Sunday, October 7, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

Originally Posted by DougQB:
So I'm still curious, if the old version of SWG was so great, was it really in trouble? Would it have stood the test of time? It sounds like they were hitting the life of the product where they were starting to lose players, and they were losing more than they were gaining apparently. Possibly a lot more, which would certainly be one reason for the radical changes they made.
The original SWG was designed to appeal to different types of players with exciting combat, thoughtful crafting, and opportunities for social interaction, all of which were integrated into gameplay that was driven by a skill-based model of character abilities. In terms of pure MMORPG gameplay, it was brilliant.

But it had (and remember, this is just my opinion) two significant flaws in its original design. There was also a third problem that cropped up later which, over time, blotted out everything else.

Problem One: It didn't feel like Star Wars.

SWG was widely considered to have failed to capture the "feel" of the Star Wars license. As the popular phrase of the day had it, it didn't "feel Star Wars-y enough." Many of the visual elements of the movies could be seen, and the many individual missions that players could take were more or less written in the spirit of Star Wars. But the grand sweep of the films set against the intensely personal story of corruption, betrayal, and, ultimately, redemption -- it just wasn't there. Playing SWG generated little or no feeling of being a regular person who becomes a hero when swept up in a galaxy-spanning rebellion against an evil empire.

There was no Campbellian hero's journey. There was no saga.

As just one example, the wonderful characters of the films were implemented as NPCs who stood in a fixed location handing out the exact same quests to every qualified player. This would later change somewhat as a detailed tutorial game was added, but the movie characters were still just quest-dispensers.

In short, there was plenty of game, but not enough license-inspired story. Despite the massive amount of effort that went into creating the locations and objects of Star Wars Galaxies as a highly detailed world, it was clearly intended to be more game than world. (We'll come back to the effects of this decision in a bit.)

Problem Two: Non-Combat professions didn't need each other.

The second problem from my perspective is that although SWG seems to have been designed to appeal to different playstyles, the design was flawed in that it didn't go far enough.

A design that truly respected different playstyles would have treated each type of gameplay as worthy of being enjoyed on its own merits. Each kind of role would have needed all the other roles, and to an equivalent degree. Instead (and this was not obvious when the game first launched), non-combat professions were designed as support roles for combat gameplay... and that's as far as interdependency went.

Medic/doctor skills cured battle damage. Entertainer skills removed "battle fatigue." Crafters supplied weapons, armor, and tools for accessing combat content. Even professions such as Creature Handler and Bio-Engineer were about training animals as fighting pets. At the same time, for the most part (crafting being a minor counter-example) none of the non-combat professions were designed to need each other. The existence of each non-combat profession depended almost entirely on being needed by combat-focused players.

In short, combat players needed all the non-combat players, but the non-combat players barely needed each other at all.

This is how SWG started. There were some bugs when it launched, but not many more so than other MMORPGs (including World of Warcraft) have suffered at launch. It's guessed that there were around 250,000-300,000 players in the first months. Some of these were lost (as is usual) in the early going, and some were added when the major enhancements of Jump to Lightspeed (the space part of SWG), vehicles, and player cities were added several months after launch. So SWG didn't have WoW-like numbers, but it wasn't a disaster.

Problem Three: Long-term overemphasis on enhancing combat gameplay.

But this brings me to the third problem, which I consider to be the stake that was slowly driven into SWG's heart. SWG launched with a design that emphasized gameplay over story. (There were some attempts at an overarching story, but it was extremely slow to develop and was abandoned after about three chapters.) Over time, this emphasis became more and more pronounced, in particular with respect to combat gameplay. When a major new bit of content was added, it was almost invariably combat-specific -- if you weren't highly specialized in combat skills, you could not enjoy this content. (Examples include the Corellian Corvette, the Geonosian Caves, the Deathwatch Bunker, the Hero Quest on Tatooine, and the Force-Sensitive Village for Jedi.) Everybody got some new content, so it's silly to say that SWG's developers "hated" non-combat players. But my spreadsheet supports the conclusion that most of the major new content -- the really cool stuff -- was specific to combat gameplay.

As more combat-focused players came to and remained with SWG because that was the kind of content that more and more was being provided, the players who enjoyed SWG's non-combat content -- remember, these were the "support" professions -- began to leave the game. From the kinds of enhancements being provided, non-combat players could not fail to see that their gameplay interests were of relatively low concern to SWG's developers at that time. As the player population shifted toward combat-specific characters, it became harder for these players to find the non-combat characters who could offer the support services that the combat professions needed. But the combat professions still required non-combatant support.

So to placate the increasing numbers of combat-focused players expressing unhappiness with having to depend on non-combat players who were becoming increasingly harder to find, SOE/LA took the easy road: they reduced or outright eliminated the requirements for non-combat support. Buffs (the staple of the healers) were greatly weakened. High-end loot drops were added, devaluing crafting. And the ability of Entertainers to heal battle fatigue was removed completely.

The upshot was that, since these non-combat professions had never been designed to need each other, now no one needed them. Their combat-oriented support skills no longer had meaning or value. It was natural, then, that the players who enjoyed these roles accelerated their departures. And as they left, the need to further eliminate their support functions or replace those functions with automated features grew accordingly.

At this point, the NGE, with its laser-like focus on "kill, loot, repeat" gameplay, probably seemed like a good idea. Literally overnight, the problem of non-combat professions with nothing to do was "solved": virtually all of the non-combat professions were simply stripped from the game.

By this time, many of those who rather enjoyed SWG in its original, relatively evenly-balanced form had left the game. The NGE was the "don't let the door hit you in the butt on your way out" that drove away the remaining diehards.

SWG had now become an Achiever-only game. But as the chart at the bottom of Richard Bartle's original "Players Who Suit MUDs" essay suggests, an Achiever-dominated gameworld is not one of the stable configurations of community; it will collapse into something else.

