AGDC 2007: Five Things Game Writers Can Learn from Star Trek

AGDC 2007: Five Things Game Writers Can Learn from Star Trek

Game writing veteran Evan Skolnick explains how one of the world's most beloved television programs is also an effective manual for effective storytelling.


Nice article! I do think there are a few things missing from the list, as far as what writers can learn from Star Trek:

6. Sex Sells

The original Star Trek was created with a very daring undercurrent of post-adolescent sexuality evident in many of the episodes. This directly reflected the mores and attitudes of the series creator, Gene Roddenberry. Not only do we see a consistent pattern of attractive, sexually-enticing female guest stars (as the various alien women and mini-skirted female Starfleet crewmembers) in the first and second seasons of the show, we also see, in Kirk, a decidedly one-dimensional hero character whose sexuality consists of a string of interesting and consequence-free female conquests (again, mirroring the private life of the series creator). This got in the way of both quality storytelling and interesting character development, but the legions of fans didn't really seem to mind.

Subsequent productions have toned this element down a great deal... but it just doesn't feel like the original show anymore without it, does it?

7. Professional Writers and Inexperienced Producers Don't Always Mix

Gene Roddenberry went from writing TV scripts part-time as an LAPD officer into fulltime television production in fairly short order. While an able writer, in many ways he could not be considered a trained literary craftsman or an innovative scenarist. There are many stories about what it was like for professional science-fiction and television writers to work for Roddenberry; there is evidence to suggest that Roddenberry frequently and unnecessarily altered the work of his writers, especially those who were touted as being experts in their field; using his powers as executive producer to restrict the storytelling potential of others with devices such as the 'Prime Directive' while allowing his own scripts to explore brazen gunboat diplomacy themes. This was part of a pattern of insecurity and ego-reinforcement which is common among mildly-talented people who find themselves in positions of great power, and also competing with subordinates who possess greater gifts.

Alienation of his writing team through mechanisms such as hoarding the glory for himself (by numerous accounts, Roddenberry never gave any credit to any of his writers for the success of Star Trek) and various forms of unproductive creative interference led directly to the premature cancellation of the original Star Trek in 1969, to the critical failure of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 (which Gene Roddenberry produced so poorly that Paramount dismissed him from any future involvement in Trek motion pictures), the lackluster first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (where Roddenberry felt compelled to bring his personal lawyer on staff to enforce his rule until Paramount again dismissed him), and his inability to successfully produce any other non-Star Trek related TV or film property. After the first year of the original Star Trek, word leaked out among professional Hollywood writers that Star Trek was an unhappy, even treacherous, place to work, and Roddenberry's challenge ever since was to try and find brilliant writers willing to put up with his crippling personality issues.

This challenge has continued after Roddenberry's death, especially as far as the game industry and Star Trek are concerned; many of the people who found themselves in a position to produce a Star Trek game in the past ten years have themselves been cursed with the same sorts of insecurities and lack of collaborative spirit which can heavily damage a creative atmosphere; this is collectively referred to as 'The Star Trek Curse' in game development, and as one who has dealt with that curse four times and lived to tell the tale, I suspect that the Curse is still out there, waiting to seduce, mislead, and wreck another development team of fresh-faced, idealistic young professionals who are interested in bringing the awe and wonder of Star Trek to a hungry audience of gamers.

8. Less is More

Star Trek, especially in the early days, was not and is not capable of translating all of a writer's ideas into reality. The show dealt with a crew of a futuristic starship adventuring all over an interstellar Federation, visiting new worlds and encountering fantastic aliens and technologies week after week, and somehow managed to pull that off with a budget of around $180,000 per episode in late '60s US dollars. The magical technologies of the last twenty years notwithstanding, it remains a challenge to stay ahead of the audience's expectations and at the same time, produce a TV series, film, or game that can be completed within its budget.

Learning where to spend one's precious resources to help assemble your creative vision and get it cheaply and effectively into the mind of your audience, will help to extend a game project's 'critical burn' long enough for the project to achieve the kind of success where creative staff are not spending time worrying about how to merely complete their assignments with dwindling resources at the end of a project, rather than focusing on other necessary end-of-project things like tuning and polishing.

Star Trek provides a number of examples where money was and was not spent effectively to bring forth a writer's vision.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture sank a lot of money into elaborate sets, richly-detailed miniatures, and prolonged special effects sequences; poor management of which on the production-side caused a $5 million dollar budget to balloon into $45 million dollars, and threatened Paramount's ability to underwrite other film projects such as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. This extravagant spending on special effects did not help the picture; critics and the general public thought it was a dud overall and the special effects sequences were beautiful but boring (fortunately enough fans showed up to see this first Trek film a number of times each, enough for the film to show a modest profit, otherwise Paramount might not now exist).

A similar situation apparently occurred on Interplay's 'Klingon Academy'. After three years in development, and the expenditure of extravagant amounts of time and money creating minor features like barely-noticeable background movement of planets and moons in the various star systems; budgeting $500,000 for a single 'Trek' actor to reprise his role in the single-player campaign's FMV sequences; developing lots of content only accessible through a Navigation Panel that players didn't know to look for; and other changes which actually weakened the gameplay presentation somewhat compared to its predecessor, 'Starfleet Academy', the game only sold approximately 20,000 copies, and spelled doom for Interplay with the simultaneous failures of the buggy release of 'Starfleet Command', and the unfinished release of 'Star Trek: New Worlds'. Interplay had invested its warchest in Klingon Academy, only this time, neither Trek fans nor gamers came out in force to support it.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, was in capable hands with Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett at the helm. Mandated to produce a compelling Star Trek feature which would not threaten to break Paramount's bank, the Trek II production team apparently had no more than 40% of the budget of the earlier film. The major budget considerations for Star Trek II consisted primarily of the special effects work, mostly broken down as follows:

* the USS Reliant model
* the Regula One space laboratory model (actually a modified space station from ST:TMP)
* nebula background effects
* Genesis Device 'demo' animation
* Genesis Device prop
* Genesis detonation / planet creation sequence
* Ceti Eel effects
* stuntwork and effects for exploding bridges and engine rooms
* new style for Starfleet uniforms

Almost everything else was done in miniature, as matte painting or insert-shot, re-using SFX footage from the earlier movie, or using sets, props, and models built for the earlier movie. Not everything had to be built from scratch, and it wasn't done on an open-ended budget! The movie was a critical success, fans and non-fans enjoyed it, and Paramount was happy (in other words, they made lots of money). A more subtle point to be made was the fact that while the story had to work with the existing constraints on resources, the story itself was seen as the most important thing, the element upon which all other elements depended, and through which all other elements were managed. The special effects supported the story, not the other way around.

The concept of reusing existing assets and code doesn't occur as much as it should in the game industry... and neither does the idea of the primacy of storytelling to direct games which call themselves RPGs or adventures.

That's about all I have time to throw in, happy gaming!

John Boomershine
San Diego


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