Order 66

Some time ago, I wrote here at Terra Nova that MMOGs really don't get a "do-over", that later changes to the game almost necessarily sit on top of old mechanics, that design is cumulative.

The live management team for Star Wars: Galaxies set out to prove me wrong with their "combat upgrade" and "Jedi revamp" a while back, and I watched with some interest. I couldn't see how they planned to change the rest of the game at the same time as the combat upgrade, given how tight the interdependencies of the game were. In fact, I predicted on the official SWG forum that any serious attempt to realize the ambitions of the combat revamp was going to take a major rethinking of the entire profession system and crafting along with it.

I was closer to the mark than I would have guessed: the live management team recently and with breathtaking suddenness announced and then pushed to live a massive overhaul of the entire game, the so-called "New Game Enhancement" or NGE. Unfortunately, the live management team seems to have ignored another long-standing criticism of SWG by many observers: that their design and implementation process is a disastrous mess. Never more so than with the NGE: whatever it is conceptually, in practice, it's roughly on par with an alpha build of a MMOG.

Or did they ignore it? It's just possible that SWG's latest flaming car wreck resulted from deliberately driving over a cliff.

I'm normally deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories. In the case of SWG's NGE, though, there are really only two possibilities: that there is a deeper agenda or that the live management team is well beyond cluelessly self-destructive, out in some outer void of fecklessness.

The basic scheme of the NGE aims to grapple with some of the longest-standing criticisms of SWG, many of which I've agreed with since the game went live: that the game lacks a compelling connection to its licensed fiction, that its sprawling design is hampered by serious game-mechanical contradictions, that its content is threadbare, and so on. In essence, what the NGE did is collapse the existing quasi-skill-based  profession structure into nine "iconic" classes designed with the films in mind, any of which can be chosen at character creation (including Jedi). Combat has been remade into a twitch-based FPS style, more like Unreal Tournament than a MMOG: character skills and quality or type of weaponry and armor matter very little now. Combat and movement have been dramatically speeded up.  Though crafting is technically still part of the game, it has been in effect deleted as it no longer matters in any respect.

In essence, the NGE removed the "virtual world" portion of the game, the one continuing virtue that the old design still had, the one asset or accomplishment of SWG that drew what was left of its player base. My critique of SWG in the recent Game Studies was written before the combat upgrade, and so in many respects was obsolete, but the one thing about it that I thought was still current was its assessment of SWG as the most "world-like" of existing MMOGs. Now it's the least world-like, rather more like Planetside in its conception.

Which might actually have been an interesting approach to designing a Star Wars MMOG if it had been taken back in 2001. At the least, it might actually have gone through a reasonably good process of design and testing. The NGE as it stands makes the bugginess of SWG just after its launch look relatively tame by comparison. The new version of the game is evidently a bubbling stew of bugs, incompatibilities, indigestible chunks of the old design and mechanics, and very poorly thought out implementations. Speeding up the combat and movement, for example, sounds like a good idea until you actually see it, in tandem with the new UI. It looks bad (certainly it doesn't look "Star Warsy") and at the moment  plays worse: it's not a FPS, it's not a MMOG, it's not anything. Almost everyone with any knowledge of SWG has been watching the NGE with horror after it has gone live.

The reason why the general consensus is so negative is not necessarily deep-seated hostility to the design ideas behind it. I applaud the courage and gutsiness behind trying to completely redo a live game. Like f13's schild, I think there's some reason to think a twitch-based combat design on top of a virtual world design might be really interesting. Certainly with the introductory quest, the SWG live management is trying hard to think about how to make the game feel "Star Warsy". Partial as I am to Raph Koster's virtual-world ambitions in SWG, you could make a good case for SWG as a Planetside game instead.

The problem is that SWG's chief problem from the beginning has been poor implementation, poor communication, poor service. Koster's design ideas went wrong when they got awkwardly stitched in late Beta to counterposing designs, when the center could not hold. They went wrong when they went live in a horribly  unfinished state, with an underresourced live management team desperately trying to keep a very leaky ship afloat. The NGE doesn't reverse any of those problems: it exacerbates them a thousandfold. A massive change to a game whose remaining loyalists were mostly devotees of the "virtual world" aspects of the design was pushed abruptly and brusquely into live in a state that's almost non-functional. And as usual, the corporate talk emanating from SOE about the consequences of the change is mindlessly, painfully out of touch with the reality. "Only a small minority of forum die-hards are objecting to the change" is the mantra at SOE. "No, we've only lost a few subscriptions". This I think, I have to believe, has got to be a lie, or at least a Bill-Clintonesque legal parsing of the word "few".

The only way this all makes sense is that SOE has decided it would rather lose most of its remaining playerbase in order to clear the way for some possible inrush of new players. I think they have to know that most current MMOG players wouldn't touch SWG with a forty-foot lightsaber given its reputation, and the NGE isn't exactly helping that. So where are the new players? World of Warcraft demonstrated that new people can be drawn to the market--I was sort of astonished a few months back when a colleague of mine who had never shown any interest in computer games at all asked me if I knew about this game "World of Warcraft" that she and her daughter were playing and enjoying. But I don't think any of those new players would  come to SWG until the NGE redesign settles down to something vaguely resembling playability, which might be never.

SWG players know this too, so many of them suspect that this is not about the PC market at all, but the console market instead. Is SWG-NGE a test bed for a PS3 or even X-Box 360 implementation? That strikes me as just possible. It's about the only way this whole thing makes any sense at all, and even so, it seems to me to be further evidence of serious disarray inside SOE in the wake of Blizzard's resounding success with WoW, that they're willing to further sully their reputation among PC gamers in order to aim for a highly speculative, possibly non-existent console market for MMOGs.

Afterthought: one other line of speculation out there is that the NGE is coming from LucasArts, not SOE. The details of their collaboration in SWG have always been murky: I have no way to assess this rumor in this case. Anybody with more information than me who isn't under an NDA is welcome to speculate here.


Comments on Order 66:

RedWolf says:

My opinion is that it is all just an Alpha test for SWG 2.0. It's sad to see SWG die like this, but for all its potential, it has failed to deliver years ago and I guess it's better to burn out than to fade away.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 11:42:47 AM | link

Jeff says:

Pre-Combat Upgrade and definately Pre-New Gaming Experience, SWG was a refreshing change in the MMO market. The virtual world feeling was that of Second Life, but with in-game activities. Unfortunately, after 6 months of bugs not getting fixed and poor performance the players left. Worse yet, there just wasn't much left to do in the game after 6 months.

The Combat Upgrade was SOE/LA's first attempt to ressurrect the game but it failed not because combat was broken, but because it didn't actually improve in the game's main problem area: a lack of content.

The NGE supposedly added 130 quests... whoopdie doo... World of Warcraft shipped with over 1200 quests.

The NGE also killed the Entertainer and Crafting professions while simultaneously watering down the combat professions so that there's practically no different between a smuggler, spy, bounty hunter, commando and officer. Only the jedi offers a semblance of difference because the jedi doesn't rely on ranged weapons.

I resubscribed briefly to SWG the day before NGE went live to check it out. There's nothing SWG offers that I can't get a better version of with Knights of the Old Republic.

I believe Woody at GUcomics put it best:

http://www.gucomics.com/archives/view.php?cdate=20051110

Posted Nov 21, 2005 12:29:53 PM | link

AJ says:

Excellent post Mr Burke as always.

Just to echo your very last point, I agree we need a good old fashioned whistleblower to give us the scoop from the inside.

I predict the next move for SOE/Lucasarts is to either make the boards available to read for current subscribers only (they did this a couple of months after launch during a similar, but lower scale s***storm) or get rid of the boards full-stop. 90% negative posts on the official boards are not going to fill prospective subscribers with confidence.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 1:52:30 PM | link

That Chip Guy says:

The interesting thing to me -- what I referred to as the breaking of a social contract in the other thread -- is the manner in which the NGE was rolled out. Roughly two weeks' notice was given before the NGE hit live servers. Most profession correspondents, volunteers selected by SOE to help collect feedback, were in the dark about the changes which would eliminate most of these professions. Test servers were inadequate to the demand. Midway between announcement and launch, the SWG community relations lead was fired without public explanation(*), which provoked an uproar on the boards. A number of forum moderators from other SOE games were brought in to help manage the tumult.

Being a casual reader of Terra Nova, I'm not as hip to the "magic circle" notion as the contributors. The PR moves SOE made in implementing the NGE seem to have obliterated the ability of current players to immerse themselves in a game environment. Conversations about the game seem to be entirely meta now. Even moreso than the negative tone of most of these conversations, it's the meta aspect that suggests to me this game's going down in flames, but fast. It's impossible for me to visualize that any appreciable influx of new subscribers can follow such bad word of mouth.

I wonder. Did SWG stop being a "virtual world" when this revamp hit? Or two weeks previously, when the revamp was merely announced?

(*) Not to suggest that it would have been appropriate for SOE to divulge personnel information like that. Such a high-profile personnel change in the middle of a such a critical moment generated massively negative PR, however.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 2:00:21 PM | link

Chas says:

I briefly reactivated my SWG account to look at the changes. I don't seem to be the only one- every time I've logged in, every server has been at "very heavy status" (note: this may be to the NGE requiring more server traffic and therefore, less capacity)

The first time I attacked an NPC, my first reaction was "wtf" at the speed he maneuvered. So did many on the forums. After the first 3 days, I noticed combat slowed down significantly- no more madly-sprinting imperial NPC's. The devs said the excessive speed was a bug...

I don't admire the employees at SOE this week- the hotfixes flowed a-plenty and the game seemed remarkably more playable this weekend, but changes this substantial should never have been rolled out this buggy. SOE had to know they would be under the microscope on this one- and getting alot of attention- and the first week was crucial to countering the negative first impression. It wasn't nearly as clean as it should have been (massive understatement).

It remains tremendously buggy, but, despite it being the antithesis of what I'd like out of an MMO, I consider my time on it strangely well spent.

I'm most disappointed with the loss of the ability to be a citizen-soldier: the tradesman who can take up a rifle and fight as need be, but I'm not seeing this as the absolute death of crafting as some are taking it... yet.

Entertainer came out of the NGE almost unscathed. It still offers the same buffs available since the Combat upgrade. What's lost is the ability to be an entertainer AND something else. The dancer / crafter and soldier / musician were always interesting roles for the blend of socializer / adventurer. Lost.

Craftsmen will need some attention quicky... we'll see if it comes. Some professions (weapons and armor) have been hammered by the loot and lack of decay almost to the "what's the point" level, but others, like tailoring and architecture, have long been outside the "decay economy." Consumbables (food) seem to be the only field that could offer a regular, substantial market for any length of time. How the other professions could offer interesting gameplay ONLY as crafters? I have no clue.

SWG was always the MMO I wanted to love... it came so close in so many ways to what I wanted to see... but failed in the execution. What's left, I'm trying to reserve judgement on. It's so different from what I wanted to love... so different from what I hoped for in a virtual world...

---
Now, in a twisted defense of the NGE "planetside" interface. The space combat system has been a strong point for SWG since it's release in "Jump to Light Speed", but it's never been well-integrated with the game: a "twitch" game saddled atop a "turn based" roleplaying game. The new design puts you in the cockpit sooner and the ground combat is more "twitchy"- meshing with the space system. They compliment each other now. I knew twitch gamers that wouldn't touch SWG because they hated the ground combat, and I knew turn-based gamers who never touched JTL specifically because of the twitch.

I say "twisted defense" because I'm one of those "turn based players" that never really got into the twitch.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 4:02:08 PM | link

Soln says:

Fundamentally, I think LA has been the hardest thing for SOE to deal with. A difficult customer, a very proud brand, and SOE had zero experience working as an outsourcer. What started as SOE doing the majority of the work has become what they always claimed; namely, SOE does hosting, dev, customer service, while all artwork and other assets come from LA. I also believe that around JTL the hammer was dropped and all design and direction now also comes from LA. In short, it really is LA's title, but SOE must take the heat for all design decisions.

Everything you describe I think is true. It has been one of the worst online services I've ever seen (and I work for maybe the largest). You can't patch in defects without telling your customers, or at least acknowledging problems. You can't have endemic lag and latency (only game I know that made an exploit out of "rubberbanding"). I can go on and on with teh hate, but Koster's design were good but the lack of an overall narrative for players was one problem and the other was terrible, terrible execution as you said. And sadly, it's just got terribly worse. Bizarro.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 4:36:32 PM | link

Punisher2k says:

SWG was doomed from that start. It was ill conceived and ill planned. The creature handler alone caused so many head aches and problems that it drove many from the game, never to return.

Right now we are in the "Too little too late" phase. I fully expect to see SWG close down by summer at the latest.

They need to burn it down and start over. New game engine, new database. Exisiting system just isn't good enough. Then move the time period to New Jedi Order where you can have Jedis all over and no feel knocked out of the immersion factor.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 4:48:19 PM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

I have to say I expected more out of Terra Nova than yet another whine about New Combat.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 5:41:45 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

The idea isn't necessarily bad, Heather, but I'm sorry: the execution is.

In terms of more abstract design issues with academic implications, I think the questions here involve MMOGs and community formation (as in, what happens when you attract a community that will feel deeply betrayed if certain changes are made); also, as I suggested with my first link, the problem of path-dependence in design.

There's also some basic market-related issues here, as in, "Is there one?" and "What does this all tell us about the MMOG marketplace?" One of the interesting things on that latter point is that it suggests to me that there must be a pretty decent margin of profit from *any* MMOG once it's been live for a while, or you wouldn't be able to operate it while bleeding customers.

What do you think is worth saying about the NGE that is "worthy" of Terra Nova? I'm always intrigued when folks in the industry somehow expect that those of us with scholarly or semi-scholarly interests in MMOGs are supposed to be too decorous to engage in the ordinary business of criticism. Literary critics don't avoid occasionally saying tough things about bad novels, even bad novels by writers whom they generally have a high opinion of.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 5:54:19 PM | link

savetherobot says:

I recently read (on a sticker on the front of the box) that Star Wars Battlefront is the bestselling Star Wars game of all time. I enjoyed the game for what it is - it's basic and derivative, but fun, busy and challenging enough even if you're playing it alone - but bestselling game of all time? That means that rather than the deep storylines of KOTOR (which is often criticized as "too slow") or the open-ended experience of SWG (no comment necessary), people want to run around and shoot each other - in stormtrooper outfits.

