Set Phasers to Impress: An Interview with Creative Director for Star Trek, Sheldon Carter

by on July 12, 2012

We got a chance to talk to Sheldon Carter, Project/Creative Director at Digital Extremes, about the demo for Star Trek that we saw during our time at E3 2012, which left a lasting impression.

The demo’s obviously based heavily in the lore, and based heavily on the film. Do you feel there’s more pressure or less pressure on the game with it being based on the J.J. Abrams films rather than the expansive backstory that belongs with the other timeline?

I think what’s cool about what J.J. did, what they did in 2009, was they took that movie-making magic rush, and they made everything that was old about Star Trek new, so it let us refresh the lore. For us, because we’re based in that, I think it actually takes a ton of pressure off us, because what we’re able to do is author the new lore rather than having to have that strict adherence to everything that came before it. So it opens up possibilities in terms of the Gorn and how they work, in terms of how the characters can develop, so I actually feel it’s kind of better that it’s in the J.J. world. I think this game would be harder to do if it wasn’t for that movie.

The Gorn; obviously they had a limited appearence in the original series and you created a whole species with that. How did you go about that, creating different enemy types?

It’s a really big and long process because it is really important for us to be authentic. The guys at Bad Robot want it to be lore. They want to say that anything they put their stamp on is lore and in the universe, so we have to have all these approvals as we make these new enemy types.

We’re working with those guys to make sure that they’re saying: “yeah, ok, that works. Oh, you want to do this back story with them, or with the Captain? There’s this classic stuff from the Gorn episode that you can learn and take from…”. Everything we’ve done we’ve worked through with them.

Sheldon Carter

Obviously co-op is a big part of the game, the way the different cutscenes play out. Was that a decision from the very beginning, that you wanted to make a co-op game?

Yeah, absolutely. That was the number one thing. Our big push was: this has to be a game about being Kirk and Spock. As soon as everyone went for that, we were like “hey, it’s going to be co-op from the ground up”. Obviously we’re going to have a partner for you if you decide to play it by yourself, and have drop-in, drop-out, but the game is made to play with a friend.

So with the partner, how well will they act and interact with the environment? Will they be comparable to a human?

Well, comparable to a human is the ultimate goal. I’m sure the A.I. partners would be like: “Yes! Yes, that’s what we’re trying for!”, but, well, we still want them to be aspirational. If you’re playing as Kirk and you see Spock going into his mind meld or something, we still want that to feel like something that makes you think “I wish I could do that”, or “next time I’m playing with my buddy, I’m going to play as Spock because I saw what the A.I. did”.

So, believable A.I. that really sells what those characters are doing is a huge priority. There’s a huge group of guys in London, Ontario right now who are talking about that problem all the time.

What was it like working with the cast of the movie, who provide the voiceovers?

The best part of E3 is getting to talk to those guys! We’ve worked with Bob Orci and Marianne Krawczyk, who are our writers, in developing the script, but E3 was the first time we got a chance to talk to Simon Pegg, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine (who are doing the voices), actually see them, interact in the studio, and see how it would all work.

They came straight out of filming the movie, five days after wrap to do the E3 demo. It was awesome because Zachary Quinto was reading a few lines we’d written for him and he said: “you know what? Spock wouldn’t say that. He’d say it more like this”. We were like, “Go! Do it!”. That’s what we loved about it, they’re passionate about the project, they’re passionate about the way they’ve re-invented these characters, and they brought that to the game.

At the beginning of the demo, we see Kirk and Spock walking round the Enterprise. How much of the Enterprise is open for the players to explore?

We have the entire blueprint of the Enterprise from the film, so technically we could let you explore the whole thing. Will we? I’d say quite a bit of it. We’re going to make sure that you get to see engineering, the officers’ quarters, things that you didn’t even see in the 2009 movie.

What about space battles? Obviously they’re a big part of the Star Trek universe in the film. Is there going to be some sort of space battle element to the game?

That would be really cool… but I can’t talk about that right now.

Does it link into the second film at all? You say you’ve got a lore-based game, and with the second film coming out next year, is this going to be a lead in? Are we going to see hints of what we can expect from the film in this game?

What we really wanted to do is have the game be stand-alone in terms of its story. We didn’t want you to finish off the game and think “wow, what a cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see movie number two!” It’s not like that. It’s more like a standalone, companion piece.

You get more about the lore, we invent the Gorn, we have more interactions between the characters which build on the relationships that were started but, I guess it’s more complementary than in direct continuity. Of course, it is in continuity, but our goals were more about it being complementary and building on it rather than doing it as a lead-in.

Before Kirk and Spock actually beam down, Scotty offers them a lot of different weapons. Do those weapons have a lot of customisation, or is it basically what Scotty comes with?

Though that isn’t something we’ve got around to revealing yet, Scotty has a big role in terms of what he can do for you in terms of weapons and the tricorder. Though, we have to save some stuff for post-E3, so that’s for the future!

Spock’s scanning ability seems quite different from other games. In other games you don’t really see characters stopping during combat and scanning. We saw in the demo how Spock highlighted a weak spot on the Gorn. What other tactical advantages and benefits will the tricorder provide?

There’s a lot of them. That’s actually something that we really have latched on to because every other game that has those types of abilities makes it almost like a gameplay contrivance. You know, where you have to click into a mode to see more things in the world. But we’ve got this tricorder that’s always with you.

I guess the way I sometimes explain how the tricorder works is that it actually encapsulates the whole game. It’s like, someone’s built some Metroid Prime in Uncharted. Play Metroid Prime, see the way the scanning and the world works I think you’re going to get a feel for what we’re trying to do with the tricorder.

Kirk and Spock have different abilities, Spock with his mild meld and his Vulcan death grip, Kirk with his firearms. How do they complement each other? Say with a big boss battle, how would they go about it?

I’ll just be talking about what you saw in the demo! There are situations where one guy is scanning for weak points, there are situations where you can use distraction techniques to make the enemy charge and take damage. I think even beyond that, we try to put you in cinematic situations where both players have something to do from their own perspectives that are in character. That’s how we try to always have the personalities of Kirk and Spock filter through the whole game.

In terms of the cinematic qualities, Star Trek is obviously a very cinematic film, is that something you’ve tried to capture in the game as well?

Yeah, although I guess the only difference is that we wanted to make sure there was player agency in the cinematics. That’s probably what you saw in the demo. Every cinematic has player agency, so it’s not like you’re ever just sitting there going “that’s cool, but I want to do something”. So it’s become another pillar, or mantra that we have: we want there to be cinematic moments, but they have to have the player making decisions during them.

You had the demo in 3D across two screens showing two different 3D feeds. Is the game going to be in 3D as well?

Absolutely the game is in 3D! You can play it in 2D as well, but we’re really proud of what we’ve done, we think our 3D is the best currently in the industry actually, so we really wanted to show people the full experience.

Is it possible to have split-screen co-op and have the 3D effect as well?

Yup! Those are the types of things that you saw in the demo where we had 2 screens but one pair of glasses, that’s the second time (technically) that that’s ever been shown. We showed it in Las Vagas as a test run a couple of months ago but the video cards that were running in there, to do that, actually there are only seven of them in the world.

So we’re really trying to push forward with 3D technology because we think that it’s something else that in Star Trek, it actually makes sense. 3D feels right for Star Trek. So for those people that have it and can take advantage of it, we want to make sure that they get the best experience of it. And for those who don’t, we’re still going to give them a great time.

Star Trek is due to be released for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC in 2013.