An Empire Divided

By: Chris Thursten

Published: June 28, 2011 Posted in: PC Gaming Nonsense

A couple of weeks ago I caught this tweet as it was picked up by Reddit, and then, subsequently, the rest of the universe:

“If you watch NASA backwards, it’s about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon.”

It occurred to me, while trying to figure out how to memorialise Sony’s soon-to-be-canned Star Wars Galaxies, that the same sentiment can be applied to the MMORPG:

“If you watch the MMORPG backwards, it’s a genre that experiments with adding a multiplayer component to traditionally single-player experiences, then breaks out into large-scale persistent worlds with heavily prescriptive gameplay, before finally achieving a faulty but legitimate form of emergence.”

Star Wars Galaxies embodies the worst implications of that timeline more completely than any other MMO I can think of. It’s a familiar enough story: when Galaxies launched in 2003 it was open, freeform and entirely player-driven, a game that despite its licence can and should be seen as a legitimate successor to Ultima Online. Features now considered the exclusive preserve of EVE – a dynamic economy, a precipitously deep crafting system, fully-functioning player cities, freely customisable character roles – were fully represented alongside the most lucrative IP in popular culture.

Star Wars Galaxies - Rebel Starship

If it seems bizarre that such a grand experiment should be undertaken with the Star Wars licence then it pays to revisit exactly what the MMO was, in the world before WoW. While EverQuest had suggested what a prescriptive MMO could be, fully-realised persistent sandboxes were still the expectation and the norm. That SWG existed at all in its original form is evidence that Sony believed, for a time, that financial success lay in ever more detailed and convincing online worlds. The Star Wars licence makes sense, in that case: here was the property that, alongside Star Trek, invested matinee science fiction with depth and detail, and then figured out how to merchandise the hell out of all that depth and detail. With its breadth of places, factions, and experiences, Star Wars makes made (and makes) as much sense as a craft-heavy social game as it does as an action game.

It bears emphasising also that SWG was, by pre-WoW standards, a relatively successful MMO with dozens of servers and an active, dedicated community. While the game was rife with problems, it catered to a broad audience simply by providing a generous range of activities and avenues for success. Non-combat professions were a viable full-time pursuit and extensive customisation options provided for involved storytelling and roleplaying communities. Some clever interdependencies between disciplines encouraged players to meet and assist one another, to build relationships and conflicts organically and to establish their own goals and motivations. Stories come easy – the first time I walked into Mos Eisley cantina and realised that all the musicians and dancers were players, the time Imperial players opted to clean up crime on Naboo just because they could. So what went wrong?

At launch, the game took the now-baffling step of featuring no player Jedi, and opting for a time period in the fiction that prohibited them. This initially aligned SWG with other Force-free Star Wars games – the X-Wing and TIE Fighter series, the first Dark Forces – but launching as it did in the midst of a Jedi-heavy prequel movie marketing campaign, there was only so long this could last. The intent had initially been that Force-sensitive characters could be created only when random and hidden criteria were met, but that these characters would be the most powerful in the game. There is nothing wrong with this approach, in theory. Emergent gameworlds thrive on variation and imbalance, as these encourage players to experiment with the tools and systems available to them. It’s clear that Jedi were intended as a motivation for players to involve themselves with the game and as a catalyst for unscripted drama, in a similar manner to EVE’s Titan-class starships.

Star Wars Galaxies - Cantina

SOE’s catastrophic handling of player expectation, then, should serve as a timely warning to CCP. By attempting to capitalise on hype – to meet marketing pressure and put Jedi firmly at the centre of the game – they began a process of demystifying Force-slot acquisition that crippled the in-game enconomy and eliminated much of the world-and-conflict building that players had worked to establish. Players rushed to grind out the randomised professions that would net them their Jedi, abandoning tradeskills and PvP ambitions for a shot at the ruling class. When made explicit, what should have been a catalysing anomaly became a substantial imbalance in a game already rife with imbalances, and with developer time tied up attempting to meet player demands, the game’s supporting systems began to collapse.

When World of Warcraft arrived, then, SWG was already a mess. In the face of dwindling subscriptions, SOE initiated a series of dramatic overhauls to the game: first the Combat Upgrade, which attempted to address long-standing balance issues, then the New Game Enhancements, which abandoned skills in favour of a class system, linear quest-based levelling, movie-themed loot, and Jedi for everybody. Along the way, instances were also introduced, as well as zone-based alternatives to SWG’s previously open planets. Launch SWG was now gone forever – a rare example of a game that simply cannot be played any more. Players invested in it left in droves, myself among them.

The game did not, it goes without saying, suddenly attract Warcraft’s audience. SWG remained technically and mechanically unpolished, unable to retain new players while having simultaneously scuppered the faith of a previously dedicated player-base. SOE lost the audience they had by pursuing the audience they wanted: this is not without precedent, but is a lesson worth repeating.

The fate of SWG illustrates more, however, than what bad management and misguided ambition can do to an otherwise-promising game: it demonstrates why games of its (original) type are now so rare, why the genre has a whole has slipped so far back from its initial promise.

I suspect that SOE’s attempt to turn to SWG into WoW was driven by more than the belief that the latter’s mechanics and structures were integrally more engaging than their own. What Blizzard proved, dramatically, in those early earnings calls, was that operating a ‘theme-park’ MMO was more straightforward and easier to monetize than a truly open world. Emergent gameplay demands continual attention – both in the short term (bugs and balance fixes) and long (keeping the player-base motivated with new incentives and opportunities). A persistent online world is never finished, and will always require – justify – its subscription fee.

Star Wars Galaxies - Imperial

A prescriptive game, however, can hypothetically be finished – at which point the focus of development can be shifted to premium content and the subscription fee becomes a profitable relic, a joke in an era of free persistent online shooters. SOE’s response to a dwindling player-base was twofold: to push the game in front of new players, and to reduce the overheads associated with running it. Post-World of Warcraft, static completeness – rather than dynamic incompleteness – is the new commercial endgame of the MMO.

Yet as the recent riots in EVE demonstrate, players still demand the freedom that comes with an open world, the right to create and determine the value of their in-game property and enjoy the rights they buy with their subscription fee. Premium vanity items can (rightly) be seen as a sign that a developer is looking for ways to establish low-maintenance revenue streams, and it’s a short mental hop from there to reduced support for the game as received by the lowest-paying order of players. There’s no indication that this is what CCP is doing, of course: but the furore surrounding it is completely understandable.

SWG’s early termination illustrates nothing if not the tremendous vulnerability of this kind of game, and everyone with an interest in this aspect of the medium should be watching EVE very closely. The MMORPG might well be travelling backwards, but hope remains with independent developers like CCP who are still willing to commit to the risks they take. If that changes – if the deja vu currently being experienced by ex-SWG players is justified – then the genre is in a great deal of trouble. One thing is certain: whether or not The Old Republic succeeds, the world won’t see another high-profile franchise rendered with as much ambition – however flawed – as Star Wars Galaxies.

Chris Thursten