Battlefront has no characters and not much story. You just get to run around a realistic Star Wars battlefield and decide how you want to blow people up. People want an open Star Wars experience - but they're happy to fill it with nothing but action.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 6:01:46 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

In the best of the single-player FPS games based on the Star Wars license, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, there's a level in which you must find a way to escape from a starship that is plummeting toward the ground.

It's terrifying fun: klaxons are howling; the deck pitches and cants at crazy angles causing objects to fall past you and explode; a wrong step sends you falling to your doom; it's hard to get your bearings; and through all of this there is a timer inexorably counting down the seconds until the ship crashes and you must restart the level.

That's how I feel about SWG. Except it's not as much fun. And I see no reason to restart.

...

I came to SWG about a year before it launched because it sounded so good. For one thing, I'm a fan of the films. (I was quoted in my hometown newspaper for having seen the original film seven times.) The idea of playing a MMOG based on the movies that would let me "live the saga" sounded like a lot of fun.

For another thing, I'm a student of game design, and like Timothy Burke I'm interested in "world-y" designs in particular. What I saw and heard from LucasArts and SOE suggested that SWG would indeed be a complex and dynamic world, and that excited me as well.

So when SWG launched, I signed off of EQ and started playing SWG. I also participated frequently and constructively on the official forum. I've both praised and criticized LEC/SOE developers, but I always tried to pay for my criticisms with specific suggestions for correcting what I thought were problems, and I stuck around through all the changes. All told, I think it's fair to say I've been one of the "loyalists."

All of which is to highlight the sense of betrayal I have increasingly felt, both as a player of SWG and as someone who thinks that good design and implementation matter. I don't use a word like "betrayal" lightly, as I'm not a dramatic person; it's simply the most accurate word to describe my reaction to the actions taken by SWG's developers since SWG launched, and most especially regarding the recent "New Gaming Experience."

I basically subscribe to everything Tim said (and said well), starting with his praise of LEC/SOE for being willing to make broad changes to an existing game. First, they admitted the obvious -- SWG wasn't delivering a "Star Wars-y" experience. And then they proved ready to significantly alter the game to achieve that goal. LEC producer Julio Torres and the other leads deserve credit for these things.

But this by itself doesn't solve the whole problem. Seeing a problem and doing something about it aren't enough -- you have to do the right things.

Where LEC/SOE have repeatedly gone wrong is the specific design and implementation of the changes made to SWG's original design. The NGE is only the latest example of two and a half years of increasingly bad design and scheduling decisions. By itself, the NGE isn't enough to make me (a loyalist, remember) give up on SWG. It's the fact that the NGE is the last and most destructive wrecking ball applied to the remarkable original design of SWG.

I don't feel "betrayed" just by the NGE -- I feel betrayed by the NGE on top of two+ years of similar decisions that have consistently ignored, corrupted, or outright eliminated the aspects of this game that I cared the most about:

* SWG launched with and repeatedly pushed publishes containing bugs that were reported in testing. In some cases, these were bugs that had already been fixed in a previous release. A goal of hitting aggressive schedules is laudable, and the business need to release new content in time to tie in with other media events is understandable, but achieving good QA has been a consistent and conspicuous failure.

* The original design respected and encouraged multiple playstyles by explicitly requiring crafters, healers, and entertainers to support combatants. Subsequent releases provided serious content only for combatants; other playstyles received only minor content, or even had their required support abilities removed completely. The NGE delivered the final blow of this "only combat matters" thinking by its squashing of all entertaining and healing professions down to one class each, and all crafting professions down to one class (with four "specializations" so that it wouldn't be necessary to remove existing schematics)... but the combat professions received all six remaining classes of the nine primary classes. Not only that, but combat skills and non-combat skills do not trade on a one-to-one basis when existing characters are converted to one of the new classes. Knowing any skill in one of the pre-NGE non-combat professions inflates into knowing all possible non-combat skills in the sole related NGE class, but one pre-NGE combat skill is worth one NGE combat skill. Translation: combat skills are worth more. Taken as a whole, these changes on top of all the others have sent a clear message: SWG is only for people who like fighting games. Explorers and Socializers need not apply.

* In particular, the handling of Jedi has been consistently awful. You would think that a concept so fundamental to the story told in the movies would be handled with extreme care, from gameplay concepts to implementation to playtesting, but such seems not to have been the case. The initial idea of unlocking Jedi abilities through mastering several random professions made some sense from a game mechanics perspective: it would take time and effort; it would be unique to each player; it would reward and thereby promote a deep knowledge of the game. As a mechanical process, it got the job done. But in terms of actual entertainment value, it was a Very Bad Idea: it led to mindless grinding past professions that others valued; it bore no resemblance to how a simple moisture farmer could learn to respect and apply the Force; and it quickly began filling the game world with Jedi characters run by powergamers who had no interest in "playing like Jedi." Subsequent changes never solved this problem. The NGE simply surrenders and calls it victory -- now anyone can be a Jedi when they start the game. That's not more "Star Wars-y" -- it's less, much less... and it's typical of how SWG's developers have sacrificed a deeply human story of betrayal and redemption to whatever Marketing says will move more SKUs.

* The easily-switchable skills system of the original design promoted variety in play, depth of roleplaying, and opportunity for experimenting with other playstyles. While these features offered open-ended gameplay, the cost was that effectively knowing and performing one's role in combat groups required study and experience. To make this goal easier, the Combat Upgrade stratified professions somewhat, reducing the value of having a broad set of skills. The NGE utterly destroyed the skills system, turning SWG into merely another class-bound MMORPG.

* The simplification of skills into a few classes is part of a larger trend of reducing or eliminating many of the deeper aspects of gameplay. As Tim noted, it is impossible not to wonder whether the depth of gameplay and even the keyboard control system are being "dumbed-down" in order to attract console gamers. (I'm not expressing a personal belief that console gamers are dumb. I'm describing what I believe is the perception of console gamers by SWG's current designers as incapable of appreciating any gameplay beyond rote memorization and trivially simple button-mashing.)

I don't feel any personal animosity toward any of the responsible folks at LEC or SOE. They mostly seem like nice people, and I'm sure that most if not all of them want to make a fun game and truly believe that their decisions are the right way to achieve that goal.

The problem is that SWG's developers and I no longer have the same definition of "fun." The original design of SWG promised depth and drama, things I care about in a game, but since SWG launched it has been repeatedly stripped of those things in favor of simpleminded combat. This doesn't mean that SWG has become a bad game, or that it won't be more popular once the PlayStation owners sign up. It just makes SWG a game that I can no longer enjoy.

Will Vanguard or D&D Online or Lord of the Rings Online or Star Trek Online be the game that proves that "deep" and "popular" aren't mutually exclusive? Will any of them offer emotionally engaging entertainment and retain that focus over time? Can LotRO or STO deliver fun gameplay while remaining true to the spirit of their licenses (and satisfying their licensors)?

I hope so. I just don't know yet if, after SWG, I'll be able to trust any MMOG developer enough to try them out. That's perhaps not a purely academic viewpoint, but I submit it as an isolated sample of how one person can respond when significant changes are made to an existing game.

--Bart

Posted Nov 21, 2005 6:06:39 PM | link

AgentDib says:

I don't think it matters whether the NGE is an improvement to SWG or not. It could improve the game dramatically and still cause the same amount of damage to the community because the unavoidable fact is that SOE is treating paying subscribers like alpha testers.

Players spent several years perfecting templates and collecting gear that was completely deleted from the game with no compensation. I'm not going to get into the decision to change the severe grind to full temp Jedi Knight to a class that is selectable from day 1, but needless to say it was not well received by those Jedi who had ground for over a year to achieve their template.

The merits of the NGE are irrevelant - if ANY MMO removed the progress that 70% of their veteran player base had made over 2 and a half years it would cause the same widespread cancellation and dismay.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 6:26:12 PM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

>>The idea isn't necessarily bad, Heather, but I'm sorry: the execution is.<<

I would say the same thing about the original article. There's nothing wrong with criticism. It's great, it's wonderful, I like to hear criticism and analysis of what games do wrong just as much (if not more) as I like to hear what they do right.

There is, however, a difference between explaining what a game does wrong and just whining. I can read the latter about NGE at just about any gaming message board for any game. Suggesting that the "live management team is well beyond cluelessly self-destructive, out in some outer void of fecklessness." is just silly hyperbole.

If you're going to make claims that "almost everyone" has been looking upon the changes with horror, or that they're lying when they say they've only lost a few subscriptions, or that "most MMOG players won't touch SWG with a forty foot lightsaber", at least give us some data to back it up, especially when from my perspective it doesn't seem to be true at all. Someone mentioned above that every server has been at "very heavy" status, and many of my gaming circle plan to give NGE a spin in the near future.

Personally, I hope the changes do astoundingly well, even if only to prove that MMO’s can reinvigorate themselves as opposed to slowly sinking into obsolescence.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 6:36:10 PM | link

Scott Jennings says:

> What do you think is worth saying about the NGE that
> is "worthy" of Terra Nova? I'm always intrigued when
> folks in the industry somehow expect that those of us
> with scholarly or semi-scholarly interests in MMOGs
> are supposed to be too decorous to engage in the
> ordinary business of criticism.

Sure. But at the same time you've established a pattern of not stooping to, say, posting diatribes from MMO players angry about the latest patch for their game. (Boy, it's a good thing nobody ever did that. *cringe*)

I'll have to recuse myself from discussing SWG specifics (suffice to say: my wife was a bio-engineer/tailor) and I'm not sure that that's really where you want to go anyway. Every MMG posts far-reaching changes regularly - it's what live teams do. Reminds people we're still alive, if nothing else.

What IS interesting, and what I think should be discussed in this context and without, is the concept of completely changing a live service in mid-stream. SWG this week is a far different game from the one that existed last month. How do the players react to that radical a change? Do they react? Do they simply quit? Do they knuckle under and keep going, "relearning the rules"?

This is stuff that would be interesting. "I can't aim in combat any more" or "Gosh, this live team sucks at implementation", not so much.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 7:21:15 PM | link

Lydia Leong (Amberyl) says:

I suspect it'd be very interesting to know what Sony's internal numbers were, prior to this launch, for:

- Projected churn
- Projected cost of refunds on latest expansion
- Projected new subscribers
- Projected cost of new subscriber acquisition
- Projected revenues from new box sales
- Projected revenues for and length of new subscriptions
- Projected customer service costs for all of the above

Presumably someone at SOE thought that this made business sense. It was clearly rushed out for the new Star Wars DVD release and for the Christmas season. Personally, I doubt it's going to have much in the way of immediate returns for SOE, but it's potentially a toss-up for the future, if they're able to fix what is clearly the myriad of issues currently plaguing the game.

One of the key strengths of WoW is its polish and relative lack of persistent bugginess (other than stability issues). "Not having mysteriously frustrating bugs" is incredibly important for attracting the more casual audience.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 7:36:38 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

For those of us watching from the cheap seats (that is, everyone here whose job isn't on the line with the NGE), this makes for very interesting, perhaps illuminating viewing.

First, this change shows how young MMOs still are. Can you switch out the basic mechanics and feel of a major game after it's been in play for several years? No one knows -- this is entirely new territory (Terra Nova anyone?).

Second, this change serves to illustrate how elements of an existing community react to virtually any large-scale change in an online world/game: there's cogent criticism, sure, but it's almost inevitably accompanied by hyperbole, whining, hand-wringing, and direly anxious predictions for the future. If nothing else, these indicate the depth of feeling people have for "their" game.

Finally, this leaves us all wondering about SOE's strategy: is this a matter of playing to (and thus trying to maximize) the audience they have left -- of trying to retain (and possibly regain) market share from WoW? Or is it a play for the future, testing out concepts that will come to fruition only with the console version of the game? Is it possibly the swan song of a disaffected live team effectively abandoned by management in all but an immovable deadline, trying in vain to put things right? Or is the NGE instead a set of half-baked game-design-by-committee changes that were driven by no vision other than expediency, or perhaps the need to do something in the face of waning subscriptions?

While one of the first two strategies is possible -- I mean, it's possible that once the dust settles SWG could be a much better game! -- and the third is a distinct possibility, personally I somewhat sadly conclude the last is most likely. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this puts those responsible into the class of those who are "cluelessly self-destructive, out in some outer void of fecklessness," though some non-hyperbolic version of that might apply. But I'm reminded of two sayings: Newton's statement that he had seen further only by standing on the shoulders of giants; and Kinky Friedman's statement that the Texas capitol building (larger than that in DC) was "built for giants but inhabited by midgets."

I don't think we've really found our giants in MMOGs, much less the ability to stand on their shoulders -- this sector is both too young and chaotic for that. Rather, I suspect many of us have in our imagination magnified these virtual worlds into palaces -- and somehow, imagined those who build them as creative giants. It's no surprise then that we're then horrified to find the reality is that the worlds are most often ramshackle huts crushed by the merest contrary corporate wind, and in far too many cases administered by those of somewhat more, shall we say, diminutive vision.

Or to paraphrase the words of another cultural icon: "Pay no attention to the committee behind the curtain!"

Posted Nov 21, 2005 8:06:37 PM | link

Stormgaard says:

This is my own take on the recent Raph Koster interview that Ogaming has posted here:

http://www.ogaming.com/data/3265%7ESOE.php

Seems appropriate...

~

Ogaming: EverQuest and sequel EverQuest II are currently running at the same time, complete with their own fan bases. Unheard of! How do you do it?

Raph Koster: Well you see it's quite simple! Nobody expected EQII to suck as badly as it did, so everyone who liked the orginal EQ is still playing it!

Ogaming: Your company practically invented the modern MMO with EverQuest, back when the concept was unproven. Now you face competition at every turn from upstarts like NCSoft and Mythic – what's the secret to winning the next-gen wars?

