Cutscenes at 11

Cutscenes at 11
Blowing Up Galaxies

Allen Varney | 12 Jun 2007 12:02
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The launch, like the original game's, went horribly: awful bugs, broken quests, lag. But these paled beside the main problem. For an unexpectedly huge number of players, the issue - the overriding issue that has burned in their heart down to, lo, this day and hour - was betrayal.

A minority of players liked, and still like, the NGE. But the Betrayed were legion, and they were loud. The official forums filled rapidly with complaints; admins pulled them and perma-banned many posters, who created independent "refugee" forums like Imperial Crackdown. Their reactions weren't the rote whining that follows every expansion. (1. You nerfed $CLASS. 2. You obviously hate $CLASS. 3. You suck.) No, this was qualitatively different: anger, yes, but also grief.

The saddest thing I ever saw in SWG was the night before the NGE on the Euro servers... Creature Handlers taking out their favourite pets one last time, petting and playing with them. Perhaps they thought they'd still be able to pull them out; maybe they knew. I am not joking when I say that the conversations I overheard between them then brought a lump to my throat. And I knew then that what SOE was doing was a breach of faith. I became then as angry as the rest of us. (Terra Nova blog, "Order 66," comment by Chewster , 12/16/2005)

To dismiss these players as mawkish, to tell them to get a life, misses the NGE's lessons. These paying subscribers thought they had a life, and a community. Among a certain demographic, the distinction between meatspace and online - between "life" and "game" - grows increasingly arbitrary, like cash vs. credit cards. Having invested time building that part of their life, these players watched SOE, with brief warning and dubious justification, sweep it away.

For many younger players, it was their first encounter with betrayal. And as there is no love like your first love ...

***

At first, SOE's official line about the outcry was "Some gamers hate change"; then, later, "It's a small minority." Before long, though, the community's outrage drew unprecedented attention from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired and many others. The official line now sounded like, "We had to destroy the village to save it." John Blakely, SOE VP of Development, told the Post, "We knew we were going to sacrifice some players ... [but] as a Star Wars license, we should do a lot better than we have been doing." Smedley told GameSpot, "Straight sandbox games don't work. ... I think in the past, what we probably made was the Uncle Owen experience as opposed to the Luke experience. We needed to deliver more of the Star Wars heroic and epic feeling to the game."

There it is again: "fix the game." Torres told The New York Times, "Games should be fun." He told Gamespy, "We will continue to improve the game in areas wherever it is deemed needed to make the game fun and enjoyable for all players." It sounded like a threat.

Yet 200,000 people were having fun playing Uncle Owen in SOE's sandbox. When Sony dumped out their sand, they went home. And oh boy, did they tell their friends.

In December 2005, in a damage-control interview on G4TV's "Attack of the Show," Torres dismissed subscriber losses as temporary: "We experienced that in the past when we made enhancements like these, and in general what's really interesting about that - a lot of [players] come back after they feel like, OK, they've vented their concerns."

But the pre-NGE players were going, going, gone. Worse, newcomers, hearing little good about Galaxies, have not replaced the refugees. In May 2006, MMOGChart estimated 170,000 subscribers; later anecdotal reports suggest steeper drops. SOE says only that trends are promising.

Interviews with Julio Torres stopped appearing shortly after the NGE launch. The current LucasArts SWG producer is Jake Neri.

***

Players still implore SOE to roll back the game, pre-Combat Upgrade, on separate servers. But the old game's devs have left the company; maintaining two versions would be impractically costly; and, though SOE has divulged nothing, the license might forbid it. Fans have tried writing emulators like SWGEmu and New Hope, but divisive politics and the task's magnitude cripple them.

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