Friday, 31 July 2015

Fluid Movement in an Alien Domain

One more online Star Trek game has broken cover in the form of Alien Domain

Not just limited to the GameSamba site, it's also available to play via the wondrous portal that is Facebook and is currently in beta testing so it's not 100% finished but there's enough going to get a good idea of where this is heading. Be warned though, I'm in a grumpy mood after reading Savage Trade.

Let's nail off the backstory first. It seems that those naughty, naughty Species 8472 aliens from fluidic space weren't given the ass-kicking we thought in Scorpion, decided that we weren't that friendly after In the Flesh and have been amassing their forces ever since in anticipation of returning to the franchise - sorry - in anticipation of a larger attack. Forgoing their "Undine" moniker from Star Trek Online, Alien Domain is immediately setting itself firmly away from that gaming powerhouse but frankly that's where I think my dissatisfaction begins. Luckily though I realised early on I was in a negative frame of mind and contacted the Powers that Be to help give me a more balanced opinion on the game. You know why? Because everything has two sides and it's very important to me that we hear all the angles. While listening to me grumble might be super-entertaining, it's not very constructive. Check me out being all adult here.

Explained the very helpful GameSamba Vice President of Content, Brendon Lindsey; "The game has been in development since early 2014. In terms of the background/setting taking place in fluidic space, and after Voyager, that was a decision based on many factors. Ultimately, it came down to the idea that we could kind of work in a new area most other Star Trek games haven't really explored much, and as fans of the franchise working with the Star Trek team to craft a new story, a "new" setting, and come up with some of the new characters and species we have in the game was just too awesome to pass up. 

"For the game itself, we went with this style of game primarily because of its widespread appeal not only with players in the US and Europe, but also globally. Web-based strategy games like this are really popular worldwide, and to date there have been very few sci-fi themed ones that have been released; usually it's fantasy or medieval. It works well with Star Trek, as these types of games are about exploring new areas, and moving further into the unknown."

Alien Domain seems like a brilliant concept when you hear the background and therefore an experience that should grip social gamers across the globe so, let's skip forward a bit in time, use a handy wormhole and drop into fluidic space to start a whole new mission of exploration. This is gonna be "way cool" and we get to kick Species 8472's posterior into the bargain. Hand me the mouse, get me on the internet and let's be on with it. After registering and some fancy gubbins intro, you can pick to start out either as a Starfleet officer or a Klingon warrior. Game on people, I'm going Federation.

OK, so off I go on my continuing mission. The first system (1.1) is the expected hand-holding walk-through. You get a redesigned Constitution Class starship to start up your fleet and explore while various photogenic Starfleet officers walk you through the features of the game.

Now with Online I actually like the design of the characters and the environments. They're very expressive, clearly created by fans for fans and feel at least a little lived in. Here for some reason all the Starfleet characters are in skin-tight spandex variations on The Next Generation season one/two uniform and also look like they've been hired from the CGI modelling agency. That depletes its credibility and starts to make Alien Domain look like a cheap child of the franchise. Certainly in respect to the female characters there appears to have been some "sexing up". Why it's aiming for such a market is beyond me, I thought, as I wouldn't associate this image with Star Trek.

"Because of the setting of the game, there aren't any recognizable characters -- unless you count some of the ships." noted Brendon, "Later on we may introduce some in the form of simulation missions, but we didn't want to make the game rely on existing characters to succeed. 

"As for "sexing up" the guiding characters, I think that may be putting it a little too extreme. Yes, some of the main guide characters may be drawn attractively (in this case I'm assuming you mean Jenny Snow (right)), but we have a mix of old and young non-playing characters in the game. We also worked with CBS to stay within the guidelines of design, so we have nothing over the top. But in the end, we are trying to appeal to that grey space where fans and non-fans mingle, so some degree of attractiveness in art is part of getting players into the game."

As it progresses though there's a horrid sense of repetitiveness that doesn't abate. You reach a planet, you fight some ships, you gain some rewards, you travel to the next planet and start again. Early on this does happen a lot as you march through the first 20 or 30 level-ups. At that point you might start to fight real people rather than the computer's generated adversaries. The only times that you seem to do anything different is when you can return to your space base, collect resources and upgrade buildings in a similar way to a lot of games ever. The base does offer the chance to update your ships with technology - which in itself can also be individually enhanced - and also build additional ships and as you reach certain levels other options open up to improve your facility and abilities. Of course the resources you have access to (metal, crystal, deuterium and synergen) all vary in the amounts you can collect and store which makes managing that a delicate balancing act itself especially since yoou seem to accumulate metal and crystal at a ferocious rate.

It is a worthy note that the first few ships I've encountered in the spacedock included the Sabre Class and the Steamrunner Class both of which are canon as opposed to the initial provision of the rebooted/super-Constitution Class. That's where Online certainly has another advantage in that you have a lot of chances to interact with characters, space battles, away missions and the chance to really indulge in a Star Trek experience. Here the action is very two-fold and there really aren't any big surprises once you're into the flow of the game.

