Before I get started on my feedback for STO Environments I want to quickly mention my background. I have been a game developer for around 8 years. In that time I have worked on 3 Star Trek Games, a Star wars game and a slew of other games serving as a Senior Environment Artist. I have played this game since beta and am working on my second character. I really like the game overall, i think what these guys banged out in 18 months was pretty amazing. However now that the game is live and the dev team seeks to improve their work, I would like to take some time to go over some things that have been on my mind the last month or so. This discussion will only be about the interior environments. Starbases, space stations, starships, underground bases, caves, that sort of thing. This is my personal area of expertise so this is what I will focus on.
To start I would like to establish the term dungeon set. A Dungeon set is a set of models that an artist can use to construct any type of dungeon in a specific theme. For example the Memory Alpha set. It comprises of walls, floors, hallway segments, room segments, computer terminals, chairs, tables, whatever. However they have it set up, it would be modular so that just about any form could be constructed using it. This method is used a lot on MMOs because it allows artists and designers to quickly bang out new dungeons mixing and matching parts of sets.
Federation Starship Set.
The first dungeon set that you see in the game is a federation cruiser set. For the most part I liked the set itself. I think of the federation interiors, this is probably one of the best. However this set does have windows and that poses a special problem that I think developers need to pay attention to. That is you can look out these windows and potentially see the insides of other rooms. That can really break the illusion for a player. The first time I noticed this problem was in a mission where I had to beam over to a crippled Miranda class and take out some videans. the first part of the mission has you scanning some rooms. one room had two large windows and out that window i could see the room that i originally arrived in. This brings me to my second comment on these window pieces. That is these are a perfect opportunity for vistas. Places to show some exterior ship parts, warp engines, saucers, etc. seeing a part of the ship up against a nebula and a starfield will really sell that interior, and it looks awesome. Other things I ran into included floating consoles in engineering. A large computer bank had been snapped to a floor piece, but the floor drops a foot or so making the console hover over part of the floor. Another spot had 2 small consoles sitting on top of each other causing some serious z-fighting. Also, in some spots the hallways doesnt snap to the room its attached leaving a little seam. A stick-on door-frame might cover this is there is no provision for snapping in the world building tools. Other then this though, I love this set and I hope to see it in my own ship at some point.
Klingon/Hostile Enemy Ship Set
This set is even better then the federation ship. It also has windows so alot of the above commentary also applies here, but in this set you have some very nice lighting effects. Alot of detail in the floors, walls, ceilings. the Hallway segments of this set are my personal favorite of any set. the lighting coming from the ceiling is well done. I have to assume the dev team is using light maps because I have never seen that level of baked shadow detail in vertex lighting. Switch the lighting to yellow and you have an alien warrior race ship. Good stuff. In fact except for the window comments I have little else to say about this set except good job.
Memory Alpha Set
Quite possibly the worst set in the game. I hate to say that, but its really not that good. The environment map reflections are too overpowering. Every piece has it. there is no kind of depth to the pieces in that instance. The entire place is way over lit. There is simply too much light. the light cones have hard edges and therefore don't look like light cones, but some kind of bug. The hallways are especially problematic. The attempt to make the ceilings look like starfields fails mostly because there are pylons coming up to make a connection to the ceiling, but have no kind of solid connection. This makes them look like they are floating and therefore broken. But other then that, its just a bad idea to make them look like starfields. The design is also hard to navigate. The collisions for the doors are really not good. the curved stick on door frames create a collision situation that juts out into rooms and hallways making NPCs hang up on them and unable to follow the player. The solution IMHO to fixing this would be some rework and some touch ups to the texture as well as a pass on lighting. If this were handed to me the first thing I would do is remove about half of the environment mapped reflections. I would start adding areas on the texture that have little or none. masking out segments to provide some depth and making them look as if they are made of something tangible. Next i would remove that curved door-frame and make something else entirely. I would then go to the hallways, change the ceilings and walls. For the ceilings I would add some ribbing maybe, or something else interesting. Maybe add some kind of cool lighting opportunity there. For the walls I think I would try add more computer interface area. Make it look like its on a planet coated in computers. That means screens, blinking do-dads, moving lights, etc. The starfields just don't do it for me, it makes the how place look like it dedicated to stellar cartography. Lastly I do not mean to slam the artist (s) who did this set. I know that sometimes you are pulling mad hours and just don't have the time to spend on really making these pop, but at the same time, something has to be said.
This is my second on the list of sets I do not really like. My beef with this set isn't that its over-lit, or that its not friendly to players. It is solid. But there are some weird texture choices. There is a lot of that environment mapped reflection. It doesn't feel like the federation cruiser set. It feels more generic. Not only that but the base itself doesn't feel particularly grand. Its not awe inspiring as I would expect from the federation's top starbase. This place is the holy ground of federation captains. It should be one of the best bases in the game. Instead its kinda vanilla. Its aesthetics I guess. To fix it I think warmer lighting might be in order. Something on the order of what you see in Generations. Warm comfy lighting. more reds, more yellows, more of those TNG standards you see on the galaxy class. The textures just have a lot of weird breakup in them that make them look generic. The columns, the walls, the windows. Nothing says federation. Again Its a solid set, it just deon't look federation.
