Casual Play: World vs. Game 2... In a Galaxy Far, Far Away By: Steve Wilson
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
Following in the footsteps of Ultima Online the second big 'world over game' MMO was Star Wars Galaxies. Like its spiritual predecessor it had a vast empty landscape with little hand crafted content and nothing more than hopes and dreams that its player base would generate enough content to keep each other entertained. While it didn't fail miserably it performed well below expectations in converting new players into the MMO fold. Which was shocking at the time considering the huge audience that the Star Wars license held. No game had broken a million US subscriptions and it was hoped this would be the one. In the end after 3 years of development, endless cycles of hype and fan hysteria it would only manage to barely increase the number of subscribers that UO had once commanded.
Most of the problems with Star Wars Galaxies from an outsider's perspective can be summed up on one sentence; It's the content stupid.
For those new to the genre the mistakes seemed obvious, there was nothing for new players to do. Actually there were things to do but only for those players that had already played MMOs previously. The true newbie to the genre was simply dumped at a city of their choosing and left to fend for themselves. It was surprising that this occurred after Grand Theft Auto 3 and Morrowind, single player games that introduced a player to the game mechanics with quests and then let them create their own secondary goals at a later time when they were more experienced with the world. Throughout its development the designers had focused on making the game as accessible to new players as possible, except that in the area of content they expected new players to be able to make their own goals from the very get go. A complete reversal of the typical experience of most single player games.
From the very beginning the lead designer insisted that the players would provide each other with their own content and that, "Content was hard." As an example it was pointed out multiple times that the content written for Morrowind had taken a half year to only provide 40 hours worth of missions. It was argued that player would blow through this faster than the developers could keep up and that most hardcore players would consume it all in a matter of days. The problem was that this fear was based solely on hardcore players being able to rip through the content that fast. Casual players can't consume 40 hours of content in days, not even in a single month typically. Catering to this hardcore mindset lost SWG the opportunity to make a good initial impression with the legions of casual players who bought the game just on its Star Wars branding.
The lack of content also diluted the experience of many Star Wars fans. Rather than focus on the larger than life struggle of good versus evil in a universe torn apart by galactic civil war the designers instead chose to focus on the abysmally mundane. For a fictional setting so steeped in heavy narration it was amazing the developers chose to focus on systems that added nothing to the Star Wars theme. Instead of saving the universe players got to decorate their houses. There were no cinematic combat sequences reminiscent of the films but rather a deep system of crafting as seen in the movies. Cantinas weren't the dangerous places of the films but a place for strippers (frequently men behind a female toon) to shake their grove thing for a handful of virtual coin and socialize with emotes. Rather than a universe of adventure among a thousand Imperial worlds subscribers got a player economy where crafters cobbled together everything from blasters to spaceships in their garage. All of these sub systems would have been perfectly wonderful in some other game but they did nothing to make Galaxies feel like it had anything to do with its name sake. Nothing the designers focused on conveyed the slightest flavor of a universe vividly describer in movies, books and comics. Player got a Star Wars skinned version of Ultima Online.
There were some stabs at content but they were mostly misguided. One such attempt was randomly generated content that could be acquired from mission terminals (also not very Star Warsy). When the player clicked on a terminal it would generate some random spawns out in the world for them to go kill. The problem was that none of it had any context in the game whatsoever. At least with handcrafted content the narrative sets a specifically defined tone. In the random system the player went and killed the handful of criminals or empire loving thugs, got some credits for it, and it had no other effect on the word. Worse than that it was totally meaningless. The system would frequently generate Rebels for one player to kill right next to a camp of opposing Imperials thus littering the landscape with small armed camps whose purpose for being there meant nothing. If there were a civil war going on as the fiction of the game suggested it seems that the opportunity for the players to change the frontlines based on these random quests would have added some meaning and context to the missions.
One of the things developers touted constantly was the inclusion of non combat professions. Player could be entertainers, crafters and hairdressers. And yet there was no effort at all to include any sort of content for them at all. A player who'd put everything into being a chef had no chance to see anything other than his kitchen because the designers had never considered content beyond, "Kill all mobs in sight." Even though the Star Wars fiction had characters like Jabba whose appetites were well known, no one had considered the possibility of having chef missions so non-combat professions could go virtual touring.
When players complained that there was nothing to do but grind out professions the community relations manager said, "Grinding is a state of mind." The problem was that this response didn't address the issue that led to the grinding in the first place. There was nothing else to do. When player continued complaining about the lack of content the second response was that players should try killing every type of monster and try maxing out each and every profession. The answer to the lack of content was to grind. Unknown to most players at the time was the fact that in order to unlock the secret Jedi profession a player really did need to take the relations manager's advice and grind out nearly every profession.
Case in point, if you're going to make a movie about existentialism and you want it to be successful you need to make it in a way that appeals to the masses. This is the difference between The Matrix and I Heart Huckabees. SWG had been poised at the time to dominate the MOG world in a way that no other game could have, it had the license of the most successful fantasy films in history, there were more fans of Star Wars than there were of MMOs and possibly video games period, and an experienced design team that should have been able to get over their own pet ideas and focus on what it was about the movies that made them successful. While the SWG designers chose a 'world over game,' a lesser known property (in terms of the audience of Star Wars) focused much more on content or 'game over world.' It's no wonder that World of Warcraft was able to not only break the million subscriber mark but to score multiple millions of players, the majority of whom were brand new to the genre. In the time since SWG has floundered with multiple rules changes, the hasty creation of tons of content after the fact, and multiple band aid solutions. In its declining years SWG abandon world and moved firmly into the game camp hopefully lying to rest the concept of "world over game."