Clearly those behind Alien Domain have been reading their Freemium Handbooks carefully as a lot of the better features and abilities are limited to those who have forked out for the VIP Access or various packs available in the game store. There is a tidy little bonus which you can build up over the course of seven logins (and not necessarily seven consecutive days) and also you can pick up additional little aids by staying online for longer per daily session. This does, in fairness, keep you playing for the want of the next prize although I was easily swayed offline after several attacks.

Brendon totally understood my perspective on the game and certainly all the head-scratching which had led me to wonder what Alien Domain actually was. "With the game, our goal wasn't to create the ultimate fan game that encompassed everything Star Trek stood for, with lots of characters and stories from the shows." he said, "Other games are trying to do that, and it would have created too much competition for the same groups. What we wanted to do was to create a game that could appeal to a broader audience, and help introduce Star Trek to people and places it hasn't traditionally had a lot of fans in. 

"There's this stigma among non-fans or casual fans that if it's a Star Trek game (or really any super established property), they're never going to be able to enjoy it, or they're going to feel like they're missing out if they play. So we wanted to create something based on Star Trek that we felt could bring those people over the threshold, and serve as an easy-to-play, casual entrance to the brand from which they could later on explore other entities.

At the same time, we do know Star Trek fans are going to check the game out, and we do want them to enjoy it. That's part of why we created the setting and story the way we did -- to give fans something they can get out of the game. And even without the doses of nostalgia or the more subtle/political aspects from the series being really present, a lot of fans do enjoy the nature of Alien Domain."

To be fair this is perfect Facebook game fodder. There's not a lot to it and it's easy to get ensnared into the simplicity of the game after a very short time but it's just not got that Star Trek feel to it. Even the chat feature doesn't drive me to want to play this any more than I need to in order to review the game and I'm starting to grasp at straws to say why you should play it. The next kick was just how elitist I found the squadrons with notices specifically saying they didn't want anyone below a certain level and kicking anyone out that doesn't fit. I just found this another reason to turn off. I want to play and get more involved but if others want to get funny then I'm off. Surely these can't be true fans rather hardened gamers more interested in levels and numbers than the true Star Trek spirit. 

I approached Brendon over this and it's good to know they are very aware of their audience and what's going on; "I haven't seen a lot of instances of it, but like any game we have had our share of bad eggs. Our community and GM team is pretty active in monitoring the community interaction and responding to players, though, so if anyone is experiencing anything too bad I'd suggest to share with them and they can help you out. 

As for community reaction, so far overall it's been great. We have a large rate of new players staying in the game after they start, and many of them continue to play. As for the last part of the question, we do have a good proportion of Star Trek fans, but I would say most of them tend to be more casual fans (who have maybe watched the various series but only a bit here and there), or are from overseas and are fans of the newer movies but had only heard of the original shows existing in mentions. What's cool is we've gotten a lot of those types of people sending us messages after they start playing that they're now getting copies of the older series on DVD or digitally and are going to check it out because they want to learn more about Star Trek now that they're kind of involved with part of it.

OK OK, here's one - it might get people to take a second look at Star Trek. That's it. I just can't see hardcore fans touching this especially if they've already (just) tried  Online.

Brendon seemed to think along the same lines and I really did value his honesty when I asked him about the game and if it would be able to compete against the aforementioned Online; "Really if a game like Star Trek Online is your type of game, then there's no real reason to play this instead. 

"This is definitely a more casual type of game, and they aren't really competitors in terms of an audience. With client games, there's a higher barrier to entry, and also a higher need for a rig that can play it. Web-based games like this can be played on just about any Internet-enabled laptop or PC these days (and any device that supports Flash), and you can login and play instantly, no matter which device you're on."

So actually it's not for those of us who've touched Online. Perhaps it's something that fans who have joined the ranks since the arrival of the JJ movies could well enjoy with it's pacing, heavy focus on space battles and stylized game-unique characters. I believe this is probably the area it'll do the best business with the more hardcore remaining securely with their Online personas.

The game is currently in open beta testing so there won;t be any wipes and your data is perfectly safe if you fancy giving it a bash. Already there are lots of plans to improve the game and take it forward as Brendon closed off with some tempting morsels; "There's quite a few! We have some new faction PVP modes coming in the relatively near future, and we also have some cool things planned that pit players from different servers against each other. Moving forward we're definitely focusing on things for existing players and high level players to do to keep them entertained, and we are always monitoring new player activity to see what new features may be good to add for their enjoyment."

Even as I'm putting this together I've been dipping in and out of Alien Domain just to see what I can get and I suppose that does indicate that Brendon and GameSamba have "won" me over to some degree because it is very easy to drop in and pop out again during the day. You're not constricted to time and the chance to have a quick battle can be very tempting just to kick you up to the next level.

There is nothing revolutionary here. It's gaming by numbers but, as has been said, this is absolutely a casual gaming experience that might act as a gateway for new fans to explore the outer fringes of the Star Trek franchise before diving into the more intricate levels of the shows.

Star Trek: Alien Domain is available now to play either via Facebook or through the GameSamba website. Big thanks to Brendon Lindsey for his time in putting this article together.

Are you a big Alien Domain player? Are you already hitting past level 30 and taking the battle back to Species 8472? Let us know below and tell me where I've got it all wrong!

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