posted on Wednesday, November 09, 2005 1:50 PM
Shell Games - Part 1
This post is specifically for fans of games-related, car-crash, mass-loathing and psychodrama. For reasons of length, this first post is background, and the next will be comment [now found here].
As most people with an interest in virtual worlds or massively multiplayer games will know by now, Star Wars Galaxies is undergoing some huge changes. Again.
For background, I played this game when it was launched, but I cancelled about a year ago, and thus have no particular axe to grind regarding the nature of what are some pretty fundamental alterations to the nature of the game itself. For the view of the customers, a quick look at the thread titles on the official forums will tell you all you need to know. Suffice to say that you'd have to pay me quite a bit to be community liaison for SOE right now. Which isn't impossible, as they just got rid of the last one. For the viewpoint of the 'Lead Game Play Designer', take a look at his blog, which has something of a besieged feel about it right now (to the extent that I thought twice before linking to it, for fear of helping unleash a pixelante backlash via google). For a corporate l33tsp34k version of what's happening, see this thinly disguised press release on Next Generation.
In summary, SWG was launched about two and a half years ago, based on a design by Raph Koster, author of the rather excellent more-than-just-games-design book A Theory Of Fun (currently in Korea pushing it, I think). Koster is two remarkable things: a brilliant designer and amazingly patient in forums when answering his ill-informed critics.
It would be restrained of me to suggest that Koster's design was not fully implemented by launch. Very little about the game was, with the exception of the graphics engine, which was gorgeous, and capable of moments of aesthetic delight (see a Theory of Fun on that one). Launching before completion is pretty common in the MMO marketplace, and the results for SWG were not good. The game could be fun, but more open than many were used to: people wanted to be told what to do, and there wasn't a lot of that there. The game was very "worldy", but not so "gamey": perfect for someone like me, but coupled to broken skills, the content-lite nature of the game dented initial perceptions in the marketplace. And, as is traditional, the servers crashed on day one.
First, a series of controversial "nerfs" - dramatic reduction in the abilities or strengths of players - generated huge ill-will. Various classes got it in the neck in these updates, and it was never going to be a good thing that two of the most popular classes were prominent: Commandos and "Creature Handlers". Then came a necessary-but-flawed, papering-over-the-cracks job with the "combat upgrade", which fixed a few things at the cost of alienating a good few players (how many will have to wait for Sir Bruce's long-awaited stats update).
But a few days ago, less than a week after billing a significant number of its user-base for an update to the game, Sony Online Entertainment went crazy-ballistic, and announced the game was being altered at the most fundamental level. In truth, SWG is being re-invented, losing the last of Koster's "worldy" design and becoming more "gamey" (as discussed by Tobold in "Digging a Hole With a Lightsaber"). Provocatively, it was clear that these changes had been underway for a long time; that they were clearly going to alienate a significant percentage of the games-playing population; and that they had been developed outside the concept-plans-development-test cycle that had been key to what passes for community-relations in the SWG world. This has led to considerable fury from the player-base, many of whom feel that the changes were deliberately released after the cash-cow of the new expansion had been milked.
Of course, they're right: the timing was not a startling coincidence. What else would a company in crisis do? But that doesn't make it smart.
Anyway, next post I'll be talking about why I, long away from the game, am so interested in the story. There are several reasons for this. One is the classic "business in trouble" process which got SOE to where they are now: this really is a classic which follows all the steps: denial, concealment, admission, action... The other is rather less aloof, and concerns the consequences for players of MMO's in general should this actually work out for SOE (unlikely, but not impossible).