Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

I usually try to be constructive, but every now and then even I need to vent a little bit.

This is one of those times.

A little while ago I fired up my SWG main character and discovered that there'd been a new "chapter." This new content release includes some minor stuff along with two new features: Collections and Heroic Adventures.

"Heroic Adventures" turns out to be raids. Nothing more, nothing less; just raids with a different name. To say I'm not impressed with this is a severe understatement. Did SWG really need a feature like raids? Did it really need to just mindlessly copy WoW (again) to get raids? Was this truly so useful as to deserve the developer time and effort spent on it, rather than on something specific to Star Wars? /shakeHead

But that's as nothing compared to Collections. It's not just that this is basically a Badge Revamp. That would be useless enough. It's not even just that "collections" are a race to see who can be the first to kill a lot of certain types of mobs to get the "Kliknik Killer" or "Graul Mauler" (or whatever) badge on their server, or to kill so many mobs generally that you can get a "Cabinetry" badge of some kind. (Although that actually is pretty lame -- does SWG really not already have enough kill-farming?) Nor is it even that certain locations are obvious as prime spots for certain kinds of collection-item-dropping spawns.

No, what shocked me were the comments from one of the developers. (I won't bother linking to it; SOE has a bad habit of deleting large sections of its official website. I'm asking you to trust me that I'm fairly representing what was said there.) First, he indicated light dismay that players would go to third-party websites and forums to find the best spawn sites for various collections. Well, what did he think would happen? Could he really not have known that any system designed to have deterministic outcomes and known spawn locations wouldn't have all its "secrets" posted within a week for Achievers to race through?

Worse yet, he next expressed surprise that people would (as numerous players came right out and said they'd done) spend several hours a day every day for an entire week camping spawns to try to build a collection. Seriously, this is a fairly amazing admission. If you explicitly build a system in which players collect things by killing mobs in a particular location, what kind of behavior do you think you're going to elicit?

I'm both disappointed and baffled by all this. First, the SOE/LA team cranks out yet more Achiever-specific content; then, SWG's developers claim to be surprised when this content get buzzsawed through in a mere couple of weeks by the Achiever locusts who then unsurprisingly (or, if you're an SWG developer, perhaps surprisingly) object that they're now out of content again, and they're bored, and what's next? (I saw no comments by anyone wondering why SOE/LA felt that purely-grindable content was a good idea in the first place, but perhaps all the non-Achievers left SWG once the NGE made it perfectly clear that they were no longer welcome.)

I freely admit that I'm coming to my content-specific objections from an Explorer point of view. SWG used to be reasonably friendly to those of us who enjoy deep, non-violent content options in our MMORPGs, and I miss that. I'll never be one of those people demanding a "rollback server"; what's done is done. Nor was the original SWG any kind of Golden Age; it had plenty of flaws. Even so, I do miss the original SWG that was more welcoming to Explorers and Socializers. So I don't think the latest batch of Achiever-specific features are good ones, but yes, I'm biased on that score.

Having said that, I don't think I'm being unreasonable in questioning how any professional MMORPG developer could truly be so oblivious as to think that content that's designed to appeal to Achievers isn't going to be immediately: a) grinded out by people with lots of free time, and b) described in great detail all over the Web so that everybody else can grind through the content, too.

Why do I mention all this here? Well, like I said, partially just to vent about it. And I didn't want to post any of this on SWG's official site -- the Achievers remaining in this game wouldn't want to hear it, and I don't want to discourage SWG's developers from posting just because some malcontent like me questions their professionalism. At least over here there might be some non-Achievers who will understand and appreciate the serious points about player-centric MMORPG design that I'm trying to make.

But I also admit to hoping that I won't ever hear any similar "what? people grind our grindable content?" comments from whoever develops a Star Trek MMORPG. I'm really hoping they'll understand the likely effects of filling the game with Achiever-specific content, and would never be surprised that a lot of people will be utterly underwhelmed by yet another uninspired iteration on "kill it and take its stuff" gameplay.

There are many Achievers playing MMORPGs, and they deserve content just like anybody else. Some of them enjoy grinding as something to do that generates a benefit but doesn't require active thought, and it's OK to have content like that even in a Star Trek MMORPG. But I'd like to hope that Star Trek Online would never add pure grind content without also offering more thoughtful content that (IMO) better communicates the core Star Trek experience.

No guarantees, of course. But I can hope.