Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley recently gave some some comments to WarCry's Dana Massey concerning Star Wars Galaxies and the NGE:

"With the NGE, I'm sorry about the mistake we made," [Smedley told Warcry]. "We screwed up and didn't listen to the fans when we should have, and it's not a mistake we're going to make again."
The NGE completely altered Star Wars Galaxies, a game that had launched in cooperation with LucasArts over two years before. Classes disappeared and the game fundamentally changed in almost every way. It came as no surprise to observers that this change was massively unpopular among the playerbase.

And what was the mistake SOE made that Smedley is sorry for?

"[The mistake was] to not just think we know the right direction without bringing the fans into the mix," he explained. "We made the cardinal sin of not listening, but assuming and we were wrong."

He went on to point out that after two years, the game is once again stable and growing. They continue to update the game with new content and those fans, old and new, who enjoy the current incarnation of the game are being listened to. The old game won't come back - to change now would be as unfair as the first time they did it - but he believes SWG still has a solid future.
I respect John Smedley for making this statement. But I'd rather it had never been necessary, and I'm concerned that the wrong lesson is being drawn.

Yes, it's useful to listen... but who you listen to is what really counts, because that's going to determine what you hear.

The people who actually enjoy your MMORPG -- the folks who prefer to play it rather than some other game -- are a silent majority. They're the ones you aren't hearing from because they're busy actually playing the game. So when you're thinking about changing your game, you'd better find a way to discover the interests and concerns of these players and factor their needs into your design plans.

That doesn't mean "do whatever they say." It means maintaining your current level of service to the committed customers of your game while looking for ways to attract new players. It means retaining the features that persuade your long-term community gamers to stick around, even if the features they like might not be what you'd enjoy if you were designing a game for yourself.

More pointedly, it means not designing your changes around what the loudest complainers are demanding. I can't point to definitive evidence (yet), but I'm becoming more confident with every passing day that most of these "you have to do X" commenters are what I call the "locust" gamers -- the ones who zoom en masse into a new game, buzzsaw through all the developer-generated content, complain bitterly that "there's nothing to do," then zoom off again to the next new game.

These people are simply not going to be a long-term source of revenue for your game no matter what you do. When the Next Big Game launches, they're gone, and no new content on your part can persuade them to keep giving your their subscription money. So why on earth are you giving so much weight to their demands when you're thinking about how to improve your game service?

The key takeaway here is that keeping your happy customers happy is more important than trying to please your unhappy customers. That doesn't mean "don't fix bugs"; of course you need to try to improve the things that clearly aren't working as you intended. What it means is that when you make significant content changes, you don't betray the trust of the customers -- in particular, the long-term community-minded gamers -- whom you've already attracted to your service.

More to come on this subject, I think....