June 24, 2003

Star Wars Galaxies: A Beta Review

On June 26th, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), easily one of the most anticipated computer games of all time, finally will be released to the public.

I’ve followed its development closely for almost two years, and have had the opportunity to participate in beta testing SWG for the past month and a half. (So THAT'S where my blog has gone to. Now you know and knowing is half the battle.) The game is the latest example of the genre of computer game that I find the most fascinating, the massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG), where players not only play in a shared environment with thousands of others, but where their characters and the gameworld are persistent, changing and evolving over time.

In an accompanying essay for today, I explain why I think this genre is so interesting, and why its devotees are so fierce (and fiercely intolerant) in the desires they project onto these kinds of games. Here I want to focus more straightforwardly on Star Wars: Galaxies itself.

It is coming out, as MMOGs now habitually do, in a storm of controversy. Part of this is because like all MMOGs, SWG is an unfinished product—necessarily and always—but to a degree that alarms some beta testers. It’s true that as we finish the beta testing, some major bugs remain, and I have to hope that they will mostly be squashed before the game goes live next week. The last week or so of beta has not been terribly encouraging on this score, however, and anyone planning to play the game at launch needs to be aware of the relatively shaky state of the game at the moment. The developers may pull a rabbit from their collective hats before the 26th of June, or they may not. There are going to be a legion of lesser bugs and problems that will bedevil players for the next several months at the very least, but those can be tolerated, and come with the territory.

Much of the early naysaying comes not from testers worried about bugs, but from malcontents who wanted Star Wars Galaxies to be a different kind of game than it is, and who have been consistently negative about the design philosophy behind the game almost from the outset. This I am less worried about, because to be momentarily smug about it, Star Wars Galaxies is much more a game for me and the kind of way I like to play MMOGs than it is for them—and I’m pleased it came out that way. Sucks to be those guys, but that’s the way the silicon crumbles.

SWG is, in my opinion, eventually will be the best of the current MMOGs on the market—but it is not a revolutionary design that takes the genre to new places. It is in some ways the BMW of the first generation of MMOGs, an impeccably built version of the core design ideas of the genre, with lots of bells and whistles and added features. But it is not racy or novel, and in certain ways, remains a bit staid. It is very much a MMOG, and nothing more. Some changes late in development also seem to me to be contradictory or problematic, and may need correction later.

The so-called “first generation” MMOGs were Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron’s Call. In truth, there is no real second-generation MMOG as yet, despite a slew of new products on the market in the past year. Some of these, like Asheron’s Call 2 and Earth and Beyond, are simply failures. Others advance the genre in some singular or modest way, like Shadowbane, but remain largely within the genre’s constraints. SWG is no different in that regard, but it incorporates many of the best features from its predecessors, and in particular, from Ultima Online. One of the early, uninformed knocks on Star Wars Galaxies from its critics was that it was “Everquest in Space”. This is completely wrong, but it might not be unfair to say that it is “Ultima Online in Space” with vastly better graphics, more capacious gameplay, and a fictional backdrop that is more familiar and less derivative than Ultima Online’s faux-medieval fantasy mish-mash. In other ways, it is also The Sims Online, or what that disastrous game should have been: a world to live in rather than merely visit for a battle or two.

So what do I like about Star Wars Galaxies after a month and a half of beta play? First, the graphics are stunning. I normally don’t care much about graphics, if the gameplay is interesting. SWG, if you have a fairly top-end system, does a better job of using graphics to create a living, breathing, immersively visualized world than any other MMOG to date. Each of the ten planets in the game has a distinctive visual style, with flora and fauna to match. Plants sway in the wind, flags ripple in the breeze, spaceships fly overhead, butterflies and small animals wander across the landscape.

The look of players is the richest, best part of the visuals in the game. Character creation is a game unto itself: I suspect some people will simply sit there and create character after character and be almost satisfied with that. There are a large number of races to play, each visually distinctive, and a huge range of ways to individuate your own character—sliders that age the character, make him fat or thin, tall or short, give him a variety of hair styles and skin hues, and so on. When you get to know another player in the game, chances are you’ll remember him or her partly because of how they look—no two characters look exactly alike. (I’m hoping all of this stays intact: very late in beta, there was some ill-advised graphics optimization going on that was producing much less impressive facial appearances on characters and non-player characters alike, even on my high-end machine.)

Don't mess with the frog.