And that's exactly what happened. SWG -- by which I mean the community of people who played it -- collapsed. (It's an interesting point that SWG's Community Manager, who was generally liked and respected by the players who frequented the official forums, was fired around this time when many players were voicing their extreme displeasure with the changes of the NGE.)

What's important to see here is that the NGE was not some crazy right-angle change in the direction SOE/LA had been taking SWG. It was perfectly consistent with all the incremental changes to boost combat gameplay that had come before -- it was shocking only in its cold thoroughness. (There is a reason why it was immediately dubbed "Order 66.")

What's most peculiar about the long, strange trip of SWG is that the NGE was only the last example of a long-standing practice by SOE/LA: when enough players say they want some particular feature change, give it to them... but give it to them as part of a large set of sweeping changes that radically alter not only the requested aspect of the game but pretty much everything else related to that aspect. (I discussed this in an earlier entry, but it's relevant to this discussion.)

For example, when a significant number of players voiced an opinion that combat abilities and creature/NPC difficulties needed to be rebalanced, what happened was not simply a rebalance -- it was the Combat Upgrade. This not only made sweeping changes to combat abilities; it exposed a "combat level" number of every player character, NPC and creature (including noncombatants) and explicitly associated that level number with game content; it slapped timers on skill usage; it even replaced the simple graphical icons for player actions with garishly-colored and "busy" icons that were harder to distinguish from each other (and that no one had asked for). As with other responses to player requests, the Combat Upgrade evoked loud protests because, once again, it went far beyond anything that anyone had asked for, completely changing things that people liked about the game in order to change a few things they didn't enjoy.

The NGE was just another example of this behavior, albeit one that was even more extreme than usual. What is most ironic about this is that the NGE was a serious effort to address the first problem I described here -- Star Wars Galaxies didn't feel enough like Star Wars. By getting rid of the "Uncle Owen" professions to offer nine "iconic" classes, SOE/LA's thinking was apparently that SWG would feel more like the movies once players no longer needed to define their characters by skills.

With John Smedley's recent comments (in addition to those of ex-SWG developers), I think it's fair to say that the verdict is in on whether this particular approach accomplished what the game's original design did not.

What SOE/LA saw as a "need to" handle the undesirable complexity of a skill-based character model, many of SWG's remaining players saw as a "want to" be able to tell their character's story in the world of Star Wars. Once they were unable to tell their own story through their character's unique skill set, and had to settle for the same story as everyone else in their character's class, there was nothing left for them in SWG.

WoW is evidence that a MMORPG that starts out with such limitations can be relatively popular. SWG is evidence that a MMORPG that starts with story-telling freedom cannot take away such freedom without losing whatever popularity it has.

Originally Posted by DougQB:
Perhaps more importantly, if the examples of Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft are any indication, is there much incentive for developers to consider designing a game like the original version of SWG? Would that market be large enough to justify the development of a major MMOG today?
That's a very good question. I think the answer to both questions is "yes"; the people who liked the original SWG -- despite its shortcomings -- probably still like that sort of thing. And presumably some of them (the ones who haven't sworn off MMORPGs entirely as a result of their treatment in SWG) would be attracted to a new MMORPG that made a point of being designed such that their preferred gameplay interests are respected, rather than just being implemented as a mere support function for combat gameplay (if even implemented at all).

If we don't hear much from these gamers these days, that's understandable -- what game is there for them whose forums they might frequent? What triple-A MMORPG is there that offers them anything like what the early SWG offered? You won't see them until such a game exists. At this point, designing such a game would be a leap of faith by a developer.

I think someday someone will take that leap, and will find reasonable commercial success by serving an underserved market. The only question in my mind is who's going to make that money.

Originally Posted by Kith:
... it's always been my experience that players want to be what they create, not what someone else created....which is why everyone became so upset with the article concerning people wanting to be luke or one really did, and no one was asked, the flimsy excuse that developers didn't want to balance so many profs anymore didn't help. The community recieved no polls, no open testing, was not given the chance for imput...basically those in control announced a week before what the changes would be and that they were coming. So the community as a whole saw their characters they had worked very hard on (rp'er and pvp'er alike) for the last 3 years be obliterated before their eyes. The original NGE rules gave us cookiee cut 9 professions which you couldn't change unless you wanted to foot a massive bill (they did give a 10 free respec device) however at that time there were no talents no way to specialize in the minimal way you can now so...every person that was the same profession as you had the exact same skills, there were no variations and the game was... bleh.
The way that I've come to think of this is that some (perhaps most) online gamers see a MMORPG primarily as a game, while others see it primarily as a world. Some (perhaps most) online gamers primarily want a game to play in, while others primarily want a world to live in.

Those who see a MMORPG as a game get irritated when the rules are changed because it means that all the time they spent learning the old rules was "wasted." But irritation is generally as bad as it gets for the gameplay-oriented online gamer. For those who see a MMORPG as a world, change on the level of the NGE is far more painful because you're not just changing the rules of a mere game -- you're destroying a world.

It doesn't matter that you're replacing that world with a new one. It wouldn't even matter if everyone agreed that the new world was better in every respect than the old world. The people who see a MMORPG as a world consider it a home... and there are few things more wrenching in all of human existence than being told that you can never go home again.

When Berman & Co. wanted to amp up Star Trek: Enterprise, what story did they turn to? They threatened the destruction of Earth. They put "home" at risk. And they did it because they knew the intense emotional connection we feel for home, however we define "home."

The NGE was to Star Wars Galaxies what the Death Star was to Alderaan.

It destroyed home. Not for everyone, but for many.

You can't expect to be loved when that's the result of your actions, even when you think you're doing what's best for your customers over the long run.

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