Cutscenes at 11

Cutscenes at 11
Blowing Up Galaxies

Allen Varney | 12 Jun 2007 12:02
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SOE has never apologized, in so many words, for the New Game Enhancements. As with land wars in Asia, some mistakes are too big to admit. However, in February 2007, while announcing Thomas Blair would replace Kai Steinmann as SWG's Lead Designer, SWG Creative Director Chris Cao offered a muted concession: "There is some confusion on the boards as to which designers were responsible for which changes and some concern about the future design of the game. While I understand the concern over change, let me assure you [the] types of tumultuous changes brought about by the NGE, of which Thomas and Kai were not a part, will not happen again."

In recent publishes, the current 20-person team has introduced new systems that mimic popular features the NGE killed, including auto-fire, target locking and, with the Beast Master expertise system in the new Chapter 6, the much-missed Creature Handler. Some players complain about these re-implementations, but others say the game is much improved and in some ways more solid than pre-CU. The forums are less stormy. A clever initiative lets players earn experience for demolishing other players' abandoned houses, preparation for a probable server merge. Though reports vary, the MMOG Nation blog called SWG, once again, "full of potential."

But is it too late? What, today, can fill those ghostly worlds? Galaxies servers intended to host 3,000 players apiece attract less than 500. Sometimes a planet of 200 square kilometers holds only a few dozen players - on weekends!

Where did the refugees go? Some went to WoW, of course, and a few to EVE Online, but many have yet to find an SWG substitute. Prospects aren't entirely grim. Some forthcoming MMOGs promise individual features similar to early Galaxies, though none adopt the sandbox approach that attracted its original player base. LucasArts has mentioned a sequel Star Wars MMOG, and rumors persist BioWare is working on an online version of Knights of the Old Republic.

***

The lessons Jessica Mulligan mentioned cannot be taught, only learned. Consensus has emerged about lessons willing students may learn from SWG and its New Game Enhancements:

• If your licensor wants you to launch your game before it's ready, cancel it.
• It's the community, stupid.
• Many players don't experience a persistent online world as "a game." They experience it as "my life." An online world's hardcore players view themselves as citizens. Some want to be good citizens, some bad, but the entire core wants to believe they belong to something permanent.
• Big changes after launch drive away existing players and make newcomers mistrust you.
• "Fix the bugs before release, or release now and fix later?" The NGE (among dozens of disastrous launches) confirms it beyond dispute: Fix the bugs. If you can't fix them, cancel the launch.
• Oh yeah - don't launch before you're ready.

It seems each MMOG publisher (save Blizzard, which launched WoW when it was ready) - and, more important, each licensor - must learn these lessons painfully, in public. No debacle has been more public, more humiliating, than the NGE. Will the launch of Sony's DC Heroes MMOG prove its new licensor has learned?

For what it's worth - and that is, as yet, unclear - SOE has learned. In May, 2007, SOE acquired the assets of Sigil Games Online, including Vanguard: Saga of Heroes - yet another launch catastrophe. "We do not plan on making any major changes to Vanguard," Smedley wrote in a forum post. "We aren't mandating any big changes to the game. We've learned a thing or two with our experiences with the NGE and don't plan on repeating mistakes from the past."

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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