Second, I like the game because of the consistent quality of the gameworld itself. Each planet is dotted with a variety of creatures as well as “non-player characters”, other sentients of various races (including representatives of the Empire and the Rebellion). The animals generally seem to belong to an ecosystem (albeit a fantastic Star-Warsy sort of one) with predators and prey appearing near each other. Sometimes you can actually watch from a distance as a predator species stalks one of its prey, or see two factions of sentients square off and battle each other. Animals have remarkably life-like AI routines: some creatures stalk or track your character, others watch you warily and maintain their distances, some flee if attacked unless you attack their young or their lair, and still others approach you curiously and sniff at your feet. Non-player characters may gloat when they dispatch your character or run like cowards when they are overmatched, saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” (Other times they just stand there, however: the deathblow animations don’t work consistently.) All of this makes it much easier to feel a sense of immersion.

Third, I like the game because it bases character development on skills rather than levels, meaning that over time, the difference between new characters and established ones is less about a massive differential in sheer power and more about differentiation of competencies. Yes, there are characters who are masters of their chosen professions, and others who are just novices, but both sets can interact meaningfully. Moreover, whatever you become is not permanent: if your character gets tired of one set of skills, he can surrender them and choose to learn another. This is a smart move from a managerial standpoint (no more complaints that later changes to the rules “gimp” or cripple an established character: if you’re unhappy with changes to your skills later on, just give them up and go into a new line of work). But it also makes for better gameplay.

Fourth, the game has a lot of potential to have the most interesting virtual economy of any MMOG because it promotes player interdependence and makes players themselves the source of almost all equipment and supplies, through crafting—in contrast to MMOGs that center on “loot”, acquiring gear through killing creatures and enemies in the game environment. This has made the kind of players who are used to fighting and being rewarded directly with equipment very frustrated, because they will have no choice but to turn to other players to get their weapons, armor and the like—much as some players of Shadowbane were frustrated when it turned out that to excel in the game, you actually had to have real-world political or social skills of some kind in order to achieve power within a guild. If SWG’s designers can more fully work out the virtual supply-demand chain and get the “drains” and “faucets” of the economy right—as of now, four days before launch, I wouldn’t say it’s working exactly right—this will be one of the most distinctive aspects of the game.

Finally, the game also has a zillion beautiful “small” touches. I’ll just mention one of my favorites: the chat system is tied into the emote system, so that the use of certain keywords in chat makes your character emote properly in synchronization with what you have just said to other players. If you say, “No, I don’t know where that is”, your character will shake his head negatively. (You can turn this system off if you don’t like it, which is another example of the great detail work in the game: the interface is highly customizable).

Sharing a laugh with a Stormtrooper.

So who doesn’t like SWG, and why? The famous “Bartle typology” that applies to players of multiplayer persistent-world games has four categories: achievers, killers, socializers and explorers. Achievers want to beat the game through developing the best, strongest, most ultimate character—and therefore want the ability to make their character better than everyone else. In Star Wars terms, they want to be Han Solo—and they want most other players to be stuck being Greedo or an anonymous stormtrooper. Killers want to directly compete with and defeat other players. Socializers treat a MMOG like a graphically enhanced chat room: they are playing to build communities, forge conversations, interact with others. Explorers want to see everything the gameworld has to offer, and try everything the game mechanics permit, just because it’s there. Some observers have suggested that there is a fifth “Bartle-type”, the builder, who wants to be a sort of apprentice to the game developers and leave permanent structures or features on the gameworld for others to use and experience.

SWG is not a very satisfying game for achievers, and killers may find it a bit frustrating in some ways, though player-versus-player combat is a reasonably vigorous part of the gameplay for those who choose to pursue it. For socializers, explorers and builders, it may be the best MMOG ever to date. In terms of other tribes or types common among gamers, it is easily the best MMOG for so-called role-players, who want to inhabit a gameworld as if it were an interactive fiction, and act out the persona of a character. For the players often referred to as powergamers, those who invest huge amounts of time trying to be the fastest to achieve hierarchical dominance in a MMOG, it also has some real satisfactions, but probably also some frustrations. But curiously, I also think it is a good game for novice MMOGers to try, despite its very difficult learning curve.

That being said, there are some shortcomings, beyond the current technical problems.

First, I worry a lot about some of the game-balancing efforts that were going on late in beta: rather than fine-tuning a carefully calibrated sense of difficulty, they were lurching in both the economic and combat aspects of the game between wildly different settings, and at the time of this writing, some of the game, particularly the mission system which is a crucial source of initial monetary capital for combat players, is too hard, while other aspects, such as the fee for listing items for sale on a galactic marketplace, is too forgiving. Balance is never finished, and I’m sure there will be meaningful tweaks and adjustments throughout the entire lifespan of the game. I just hope they’re not wildly away from the happy medium when we start out. I’m equally alarmed by some of the late-game tweaking of advancement rates: I really fear that the game has become hostile to solo players and so-called casual players. Time will tell, and as the developers note, it’s better to start hard and ease up than the other way around.

