Reflections Occasioned by a Five-Year Anniversary
My very first experience with MMORPGs probably ruined me for life when it comes to appreciating other online games. I played around a bit with MOOs and MUDs but wasn’t really into the idea of online gaming during the Ultima Online and Everquest period. I did play what was then called World War II Online (now called Battleground Europe, and still going despite being the most punishingly unrewarding (which, according to the masochistic logic of most gamers, doesn’t mean it wasn’t/isn’t fun!) game I have ever played. EVE is a game of checkers by comparison). My first experience of a large scale MMORPG was therefore Star Wars Galaxies.
It was 5 years ago, in November of 2005, that Sony Online Entertainment scrapped the first version of SWG and implemented the New Game Enhancements (NGE). I stuck it out for a few more months, and then joined the horde of rats scurrying down the anchor chain.
When I started playing SWG I was utterly and completely hooked, sold on the idea of virtual worlds from the moment the tutorial (an embarrassingly primitive affair which featured the now infamous “dancing Imperial Officer”) dumped me outside the spaceport in Coronet on Corellia. I hadn’t even got my bearings when there was a peal of thunder and it began to rain. That is exactly how long it took me to part with my immortal soul.
Naively, I assumed that SWG was like every other MMORPG out there in its basic mechanics. It wasn’t. Now is neither the time nor the place to rehearse the reasons for the game’s self-mutilation that left it little more than a WoW wannabe. . . Oh hell, who am I kidding, any time is the perfect time to discuss such idiocy. In retrospect, after playing several other MMOs of various kinds, I’ve come to realize that the reason SWG made such an impression on me is not simply because it popped my MMORPG cherry, but because it was trying to be a kind of game that is still strikingly rare in the MMORPG marketplace: an adult game.
What follows is part reflection, part elegy, part rant, all in memoriam for one of the most promising MMORPGs never to last the distance. But my purpose is a serious one. SWG‘s failure raises numerous issues, but the central one is an issue that still plagues the MMORPG industry: the unwillingness of developers to stop pandering to those players who want childish games.
Only now, at the end, do you understand the power of the dark side
Its combat mechanics were very unlike other MMOs. Its career system was completely unlike other MMOs. Rather than what is still the norm–being locked into a level-based progression where your character is dedicated to one particular specialization–you could develop your character in a recognizably real-world fashion. It was entirely possible for you to promiscuously combine careers in virtually unlimited combinations (especially if you weren’t overly concerned about achieving mastery in any one of them). Traditional MMO players and traditional RPG players especially, of course, hated this. It required a little more intellectual work than they were used to (the traditional level-up mechanic takes pretty much all the decision-making out of your hands when it comes to developing your career and offers instead the ability to play with the numbers that define the capabilities of that single career). Plus it was just different. As I’ve discussed before, when players lament loud and long that they want games that are new and different it is best, overall, not to believe them. On the other side, the developers were facing brand pressures from Lucasarts, and marketing pressures from Sony. So they caved. We got the combat “upgrade” designed to satisfy the twitch crowd. We got the ability for every player and his or her droid to become a Jedi. We got the New Game Enhancement and “iconic” careers that were designed to make the entire experience feel more “Star Warsy.” The whole thing added up to a completely generic heap of Bantha poodoo. SWG lingers on, of course, because Sony doesn’t actually kill any of its games outright. It just leaves them on life-support in a semi-vegetative state. Bitter much? Me?
Of course it wasn’t as simple a situation as I am making it out to be. The game certainly had its problems. It was buggy as all get out when released. Clearly it was also overly ambitious even considering the substantial resources of both Lucasarts and SOE that were placed behind it. In retrospect it is also pretty obvious that the developers didn’t make a terribly smart choice about the publisher they jumped into bed with; of course, trying to pick a game publisher is a lot like trying to pick the least syphilitic whore in a brothel. I suspect there were more than a few internal organizational issues as well.