Raph Koster: Sony invented EQ? Really? I'm sure they appreciate that fact even though what really happened is that they came along and bought it up after it had already become a success! Thank you also for indirectly trasnferring some of that credit to me by way of association, even though I had nothing to do with the original game! As far as those upstarts go I wouldn't worry. By the time the stuffed suits at sony realize what's going on I'll have a nice fat retirement saved up to fall back on!

Ogaming: The Matrix Online: Why buy it? Who's still playing? And why do you believe there's a strong future for this franchise?

Raph Koster: Well we've made the decision rather than come up with one good game to offer our customers we'd offer a whole smorgasborg of crappy ones and hope they don't notice the difference!

Ogaming: The DC Comics MMO: Please explain the reasoning behind this decision. And should we take it as part of a push to expand Sony Online’s holdings beyond the standard fantasy/sci-fi realms?

Raph Koster: That's easy! City of Heroes kicks ass and we want to copy them! We think it's a good idea to expand in any direction that looks like it works since can't come up with any orginal ideas ourselves.

Ogaming: What's the company's general publishing strategy been in the past? What is it going forward?

Raph Koster: Well, in the past it's been to buy up what works! Going forward it's allllll smoke and mirrors buddy, alllll smoke and mirrors!

Ogaming: How do you feel about the general misconception many companies had in recent years that the MMO market was not as viable as people once thought? Obviously, it's currently going through a resurgence...

Raph Koster: Well of course there were a lot of misconceptions regarding MMORPG viability in the past! When Star Wars Galaxies fell flat on it's ass after a full 2 years of mega-hype about my creative genius who would have expected otherwise!

Ogaming: To what do you attribute MMO gaming’s return to prominence?

Raph Koster: Oh um... Night Elves.... Orcs.... Big Hammers... I dunno! Lots of things!

Ogaming: Where do you feel the MMO market is in its lifecycle – are there still millions upon millions of users to attract? Why?

Raph Koster: Oh it's doing quite well, and there ARE still millions and millions of users to attract. They just aren't here at Sony at the moment!

Ogaming: Most of America (not to mention the world) still isn't playing these titles... Why is it inevitable that this situation will change?

Raph Koster: Well I won't keep designing games forever now will I!

Ogaming: How does Sony Online decide which titles to publish? Is there a particular type of game you're looking to push forward with in coming years?

Raph Koster: There are all kinds of really cool games I'd like to push forward in the future, and the executives at Sony are really receptive to my ideas! I have this cool little routine I go through whenever I'm in the board room. I take out this little shiney pocket-watch, and I start telling them all that they are getting veeerrry sleeepy.....

Ogaming: Right now, you’ve got a lot of major blockbuster properties in your catalogue. Any chance you'll be looking towards more niche and/or smaller scale, yet more innovative projects soon?

Raph Koster: Oh we're working desperately on turning every single one of those blockbuster properties into niche projects!

Ogaming: What other developers/publishers out there are you seeing whose work you like? Do you feel that some are pushing SOE to become a better competitor?

Raph Koster: Oh I definitley feel like the stress releif I get from playing games like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and City of Heroes allow me to come back to work refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to make a significant contribution to this company. I think they all make us better competitors!

Ogaming: Do you plan on reaching outside of Sony Online for the majority of upcoming projects, or tapping internal talent? Why so?

Raph Koster: Well with all that terrific talent outside the company why put extra strain on our employees here? Keep your eyes on the prize, that's my motto!

Ogaming: Where does the future of the MMO scene lie?

Raph Koster: Well you can travel to the future in Star Wars Galaxies! Oh wait no... that was a "Long time ago"...

Ogaming: How's the Station Exchange been working out for you?

Raph Koster: Oh great! My wife and I just paid for one of those High Definition television set with the money I made off it! IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING!!

Ogaming: Why, as a company, choose to jump into the resale of virtual goods market after decrying the industry for so long?

Raph Koster: Well we weren't coming up with any games that were worth a damn...

Ogaming: How did that whole “/pizza” promotion work out? Should we expect to see more in the near future (“/beer” seems a natural compliment)?

Raph Koster: We felt strongly that the addition of a decent pizza improved the gameplay experience of EQII tremendously. It IS comfort food after all.

Ogaming: Just how much of an MMO nut are you yourself? And what sort of character do you most enjoy playing... female barbarians?

Raph Koster: Oh I AM a nut. And I do enjoy playing with female barbarians when my wife's not looking.

~

Stormgaard - The Se7en Samurai

http://www.se7ensamurai.com/

Posted Nov 21, 2005 9:29:03 PM | link

Mike Rozak says:

I won't get into implimentation of details of SWG, but think about this...

A few years ago I heard that the Cadilac division of GM was in trouble. The problem was that Cadilac appealed to a mid-aged wealthy driver in the 1950's, and an older (soon to die off) wealthy driver in the 1990's. Their customers were soon going to die of old age, along with the division, unless Cadilac changed.

According to MMORPG chart, SWG was 250k(ish) users in Oct 03. It's still around 250k(ish) subscribers in Jul 05.

If you were an auto manufacturer, you'd be pretty happy with a constant number of customers.

However, the overall MMORPG market is growing 30%+ per year. (US auto sales only grow at 3% or so.)

In terms of market share, SWG and almost ALL older MMORPGs are shrinking at 30% a year! Think about the numbers in this light and having constant number of users means your world is failing. Within 6 months of shipping, most MMORPG populations are shrinking (in terms of market share).

All MMORPGs have to decide how much they'll cater to their current users (who will eventually get bored and leave, or die of old age), and how much effort they'll put into attracting new users. Existing users like a MMORPG because of the way it is, and many/most changes designed to attract new users will alienate existing users.

Star Wars is a valuable property, so the SWG management team seems to have risked alienating its existing users for the greater glory/gold that might be created by their changes. Ultima Online, on the other hand, seems to have decided to accept to an ever dwindling community.

I posted some related thoughts on: http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/DiggingTheirGrave.htm

Posted Nov 21, 2005 9:47:06 PM | link

Franek says:

Mike Seller says “Finally, this leaves us all wondering about SOE's strategy” and I’d like to follow up on that.

I believe Lydia and Scott have the right of it. We don't have the numbers or insight into the decision making process that led to the current changes in SWG. And I suspect folks who have that knowledge will be reluctant to share. But we do know a few things and while we could just wait until it plays, out perhaps we could profitably structure our speculation a little bit.

What do we know?

* The changes were introduced on short notice
* The changes didn't just appear -- there were significant resources expended
* There is evidence the new system was released with massively insufficient testing – there are reports that many basic functions, especially where the old game and the new game meet, do not work.
* The changes are in the direction of FPS.
* The underlying game mechanics don't support FPS systems particularly well – collision and line of sight calculation, for example, are awkward – enemies seeing, shooting and chasing players through walls and the like.
* The initial game experience – the new player introduction – seems to be much more thoroughly thought out than the application of the new game mechanics in the existing world.
* SOE and LA are profit motivated.

What does this suggest?

* LA/SOE are unhappy with their numbers and have been for some time – either in an absolute sense or as a proportion of the on-line pie. (Numbers here could mean profitability as well as income) as Mike Rozak suggests.
* They attribute their bad numbers to the structure of the game – not to it’s execution or their support – neither of those have changed. So the existing system might be too expensive to maintain or not bringing in enough money.
* The new initial game experience is more directed and allows players to stop at almost any point with little penalty – so letting players take a smaller bite with less startup time may have been a design goal.

And what does it mean?

Bart touched on a good point…
* This may be a statement by LA/SOE that major corporations do not get the kind of return on “deep” games that they need. And that leads in to many of the discussions that Terra Novans have been having for quite a while.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 10:18:53 PM | link

Stuart Edwards says:

They turned what was an MMORPG that promised the paying subscriber that they could "build communities" and "live the Star Wars experience", into a FPS where nothing mattered more than spamming L33t at your opponent whilst you tried to wack them with your light-sabre (or endlessly grinding lava-fleas to gain experience points).

The game has lost direction, it has lost its' "feel" as an enjoyable experience - and I for one refuse to pay $14.95 to play a different game every 3 or so months. At least with WoW you know what you are getting week in and week out....you are getting entertained, not frustrated and angry.

I play games to relax and for fun and enjoyment. As my first experience of playing an MMO, StarWarsGalaxies initially gave me hours and hours of fun, entertainment and even a sense of accomplishment.

Since the debacle of the CURB and now the NGE, it has only shown me what to avoid in my future gaming life.

Successful games are build on both new and returning subscribers, and based on the abismal treatment that has been meted out to the community over the past 7 or so months, I truely cannot see how SOE/LA are ever going to get most of their much vaunted 750k player base to ever return again.

As a veteran player, I mourn for what could of been, not what is now. As a MMO subscriber, I have moved on and beyond SWG, never to return.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 10:41:50 PM | link

Betrayal and exploitation says:

I would just like to echo what a previous poster said about the NGE:

"I don't think it matters whether the NGE is an improvement to SWG or not. It could improve the game dramatically and still cause the same amount of damage to the community because the unavoidable fact is that SOE is treating paying subscribers like alpha testers.

The merits of the NGE are irrevelant - if ANY MMO removed the progress that 70% of their veteran player base had made over 2 and a half years it would cause the same widespread cancellation and dismay."

My girlfriend and I just started playing SWG NGE over the weekend, and we're both relatively open-minded about the changes. The game is extremely buggy and the developers clearly have little regard for the time that previous player have invested in the game.

I think that Timothy's original posting was well within the realm of what I've come to expect from Terra Nova. These recent changes to the game are a violation of the unspoken social contract that exists between players and developers. The unspoken social contract should trump the EULA. Recent developments in the game have clearly betrayed the trust of players who invested so much time in this virtual world.

Posted Nov 21, 2005 10:56:00 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Heather:

Characterizing a common mood or sentiment within the subculture(s) that swirl around gaming is roughly the same as making statements about what groups or collectives of people in American society think about politics, the war in Iraq, what have you. There are a variety of ways to go about making such statements. There are polling instruments and data they create: but those have their problems, even under the best of circumstances, both in terms of the way that particular questions create or presuppose answers, and in terms of the fact that real sentiments in the world rarely resolve themselves into neat packages that can register clearly in polls. In any event, comprehensive polls of game players are not available, not even to developers within their proprietary data. I could point to Gamespy polls, etc., or Amazon reviews, but they're not very reliable indices of typical opinion, only of the opinion of the aggrieved.

There are other quantitative measures: what memberships people hold, how they vote, what they buy. Most of those data are not easily applicable to the gaming world. Those that are held behind proprietary curtains. If SOE wants to be taken seriously when it makes a statement like, "Very few subscribers have quit", it's up to SOE to release the data that makes that a meaningful statement. I can only observe that after past disturbances within the SWG community over changes to the game or problems within it, the statement has been made that almost all players were satisfied and few had quit, with the same degree of confidence. And yet now we are told that focus groups and market research show that players were dissatisfied with the game as such and looking for something like the NGE. If developers want to complain about people coming to conclusions on thin data, they have the means to correct that. Other mass media share important data about subscribers far more readily than MMOG publishers: maybe that would help make the leap to being serious about the service end of the business? In any event, it's not tough to compile a list of direct misrepresentations in the history of SWG, which is reason enough to be presumptively skeptical now about any claims about subscribers or customer satisfaction.

There are also statements made that have a quantitative character that can be tested, at least a bit. You mention that someone above said the servers were very heavy; you're quick to grasp at something that confirms the conclusion you'd like to make. Read around as widely as I have, and you'll see plenty of people saying that the servers have been light. More importantly, you'll read many SWG players claiming that many of their guild members, friends-lists, etcetera, have unsubscribed. Do they exaggerate? Very likely, in fact, almost certainly. MMOG forum rats are nothing if not histrionic. But against one or two countervailing claims, I've got a hundred others that come up grim. Patterns and preponderances do mean something, if not something terribly strong.

The other way we make statements about how groups of people feel is by observation, qualitative assessments, ethnography, even intuition. Yes, this does turn into a contest of anecdotes, in some respects, though not *mere* anecdotes. What of it? I find these are frequently productive instruments for knowing the world in general; no less so for knowing what the reaction to a particular game might be.

Find for me the gaming sites where many commentators are singing the praises of the NGE. Find for me the sites of discourse where many people are reporting their excitement about the game and its future. Find for me something more than your friends and your circle. When I take stock of the tea leaves floating in the various brews that I can see, the signs and portents in the discourses that I've come to trust or regard as reliable, I don't see any of that.

Now if you're just going to say, "Oh, it's all those gaming sites again, those bitter gamers, those pointless forums...they don't represent anyone but a small minority", that's another discussion altogether. I think it's right to say that most online discussions of games and gamer communities are dominated by more jaded, more jaundiced views that may be unrepresentative of the larger market of game-players. In some cases, that's a very important thing to note: you can't understand why Deer Hunter or The Sims are the success that they are if you don't reach beyond f13 and Corpnews and Quarter-to-Three and Stratics and and various gamer blogs, sure. But the opposite is not true, either, and to think so reflects the siege mentality of many developers, which in turn often leads them to miss valuable signal that's lying in plain sight on their own forums and in other similar places. In the case of SWG, there's no question but that it's a boutique game and has been for a while. That means that what you hear in the world of gamer discourse online is likely to be a meaningful reflection of the sentiments of many within the game.

Where's Asheron's Call 2? Its developers protested just as surely against forum negativity (on their own forums and elsewhere) and claimed it was inaccurate. Was it? Or was that just corporate talk? You think the NGE is being welcomed with open arms, and SWG is viewed mostly positively by gamers? Tell me what that's based on besides your "gaming circle".

I actually share your hope, that the NGE succeeds, because I do think that would be an interesting development with a lot of hopeful significance for this industry. But I also think that virtual world management developers do owe something to their communities that goes beyond the pure provision of a product, that that relation is the source of much of the potential of commercial virtual worlds. Perhaps you do not agree. But if you do, then you can't possibly think that the actual implementation of the NGE is anything but a mistake, whatever the virtues of its concepts might be.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:10:16 AM | link

magicback (Frank) says:

Question is: why didn't they take the strategy they took with EQ I and EQ II? Both has found relatively stable fans concurrently, which was a safe move.

