Friday, May 18, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies

[Star Wars Galaxies was the first MMORPG into which I really sank a lot of my time. It's also, by my reckoning, one of the few MMORPGs that started out trying to do some of the player-centered design I care about. As such, SWG tends to be my benchmark against which I judge all other large online RPGs. So I can't seem to stop talking about it....]

1. By about a year or so into SWG, I was writing posts on SWG's official forum stating my opinion that the iconic elements of the Star Wars license weren't being used to their full potential. The gameplay was good, for the most part; it was the Star Wars aspects of the game that needed to be emphasized.

As just one example, Han Solo should have been an active force for excitement and adventure. Instead, he was a static NPC in a bar handing out the same quests to every player. Not a complete waste of his character, but pretty darn close. Many other iconic elements suffered the same fate.

So I was on board for some kind of change that would increase the feeling of living in (there's that "live in" thing again!) the richly detailed Star Wars universe.

2. SOE had a strange habit: when enough players would complain about some very specific part of the game, the developers would change that part... but their changes often went far beyond what any players actually wanted. It was like a memo had gone out: "Be sure to swat all gnats with a BFG 9000." Instead of just fixing the things that didn't work, SWG repeatedly gutted entire systems, often losing the things that players liked in the process of changing the one or two small things they didn't like.

This happened often enough that people regularly commented on it in the official forum. (I'd post links to some representative comments, but with the post-NGE forum revamp those messages are no longer available.)

The Combat Upgrade of Publish 15 was a particularly obvious example of this. People had been calling for the combat system to be rationalized from the numerous quirks it had collected over the months of individual tweaks and nerfs. Not only were skills inconsistent, creature/NPC abilities were not lining up properly with skills. So in general, players were enthusiastic about the upcoming Combat Upgrade; they were looking forward to the various low-level bizarrities being eliminated or fixed.

What they got horrified many of them. Instead of taking the existing system and ironing out the kinks, SOE radically changed the entire combat model. Overnight, combat became much more "twitchy," with more real-time targeting and cool-down timers. The simple control icons were replaced with more colorful, "busier" icons (which I and others found harder to distinguish from each other). Weapons and armor and creatures all had their damage types changed.

And most astonishingly of all, every mob -- PC, NPC, or creature -- now had its "combat level" number exposed. Now instead of needing to observe a potential target to determine its challenge level, there was a nice, simple, utterly magical number.

This didn't just injure the worldiness of the game; it also made combat a lot more numbers-driven instead of being excitement-driven. After the CU, if you picked a target whose combat level number was 2 or more above or below your character's combat level, you'd get little to no XP.

I was active in the SWG forums. Nobody was asking for these things!

And so it was with the NGE. Yes, people wanted "more iconic," and I was one of them. But SOE/LA went so far beyond the incremental changes needed that (IMO) many of the good parts of the game were removed as well. It felt a bit like a doctor who, while performing an appendectomy, figures that the patient really wants a brain transplant as well.

3. An aspect of imposing the NGE that should not be overlooked when reviewing subscriber reactions is SOE's pushing the NGE just two weeks after releasing the "Trials of Obi-Wan" expansion.

The NGE altered gameplay so dramatically that many players said they'd never have bought the expansion if they'd known what was about to happen. Although SOE offered a refund for TOOW purchasers, the damage was done.

4. I'd like to admire SOE/LA for being willing to make radical changes to an established game's core design. If they knew the impact of their changes on the SWG community, and went ahead anyway, that speaks of a certain kind of courage to follow their beliefs about what would make SWG a better game.

Unfortunately, "clueless beyond all hope" is also an explanation for the NGE that fits the available data, as it fits neatly into the SOP of not listening to what gamers actually wanted from SWG.

One example of this was the developer "Helios" who, when asked how crafters (with minimal combat skills) would protect themselves now that creatures and NPCs would attack them, replied that they should simply hire other players to guard them... as though that's something that any action-oriented combat player would ever want to do. Were crafters asked whether they wanted this "feature?" (I give you one guess.)

But the all-time champion for game development cluelessness has to be the comments from LucasArts exec Nancy MacIntyre to the New York Times:

"We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base," said Nancy MacIntyre, the game's senior director at LucasArts. "There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves."
I don't know Ms. MacIntyre; she may be a very nice person. But speaking strictly about game development, the level of imperviousness to the art of game design demonstrated by her comments (which, given that LucasArts later promoted her, were obviously not unusual within LA) was remarkable.

So while I wish I could believe that the NGE was a courageous act to rescue a failing product, the evidence available to me as a player of SWG says the more likely cause was sheer bloody-minded ignorance of who SWG's true customers were and what they wanted.

That doesn't make anybody at SOE "bad." It's just strange.

5. If some people like the NGE, I think that's great. I'm sincerely happy that they enjoy how SWG plays for them.

I just wish it hadn't come at the expense of the game that I and others enjoyed. In particular, the loss of the one major game that offered a skill system instead of Yet Another Class/Level system was painful.

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