Saturday, October 16, 2004

SWG: Five Fixes for Core Systems

To start with, every suggestion I make is intended to help move SWG toward better achieving the following goals:

  • Every player should always be able to find something interesting/rewarding to do.
  • The meaningfulness -- and consequences -- of a player's actions in the game world should increase with that player's power.
  • Gamers and MMOG industry insiders alike should be able to point to SWG as an example of how to develop and operate a mass-market online game service.
Achieve those goals, and you will have an entertainment product that satisfies everyone: more happy players means more revenue for SOE/LEC. Everybody wins.

So in no particular order, here are five specific actions that SOE can take with SWG to achieve these goals:

1. Players must feel they play a meaningful role in an exciting story set in the Star Wars universe.

One of the hardest issues all MMOGs face is figuring out the right balance between gameplay and story. Some online games can focus on pure DOOM-like gameplay, while others are able to focus on pure storytelling... but SWG can't afford to dismiss either of these two entertainment modes. SWG requires both strong gameplay and a compelling story within which the gameplay moves.

SWG is an online game, so of course gameplay (skills, weapons/armor/tools, PvE, PvP, etc.) is required. SWG does a fairly good job here, and will be even more effective once JtL ships.

But it's also true that SWG is based on George Lucas's adventure movies, which owe their popularity in large part to the interesting story Lucas tells and the fascinating characters through whom that story is told. Players of a Star Wars-based game absolutely expect to be participants in story content that brings the Star Wars universe to life for them, and right now SWG is not delivering the story content necessary to maintain the Lucas legacy of telling an enthralling story.

Furthermore, looked at purely as a MMOG, the story is what keeps players returning to the gameplay. Players will always be able to race through gameplay content faster than SOE developers can craft it -- what keeps players coming back to that gameplay is the story in which the gameplay is set. The story is what gives the gameplay meaning. Story is what tells players that their game actions have purpose and value beyond merely grinding to the top of some pyramid. Story is what keeps players coming back to the game to reprise content they've already seen. In short, gameplay attracts new subscriptions, but story is what maintains subscriptions over the long term. If you want your game to endure, you need story. And in the case of SWG, you need something even more specific: you need Star Wars stories.

Ways must be found to give players the feeling that they are part of a real Star Wars story. How do we do that? Simple: let players make choices, and let there be real consequences in the game world for those choices. When consequences individually and in the aggregate clearly affect the player's part in some greater storyline in the Star Wars universe, when player actions can be seen to have real meaning within the game world, you've made the player part of a Star Wars adventure that they'll recall with pleasure for years to come.

A really satisfying adventure story is full of hard choices expressed through exciting actions, where a person's character is revealed through the choices they make and the sides they take. Star Wars succeeded because it told that kind of powerful and exciting story. If SWG doesn't fulfill its destiny as a son of Star Wars, then it will fail to achieve its full potential as a key component of the Star Wars saga. And that would be a shame.

2. Individual quests/missions must be integrated into a larger, fully connected activity structure.

Here's a specific suggestion: Instead of thousands of completely disconnected missions and unrelated quests, these NPC-directed player activities ought to be integrated into a set of overarching Star Wars-specific stories, which themselves are integrated into the full Star Wars saga as we know it though the movies and books.

Early/easy missions can seem to be unconnected. It's appropriate for new players to see only the most local effects of their actions. But as players advance in power, they should begin to realize that what appeared to be unconnected requests were really individual parts of something much larger going on, and that participating in these missions makes the player a part of the larger story. Missions to kill off bandits in a particular area could turn out to be preliminary action for establishing a secret Rebel base secure from prying eyes, and a player who realizes this should have to decide whether he wants to support that storyline or not. Missions to craft specialized components could turn out to be an attempt by the Empire to flood the market in a Rebel-occupied area with spare parts to destabilize the local economy, or to generate a spare parts inventory for the construction of a new factory for crafting star destroyers. Again, a player who suddenly comes to understand the role she is playing in a larger world has the chance to become more connected to that world... and that's how you retain paying customers.

These realizations that players have about the local meaning of what they've been doing should eventually begin to open up larger-scale missions -- let's call them quests. Quests should be riskier than than the initial missions, and should require the player to make more intense choices -- do you help those who need it even when it could injure you or your friends? Or do you put your personal desires above everything, even if it means abandoning the larger effort to the "bad guys?" The more quests you take, the more you learn about the grand storyline in which those quests are related, and the more you learn, the better your odds putting the pieces together to succeed at those quests.

These quests, if successful, should lead to the third and highest level of mission, the adventure. Taking on an adventure means you have entered the part of the story that reveals the global challenge behind all the local stories. Succeeding in an adventure should not be about what gear a player has -- it should depend on his or her choices when confronted by hard decisions. Success, in fact, should not necessarily mean living or dying -- maybe it's about realizing who your character really is. Just as Luke and Han and Lando had to make ultimate choices about the kinds of persons they really were when they finally understood what was at stake, so should the player of SWG be able to reach a point of understanding a story enough to work with other players to successfully determine the outcome of a major Star Wars story, and that outcome should have a major impact on the character's game life. As in all great literature, the outer struggle should be a mirror for the inner journey.

Finally, a practical note on structure: quests and adventures ought to come in parts. To get to Part H, you need to have completed Parts C and G, each of which depends in turn on having completed Parts A and B, and Parts D and E and F, respectively. Developers should also consider making some parts of a multi-part quest or adventure depend on having certain skills, not all of which any one player could have at one time. This would encourage either grouping or trying new skills over a long time, both of which are positive acts within SWG. As a nice bonus to the gameplay value of multi-part quests and adventures, structuring stories as pieces also allows developers to organize missions/quests/adventures as structured segments of coherent storylines -- basically it's a way to sequence the acts and scenes of a story.

