Changing Course Midstream
The Massively Multiplayer Online genre is chock full of acronyms – the genre itself is more frequently referred to by its acronym than its ridiculously long title. It seems that every game title is quickly broken down to a few scant letters by both community and the press, and who can blame us? Have you ever tried to use the full title Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided or The Chronicles of Spellborn: What Lies Hidden Must be Found in a real conversation? You'd spend more time stumbling through the name than actually saying anything of substance. The most popular games, of course, have the most recognizable acronyms – WoW, EQ, EQ2, MxO, SWG – almost as if someone in the marketing department had realized that the more easy it is to pronounce and remember, the more the players will love it. Hey …
But I digress. One of the most recent acronyms to enrage the MMO population is NGE – The New Game Experience released for the ever-burdened Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). The NGE is not a patch or a rebuild of some faltering game mechanics. It represents a complete replacement of the core of the game; an entirely new game poured over an existing universe. The NGE has been out for several weeks now, and having had the opportunity to play through the 10 day trial, I thought I would add my take on it to the ever growing body of work on the subject (it was even covered in the New York Times).
To start, let me state my first complaint. It's not a "10 Day Free Trial" – at least not the kind one would expect from its description. It's not like the 10-day trial recently released for World of Warcraft (WoW), in which you can take your character to nearly any heights, go to nearly any area of the game, and experience full-fledged content with only a few minor game mechanics missing (trading, a few chat channels, and the mail system). The SWG trial is more like the Trial of the Isle released some time ago for EverQuest 2, in which characters are limited to a specific playing area and to attaining a specific level. The problem is, the restrictions on the SWG trial are not stated anywhere that I could find. They tell you that you get the first 10 levels, but in playing through, I finished all of the available content in a day or two worth of playing, and all before level seven of my character. What was I supposed to do with the other eight days and three levels? Polish my lightsaber? Hunt Jawas? I couldn't find the Jawas! At least the EverQuest team had the courtesy to explain to its players that they would be severely limited in the content they could access. Shame on you, Marketing Department! Not a good start towards convincing me to join.
The original Star Wars Galaxies was a very complicated game; some loved it, and some hated it, but more than anything I think that most were ambivalent towards it to the point of not playing. The New Game Experience is a "streamlined" version of SWG, with the (some say dull) turn-based combat system replaced with a simplified interface. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) took some cues from the other powerhouse games on the market, such as Guild Wars and (I hate to mention it again, but be prepared for many references) World of Warcraft, where playing the game is quite easy and actually fun. Further, all of the complicated quest mechanics, character customization, and career/skill trees have been stripped away. Players can get to the action quickly and easily, just like the Star Wars movies. While some of the veteran players consider the changes to be over-simplifications, I can't fully agree. Though I do like more customization options for my character in terms of skills and attributes, the old skill trees and career system were far too complicated. They may have taken the "ease-of-use" concept a bit far, but it's better than what it was.
I think that Sony took a long hard look at several trends in the market, and then looked at the success (or lack thereof) of their product, and came to the inevitable conclusion. Star Wars Galaxies was not appealing, not to a large portion of MMO players, and certainly not to the masses. The problem is, the New Game Experience, clearly meant to address these issues, is not nearly as successful as other games with equally recognizable names. The developers changed tactics midstream, but apparently managed to miss all of their targets and accomplish none of their goals. Their intentions are good, but the execution is a nightmare. And if they did accomplish their goals, then someone in Human Resources needs to get busy, because the New Game Experience is a mess.
Let's take, for example, the new class system. The NGE cuts down the number of available classes from over two dozen to just nine archetypes. This is a good idea in my mind – make it clear what each character type's specialization is and the players will enjoy them more because they know what they are getting into when they make their choice. Less chance of bitterness or consternation when a player realizes that after weeks or months of playing, the character they have is nothing like what they wanted when they started out. Nine classes – good intention, but amongst the nine choices, only one is called "Force Sensitive," namely, Jedi. It's now an available choice from minute one. Worst case scenario – the game is flooded with wannabe Sith Lords and Jedi Knights who just want to swing a lightsaber around to show off how "l33t" they are. There is no best case scenario. Easy to be Jedi – abysmal execution.
The concept of a multitude of Jedi is contrary to the literature of the Star Wars universe, and the stated timeline for the game (now you know I'm a Star Wars geek, because I actually know the timeline and when the game takes place). But more than this, the changes to the system for becoming a Jedi is a slap in the face to all the players who slaved away for six months or more to achieve that status. It diminishes the meaning of becoming a Jedi and insults all of the current Jedi players, no matter what they are given as a "reward" for sticking it out and then bending over for the NGE. Not everything should be handed to the players for the sake of the profit margin.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: anyone who thinks that the New Game Experience is anything other than an attempt to attract new players is deluding themselves. The changes made were not made for the sake of playability, or for the fun of the current players. SWG survived for years as it was and had a committed community, but SOE knew that Star Wars was one of the biggest cash cows ever conceived, and knows that it still is to this day. The problem was their first attempt to cash in was, by the standards of the Star Wars license, almost a complete failure. It didn't make nearly as much money as its potential. Then World of Warcraft hit the MMO scene. The game outstripped every other in record time, even attracting a massive number of new players, something that was previously a notoriously difficult thing to do. And they did it with a franchise that, while enormously popular in gaming circles, was little-known outside of its devoted fanbase. So the execs at Sony had to have seen WoW's success and thought to themselves, "How come our game, with its enormously popular franchise, hasn't done nearly this well? What are we doing wrong? Where are our boatloads of cash?"
