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.