Nov 23, 2012

Posted in Features

Thomas Marrone: A Story of a Fan turned Pro

Thomas Marrone: A Story of a Fan turned Pro

by CAPT Michael D. Garcia & CRR Richard Lamb, USS Gygax

As a UI Artist with Cryptic Studios, Thomas Marrone’s talents can be seen everywhere within Star Trek Online, from the LCARS displays, to the hanging banners at Starfleet Academy, and even the sensor output minigame we all play during the resource bonus hours in the middle of the night; he even assisted in bringing the now-famous Odyssey-class starship from the fan drawing into the three-dimensional model that flies through space within the game.  In addition to his works at Cryptic, Thomas’ art can be seen in the realm of the Honor Harrington universe (the Honorverse) for David Weber’s novels, and he was also the talent behind the proposed region logo for Region 4.  That new logo was very narrowly defeated in referendum earlier this year in favor of keeping the original logo.

Thomas agreed to sit down with us to discuss his work as well as how he went from Trek fan to working in “unfinished” saga of STO.

Subspace Communicator Online: What drew you to graphic design work?

Thomas Marrone: Ever since I started watching Star Trek as a little kid, I have been doodling spaceships and aliens. My mother introduced me to Star Trek very young, and it captured my imagination and sparked my creativity to the point where it’s something that I haven’t ever really gotten over. As I got older, I began experimenting with computer graphics, fascinated with combining art and technology.

SCO: How did you get your start?

TM: In high school I was part of volunteer team of modders who created a total conversion for the space strategy game Homeworld (Sierra Entertainment, 1999) called “Sacrifice of Angels.”  Homeworld, one of my favorite games of all time, had a fantastic 3D space combat engine and recreating the battles of the final seasons of Deep Space Nine was a great challenge and a perfect fit.

For that project I was a concept artist, making up new types of starships that fit the Homeworld paradigm for which we had no canon examples from Star Trek (things like Starfleet mining ships, a Romulan ship that launched a network of drones and so on.) My other primary duty was texture artist, creating the skins for a lot of the new ships we created for the mod.

SCO: What level is your Trek fandom?

TM: Like I said earlier, I grew up with Star Trek and have been in love with it ever since I started watching TNG in syndication all those years ago. I’ve worn out two copies of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, and this weekend I had the incredible experience of Michael Okuda signing my TNG Tech Manual at the Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.

SCO: Can you tell us a little about what it’s like to marry your fandom with your profession?

Among Thomas’ works for Star Trek Online includes this dedication plaque for the Odyssey-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-F), which is heavily featured within the game. (Courtesy of Thomas Marrone)

TM: It is nothing short of amazing. Obviously in a company the size of Cryptic there are people here who have varying degrees of passion for Star Trek, and plenty on the team are huge Trekkies like me. But even the ones that aren’t as familiar with the material are happy to take feedback and suggestions from a hardcore Trekkie, so being around to give the input from a fan perspective when we’re designing new starships, uniforms, creatures or environments is absolutely phenomenal. Being able to contribute to an ongoing Star Trek universe is an amazing opportunity!

In some ways it is a double-edged sword, because there are also times when you have to defer to the medium or the production schedule. So there might be this awesome idea that totally fits with the Trek canon, but there’s not enough time to implement it or leadership decides to go in a different direction for valid gameplay concerns. Navigating that balance is difficult, but definitely worth the experience.

SCO: How did you come to work at Cryptic Studios?

The Odyssey-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-F) as depicted by Thomas Marrone. (Artwork courtesy of Thomas Marrone)

TM: It’s actually a pretty long story, but I’ll try to boil it down! When I heard about Star Trek Online, I was a goner – a persistent Star Trek universe where I’m the captain of my own ship? Yes please. So I put in the lifetime subscription up front and participated in the closed beta and the early days of the game. As I played the game, I began to think of elements that I thought could improve it, like interactable minigames for times when you’re hacking a computer or re-routing power to the main deflector or what have you.