Ultimately the right to be a part of an adventure, a major story set within the Star Wars saga, ought to have to be earned by good story-based gameplay. Success should depend not on grinding, nor on reading "The Answer" to some static NPC question from a Stratics or Allakhazam database, nor on massed brute force or exploiting game holes, nor on buying uber armor/weapons, but on a demonstrated willingness to make tough choices and accept the consequences of those choices within the game world and within the big story in which that player chooses to play a part.

Now that would make missions satisfying.

3. "Hero" NPCs from the movies and books must be more active in the game world.

Another component of rewarding players for participating in the story part of the game would be the chance to interact with a character or characters from the Star Wars movies and books.

The developers deserve some credit for realizing that the characters in Star Wars media are a major draw in a game based on the Star Wars universe, and for including these characters into SWG gameplay. But I think it's fair to say that using these "hero" NPCs (by which I mean named good guys and bad guys) as mere static mission-givers severely underestimates their value in generating the sense in players of being part of a big Star Wars story.

Let players doing missions meet minor players in the saga; let players doing quests meet important secondary characters; and let players taking on an adventure meet the major "leads." If I take a mission to craft a power regulator for a Y-wing shield generator, maybe 1 in 20 times I'll bump into Nien Numb or some other relevant but minor character. Other kinds of missions would occasionally lead to meeting other minor characters relevant to those kinds of activities, and quests and adventures should offer the chance to encounter (or be summoned by!) even more powerful movie/book characters appropriate to the player's choices.

This would serve two important goals. First, it's a good way to guide players toward the information they need to succeed at the next level of missions -- it's a way to help tell the current story. Second, these characters should be used as rewards for long-term participation in the game. Serve the Rebellion effectively, and maybe Admiral Ackbar commends you... fail at too many missions of high importance to the Emperor, and maybe Darth Vader shows up to extract an "apology" from you. Even neutrals should be able to get into the act: "good" neutrals ought to be pushed by both Empire and Rebellion to join up, while neutrals of questionable virtue should be able to sign on with one of several competing crime syndicates.

In short, player access to hero characters ought to be much more strictly rationed than is currently allowed. As a starting player, I shouldn't be able to go talk to Princess Leia just because I read her static address from some offsite game forum -- I ought to have to earn the right to interact with her. There definitely need to be rewards of this type to motivate low-level players, but rewards should always be commensurate with risk: meeting Luke or Vader ought to be very hard to do, but these meetings should make a huge difference in a character's life when achieved.

4. "Content" must include non-combat players.

SWG will be a stronger, more long-lasting game if it respects players with different playstyles. Yes, for business reasons it's necessary to be seen servicing combat-oriented players, but it is also absolutely necessary to show some respect to players with more creative or commercial or social interests.

Where are the "dungeons" for crafters? Where's the equivalent of a Hermit Quest for entertainers? Where's anything like Jabba's themepark or Nym's themepark or the Imperial or Rebel themeparks for merchants? When will medics get any content even remotely resembling the scope of the Corellian Corvette or Deathwatch Bunker?

This is the one aspect of SWG in which I am the most disappointed. SWG's developers began with an interesting crafting system, a dynamic player economy, and a meaningful role for entertainers, and those were good things... but since launch all three of these major game areas have been badly neglected except in minor bugfix or profession-specific ways. There have been virtually no broad, Core Systems-oriented enhancements for players with these gameplay styles since SWG launched, and that is just wrong. It's disrespectful to the many players who enjoy crafting and commerce and social gameplay to be so badly ignored when major enhancements are doled out, and that disrespect translates directly into the business problem of loss of revenue when these players decide that SWG doesn't want them and they leave.

SWG is gradually bleeding away its long-term player base because it has failed and continues to fail to recognize the value of these kinds of players to long-term sustainment of a mass-market MMOG. If this lack of respect for non-combat players continues, then once the initial spike of subscriptions for JtL passes, SWG will be dead within two years. And it will be dead because its long-term players -- the crafters and merchants and entertainers -- will have left SWG for other MMOGs (such as Second Life) that show more respect for their preferred playstyles by offering content appropriate for those playstyles.

5. The software development process must improve to reduce the number of bugs introduced with changes.

I don't believe I need to say much here. We all know how important it is in the intensely competitive MMOG industry to be perceived as "fun," which means two things: plenty of content, and few bugs.

Content I've addressed above... but bugs have already nearly killed the perception of SWG as fun. SOE's software development process must be improved, or even JtL will not be enough to save this game.

The technical means by which bug rates can be reduced are not complicated or obscure; a Google search on "CMMI SEI" will show you any number of organizations that will be delighted to explain how to achieve and sustain an effective software development process, which would make a huge dent in the number of bugs unleashed on players. The harder part is convincing SOE management to embrace this level of professional commercial software development.

Doing it right means being able to say "no." As in, "no, this feature has not been adequately tested and we will not include it in the next hotfix." As in, "No, all of our source code reviewers have not fully studied these changes, and we will not include them in the next hotfix." Being able to say no to your boss is hard (trust me on this). But having to explain to your boss why he won't be getting a bonus because too many players refused to resubscribe to a buggy game is even harder.

Requirements reviews; preliminary and critical design reviews; peer review (including documentation); QA testing, source code and documentation configuration management -- every one of these steps slows down your development process... and every one of these steps helps insure that the code you do turn over doesn't break. SOE is doing some of these, but it needs to give them teeth so that everyone on the development team from the most junior coder to the Senior Producer (including LucasArts producers) insists that they be respected even when doing so affects the release schedule.

Achieve that in a highly complex software product like SWG, and SOE can be acknowledged by its subscribing customers and entertainment industry peers for how it respects its customers by giving them a bulletproof product.

No comments:

Post a Comment