As a Star Trek fan, it’s hard not to get excited about the chance to slip on a virtual reality headset and find yourself manning a station on the bridge of a starship.
That’s what Star Trek Bridge Crew offers players, at least at first. The game, which just launched for Vive, Oculus and PSVR, is an immersive Starfleet sim for up to four players. Aboard the Aegis, players get to take on the roles usually reserved for characters from the long-standing sci-fi franchise, and act out missions similar to those from the 1966 original series and its recent film reboots is an exciting one.
Star Trek Bridge Crew works to envelope players in the unique, specific Star Trek setting as officers with distinct specialties working at various stations on the ship's bridge. Players can choose to be the helm officer who pilots the ship, or they can scan and target other spacecraft and anomalies at the tactical station, or monitor ship systems at engineering; or coordinate them all as the captain.
Each station has a set of controls that players manipulate either with standard controllers or (much more satisfying) motion controls. The helm steers, tactical fires photon torpedoes and phasers, and engineering adjusts power levels to maximize the ship’s effectiveness depending on the situation.
As Klingon warbirds or ships in distress appear on the ship’s viewscreen in VR, players use voice chat to coordinate their efforts. Star Trek lines have a tendency to pop out of players’ mouths, like “red alert” and “energizing” and “firing photon torpedoes” and “make it so.”
The way the game captures the Star Trek milieu is note-perfect, and is sure to delight Trekkies. But the key words in the game's title aren't "Star Trek." They're "bridge crew." The game's co-op multiplayer experience is unique and exciting.
The developer Red Storm Entertainment started out by prototyping games with an angle toward replicating something video games often struggle with: deep social interactions between players. But the early iterations the studio was creating were still missing something key -- they were designed to be played on standard TVs and monitors. It wasn’t until the designers started trying multiplayer prototypes in virtual reality that they figured out what it was.
“There was always kind of that missing depth of social interaction,” says senior creative director David Votypka. “And when we took one of those prototypes and put it in VR, and we’re sitting across a table from each other, me and one other developer, just looking around and seeing that person’s head move naturally ... Immediately you're just like, 'wow, that’s another player.' And you immediately feel this social connection that’s just not there in other games.”
"The risk is the ‘cell phone at the dinner table’ problem, where people are focused on their panels, and tune each other out."
Red Storm set out to create a game that was about bringing players into situations that would get them working together. The feeling of presence in virtual reality, the Star Trek setting and Bridge Crew’s cooperation-focused design are all ultimately angled at creating social situations.
“There are a lot of little things we worked into the design to stimulate that interaction,” Votypka explains. "The risk is the ‘cell phone at the dinner table’ problem, where people are focused on their panels, and tune each other out. We've aimed for a mix of working on your station and then coming up for air to discuss and ask questions and make requests of other players.”
Each of Bridge Crew’s stations is designed to rely on the others. The helm can’t make a jump to warp speed unless engineering has charged the engines; tactical can’t target a ship unless the helm has positioned it for targeting and closed range.
Votypka said that Red Storm’s major design considerations were finding that balance of giving players enough information individually to make them effective, but still dependent on the other players to get their jobs done. That meant plenty of iteration on the user interface for each station to figure out just how much data to give players in the heat of the moment.
But figuring out how players might actually interact is still something of an open question. The game is designed to mimic what Star Trek fans see on the screen when they watch the shows and movies — but just because everyone follows Captain Kirk’s orders on TV doesn’t mean they’ll listen in the game.
"I think one thing that’s going to be very interesting when the game releases is how much players actually listen to the captain."
“I think one thing that’s going to be very interesting is how much players listen to the captain,” he says. “We tried to design for that specifically, because in the shows and the films, they follow the script, and the script has them doing what they're told. But this is a multiplayer game, so who knows what’s going to happen.”
Red Storm tried to anticipate this. The developers operated on the design philosophy that the captain should be the smartest person in the room, so the game feeds the team’s leader mission-critical information that no one else can get, which helps in decision-making.
