During the last few weeks, the most thought-provoking MMOG-related thing that came to my attention may have been this post by veteran developer Gordon Walton about the role he played in the memorable (for most, not in a good way) Star Wars Galaxies New Game Enhancements (NGE). What he wrote led me to think again about what I stated late last year when I listed the SOE / LucasArts title among 5 MMOGs That Seriously Disappointed Me.
Walton begins in a forthright manner. “Now that SOE is gone (long live Daybreak Games!) we should go ahead and have the Star Wars:Galaxies NGE discussion. I'll start with the easy part: The NGE was my fault.” Since I was only an interested external observer, I'm in no position to contest his assertion. Still, I suspect that, as leaders should, he is taking responsibility for things that fell under his purview but weren't directly or completely within his control.
When I take a step back and think about SWG as a whole, a very significant question immediately springs to mind. Why was the NGE deemed necessary in the first place? The same can be asked about the Combat Upgrade (CU) that preceded it by several months. My admittedly simplified answer is that the game's original design wasn't a good fit for the size of audience the publishers wanted and expected it to pull in.
When SWG was announced in March of 2000, it was pretty much universally taken for granted that it would be the next market leader, displacing SOE's own EverQuest. What's more, many industry observers, myself included, were of the opinion that it had the potential to reach an entirely new level of popularity. Given EQ's success, it wasn't unusual to see people wondering if SWG would become the first MMOG to reach the million-subscriber mark. Personally, I don't know that I'd have been confident enough to bet this would happen, but for at least the next 12 to 18 months, I definitely thought it was within the realm of possibility.
The game, which launched in mid-2003, was never able to approach this lofty level. According to Walton, it briefly topped 400K before settling into the 200-250K range. These numbers were quite significant, especially considering the market size at the time. However, they must have been rather disappointing to the execs at SOE and LucasArts when compared to the 400-500K subscribers that EQ had.
World of Warcraft was announced in September 2001. Before it launched in November 2004, SWG had about an 18-month window of opportunity to carve out and solidify a market leadership position. Various reasons kept it from accomplishing this task. For one, we know now, in retrospect, that a key factor in WoW's explosive success was its broader accessibility. Since it was an easier MMOG for newcomers to the category to learn and to play, it had a far larger potential audience.
In contrast, SWG was more ambitious and complex than average, with a correspondingly steeper and longer learning curve. In addition, it wasn't very polished when it debuted, which not only gave early adopters a reason to exit but also led to negative word of mouth that discouraged people who were on the fence from trying the game. The high barrier to becoming a Jedi was also pretty unpopular.
NGE brought more issues such as the feeling of being betrayed felt by players whose classes were eliminated (more than two-thirds were dropped). It was also buggy and unpolished. But let's not forget that it went live near the end of 2005. By then, the window during which SWG might have attracted a million-plus or even 500K-plus subscribers had long ago slammed shut.
SWG disappointed me in a couple of ways. One is that it wasn't the game it was intended to be, primarily due to its lack of polish. The other is what I mentioned above. The way it was designed meant it had no real chance of pulling in and holding onto enough players to lead the market, never mind to take it to the next level. I can't help wondering, as I have occasionally over the years, how popular SWG might have become if the team had created an acceptably polished version that was more like NGE to begin with, not two and a half years later, almost like a desperate Hail Mary.
- Should SOE and LucasArts have seen before SWG launched that it wasn't going to be the type of game capable of attracting the number of players they were aiming for?
- Why do you think SOE and LucasArts felt that the risk in changing the game so substantially by implementing NGE was justified?
- After WoW had established itself as the market gorilla, how much potential did SWG still have to grow its user base whether via NGE or other changes?
- How popular do you think SWG would have become if it had been designed more like NGE in the first place? Would it have become the first MMOG to reach a million subscriptions?