While doing a bit of research for this post I unearthed a couple of pieces by Timothy Burke, now a History professor at Swarthmore, specializing in Popular Culture and African History, and also a contributor to gaming blog Terra Nova. He was a beta tester for SWG and wrote a thoughtful account of his impressions (it is in an antique blog format,so you need to scroll down to the June 24 2003 entry). He provides a clearsighted look at the early game (by which I mean that his observations accord with my own!). He points to the solidity of some of the core design elements (the fact that NPC creatures are designed and behave as if they inhabit a real predator-prey eco-system, for example, was ahead of its time; it is something I don’t see at all in the more developed (in some ways) LOTRO, for example). He also clearly understood that the game would not appeal to everyone, accurately forecasting that it would be a paradise for role-players, for example, but a pain in the arse for ego-maniacs who (horrors!) would have to buy their weapons and armor from someone else rather than picking them up for free in some uber-133t quest. He identified the existence of a lot of discontent with the game from a certain group of players even in the Beta phase. It was this group of players who were to prove both vocal and relentless and who ultimately found a receptive ear from someone on high (accusations are still flying as to whether the subsequent collapse of the game was due to a nervous publisher, and overweening IP holder, or a spineless development team). Burke was aware that the game had its share or problems but was nevertheless eagerly anticipating its launch.
A mere four months later (a blink of an eye in MMOG time) and Burke had had enough and voiced his discontent in another piece, “The Mystery of SWG.” It is another engaging piece of analysis (the more I’ve read of his work, the more I’ve been impressed with Burke as a blogger) but it almost feels as if it were written by someone else. Announcing that “Star Wars: Galaxies curdles faster than any MMOG in my experience” Burke proceeds to outline what he calls the Seven Deadly Sins of SWG:
- a near-total lack of immersive engagement or rich content resonant with the Star Wars universe
- a weakly developed or contradictory incentive structure for gameplay
- a skill and profession system that remains broken or meaningless in many cases
- a messy, unenjoyable system for player-vs-player combat that creates gameplay that bears absolutely no resemblance to the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion in Star Wars
- a muddled and often undifferentiated combat system
- a viciously boring system for character advancement
- poorly managed development process (including the poor quality of communication to players and use of feedback supplied by players).
I find Burke’s discussion of SWG to be fascinating for several reasons. First, because he was right about so many aspects of the game but very wrong about others and about the trajectory and design focus of the game as a whole. He argues in his Beta review for example that the game was not doing anything very revolutionary but was instead just re-packaging traditional MMO elements. I would argue that the advantage of time and distance demonstrates that the game was trying to do some revolutionary things in terms of the genre but that no one wanted to storm that particular barricade. Even more fascinating is the degree to which Burke ends up joining, in effect, the group of complaining players about whom he voiced many reservations in his Beta review–and he doesn’t seem to be aware of that fact. His article is an engaging, well-written, careful piece of analysis (not at all like this blog post, in other words!). But its underlying assumptions about MMORPGs are exactly the same as those shared by many of the barely literate frothers that I saw so often on the SWG forums. That fact tells us something important, I think, about how deeply embedded are some of the assumptions concerning what makes a “good” game. Even if we study games (as Burke was doing at the time and went on to do) and even if we place a high value on supporting innovation or revolutionary breaks with past design and play concepts, we can still end up sharing a bed with the thoughtless and ill-conceived rantings of the self-absorbed.
I’ll point out a couple of the ways in which Burke’s rhetoric represents a more elevated version of standard player whining strategies in a minute. But what is telling is the overall conceptual framework that governs his later essay. If there are issues with the game, if the game isn’t “working” in whatever sense, then it must be the fault of the developers. What is not even on the horizon is the idea that the fault may lie with players themselves (I’m reminded of how much the same rhetorical strategy is beloved by politicians; as Rick Shenkman points out, for today’s politician, “the public” is God, and one can never, ever, ever suggest that they might be anything less than intelligent and rational and well-informed in their desires and decision-making). If players are complaining, those complaints must be legitimate. And they should be listened to. And acted upon. Unfortunately, they ultimately were. While Burke may have felt that the developers weren’t listening to him at the time, someone finally did, and the NGE was almost a point-by-point response to Burke’s Seven Deadly Sins.
Listening to your players, and other really stupid design decisions
Burke makes some good points, I think, especially with regard to the repetitive nature of the tasks you were often required to perform. To be fair, however, that was probably one of the few concessions that SWG made to conventional MMORPG design and obviously not much has changed in that regard. Most MMOs are still grindfests of the first order; clearly they wouldn’t still be so if grinding didn’t answer some need in players. It isn’t difficult to see what that is: grinding is an activity that is safe, comfortable, incremental in its challenges if it is challenging at all; it doesn’t require people to take risks, move outside their comfort zone; it allows people to drop into a preferred mode of action and then feel powerful and in control over and and over again.
