesBeat: Does that change throughout the whole series? Do you have to watch what they’re doing on every bridge of every ship?
Votypka: The original series had three seasons. We basically had to pick a point in time – season two, roughly – where we were going to model the bridge. Initially there was no scope at Sulu’s helm station. Later they added that. The set evolved over time. So we picked a moment and built from there.
GamesBeat: How many missions are there?
Votypka: We haven’t announced that yet. That’ll be closer to the release of the game. But there’s a story campaign, the ongoing voyages mission generator, and two bridges with four unique stations that all play differently.
GamesBeat: How long does each mission take?
Votypka: It depends on the crew and their experience. On average I’d say it’s 25-30 minutes per mission. Some are a little longer. The stealth missions, for example, play a little more slowly.
GamesBeat: Do people get into it as much as you expect? Do they get deeply into character?
Votypka: You have the Trekkers, the big fans, who love it and use all the lingo they know from the shows. But then you also have people who are either casual fans of Trek or don’t know that much about it. They’ll get in there and look at the stations and it’ll say “Hull Integrity %.” The captain will ask, “What’s the hull at?” and they’ll say, “Hull integrity 50 percent!” Just like a line from Star Trek. The stations help you with the lingo if you want to sound like a Starfleet officer.
GamesBeat: Some of the feedback last year was that maybe you needed more things to do?
Votypka: Right. At E3 the stations were much simpler, because we had to get people in and out of the demo in about 20 minutes and still have them learn something. Since then we’ve added a lot to each station. Tactical has subsystem targeting and subsystem scanning. Engineering can now do power rerouting, taking power from one system to another. It’s this risk-reward gamble, because you can blow out a system if you leave it on too long. Helm manages impulse travel, a third mode of travel in the game. The captain has a lot of information at their AR pop-up screens. Also, when you play the game with NPCs, the captain has all these pop-up menus to command NPCs.
That’s just a few examples. The stations have really evolved. There’s also a distributed-systems strategy we took, where each of the front three stations can decide who’ll do the transporter or system intrusion, which is another specialized system on the Aegis. The crew can balance the work load between themselves. We’ve added a ton since E3.
GamesBeat: The Kobayashi Maru, at least in the movie, was supposed to be the impossible mission. What did you want to have as an outcome?
Votypka: We wanted to include the Kobayashi Maru because it’s something we get asked about a lot. It’s a classic part of Trek. We needed to make it unwinnable, and I believe we did. But we also needed some measure of success in it. If you just go in there and get hammered, it’s not something you’d want to replay much. So the measure of success is how many people you can save from the Kobayashi Maru. You’re balancing the transporter with the shields against the Klingons that are attacking either you or the Kobayashi Maru.
There are some interesting strategies in there. We played it at a press event and saw a range from six people saved to 102 people saved. The record at the studio is 111. Once you play that mission and unlock it becomes a challenge in the menu. You can go and replay it if you want to try different strategies.
GamesBeat: What drove some of the other missions designs?
Votypka: We basically wrote our own campaign. CBS reviewed it and we worked on it with them. We wanted to give everyone different kinds of missions. Star Trek isn’t all about combat, so we wanted to include more types of gameplay. Navigation challenges, stealth challenges where you’re trying to avoid detection, even running away. In the fourth mission of the campaign you’re heavily damaged and fleeing for your life, trying to hide and use anomalies to escape the Klingons.
In the ongoing voyages mode you’re recovering fugitives. There’s a research type of mission where you’re just exploring and scanning and investigating different places. We tried to give a variety of experiences, because Star Trek is so rich in all the different things they do.
GamesBeat: So there’s a starring role for different crew members in different missions? When I was fighting the Klingons in the Kobayashi Maru mission, it felt like tactical had the biggest responsibility.
Votypka: It does vary by the mission, and even by the objective you’re dealing with. I mentioned that mission where you’re being hunted, basically, and the ship is heavily damaged. The engineer is undoubtedly the most important person in that mission, because you have to repair things to keep your ship functional and escape when they find you.
GamesBeat: Was there any inspiration that came from other Star Trek games?
Votypka: We didn’t look too much at what other games were doing, mainly because of the format of VR. We really just wanted to take the bridge experience, which I don’t think can be properly done without VR. There’s no other way to make it feel like you’re there and operating with the crew. You can have a single-player game. There was a Bridge Commander game in the ‘90s where you played by yourself and used menus to command NPCs. But the heart of this game is about being on a ship with your friends and working as a crew. We really designed it from there.
GamesBeat: What does this make you think about the future of VR and other games you could try?
Votypka: Under the umbrella of social VR, Werewolves Within is what I’d call an “around the table” format. You can imagine different types of card and board games that are possible in that format. Star Trek is a crew-based format. You can think of military crews, space crews, lots of different types of games. It’s about being with other people in a shared space and operating some kind of mechanism together and having a good time doing it socially.
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