Because the game wasn't FUN. At least, not to the right kind of player. And if they weren't thinking those exact questions, I can guarantee they weren't thinking about playability and fun.
The New Game Experience is, pure and simple, an attempt by Sony to reinvigorate a dying license. World of Warcraft proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, the viability of an MMO that appeals to a mainstream audience. Four million players is possibly (and don't quote me or ask for my statistics) a greater number of players than most other MMOs combined. It goes beyond appealing to the hardcore or veteran MMO fan and is playable, and enjoyable, by the casual gamer. It has even converted many a casual gamer into a hardcore gamer. The NGE is Sony's effort to grab some of this new market. WoW opened the door, and Sony is hoping to attract players, who are new to the genre, to another universe, and what better franchise than the universally recognizable Star Wars license? World of Warcraft's easy playability equates to a need for Star Wars Galaxies to do the same, and has, indeed, raised the bar for the entire genre.
So the issue here is not really the new design of SWG. Sony responded to trends in the market, as any company will. I played it, and at its baseline it can be very fun. The real issue is the disregard that SOE has shown, both for its existing players, and for general good design and implementation in creating video games.
What bothered me most about the NGE was the complete lack of communication. Players had very little notice about the massive changes that were to take place, and on top of that, the NGE was pushed out almost immediately after the release of an expansion, The Trials of Obi-Wan. No one can tell the players that the release of the New Game Experience wasn't known well in advance of the expansion. At least, you couldn't say it with a straight face and expect anything more than being called a liar, possibly followed closely by a fist. The NGE was such a gross deviation from the original game and created such an uproar, that SOE actually offered a refund to players who had purchased The Trials of Obi-Wan and felt cheated. Imagine that. For those who have been playing MMOs for any length of time, you know that this is practically unheard of. Whether true or false, the perception quickly became that SOE duped players into buying Trials of Obi-Wan and proceeded to pull the rug out from under them.
Then, SOE decides to spit on players while we are laying there, stunned. The "rewards" introduced for existing players who stick with the NGE are a joke, for no one more that the uber-devoted Jedi players. Come on, a "different colored lightsaber?" We're not all Samuel L. Jackson wannabes. Even worse, the kits to retool characters were buggy and frustrating, and the rewards themselves didn't work (they screwed up people's inventories), and were clearly a feeble attempt to save face with the current players.
So there ended Sony's abuses, right?
Finally, in true Ultimate Fighter fashion, Sony decided it would be fun to kick the players while they are trying to get back on our feet. Some players stuck it out, decided to give the NGE a chance, but found that the New Game Experience wasn't complete. Not even close. It was like playing in a beta, only the beta had stretched on for years, and you had to pay for the privilege.
I've already read that, at the time of release, there was no content above level 30, adding real insult to injury for those devoted enough to stick by SOE. There was already a lack of end game for the high level players of the old SWG, but after the changes, high-level players didn't even have a reason to log into the game, which certainly is not a good way to encourage continued subscriptions. Even in the "trial," I came across evidence of a half-baked product. NPCs spouted nonsense code when addressed, indicating missing or broken code. Remember please, this was in the trial area, in the first "10 levels." Who knows what lies beyond the starter zone? Not something I care to explore, that's what.
What the whole thing boils down to is something approaching a Hindenberg debacle. The SWG forums are awash in discontent. SOE has hoisted an incomplete game on its unsuspecting players. Not alongside the original game, as in a testing environment with a different ruleset, but in replacement of a game that, while complicated, worked for the most part. Not surprisingly, I've heard that the game is hemorrhaging players.
Sony seems to have failed to take into account several crucial rules of the MMO genre, which is surprising considering their other successes. First and foremost, MMOs live and die by their communities and by word-of-mouth. A company cannot alienate their hardcore player base, especially not with a franchise that, historically, has some of the most rabid fans available. Second, it's not enough to attract new players with a slick design, easy-to-use interface, or the aforementioned popular franchise. A game must provide players with an experience that is fun, and give them reason to stay and play. MMO players who are only familiar with WoW (the group Sony is attempting to tap for new revenue) are not familiar with the standard issues and difficulties that surround the launch of a new online game. They will see the failings of SWG, compare it to the (relatively) fewer issues with WoW, and assume Star Wars Galaxies is a flawed, sub-standard game. These players don't have the patience of MMO veterans, and expect a polished product out of the box. They will see that SWG is neither playable nor fun, and they will LEAVE.
The New Game Experience was released too early, with too little communication and too little feedback from the general community. The worst result of this will be that players will try, and then abandon, the game after the first months. SWG will continue to wither and die, and the MMO genre will be robbed of one of the most beloved universes know to humankind. Because of poor implementation and a lack of clear direction. Truly, a Star Wars Galaxies MMO, done right, could easily rival the best games on the market. We may never see that now.
Whether the changes of the New Game Experience were driven by SOE or LucasArts, one phrase continues to haunt me as I think back on what I played. One of my favorite scenes from the Star Wars movies was, of course, the trench scene from the end of the Episode IV. A lone group of Y-Wings hurtled down the narrow canyon, striving for that sweet spot that meant the destruction of the bad guys, and the survival of the good. "Stay on target," their leader responded, to every call for help or question of his judgment. "Stay on target" no matter what may come, to reach their destination and save the day. That persistent attitude, ignoring all wisdom and advice, must have been the mantra of the development team putting together the New Game Experience, only not in the good way. It was not to save the day or bring down the baddies, but to kill a good game – not a great game, but a game that was good, and had devoted, loving fans. "Stay on Target." The problem is not that SOE missed their target – it's that they never had one in the first place. Too bad they didn't get shot down like those doomed Y-Wings.