Creative distruction is one thing, but I think execution is very important.

For example in the mobile phone space, US went with *DMA while Europe went with GSM. Then when operators plot out the path from 2G to 3G standards, some went with 2.5G as an interim step. Execution of the transition proved profitable or not.

For example in the TV space, writers and producers make changes to the show each season. Some were good and some were bad. X-files without both stars weren't the same even if the show's premise and framework were the same.

So, bands that "sold out" to commercialism, sold out. But, hey, that's creative and business decisions made by people with ideals, dreams and flaws.

My 2 cents,

Frank

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:12:58 AM | link

magicback (Frank) says:

The next questions are, what is this "magic circle"? What are the implied social contract?

Does SOE, like any other creative force, has the right to change creative direction? Can a band change musical direction at their whim or should their fan base as any say?

Lastly, did the change devalue RMT objects? What is the estimate monetary impact?

Frank

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:19:32 AM | link

Charles Brownell says:

Finally a well thought out blog with intelligent analysis of the NGE. I have been playing for 2 years, invested a tremendous amount of time into the game, something I have never done before, and have made some very close friends. Prior to joining the SWG universe I was strictly a console gamer. But as an avid Star Wars fan, which spent most of the summer of 1977 role-playing Star Wars in my back yard, I could not resist.

It is my opinion that we are victims of a poorly thought out business model that was poorly executed and maintained. I loved the depth and richness the virtual world had to offer. It was fun to play out roles, and be immersed in a universe the stretched far beyond the movies. The extended universe of Star Wars was truly living in the game. However, I feel now that all of the aspirations the original developers conceptualized were far to loft for a $15 price tag, and also did not have the mass appeal they had projected.

My belief is that the SOE executives looked at the financial returns on the game 1 year after release, and were not happy with what they saw. It was seem plausible at that point to plan out a new strategy, for a new game. I believe most agree that this NGE had to been in the works for several months. If you form a timeline you can see the development path that the NGE most likely took. This had to have been in the works and under wraps for at least 9 before launch. This is my uneducated opinion, but seems likely. I guess this upsets me the most. Being deceived for such along time, with promises of bug fixes, updates, profession changes etc, all the while, a second game was being developed, a second game that is being forced upon a very loyal and fanatic player base. I am not sure this fits into the category of anti-trust, but it is deceptive and misleading marketing. I think a case could be made.

A recent study was conducted in San Francisco on behalf of SOE and LA. It has been rumored that the focus group was limited to males age 18 - 25, the "target group". I find it disturbing that someone my age, and an "original" Star Wars fan, is not a target group for a Star Wars based game. The whole Star Wars phenomena would not exist if it was not for the imagination of the 9 year olds like myself, and our parents money the fueled the mega merchandising.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:22:24 AM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Magicback wrote:

Does SOE, like any other creative force, has the right to change creative direction? Can a band change musical direction at their whim or should their fan base as any say?

Yes and yes!

No different from Dylan going acoustic or from episodic tv writing out certain characters, fundamentally. I think the major practical difference here is that SW:G fans are a MUCH more connected community than the community of people who listen to a band or the people who habitually watch a certain tv show, and so the level of outrage generated may be much higher due to feedback loops.

But do they have the right? Of course. That's unquestionable.

--matt

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:37:08 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Absolutely they have the right.

More than that, I'd say they had many sound reasons to make this change.

The issue is how it was done, both in terms of interacting with a community of customers and in terms of actual technical implementation. That's always been the main issue with SWG: not the ideas or designs themselves, but how they've been handled on the service end. But that's not some extra afterthought or minor issue: it's possibly the most important aspect of MMOGs. And I'm sorry, but making the same mistake on a major level at least three times means that there is something very preventably wrong in the management of that service.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:40:39 AM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Mutter. Obviously, I meant Dylan going electric.

--matt

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:57:53 AM | link

Byron Eastridge says:

It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion and not being able to do anything about it.
Time and again the playerbase was told one thing while the SWG team did another.
If you want to know just how many players are leaving you dont goto the forums or polls or even look at the meters.It's been shown that the online meter has been and continues to be manipulated.You cannot go by light medium or heavy.
You go online and take a tour of the entire galaxy of every single server.
When the only place you see players is 1 spot on every server and the numbers there indicate at most 100 players it begs the question where is everyone.Every galaxy forum has posts talking about WHOLE guilds fleeing, guilds of 20 to 300 players.
When a community feels betrayed and that betrayal is shown to be a real betrayal of trust,
do you think any PR to the contrary is helping?
If anything it will in the long run keep customers away.Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
The biggest mistake this team has made imo has been in the service end.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 2:38:56 AM | link

CtG says:

Timothy sure says a lot in this article, without really saying much at all. He should go work for a PR firm.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 2:43:39 AM | link

Byron Eastridge says:

Just thought I would add never in the first combat upgrade did they result to mass permanant bannings on the forums.An angry customer base will only get worse over time by improper handling of this mess.

posted by the management.
Just a warning that we are not currently handing out suspensions. All bans at this time are going to be permanent.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:12:53 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Stormgaard>This is my own take on the recent Raph Koster interview that Ogaming has posted here:
>http://www.ogaming.com/data/3265%7ESOE.php
>Seems appropriate...

No, it seems smug, sneering and desperately ill-informed.

The weapon is good. Satire works. Unfortunately, you chose the wrong target, opened fire in the wrong place, used the wrong bullets, and you missed anyway.

Richard

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:27:09 AM | link

PJ says:

Magicback wrote:

Does SOE, like any other creative force, has the right to change creative direction? Can a band change musical direction at their whim or should their fan base as any say?

In as much as it is their bat, and their ball - and if they wanna go play with themselves they can - yes.

If they want all the other kids on the block to play as well (and pay) there are rules you just don't break - like changing them in the middle of a game.

One of the biggest draws to MMOs is persistance. With persistance, you get player investment. Without that investment - folks might as well save the monthly fee and play single player, or free session games.

This strikes at the very core of trust, players expect a company will uphold the integrity of the game they choose. Change is one thing - totally gutting and changing the rules midsteam is another.

WoW brought a ton of folks into the genre that had never experienced it before - I just hope this excercise doesn't sour too many people clean out of it.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 4:29:38 AM | link

Dan Pusceddu says:

"Does SOE, like any other creative force, has the right to change creative direction? Can a band change musical direction at their whim or should their fan base as any say?"

Absolutely, a band can change musical direction at their whim. However, a band does not have an ongoing contract with a subscribed fan base so the analogy doesn't hold. More like, does a band have the right to change musical direction *and* come and 'update' your CD collection/iPod with revised versions of their old music?

I quit SWG when the CU nerfed my hard-earned character and made solo play all but impossible to enjoy. I'm currently playing WoW which has maybe 20% of the depth of (the old) SWG game but at least it is a consistent and well-designed 20%...

Posted Nov 22, 2005 5:01:31 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Looking over the thread, I want to highlight Franek's comments. First because I think he offers a good chart of the outsider's reasoning process that underlies some of my own conclusions. But far more importantly, because he suggests that the NGE may be driven in part by a conclusion that I would desperately like SOE/LA *not* to make: that deep virtual worlds are commercial failures. That's the main thrust of most of my writing about SWG: the failure of SWG is NOT in its basic design tenets, but in its implementation. The NGE does not solve SWG's most basic problem: it exacerbates it.

That's what I think SOE needs to understand. It is what they don't seem to understand. If they don't understand it, I have no trouble using the term "clueless", much as industry people here dislike it. If they do understand it, then they have some other market-rational objective in mind for which poor execution at the moment matters little against some long-term goal. If that's attracting a different audience of PC-based subscribers, I think their judgement of the market is badly flawed. By its very nature, there's no hard data to support that: we're all guessing about the future. If it's the console market, I have no idea--but throwing away your current subscribers in favor of a speculative console market is either very bold, or their current subscribers were a very small and discardable group.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:50:52 AM | link

Alex says:

Hello Heather,

i do still play SWG, and i can tell you that swg lost more people than SOE/LA would like to admit.

Numbers? Easy, i have a friendlist which has about 250 names in it, and from about 40 active in peaktimes about a month ago, it reduced to 5-10 active last evening. This is definetly more than a "few" subscriptions gone.

Alex

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:51:58 AM | link

Chas says:

Allright,

So, we've come to agree that SOE/LA has the RIGHT to dramatically alter the game's play style, the issue is in their implementation.

So... how would you, as a developer, do things different? Avoid generalities like "better customer support" -- what could MAKE IT better?

First issue that comes to mind for me: A more stable version at release.... (but would this have lessened the player issues- the cancellation posts predated the release... even predated the arrival on the test server.) The negative votes on stratics and gamespot both predated the release as well, but maybe a solid first release would have acted as a calming effect.

What would you have done differently?

Posted Nov 22, 2005 8:37:30 AM | link

Green Armadillo says:

Quoth Lydia:
"I suspect it'd be very interesting to know what Sony's internal numbers were, prior to this launch, for:

- Projected churn
- Projected cost of refunds on latest expansion...."
_________________________

I will absolutely guarantee for you that they did NOT project costs for having to refund the expansion, they just somehow didn't think of how releasing a paid expansion and then fundamentally altering the game would be a problem for anyone. Once the bleep hit the fan, they made a new projection - that refund processes can be complicated to a sufficient extent that applying for one can be a deterrent. Therefore, they concluded that the PR benefit of offering the refund was worth more than the amount it cost them.

I'm surprized no one has mentioned the timing of this at all. Last night, I actually saw a commercial for what I thought was a generic action SW game on TV (albeit cable) that turned out to be SWG. Tis the season to hype one's games before X-Mas. I suspect that the new revamp whatever it's called was coded with dependencies on code in the expansion, which prevented them from pushing it live sooner. (The aneurism that looking at this code would probably give my programmer friends alone is a strong argument for Open Source. ;)) And then they ran into the same financial pressure that Blizzard felt this time last year of getting something out the door in time for the Holidays, even if that means problems down the line. Unfortunately, SoE has never been as good at this whole service thing, so I suppose predictable consequences ensued.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 8:44:33 AM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

Timothy,

First off, Yes, generalizing a common mood or sentiment within a subculture is a common method of reporting, but generally when I open up the Boston Globe I don't read statements like "Almost everyone in America has been looking on the war in Iraq with horror!" with insults to the government by the author interposed.

Again, I do not have a problem with criticism of SWG or SOE, like I said in the first post, the problem was with the quality of the article. Is it an editorial? not really, is it an analysis? nope, is it an actual factual article? no, that got thrown out the window as soon as you get to statements like "Bill-Clintonesque legal parsing of the word 'few'.". Maybe terranova is a rant site now instead?

The posts on this very thread highlight the things that people are more interested in hearing about NGE than "WAH" (while certainly some people just want to vent, there's more than enough forums for them to do that on). Scott put it very well in his post:

>>What IS interesting, and what I think should be discussed in this context and without, is the concept of completely changing a live service in mid-stream. SWG this week is a far different game from the one that existed last month. How do the players react to that radical a change? Do they react? Do they simply quit? Do they knuckle under and keep going, "relearning the rules"?

This is stuff that would be interesting. "I can't aim in combat any more" or "Gosh, this live team sucks at implementation", not so much.<<

and others bring up points that are worthy of discussion. *CAN* a subscription game radically change its game? What happens when you toss out thousands of very angry, disaffected players in favor of "better" ones? How can we find data as to how many players have quit and how many are resubbing? Is it possible to make sweeping changes and not generate the fervor that NGE has? (probably not, but who knows!). What exactly were the mistakes that were made? And so on.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:08:47 AM | link

Amberyl (Lydia Leong) says:

Timothy, I disagree that their likely target was experimenting with the intent of going for the console market. If you look at market forecasts from a variety of analysts, you'll see that PC gamers overwhelmingly continue to dominate revenues over the next several years. Moreover, MMOGs on the Xbox360, at least, are quite some time away -- I believe Microsoft publicly said that they'd be available about four years after launch (and to my recollection, the DC Heroes game is targeted for that platform). There'd be cheaper ways, and much less risky ways, to pilot a console-oriented game.

I think that this has to be looked at in another light. 250,000 subs for SWG means around $35 million in annual revenue. This is relatively small-fry stuff. Sony Pictures (which SOE is a division of) had 2004 revenues of over $6 billion. Sony is large enough to gamble SWG's *entire* revenue base and have it be an acceptable business risk.

Put it this way: The average American has seen the original Star Wars nearly 7 times. There are almost 75 million online households in the United States. 20% of these households play PC online games nearly every day; an additional 15% play at least once a week. The target audience is easily 15 million people just targeting the hardcore, and with the right game and the right business model could be much larger. If you assume these numbers were the same back in 2003 (they weren't, but it'll do for a rough cut), if SWG had 750,000 initial copies sold, that would be 5 percent penetration of the hardcore online gamers. Respectable, but not the kind of mass-market appeal that SOE had clearly been hoping for.

Sony could afford to take a huge gamble -- but it needed to be expertly executed. It clearly was not, and all that is needed to make the fiasco complete is an incident which makes news in the mainstream press.

But the jury is really still out -- can they fix enough in time, coordinated with a good marketing campaign, to drive a high volume of Christmas sales?

My guess is "no". Among other things, they've missed the press cycle, which is currently happily hyping the future WoW expansion.

So that puts us into next year, and maybe a year of fixing and trying to manage the community, in time for a new try in Christmas 2006. MMOGs have long lives. Even if they churn every single existing customer, it is conceivable that they could have a solid product available in a year's time, especially if it's accompanied by a graphical refresh, and sell enough copies and keep enough subscribers to be worth gambling their existing revenues.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:17:04 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

Magicback wrote:

> Does SOE, like any other creative force, has the right to change creative direction? Can a band change musical direction at their whim or should their fan base as any say?

