In November 2005, Sony Online Entertainment drastically revised its licensed Star Wars Galaxies massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) with a sprawling package of changes collectively dubbed the “New Game Enhancements.”

Two months beforehand, MMOG consultant Jessica Mulligan had spoken at the 2005 Austin Game Conference in Austin, Texas, on the first annual “MMOG Rant” panel. Mulligan railed against publishers who, she said, were committing exactly the same mistakes they’d been committing for 20 years: “coding before designing, changing a game after launch, ignoring the community of players, launching before the game and team [are] ready …”

“Don’t change the game after launch.” After Sony Online released its NGE, Star Wars players dramatically confirmed Mulligan’s lesson, much as the Hindenburg conveyed an important message about hydrogen. Yet like “Never fight a land war in Asia,” this lesson cannot be taught, only learned. Each generation, and publisher, must learn it anew.

Has SOE learned this lesson? It may not matter.

***

[Disclosure: Working through a temp agency, I spent five months in early 2003 writing mission dialogue for Galaxies. I was otherwise uninvolved in the project and have neither feelings nor agenda about SOE or LucasArts.]

In June 2003, Star Wars Galaxies launched – at least six months too soon – with an overambitious design, unfinished code and poor content tools. Even so, the game attracted around 300,000 subscribers, a respectable showing then. A year later, World of Warcraft debuted and redefined “respectable.” At both SOE and its licensor, LucasArts, WoW envy grew strong.

LucasArts supervises SWG closely. The LucasArts SWG producer, a licensing and marketing executive, approves and often dictates all content. At launch, this producer was Haden Blackman; Blackman’s post-launch successor was Julio Torres. Torres, an avid World of Warcraft player, strongly wanted SWG to feel more iconic – more Star Wars-y – and, by implication, more WoW-sy. He and other LucasArts executives, and a few SOE executives, wanted a simpler SWG where players could start smoothly, see a clear direction for advancement and enjoy characteristically fast-paced Star Wars action.

SWG‘s 2004 space expansion, Jump to Lightspeed, credits Torres as associate producer. JtL introduced a twitch combat system. “We tried a turn-based system but it was too slow. We had to change the engine to be more real-time,” Torres told WarCry in December 2004. “Now we have to get the ground game to raise the bar. JtL should take us far, but if we don’t raise the quality of the ground game, it won’t carry us through into the future.”

Players generally liked Jump to Lightspeed. But in April 2005 came the “Combat Upgrade,” a major ground-game revamp – SOE called it a “rebalancing” – that emphasized fast action. Players considered it poorly implemented, buggy and slow. Sony Online CEO John Smedley addressed protesters in an official forum post that, significantly, talked in game design terms: “The Combat Upgrade was [crucial] for the long-term health of the game. In order to make the experience in SWG more diverse and to breathe new life into this game, we felt it was important for us to entirely overhaul the current system and to make sure that it’s balanced properly. Are we finished? Not by a long shot …”

This was the attitude LucasArts executives expressed: To increase subscribers, fix the game. It makes perfect sense – assuming subscribers think they’re playing a game.

***

On November 3, 2005, SOE stunned players by announcing surprising “New Game Enhancements” that would go live on November 15. Why delay the announcement until two weeks before launch? “There were several other announcements related to the Star Wars franchise going on at the time,” Torres told GameSpy, “so we wanted to make sure that something this big didn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

As WoW barreled toward 5 million subscribers, SOE launched SWG‘s Publish 25. The NGE replaced the combat system with a shooter-style twitch game, reduced the value of crafting and entertaining, and collapsed 34 professions into nine classes. Jedi Knight powers, once obtained only after torturous grinding, were now widely available. Creature Handlers and Bio-Engineers, previously stunted by the CU, vanished.

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.

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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