He also makes a good point about the fundamental problem with the game design being that you are forced to level up by producing a lot of stuff that no one wants. . .but he is right for the wrong reasons. This was actually never an issue for me. I was there right at the start, so as I was leveling up so was everyone else. People brought the lowly stuff that I produced because they couldn’t use or couldn’t afford better. This model, however, only works if you have a steady supply of new players to buy all the low-level widgets that everyone is creating. But SWG’s “failing” in this regard was that for the first couple of years you were only allowed one character per server. Other games typically deal with the crap widget problem by allowing players to level up other avatars, who thus need that low-level stuff. When you have a game that adopts a crap widget model, and only allows one character per server, and is not attracting sufficient new players, you have problems. Clearly there are incompatible design criteria here.
At the same time, Burke’s dissection of SWG is a much more eloquent example of exactly the kind of criticism that I saw so often on the boards. I didn’t, for example, see the developers not listening to players or not taking their concerns seriously. That, in fact, is the standard whine of any gamer who sees something change in the game that he or she does not personally agree with. Because the developers didn’t listen to them they surely can’t be listening to anybody! For my money, the developers were actually too responsive to player criticism. Instead of adopting the standard EVE approach to criticism (“If you don’t like it you can fuck off back to WoW“) they tried to be all things to everyone with predictable results. I didn’t find the advancement system “weak or contradictory” or the profession system to be broken or meaningless. This again is the standard gamer rhetorical tactic. If something isn’t working the way you want it to, it is “broken” (insert appropriate emoticon for the accompanying melodramatic diva swoon). The charge of a “muddled and undifferentiated combat system,” meanwhile, is exactly the kind of thing I saw from people who delight in the following kind of rants: “The brawler class has a 23 melee damage modifier while the Ranger has a 24 modifier so clearly the ranger is OP when you factor in the 12% resistances of the lightwave armor with its 65 base encumbrance. . .” God I hate those people. If I wanted to play a fucking spreadsheet I would become a CPA. I heartily wish people who like this kind of stuff would just become accountants and leave the rest of us to game on in peace instead of insisting that our games become actuarial tables.
Burke offers a number of criticisms of SWG‘s lead designer, Ralph Koster, and some of them are deserved. Nevertheless, when the history of MMORPG game development is written, Ralph Koster and team’s work on the original SWG will be regarded as one of its brightest and most innovative moments–and also one of its greatest failures. Not because of the flaws in their game design, but because they lacked the wherewithalto resist a set of expectations that, if resisted, could have paved the way for significantly more innovative MMORPG development than we have now. Publishers expected a blockbuster, Lucasarts expected a kiddie toy, players expected Everquest. Am I over-stating things a bit here? Well, put it this way. I don’t know of any other MMORPG where sizable groups of players are spending considerable amounts of time and treasure (still!) to develop emulators designed to rollback to a previous version of a game that is still live. . .and where quite a few people still seem to be keen on playing that earlier SWG (just one of these emulators, Galaxies Reborn, boasts a community of about 6000 people as of this writing). Clearly, if SWG was as broken as Burke would like to have us believe, then there are a lot of people for whom it was broke so good.
It is telling, however, if you read the Pre-CU Emulator forums, that the reason why they are trying to recreate the earlier SWG is not really because of specific gameplay elements. Rather, what you hear most often is players talking about their nostalgia for the pre-CU “community.” You’d be justified in being more than a little sceptical of that claim. MMORPGs always have a “great community”. . .for the first 6 months. By that time all the OCDers with their Red-Bull drip and catheters have maxed out five separate characters, the familiar battle lines of PvPers vs. Carebears, etc. are all being re-drawn across the new terrain, each new patch produces a cascade of whining as adults start acting like kids who have had their lollipops stolen. And suddenly you are WoW. (Just kidding! Sort of.) In this case I was there. I know what they mean. I haven’t seen anything like that early SWG community since.