Here comes PETA!

Second, I’m a bit nervous about parts of the experience for crafters, who manufacture the goods that all players will need. There are aspects of gameplay that are highly tedious, in part because some of the items they can make have no imaginable marketplace among players, and as a result, players will find themselves repetitively making items that they will then destroy. It is a hard puzzle to crack: if you let novice crafters make highly desirable items, you undercut the labor value of advancing in rank and the economic differentiation that rank should provide—but if you leave them nothing but useless dross, then you promote a lot of empty gameplay. Early in development, there were plans for “schematic revocation”, which would take away low-level component designs from high-level crafters and force them to buy those components from novice crafters. This was a crude solution to a complex problem, and I’m glad it went by the wayside. The developers may have solved this problem with some cheap consumables called weapon powerups—because the real solution is making sure that everything a player can make has some actual utility to other players, and therefore is worth buying. There are “skill tiers” in a number of professions where there is almost nothing to make that will have measurable markets but where you are condemned nevertheless to having to make it. On this issue, SWG may not be there yet, but it has the potential to get there, at least.

Third, I’m a bit concerned about the experience of combat. For one, this has been one area where the tweaking has been dramatic and rather dizzying, and I have little sense of where the roulette wheel is going to actually stop. There remains a basic problem, which is that the roles of different kinds of combatants are not highly differentiated in terms of the different skill sets they have invested in developing. Different firearms skills pretty much work out to the same thing. There are good reasons for this, but it tends to make combat a sort of lazy affair where everyone just shoots away and the target either dies or doesn’t die. This is especially true when very large groups of 15-20 characters go out hunting together: there isn’t much that can stand in their way. At this very upper end, the game needs more challenging, tactically clever enemies.

Fourth, to echo a common complaint heard on the beta forums, the game may not yet be “Star Warsy” enough. This criticism has sometimes come from disingenuous sources, mainly players who wanted SWG to be highly centered on player-versus-player combat and who vent their disappointment with it through every possible channel. However, it is true at times that the game, though highly involving and enjoyable, feels more like a variant of the MMOG genre and less like an interactive fiction set in the universe of the Star Wars films. Some of that is the nature of the medium, but the developers could do a lot more in the coming months (and I think intend to do a lot more) in order to deepen and enrich the sense of belonging to the Star Wars universe. Ambient sounds and music that made their appearance late in the beta helped a lot, as did the growing number of stormtroopers marching through cities and the like.

My main list of the “Star Warsy” elements that are still missing would be:

a) some sense that the Empire in SWG is the Empire of the Star Wars films: right now, it’s quite bland and morally neutral, a visual presence but one that has no impact on gameplay or even the gameworld as a whole unless you choose to play a Rebel-aligned character.

b) There are a number of missions in the game that a player can choose to undertake, but some of them don’t feel to me as if they really “fit” the Star Wars universe—they feel more like MMOG conventions and less like mini-narratives that could be going on alongside the major narrative of the films.

c) The dialogue available for non-player characters often seems colloquial and contemporary, and not the slightly stilted mythico-cornball voice of a lot of the Star Wars films.

d) Much of the gameplay that one can engage in is distant from the central narrative action of the Star Wars universe. Much of that is inevitable—that’s the difference between a fictional setting you inhabit and one you experience through passive media like film and books—and some of that will also be addressed by players who enliven the world through roleplaying. But the developers have more work to do in this area as well, provisioning content tools to players that immerse them more fully in this particular universe.

Fifth, some of the skills and professions available to players are either poorly conceptualized at present or have received little to no testing. The Merchant profession, for example, has skill tiers that are extremely dull and generic compared to almost every other profession, and its most interesting skills have been used by almost no players in the beta. It’s hard to say whether it works or not. The Bio-Engineer, to cite another example, is just conceptually a mess, a kind of design afterthought that functions as a sort of cul-de-sac supplier for the more versatile Creature Handler profession. There are gameplay elements tied to some professions that I strongly suspect are going to consistently malfunction after the game goes live—experimentation in crafting, for example, seems to lurch wildly in its functionality from one small patch to another, and it is very difficult to say how it is supposed to work or whether it works at all.

With some nervous skepticism, I still eagerly await the launch of Star Wars: Galaxies. I haven’t really fallen in love with a MMOG since the original Asheron’s Call, but I think this game is the next one that will really command my attention not just as an object of study but as a source of lasting entertainment.