The “Star Trek” franchise has a long history in video games, making its first gaming appearance in the ’70s, spawning a number of PC games that continued all the way up to 2010’s massively multiplayer online game “Star Trek Online.” While most every crew from the “Star Trek” mythos — from “TNG” to “DS9” — has been represented at one time or another in games, one crew has been noticeably absent since its debut: the Federation officers of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot. That changes on April 23 when “Star Trek” hits stores for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
The new movieverse “Trek” game sees players take control of James Kirk and Mr. Spock for a third-person action/adventure hybrid adventure that pits the duo against the Gorn in a story that takes place between “Star Trek” and Abrams’ upcoming sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Not only does it mark the first game entry into Abrams’ take on the franchise, it’s the first major “Star Trek” console release since 2007 and the first ever to let players take on the specific roles of Kirk and Spock. With a plot written by “God of War” scribe Marianna Krawczyk in conjunction with “Star Trek Into Darkness” writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, it’s clear that Paramount, developer Digital Extremes and publisher Namco Bandai Games are putting their best foot forward.
To get a better idea of the origins of the game and what players can expect come release day, CBR News spoke with Paramount Senior Vice President Brian Miller, who oversees production on the “Star Trek” game and many other aspects of the franchise. Miller detailed the beginnings of the game, which stretches back to the release of Abrams’ first “Star Trek” film, the drive of the team to release a quality AAA title and the challenges of avoiding the pitfalls of a rushed licensed tie-in video game.
CBR News: Brian, “Star Trek” is the first game in the franchise that allows players to directly control Kirk and Spock. Before getting into story, what drove you to go the route of a third-person action/adventure game as opposed to space combat, which many of the other recent “Star Trek” games have focused on?
Brian Miller: I’m going to take you back in time a little bit. We started discussing this game when we were in the middle of production on [“Star Trek”] in the 2008-2009 area. Obviously, “Trek” is a really important brand to us, not just because of the movie, but everything else “Trek’s” done for the five decades that it’s been around. We’re all gamers around here, our filmmakers are gamers and we realized what a special property J.J. [Abrams] and the team were working on. We started getting a lot of interest in making a game — whether it was something internal or people were calling us up, because the traditional way you could do one of these things is to license it out. A company comes on board, pays you some money and takes the game, builds the game and out it goes. They wanted to do things for the last movie and we knew there was just no way to get something that we could be proud of out in that really short time period.
We had what has now become this mythical, retrospective meeting, where we got everybody together who was a stakeholder in the thing — everybody creative, everybody in the studio — and had a roundtable where we discussed the idea of what we wanted to do with this new, amazing reboot in the gaming space. There was a lot of pressure on everybody because we knew that most movie-based games aren’t really the best product at the end of the day, and also knowing we’d been behind some of those games in the past — some that we were proud of and some we should have spent more time on. We wanted to make a game that we could all be really proud of. We started having this great creative brainstorm of, “What creative game do we want to see? What kind of gameplay do you want, who do you want the characters to be? Who are the enemies?” We looked at a lot of the games that we all play and love and a lot of the games that “Trek” had done in the past to figure out where we could go. We decided early on that the only way we could do this correctly was if we didn’t license it; if it was something we funded ourselves and we funded correctly — something that we could put the amount of money that wouldn’t go into a game into a game.
We also realized that we probably had only one shot to get it, that the fan base would go along with us for a long ride in the gaming space only if we could prove we could do it. The long story to how we got there was during that meeting. We quickly realized there’s never been a game where you can play as Kirk and Spock. Knowing that we were big fans of co-op games and that “Star Trek” has really always been about Kirk and Spock — they’re the ultimate co-op game. I think they’re one of the first buddy cop properties every made, where you’ve got one guy who’s very logical on the Vulcan side and the human side is very rash and jumping into situations. From that moment, we decided we were going to make a co-op game.