Design inspires, creates, facilitates, and/or frustrates behaviors. Community itself is in part a series of behaviors that are inspired, created, facilitated, and/or frustrated by the environment with which people interact. It is also, however, a kind of surplus, a form of emergent behavior that happens when people begin to adapt to and shape their environment (and hence, recursively, themselves) in ways that the original designers did not envision. It is not, therefore, an inherently positive thing. It is just as possible to have a toxic community as it is to have “family values” that are hate-mongering. Looking back now I can see that many of the emergent aspects of SWG player behavior occurred in large part because there were elements in the game that were broken, or had not yet been implemented.
I’m not a real doctor, but I play one online
For example, in the earliest days of the game you had to visit a doctor to heal yourself from combat trauma. Playing as a trainee medic, I set myself up in the city of Tyrena, in the northern part of Corellia. The hospital saw a steady stream of people coming in day and night. Mostly your reward was the XP from the healing activity, but people would also tip you. More to the point, the hospital was a place where you met people, talked with them (many forms of healing, especially wound treatments, were not instantaneous, and there was always a queue for doctor services) and exchanged gossip about the game world. Sometimes you were in character, sometimes not. The hospital was not designed as a social center, it just became one.
Another example–and most everyone who played SWG will remember this–is the crowded mess outside the starport at Coronet in particular, but to a lesser extent at all capital cities of the starter planets (Naboo, Tatooine). You would walk out of the starport and your framerate would momentarily drop to zero as your system struggled to assimilate the usually dozens, but sometimes more, characters grouped outside. Some were waiting for friends, some were forming hunting parties, most were engaged in some kind of commercial activity, either shouting out advertisements for goods that were for sale on the spot, or were available at their factory. In part this was necessary because the vendor system was broken to start off with and it was many months before it worked well. Whatever the reason, the end result was not only something that felt real-world (a crowded multi-purpose public square) but also very Star Warsy (when you think about the Star Wars mythos, so many of its spaces are densely packed social spaces: the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” at Mos Eisely, the jammed urban milieu of Coruscant, etc.).
Unfortunately, one of the annoyances of real community is that it takes time to work with it. The development team was assailed with complaints and one strand of these complaints was that people didn’t want to wait. For anything. They wanted, in effect, their gameplay to be efficient. Get in. Level up. Move on. So the developers gradually eliminated everything that took time. The planetary shuttle ports also used to function as social spaces. Force people to wait for a bus, and they start talking. Or doing stupid things (dancing, etc.). Or–and this happened to me several times–panhandling. But 15 minutes was too long to wait for a shuttle, for most people. So the developers reduced it. Which may seem like a perfectly reasonable compromise. The problem, however, is that once you start down the road listening to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am crowd, it never lets up. Because there will always be some perceived block to perfect efficiency. So during my time playing I watched the wait for shuttles become shorter and shorter: ten minutes, five minutes. By the time I left it was basically arrive, jump on, get off. No time for any kind of interaction with anyone. After I quit the game, the developers took the next obvious step and gave everyone their own personal shuttle craft, rendering every shuttle station nothing more than a pair of ornamental bull titties.
The same thing happened with the hospitals. The game began progressively to remove some of the doctoring functions; finally, with the NGE, everyone was given the ability to heal themselves in a basic way, which was all that most players needed. The whining of those players who wanted to, in essence, play the game more efficiently, and didn’t want the inconvenience of having to go somewhere to be healed, was acceded to, and before you knew it, the hospitals everywhere were completely deserted. Interplanetary travel was made easier (wait times also reduced here), the vendors were fixed and then “improved” and the result was a deserted starport in every city (although to tell the truth, by this point in the game so few people were left to play that the lack of population density was probably also an important factor).
Learning to Love your Own Navel
I’ll have more to say about the issue of space in general in a subsequent post. For now, it is important to note these spaces in SWG that both simulated inhabited, contested spaces in the Star Wars universe and functioned as real spaces (players were communicating, organizing, selling one another stuff) didn’t just happen because there was something wrong with some aspect of the game. I believe they were outgrowths of what was at the start a coherent vision for what the developers wanted SWG to be.
It is, however, a vision that many players didn’t respond to at all. Typical in this regard is Burke, who notes that he was drawn to SWG because as a second-generation MMORPG it promised to take “MMOGs beyond their early limitations.” When push comes to shove, however, that really isn’t what he wants.
