Monday, November 21, 2005

The Betrayal of Star Wars Galaxies

In the best of the single-player first-person shooter games based on the Star Wars license, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, there's a level in which you must find a way to escape from a wrecked starship that is plummeting toward a deadly impact with the ground below.

It's terrifying fun: klaxons are howling; the deck pitches and cants at crazy angles causing objects to fall past you and explode; a wrong step sends you falling to your doom; it's hard to get your bearings; and through all of this there is a timer inexorably counting down the seconds until the ship crashes and you must restart the level.

That's how I feel about Star Wars Galaxies. Except it's not as much fun. And I’m not seeing any reason to restart.

I came to SWG about a year before it launched because it sounded so good. For one thing, I'm a fan of the films. (I was quoted in my hometown newspaper for having seen the original film seven times.) The idea of playing a MMORPG based on the movies that would let me "live the saga" sounded like a lot of fun.

For another thing, I'm a student of game design. In particular, I'm interested in "world-y" designs. So what I saw and heard from LucasArts and SOE suggested that SWG would indeed be a complex and dynamic world, and that excited me as well.

So when SWG launched, I signed off of EQ and started playing SWG. I also participated frequently and constructively on the official forum. I've both praised and criticized LEC/SOE developers, but I always tried to pay for my criticisms with specific suggestions for correcting what I thought were problems, and I stuck around through all the changes. (I still have a character in SWG.) All told, I think it's fair to say I've been one of the "loyalists."

All of which is to highlight the sense of betrayal I have increasingly felt, both as a player of SWG and as someone who thinks that good design and implementation matter. I don't use a word like "betrayal" lightly, as I'm not a dramatic person; it's simply the most accurate word to describe my reaction to the actions taken by SWG's developers since SWG launched, and most especially regarding the recent "New Gaming Experience" (NGE).

I wasn't against making significant improvements to Star Wars Galaxies. I actually agreed with those who praised LEC/SOE for being willing to make broad changes to an existing game. First, the developers admitted the obvious -- SWG wasn't delivering a "Star Wars-y" experience. And then they proved ready to significantly alter the game to achieve that goal. LEC producer Julio Torres and the other leads deserve credit for these things.

But this by itself doesn't solve the whole problem. Seeing a problem and doing something about it aren't enough -- you have to do the right things.

Opinion: Where I think LEC/SOE have repeatedly gone wrong is the specific design and implementation of the changes made to SWG's original design. The NGE is only the latest example of two and a half years of increasingly bad design and scheduling decisions. By itself, the NGE isn't enough to make me (a loyalist, remember) give up on SWG. It's the fact that the NGE is the last and most destructive wrecking ball applied to the remarkable original design of SWG.

I don't feel "betrayed" just by the NGE -- I feel betrayed by the NGE on top of two+ years of similar decisions that have consistently ignored, corrupted, or outright eliminated the aspects of this game that I cared the most about.

  • SWG launched with and repeatedly pushed publishes containing bugs that were reported in testing. In some cases, these were bugs that had already been fixed in a previous release. A goal of hitting aggressive schedules is laudable, and the business need to release new content in time to tie in with other media events is understandable, but achieving good QA has been a consistent and conspicuous failure.

  • The original design respected and encouraged multiple playstyles by explicitly requiring crafters, healers, and entertainers to support combatants. Subsequent releases provided serious content only for combatants; other playstyles received only minor content, or even had their required support abilities removed completely. The NGE delivered the final blow of this "only combat matters" thinking by its squashing of all entertaining and healing professions down to one class each, and all crafting professions down to one class (with four "specializations" so that it wouldn't be necessary to remove existing schematics)... but the combat professions received all six remaining classes of the nine primary classes. Not only that, but combat skills and non-combat skills do not trade on a one-to-one basis when existing characters are converted to one of the new classes. Knowing any skill in one of the pre-NGE non-combat professions inflates into knowing all possible non-combat skills in the sole related NGE class, but one pre-NGE combat skill is worth one NGE combat skill. Translation: combat skills are worth more. Taken as a whole, these changes on top of all the others have sent a clear message: SWG is only for people who like fighting games. Explorers and Socializers need not apply.

  • In particular, the handling of Jedi has been consistently awful. You would think that a concept so fundamental to the story told in the movies would be handled with extreme care, from gameplay concepts to implementation to playtesting, but that seems not to have been the case. The initial idea of unlocking Jedi abilities through mastering several random professions made some sense from a game mechanics perspective: it would take time and effort; it would be unique to each player; it would reward and thereby promote a deep knowledge of the game. As a mechanical process, it got the job done. But in terms of actual entertainment value, it was a Very Bad Idea: it led to mindless grinding past professions that others valued; it bore no resemblance to how a simple moisture farmer could learn to respect and apply the Force; and it quickly began filling the game world with Jedi characters run by powergamers who had no interest in "playing like Jedi." Subsequent changes never solved this problem. The NGE simply surrenders and calls it victory -- now anyone can be a Jedi when they start the game. That's not more "Star Wars-y" -- it's less, much less... and it's typical of how SWG's developers have sacrificed a deeply human story of betrayal and redemption to whatever Marketing says will move more SKUs.

  • The easily-switchable skills system of the original design promoted variety in play, depth of roleplaying, and opportunity for experimenting with other playstyles. While these features offered open-ended gameplay, the cost was that effectively knowing and performing one's role in combat groups required study and experience. To make this goal easier, the Combat Upgrade stratified professions somewhat, even to the point of exposing the "level number" of mobs and players. This reduced the value of having a broad set of skills. The NGE, in turn, utterly destroyed the skills system, turning SWG into merely another class-bound MMORPG.

  • The simplification of skills into a few classes is part of a larger trend of reducing or eliminating many of the deeper aspects of gameplay. It's impossible not to wonder whether the depth of gameplay and even the keyboard control system are being "dumbed-down" in order to attract console gamers. (I'm not expressing a personal belief that console gamers are dumb. I'm describing what I believe is the perception of console gamers by SWG's current designers as incapable of appreciating any gameplay beyond rote memorization and trivially simple button-mashing.) [Note: SWG producers have explicitly said that they have no intentions of modifying SWG to support direct play by console owners. But that doesn't mean they don't want to turn SWG into a PC game that caters to console gamers.]

  • I don't feel any personal animosity toward any of the responsible folks at LEC or SOE. They mostly seem like nice people, and I'm sure that most if not all of them wanted to make a fun game and truly believed that their decisions were the right way to achieve that goal.

    The problem is with the definition of "fun" that SWG's post-launch development team seemed to have. The original design of SWG promised depth and drama, things I care about in a game, but since Star Wars Galaxies launched it has been repeatedly stripped of those things in favor of simpleminded combat. This doesn't mean that SWG has become a bad game, or that it couldn't once again become a popular game. It just makes SWG a game that I can no longer enjoy.

    Will Vanguard or D&D Online or Lord of the Rings Online or Star Trek Online be the game that proves that "deep" and "popular" aren't mutually exclusive? Will any of them offer emotionally engaging entertainment and retain that focus over time? Can LotRO or STO deliver fun gameplay while remaining true to the spirit of their licenses (and satisfying their licensors)?

    I hope so. I just don't know yet if, after Star Wars Galaxies, I'll be able to trust any MMORPG developer enough to try out their games.

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