Tuesday, May 10, 2005
SWG: Foundations for Success
It’s funny how so many people said things about Star Wars Galaxies like, "the foundations were great, they just didn’t build on [X]."
I tend to agree… but what does that mean? What "foundation" decisions were good, and why?
In rough order of importance, here are some of the original design decisions I think were most valuable to SWG, but which after their initial implementation weren't (IMO) followed up on sufficiently.
The Star Wars License
Are you kidding? It's a license to use all the characters and places and music and ideas from Star Wars! LucasArts and SOE would've been nuts not to make a MMORPG out of Star Wars. An obvious application was iconic characters as NPCs, but the locations in the various Star Wars movies -- nearly characters in themselves -- were beautifully rendered.
Iconic characters were never fully exploited. Those who were implemented were passive; they just sort of hung around and offered missions. What a waste! Matters have improved slightly, but by no means enough -- iconic characters, given their criticality to the popularity of Star Wars, ought to be flying madly around the galaxy, exhorting players to take part in Star Wars adventures on every planet in SWG.
Skills vs. Classes
An ability progression system based on skills was a novel change from the old D&D-based cookie-cutter class/level system. A skills-based system would allow players to create unique identities from a widely-varied mix of abilities, which would help players achieve a sense of identity in the game world. This would also increase replayability by making it relatively easy for players to try out new abilities. The inclusion of the need for Apprentice XP (AXP) to master a profession fit in with Luke's apprenticeship to Yoda, and offered an opportunity to encourage players to interact.
Having wildly mixable abilities made it hard to know what role you should play when grouped (something the class system made simple). With the Combat Upgrade, roles became more obvious, but at great cost: along with treating professions as classes we also got levels, and the well-rounded "jack-of-all-trades" player that SWG could have encouraged is now severely penalized. Instead of finding a way to build on the strengths of the skills-based approach to help players form groups, the Combat Upgrade's designers treated abilities-as-skills as a liability and neutered it into just another class system. As for the Apprentice XP system, although it added an interesting wrinkle to advancement, as the player base shrank, finding someone who could train you became increasingly more frustrating. Eventually AXP had to be eliminated entirely.
[2008/05/04 note: Obviously this was written after the Combat Upgrade, but before the New Gameplay Experience that threw out the skill system entirely in favor of a conventional class/level system.]
In another break from cookie-cutter MMORPGs, SWG offered a fully player-run economy. Instead of NPC vendors creating goods out of thin air and buying player-made goods with money also made out of thin air, the vast majority of in-game items would be crafted by players for other players. To support this, an astonishingly strong player crafting system was implemented.
The initial system implemented was so good that it was left relatively unenhanced, as though no one recognized its importance to gameplay (or as a distinctively marketable feature in the MMORPG industry) by promoting it with significant new functionality. There was never enough support given to players who wanted to explore this system as advanced traders. Worse, crafting was regarded as a mere support act, rather than as a marketable gameplay style that should be fun to do in and of itself. Thus, crafting and trading languished while other gameplay (combat) received major new features.
Again, pretty much a no-brainer -- if SWG allowed players to become Jedi, people would pay to play SWG. The structure of a Jedi's life, the rules governing a Jedi's conduct, would make for fantastic roleplaying. And who wouldn't want to take down enemies with a lightsaber?
Given that there’s never been an explanation offered for the decision to base opening the Jedi character slot on mastering four random professions, this seems to have been a very bad idea from the start. It remains incomprehensible how anyone could have thought that this mechanism for gaining Jedi status would be acceptable to players. People will always complain because something is hard to do, but requiring players to master a massive proportion of professions in which they were completely uninterested (to get the four professions randomly assigned) went beyond "hard"; this was closer to "insane." In addition to being a not-fun gameplay mechanism, it also had no apparent connection to how the movies portrayed the acquisition of Force abilities. The Jedi Revamp tried to replace this system with one based on fulfilling quests, which was an improvement (and a welcome attempt to implement a system requested by the user community), but has proven to rely excessively on grinding out XP for advancement.
One of the ways in which content would be freshened was through its use by "Digiteers." These would be LucasArts or SOE personnel acting as iconic or other characters to create real-time, live scenarios that regular players could see (and perhaps even participate in). Although this was not a new idea (the earliest MUDs were run by "wizards" who would intervene in the game world), the depth of the SWG game world would give Digiteers ample tools for engaging storytelling in the Star Wars universe.
Although there've been some examples of Live events, this feature was never exercised to anything even remotely resembling its full potential.