Setting up character advancement in this manner means that almost everyone is going to grind because there is no way to have fun “going slow” that has anything to do with character development. The only “slow” things that are fun to do for such a player are exploring the gameworld and socializing with other players, which are exactly the features which are NOT persistent, which leave no mark on the gameworld, which change nothing. The entire hallmark of the MMOG genre is its persistence: to shunt people into non-persistent activities when they want to have fun, and to insist on making them grind when they want to make a mark on the gameworld, when they want to matter within it, is to indulge in an ultimately self-destructive sense of the genre’s possibilities [emphasis in original].
I agree with him completely about the importance of player’s making their mark on the game world (more about that at a later date). But notice the narrowness of vision, the literal interpretation of that idea. The only way to really matter is to physically and persistently “mark” the game world in some way. It is also an extraordinarily ego-centric view of play. Nothing encapsulates the narrowness of vision and ego-centrism of this approach to play as much as Burke’s contention that the social “doesn’t change anything.” From what I’ve said above it is obvious that the social element of SWG made a huge impact on me but that impact would not have been visible. It left no “mark” on the actual game world.
Unless. Unless you count players as part of the game world. It is kind of obvious that players are part of the game world, isn’t it? But see how they are missing in any real sense from Burke’s account? Interactions with others changed me. I’m sure that my interactions probably made an impact on others in some ways. That was one of the things that I as a player wanted from the game world and which I treasure still. However I didn’t need someone to erect a damned monument to my glory in the sands of Tatooine as testament to that fact.
Moreover, even if we take only the narrowest, most self-centered view of the social element and see–as, I would argue, most players of MMORPGS do see–other players as essentially background props and scenery to their own epic adventure, then the importance of a vital, meaningful social element to the game is paramount. It creates the gameworld. But don’t our games nowadays include many of these social elements? No, not really. A fellowship or a raid is not a real organic social element. It is a gameplay mechanic, pure and simple, a selection you make in order to get a task done, just as you might select a particular kind of weaponry and skills to go after a particular kind of monster. The fact that it involves other people is incidental. A crowded hospital in Tyrena, or a lag-inducing chaotic market of spammers and scammers outside a Starport is a social element that emerges organically and helps to create the look, and feel and action of the place. Without players themselves creating the look and feel, the unexpected and unpredictable behaviors that make virtual worlds feel authentic (because it doesn’t make sense, exactly, to talk about a place like the SWG universe as being “real”), you could be playing the same game mechanics in a series of infinitely replaceable backdrops. In most MMORPGs, that is in fact exactly what you are doing.
But the social is, potentially at least, not just part of the scenery, but part of the gameplay dynamic. If we think about gameplay in terms of affordances on the one hand, and resistances on the other (those things that facilitate player actions and those things that provide the constraints necessary to create gameplay) there are a few conventional ways to think about these two factors. One is to think about player skills: which skills do they get when, and what challenges will they not be able to tackle without a certain skillset. It is possible to think about items (armor, weapons, crafting materials) in the same way. Lastly, money is one of the major mechanisms of affordance and resistance, the balance between providing players sufficient funds to do something, but limiting their funds (or coming up with creative ways to subtract funds) to force players to make tough decisions.
There is no reason why the social can’t be thought of as a similar mechanism of affordance and resistance. Now it is true, developers have been coming round to thinking about the social as an affordance. Often, however, they do this in a bassackward way. If you and I group together I will be able to buff your stats and you will be able to tank for me. This quid pro quo model, however, is clunky, and open to exploitation and failure. What if you get stuck with a group with three healers and one tank? The tank gets good service but also has the pretty heavy expectation of trying to keep three people alive. This leads to the endless rounds of “complete the set” grouping that you see in so many MMORPGs. “Sorry, we already have a mage, what we are missing is a ranged DPS character. . .” and we are back in the nerdy spreadsheet realm. I’m interested in inhabiting a virtual world, not playing endless rounds of speed dating. A real social affordance is one based on distributed benefit. If we group together, I get a benefit regardless of who or what you are. If we form a group of three, all our armor is stronger, for example. Or our overall XP gain is enhanced.
