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