When CBS revealed earlier this week that they would be airing a new Star Trek series on their streaming service, my first thought was, "God, I hope it's not based in the alternate movie timeline." My second thought was, "Huh, I hope this means we get some more Star Trek video games.
It's been nearly five years since I went up to London, Ontario to see Digital Extremes's then-forthcoming video game adaptation - the last major Star Trek game to be released on either PC or console. Coming off J.J. Abrams' excellent initial reboot, I was hopeful that it would signal a new era for Star Trek games. When it was finally released in 2013, though, it was terrible. And if possible, Star Trek Into Darkness was even worse.
So we're once again at an impasse. There's a clear interest in games where you jet around the galaxy in a starship; but outside of Cryptic's Star Trek Online, there's been almost nothing unless you count Trexels - a middling Tiny Tower knockoff set on the original Enterprise. Given the obvious appetite for sci-fi action games and the continued public interest in the franchise, it's fair to ask what gives. Where are all the Star Trek games?
If you don't mind me answering my own question (I'm a journalist!), I have a few pet theories on that front.
1. There hasn't been enough Trek media over the past few years: The TV shows are long dead outside of Netflix, with Enterprise having gone off the air in 2005. Since then we've got a grand total of two movies of varying quality and a whole lot of rumors. Netflix has kept the shows from fading from the public consciousness, but it's tough to sell a publisher on funding a game based on 20 year old show like Star Trek: The Next Generation.
2. CBS and Paramount exercise strong control over the license: When I went to see the Star Trek game in 2011, I was surrounded by an army of PR reps who were there to represent the interest of the franchise. Every detail of a licensed adaptation is scrupulously vetted by stakeholders at CBS and Paramount. Given the tight control exercised over Star Trek and the attendant licensing fees, it's not surprising that larger publishers like EA have shied away from the series, especially given recent failures.
3. No one seems to know what to do with Star Trek: Star Wars is a natural topic for a video game. Everyone likes Star Wars because it has lightsabers, blasters, space battles, and explosions. Star Trek is trickier because it's more cerebral, often focusing on high concept sci-fi and political issues at the expense of space battles. It's thus no surprise that most of the best Star Trek games have been adventure games that focus on conversations and puzzle-solving - a more thoughtful and thus more niche genre (though Telltale has managed to do quite well with it). On a sidenote, I've always found it strange that no one like Obsidian or Bethesda ever thought to make a Star Trek RPG, particularly given that Bethesda held the North American publishing rights to the franchise at one point. The closest we've gotten is Star Trek Online, which is a fun game hamstrung by MMORPG conventions and microtransactions. What a shame.
Mostly, Star Trek games have suffered from a lack of quality development. It's no surprise that Star Trek's best games come from the likes of Interplay - a publisher responsible for some of the best games ever made. Unfortunately, Interplay's involvement has been the exception rather than the rule, and Star Trek games have more often been farmed out to obscure studios like Mad Doc Software and Reflexive Entertainment. By comparison, Star Wars has benefited from the talents of DICE, BioWare, and LucasArts at its peak.
Licensed video games are a tricky business at the best of times, subject to the tyranny of harsh deadlines and the desire to wring every last cent possible out of hungry fans. But even knowing that, you have to feel like Star Trek has really missed an opportunity in the video game space. Judgment Rites, Bridge Commander, and to a lesser extent Elite Force remain beloved among a certain segment of gamers, but among the mainstream, Star Trek has been irrelevant in video games for a long time now.
I'll admit, I have a vested interest in all this. If you can't tell, I love Star Trek, and I really want to see it succeed. There's so much untapped potential in the concept of captaining your own starship and exploring the far reaches of the galaxy. A Final Unity, Bridge Commander, and Star Trek Online have all tried to make good on that promise at various points, but it's never been quite there. The closest games have come to capturing that promise is probably Elite Dangerous and Mass Effect.
I don't think every Star Trek has to be a grand adventure through the universe, though. There's great potential in a Star Trek adventure by Telltale, which would be comparatively inexpensive to develop outside of licensing fees and other considerations. On the indie side of things, FTL is a great template for a particular type of starship combat game. There's so much that can be done with this license that it's really infuriating to see it be so wasted.
The good news is that Star Trek remains in the public eye. With CBS announcing its new TV series, and another Abrams-Trek movie just around the corner, there's reason to be hopeful that more Star Trek games are just around the corner.
Until then, I'll go on watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation and dreaming.