SWG NGE: Crying Freeman

SWG NGE: Crying Freeman

In "Blowing Up Galaxies" in this week's The Escapist, Allen Varney describes the aftermath of Sony Online Entertainment's disastrous "New Game Enhancements" for its Star Wars Galaxies MMOG. Now Allen recounts a tragicomic sidelight to the NGE, the story of how blame for the entire NGE fell on one hapless underling.

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The "New Game Enhancements" in November 2005 demonstrated the SWG team's failure to communicate with, or listen to, its customers.
Instead of carefully soliciting feedback and cultivating player expectations over months - basically, selling the idea - SOE sprang the NGE on its players with barely two weeks' notice. (Some accuse Sony of stalling the announcement to maximize sales from its Trials of Obi-Wan expansion, which debuted mere weeks before the NGE rendered it useless.)

One consequence of this stonewalling was that the Betrayed, the bloodthirsty SWG players - and there were many - had no one to blame.

Even after the NGE announcement, individual developers, perhaps sensing the imminent train wreck, went mum. The silence was complete - almost.

Shortly before the NGE launched in November, 2005, SWG developer Jeff Freeman made one entry on his blog. Freeman was a recruit and disciple of SWG Creative Director Raph Koster. His title was "Lead Game Play Designer," which despite appearances is a relatively junior position in the many-layered SOE hierarchy. Unluckily for Freeman, this single post turned out to be the sole instance of any SOE employee - or, heaven knows, any LucasArts marketing executive - taking any responsibility whatever for any aspect of the NGE:

So don't get the crazy notion that I'm "in charge" here. "The Man" is a many-headed beast called Management. I just try to help it make good decisions. With regard to game mechanics, it even lets me decide, sometimes.

So a few months ago The Man comes along and says "What can we do to make this the most fun game it can possibly be?"

It was the lead designer who holed-up in his office for a few days and then said, "Hey, come look at this."

There's no way we can do that.

There's no way we should do that.

Man that's fun.

The Man will never let us get away with doing that.

We can't do it.

We shouldn't do it.

Oh man that is fun.

When an executive producer sees something that is impossible to do, but which is too fun not to do, he makes a noise like "Hoooooooooph."

My job was to be the guy to say, "Yes we can do that." I had to say this about forty times a day for two months.

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When the NGE launched and the fiasco became apparent, Freeman deleted this post - but not before the Betrayed found it. A name! At last, a name for all their grief!

The Betrayed descended like maenads. On "refugee" forums like MMORPG.com's "SWG Veterans Refuge," dozens of bitter young males, unfamiliar with the collaborative design of MMOGs, heaped daily scorn upon this water-carrier, this flunky, as the unstoppable mastermind of the entire NGE. Here are three near-consecutive posts from a single topic in June 2006, seven months after the NGE launch:

  • He [Freeman] wanted the changes, he was the one saying it was too fun not to do... that they could get away with it.
  • Destroy everything and leave. What does he think SWG is, Iraq?
  • He destroyed everything that worked with SWG and didn't fix anything that sucked about swg leaving the worst ever constructed mmo I have ever had the misfortune to play. That is Jeff Freeman's resume.
    Worst MMO ever.

Though his original blog post was unclear, Freeman was in fact discussing just one aspect of the NGE: its "Fast Action Combat," the only part he designed. (He still believes it improved the game.) In late 2006, after he left SOE - he now has a design position at Spacetime Studios - Freeman ventured, perhaps unwisely, onto the MMORPG.com refugee forum to clarify this.

But no! No, this idea could not be allowed! The mastermind Freeman was solely responsible for this entire betrayal, and forevermore must his name be dirt!

  • You could have told them: This sucks, watching paint dry is more fun, it will NEVER go over, and DONT DO IT. You didn't.
  • Even if we accept that you didn't design the thing, you just looked at the plans and answered honestly 'yes it can' when you were asked if it *could* be built, you can't slopey shoulder the burden because you looked at the idea, you agreed to do the job and, in your own words, you were the guy whose job it was to say "yes we can do this." Really, you should have asked "SHOULD" we do this.
  • He was PROUD of his little creation. Granted he didn't have the "original" idea. But that person went to him and he spent weeks, day after day after day (in his own words) trying to sell the idea of the NGE. He finally got his way and we lost our game. ... Jeff Freeman PERSONALLY screwed Raph, SWG and all of us.
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Freeman posted the same clarifications repeatedly for weeks, to no avail. Somehow he managed to avoid looking embattled. Eventually someone asked him why he kept at it:

Because I spent almost six years working on SWG, and it kills me that the only people who liked it, hate me. Frequently for misinformed reasons.

