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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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

16 thoughts on “You Have Much to Learn, My Young Padawan”

  1. great post.

    I was the exact opposite. I loved the sandbox more than the adventure, but when the NGE happened I found myself in a FPS-ish ACTION/Adventure. And you are right, I never expected myself to enjoy the sandbox features, but for some reason I did. Today I would call this the “viva pinata effect”. I expected another EQ, I got a sandbox. I wouldn’t say I “got used” to a sandbox, I think I actually began to see the game as a sandbox, thats why the NGE was so disappointing. Also you didn’t really touch on it, but a lot of the reason why people hated the NGE was that it mitigated a lot of hard work they had already put into the game. This is a surefire disappointment for anyone who has achieved something, and I still see it in game updates today. Yeah there is a point at which you NEED to make something easier and certain content more accessible than it was at launch, but please please don’t ever mitigate someone who has put a lot of time into something (becoming a pre-NGE jedi) and then give people the ability to jump to that level.

  2. This only touches on one small part of your post, but….

    Personally, I think releasing the game without Jedi wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, a proper Star Wars MMO (set in the time frame of Ep 4-6) wouldn’t let ANYONE be a Jedi.

    Even if Jedi are unlockable, eventually you wind up with at least hundreds of Jedi in a universe that’s really only supposed have 4 at any given time. We could probably double that figure if we take into account expanded universe characters that reveal themselves later (or at least ones I’m willing to acknowledge), like Mara Jade.

    So this becomes a problem not unlike my old Star Wars tabletop gaming days: Lots of folks want to be a Jedi because it’s part of the Star Wars experience and they want to live it out, but it just shouldn’t be happening. In tabletop, a smart GM will limit Jedis-per-party to 1 or 0.

    But in an MMO? Tough stuff! The NGE version that allows instant Jedi creation is awful in terms of genre consistency, but the original unlocking version wasn’t much better in the grand scheme of things, because EVENTUALLY you’ll still have so many Jedis running around that Darth Vader will be in a constant flurry of activity snuffing them out (which he should be doing in the game, but of course getting stalked by Vader all the time wouldn’t be fun).

    AND you can go the Sith route. I admit I don’t know much about the zillions of years of Force-User history leading up to the movies, but the movies make it clear that Sith at least come in pairs, and are pretty dang rare IF there’s more than two of them at any given time. So a couple hundred Sith running around a pack of 10 planets? Baaaad.

    Maybe, MAYBE a good Star Wars MMO could go along the lines of the ArchLord route, and only allow a couple Force Users into the universe at any given time, and eventually you have to go back to another way of life so someone else can do it. And again I say MAYBE.

    But on the whole, if people won’t play Star Wars without at least having the option to someday be a Jedi, then they either need to set it in a far far far far different time frame, where Jedi are commonplace, or just scrap the project. It’s silly otherwise.

  3. Awesome post.

    I want to say that I commend SOE for taking risks. Sure, they may not pay off (thus, the risk) but I think every industry needs risk takers and innovative thinkers.

    Both SWG and EQ2 had a lot of innovate ideas, risk, and the devs generally tried to push the boat out more. I’m talking about things like game scope, graphics, full-npc voice etc. Some succeeded, some failed.

    But hey! They tried and kudos for it.

    Other MMOs may be generally “good” and well polished but a lot of them just play it safe. It’s probably reason I don’t like WoW or VG (nothing against them, just my personal opinion).

  4. I’d argue the bigger blunder was delivering buggy, unfinished content at all. The original SWG, the CU and the NGE all fell into that category at launch. It’s a bit hard to convince the customers that your big, exciting fixes to the game are fixes when they’re just as buggy and incomplete as the previous content. (But in brand-new, exciting ways!)

    In fact, I’d generalize from there – don’t try to hide things from the customers. They’re going to notice.

  5. I love doing things in new and different ways as long as there’s a good reason behind it other than just the desire to be different. When I look at features of MMOs, I try to ask “Was this fun?” If the answer is yes, then I ask “What made it fun?” And then I ask “Is there a different way to achieve that same feeling of fun and make it even better?”

    If the answer to the last one is no, then you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it differently. There are some things that have been done in MMOs that, to be frank, it’s really hard to think of some other way to do it that’s better in any way. Critics may call you derivative, but there’s no shame in delivering something you know works well.

    Doing something differently purely for the sake of being different is a dangerous trap that is easy to fall into. EQ2 did at launch, and paid the price for it, I think.

    It seems to me that innovation usually comes not from trying to break out of a box, but rather by giving yourself the freedom to not even realize the box is there.

    I don’t even know if that makes sense. Oh well.