> Yes and yes!

Matt wrote:

> But do they have the right? Of course. That's unquestionable.

Of course it’s questionable. It depends on the explicit and implicit contract that the players have with the thing. And I say ‘thing’ as what you call it tends to structure what you think about people’s relationship with it. Game, Service, World, Community – all suggest different types of relationship.

If designers make it very clear that anything could change at any time then I guess they have a case. But when I say clear, I don’t mean putting it somewhere in the middle of a 5 thousand world contract and couch it in terms of ‘party of the first part’ etc.

It comes down to the old question of what, if any, duties a publisher has to a community in virtue of creating something that facilitates that community, irrespective of what the designer my want or intend.

I think it’s a debate we have to have constantly and that it should never be a closed question.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:17:26 AM | link

Amberyl (Lydia Leong) says:

Timothy, I disagree that their likely target was experimenting with the intent of going for the console market. If you look at market forecasts from a variety of analysts, you'll see that PC gamers overwhelmingly continue to dominate revenues over the next several years. Moreover, MMOGs on the Xbox360, at least, are quite some time away -- I believe Microsoft publicly said that they'd be available about four years after launch (and to my recollection, the DC Heroes game is targeted for that platform). There'd be cheaper ways, and much less risky ways, to pilot a console-oriented game.

I think that this has to be looked at in another light. 250,000 subs for SWG means around $35 million in annual revenue. This is relatively small-fry stuff. Sony Pictures (which SOE is a division of) had 2004 revenues of over $6 billion. Sony is large enough to gamble SWG's *entire* revenue base and have it be an acceptable business risk.

Put it this way: The average American has seen the original Star Wars nearly 7 times. There are almost 75 million online households in the United States. 20% of these households play PC online games nearly every day; an additional 15% play at least once a week. The target audience is easily 15 million people just targeting the hardcore, and with the right game and the right business model could be much larger. If you assume these numbers were the same back in 2003 (they weren't, but it'll do for a rough cut), if SWG had 750,000 initial copies sold, that would be 5 percent penetration of the hardcore online gamers. Respectable, but not the kind of mass-market appeal that SOE had clearly been hoping for.

Sony could afford to take a huge gamble -- but it needed to be expertly executed. It clearly was not, and all that is needed to make the fiasco complete is an incident which makes news in the mainstream press.

But the jury is really still out -- can they fix enough in time, coordinated with a good marketing campaign, to drive a high volume of Christmas sales?

My guess is "no". Among other things, they've missed the press cycle, which is currently happily hyping the future WoW expansion.

So that puts us into next year, and maybe a year of fixing and trying to manage the community, in time for a new try in Christmas 2006. MMOGs have long lives. Even if they churn every single existing customer, it is conceivable that they could have a solid product available in a year's time, especially if it's accompanied by a graphical refresh, and sell enough copies and keep enough subscribers to be worth gambling their existing revenues.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:20:27 AM | link

Amberyl (Lydia Leong) says:

Sorry for the duplicate post. Browser claimed the first try timed out.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:23:34 AM | link

AJ says:

Is a comparison to Ultima Online, and the change it went through early 2000 with the 'Renaissance' patch, a valid one? I cant think of any other big-name mogs to have undergone a similar, drastic change.

We were told UO would have ceased to exist without the change and the vibe in that community was also quite negative, but it came out of it all stronger than ever in terms of subscriber numbers. Shows it can be done I suppose.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:25:50 AM | link

Detritus says:

I share Heather's sentiment; this is not the insightful and deep post I expect from TN. You make no attempt to explain to the reader - and non-SWG players - the reasons you strip the game of it's VW status, citing only technical flaws.

Your inclusion of language that is clearly inflammatory and perjorative - "Twitch gamer" and your comments on Planetside - make the whole post sound like you needed to take a day or two to cool off before writing.

I have tremendous respect for you Timothy, but your post has failed entirely to edify. Please consider an ammendment to the post which includes an explination, for those of us on the outside, as to how the changes make the game any less a VW.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:29:49 AM | link

Jon says:

I think the NGE is a good idea. Actually, I bought the game after hearing it was going to be implemented.

I had previously tried playing a demo of SWG (before the first CU) but the combat system was way too boring. Also, the profession system was confusing and overblown. I wasn't interested in a long Star Wars themed grind.

Now, after playing the NGE I have to say that the experience is a lot more satisfying. Simple, fast-paced, this is what Star Wars is about. It's quite a rush to charge, blasting away into a crowd of mobs with two padawan friends in the dungeon of station Gamma. I don't think that the same fight would have ben as fun with the old system.

I can understand why experienced players see the NGE as the end of their beloved game. In a way it is, SWG will never be the same. But I think it's for the best, and judging from the number of lvl 1-10 that are running around Tansarii point station and Mos Eisley these days, I'm not the only one who thinks so.

As for the implementation, I agree it could have been better but come on, this is a major overhaul we're talking about here, and it's only been a week. Give it a chance or leave but please, please, stop complaining just for the sake of it.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:04:55 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Heather: you will see some of that language in the Boston Globe if you look at the op-ed pages. Just think of this piece in that spirit. In any event, the questions you summarize as valid are all there in the original piece and in others I've written at TN (including the first one linked in this piece). The two places where I think you're being truly tendentious is asserting that in the absence of "hard data" (which I think you know will not be forthcoming if SOE does not choose to disclose it) we can't be sure that many people are quitting SWG, and second, along with Scott, suggesting that critiques of implementation by developers are somehow mere opinion, or irrelevant to some kind of deeper issue. The whole point here is to map contingencies: what can developers do in relation to the communities that form around their games? And to suggest that there are many, many roads not taken with SWG and the road that has been taken is the most dysfunctional possible example of that relationship in the current MMOG marketplace. You can circle the developer wagons if you like against that observation, but I think it's a perfectly valid and legitimately "scholarly" one to make.

If my tone is exasperated, it's because the history of SWG is exasperating. As Amberyl put it, Sony can afford to take a huge gamble, but it's a gamble not worth taking if not executed well. I have a hard time with anyone who doesn't recognize that this change has been executed poorly, and executed poorly in a way that echoes the poor execution of SWG as a whole. Anyone who has followed the detailed history of the game knows that it has suffered from the outset from distinctively bad execution on the service end. If there was any time to reverse that, it would have been when rolling out a massive change to the game in pursuit of an entirely different subscriber base. The logic cuts both ways: if SWG to date is chump change to Sony, and therefore, Sony can afford to take the gamble of losing its entire customer base, then there is no need for the kind of roll-out process that the NGE has actually received. Why not proceed in a more leisurely fashion, if Amberyl's reasoning is correct?

Is it clear to everyone reading about the NGE the timing here? That an announcement of a sweeping revision was made, the revision went to test servers, and then went live within the span of about three weeks? Doesn't that seem like a processual decision worth discussing (and criticizing)?

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:13:31 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Two possibly significant issues seem to distill from all this Sturm und Drang.

First - operator rights. I have to agree with Matt above: SOE/LA owns SWG. The players do not. The players have no right to change (or demand change to) the world. SOE has every right to change it as it sees fit. Ren's arguments to the contrary don't put a dent in this. Appeals to an implicit social contract amount to idealism at best, whining at worst.

That said, just as SOE has every right to alter the game as it sees fit, the players have every right to play or not, to complain or not, as they see fit. Each player has the right to vote with his or her wallet, which is ultmately what the game operators will measure.

Which brings up the second issue: numbers. In the end, whether NGE was a good idea or not will depend entirely on the long-term retention of existing players and attraction of new players to the game. In the commercial sense, nothing else matters. Your guild, your friends, your wonderful hours spent in the game -- from a corporate POV, those are intangible and of benefit only insofar as they aid either attraction and retention of players.

Alex posted one anecdotal data point above: Numbers? Easy, i have a friendlist which has about 250 names in it, and from about 40 active in peaktimes about a month ago, it reduced to 5-10 active last evening. This is definetly more than a "few" subscriptions gone.

Well, we don't know that. The numbers game is a slippery one in MMOGs. Even here on TN we've seen companies report bloated numbers of subscribers. For example, there's the old game of reporting accounts made rather than actual active players -- as I've said elsewhere, it's like saying the population of the USA is over a billion... if you count all the dead people.

The only way that I know of to count people across games is to track concurrent usage. Historically, about 15-20% of all players are logged in to a MMOG at any given time. So if averaged over time you have 10,000 people logged in across all servers, your player base is probably about 50K-70K, give or take a few thousand (of course, this may change as play styles change in new games, but I doubt we'll see single-digit concurrent usage any time soon).

In other words all your friends may be leaving, but that doesn't mean tons of new people aren't flooding in. It may be, as Jon says above, that once it stabilizes the NGE will be a first step toward a much more casual-friendly MMOG. Sure the current uber-core players won't like it much, but maybe the more casual SW fans out there who have been put off by the complexity of the earlier game (and who outnumber the hardcore by orders of magnitude) will be more attracted to this reformulated version.

OTOH if the servers become depopulated, and the aggregate total population across servers drops significantly... well, that hardly bodes well for the business case of making this scale of change (or perhaps just this scale with poor execution) in an already-released game.

Like I said before, this case will be instructive to those wondering about the resilience of MMOG populations, and the ability of MMOG operators to successfully re-invent their existing games.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:18:10 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Detritus:

I don't regard "twitch gamer" as a pejorative, merely as a descriptive. Now it may be that I'm assuming a knowledge of what it describes in this post, and that's a fair criticism. In a first-person online shooter, the problem of latency has historically been a huge one: the person with the fastest connection trumps everyone else, regardless of his skill in the game. That was a worse issue at the point at which broadband had minimal penetration of the online market: you'd play an online FPS and the one guy with a fast connection would be dominating everyone else. MMOGs have responded to the problem of latency differently, historically, by subordinating player actions in the gameworld to the character's in-game skills and by standardizing all players to a set speed of action. (Which is what allows for certain notorious "speed hacks" where players try to fool the game servers into thinking their computer is slower than it actually is: the server then compensates and superspeeds that player's actions.) So to move a MMOG to a "twitch" model where player control of their avatar's actions directly manifests in the gameworld rather than being mediated through some game-mechanical modelling of the character's skills is actually a very interesting and potentially exciting thing to do, full of new design questions and challenges.

As for why the NGE removes the "virtual world" components of SWG, I agree I could have said more about that, and maybe I should say more in a separate post. My Game Studies critique speaks to a lot of this issue by summarizing what makes SWG a major "virtual world". In a nutshell, SWG had a very intricate economy that rested on player crafting; a very involved set of social tools that involved player "entertainers"; a relatively unprecedented degree of player ability to create structures and communities with persistent status in the gameworld. As of the NGE, most of the crafting and entertaining aspects of the game have been seriously gutted of their importance and capacity, and most in-game social and community functions were premised on crafting and entertaining--the purpose of player cities, in many cases, was economic and social. So even if the NGE doesn't mess more with that aspect of the game design, it already has messed with it. To some extent, I'd actually say that removing existing player cities and housing is actually a good next step for the NGE implementation to take, as they were what made SWG a "virtual world" but NOT the "virtual world of Star Wars".

Can a fast-paced FPS-style MMOG be a virtual world? That is truly an interesting question, one I wondered about in my Game Studies piece: maybe that will be what I follow-up around, and perhaps that will satisfy some complaints about this post.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:26:47 AM | link

Scott Jennings says:

> critiques of implementation by developers are
> somehow mere opinion

Well, um, yes. Is the service up? Yes? You can connect on demand? Everything else is opinion. Mind you, an opinion that may be shared by 25% or 50% or 75% or 90% of the player base, but it is still opinion.

Again, perhaps this is a sore spot with people who work on live teams, but trust me, we get enough feedback that consists, in toto, of "Jesus, you people suck! Learn to do your jobs!" to make anything remotely similar suspect.

It's obvious you play SWG and are passionate about it; dispassionate observers wouldn't use phrases like "And as usual, the corporate talk emanating from SOE about the consequences of the change is mindlessly, painfully out of touch with the reality." A few too many adverbs for comfort there. This doesn't make the op-ed piece any less valid - but it probably should have been labelled as such. "I play SWG, and my play experience has been destroyed. Here's why I think so." as a good example. Not sweeping, general "SOE is incompetent!" type statements. That's what I think people are keying on here.

Anyway, just hopefully helpful suggestions from someone definitely throwing stones in someone else's glass house. Back on topic, if I had to pick one thing that bothered me about the redesign, it's the backing away from a virtual world model. We need more virtual worlds, not less. What blew my mind so thoroughly about UO when I first logged on was the sheer immersiveness of it - I could walk in a city and it felt like I was in a real city, with things going on in the periphery of my view that I knew meant something. Like a group of horseback riders hurrying along in uniform, snippets of a passionate argument overheard as I walked by, etc.

I think we as developers forget that *that*, not game mechanics, is what can really draw folks in over the long term.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:38:06 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Mike:

Nothing else but retention of customers matters if we're talking business. But MMOGs are also culture; they are meaning-making, community-forming, expressive instruments. We don't have to evaluate either of those dimensions in isolation from one another. If you care about novels, you should also care about the business of publishing novels, and what makes that publication viable. But caring about what makes publication viable ought to be on behalf of something, in service to the satisfactions and impact of the novels themselves. The same here: MMOGs are both art and business, and there's no reason why we can't talk about whether they succeed aesthetically, culturally, experientially while we also talk about whether they survive economically. It's perfectly possible to succeed in business and fail in making a lasting contribution to the world, and conversely so. And sometimes initial business failures contain the seed of long-term success.