The problem with many MMORPG designs is that these scales tend to be unequally weighted and typically become more unbalanced the more you waste time listening to players. Obviously the first impulse of most people, even if intellectually they know this won’t be satisfying in the long run, is to maximize their affordances in a game. That is a big part of the fun we take in games, after all, getting to revert to a child-level fantasies of ruling the world, dominating our surroundings, getting it all our own way and feeling powerful. By contrast, I’m certainly not arguing that games need to become all about resistances! That is the grim character of the “real” adult world. Crafting an adult game world requires a balance between affordances and resistances, and it takes a developer with a strong vision for their game, a willingness to hold to that vision, and a fair degree of independence from their publisher/distributor to achieve that balance in the first place and to hold the line against all-comers.
Developers and players yammer endlessly about the need for balance in their MMORPGs. It is odd, therefore, that the social dimension remains one that in most games is radically out of balance from the get-go. Some games explore the social as a mechanism of gameplay affordance. Few, however, seem to include the social as a set of resistances. The fact that SWG did include this was one of the things that made it special. The game design started from the premise that every set of game mechanics had to balance affordance and resistance in order to present players with the kind of cost/benefit dilemmas that make for great gameplay. In real life, if we want to get things done, there is often a level of social resistance that needs to be overcome. If I want someone to help me out with something, it is rarely effective for me to just go up to them and demand results. A little conversation, a little schmoozing. If you want anything out of me, I’m going to demand at least dinner and a movie. It was that kind of social cost that Koster et al tried to build into the game. You get yourself cut up in a knife fight? You needed to do a little schmoozing to get that taken care of.
Unfortunately, as I pointed out, many players hated it. More to the point, they still tend to hate this kind of thing in games. Very few games I’ve played include the social as a gameplay dynamic in any meaningful sense. The social elements, therefore, are now in most games exactly what Burke (wrongly) suggested they were in SWG: largely extraneous elements, easily ignored by most players. You might be thinking, well, why should players be forced to socialize? That in fact is often the way the whiners on the boards phrase it. Because, my strident friend, games are all about forcing people to do things. Those things are called rules and they are what make games. Why should players be forced to grind experience in order to acquire new skills? Why should players be forced to face groups of creatures rather than engage in single combat? Because that is all considered to be a core part of the MMORPG experience. The fact that social mechanisms are not seen that way suggest that all the talk about MMORPGs being a vehicle for a social experience is largely a pile of crap. The standard MMORPG is actually more of a Massively Single-Player game. If there is socializing that takes place, it is a strange kind of solipsitic socializing. It demonstrates the degree to which so many of our games have become designed around the idea that what players want to do in their spare time is engage in childish power trips of self-sufficient all-powerful domination. Do some players want that? Of course. Do all players? It doesn’t matter, because if you want to play around in virtual worlds that is pretty much what all these games steer you towards. It is the same logic that drives Facebook and twitter: the real social is messy and inconvenient and needs to be replaced by an essentially frictionless environment that offers no resistance to our fantasy of self-containment.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to suggest that all that was needed to save SWG (and to save many current MMORPGs) is to bring in social gameplay. The disappearance, for the most part, of social affordances and resistances from the SWG gameworld was the end result of a larger failure of nerve. The developers took their eye off the ball in a major way and ensured that the New Game Enhancements would be about as successful as New Coke. This is where the issue of an adult versus a childish game becomes so important. Note that the first of Burke’s deadly sins was that the game had a “lack of immersive engagement or rich content resonant with the Star Wars universe.” I saw this comment bandied around a bit when I was playing, and my initial reaction was the the price of crack must have taken a nose dive. The world I was playing in had Wookies, stormtroopers, droids, Bothans, Twi’leks, Darth Vader, Jabba, Tatooine and Jawas, Naboo and Gungans, Dantooine (“They are on Dantooine. . .” and now so was I!). What the hell game were the complainers playing? Have a look at the original SWG trailer. I dunno, looks pretty Star Warsy to me! (Seeing that trailer again, particularly the animation at the beginning where the Lucasarts logo looks tentatively through a shining doorway into the brave new world beyond still fills me with both nostalgia and sorrow). Then we got the NGE and suddenly it all became horribly clear. Players were offered a small set of classes that were supposedly modeled after iconic Star Wars characters. Some of these were distinctively part of that mythos: Jedi, for example, or Bounty Hunter, and Smuggler. But the larger intention was to simply make the game look like every other MMORPG. So you had Trader, Spy, Commando, Medic, and Officer classes. Officer? When you think Star Wars do you think “Officer” or even “Medic” for that matter? But it was the developers repeated mantra that these were “iconic” Star Wars types that were supposed to help players feel more Star Warsy that finally clued me in to what was going on and how very different that was from my own set of expectations.