We knew we wanted to make sure we had the cast of the movie in the game. Therefore, we wanted to take it out of the first-person perspective because why wouldn’t you want to see these amazing actors onscreen acting in these great roles? That’s how we got to be a third-person action/adventure game.
We also looked at what “Star Trek” was.We didn’t want to make “Gears of War.” We didn’t want to make a game that wasn’t true to what “Star Trek” really is, where it’s all about exploration and discovery and camaraderie and optimism and stuff that Gene Roddenberry did so well, that it wasn’t going to be justified in a game if we threw together a 10-hour shooter. We had to tell a great story, we had to have something that really matched what we were doing with the movie: humor and great relationships and this amazing sense of exploration. That’s how we got down the road of an action/adventure game.
The other thing that was really important to us was that we looked at a lot of games that we loved. There aren’t a lot of games that get story right. Story sometimes is an afterthought, they spend a lot of time on gameplay and weapons. At the end of the game, when you’re normally finished with it, it may not be the most compelling three acts that you’ve ever played through. There are some games that do it brilliantly, but for the most part, I think that’s a big knock on the industry. “Star Trek” has always been about great story, so we knew we had to balance everything we were doing with a really great narrative. Working closely with the guys who are working on the movie, working closely with us here at the studio, bringing on a great game writer in Marianne, who really helped define the genre with “God of War,” that got us to figure out what game we wanted to make.
Licensed games do have somewhat of a bad rap when it comes to movie tie-ins, and “Star Trek” likely has an uphill battle when it comes to this stigma. How does your game effectively and actively combat this preconception?
That was something we wanted to make sure that we were doing with the last film and it’s one of the challenges we had during that process of putting that film to paper and then to screen is how do we make something that’s going to broad enough to really reintroduce “Star Trek” to an audience that maybe thought it was too old or not for them, but also to make sure that we were satisfying the hardcore gamers that have been with us for 45 plus years. If you look at the last movie, I think that was done very well. I think it was done with nice little nods to things the fans had remembered and loved, but also wide enough that people felt like they were getting in. That’s why we did an origin story. It felt like you were getting in from the ground floor. With the game, we wanted to do the same thing.
We had a big sign we put up when we were making the game: “Our goal is to make a great game.” The fact that it was “Star Trek” was just a bonus. We wanted to make sure we told something, just like with did with the movie, that anybody could go in and buy a ticket and enjoy it — you didn’t have to have knowledge. But we also wanted to make sure those people who are fans that sat down could see those little nods. When you play our game, we have callbacks to certain classic “Trek” episodes that the casual gamer won’t know, but the hardcore fans will pick up on. There are characters and references and mentions not only to the films of the past, but the films we’re working on now, the classic series — that’s why we picked the Gorn to be the enemy — and that’s how we’ve approached trying to do that.
Let’s talk about that. Not only does the “Star Trek” franchise has a long history in console video games — most of which, as previously mentioned, have been focused on ship-to-ship combat. However, many PC games, like 1992’s “Star Trek: 25th Anniversary,” task players with problem-solving and puzzles. What elements, if any, does “Star Trek” pull in that pay homage to the franchise’s long history in games?
We looked at pretty much every game that had been made in the past on “Trek” and there were a couple of them that really jumped out that we thought were at the top of that list. The 25th Anniversary version was definitely one of those. We looked at “Judgement Rites,” we looked at “Bridge Commander,” “Starfleet Command” — everything that ranged from puzzles to shooting to space simulators. It was funny, because any way you could make a “Star Trek” game had been explored except for playing as Kirk and Spock, which we thought was just sort of ridiculous that it wasn’t the first one that people did. Again, we looked at those — because we could have made a space simulator game. Is that something we wanted to play? Is that something we were the biggest fans of? No. We liked what those did at the time, but that’s not the game the average gamer is playing now, or the ones that we particularly love.