I did some mockups of these minigames and posted them in the STO forums. (The thread is still around, though it has been archived – http://sto-forum.perfectworld.com/showthread.php?t=124944) The thread generated some buzz in the community and eventually the art was featured in one of the popular STO podcasts. Cryptic employees saw it there and loved the idea. Eventually they decided to buy the artwork from me and put some of it into the game… so you can blame me for the scanning minigame that pops up whenever you encounter an anomaly.

A few months later, I saw that Cryptic had an opening for a web designer. That was my trade at the time, so I applied, reminding them of the minigame art. They hired me on to work on the publishing side of the building for Atari, and when Cryptic was sold to Perfect World I was pulled over to the Star Trek Online team permanently to work on the game’s user interface.

SCO: What’s a typical day for you at Cryptic?

TM: As a user interface artist, a lot of what I do involves supporting the content and systems team. I’m responsible for creating any new power and item icons we need, which is a very high volume task in an massively multiplayer game like Star Trek Online. I’m also responsible for doing wireframes and mockups for new UI systems as they are needed. And finally, as a 2D artist with a passion for Star Trek, I am often asked to help our environment artists with new LCARS screens or set dressings that help bring an even more authentic feel to the game’s environment.

As far as a typical day goes, it really depends on the size and priority of the task I happen to be working on. Some days I can focus on larger tasks and do lots of research on fleshing out a piece of art for the environment team, which means digging through assets given to us by CBS as well as my own host of Trek reference books at my desk and, of course, Memory Alpha and Memory Beta.

Other days I’m working on art for new in-game items, which requires a bit of research, after which I’ll spend most of the day painting in Photoshop.

SCO: How long do you spend on the average project for Star Trek Online?

TM: Depending on the project, time spent can range from under an hour to as long as a few weeks. It really just depends on the scope and ambition of the task. Power icons are simple little glyphs, so they go very quickly… but designing a whole UI like the Duty Officer system takes weeks upon weeks of iteration, review and polish.

SCO: Which project tapped into your passion the most for Star Trek Online?

Starfleet Tactical Command has proper representation on their documents, thanks to Thomas Marrone. (Courtesy of Thomas Marrone)

TM: I love working on the user interface, but as it stands right now I’m working with a style that was already established before I began working on STO. So really, the projects that get me the most excited are those where I can contribute to the design of the actual environment of the game, such as designing Tholian computer screens or class development patches for the shipyards at Utopia Planitia. Those projects let me inject my passion into the detail of the world that players get to experience and add that much more immersion to the Star Trek experience.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute sketches and ideas for some of our newer classes of starships, and working with the ship artists on fleshing out or fan design for the new U.S.S. Enterprise was nothing short of a childhood dream come true.

SCO: Which Trek series or era would you say is your favorite?  Do you have a favorite Trek episode or character?

TM: I grew up with The Next Generation when it was going on new adventures every week, so Picard and his Enterprise is the crew I hold most dear. That being said, I’ve always been really interested in the “lost era” between the TOS films and The Next Generation, the era where a lot of interesting things happen but we haven’t seen much about. Also, that era had some of the best starship and uniform designs – I’m a fan of historical fiction like Horatio Hornblower, and when Nicholas Meyer put his imprint on Star Trek and oversaw the creation of the “Monster Maroon” uniforms for the The Wrath of Khan he injected a lot of that old Royal Navy feel, which I love.

SCO: Of the canonical ship designs, which is your favorite to fly within the game?

TM: For my money, nothing beats a Defiant loaded for bear, especially once you’ve got her tricked out with a cloaking device and quad cannons!

SCO: How often do you get to play STO (that has no relation to your work project)?

The MACO Exocomp, a combat companion/pet for players within Star Trek Online. (Courtesy of Thomas Marrone)

TM: I usually pop in every day to manage my crew of duty officers and contribute to the construction of my fleet’s starbase. I try to get in one good play session a week where I’m running the new Tholian missions or blowing up some Borg in a space STF though.

SCO: How many of your characters are at max level? Do you prefer playing Tactical, Engineer, or Science?

TM: I have two Starfleet characters at max level, and they’re both tactical officers. I have an engineering character that I enjoy playing, but he’s still pretty low on the chain of command.