If SWG survives this change, but leaves behind it a lot of people who feel bitter, whose experience of a virtual world was circumscribed in non-necessary ways, that also might have implications for the business of MMOG service as a whole. I'm kind of agog here that the developers in this thread don't seem to care about that, or regard it all as pointless whining by aggrieved forum ranters. Among the many reasons I'd argue that Blizzard has succeeded with World of Warcraft is by finding a happy place between expectations and delivery. It's not a wildly inventive game, but it does what it does very well. It is not a game without technical and implementation issues, but those have been minimized. Players with bitter memories of other virtual worlds have found WoW something of a balm, I think. They may not be the whole of the market for WoW or even a major portion of it, but they are there. Reputation capital matters in this marketplace as much as any other service industry. And service businesses that blame the customer or try to minimize and explain away customer anger had better be near-monopolies that provide a service that is viewed as a necessity, or that blame-shifting rhetoric is just putting paving-stones down on the way to serious crisis.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:39:38 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Scott:

I do try to avoid strong invective of the kind you describe in most things, but really, there is a point at which it may become appropriate. It is precisely because I see so much potential in SWG, particularly virtual world potential, that its many implementation failure actually anger me, provoke me to passion. I can see why those statements bother you--for the same reason that I often find myself trying to calm down some critics of academia who go over the top in their rhetoric. But often I agree more or less with the thrust of the critiques of many who write about the problems of academia, and on occasion, I can be moved to strong language when what I consider to be minimal professional obligations among academics get violated (as in the case of Ward Churchill, for example). I'm just a bit bothered that you and Heather seem so unwilling, in the name of professional decorum, to allow that the implementation of the NGE has been handled badly in relation to any possible rational long-term business plan for the game, and that there is a pattern of bad implementations in the history of SWG.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:46:12 AM | link

Scott Jennings says:

>> I'm just a bit bothered that you and Heather seem so unwilling, in the name of professional decorum, to allow that the implementation of the NGE has been handled badly in relation to any possible rational long-term business plan for the game, and that there is a pattern of bad implementations in the history of SWG. <<

Precisely the sort of statement that
(a) professional decorum requires me not to comment on publically (no, really)
(b) is a matter of opinion :) At least until sales numbers come out. And yes, if you manage to make a large segment of your community dissatisfied/betrayed, it will show up in the numbers.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:55:30 AM | link

Abalieno says:

What IS interesting, and what I think should be discussed in this context and without, is the concept of completely changing a live service in mid-stream. SWG this week is a far different game from the one that existed last month. How do the players react to that radical a change? Do they react? Do they simply quit? Do they knuckle under and keep going, "relearning the rules"?

This is stuff that would be interesting. "I can't aim in combat any more" or "Gosh, this live team sucks at implementation", not so much.

Oh, this is way too good.

My point of view is exactly the opposite. It's the context (completely changing a live service) to be useless and the content (the specifics of the changes) to be relevant.

It's only the quality of the implementation to matter here. If the quality is very high, the dissatisfaction would be easily reabsorbed. If the quality is poor, instead, you'll simply fail to get both new and old customers and the context would be branded as "not convenient" for future, generalized references and commonplaces formed out of thin air that will be very hard to discard.

It's really this simple.

What was important was to consider the resources available and figure out if there was enough "space" to do a very good work or not. SOE made its choice. We'll see the results. These results should be always considered for the specific game and the specific changes. Not generalized and standardized as absolute principles.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:05:00 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Yes, exactly, Abalieno.

Consider a counterfactual. The basic design thrust of the NGE, but with another six months of testing involving the current playerbase, with a planned roll-out in March. This would not be the dire situation of a pre-live MMOG, where every day you test is a day without revenue. It just would be a situation where revenues were below some guessed-at possibility for a much larger playerbase. Imagine the various (quite good) ideas within the NGE rolled out with much greater stability, without some of the leftovers and contradictions of old design features. Imagine a process that involved the existing community of players, and sought to roll over a sense of "social contract" (without conceding at any moment the long-term design imperative).

All the interest that the developers in this thread take in questions like "Can you make massive changes to an existing MMOG?" would still be live. In fact, you'd be able to ask those questions far more rigorously, with much greater empirical certainty about the answer. In this case, if the game really doesn't survive, we're never going to know whether it's just a basic dictum (don't change your game) or a bad implementation.

It's worse than that. Much as the problems of early UO saddled developers with a problematic bit of conventional wisdom about PvP and player-policing (in my humble opinion), I fear very much that SOE is going to externalize this experience as "deep virtual worlds aren't commercially viable". And I don't think that's the lesson here at all. The intensity of my argument here is aimed squarely at that: I think that claim or the claim that it's just plain structurally hard to change designs mid-stream are fig leafs that shelter developers and managers from having to cop to preventable, avoidable mistakes in implementation and service. That's the main lesson I want to be drawn here by professionals, academics and players: that SWG's wounds are largely self-inflicted and tell us *nothing* about the commercial viability of deep virtual worlds or even about whether it's possible to do major redesigns after a game goes live.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:26:27 AM | link

Damion Schubert says:

Ah, but you miss a major fact of running a live service, which is that happy players can forgive an awful lot, whereas unhappy players will look for anything possible to complain and nitpick about.

The fact is, Scott's right. The central story here is the degree of change from the original vision, and the player's willingness to tolerate it.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:41:02 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Tim Burke> there must be a pretty decent margin of profit from *any* MMOG once it's been live for a while, or you wouldn't be able to operate it while bleeding customers.

When operating revenues exceed operating costs, it makes sense to keep the service alive. Yet the service can still be losing money - if it earns a dollar a year, net, but there was a million dollars in development cost, it would take a million years to go in the black.

This is what creates the pressure to do something to increase subscriber rates, rather than just shut down. You won't close the service so long as it is earning anything at all on ongoing operations. But you need to have it earn quite a lot to recoup development costs. Shutting down does not cut your losses; ironically, it cuts your profits. It makes them a bigger negative number.

****

FYI, Ogaming is owned and operated by IGE.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:56:53 AM | link

Abalieno says:

the player's willingness to tolerate it.

And can't you see that they willingness to tolerate it depends on the QUALITY of it?

The original vision already went to hell. You are forgetting this. One of the main reasons that brought to this change is about taking back that original vision:

The basic scheme of the NGE aims to grapple with some of the longest-standing criticisms of SWG, many of which I've agreed with since the game went live: that the game lacks a compelling connection to its licensed fiction, that its sprawling design is hampered by serious game-mechanical contradictions, that its content is threadbare, and so on.

The "communicative pact" was already broken back then and here SOE actually tried to heal the displacement. While you recognize only the second one, which is a consequence of other decisions.

The reaction of the players is a consequence of the offer. Short-term dissatisfaction would be easily reabsorbed if the implementation was better than what SWG players have been fed till today. But it doesn't seem so. Players are angry because they've seen this happening *so many times*. It's nothing new. And they are sick of playing an unifinished beta with the vague promise to be complete after six months.

unhappy players will look for anything possible to complain and nitpick about.

What I see is that the players are complaining again about an incomplete implementation.

Mobs shooting through walls, skills not working, clumsy controls, broken animations and other bad design decisions don't seem like "nitpicking".

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:03:01 PM | link

Lee Sheldon says:

Let's remember John Smedley's keynote in Austin this year. He thinks diversifying games means putting them on new platforms. His thrust is toward cell phones. Cell phones don't handle complex virtual worlds well, even if in time they will provide limited windows into those worlds or smaller games thematically tied to them.

I'd suggest that this move makes perfect sense to Mr. Smedley. A much leaner FPS version of SWG could be translated far more easily to cell phone play. And that is the kind of "diversity" that he might believe would expand the piece of the SWG IP market he is able to tap.

Lee

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:07:53 PM | link

Endie says:

What surprises me about some of the industry responses (Scott and Heather in particular) has been an unwillingness to accept that - whether or not the changes are well-written or wise - the way that they have implemented has been extremely cackhanded.

SOE had a kind of contract with the players: the implemented the In Concept/In Development/In Testing/Live in order to fix their well-known QA issues.

This was admitted at the time, and was in itself not at all a bad idea, even if it tended to be poorly implemented (here I only speak as a developer (financial modelling, comparable complexity of product but tolerance for errors tending towards zero) looking at the bugginess of the results, not as a gamer looking at fun).

The point is that this was - or seemed to be - an agreement with the player base. By looking at the "In Concept" and "In Development" forums, they could see the roadmap for the game's development. To an extent, this could inform their decisions to continue to play, to subscribe, and the like.

SOE suddenly revealed that the last nine months' or so (according to how I understand Dundee's post on his blog) of "In concept" and "In development" postings have been, at the very least, gravely misleading to anyone who read them. For some months they have - we now learn -been entirely fictional, mapping out a path that was not to be taken. How anyone can defend SOE against criticism of such extraordinary incompetence (the kindest interpretation) is bewildering.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:12:46 PM | link

That Chip Guy says:

Interestingly, Endie, in September Raph Koster briefly visited the forums and emphasized the importance of, and promised improvement in, exactluy this sharing of development information. (http://forums.station.sony.com/swg/board/message?board.id=Shadowfire&message.id=299502#M299502) Events clearly seem to have overtaken that intent, and the players of course noticed.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:50:05 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Please, if you're giving me grief about my tone in this piece, read Raph's post in the thread that That Chip Guy just linked to.

Especially if you're concerned with professionalism. How professional is it to cut off one of your own senior executives at the knees as the NGE implementation has just done to Raph Koster? Would you let one of your executives go out into the public space of a forum and say something like that if you knew that in just over a month's time you were going to spring the NGE on an unsuspecting playerbase?

Posted Nov 22, 2005 12:56:59 PM | link

Erillion says:

Let me add a few more points to this discussion :

a) "Flashes and Whistles" ....
SOE has concentrated on making the free trial look interesting and exciting (and based it OUTSIDE the actual game world to keep new players and veterans separate until the new players are buying the game). SOE has spend a moderate amount of care to the first 30 levels of the actual game so the new players BELIEVE to live in the world filled with content. Nevermind that even these first 30 levels in the "real world" of SWG are already buggy as hell. I pity them when they discover that beyond combat level 30 there is nothing unless they buy overpriced expansions.

b) "Beware of the zealot" .....

one of the biggest advantages of SWG was IMHO one of the best communities of all the MMORPGs I have played. Especially BECAUSE they have endured so much in the past. Many of them were fans boardering on the fanatical. Now .. a horde of fanatics has been kicked out of paradise. And they are running amok "out there". The SWG exiles are raising hell in all kinds of environments (especially in forums of OTHER games they have migrated to in the last 2 weeks after cancelling SWG). This is giving SWG a bad reputation like no other game has achieved since Mourning.

c) Numbers....
2.5 years in game. Server : Naritus. Friend list 234. Average numbers online these days : 3. About one tens normal. Guild: members 114. Online 2. Percentage of hard core veterans (1.5 year plus in game) leaving SWG = 50 %.

d) "Deception" ...
New overpriced expansion goes live (Digital Download only) November 1st .. most veterans have bought it. NGE is announced ... November 2nd. Veterans reel in shock. Talk about lawsuits emerge, mostly based on false advertising (content in new expansion for professions deleted with NGE one day later). About one week later SOE agrees to refunds for expansion buyers. However, all people who hate the NGE and who have 3-12 prepaid months of SWG playtime get ... nothing.

e) "Sea sickness and Bye Bye Cripples" ....

Go play NGE. Numerous cases of motion sickness have been reported since NGE. Also people with disabilities can more or less forget playing SWG now (a game which had a good reputation amongst the disabled community).

I have not cancelled. I give it a bit more time - or I simply enjoy being in the middle of a train wreck. Or I cant let go as easily as the others.

We will see.

Have fun

Erillion

Posted Nov 22, 2005 1:08:29 PM | link

Amberyl (Lydia Leong) says:

I don't think we need to look as far afield as mobile gaming for what the motivations are, here. I don't think this is a pie-in-the-sky move aimed at potential future platforms. I think this is a move aimed at the here and now, PC online gaming market. There is market share that could be seized and genuine market growth that could be achieved.

Despite over a million units sold and a quarter-million subs, $35 million is peanuts for Star Wars. The game's live team costs cannot be small. And how much goes directly to LucasArts as a royalty? 5% to 10%, perhaps? But how much of that revenue is covered by guarantees? (i.e., money that SOE owes regardless of how many subs the game gets.)

All that could result in an easy executive directive: Subscriber numbers to the existing game have to go up, go do whatever it is that's necessary to make them go up, even if it means burning the existing subscriber base to the ground. Starting a "SWG II" or equivalent could very well not be an option, both from the perspective of operational reasonability as well as the limitations of the licensing agreement.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 1:09:47 PM | link

Erillion says:

Ah yes ... I always wondered what " a million copies of the franchise sold" means (SOE quote from Leipzig game fair).

A million boxes of the basic game plus subscriptions for at least one month ? Or have all the sold expansion boxes and digital downloads been included in that number ?

Have fun

Erillion

Posted Nov 22, 2005 1:13:55 PM | link

Byron Eastridge says:

If your going to read threads from the Archives better do it fast.
They are going back and deleting posts in the archives that people are linking to.
locked threads and still they they fear the truth coming out so they are deleing them.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 1:37:08 PM | link

AgentDib says:

The effect of the NGE on the veteran SWG player is not being accurately portrayed in this thread. It IS a completely different game from the one that most players purchased and subscribed to - but that's that's not why most of us are unhappy. In fact, the majority of the forum was strongly looking forward to promised game revamps (GCW patch, profession revamps) that would have changed everything anyways.

What SWG did was basicaly release a nerf that was the king of all nerfs. Far beyond simply removing skills and items, but actually deleting the majority of professions from the game. Many veterans lost hundreds of millions of credits worth of attachments, armor, and weapons. It may be only a game, but an hour invested in an MMO is still an hour.

I don't think it's a unfair analogy to draw the comparison to Arthur Dent. Many players feel that they have been buldozed to make way for an intergalatic highway. It may be an AMAZING highway in every aspect, but this doesn't change the fact that they had to watch everything they cared about go up in flames.

SOE may very well end up making more money on SWG by replacing their veteran core with a large influx of console gamers. At the same time in the long run those displaced gamers will most likely be avoiding further SOE online endeavors and they will be probably doing their best to ensure their friends follow suit. There are plenty of virtual worlds to pick from - why pick one where the developer has shown the enjoyment of their current customers is inconsequential?

