This year’s E3 had a couple of surprises from Ubisoft, but one in particular is going where no VR game has gone before. Star Trek: Bridge Crew aims not only to give you and your friends the chance to live out a fantasy of being on the bridge of a Federation Starship, but it also highlights how VR can be used for cooperative activities that rely on communication. To that end, Bridge Crew offers four positions on the bridge – Captain, Helm, Tactical, and Engineering – that encourage players to think as a cohesive group. We had a chance to chat with David Votypka, creative director at Red Storm Entertainment, about the game, the challenges of working with VR, and what drives teamwork on a starship.
How did this all come together?
David Votypka: Before we got into VR at Red Storm, we’d been working on social multiplayer, and trying to expand the depth and the amount of social interaction that players can have in online video games. So we’ve been working on VR prototypes, and we’ve worked on some cool stuff. But at some point, really allowing the players to use their social skills online was a bit elusive in a traditional gaming format.
My passion for VR started when I was 19. I worked in VR for a little while in the ’90s, and then it kind of died off. When it came back, around 2014, I was really excited to get back into it, and I started working Red Storm into it. We started discovering the idea of social VR, and that’s when we began brainstorming different ideas. I was talking with people about some different licensed ideas for doing VR. At the same time, we had some designers here that were pitching us on a crew-based game that utilized VR, where players could be in a mechanized crew together.
All of these things just coalesced. We saw the Star Trek license and thought Bridge Crew would be awesome in VR as a social experience. We put a pitch together and just sort of ran from there.
What is it about being on the bridge of a starship that makes it a social experience?
DV: One of the core fundamental elements of Star Trek – and where so much of the films and the shows happen – is being on the bridge. The bridge crews, the personalities, and the social dynamics of how these people relate to each other. It really makes up the heart of the show and the films in many ways. Social is already in the DNA of Star Trek, because of how the bridge crews need to rely upon each other and interact with each other. It’s a team, which is one of the core things that makes Star Trek such a great fit for social VR.
When we pitched this to CBS, they said this is the Star Trek game they always wanted to make, but the technology never existed to do it. That was our first pitch meeting and that was really cool to hear, and of course, we fully agree. This game really wouldn’t work without VR, and allowing people to be on the bridge together.
We want it to be a lighthearted experience where players have fun with each other. If they want to laugh and ham it up, that’s cool. If they want to be serious, role play, and use all of the Star Trek lingo, that’s cool, too. But we don’t want to force a hardcore game on them.
Obviously, this isn’t the Enterprise or its crew. That probably wouldn’t make much sense. Can you give us details on the universe this takes place in and its ship?
DV: This is the reboot universe – mainly the reboot universe the 2009 film created. That’s about as tied as we are to any specific Star Trek film or property. We’re using the look of the bridge, the ships, uniforms and all of that. I always felt those movies did a great job of re-energizing Star Trek and bringing new fans into it, making it a good start for this game. But we’re not tied to any specific storyline or setting. We want it to be about players, about you being an officer in Starfleet, so it’s got to be your own story. You can’t really be on the Enterprise, playing as Kirk, but your voice doesn’t sound like Kirk’s. It’d be odd. And if you’re on the Enterprise with the rest of the main characters, it just gets complicated. We wanted to allow players to tell their own stories and be their own officers.
That’s one of the reasons we created a new ship: the USS Aegis. We’ve tweaked the design a little bit on the exterior, but it’s still a variance on the Enterprise’s Constitution class.
In terms of setup, what determines your position on the bridge?
DV: The players are going to decide which stations they want to play. We’ll give them an interface to do that. Also, one thing that’s not currently in the game, but we’ll be adding very soon is a briefing room, or ready room, as it’s sometimes called. Before the mission starts, players will be seated around a table together. They’ll be facing each other in this close, social environment. At that point, that’s when we’re thinking they’re going to decide on the roles, the mission, or discuss strategy. Once they’ve made that decision, they go onto the bridge.
Over the course of individual missions, are you able to switch between these positions?
DV: Yeah, that’s the idea. You play a mission as your chosen role for that mission, but then next time you can switch around.
Is there going to be a full campaign?
DV: We want to do two modes, essentially. We want to do story missions and take people on a Star Trek adventure– kind of like episodes of the show, with a loose narrative arc of beginning, middle, and end. But really, it’s about each individual episode. Secondly, we’re working on a mission generator, so players can generate random elements of missions to give some replay value to the game.
Do your decisions on the bridge affect your interactions with other ships? If I go to red alert and raise my shields, will that put another ship on their guard?
DV: Enemy ships will have NPC behavior, but we’re still defining what exactly will trigger those behaviors. When you watch the shows or the movies, raising shields or arming torpedoes will trigger behaviors when they detect that. We’re working on designs of how much we want to put into gameplay and how much we want to leave up to the players, but we want to give the captain and the crew decisions to make – even moral and ethical decisions. We don’t want to say this is the binary yes-or-no way to solve this mission. Rather, it’s about how you go about it. Your actions will have different consequences and varying degrees of success, [for example] if you have to choose between saving two groups of different people in two different areas of space. How do you want to go about that? How do you prioritize? How do you deal with enemies? We definitely want a relationship between the crew and NPCs.
Any chance of a Kobayashi Maru-style mission?
DV: Maybe. Stay tuned.
What have been the biggest hurdles during Star Trek: Bridge Crew’s development?
DV: A lot of it began with our Werewolves Within prototype. We’ve been working on that game for some time and building the avatar tech, [much of which] translates to this game, but there were certainly challenges there. We needed to figure out a lot of it. How do we make the characters look believable and natural? In Werewolves Within, we do a lot of automated gesture systems and things like it that fill in the blanks. With Bridge Crew, we’re doing hand-tracking and I feel like it’s a critical element of the game, so we’re one of the only VR games that I know of that is doing full-body avatar hand-tracking. Working on all of that tech to make it look natural or make it look right is an ongoing challenge. I’m pretty happy with where we’ve gotten to.
Other things that are complicated: interface. With Werewolves Within, it was a floating book because we didn’t want a bunch of screens floating in the sky. In Bridge Crew, it was designing these panels at the command stations. There’s not a lot of reference in Star Trek for how these panels work. You see very fleeting shots of people pushing buttons back and forth, and that does whatever it needs to do. We kind of needed to invent all of that as well. Honestly, it’s blazing a trail in a lot of ways for these types of VR games and a lot of this VR tech.
How much input does CBS have in the way things look, or any other aspects of Bridge Crew?
DV: We work with them closely, and they’ve been really great. They’ve been really understanding of what we need to do from a gameplay perspective. For example, we have a helm and tactical stations, while most Federation ships have helm and navigation. We thought it’d be better for one player to focus on driving, steering, and plotting courses, while another player is on weapons, shields, and scanning. We also rotated those stations about 45 degrees on the bridge, just to make it easier for players to look at each other, while in most Star Trek ships you don’t see that. They’re always facing straight ahead. For those decisions, we were just really up-front about why we wanted to do it, while trying to be respectful of Star Trek and faithful to it at the same time.
One thing they’ve been focused on is [the design of] the Aegis, for example. They gave us a lot of feedback and tweaks. It’s really about how the game looks and feels, and being faithful to Star Trek, but the gameplay side of things has been up to us. It’s in our interest to make sure it feels like Star Trek as much as possible.
Star Trek: Bridge Crew will be available for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR this fall. For more on Ubisoft’s VR games, check out our previous coverage: