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Reporting In From 'MMOG' Land

by Mark Crump on Feb. 2, 2004 @ 2:54 a.m. PST

Massively Multiplayer Online Games are all the rage these days, and given how frequently they change with expansions, free updates and patches, we felt they were worthy of their own column. This article is the first in a regularly scheduled (bi-weekly) series devoted solely to MMOG development. To kick things off, we take a look at LucasArts' Star Wars Galaxies and more specifically, the recent "changes" announcement ...

LucasArts makes changes to the Jedi System in SWG: Will it make the game better or worse?

The mantra MMOG's use is: "anything that is cool or highly desired, must come at a serious expense of time and effort". It's not a bad formula, and games like EverQuest have built their successes on holding out the proverbial carrot on a stick. In Star Wars: Galaxies one of the big carrots was the chance to unlock the Jedi character slot.

SWG has about 30 professions and you can go to an in-game menu and easily see the paths that interconnect them all, with one glaring exception: how to become a Jedi. Realizing that most people would want to play Galaxies to be a Jedi (odds are people didn't buy the game with a burning desire to become a Chef), and since the Jedi are pretty powerful, not to mention very rare for the time period the game is set in, LucasArts hid the path to become a Jedi.
One of challenges MMOG developers face is that no matter how hard they make a quest, within days of someone solving it a complete spoiler is up on the fan-sites, with the shortest way to complete the quest. Not wanting the game to become over-run with Jedi, and facing the dilemma of running out of development time, the system the developers put in was not only simple, it also eliminated the pesky little issue of spoiler sites. The problem was a lack of thought into its implementation also caused serious damage to the games economy, and their attempt at stabilizing the economic problems ended up hurting more than it helped.

You see, rather than develop complicated quests to unlock the Jedi character, the developers created a more subtle solution: just master 5 of the games 30 professions. The 5 professions aren't the same for everyone and they are randomly chosen by the game when you create the character. It solved spoiler site problem and made it time consuming and difficult, so how could it fail? Apparently, people were getting frustrated at not having a clue what professions they needed to master, very frustrated. So the devs put in an item called a Holocron that dropped off certain monsters and would tell you the next profession to master. Unfortunately, by that point in time the economy was already a mess because credits were entering the game far faster than they were leaving. Which meant everyone was quickly becoming millionaires. Remember Han Solo being all giddy because Luke and Ben offered him 17,000 credits to get them to Alderaan? In Galaxies, 17k credits can fall out your ears when you sneeze. The addition of the Holocrons into an already inflated economy caused the few monsters who dropped them to become perma-camped, and the Holos themselves going for a cool million a piece on the open market.

The devs, realizing this was bad and wanting to eliminate the camps as well as level the playing field, came up with a solution that, like introducing the Holos in the first place, looked great on paper but failed miserably in its implementation. They decided to use the Wookie holiday called Life Day (occurs right around our Christmas time and resembles it too) and gave everyone a Holocron as a present. And sure enough, it did drive the market price down-to the still exorbitant 400,000 credit range. Unfortunately, now everyone had one of these things, and, while solving the "supply and demand" problem for the Holos, it completely hosed the "supply and demand" portion of the most important part of the economy: the market for player created goods.

That's because unlike most games, you don't get better gear and "phat lewtz" in Galaxies by going out and slaying hard monstersm hopeing they drop the "Holy Thermal Detonator of Smiting"; instead you buy it from the player who made it. Of the 30 professions, about half are ones devoted to crafting goods and the crafting part of MMOG's is usually overlooked and LucasArts deserves praise for having the entire economy revolve around the crafters. Unfortunately, when a decent chunk of the player base opened their present and found out they needed to Master some of the crafting professions, they blitzed through them just to hit Master, and not to contribute to the economy. Since you advance towards Master by creating goods, suddenly there was a gigantic infusion of unwanted wares into the economy.

That leads us up to last Friday's announcement which stated they were making some changes to the Jedi profession. The first thing they announced was that they were toning down some of the side effects to being a Jedi. Originally, the plan was to have the Jedi be perma-killed if they died; you had limited deaths, after that, your character was lost. They announced Friday they are getting away from that, but the real announcement was a veiled message that said: "The second phase will be to rebuild the Jedi system to be quest-oriented; and to include the familiar elements of Force Sensitivity, Jedi-oriented quests, as well as many other elements the developers and the community feel should make up the process of becoming a Jedi. (It should also be noted that players who have put in work towards becoming a Jedi will not lose their effort. Some sort of recognition of players' efforts will be included in the new system.)"

You can read this announcement two ways: they are making changes to what it's like to be a Jedi, or they are changing the way of becoming a Jedi itself. The general consensus on the boards and talking to people in the game is that LucasArts is changing the way of becoming a Jedi, and most customers are very happy they are changing the path, with the obvious exception of those who already grinded through 5 professions. The current way of becoming a Jedi is very unpopular, and has wreaked havoc on the in-game economy, so it's clear that something major needs to be done.

While the idea of making unlocking the Jedi slot quest-based is a better idea than the current implementation, I question the need to even unlock it in the first place. According to Star Wars lore, while Luke was still staring at sunsets on Tatooine, there were few Jedi. The only "known" ones were Yoda and Obi-Wan, and the rest were in deep hiding. However, there probably were plenty of Force Sensitive people, the obvious pre-requirement to becoming a Jedi. I'm willing to bet that a good chunk of the player base won't like being a Jedi once they unlock it. You're hunted by both the Empire and player controlled Bounty Hunters and the skills are a pain to raise up. A better solution would be to allow people the ability to have a Force Sensitive character without jumping through hoops, make advancing through the Jedi skills much more difficult and time consuming and have greater penalties for dieing, while still removing the perma-death issue. It could even be broken down to where the novice profession isn't very powerful, but as you hit the elite classes, you get more powerful skills, as well as having separate trees so people can choose what type of Jedi they become. By implementing a solution like this, the developers put the bulk of the effort where it should be: in heading down the path of mastering a Jedi; not grinding out a billion biscuits to rot in some moldy pile just to unlock the slot.

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