You Have Much to Learn, My Young Padawan

It’s the topic that will not die: Star Wars Galaxies and the New Game Enhancements that completely changed many aspects of how the game played and thus filled many of its most loyal fans with fury.

I really have no business writing about SWG or the NGE; I didn’t enjoy the former and have no personal ties to the latter. I have colleagues and friends who were closely connected to the whole ordeal, and I have no desire to rub salt in wounds that have enough trouble healing on their own. But all the recent hubbub, observations, clarifications, and reluctant rehashings make it hard to resist throwing my coppers into the pot.

Because ultimately, I think people are awfully hung up on the effect and need to pay a little more attention to the cause.

Of course the big lesson from the NGE is that making sweeping and fundamental changes to how an existing MMO plays is going to cost a big chunk of your existing subscribers who happen to love the game just as it is. Everyone knows this now, including Smed and every other developer at SOE. To this extent, I agree that there’s little to be gained from bringing up this point again and again. We all get it, and I doubt any MMO maker is likely to make post-launch changes on such a grand scale again. 

The canceled subscriptions, bitterness, and undying animosity are the effects of the NGE. But what about that pesky cause?

I first heard about SWG when I was writing on Mobhunter. My initial take was one that, I think, a number of people shared: “SOE is making a Star Wars MMO? Holy crap, a new EQ set in the Star Wars universe is going to be the biggest thing ever!” I’m too lazy to dig up the quote, but I am pretty sure I predicted something on the scale of the numbers that WoW currently enjoys. It seemed like a golden combination that Could Not Fail.

While SWG was a success in a financial sense, it didn’t even approach my expectations — in a lot of ways. Primarily because, shockingly enough, SWG wasn’t EQ in the Star Wars universe. Not even close. Rather, what shipped was (from my perspective) far more of a virtual world than a game. And what I wanted was a really good game.

The virtual world part was, for all its bugs, well done. The social aspects of SWG remain, in many ways, far ahead of their time and oodles better than what many current MMOs offer. In fact, it is likely this social factor that continues to inspire passion in those who feel they were betrayed by the NGE. It’s not so much the old game that they can’t let go of, but rather the social experience that it provided.

SWG at launch, and for a good chunk of the time thereafter, was simply missing the one thing that would have made it the game many of us were expecting: content. What was delivered was a sandbox set in the Star Wars universe, and while that appealed to some, it didn’t provide what I and others like me anticipated. I was baffled. How do you release a Star Wars game without freaking Jedi? I wanted to play a noble hero or a dastardly villain flying around in cool ships, not prance around as a dancer or a creature tamer. Updates to the game added activities like (I kid you not) milking, further compounding my confusion. I mean seriously, what the hell?

The purpose of the NGE was to make SWG into what people like me expected all along: an adventure game, not a social experiment. It accomplished that, but at the cost of alienating the existing fan base. Because even though lots of us thought the game fell short, it struck a chord with many and developed a solid and passionate following.

In defense of those who made the decision, nobody had a crystal ball to know what the result was going to be. The gamble was that current players would embrace the new game being merged into their existing world, tell all their friends what a great experience SWG had become, and subscriptions would grow by leaps and bounds. Of course that didn’t happen, but hindsight is… well, you know.

So yes, the NGE was a blunder. But I’d argue that the bigger blunder was delivering a buggy, unfinished product that was so not a Star Wars game. On  personal level, SWG taught me two things I still believe today:

1) As costly as it is to create, there simply is no substitute for quality, handcrafted content.

2) Online games and virtual worlds are not the same thing. If you’re building an MMO, you better be sure which one you intend to make.

Again, I have nothing but praise for the social aspects of SWG. Raph and his crew got that stuff right, and there are many lessons to learn from what SWG (and UO before it) delivered. But if you’re trying to sell an adventure game set in a license chock full of adventure, players will want to, you know, have fun adventures consistent with what they have come to expect from the license.

There can be a middle ground between handcrafted designer-built content and a quality social sandbox that allows players to expand the boundaries of the game world. Just provide a compelling game that includes all the tools players will ever need to tell their own stories within an unforgettable setting that they fall in love with. Deliver that and you will succeed. SWG didn’t, and the NGE was both too much and too little, too late.

The NGE was a mistake. But it’s a mistake that shouldn’t have been necessary.

Edit: A discussion with Cuppycake and subsequent response to her response to my response to Lum, I should clarify that my point #2 above is directed toward the game developer rather than the player. The player shouldn’t feel like he or she has to care about any of it:

Maybe I’m the only one thinking this way, so I could just be a whackjob. But in my mind, this discussion helps illustrate the difference in how you feel playing a game vs. how you think when designing one.

When playing a game (or watching a movie, or reading a book, or whatever) you shouldn’t have to think “okay, this is a virtual world.” If the medium doesn’t make you feel that it *is* a world, then it probably let you down.

When designing a game, I believe you do need to keep things like depth of world and depth of gameplay in mind. Every developer is going to come to decision points where you have to choose between doing something for the sake of immersion or doing something else that makes the game play more smoothly. Your philosophy of what you’re trying to achieve will dictate which direction you should go.

There are different mindsets you take with any creative medium depending on whether you are the builder, the critic, or the audience. Being adept at one does not necessarily mean you are great in the role of another, nor is one role more important or more significant than the others.

I think I’m an ideal audience in a lot of ways, because I’m totally willing to give myself over to the medium if the creator will let me. I’ll jump out of my seat playing a scary game, cry during an emotional scene of a film, or be awed by a well-crafted painting. If the creator does his or her job, I’ll totally immerse myself in the medium as long as something isn’t yanking me out of it.

So in that sense, I agree with you. The *world* needs to be there to pull me in to that depth. But at the same time, there needs to be something more that keeps me. Because hey, I’m in a world already, so the virtual alternative better be damn good.

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