However, if you look at a space simulator, we knew in our game that not only would the fans come after us, but I would come after myself if I didn’t have a part of the game where I could play as the Enterprise; that I could get into space combat and use the ship to fight my way out. We’ve added these other mini levels and sections of the game that are really story-driven, where you have to chase down the Gorn and shoot them out of the sky and they start attacking the Enterprise, which was really a take on the old “Arena” episode that the Gorn were originally in. That’s how we approached all that stuff. We tried to find the things that worked well in other games and we tried to find stuff that didn’t work so well to try to guide our hand.
One of the most impressive aspects of the 2009 film is that the action served the story, and Paramount’s approach to the franchise as a whole seems to be the same this time around with “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Not only does the game fill in the time between the two movies, but IDW is also currently publishing a prequel comic that also helps fill that gap. How do all these things tie together?
We really wanted to make sure the game we were doing wasn’t just a throwaway piece. We didn’t want to do something that wouldn’t mean anything to the overall storyline. Everybody involved, including our writers — both on the film and the game side — wanted to make sure this game was canon, that it was real, where we could honestly say it was an untold adventure of Kirk and Spock in our new universe. While that’s great on paper, it’s difficult to pull off, which is why Paramount is taking such a different approach to making this game than we normally do because nobody else could do that except for us. There are very few people who work on games — and I can tell you because not only do I head up this game as Lead Producer, but I head creative for several other groups here at Paramount that cover up everything we’re doing in toy, everything we’re doing in publishing. I’m one of the few people out there that can say, “I’ve seen the movie, I know where the comics are going, I know where the new movie’s going, I know what we’re doing in the game,” and it becomes that brand ambassador to make sure everything’s working correctly. When we come up with a story that we like, we can go back to the filmmaking team — and we’ve worked very closely with Bob Orci and his guys who worked on both films — and we’ve had great conversations saying, “This is what we’re thinking,” and you get a little smile saying, “Well, maybe you might not want to go that route, because — well, you don’t want to.” And I know, reading between the lines because I know where the movie is going, “Oh, you don’t want to go there.” The same thing works on the film side, where if there’s something we’re doing in the game that works better in a gaming place that’s not something you want to repeat in the films, and particularly in the comics; making sure there’s a story there that all of it fits together and doesn’t contradict each other.
It becomes this massive web of making sure we’re not doing anything to discredit anybody else’s work. We’re just making a much richer overall storyline.
So much of what Paramount seems to be striving for with this game could be likened to the “Mass Effect” series from Bioware, which shares a lot of similarities to “Star Trek.” Did the development team draw any inspiration for what Bioware has done in that arena?
I get asked that question a lot and I think that’s a credit to what those teams have done. I’ll answer it in two ways. One, we are not an RPG. We were very careful not to go down that route, because I think what Bioware has done with “Mass Effect” is something pretty spectacular. We are huge fans of that franchise. We also knew that coming out of the gate, it wasn’t the right thing to do with “Trek.” To try and go head on with [Bioware and “Mass Effect”] — we were probably not going to come out as the victor in that. But those guys have been amazing. They’ve been publicly on record as saying how much “Star Trek” has inspired them, and I don’t think we would be in the position to make a game like we’re making now if it wasn’t for what games like “Mass Effect” or “Halo” or “Dead Space” or “Gears of War” have done before, which is take Sci-Fi and allow it to live again in the gaming world and take it to a really wide audience. Unless “Mass Effect” did what it did, I honestly don’t think we would be talking today about making a “Star Trek” game.
That doesn’t mean we want to make the game they’re making or we’re inspired by the gameplay or the engine they were using, but we would certainly like to live up to the high bar they’ve set, which is making a great AAA game in that space and really show off what we can do.
That dedication has shown so far in the form of hiring Marrianna Krawczyk, who wrote the game’s plot in conjunction with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. What did you feel Krawczyk brought to the table that perhaps more traditional screenwriters couldn’t match?