There was never any question that SWG was incomplete as long as players couldn't do things "in space." Not only was this a crucial aspect of recreating the feel of the movies, it was another opportunity to build on the success of the "X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter" multiplayer combat concept. So implementing Jump to Lightspeed was a non-negotiable requirement. What made the actual implementation brilliant was the decision to make it a "twitch" style game -- that is, instead of a click-to-go-there RPG-style interface, a player's success in space would be dependent on his or her own abilities. The system of advancement through NPC missions was also an improvement on the undirected grinding of XP in the ground game.
JtL's failures were threefold. First, there were few good reasons to group. The massed Rebel attack on the Death Star was what players wanted, but JtL offered few such opportunities (especially for non-Master pilots). Second, it was never sufficiently integrated with the ground game. You were either in space, or on the ground -- JtL played like a completely separate game from SWG, and that was a missed opportunity to make both more enjoyable. Third, and ultimately most serious, was that JtL overemphasized combat. Because there was nothing else to do, because there was no "depth" to space-based gameplay, once you were done with the combat game you were done with Jump to Lightspeed -- there was no persistent world activity to give players a reason to stay in space. The decision to make combat gameplay exciting wasn't wrong, but the decision to focus on combat to the exclusion of everything else was. Space mining may (finally) be an interesting non-combat space activity; the question is whether it is too little and comes too late to retain the player base that JtL started out with and might have kept.
SWG shipped with a strong NPC mission system in place. Despite a few bugs (such as escort missions where the NPC being escorted would get "lost"), there was a fairly good mix of missions; missions were appropriate for a player character's abilities, and with some work it was relatively easy to find NPC mission-givers. The availability of mission terminals also supported independent gameplay for the more casual player.
Missions never seemed to be connected to each other -- there was never a Larger Goal of Galactic Import to be achieved by completing smaller sub-missions. This made individual missions feel like grindable busy-work. Worse, in many cases missions had no Star Wars flavor, but seemed generic. Finally, although the existence of the NPC mission system demonstrates that it is possible for the system to detect when a mission is complete, no system allowing players to give each other missions has yet been implemented or is even known to be contemplated.
Entertainers as a type of gameplay was a concept virtually unique to SWG. Not only would this allow players to enjoy acting out the kinds of things they'd seen in the cantina in Mos Eisley, and in Jabba's palace, but it would support the valuable social/roleplayer playstyle. To insure that they served an meaningful role in the game, Entertainers were thus given abilities that made them indispensable to other players, and that were activated as part of the process of playing music or dancing (both of which were implemented through clever systems allowing the integration of the actions of multiple players).
The only players who needed entertainers (of any kind, including Image Designers) were combat players. This limited the value of all entertaining professions. The Battle Fatigue healing function was essentially the only useful thing that musicians and dancers were given to do -- there was little other reason to dance or play music once the new songs and dances were earned and experienced a few times. In the end, entertainers were never fully integrated into the game by giving them a wide range of interesting and useful social interaction abilities. (The recent change to allow "inspirations" that enhance XP for all types of players is a small step in the right direction.)
SWG was widely hailed as graphically beautiful. Although the price of beauty was slow screen updating unless you could afford the burliest CPUs and graphics cards, sunrise on a mountaintop on Naboo was breathtaking. NPC cities were wonderfully designed and rendered, and NPCs and creatures (both hostile and peaceful) gave each world life.
"Not enough music from the movies!" remains a common player complaint. Creatures stand around waiting to be killed for XP, rather than migrating or interacting with the local ecosystems. And for a long time, creatures weren't even spawning at all on some planets. Player cities, although an interesting feature, killed off all but two or three NPC cities -- every other NPC city is a depressing ghost town. NPCs seem not to care when blaster fire scorches the air near them -- why doesn't every armed NPC in earshot run to see who's being attacked (and then act accordingly), while unarmed NPCs dash about with their hands in the air screaming in fear?
Finally, the other half of any Advanced Trading game ought to be the ability for players to fully participate in criminal factions such as Jabba's and semi-criminal factions such as the Trade Federation. Not only does this create numerous gameplay opportunities for every player (including/especially Smugglers and Bounty Hunters), it's absolutely in line with the spirit of Star Wars episodes IV, V, and VI.
Where are our abilities to choose whether to play as a good being, or on the shady side of the law, or as a vile gangster? This notion of "choice" (and the related theme of redemption) is at the heart of every one of the Star Wars stories. It's implemented insofar as we can play Rebels and Imperials... but where's the moral ambiguity of everyone else to give our actions a deeper meaning?