Interview with Tristan Wolf from Starbase 118
We wrote an article about UFOP: Starbase 118 back in October (you can see it here). I was able to recently ask some questions to the group’s founder Tristan Wolf. Here’s the interview:
Starbase 118 seems to have a great community. How do you get involved personally with this community?
I founded it! 🙂
In May of 1994, I had been a member of AOL (in the 1.0 days!) for a few months, and was heavily involved in the “Red Dragon Inn” chat room RPG there. I met some folks who introduced me to live Star Trek sims, and became entranced with it.
At the time, a group called “Star Trek Sims” was growing in prominence on AOL, and a user named “TREKGURU” had introduced a method of simming using AOL mail, instead of chat rooms. I’m not sure if this is the first time it was done this way (I’m sure there were some precursors in the BBS days to this type of email simming), but they seemed to be doing a pretty good job at it. This new way of simming obviously brought some benefits over live simming in chat rooms, mainly in that you didn’t have to sign on at a specific time each day, giving everyone involved a greater degree of flexibility to participate.
As many people in history have done, I decided “I can do this better!” and created my own group. We started with both live sims, and AOL mail sims (which eventually transformed into email as we know it today). In those days, it was a common practice to do “drive-by recruiting” in chat rooms, where you’d enter a chat room, invite people to join a sim, and then leave immediately before getting kicked. I spent a lot of time doing that, and met a few really great people who helped me found what, at that time, was just called “UFOP”. The “hay-day” of simming was just around the corner, and our organization (using the new email model of simming) really took off.
Do you have regular discussions OOC as well as IC?
We have a monthly chats where we invite the fleet to come together to meet. We also have a fairly active message board, where folks talk OOC.
Is it ever difficult to get members involved in the wider community, or does everyone stay within their own games?
I think the ship-based model of our group makes it challenging to promote cross-ship discussion, because people are very focused on their ship. But our message boards and monthly chats help facilitate that contact among group members.
Also, a central part of our community is the training process, which book-ends many people’s participation and facilitates contact among group members. New cadets are trained before they are placed on a ship, so they meet people who may end up on different ships than their own. This allows people to get to know others from around the fleet right from the start.
On the other end of the spectrum, the members of our group who wish to proceed to command are required to participate in a number of training sessions as training officers. So, they not only get to meet new crew who will join ships around the fleet, but there’s also a great deal of camaraderie among the training team members, who come from around the fleet.
Do you think OOC discussion helps members when they’re posting IC?
Since about 1998, I’ve been rather obsessed with enhancing the community environment of our group, and so I believe that OOC participation is essential to the health of a simming organization in particular.
When our organization started, and up through probably 2002-2003, the internet was a rather limited place. “Web 2.0”, which made the internet a two-way street, hadn’t really started, so mostly people used the internet to buy things or find static information, as opposed to participating in social networks or games. That left a lot of people wondering “What do I do, now that I’m online?” And we were the answer for many Star Trek fans!
Unfortunately, as the years have gone by, many new “shiny” tools and toys have started stealing focus from text-based RPGs. MMORPGs, and social media, are gradually siphoning off the time of people who, 10 years ago, would have spent a lot more time simming than playing around on social media. It’s sad, to me, mainly because I think text-based RPGs help develop writing skills, and in many cases, leadership and communication skills that are not found in MMORPGs and other forms of social media.
The way to counter this problem is to foster a tight-knit community of people who feel like our group is their “home online,” and that these are people they enjoy spending time with, want to know more about, and miss when they’re away. So we do whatever we can to help foster a sense of team both on each ship, and among ships.
You have 7 individual games in the Starbase 118 fleet, are there any problems with people from each game not talking to each other, or are you a big happy family?
In any community, those types of problems exist, and ours is no exception. We certainly have personality conflicts, where people don’t get along and it causes bad blood between them, although that’s somewhat rare. Generally, as I mentioned before, it’s more just that each ship is inward-focused on simming and building their own team, so it can be difficult to get too much communication going between ships outside of our chats and forums.
I’ve seen that you have regular competitions. Who creates these competitions, and how are they managed and judged?