We got approached by a lot of people. The opportunity to work on a new “Trek” was certainly intriguing to a lot of writers out in the world, and certainly working in the gaming space as we go out for the first time is a chance to get in on the ground floor. We interviewed a lot of writers when we were talking about this game and we really interviewed them based on their passion for the brand but also what they had done in the past, as obviously all our resumes attest to. For us, “God of War” was such a well-written piece. It wasn’t just gameplay, it told a really mythic — pun intended — story that I think people are still talking about. We wanted to make sure we brought that same level [of storytelling] here.
Now, there’s also a huge difference between writing for a game and writing for a movie. In a movie, we’ve got two hours to really engage and lead you on this path. In a game, if you make a short game, it’s four or five times the length of [a movie]. In our game, I think if you play it the way it should be played — using exploration and discovering things in the world around you — it’s probably 14 hours worth of game time. That’s a pretty long script. Marianne not only brought great storytelling and character to the bunch, but she also brought the ability to transform that into gameplay. She worked really closely with our developer, Digital Extremes, to make sure they were incorporating that. If something came up that was a great idea, we could really find a way to implement that.
I’ll give you an example: halfway through the process, we got a call from our friends over at Bad Robot, who were going through the game. They mentioned to us, “Hey, we never explored any of this in the movies. We thought it might be a good idea for you to do it in the game. The Enterprise is the biggest, best military weapon that our guys have at their disposal. Wouldn’t it be great if they could call in an air strike if they needed to at certain times in the game to clear out the Gorn and move on? Do you think you can get that to happen?” Of course, that’s a great idea. We got everybody on the phone — our developer, our writer, everybody here at the studio — and said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea — how do we do it?” Our developer said, “It’s a huge amount of work and it changes the play,” and the writers worked on how we could get it in there. Because we have a great collaborative process set up, we found a way to do it and we found a way to push our developer to get it done and they did a pretty great job of pulling that in. We found a story reason to make that work and we wound up with something that it really takes everybody to do.
Finishing up, I think the big question on many fans’ minds is if Paramount plans for this game to pave the way for future installments — not just related to the movie, but for “Star Trek” to return to the gaming space in a big way.
I’m going to give the answer I give everybody when they ask about future films, because everybody asks, “When’s the next one?” People are already asking us about “Star Trek 3,” and they haven’t even seen “Star Trek 2” yet.
I think sometimes you can jump into this space and have ambitions to do things later on, so you don’t put everything you have into it. What I mean by that is, you’ve played plenty of games where you play until the end and there’s a cliffhanger and you don’t tell a story. We wanted to make sure we were telling something that could have been a movie. We wanted a game that could tell a comprehensive story with great characters and great relationships with twists and turns and pay that off at the end.
Another question I get asked is, “Are you planning any DLC?” No. The reason we’re not planning any of that is because we feel if we can get someone to buy our game, they should get a full experience. There’s plenty of games out there where you drop $60 on it and you get three-quarters of a game because they try to get more out of you. Not only that, but you have limited funds to complete a game that you’ve now watered down by trying to do too many things. That’s why we don’t have a multiplayer, that’s why we’re not doing DLC, why we’re not doing all these other things. We know our poor “Star Trek” fans out there who love to collect everything would jump on board, so financially, it’s the right thing to do, but creatively it’s the wrong thing to do on a game like this where we want people to experience it.
I’m sure there are going to be some ideas out there already even in the film space where you see the movie and it doesn’t tell the ending and it says, “Now go to Netflix and get the ending for $1.99!” Don’t quote me if we do that in the movie in the next 20 years, but we felt for this game it was really important to tell a story. Would I like to see “Star Trek” in the gaming space more? Absolutely. Do we have some new ideas? Probably, if I can get two minutes of sleep when this game is finished, I’ll start jotting something down. But right now, we’ve literally put every ounce we’ve had into getting this thing done.
“Star Trek” releases on April 23 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.