Star Trek Online has been a smash hit for Perfect World Entertainment, but it wouldn't be that way if not for the dedication to the franchise. One of the biggest factors toward that is the design of the ships within the game and how the team has painstakingly gone to great lengths to make sure they're accurate to the universe, fully armed according to their specs, and looking as sleek as possible out in space. Today we're chatting with Staff Starship Artist and occasional Environment Artist Donny Versiga about his work on the game and how he goes about designing ships.
BC: Hey Donny! First thing, how have things been for you during the pandemic, and how have you been keeping yourself?
Thanks for asking! I've been doing fine during the pandemic. Since the beginning, I've been very grateful that I can work from home, haven't missed a day of pay, and that myself, my friends, and my family are healthy and safe. There are people that have suffered greatly during the pandemic and I am fortunate enough to not be one of them. I try to keep any complaints about any trivial inconveniences the pandemic has caused me personally to a minimum. The pandemic has given me a lot of time to meditate and practice gratitude and presence, and I'm thankful for that.
How did you first get into Star Trek and what were some of your favorite shows or films growing up?
My earliest memories are watching reruns of The Original Series with my dad when I was four or five. TNG came out around that time and I remember forcing my twin-sister to play "Star Trek" with me in the living room, pretending the couches were bridge consoles. We'd fight over whether we were playing TOS or TNG; myself being the steadfast TOS fan who wouldn't budge on this issue. I don't think I convinced her to play "Star Trek" with me much more after those initial attempts. Although I very much got into TNG as a teenager and adult, TOS was far more exciting to me as a kid. It was more colorful, more action-packed and more like "watching a comic book" rather than the more serious science fiction drama that TNG was. I saw the TOS movies around 7 or 8 and those really captured my imagination. So, growing up I really enjoyed TOS, both the series and the movies.
At what point did you start getting into ship-making and models from the series?
My first few 3D projects were making interiors of the original Enterprise, the refitted Enterprise, and the Enterprise-A with old game engines when I was about 15 years old. It was just something I liked to do in a long list of hobbies I had growing up. I crafted a couple of ship models in that time period, but nothing serious. My main focus back then was creating accurate representations of the interiors of the ships.
How did you transition that into making original designs and working with 3D art to make them a reality?
I honestly didn't do any "original" designs back then; my passion was re-creating what we saw on screen in the shows and movies.
When did the opportunity come about to work for Cryptic Studios on Star Trek Online?
I didn't take my hobby seriously as a potential career opportunity at first, as game development wasn't the behemoth industry it is today at the turn of the century. But behind all my other career ventures (musician, restaurant/bar manager, retail, graphic design), there was this ever-present motivation to spend massive amounts of my free time on crafting 3D Trek ship interiors. In my late 20's, I began prioritizing that as my primary artistic focus and outlet, sharpening my skills and progressing as much as I could as a viable 3D artist on a shoestring budget, sharing my work online farther and wider than I had before. My work soon got the attention of Thomas Marrone, who had just become the Lead Ship Artist at Cryptic Studios. He reached out to me via Facebook and urged me to apply for a job at Cryptic. After a series of interviews and art tests, I was eventually hired onto the Environment team due to my passion for creating interiors. After a two-year stint on Environment, a spot opened up on the ship team and I opted for the change of pace that it presented.
What's the process like for you in designing a ship, from concept to finished product?
We rely on our wonderful concept artist, Hector Ortiz, for doing the heavy lifting of actually conceiving and designing the ships. Basically, the ship team and other involved disciplines get in a room and hash out what the needs of the ship are, and generally what we'd like the ship to look like. This is heavily dependent on the faction or species the ship is, and if it's based on an existing design or not. Hector then takes this info and creates a series of thumbnail sketches that get kicked around to the ship team and we vote on which designs we like, offering feedback when necessary. Hector then takes the designs we like the most and does some experimentation on these with rough 3D models; we then review again and vote on our favorites. Sometimes we'll take elements of one design and request he merges them with another design. Once a consensus is reached of what the final ship should look like, Hector does a full-color paintover of his condensed rough 3D model to provide as a conceptual "blueprint" for the ship artist who's tasked with crafting the actual in-game model.