Posted Nov 22, 2005 1:47:15 PM | link

Scott Jennings says:

>> What surprises me about some of the industry responses (Scott and Heather in particular) has been an unwillingness to accept that - whether or not the changes are well-written or wise - the way that they have implemented has been extremely cackhanded. <<

If Jeff Freeman came on Terra Nova and posted about how he thought DAOC's server coding was "cackhanded", I'd be really, really, really mad.

>> the player's willingness to tolerate it.

And can't you see that the willingness to tolerate it depends on the QUALITY of it? <<

No, I'd strenously argue the point. If Civ 4 autopatched itself into a WW2-themed first person shooter, I really wouldn't care about the quality of the patch.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 2:02:29 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Amberyl wrote:

Despite over a million units sold and a quarter-million subs, $35 million is peanuts for Star Wars. The game's live team costs cannot be small. And how much goes directly to LucasArts as a royalty? 5% to 10%, perhaps? But how much of that revenue is covered by guarantees? (i.e., money that SOE owes regardless of how many subs the game gets.)

I'm willing to bet it's a lot closer to 20-25% of net revenue (not net income) going to LA.

--matt

Posted Nov 22, 2005 2:38:27 PM | link

Endie says:

>> What surprises me about some of the industry responses (Scott and Heather in particular) has been an unwillingness to accept that - whether or not the changes are well-written or wise - the way that they have implemented has been extremely cackhanded. <<

>If Jeff Freeman came on Terra Nova and posted about how he thought DAOC's server coding was "cackhanded", I'd be really, really, really mad.

Bit of a non-sequitor. Jeff Freeman isn't in charge of PR or community management on the SWG team, for one thing. He's now, as I understand it, in design and development.

Nor does your own extremely well-publicised professional courtesy mean that you have to criticise others for even raising the subject, or that you should suggest that doing so is inappropriate.

Rather than attempts to suggest that the venue is inappropriate for what is turning out to be TN's liveliest and most fun topic in ages, I'd be far more interested in hearing your substantive opinions on the way SOE have managed their community and the role of the ignored "in concept/in development/in testing/live" cycle in provoking the current firestorm.

Do you think that bona fide attempts by part of the team to communicate more through this process have made its bypass all the more damaging? How do you think SOE should go about rebuilding trust?

Endie

Posted Nov 22, 2005 2:43:15 PM | link

Scott Jennings says:

Yes. I used the metaphor intentionally. Jeff does roughly what I do (he's more design focused, I tend to work more on plumbing fixtures). Neither of us are in PR or community management. If we were, we'd use cooler words.

Rather than take the bait for being thrown in that there briar patch of commenting on how well someone else is managing a community, I'd say that the task of explaining to a community that their world is changing in such a dramatic manner is probably the worst case scenario for a community team (well, aside from "we're cancelling the game next week"). There is no gentle way to say "your play style, as you know it, is over".

About all you can do is try to channel the fury into managable forms, let them know they're being listened to - regularly - and carry the feedback as much as possible back to the development team, and try to remind the players that the community staff are human beings, not target dummies. That being said, it's absolutely NotFun... once you make the decision that a live game is to be changed that dramatically, the community people actually have the worst job of all, at that point. They're the guys who have to bear the bad news.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:07:22 PM | link

That Chip Guy says:

To this newbie's eyes, the closest parallel to the NGE transition is UO's Trammel. Can anyone point me to a web resource that describes the history of that transition? (How it was communicated to players, how player reactions were managed, and so on?)

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:15:17 PM | link

Brandon Checketts says:

On a releated note, the price of SWG Credits from IGE and on ebay has dropped by about half since the NGE. Presumabely because of people leaving the game and selling their in-game assets for whatever they can get.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:38:52 PM | link

Kristin says:

I have to say that I am amongst the most dissapointed on the NGE changes. Granted, I haven't been playing SWG for the last 8 months or so but I decided to give the NGE changes a shot.

I log in to find everyone gone and I mean GONE. Theed cantina, Bestine cantina, even Coronet cantina . . . they are all empty. I'm on my fourth day and still can't figure out how to get new skills since I was FORCED to choose a new profession. There is no information ANYWHERE explaining the new profession screen or how to go about obtaining new skills.

The only way that SOE can get the trust back is to revert the whole game back. I honestly have to say that I never thought that after the CU things could get worse but they certainly did.

I can truthfully say that by implementing this laggy, buggy mess, I will never play a game that has the SOE name attached to it.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 3:43:36 PM | link

That Chip Guy says:

Kristin: To be fair to SOE's developers, reverting the changes will not bring back all of the players who left the game, and would likely contribute even more to the perception of instability -- impermanence in a persistent world -- that is part of the problem in retaining players.

SOE surely expected subscriber numbers to dip with this change. (Based on their decision to offer refunds on the November 1 expansion a week later, I have to assume that they were still caught somewhat flatfooted with the depth of subscriber reaction.) The Bestine and Coronet cantinas' importance is deprecated in the new game. The re-marketing of SWG to potential new customers has barely begun. The test isn't whether your old guildmates are still playing; the test is whether enough new subscribers, along with a few veterans and lapsed subscribers, will be in, say, January or February.

For the reasons Timothy Burke has articulated, I don't think SOE/LA will pass the test. And, like him, I am concerned about what that means for the commercial future of deep virtual worlds. I don't know that the right lesson will be learned.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 4:13:18 PM | link

says:

Scott - far from throwing bait into briar patches (good line) I was interested in exactly the sort of answer you gave, thanks!

Brandon - Re the price of credits, what an absolutely excellent observation! I am smiting my head as I write. We don't yet know if the change in price reflects decreased demand (people leaving and not buying), increased supply (people leaving and selling), perhaps an alteration in pricing (insta-flation!), or sunply that cash is freely available in the new system, but it's a solid metric!

I wonder if some people haven't taken profits as a precautionary measure. It wouldn't take many of the big weaponsmiths doing so to affect the price by a bit, I suppose...

Endie

Posted Nov 22, 2005 4:14:33 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

I'm actually enjoying seeing how this conversation has proceeded here on TN. SWG's design broke new ground in several areas, and this site is the perfect place to consider the consequences (business, technical, community, and otherwise) of that design. It's also a good place for open and informed discussion of the effects that the numerous major changes to SWG's original design have had.

I contributed to the "open" part; fortunately, others are taking care of the "informed" part....

Still, although I've said my piece, I feel like a couple of followup comments are in order.

First, it was hard not to wear multiple hats as I wrote. It might have been easier to be dispassionate if I hadn't been a long-time player of SWG. As it was, while I tried to step back and consider objectively the effects of the ongoing changes to SWG, both to the game itself as well as to the industry by how future designs are affected, I had trouble doing that. So if my comments came out sounding like merely another rant/whine, OK, mea culpa. (Although I will point out that if ranting/whining was my intention, I could easily have written an angrier commentary on the official SWG forum and been applauded by some of the locals for it.)

Second, I was guilty of something that bothers me when other people do it -- namely, assuming that what I like is what's "right." I was aware of this and tried to avoid it, but I did a bad job of that. I implied that the changes to SWG over the past two years constitute "bad design" because they (IMO) have made SWG more Achiever-specific and less welcoming to other playstyles. There might be a valid argument to be made there, but I didn't make it; I just assumed it. Again, mea culpa.

In fact, what I like is almost certainly not typical. I like my interfaces simple and my worlds complex. I want to be intellectually challenged. I believe that games are capable of being art; I think they have the power to say interesting things about the human condition. I play to explore -- whether it's Asteroids, Wolfenstein 3D, Deus Ex, or SWG, it's not the adrenaline high or high score that I seek -- it's the joy of discovering what happens next, of seeing what's behind that door, of appreciating new geographic and social architectures.

I believed that SWG would be this kind of game. In an entertainment space filled with products catering to cheap thrills, SWG seemed to promise that it understood me, that my kind would be welcomed, that its makers agreed with my belief that a persistent game world that was deep and inclusive of many playstyles could be commercially and artistically successful.

I liked what I heard about SWG, both as a potential player and as someone who's interested in game design and in the success of the MMOG industry. So I jumped in with both feet.

And then it launched, and nearly every change that followed seemed to chip away at the things that made SWG unique. It was as though after launching, the Live team got together and said, "You know, we've changed our minds -- this whole 'industry leader' thing was a mistake. We're losing subscribers; they get confused when they join us because we don't play like the other games. We need to be more like the other games out there, not less. What's hot right now?"

SWG was no Paradise, but I still feel a sense of loss. Am I wrong for that? Or is my error that I expressed that feeling?

At any rate, my beef isn't that SWG changed. I expect a persistent game world to change. (I might even argue that it must change to endure.) It's the kinds of changes that were made and the way those changes were made that I question. Why these changes, made in this way? What are the beliefs that led to making these changes in this way?

The thing is, I find myself asking these questions both as a player and as an observer of the game development industry. In both frames I wonder: do players have any amount of "ownership" in persistent worlds? If they have any at all (even if they only believe they do), should that affect how you make changes to an existing game?

You could:

* make changes with no announcement

* announce changes after they have been applied

* tell players what they're about to get shortly before they get it

* tell players what they're about to get and encourage discussion and comment

* tell players what's being planned and accept suggestions for very limited tweaks to the plan

* tell players what's being considered and encourage participation in the design process

When your players feel they have some amount of ownership stake in your game through their additions to your game world, should that affect which of these approaches to change management you use? How much of a role should "competitive advantage" play in withholding information?

As both a player and an observer, I believe that carefully managed participatory design is usually going to be the best choice for persistent world games. If players already feel a sense of ownership, then when they "own" changes they'll be more likely to accept them. (There's nothing new about the notion of owning changes, of course; the business world has used this approach for years -- not always ethically, unfortunately -- to mitigate employee criticism.)

Those who like the changes will feel proud to keep paying to play the game they've helped create. And those who don't like the changes will feel respected because you were honest about your intentions. Even if they leave, they're less likely to badmouth your game.

Or so it seems to me. Am I wrong? (Hey, at least it's not just another rant. ;-)

--Bart

Posted Nov 22, 2005 4:16:38 PM | link

Amberyl (Lydia Leong) says:

Matt said: "I'm willing to bet it's a lot closer to 20-25% of net revenue (not net income) going to LA."

It's been previously reported that Hasbro's toy license for Star Wars is estimated to be in the 20% range, but this is exceptionally high for a license. I'd have guessed that the MMOG license, which is a considerably more speculative business than toys, would be quite a bit less. Of course, it's entirely possible that SOE was overconfident about the revenues (and margins) it could bring in when it bid for the license.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 4:48:35 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Kristen said: I can truthfully say that by implementing this laggy, buggy mess, I will never play a game that has the SOE name attached to it.

Not to cast aspersions on your character, but this is the kind of statement that die-hard players make... and then never follow through on.

Comments like this are common at almost any turn in an MMO's life: "I'm cancelling my accounts -- all of them, do you hear me!" "I'm leaving and I'm never coming back!" "I'm cancelling today and telling all my friends to do the same, you scum!" Long-time players say this with almost the passion of a spurned lover, and then come right back for more. They don't cancel their account... just yet. They reconsider. They bluster but then decide they don't want to leave their friends.

I'm not saying this is the case with anyone here -- there's no way to tell how a given individual will act. But on the whole, hard-core players are known to employ histrionics and then silently, sullenly stick around for a few more months. And buy the next upgrade, because maybe they fixed things. This is one reason why such agitated posts on game boards gets little notice by the community keepers: they've heard it all before.

Now, if large numbers of players do leave and new ones don't replace them, the game operator will almost certainly sit up and take notice (unless they're truly in the outer limits of fecklessness). But it's going to take weeks to figure out in this case whether the NGE was overall a good thing for SWG or not -- the passionate opinions of vocal long-time players notwithstanding.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 5:12:49 PM | link

Teala says:

Great article and very well written. I totally agree. It is not that SOE is changing the game, it is how they are going about it that is killing it. You are also right, SWG would have been a really great game if it had Planetside traits. Planetside was a great game.

BTW: 2+ year vet of both PS and SWG here. All access accounts cancelled. SOE screwed me over for the last time as far as I am concerned.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 5:14:41 PM | link

Mike Rozak says:

Brandon Checketts wrote: On a releated note, the price of SWG Credits from IGE and on ebay has dropped by about half since the NGE. Presumabely because of people leaving the game and selling their in-game assets for whatever they can get.

I don't suppose RMT traders have gotten into derivatives and options yet... If so, some would be making a killing, while others would be jumping out of virtual windows.

"Sell all my SWG credits and buy WoW gold!"

Posted Nov 22, 2005 5:32:19 PM | link

yonderboy says:

Is *anyone* who has played SWG in the past year at all remotely surprised? There are still bugs that were known *AT LAUNCH*. That was years ago people. In the first three years there were 14 "publishes." That's a lot. Pub 15 (I believe) was the beginning of the self-mutilation, AKA the "Combat Upgrade."
That was May. And, according to SOE, it had *nothing* to do with a certain movie that also came out in May. Come early September, Publish 22 was rolling out.
That's a heckuva lot of Publishes. Publish 22 was the *final* straw for me. Not only had they halfway turned the game into "Bounty Hunters vs. Jedi" by deleting any usefulness of smugglers, entertainers, medics, docs, and most other classes, but Publish 22 had a grand total of *TWELVE HOURS* of testing.

Yes my friends. They put Pub22 on the test server for twelve hours. Then the next publish in essence turned the "play" button to a "Crash To Desktop" button. We were all *VERY* giddy to experience SWG's first publish-rollback after that. I remember seeing thousands and thousands of posts in the first few hours. I don't remember any of them being "wow, I really like the fact that the game is 100% unplayable... literally"

How can anyone POSSIBLY be surprised by any joy-murdering that SOE is doing? Are you even paying attention?! That's like being surprised by George W. Bush stumbling over his own words when trying to make an off-the-cuff remark. That's like being surprised by Bill Clinton having "sexual relations" with a fugly woman.

Seriously people. Anyone who is surprised in the slightest needs to slap themselves.