I started with tactical beacuse it is one of the more straightforward classes and maximizes the firepower you get from escorts like the Akira and the Defiant.

SCO: Previously, there was a bit of controversy over the style and size of the signs at Spacedock. Can you describe your role or thoughts on the design and implementation of the changes to those signs?

Continuing in the best tradition of Okudagrams, Thomas Marrone’s Odyssey-class project patch is one of several designs that can be seen throughout Star Trek Online. (Courtesy of Thomas Marrone)

TM: My primary contribution to the signage was the design of the icons that went into them. We spent a while tweaking those (more time than I thought we would) based on the feedback, and I’m happier with where they are now than when we originally put them into the game. Obviously STO is a collaborative project, with a lot of different people and a lot of different talents contributing to every area of the game. For those signs, I did the icons with some suggestions for graphical layout and framing, the environment artist created their size and material “feel”, and our art lead directed us.

The main goal for the signs was to make sure that they were large and very easy to read from a distance. We wanted to make sure that new players coming to Earth Spacedock (ESD) for the first time knew exactly which direction to go if they wanted to buy new gear, visit the admiral for new missions, hit the bank or what-have-you. The problem with doing signage for an MMO environment is that you’re working with conditions that are more like a highway than the interior of a building: in the “real” Earth Spacedock, people would be walking at a normal speed with a relatively limited field of view. In an MMO environment, everyone is running all the time and usually has their camera pretty far back from their character. This means a wider field of view, so there’s more visual information to compete with the signage for their attention.

Because of these factors we had to defer to the medium and make signs that were sure to stand out and be easy to read when you’re passing them at a fast speed (almost like a billboard). This meant that visually they couldn’t blend in as much as some people would have liked. I can certainly understand that point of view, but I also know that they do what they were designed to do very well (since I have a horrible sense of direction and use them every time I’m at ESD.)

SCO: Since becoming an employee, has your interaction with the community changed?

TM: I certainly have more followers on Twitter! But seriously, I love our community. Obviously we have some passionate fans and things get heated on the forums. Now that I’m an employee I don’t post on the forums as much as I did when I was just a player, but I still read them regularly. I do prefer interacting with fans on social media outlets like Twitter, though, because there’s less anonymity and easier to build one on one relationships that create fun and informative conversations.

SCO: You mentioned meeting Michael Okuda at the recent Grand Slam convention in Las Vegas. Given that he was the artist behind a majority, if not all, of the signage we see in Trek, what was it like to meet and talk to your predecessor

Thomas Marrone designed the commemorative coin for Cryptic Studios which was produced exclusively for their development team (Photo: Thomas Marrone / USS Loma Prieta)

TM: Star Trek Las Vegas was a mind-blowing experience for a lot of reasons, but at the top of the list was meeting Mike Okuda and having him sign my TNG Tech Manual. I have to thank the person who manages our license at CBS for setting that up. It was wonderful to meet Mr. Okuda and explain how inspirational his work had been to me as a kid. I doubt I would have gotten into art and graphic design if it hadn’t been for LCARS! I got asks him a couple questions about some of the set dressings he worked on, and it was awesome to see him there with Denise as they looked over a poster of the Enterprise, commenting on certain details. Those two are the avatars of Star Trek history and I hope I have another chance to pick their brains in the future.

SCO: If you had your choice to work on or perhaps lead any project for STO, what might you choose?

TM: I really enjoy the user interface work that I’m doing now, but it would be fun to spend more time building the starships that players get to fly. The ships of Star Trek have always been my primary passion and I am so lucky to have made a small contribution to STO’s progression of that legacy in the last year. I love the sleek, powerful designs we’re making these days and am working on learning 3D modeling so that I can be more directly involved in their development as STO continues to chart Star Trek’s course in the 25th century!


We would like to thank Thomas for his time in answering our many questions, as well as thanks to CAPT Zach Perkins of the USS Loma Prieta.  Thomas is a full member of STARFLEET International and presently holds the rank of Ensign aboard Loma Prieta.  To keep up with Thomas’ works and posted art from his many projects, visit his Tumblr at http://thomasthecat.tumblr.com.