Granted, there has been one time where I've gotten to flex my design muscles as a member of the ship team. I was tasked with creating a "modern" version of the Magee class from Discovery, which resulted in the Shran class. The process of designing the ship is basically the same, just much less refined than Hector's process (laughs). I will be the first to admit I'm more a craftsman than a designer. Once the concept is finished, the ship artist then crafts a game-ready model of the ship, using the concept as a guide, or if it's a canon ship, an array of reference material that the artist has gathered. Making game-resolution models is a much more tempered process than, say, what an artist working in film or TV would do. Given that STO is running on a more limited game engine than what's typically available for newer games on the market, great care has to be taken to ensure the ship will run on a range of PC and console hardware. Things like memory and polygon budgets have to be paid close attention to. Once the model is complete, the ship artist then creates a new texture set for the ship's material or "skin", if needed, and then engages in a process called "UV Mapping" to apply this new material to the ship. After that, it's a matter of importing the model and textures into the game and doing preliminary data setup to ensure the ship works as intended. It's then passed off to the FX, Animation, and Systems teams to do further work on the ship if required.
Being a Trek fan myself, I know there's a ton of designs out there from fans and in the library. What kind of challenge is it to make something original or improve on a design without it feeling stale or copied?
That is a challenge for sure. Not only do we have to be careful about making sure it doesn't feel too close to any canon or fan Trek designs, but we also have to ensure it doesn't resemble any other famous sci-fi ships out there. I ran into that problem with the Shran class. In the early design stages, it was looking too much like an obscure but recognizable ship of another popular franchise. The ship team and art lead raised those concerns, so I pivoted a bit to get away from those similarities. It really depends on the attention that the artist and a team or giving a design, and the artist being flexible enough to change a direction if needed, not marrying themselves to something they thought was going to work but ultimately doesn't.
How is it working with the powers that be behind Star Trek to make sure the ship fits canon and also would be functional if it were on TV?
Our team works pretty closely with CBS/Paramount to make sure that the ships we create fit within the Star Trek universe. We don't usually run into any issues, but if there are any concerns, this information is generally filtered down to me by my leads and I just adjust accordingly. I think they give us a pretty wide berth when it comes to original designs, and I know that the team is composed of artists who take great care to respect Star Trek design philosophy, so I don't think there are very many issues in this regard.
What are some of your favorite original designs that have appeared in the game?
The aforementioned Shran class. In my opinion, it turned out looking like a spaceship toy you'd buy in the 1990s, which I thought was great. I wasn't really going for that when I designed it, it was just one of those things that came through during the process of bringing it to life. Perhaps it happened subconsciously? It was also the first (and only) time I've created a design basically from the ground up, so I guess it has to be my favorite!
Is there any particular alien race or era of Starfleet you wish you could work on but haven't had the chance to?
I think it's safe to say I've covered all the eras and major Trek factions now. But I'd love to do more original designs of TOS or TOS movie-era ships.
Obviously, you're under an NDA, but what can you tell us about what you're working on next now that House United is out?
Unfortunately, no I cannot. Suffice it to say, there are some exciting projects I've finished that will be released in the near future! I'll probably be on one of our livestreams talking about them with fans when they're closer to release!
Is there anything else you'd like to promote about the game we didn't talk about?
I'll just say the most fun I've had as a ship artist in the last two years was getting to update, remaster, or otherwise re-model some of our existing in-game ships, especially the Galaxy-class, the Klingon D7 family (including the K't'tinga and Qo'NoS One), and the Oberth class. I'm grateful that the project leads have given us the scheduling bandwidth to tackle those. Given our game is over ten years old and PC/console power has steadily increased in that time, it's crucial we give our older ships the polish they deserve to look as best as they can within the confines of our game engine's capabilities. Having the opportunity to model the Galaxy-class is one of the highlights of my professional career, and I'm not sure if I'll ever top that personal achievement.