Over the years, I’ve put a lot of effort into trying anything I can to foster that sense of community I mentioned before. I also like to find ways to reward people for writing well, and raising the bar for their peers. So, our two regular competitions that I created to achieve this goal are the Top Sims Contest, and the Writing Challenges.
The Top Sims Contest allows anyone to submit a sim that someone else has written, for consideration in a contest that cycles every two weeks. If you write a great sim on your ship, I can mark it in the Top Sims Contest, and then every two weeks, everyone votes on the best sim from that round. The best sim from each round moves on to the semi-finals round at the end of the year to compete against the other winning sims. And then finally, the top two sims compete against each other for the final round, and the title of “Top Sim of the Year.”
FltCapt. Sidney Riley manages the Top Sims Contest for us, but after the first round of the year, it’s mostly on auto-pilot. We create a contest calendar which maps out exactly when each round opens and closes, and then FltCapt. Riley just follows the standard procedure of opening new rounds, setting up the poll to vote on nominees for each round, and so-forth. It can be a lot of busy work, but we think it’s worth it to show appreciation for great writing.
Our Writing Challenges cycle every two months, so there are six per year. This is a way for our members to show their writing skills away from their ship in a more free-form environment.
The winner of each round gets to choose the next round’s theme from a category. So for example, the November/December round of each year is the “What if…” category. This year’s November/December challenge is “What if Earth had been destroyed in 2387 instead of Romulus?” The winner also gets to help judge the next round on a panel of three judges — usually two captains and the guest judge. Members submit their stories, and at the end of each round, the judges rank the stories from favorite to least favorite and then compile the score. Our judges also provide each story with feedback — good things, and things that need work — to help each writer grow and learn what worked, and what would have helped them win the round if it had been done differently.
Are these competitions popular?
There are some ships that get more heavily invested in these activities than others, but they are self-sustaining. I’d say that each Writing Challenge usually gets between 3 and 7 stories out of 110 members, while each round of the Top Sims Contest gets between 5 and 10 submissions.
We have a special distinction for members that participate regularly in the Writing Challenge, and also those who have won twice in one year, so it certainly drives more participation to reach those secondary goals.
You have a large crossover story every summer called a blockbuster, Whose job is it to create this story and involve each of the individual games to take part?
The Summer Blockbuster is a holdover from a different time, much earlier in our group’s history, when many of our members were students and teachers (high school and college) who had internet access at school, but not at home. At that time, simming would drastically fall off in May and not recover until August or September, corresponding with the school year.
To encourage more participation, we began doing a major plot arc across many ships to keep momentum during the summer and keep all those “left behind” simming enough to stay active. Even though it’s no longer the case that simming falls off as drastically during the summer, we have continued the tradition as many people enjoy the collaborative nature of the blockbuster plots, and it helps draw the fleet together.
Generally, the blockbuster drafting is sort of a “whoever carries the ball” proposition. Sometimes one or two Captains will spearhead it because they want to delve deeper into a plot they worked on earlier in the year. Other times, like this past last summer’s “The Battle for Bajor” blockbuster, it was entirely drafted and planned by one member who submitted a detailed proposal to our Captains Council for consideration. His proposal included 10 possible plots with backgrounds on each, allowing ships to choose which of the following fit them best. We coordinated which ships were going to take each plot, so that there weren’t two ships doing one plot.
Is it difficult to get everyone involved in such a big plot? Have you ever had a game unwilling to take part in a blockbuster?
Participation in the Summer Blockbuster is entirely at the Captain’s discretion, so we don’t push any ship to be involved. Indeed, usually only about half the fleet participates in the Summer Blockbusters, so there are definitely ships that don’t take part.
I know you use Facebook and Twitter for recruiting new members, but do you ever use these to benefit your community?
We haven’t done enough creative thinking about how to utilize our Facebook and Twitter, which is ironic since I work in Social Media!
That being said, we try to keep the “channels” where communication occurs to a minimum for our organization, so that we can focus our members on the places with the highest amount of traffic. Activity begets activity, so we believe it’s better to have everyone talking on the forums, rather than ½ of our members chatting on our forums, and the other half on Facebook.
We have been discussing creative ways to use social media more, both as a recruiting tool, and a tool for our members to collaborate and get to know each other.
Thanks Tristan for the interview!