In 2008, LucasArts and SOE have adopted a plan to bring smaller, but more frequent, updates to Star Wars Galaxies. Previously, the Austin-based team had concentrated on a series of free content expansions called Chapters. Every few months, they’d release a big chunk of new content, bug fixes and features all rolled into one themed patch. Now, in an effort to be more reactive to their community, they have divided patches into Chapters and Updates. The Chapters still contains the big content-driven headline grabbers fans crave, while the smaller and more frequent Updates deliver class balance, bug fixes and small, but highly requested features.
To facilitate the new approach, the Star Wars Galaxies team has effectively been divided into two units, one for Chapters and one for Updates. While each has a core team, ancillary membership shifts based on the needs of the projects. Their goal is to continue their quarterly Chapters, but also to provide a new Update every three to four weeks.
By their own admission, Update 1 in mid-February came with mixed results. The biggest challenge the team faced was fan expectations, and part of their effort at GDC was to educate their players more accurately on what to expect. For example, while they planned some fixes for the Smuggler, through less-than-perfect communications that snowballed into a belief among some members of the community that there would be a complete overhaul of that class. So while Producer Jake Neri and company believe that, at a basic content level, the Update was a success, they acknowledge a need for better communication.
In Update 2 they plan to focus on the Entertainer and Medic, not with a full overhaul, but with an assortment of changes and additions that have been highly requested from those segments of the community. This Update is due out in the next couple weeks.
Chapter 9 follows later this month and is headlined by a new heroic instance and epic villain from Star Wars lore: Exar Kun. Heroic instances are top-end dungeons, and this is their first new one since Chapter 7. In tune with their desire to be more reactive to the community, Exar Kun was chosen from a list of epic villains that the development team polled the community on during the planning phase of this Chapter.
Neri believes that these dungeons provide both an epic Star Wars feel to the game, in the form of a concentrated and cinematic epic encounter, but also stay engaging through replayability. In each of these heroic instances, players earn tokens that can be cashed in for enhancements.
Collection is another important way they have recently moved to further engage their players. In each Chapter, including 9, they add to their collection system first introduced last year. They found, in a survey of the data, that a huge percentage of their players had been – whether consciously or not – vigorously collecting various items around the world. As such, they added a mechanic not unlike the Xbox 360’s Achievement System whereby players gain badges and vanity rewards for passive milestones they may not even realize they’re after.
The addition of collection has given players more reason to move around the world, which has helped spread out their community and broken them out of typical routines. The rewards players earn are largely for pride, but each game that has tried a similar system has found that players like to achieve goals of this nature, and in Star Wars Galaxies it has been no different.
The most fascinating wrinkle of their system is the establishment of permanent recognition of those who achieve each collection first on a given server. The player that does it first is automatically noted as the pioneer both in the game and on the website. This note is right there in the profile for anyone who follows and gains that same collection on that server to see later.
Obviously, Star Wars Galaxies has come through an often turbulent path, but, according to Neri, there is now a certain calm around both the development team and their community.
“[The SWG team is] very healthy; I think more than anything people are focused on the game and where it’s headed,” he said. From the community perspective, he feels that their increased focus on an engaging experience and a more open development process where fans have clear channels to the developers have made for a happier crowd. “That has definitely paid off,” he added.
While Star Wars Galaxies may not be as huge a moneymaker as some pundits might have expected, the game seems to have found its stride and has moved forward. Now, the focus for LucasArts is to keep those fans that enjoy the game for what it is engaged and entertained. They believe their new, more transparent and reactive approach will do just that.