But the social interaction element that makes Star Trek Bridge Crew interesting is also the hardest to predict for its creators. Red Storm had a bit of an advantage going into Bridge Crew, though, because it had created another well-received social multiplayer VR game: Werewolves Within.
That game has players sitting around a round virtual table, trying to determine who among them is secretly a werewolf. It’s all about social interactions, with players trying to ferret out lies from one another, and the mechanics that allow for secret communications and alliances to develop.
In both games, an essential part of making those interaction's work was developing players’ sense of presence in the virtual space. Votypka explains how VR helps make social cues, like looking at or pointing at someone, translate through the game, and add layers to interactions that other games aren’t capable of delivering. But in order for those social cues to work, they had to be believable, and mimic the way people interact in the real world.
"VR helps make social cues, like looking at or pointing at someone, translate through the game, and add layers to interactions that other games aren’t capable of delivering."
Motion controls help sell that sense of presence by mimicking the feeling of interacting with virtual objects, like the control panels, in the game. But Red Storm also paid a lot of attention to animation in Star Trek Bridge Crew, to make the in-game characters behave realistically.
“In both games, we do full body avatars, but in Star Trek we do hand tracking on the avatars,” Votypka said. “So we have your head data, which can drive where your head looks, obviously, and where your torso is leaning and so on, so that works very well. And we have your hand data, but we don’t have data of your shoulders, and specifically your elbows."
"So that’s a limitation that we had to do a lot of tricks to make sure the avatar’s elbows look natural, and didn't get into funky places. Not only for the first-person (view), but a whole other set of tricks for the third person models that the other players see. So in first-person, you can now look out the bottom of your headset and move your elbow, and often times it’ll match exactly where your arm is, but we also had to take into consideration what the third-person model is doing.”
The sense of presence that makes VR so effective for social games like Star Trek Bridge Crew and Werewolves Within can have drawbacks, though. Players can not only refuse to obey orders--they can openly antagonize their fellow Starfleet members. Player griefing is a concern among multiplayer VR game-makers in general — when you’re sharing a space with another player, even a virtual one, elements of griefing can be much more intense.
“Player griefing is something you have to think about it in VR, and social VR particularly,” Votypka said. “So when somebody can lean into your personal space, or put their hand in your face, or what. There’s a sort of physical aspect of griefing somebody else, not just voice anymore or ‘teabagging’ or whatever.”
Dealing with players who might try to ruin the experience of others takes on additional importance for some developers in VR, because the added component of personal space can make those interactions even worse for the player on the receiving end. Red Storm is still working out how to deal with those people, Votypka said.
In Werewolves Within, for instance, developers added a mute function that not only silences the voice of an offending player, it also mutes their animations as well. They’re stopped from berating the other player verbally, and they can’t use their presence in VR to pantomime offensively either.
In Star Trek Bridge Crew, Votypka said some of those issues of your presence in VR aren’t as big a concern, because players are positioned around the bridge and are generally pretty far away from each other. And generally, the studio has found that VR encourages people to be polite and nice to one another — likely another element of the fact the game closely approximates feeling like you’re really in a room with other people.
“The vast majority of what we’ve seen and heard in the Werewolves Within community has been player behavior that generally consists of very friendly and positive interactions,” Votypka says. “There are probably several reasons for this, including the current age of VR headset owners skewing to be older, and that players who buy a social VR game are looking to socialize."
"But we also hypothesize that players may tend to behave more cordially to one another because they feel more like they are face to face with those other people, and therefore may (even subconsciously) behave more along the social norms that guides people in the real world. In traditional games players feel much less attached and present since they are effectively on the other side a flat screen, as opposed to feeling that they are ‘there’ themselves.”
Even though Red Storm has experience with VR games and multiplayer, a lot about how players respond to and interact within Star Trek Bridge Crew still remains to be seen. VR multiplayer is still uncharted territory in many respects, and even with one such game under its belt, Votypka said Red Storm has been surprised about how players interact with each other in virtual worlds.