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Interview with Erik Bethke
This interview is done by Andrew 'Stylsy' Styles for the Prime Directive, a fellow TUN affliate.

Hello Erik, please introduce yourself and your role at Taldren.

I am Erik Bethke, the CEO of Taldren. Taldren is an independent game developer with 20+ employees in Southern California, as the leader of a small company I am very hands on sometimes performing design, always producing, sometimes operations, some programming, and so on.

Taldren was formed in 1999 with my partners Sean Dumas and Zachary Drummond, we have been together as a micro-team going back eight years now, and many of the employees at Taldren also have worked with us in the past.

Taldren has developed the entire Starfleet Command series with a very easy start as a development team internal at Interplay with full independence in 1999.

My role on Starfleet Command III is executive producer and quite a bit of additional design work.

Discussing your previous Starfleet Command titles, what do you think were the main positive and negative points of the games?

The Starfleet Command series has always been focused on delivering the finest real-time tactical simulation set in the Star Trek Universe. We place the player in command of a true naval starship bringing their empire's gunboat diplomacy across the galaxy - that is one of the great sci-fi experiences.

The Starfleet Command community is one of the finest out there; we have fans creating new models, scripting new missions, maintaining parts of the code base, running Dynaverse campaign servers - I could go on and on - in short Starfleet Command is their game and it would never be the success it is without their contributions.

The lows for the Starfleet Command series have been relatively moderate centered around our well-discussed challenges in getting the persistent online campaign system - Dynaverse 2 working well. The online Dynaverse was a very challenging sub-project in its own right, but the results have been well worth it. The other low is that our previous production schedules have required us to release our games perhaps earlier than a higher profile title, resulting in more bugs in SFC1 and SFC2 than we would have liked to see in a release.

We have constantly challenged ourselves to push harder, SFC2 with Dynaverse 2, Orion Pirates, and now Starfleet Command III have all been tremendous opportunities. The highest points happen every time someone tells us how many hours they have spent enjoying our games - that is what it is all about!

Moving onto Starfleet Command III, how do you feel you have built on these negatives in your new title?

Starfleet Command III's focus is polish. The earlier game each had a focus: for SFC1 it was core tactical gameplay, for SFC2 it was the campaign experience with Dynaverse 2 and with Orion Pirates it was the pirates! Every inch, nook and cranny of the Starfleet Command experience has been ruthlessly scrutinized for improvement, polish, revision, scrapping or overhaul.

The user interface has been completely redesigned and streamlined, the single player campaign has received an enormous amount of attention in design, dialog treatment and play balance - I would hazard a guess at more than all of the effort put into the two previous SFCs' single player campaigns.

To address bugs we have feature frozen about five months from release and have been in a pure bug fix and polish mode for months now. In particular Dynaverse 3 has received a battery of both automated testing and human testing much earlier in the development cycle than we were able to in the past.

This title will be published under Activision, rather than Interplay with the previous titles in the series. Has this changed production in any way?

Activision is currently enjoying tremendous success as a publisher and as such it has a strong brand reputation. This has translated in practical terms to us in much greater QA support, and a meticulous attention to detail from our producer Dan Hagerty as well as the rest of the Activision PC/Star Trek group.

Other examples of the strengths of Activision include Starfleet Command III being featured prominently on the show floor at E3, multiple press tours and a very well oiled marketing force. I am impressed with Activision as a publisher (and have made a little money on their stock this year! ;-) ). Seriously, Activision has a decidedly more conservative and rigorous approach to game development as compared to Interplay, which was willing to take more risks.

The biggest difference of the new title is the movement to The Next Generation era, what is the biggest attraction of this move to you?

A wholly new settings is always great! A whole new set of fresh material to look at and play with. What does warp look like in tactical combat? How about a quantum torpedo or a Borg cutting beam? What are the combat characteristic of a Borg sphere? The move to The Next Generation has in a lot of ways opened up many new areas for development and creative expression for the team.

Hardcore fans of the previous SFC titles would argue that the game is going do be 'dumbed down' and that many features of SFB were abandoned by this move. What is your response to this?

This is a very normal reaction to change. In fact with each new SFC, people who had spent so many hours of time with the previous title were often fearful of moving towards a different experience. This is natural. Change is good - it forced us to revaluate our work with a critical and fresh eye - all strong artists should be able to come back to one of their works and make strong improvements.

Specifically, addressing dumbing down - removing hidden game mechanics, straightening out obfusticating user interface, and adding new user interface elements to illuminate previously obscure parts of the game are all activities that make the game approachable by the general gamer while at the same time only making the play experience for the Grognard even better.

Talking of fans, Trekkies are always looking for the 'Trek' experience in the games, and Bridge Commander was well received, how will Starfleet Command III appeal to the fans of the show?

Trek fans of the modern Star Trek settings of TNG, DS9 and Voyager are in for a very special treat - Starfleet Command! I mean it; if the academy really existed freshmen would be playing our game for an introduction to combat tactics of capital starships. There have been several fine games set in the TNG era, but none of them have been ruthlessly focused as we on the delivering the experience of fully commanding a starship!

On top of tactical experience, the story campaign is something I am especially proud of. Activision and Taldren have worked extremely closely on this area of the project with the single player campaign being a very much a shared design experience. All of the Star Trek producers at Activision participated in preparing continuity critiques and in general raising the quality of the single player experience to the highest levels we feel achievable in a strategy game.

Moving to the other side of the court, how do you think Starfleet Command III will appeal to gamers not into the Star Trek shows?

As a strategy player these days you are somewhat limited to the RTSs produced by Blizzard and Microsoft and as an action player it is the first and 3rd person shooters. Starfleet Command offers a unique gameplay experience as a real-time tactical simulation. What this means is that you must have strategic faculties that are used in a RTS as well as the tactical prowess of a first person shooter to excel at Starfleet Command. Even role-playing game fans will enjoy the RPG elements of building up their starship (like a character) and growing their officers (like managing an adventuring party) and interacting with NPCs high and low across the galaxy!

For those that are shy of Star Trek, rest assured that the reason why Starfleet Command has succeeded is because we have never rested on the Star Trek license to sell our games. Instead we have focused first and foremost to make a great game - Star Trek is the color and texture of our ships and characters - but Starfleet command is a great game in own right.

Finally, please take a few favorite features from the game and explain why they are going to be a great addition to the game experience.

A personal favorite is the ship customizable via the ship refit system. Here we have taken an essentially Mechwarrior-like experience of using prestige to buy new parts for your starship, balanced by the mass limitations imposed on each subsystem of the ship.

Similarly officers are back in Starfleet Command III and in much greater depth than any previous version of SFC. Each ship has six officers, each of which have 18 sub-skills from sub-system targeting to monitoring the physical fitness training on the ship! Also each officer is an individual with their own intelligence, toughness and health attributes that govern how quickly the officer improves in their skills, resists damage and how much ultimate damage the officer can withstand before it is time to call up a red shirt!

Finally the experience with the Dynaverse is much more compelling with our focus now on providing players with goals that wrap missions rather than mere one-off missions. Also the AI in the campaign are fully persistent with their own starbases to obtain repairs and even their own officers that they grow!

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