As soon as I stumbled across the fact that there was this game called Star Wars Galaxies in development (and I don’t even remember how I found out about it now) I knew that it offered me the chance to fulfill what I thought was the dream of every Star Wars fan. To live in the Star Wars universe. To watch the twin suns go down on Tatooine, to hang out in a hive of scum and villainy. . . I wanted to be in that space. I didn’t, however, want to relive any of the events of the movies. I had no particular interest in becoming a Jedi. I didn’t want to be Han Solo, or Greedo. But it suddenly dawned on me that a lot of players did. Possibly even the majority of players, although not as big a majority as those players would have you believe (and as the subsequent post-NGE subscriptions indicated).
This next claim will make no sense to anyone who thinks that either games or science-fiction are inherently childish. If that is what you think, however, I have no idea why you are reading this blog in the first place! What all this boils down to is the core difference between an adult sensibility and a childish one when it came to SWG. Adult players (and adult is not measured in accumulated years) wanted to carve out their own story, create their own space, in a universe with all the characters, architecture, geography, weapons, and vehicles of the Star Wars mythos. The children, however, simply wanted to relive that childhood fantasy where they whaled on the family furniture with a broomstick while making whooshing and buzzing noises. They didn’t want to live in that universe, they wanted to relive the movies. They didn’t want to go through all the imaginative work of creating their own character, they simply wanted to inhabit a pre-formatted shell with a defined path of progression so they could just get on with making the whooshing and buzzing noises.
Star Wars Galaxies started out as a game catering to the first group, a game that allowed you to “live the adventure” (as the trailer promises) in an environment that was essentially your sandbox. We provide the environment, the developers seem to be saying, and you provide the story. For at least a year and a half, during the entire time that the whiners were complaining that the game was “broken,” I and many other players I knew did this quite happily. Then it became a game not so much for children as for the childish.
I would dearly love to know what Burke’s reaction was to the NGE and the subsequent fate of the game. Because the terrible irony of his criticisms, well-founded and thoughtful as some of them are, is that those kinds of arguments led pretty directly to the NGE–a move that effective destroyed the possibility for the one criteria most important to Burke in his article: the sense that the player matters. In that regard I firmly believe that Koster et al had it right the first time; those of us who wanted the Star Wars universe as a sandbox in which to build our own stories had it right. The original tag line of the game was “Live the greatest Star Wars saga ever told. Yours.” It can’t be your saga if you are inhabiting an “iconic” template. It can’t be “yours” if you are trying to be Boba Fett. This also was the reasoning behind one of the most controversial aspects of the original game design (on which the developers caved, like pretty much everything else), the fact that you could only have one character per server. If you really want players to feel that they matter, give them only one character. Nothing vitiates the feeling of being part of a universe like the knowledge that if you screw something up, or this decision doesn’t work out, you can just spawn another character and re-live your life differently. This pretty much ensures that none of your gameplay decisions will mean much. By contrast, if you only have that one character to play with, your career decisions are a lot more loaded. Now as I indicated earlier, adopting the one-character strategy in conjunction with other gameplay elements probably wasn’t the best move. But the developers were probably banking on players’ willingness to take responsibility for their characters, something that we now know most players just aren’t interested in doing. Indeed most players expect the game to take responsibility for their characters: I want to be able to do X with my character and I can’t so the game is broken so make it so that I can do X with my character or I’m going to take my ball and go home so there. Never mind if it was not a part of the game’s overall vision that you should be able to do X with that character. Of course, this gameplay mode doesn’t work for those players who are driven primarily by an efficiency model of gaming. It doesn’t work for those players who are obsessed with “bang for the buck” and who understand “bang” only in terms of quantity of play rather than quality of play. There was no realistic way that the original SWG was going to appeal to those players; instead of accepting those facts, the developers changed the game, only to find that other games were doing that more limited kind of gameplay much more effectively; they had alienated the kind of player likely to be most loyal to their game in order to try and reach those players that are the most notoriously fickle.