  6. I’ve written about this before, but I will say it again.

    I honestly think that the largest failing of SWG was placing it in the time frame that they did. Yes, at launch, SWG had a serious lack of content. Today, nearly 4 years later, it has a serious lack of content.

    The problem is that the game is set in a time where you know what happened before and you know what comes next. How can you have an MMO with any real content when the ending has already been written? It becomes a design flaw and, ultimately, self defeating. It is dangerous to introduce anything that could significantly alter the flow of the story.

    True, the MMO doesn’t technically HAVE to follow along with the existing story, but Star Wars fans are borderline fanatical. Any time anyong suggests something on the SWG boards that might go even slightly against “canon,” there are 20 posts that pop up in seconds linking articles, stories and entries explaining the “proper” way for the SW universe to exist.

    The overall best thing to have been done would have been to have SWG take place 10 years of so after Return of the Jedi. Yes, the EU has touched upon these years, but it is still wide open. Most important, there are not any movies saying, “This is how it is.” The game could have been much more open-ended in that regard. Without the constraints of trying to fit into a period of time that many people view as sacred ground, the original development team might have been able to build something much more rich than what we had… thus (possibly) avoiding the brainstorming that lead to the NGE in the first place.

  7. The quality of SWG’s initial release goes well beyond social innovations.

    It’s the only MMO I’ve ever played that held an illusion of true wildlife and wilderness. The creatures were well-animated, and some (like fambaa) seemed to wander. There was a strong impression of distance and untouched areas. CoH also has relatively good animations, but even they are more stationary (as I recall, anyway; it’s been a while).

    The lore of the world was witnessed in action, rather than merely dialogue and art. I remember once wandering, by pure happenstance, across a battle between NPC Stormtroopers and Gungans. That sort of experience is invaluable.

    Though they were not made nearly as important and engaging as they could have been, the many small factions (pirates of so-and-so, Tusken raiders, etc.) also aided an impression of a solid RPG world in which a player-character could be tied to things larger than himself. That’s a gameplay feature (not just virtual fluff)… a seemingly dynamic context that qualifies player actions and choices.

    And as Kanzar suggested, the lack of jedi was good design. It would have been better if a few players had actually been able to unlock jedi slots, as was advertised (I left before the NGE, but I remember there were still no jedi after six or seven months). But, as I recall, SOE was pretty clear in media releases about the limited number of jedi slots, so players had no reason to expect many jedi (only to hope they’d be the ones to get lucky).

    The crafting system put its predecessors to shame. MMO gamers still refer back to that system when discussing modern designs.

    The original SWG wasn’t a failed experiment. It certainly had a number of significant design flaws, but it satisfied many gamer desires that few, if any, other MMOs have addressed. I had more than a few fun adventures in SWG, but I never expected adventures in the style of single-player games. Perhaps you were expecting more fixed, linear adventures like that? Adventures can happen in a sandbox.

    Certainly, the developer can’t take a passive role in the emergence of those sandbox adventures, and SWG could have done much more in that regard… if they had re-shaped the game through additions, instead of substitutions. The original game needed revision, but nothing so radical as to prompt a move like the NGE.

  8. I really liked this entry, it sums add my own thoughts about this issue. I played SWG from the beta till the NGE, and even tried it for a few weeks. But I couldn’t bear myself to enjoy, so I left and never came back.

    But, as someone else already stated, people usually miss what for me was the most innovative aspect of the game. It was, AFAIK, the first real attempt on leaving the loot-directed-gameplay in benefit of the crafting.

    EVERTHING people wore or used was crafted. Until the Kashyyyk expansion loot was nearly non-existant. You could actually be a crafter and feel that you it was your place in the game. And the skill systems leave room for adventuring skills to go out with your friends to enjoy the [few, I will concede that] content.

    I enjoy crafting, and craft in every game I play, but I have never found such a complex and purposeful crafting system as the one in SWG. I miss it too much.

    PS: BTW, there were some BIG fresly introduced bugs in the crafting the weeks previous to the NGE. Bugs that affected greatly the high-end crafting. This bugs weren’t fixed a year after the NGE release. They switched the focus to adventuring and forgot about crafting a bit too much.

  9. I found SWG a breath of fresh air — thank god it wasn’t yet another DIKU dominated by group**** and raid**** (derogatory labels I use but will refrain from posting, but hey if Smed can prattle about “Carebears”*, maybe I should use my labels, too.) I quit long before the NGE (could not stomach the pvp posturing), but any company that so cravenly disregards its player base deserves all the vitriol directed at it. Hindsight not required.

    *Reference Smed used in an interview concerning Vanguard.

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