To repeat, this Freeman foofaraw arose because of SOE's poor communication with the SWG audience. The SWG team - if not, so far, Sony Online or LucasArts execs - learned from this mistake. Sabrehawk, SWG site manager for The Escapist's sister site WarCry, says of the game's forums, "SWG veterans will see a level of developer involvement with the community that far exceeds anything in the past. In fact, in my experience, I haven't seen anything like this in any other MMO. Granted, some might call it rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but they're definitely moving in the right direction."

There are probably other lessons to be learned from Freeman's experience, but we'll leave them to him. Believe it or not, Jeff Freeman - clearly a man of iron nerve - is still blogging.

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Freeman is a steely-nerved survivor who became a posterchild for apocalyptic destruction? Duh. I've played that game. Where's the fresh news, Allen?

Oh, I thought you were talking about Gordon Freeman.

Maybe iron nerves run in the family?

In the old days, players learned about changes to the game by reading patch notes on patch day. Now, it's not uncommon to see a developer taking an active part in discussions over a specific issue, spitballing with players, offering alternatives and generally working hard to get the feedback they need to design a system that, while it might not please everyone (like that could ever happen), will perform up to the expectations of both the development team and the players.

For example, there is a lot of discussion about the Collection system the team is working on for Chapter 7. The discussion started May 18 and is currently up to 70 pages of dialogue. The developer in charge of the project has a post on nearly every page of that discussion.

And the best part is, that's not an isolated occurrence.

Jeff Freeman, former Lead Game Play Designer on Star Wars Galaxies, committed suicide on September 24, 2008. He was 39. His brother announced the news on the MMOFringe forum, and it has been confirmed by Freeman's most recent employer, Spacetime Studios, and by Zenimax Studios, where he was about to start a new job. Freeman also worked on Ultima Online in its early days and was an Army Reserve member.

Discussion on the Sony Station forum and on MPOG's SWG Veteran Refuge, where Freeman was repeatedly and lengthily vilified for years. Observe that though most SWG veterans express regret and sympathy for Freeman's family, one or two take even this opportunity to bitterly lament the Galaxies New Game Enhancements, as they have with unceasing passion on a weekly (if not daily) basis for the nearly three years since the NGE's launch.

.....Wow.

I give my condolences to his family and friends, and I hope Karma strikes down those idiots that would dare speak bad of the dead.

I am slightly confused here though, did he kill himself due to the criticism of the game? Or for other reasons?

This should be made into a seperate Article.

According to the MMOFringe thread, Freeman's brother doesn't believe criticism of the NGE provoked Freeman's suicide.

Allen Varney:
According to the MMOFringe thread, Freeman's brother doesn't believe criticism of the NGE provoked Freeman's suicide.

Thanks for the info, I thought it would be rather extreme to kill one's self over criticism.

The blame wouldn't solely rest on the subscribers shoulders though. I played through SW:G and saw the Ghost Towns on Tatooine; and the awful way they'd redone the starting script.

There was also the protestors who were 'beamed' into space and banned, and the lockdown on the SW:G forums.

Sony could have saved Freeman with some ease; but they didn't. Perhaps they should, at least, respect his final resting place.

Firstly it is a sad thing that Jeff took his own life.
Secondly Allen your article from 2007 is full of false information. Did Jeff get the blame? Sure he got part of it but not as much as you would have people beleive. The whole dev team got part of the blame for pure ingnorance. Most of the blame got put on John Smedley the president of SOE and Julio Tores of LucasArts. If your going to post stories you need to make sure you have all the facts correct and not fabricate false information.

I agree with Starbuck. Those who knew anything about the NGE put the blame where it belonged - with everyone involved (and that includes SOE, LA, the dev teams and even the players). A vocal minority may have blamed certain individuals, but most of us did not make that mistake.

Starbuck, Beery: I quoted verbatim from the SWG refugee forums. A few of the posts there had unkind words for SOE boss John Smedley and for SOE as an abstract institution, but the great majority of posts I saw directly condemned Jeff Freeman as sole authority for the NGE.

I do not think that this issue alone could be the reason behind the suicide of Jeff. I think he might have dreamt or wanted more to occur in his Star Wars MMO. Being the lead designer of Star Wars MMO, I suspect anything else could be the reason. I am sure he had a lot to offer but unfortunately that won't happen. Now that he is gone, I offer my condolences to his family and friends. May he rest in peace now!

 

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