Currently Residing in the “Where are they Now?” file
You might feel that I’ve over-stated this adult/childish dimension to the problem with SWG. But you only have to look at the subsequent development of the game. Following the departure of a large part of the original game’s fanbase, the post-NGE developers did some back-pedaling, put back in some of the class specializations that had been eliminated, added experience trees and the like. It was all too late. Most players had moved on. Most would never trust the game enough to come back. What did the developers do to try and entice players into their gameworld? Integrated the game with an online trading card game. Riiiiiight. Nothing says adult like a collectible card game. What followed was a major “consolidation” (read: closure of most of the servers). Although SOE won’t release subscription numbers, the game is clearly in trouble (Note: only games that are in real trouble decline to release their subscriber figures. WoW, LOTRO, and EVE have no problem with providing subscriber data; SWG and Pirates of the Burning Sea? Not so much). So the silliness continued. Recently SWG tried to entice back some of its post-NGE players with this fine offer: a free week of play and an Indiana Jones whip and fedora. If you subscribe, you get to use those items in game. That’s right. An Indy fedora in the starport at Bestine. Dear Lord.
I’m reminded of Derek Burrill’s book Die Tryin’: Videogames, Masculinity, and Culture. It isn’t a great book overall, but it does make a strong case for the way in which modern culture specializes in encouraging men in particular not to grow up. Rather, they remain this strange hybrid man-child obsessed with indulging its every impulse and whim and avoiding responsibility. That is really what I am talking about when I use the word “childish.” I’m sure there are probably more than a few people of my age who were delighted by the NGE, maybe some of them are playing the game even now. But they are playing a childish game.
Looking back it is clear that Star Wars Galaxies was doomed from the start by nothing so much as its franchise. Everyone expected it to be huge. Before the game launched its web community had grown to at least 400,000 with some estimates placing it even higher than that; at the time it was the largest show of pre-release interest in any game. In the limited conceptual horizon that many publishers and, unfortunately, players tend to share, huge equals genre-redefining. SWG‘s core design, however, ensured that it was never going to be anything more than a niche game. If all had gone well and the developers had stuck to their guns it could probably have been a respectable niche, somewhere around EVE levels; given the appeal of the franchise it might even have been able to grow from there. So the game may have sold a million units initially, but most of those were not going to stick with the game. Instead of seeing that loss of subscriptions as the game moving away from an unrealistically huge audience and settling into its normal levels, SOE or Lucasarts or Verant or some unholy combination of the three interpreted this as failure and went into full-blown hand-flapping panic mode. The result is that the game is now less a niche game and more of a scuff mark on the MMORPG landscape.
There are two lessons in the fall of SWG. The first is the danger in ignoring the social as a productive source of gameplay resistance. The enforced socializing in the original game was not, I believe, an attempt to “slow down” the gameplay in the way that Burke defines it. Rather, it was an attempt to generate exactly the kinds of spaces that would make the world feel more like a functioning Star Wars universe. The irony of listening to those players who vociferously demanded a childish frictionless game experience was that the entire game actually ended up feeling less Star Warsy even after the NGE which was supposed to make everything more “iconic.” Even those players obsessed with power-leveling and the like wanted to at least retain the nominal fiction that they were doing it in the Star Wars universe, and nothing is less Star Warsy than completely deserted social spaces.
The second, related lesson, is that in order to create an effective MMORPG game world, not everything can be about character development (and the very different way we use that phrase “character development” in the real and virtual worlds also maps on to the adult/childish distinction). Ultimately, people are not loyal to a gameplay mechanic. Many, many MMORPGs out there offer interesting gameplay mechanics (typically they are the same gameplay mechanics, but let that go). People instead tend to be loyal to a space. And they are devoted to a community. If you design a game to chase those devoted to specific gameplay mechanics you will, ultimately, lose, because that is ultimately a search for novelty and there will always be a new MMORPG around the corner. Build a meaningful space and a community and you just might have a chance of surviving the frenzied quest for the Next Big Thing.