Deep Space Nine/Cardassian Set
Awsome set. NO real complaints. Probably the best set in the game. Quarks is really well done. Ops is great. Love the promenade. Lighting is good. I really have no crit for this place in the light of the other dungeon sets.
Generic Technical Set
This is the set that is used for exploration or patrols where you need to beam down and collect computer data or the jem-hadar jump you or whatever. It is characterized by hard lined shapes, gray textures, boxy consoles. etc. It is very techy looking, and overall I like it. I think the theme is well carried out. the couple of problems I have is, it is over-lit. Its too bright. The colors are right, cool colors, make it feel very techy. But there is too much. The light cones are some of the worst in this game. Hard edges models with no gradient whatsoever. If people are not sure what light cones are, ill explain. When you look up at the florescent lights you see a ray coming down from the light to fake the light having some kind of directional aura. This is a good technique when executed properly, and I personally use it all the time. I have a very simple shader that makes use of alpha opacity and a simple gradient. UV mapped the surface of the cone you get a great effect. The problem here is the gradient is either not there, or too subtle. So the cone has this hard edge where it comes to an end. Another problem is prop layout. The terminals are just placed in weird nonsensical ways. Some you cant even stand in front of. I have to assume this is some sort of procedural world building system that is generating these dungeons because It doesn't make sense any other way. Some of the large cylindrical terminals are actually z fighting because they are placed on top of one another. That being said, the textures, the hallways, walls, floors, ceilings are are pretty good. This set could be spotless with some relighting and touch-ups.
This set isn't bad. I don't have a lot to say on it. Nothing stuck out to me as particularly annoying. Windows, odd console placement and so on seem to plague most of all the sets (except DS9). The lighting, color choices, textures all seem appropriate and I feel as though I'm in a romulan base or ship. Mostly watch out for too much reflection on surfaces and watch window problems and that's about it.
Lots and lots of lighting bugs. The dev team might be using portals or some kind of other stream method which just doesn't work well with this set. Often I will be running down hallway segments and see a completely black room up ahead. The room wont zone in until I'm inside the black area. Some segments of the room will remain black, as if lighting was broken and needs to be re-baked. Model wise its not the best cave set I have ever seen, but its also far from the worst. Lots of undulation in the surfaces help to sell that its made of rock. The biggest issue I have is how absurdly mathematically square the hallway segments and rooms are. They may have a reason for this, but I'm personally not fond of it. Secondly is the ground texture. its the same as the wall texture. Not only does this make everything kinda blend together killing the illusion, it also makes nasty UV seams. If it were me I would probably try to do a gravel texture where it went from the current rock into gravel in a gradient. I'm not sure if this engine supports vertex painting with shaders, but it can come in handy. If not then 2 additional textures might come in handy. One that is mostly gravel with some rock, and one that is mostly rock with some gravel. Mapping this so that there is little to no seams, covering seems with prop rocks and so on. The lighting isn't bad but it might also be worth it to add more stalactites and stalagmites, and then making it look as if the light is emanating from the ground up, the ceiling naturally being nearly black with the rock formations pocking out to pick up some mood lighting. This brings me to my final crit for this set. Where is the light coming from. There is a fair amount of light, but mostly the rooms are vacant. one terminal, a couple of plants. that's about it. Maybe I am missing something here.
Other sets exist in the game but haven't caught my eye really. But some generic comments for all dungeons are to watch out for windows, use them for nice cool looking vistas. Watch lighting, Lighting can really sell a map. make sure that light comes from light sources as much as possible. You cant always do this, but as often as possible, make sure the light comes from some place. Watch for UV seams, mesh seams, z-fighting and so on. What I like to do is create a quick check list. Run through the completed level, then hand it off for a quick pier review. This can help to fix some of these placement problems. If the placement is some sort of procedural world building tool,maybe it might be good to have a human make a final run through and adjust anything that seems illogical.
In closing I know that some of this probably sounds like preaching or maybe like I might be a little self-righteous. The fact is I love the game you guys have made and have a lot of respect for all you have done int he short time you have done it in.Its a big accomplishment to crank out that much content that fast AND make it fun. Then follow it up with content patches and raids. My hats off to all of the dev team and a special bow for the art team. However I feel compelled to say a few simple things in hopes that it might stimulate some conversation among the team and perhaps help to make the game I am enjoying that much better.
I have been composing some thoughts on the starships as well. they are pretty good but there is some room for constructive criticism there as well. I think once I have had a chance to think more on it I may do that, if there is interest.
the only problem i have with deep space 9 is the lacking in details... a few blank walls and such. its particularly noticeable in the ops area.
and a lot of environments have a lot of similar features such as ramps. and those raised platforms seem to be universal across every race. every race should have significant differences in their interior setups, not subtle differences in coloring, but architectural differences too. i will agree, though, that ds9 does break away from the mold a lot better than others, which shows promise.