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Virtual Worlds #7: When Galaxies Implode

What happens when you make major changes to a game people are already playing? Mike looks at the recent Star Wars Galaxies overhaul.

Many players view their time commitment to a game as an investment, even if they never intend to cash in on it. Hands up who here still has an Ultima Online account tucked away, or an Everquest character gathering dust? So making drastic changes to a running game world is a thorny proposition for development teams to grasp. Even when making the most minor of changes, if players perceive any aspect of their character has been weakened -- or, in other words, their investment devalued -- negative publicity quickly follows.

Of course, this happens anyway with every patch known to mankind. The choice of whether to nerf regularly or resign the game to an ever-increasing arms race of superiority isn't exactly tough. But the rule of thumb for most MMOs is to make small changes, and gradually.

Exceptions prove the rule, though, and in the last few weeks, the reasons for this particular guideline have become all too clear to players of one particular MMO. Yup, that favorite whipping-boy, Star Wars: Galaxies, received an unprecedented overhaul a couple of weeks ago, replacing the standard combat system with a more action-oriented one, reorganizing the character classes, and simplifying the crafting system. This pissed off most of the player base and introduced a pile of new and interesting bugs into the bargain.

Galaxies always seemed like the red-headed step-child at Sony Online, despite the considerable press and anticipation that surrounded its development. After what was frankly a pretty scrappy release, Galaxies settled into a comfortable rut. Although it never delivered on its play-the-movie potential, subscriber figures hovered around the quarter-million mark for some time, which puts it a touch behind EverQuest II: hardly a stunning success, but a long way from a total failure too.

Despite a brave attempt to introduce some twitch-based elements with its first expansion (Jump to Lightspeed) and a combat system revamp, the game just couldn't get a break. Dedicated hardcore gamers can enjoy it, especially with its detailed and complex crafting system that allows you to construct anything from an armor patch to a city. But it's certainly true that LucasArts' stated desire to build an MMORPG that's friendly to casual players was never achieved.

So, Sony wanted changes, but how did such an unprecedented overhaul get approved? Maybe SOE sees it as a relatively safe, non-business critical place to experiment with different player management techniques. Maybe it was a response to the widespread criticism of the game at launch, and afterwards. But you have to be worried when you infuriate your subscribers to the point where community members are reportedly vandalizing copies of the new $20 Galaxies Starter Pack on store shelves. While that sort of juvenile behavior is disgraceful, perhaps it's a sign of what happens when you change too much, too fast.

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Virtual Worlds provides a regular in-depth exploration of thorny issues, news, analysis, and commentary on everything happening in the massively multiplayer world.

Recent columns:
- Virtual Worlds #6: A Glimpse of Things to Come... Maybe
- Virtual Worlds #5: A Plague Hits Azeroth
- Virtual Worlds #4: Have you been duped?

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Posted: 5 Dec 2005

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