In November 2005, Sony Online Entertainment drastically revised its licensed Star Wars Galaxies massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) with a sprawling package of changes collectively dubbed the "New Game Enhancements."
Two months beforehand, MMOG consultant Jessica Mulligan had spoken at the 2005 Austin Game Conference in Austin, Texas, on the first annual "MMOG Rant" panel. Mulligan railed against publishers who, she said, were committing exactly the same mistakes they'd been committing for 20 years: "coding before designing, changing a game after launch, ignoring the community of players, launching before the game and team [are] ready ..."
"Don't change the game after launch." After Sony Online released its NGE, Star Wars players dramatically confirmed Mulligan's lesson, much as the Hindenburg conveyed an important message about hydrogen. Yet like "Never fight a land war in Asia," this lesson cannot be taught, only learned. Each generation, and publisher, must learn it anew.
Has SOE learned this lesson? It may not matter.
[Disclosure: Working through a temp agency, I spent five months in early 2003 writing mission dialogue for Galaxies. I was otherwise uninvolved in the project and have neither feelings nor agenda about SOE or LucasArts.]
In June 2003, Star Wars Galaxies launched - at least six months too soon - with an overambitious design, unfinished code and poor content tools. Even so, the game attracted around 300,000 subscribers, a respectable showing then. A year later, World of Warcraft debuted and redefined "respectable." At both SOE and its licensor, LucasArts, WoW envy grew strong.
LucasArts supervises SWG closely. The LucasArts SWG producer, a licensing and marketing executive, approves and often dictates all content. At launch, this producer was Haden Blackman; Blackman's post-launch successor was Julio Torres. Torres, an avid World of Warcraft player, strongly wanted SWG to feel more iconic - more Star Wars-y - and, by implication, more WoW-sy. He and other LucasArts executives, and a few SOE executives, wanted a simpler SWG where players could start smoothly, see a clear direction for advancement and enjoy characteristically fast-paced Star Wars action.
SWG's 2004 space expansion, Jump to Lightspeed, credits Torres as associate producer. JtL introduced a twitch combat system. "We tried a turn-based system but it was too slow. We had to change the engine to be more real-time," Torres told WarCry in December 2004. "Now we have to get the ground game to raise the bar. JtL should take us far, but if we don't raise the quality of the ground game, it won't carry us through into the future."
Players generally liked Jump to Lightspeed. But in April 2005 came the "Combat Upgrade," a major ground-game revamp - SOE called it a "rebalancing" - that emphasized fast action. Players considered it poorly implemented, buggy and slow. Sony Online CEO John Smedley addressed protesters in an official forum post that, significantly, talked in game design terms: "The Combat Upgrade was [crucial] for the long-term health of the game. In order to make the experience in SWG more diverse and to breathe new life into this game, we felt it was important for us to entirely overhaul the current system and to make sure that it's balanced properly. Are we finished? Not by a long shot ..."
This was the attitude LucasArts executives expressed: To increase subscribers, fix the game. It makes perfect sense - assuming subscribers think they're playing a game.
On November 3, 2005, SOE stunned players by announcing surprising "New Game Enhancements" that would go live on November 15. Why delay the announcement until two weeks before launch? "There were several other announcements related to the Star Wars franchise going on at the time," Torres told GameSpy, "so we wanted to make sure that something this big didn't get lost in the shuffle."
As WoW barreled toward 5 million subscribers, SOE launched SWG's Publish 25. The NGE replaced the combat system with a shooter-style twitch game, reduced the value of crafting and entertaining, and collapsed 34 professions into nine classes. Jedi Knight powers, once obtained only after torturous grinding, were now widely available. Creature Handlers and Bio-Engineers, previously stunted by the CU, vanished.