Sometimes I forget how much my professional and personal lives are beginning to merge. As a result, last weekend I was in "mom" mode, preparing to take my 11yo son to a Star Wars: Galaxies "Community Summit" at the Seattle Hilton. (That URL doesn't look static, btw, so I suspect that it won't be long before it features a new event.) It didn't occur to me to bring a notebook along, and it wasn't until the event was well underway that I started to realize how much of what I was seeing and hearing related to my growing interest in the social aspects of MMORPGs. My lack of note-taking apparatus makes it hard for me to provide the kind of journalistic detail that I'd like, but there's still plenty for me to say about the experience.
My son starting playing SWG just a few months ago, after the infamous "new game enhancements" (NGE) had been rolled out. When he started, I did a little reading about the game--both here on TerraNova, and elsewhere. I wasn't surprised, given his enthusiasm for the game, to see the general consensus that the NGE was targeting adolescents. Given that, what surprised me most at the Community Summit was how few adolescents were there.
But first, a little contextual framing.
The event drew what looked to me to be around 200 people, most of whom had registered in advance for the event (they accommodated a number of walk-ins, as well). There was no registration cost, and dinner (pizza, a few veggies, and lots of of brownies and cookies) was provided. This wasn't a full "fan fest" style event with focus on social interactions (despite the use of the fan fest URL to promote it)--it was a communications event, designed primarily to get a controlled message out to the fan base, and secondarily to hear what those fans had to say (or at least to appear to be hearing that).
There were five Sony employees there--a woman who runs events for LucasArts, a "game producer" (who sounded to me, and to my son, more like a marketing guy/spin doctor than a producer), and three devs. At registration, players received name badges with their "real life" first names (in tiny print), their character name (in big print), and their server name (slightly smaller than player name). The room was set up with round tables, each labelled with a server name. From 5-6pm they encouraged us to "socialize" with people at our table. From 6-6:30pm we retrieved plates of starchy food from the buffet. And from 6:30-9:00 we had the actual program. It began with Julio, the producer, reviewing the publish plan for the next year. What it boiled down to, so far as I could tell, was "We know there are lots of bugs. We're committed to fixing the bugs. We don't want to keep rolling out new content and introducing new bugs without fixing the ones that are there." An excellent sentiment, but it says a lot about how badly broken their platform is that they had to emphasize this so heavily and repeatedly. After his review, they opened up the Q and A, which went on for over two hours, with easily 30-40 people queued up
If you're interested in the game-related details, you can check out some of the online reports from previous summits (like this one from Austin). Since I don't play the game, most of what they outlined in their publish (aka "patch" or "update") schedule didn't mean much to me. What was interesting to me had to do with who attended, and what they had to say--both in the public Q and A session, and at the table of "Kettemoor" denizens where my son and I were seated.
Of the many people in the packed room of hard-core players and fans, I think probably less than 10% were under 18, and other than my son I only saw one pre-teen with a name tag (guests and parents were not given name tags; we were clearly persona non grata in this context). The bulk of the players were adults, many in their 30s and 40s. There were more women than I'd expected, including 3 at our table--two of whom were there with their real-life partners. One couple at our table had met in SWG, and the woman had then moved from the southeast to the northwest to marry the man. Most (possibly all) of the people at our table were long-time players, who told me that they'd joined on the second day of the game (because, as they patiently explained to me several times, _nobody_ could get online the first day).
Most of the people at our table seemed unhappy with the NGE, and had attended the event because they wanted to be sure the development team heard about their concerns. They were in the game still not because of the changes, but despite them. Their social network was in this virtual world, and they couldn't quite bring themselves to leave it completely. The met-and-married couple (who at one point pre-NGE had apparently had over 20 accounts, for a cost of over $300/month, between the two of them) told me that they'd recently started playing World of Warcraft, and liked it a lot better. And yet, there they were at this summit, still passionate enough about the game to spend their Saturday night in this hotel ballroom.
The question and answer session gave me--and my son--a great deal of insight into both the level of emotional commitment so many of these players had to the game, and the level of their anger and grief over the changes that the NGE had brought. Certain themes came up over and over again--in particular, a chorus of requests for an "adult-only" server, not for x-rated content, but because these adult players felt that the influx of youngsters post-NGE had changed their gameplay in a way they weren't happy with. The producer was firm in his negation of this request, saying that the social tools in the game allowed players to choose with whom they interacted, and asserting that virtual worlds were intended to have this kind of diverse population. This was not particularly well-received by the crowd.
Other consistent themes in the questions had to do with what long-time players saw as a dumbing-down of the game, the gutting of skills-based professions (and the economic devaluing of the fruits of those professions, which left many players with crates full of originally expensive but now value-less items), and an unrelenting focus on "twitch combat" skills rather than complex interactions. This latter point was made particularly strongly by a disabled woman who stood in line on her crutches for well over an hour in order to have her say. The emotion in her voice was powerful, and the sense of loss and grief in her questions for the developers was palpable. (I use "questions" loosely-- most of the people who spoke were making statements more than they were asking questions.)
Also interesting to me were the number of women who got up to speak, and the high percentage of them who were entertainers and/or craftspeople in the game. I pointed out to my son that when they showed iconic representations of each of the various professioins in the game, _only_ entertainers were represented by a woman. (Hey, they're _never_ too young to be educated on implicit sexism, I think.)
And speaking of chauvinism, the low point of the evening came as a young man (mid-20s, I'd guess) with slicked-back hair and a tight leather jacket got his turn at the microphone. Before he even started to speak, I whispered to my son "don't grow up to be like him; he's probably never had a real date in his life." My son was quite offended by my snarky judgement--until the guy started to speak. His question? "When are you going to let us see more big titties?" He then turned around, smarmy grin on his face, arms spread wide, to query the audience--"That's what we really want, guys, isn't it?" Sigh. To their credit, the Sony folks handled this well. The woman emceeing the event wrestled (literally!) the microphone away from him, and when he protested to the devs on the podium that he had more questions, they announced quite loudly that he had burned all of his question time with his remark.
I'll close with a quote from my son's blog, in case you're wondering what the new target market thought of the event:
I went to a developer dinner for the MMO I play most, Star Wars Galaxies. The game producer, mainly a marketer, but trying to make sure the developers didn't say anything stupid, was there, and he said the words "is key" about a thousand times. "Community is KEY." "Content is KEY." "Players are, (you guessed it) KEY." Sure, he sounded like a complete idiot, but he had an awesome jacket. The developers themselves were not so bad, they made it sound like they cared about the kids in the game, but in fact, they didn't. Considering over 50% of the game is kids, they're not too smart. I still love the game, but this thing has changed my outlook on it greatly. I see why so many people quit a year ago, and I agree with them. They took the SKILL out of the game, the aspect that keeps adults worrying if they made the right choice, if they crafted the right items, if their weapons were going to be disabled (which, by the way, they were). Basically, the devs ripped the player's hearts out of their chests, as one man put it.