A lot.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:23:56 PM | link

Endie says:

Mike said:
'I don't suppose RMT traders have gotten into derivatives and options yet... If so, some would be making a killing, while others would be jumping out of virtual windows... "Sell all my SWG credits and buy WoW gold!"'

Actually, what you describe is almost the sort of derivative that I could see happening fairly early on: currency swaps. I imagine it would be most likely, though, between differing shards/servers of the same game.

After that? Hmmm... perhaps futures and then options, given an increasing degree of complexity. Pure derivatives might be useful for someone like IGE to hedge against market movements like those Brandon describes, but who else but them would want the exposure? And if they contracted with players, in what jurisdiction would they enforce?

Someone is bound to correct me, though, and point out where they are already happening... Second Life, I have no doubt ;)

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:30:06 PM | link

Endie says:

Endie said: "Actually, what you describe is almost the sort of derivative that I could see happening fairly early on: currency swaps."

Correction to self. I remember swaps happening in SWG. There was a cross-server marketplace in holocrons: people would trade x hundred thousand credits on server A (where they had an established character) for holocrons on server B (where they would create a character to use them).

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:35:54 PM | link

Justin says:

I'd like to at least try to shed some light on the numbers that SOE will not ever share with us, how many subscriptions are being cancelled.

In my guild alone (relatively small guild, 60 members only about 25-30 still active after the first CU) We have had 6 semi-regular players quit the game completly, these players have given ALL of thier posessions to the guild, credits vet rewards ect. That tells me they are not looking back once they go. Of the core members, the founders and the officers of the guild, we have lost 4 players. I have cancelled my 3 accounts, and my girlfriend cancelled her account, (four more right there) and my personal "padawan" a player who has been by my side everyday, someone I've personally walked through the game and provided with everything he needed from the first day (because he was really that cool a guy, and a good candidate, with careful guidance to take over my position as guild leader someday)He's leaving, theres 1 more. When I get home tonight and send out my farewell e-mail, I expect at least 3 more. Those number can't be argued with, they are quite simply FACT.
And when I run around the places that were normally extremely crowded on Ahazi, there are maybe 1/3 still there, there is a small amount of PVP but very little, and it's the same 10 people every night PVP'ing. What I am seeing an awful lot of are players wandering around not knowing what to do next, people just standing around everywhere. This game is hurting, and I don't need SOE to admit it to see it myself.

World of Warcraft for the win. (never thought I'd ever play it, but it makes SWG look silly at this point, way to go blizzard)

With Sony being sued for things like thier "rootkit" spyware fiasco.. I think I'm going to avoid everything they have thier names on from now on.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:41:35 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Amberyl wrote:

Of course, it's entirely possible that SOE was overconfident about the revenues (and margins) it could bring in when it bid for the license.

Oh, they were definitely overconfident. I recall Raph predicting they'd be the first to hit a million subscribers.

--matt

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:50:38 PM | link

Josh says:

Mike Sellers:

It's extremely easy for me to say that I will never play another SOE MMO. All companies are profit seekers, but most of them still try to keep their current customers happy. SOE's decision to shaft their current customers in favor of some possible future customers lets me know exactly how stupid I would be to ever be a "current customer" again. Fool me once..

Posted Nov 22, 2005 6:58:30 PM | link

Nyght says:

A couple of minor points here;

Some up a bit mentioned 20% license fees. Remember that this was probably pitched to LA at least 500k subs. If so, the license was viewed by them as worth over 15 million in annual revenue. Who here thinks they got anything close to what they were expecting?

Part of this can be explained cost side. SWG was the first (only?) to use commercial databases by the reports we had during beta. It appears that they have a significant data reduction and therefore associated costs are reduced.

If you look at SOE recent approach you will see other attempts at cost reductions by development sharing across games and by focusing on small incremental increases in revenue.

Finally, I agree with Hrose that there is really little of a generalize nature to be learn here because implementation does have a huge impact and it is nearly impossible to parse out the design decisions, the market decisions, and the implimentation affects.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:03:52 PM | link

Bewildered gamer says:

A thread about the Xbox 360 has been on the forums all day

XBOX 360 version of SWG announced on G4, DEV comment please?

No reply and no deletion.

Another thread right next to with 1 post got locked by a Dev with the comment to keep it in the Main G4 thread
So they are aware of the post.

Conspiracy theorists having a field day

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:17:00 PM | link

Darniaq says:

Even if the Tinfoil Hat Brigade is right and this is a 360 title, I'd have to question the logic. How could a company gleefully turn away their core monthly subscriber in favor of both a platform that still isn't conducive to MMOG play?

My own view is sort of an amalgamation of everything. They really wanted the same influx of new players both WoW and GW proved are out there, wanted it by Holiday '05, and probably started working on it around the time WoW launched in China.

There's no way to sugar coat how bad of a decision this was though. They should have turned the Battlegrounds back on and tossed these rules into them. Or retrofitted Star Wars trappings atop Planetside and called that SWG 2.0. Or almost anything else that would have allowed their existing revenue to have been maintained with potentially additive results.

As it is, both the long and well-documented history of SWG and the very-not-beloved view most gamers have of SOE will likely ensure whatever SWG loses in subscriptions will not be surpassed by new arrivals. No matter how strong or weak the license is, there's just too many quality games out in all sorts of genres to give such new attention to an old one.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:49:39 PM | link

Bewildered gamer says:

Shortly after I posted here A dev replied to the thread


Okay.

I don't know about UFO's and I have never seen one. Ghosts are also iffy and I hope I never meet one if they are around. I have never seen area 51. I believe the government is benevolent for the most part and not conspiracy ridden. I wish there was a Santa Claus and I encourage you each to bring him to life for any children in your life. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy or Sandman either that I know of. But I could always be wrong.

I do know, however, that there is no console version of SWG in the works. Believe me or not, your choice but a red name has spoken.
Message Edited by Brenlo on 11-22-2005 04:40 PM


Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:52:12 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Josh wrote:

It's extremely easy for me to say that I will never play another SOE MMO. All companies are profit seekers, but most of them still try to keep their current customers happy. SOE's decision to shaft their current customers in favor of some possible future customers lets me know exactly how stupid I would be to ever be a "current customer" again. Fool me once..

Mike's point, I believe, was that as long-time devs, we've all seen players loudly proclaim they're leaving forever time and time again, only to stick around. Here's the thing: If you spend the time to loudly proclaim you're leaving, you're outraged. Why are you outraged? Because you still care. If you still care, there's some chance (how much depends on the person no doubt) that you're coming back or that once you calm down, you'll be changing your mind.

The players I worry about losing are those who just start visiting less and less until they stop coming at all. They stop caring. That's when you know you've lost them, probably forever.

--matt

Posted Nov 22, 2005 7:56:21 PM | link

Greg R says:

What would it take to convince a Game company that they have pushed the customer to far? In reading this and other sites I have seen a great deal of disdain as far as what players complaining. The company that I work for had a very laissez-faire attitude about customers for a long time and in some ways still does. every year their is a survey about what consumers perceptions of companies are, and every year when the executives get the survey and realize that there is a great deal of Hatred (in a literal sense) of the company marching orders come down to do things that will supposedly improve the corporate image. Of course these get sidetracked in pursuit of better quarterly metrics every year but still it is a recognized problem. In reading some comments about gamer's whine and whine but don't actually do anything I see the same attitude that gets organizations the same type of reputation that is currently enjoyed by Microsoft and AOL. In an industry that is (possibly) more susceptible to competition from smaller but well perceived companies.

I find this especially intriguing in regard to the way SOE is handling this change in SWG. They pushed these changes live and have yet to acknowledge with a single post in their own forums the concerns of 1/9 the classes (trader). Some objects in the game where significantly reduced in value and that has been acknowledged only in an off hand manner, while others where simply deleted and not acknowledged at all. Bugs have been pushed GM that should have stopped Beta. And to top it all off you have the president of the company spinning the situation in a manner that most of the customers take as a figurative slap in the face.

So is this an experiment in changing a live game or in how far Customers can be pushed?

Posted Nov 22, 2005 8:46:56 PM | link

Brian J says:

One interesting issue that I believe deserves some discussion is player's ownership of virtual property. Many players lost a substantial amount of virtual property in a persistent world due to an update that was suddenly implemented. The amount of time and money that this lost property represents is often significant from a gamer's point of view. Recall the case of Qiu Chengwei who committed murder over a particularly valuable virtual item was stolen http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8143073/. An extreme and inexcusable response but an example of the passion that the investment of many, many hours of one's life. In the case of SWG, hundreds of hours for some things.

The operating costs of maintaining a persistent virtual world and the items therein are the reason customers pay a subscription fee. If a player was unable to access his or her own character consistently, yet was charged a monthly fee to play, it is highly unlikely that such a game would succeed. I think we all can agree that a customer's financial investment in a MMO is predicated on maintaining access to his or her assets in the virtual world (character levels and items).

In the case of SWG, customers are no longer able to access their virtual assets because they have been deleted. Does this represent a breech in the perhaps unwritten contract that a player can access their character's assets as long as they subscribe? I think it does and I am interested in hearing other people's opinions on this.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 9:52:19 PM | link

Brian W says:

I personally liked the concept of swg from start till its recent well lets be honest demise. Even without alot of story driven content there was a vastness of things to do in the game. Be it running a crafting empire to being a lone gunmen, and the game always rewarded dedication to an extent. Where the game initially failed was a simple lack of refinement which just exacerbated over time. The developement team often overshot the mark with tweaking over powered underpowered and underutilized professions. In other words fixing one thing broke another. Even with this people still clung in there.

The NGE sadly is the exact opposite of SWG. Its a fps not a mmorpg or atleast thats the closest incarnation. Where there was literally thousands of profession combinations there are nine. Instead of a free enviroment of get there as you see fit you are required to quest. Crafting is totally irrelevant, and the fact that you cannot both craft and combat only hurts things not help. There are too many other ludicrous issues to discuss bad UI, bad combat engine, still no resolution to pvp issues, or even lack of sufficent dungeons.

My oppinion is that SOE/LA whoever is in charge actually thinks the license will do the trick for them. When they should know better at this point. They also cannot deny that they have lost atleast 3 out of 4 players. Those 3 players now demanding the original system not the CU. I have never seen such backwards thinking in anything in my life. The combat system needs work they make a space expansion. The combat needs work well we need vehicles.

The only relevant idea is that this new system is not a PC system at all but a testbed for a console version. After which the PC version will be phased out.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 10:34:42 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

So is this an experiment in changing a live game or in how far Customers can be pushed?

I think the answer to that is "yes."

Brian J wrote: One interesting issue that I believe deserves some discussion is player's ownership of virtual property.

Setting aside issues of customer goodwill (on which a service like MMOGs ultimately depend), this discussion is quick and easy: players own nothing inside a game (yes, SL aside, but there are other issues there). Despite how it feels to you as a player, you do not 'invest' in a world; you pay for access to the world. The realization of these facts comes when a game company changes things radically (nerfing a class or item, or changing the gameplay at a larger scale) and is part of what causes the upset we're seeing here: players tacitly come to see their character and items as theirs when in fact they own nothing. The dissonance between those realities causes a lot of discomfort.

Brian W said [SOE] cannot deny that they have lost atleast 3 out of 4 players.

Do you have data to back that up, or is this from your anecdotal experience? Let's not rush headlong here. Wait for the dust to settle. It's possible SWG has lost a significant portion of its playerbase... or not. It's even possible they come out ahead after all is said and done. I doubt it personally, but it's possible.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:15:03 PM | link

Darniaq says:

This I believe is probably going to be the biggest test of that Mike. Yea, players don't own nuthin. However, wasn't it in Singapore where a game crashed, a player lost some stuff, and the government ruled in favor of the company reimbursing the player?

Not saying that could happen here. But given the collective loss of property and goods due to these changes, I wonder if someone will try.

Posted Nov 22, 2005 11:21:02 PM | link

Mike Rozak says:

Some grad student could probably write an interesting paper or two on this:

- Social effects of radically changing a VW.

- Effects of the collapse of a virtual world's currency.

Posted Nov 23, 2005 12:11:03 AM | link

magicback (Frank) says:

Interesting comments so far. Here’s more of my own personal opinion.

The title of this thread, "Order 66" is very apt.

It's one "fraction" within the SOE/LA alliance taking over another "fraction" with the implied approval of the leaders of SOE/LA alliance. I would not be surprise if LA have a preemptive “Order 66” clause in the contract.

Now, I believe the vision for a faster-paced, cinematic version of SWG is in keeping with current market trends, but similar to the reception of the new King Kong game this dramatic change could be a bit ahead of the market and will take some painful adjustment.

Obvious, the launch is definitely ahead of product readiness. And I think we can all conclude that the execution was worthy of conspiracy theories. Plausible deniability abounds and the CS, PR and community managers were probably the last to know. Perhaps a whole department of designer, developers and QA had no clue whatsoever either.

And I think everyone realize that CS staff are underappreciated and expendable corporate pawns whose roles would be outsourced at an instant if it made corporate sense. Designer and developers are under threat that the company they work for could “contract” out their roles too, so I think we gotta start talking about the company directors and the marketing team.

So, for fueling the flames of conspiracy theories, what are the chances that LA is making a Order 66 takeover of the SWG live team?

Anyone, anyone?

Posted Nov 23, 2005 12:13:04 AM | link

Repub Arnaz says:

Just got to drop in a comment on an interesting meme going around the galaxy forums I've not seen in any other "reaction phase" to disturbing changes, nerfs, or publishes filled with bugs.

In a lot of the galaxies, the players are organizing a mass graveyard, filled with memorials to themselves.

They're making player cemeteries. And they seem quite popular.

I believe this is significant, in as such in all the "protests" and what the industry fellows above sniffingly call "whining" this reaction has never taken place before.

It's an unusual thing for me to watch. It's like seeing ancient Egyptians suddenly get the idea, "Say, it'd be neat to make a big pile of rocks for when I die."

I think it also is significant as it is a real expression of loss, grief, and ending. It's much more important than the daily server counts of people at starports. It is instead a more human reaction to a sense of finality.

Posted Nov 23, 2005 2:40:35 AM | link