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Pursuit of a Mythical Audience

Kevin Tierney Posted:
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Kevin Tierney offers his thoughts on how the direction of SWG aliented its core audience

There probably has been no MMORPG that has caused more controversy than Sony Online Entertainment’s (SOE) Star Wars Galaxies. It’s core game has been fundamentally altered twice, and debate has still been very intense, even six months after the latest revision, the “New Game Enhancements.” (NGE) While one can look for varying reasons as to why such changes were made, one is obvious: people, from LucasArts representatives Nancy Macintyre and Julio Torres, to numerous developers, all the way to the head of SOE John Smedley himself have argued that the changes were necessary to truly attract a crowd worthy of Star Wars. I believe this approach is flawed for numerous reasons.

One problem the MMO market is that it is currently experiencing what I call “The WoW effect.” When World of Warcraft was released to stunning success, it redefined what a successful MMO was. Before this, 500,000 customers of an MMO was a very respectable number. Right before the first changes (i.e. Combat Upgrade) SWG reportedly floated at around 300-350,000, again quite respectable pre-WoW. The release of WoW caused SOE/LucasArts to radically alter the originally planned “rebalance” to an “upgrade” that not only incorporated many of Blizzard’s features, but also added a ton of bugs to boot. SWG was simply not compatible with a linear style WoW gameplay. Those who wanted WoW’s features were already playing WoW, without the bugs. While the CU had overall mixed results, one thing was clear, subscriptions were down.

As a result, SWG received yet another fundamental change to the game. This time it was almost unanimously agreed, the cure was worse than the disease. The problem, SOE/LucasArts reasoned, this time was not the combat system, but the fact that you “were Uncle Owen instead of Luke Skywalker”, that there was “too much reading” and that the game was not “Star Warsy” or “iconic” enough. As a result, the NGE was launched with almost no notice. The massive uproar over these massive changes persists today. Mr. Smedley has admitted that people have “voted with their feet” implying a large chunk of SWG customers have cancelled.

These results were entirely predictable, and it is amazing that SOE and LucasArts did not foresee this outcome. The problem is summed up nicely: Antagonizing your existing playerbase in the hopes of attracting a mythical “audience who doesn’t play, but will once we make these changes” almost never works. The “silent majority” never materializes, and your current base is alienated due to changes that they did not want.

The number one rule of any business deserving of customer patronage is to first and foremost, take care of your existing customers. Once they have been satisfied, then look out to attracting new customers. The majority of people who play MMORPGs do so with considerable commitment. They like advancing either through combat or other game mechanics. In order to do so, there needs to be stability. Why does anyone want to stay in a game that is constantly changing? Why pay for something when you have no clue if the product you receive three months down the line will be anywhere near the same as the product you have now? Minor changes to a constantly evolving game are to be expected, as balance is worked out, new content is added, etc. However, these things do not change the fundamental aspects of the gameplay for the customer like the changes SOE/LucasArts launched. In a world that requires consistent subscription fees to continue to have a viable game, the customer will not pay for games to advance their characters, only to see all that work eliminated constantly.

In making these changes, SOE and LucasArts also sorely misunderstands what generates true subscriptions for an MMO. While marketing campaigns no doubt contribute some assistance, true marketing comes from word of mouth. The veterans of a game are the ones who bring their friends and family to these games, and in turn they recruit more. Yet given the principle outlined in the previous paragraph, you need to retain veterans in order to get them to bring in new customers. The veterans are also those who help out the new players to achieve veteran status themselves. We gamers all have our stories of starting an MMO, being completely lost and clueless, until a veteran came along and provided their insight and wisdom on how to progress in the game. A marketing campaign cannot achieve this, no matter how slick. With substantially fewer veterans to help out new players, their chances of sticking around are reduced, and fewer subscriptions are retained.

When you are remodeling a house, do you look to expand when the foundation of your house is in shambles? Of course not. You secure that foundation, make sure it is stable and will continue to be stable, and then you expand your house. The analogy applies to Star Wars Galaxies. Make sure your current fanbase is happy, because if your grand plan to draw in subscriptions fails, it is up to those veterans to remain and keep the game alive. Since Sony/LucasArts discounted that principle, the writing is on the wall. The game went from being thriving game (pre WoW standards) before the combat upgrade, to a stable game, then to a game on life support with the NGE.

There is an instructive lesson in this, which I believe will be reflected upon by MMO companies long into the future. They will take seriously the importance of their already existing community, and should put their desires over that of a mythical “silent majority.”

- Kevin Tierney

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Kevin Tierney