October 22, 2003

The Mystery of SWG

I followed the development of Star Wars: Galaxies closely for three reasons.

First, because of my general intellectual interest in MMOGs as a whole, and the degree to which Star Wars: Galaxies (SWG) seemed to represent in its early design specifications an important milestone, a true “second-generation” MMOG that was also based on a hugely popular licensed property. If any game was going to take MMOGs beyond their early limitations, it seemed SWG would be the one to do so. The game was being made by the largest, most successful companies involved with games of this kind, with the participation of some of the most gifted and interesting designers experienced with the genre.

Second, I was specifically interested in the virtual economy that SWG was working with, given my current research interests in computer games. I have been writing a SWG postscript to my essay on MMOG economies, and I plan to put both the original essay and the postscript up on this site soon. I was also looking for a MMOG as a focus for my current research interests in emergent systems, networks and complexity theory, and Star Wars: Galaxies seemed as likely a subject as any.

Finally, I was personally excited about playing the game, as I love Star Wars and I love MMOGs, and the game seemed to me, even in Beta, to cater to some of my favorite design principles and ideas.

So I am left now trying to figure out why, four months after the game went live, in my estimation, Star Wars: Galaxies is one of the worst massively-multiplayer persistent-world games to date, leaving aside fringe products like Mankind or World War II Online.

Broken down into its component parts, the game does not seem that bad. Its graphics remain stunning, its economic design remains innovative, its profession system looks compelling. Like all MMOGs, the possibility space that the game opens on initial experience is great, heedless, addictive fun.

Star Wars: Galaxies curdles faster than any other MMOG in my experience, and I do not think that is because I’m jaded and cynical about the genre, unlike a lot of the players. I still believe that MMOGs have enormous potential to be fun and engaging, and I believe they remain the best place to realize the more profound artistic, cultural and social possibilities of computer games as a whole.

The major research question posed to me by Star Wars: Galaxies is no longer about virtual economies, emergent systems, or anything similar. The question is how a massively-multiplayer game that has the rights to the single most popular licensed property of the late 20th Century, the backing of a company with deep pockets, and a dream team of developers can end up being in the absolute best estimation no better than any other game of its kind, and by many accounts, including my own, among the worst.

Design problems I only was just beginning to perceive at the end of Beta 3 and wrote about in my Beta review have not been addressed in four months of development work. In fact, many of them have gotten worse. Scores of new bugs and design problems have been introduced in the same span of time; some thought fixed at one point have cropped up again. Communication from the developers has been generally poor, at times non-existent. The official forums have been closed to outside view in an attempt to conceal the problems plaguing the game, and forum moderators have become increasingly strident and defensive about closing and deleting critical threads, including some that simply link to critical reviews of the game on major sites like Gamespy—reflecting a general antipathy towards player feedbackin general and the forums in specific despite the fact that the developers also clearly rely on it in various ways.

Writing under my forum name, Khaldun, I detailed what I saw as the “Seven Deadly Sins” of Star Wars: Galaxies (as well as a host of smaller “venal sins” involving bugs and small design problems). These were:

  1. a near-total lack of immersive engagement or rich content resonant with the Star Wars universe
  2. a weakly developed or contradictory incentive structure for gameplay
  3. a skill and profession system that remains broken or meaningless in many cases
  4. a messy, unenjoyable system for player-vs-player combat that creates gameplay that bears absolutely no resemblance to the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion in Star Wars
  5. a muddled and often undifferentiated combat system
  6. a viciously boring system for character advancement
  7. poorly managed development process (including the poor quality of communication to players and use of feedback supplied by players).

For once, these critiques actually stimulated some fairly detailed replies by the developers, and meaningful promises of improvement.

However, in the past month, a major new patch to the game went live with scores of bugs, some of them game-breaking. Worse, the improvements touted for the patch (some of which had been originally touted in the replies to my Seven Deadly Sins essays), such as a major new content addition, were both buggy and flawed in their design.

Worse still, the developers finally decided to give a “hint” to how one might unlock an extra character slot that could be played as a Jedi, which turned out to involve advancing to the top rank in at least one randomly chosen profession. To put it mildly, players who had already made it to the top of two professions through the painful, boring gameplay required to advance were not particularly charmed at the thought of having to do it again, especially players who had chosen to develop as combatants who were told they needed to become a master dancer or a master architect or something similar. To add insult to injury, the individually specific “hints” were distributed as an occasional drop on high-level enemies that appeared in only one of several locations on several planets. Anyone who has ever played a MMOG can guess what happened next: single locations crowded with ten, twenty, fifty or one hundred players all elbowing each other out of the way for the right to kill the next hapless enemy to spawn in that location. That the developers did not anticipate this happening (or if they did anticipate it, didn’t care) is mind-boggling.

The litany of problems that the game suffers from—bugs, design flaws, stability issues--is to my mind as long or longer than any other major MMOG at this stage of development. It is also uniquely burdened by other issues. The ambitious breadth of some of its design has left the game exposed to unique technical problems that its more modestly structured competitors do not have.

It is also to date the only MMOG based on a licensed property, which ought to be an enormous asset, but somehow SWG has managed to make Star Wars a liability in creative and design terms—and possibly, in the longer haul, even in terms of customer retention. Star Wars has brought a lot of players to the game—but the lack of Star Wars may be what makes many players, including myself, recoil in such frustration with the game. The mechanics of SWG, even the most interesting and innovative ones, do almost nothing to promote an immersive sense of being in the Star Wars universe. The best experiences I’ve had playing the game have been entirely experiences that favorably invoke the comparative mechanics of MMOGs, where I’m pleased or interested in a design innovation that SWG offers. None of them have had anything to do with invoking Star Wars, with a sense that I have entered into a fictional universe that I have tremendous affection for. This is partly the ordinary banalization of dramatic conflict that all MMOGs are afflicted by, but it goes beyond that: the most innovative game systems that SWG has to offer are also the ones that actively work against an immersive engagement with Star Wars. Even beyond that, it is hard to escape the feeling that most of SWG’s designers have little feel or love for Star Wars itself: the Star Wars-related content in the game feels like the product of detached, distinterested study. It’s like reading a book report by a dedicated, meticulous but unimaginative high school student.


So the question hangs out there: WHY, given the enormous advantages SWG brought to the table? You can understand how a small, struggling operation like Wolfpack could screw up their MMOG offering, Shadowbane, but this is much harder to understand.

The simplest explanation is the least persuasive, namely, that the developers are incompetent or unprofessional, that they messed up through inattentiveness or lack of skill. I think there have been occasional moments of bad faith in the ways that the development team has communicated, and I’m finding myself more and more irritated by the gap between Raph Koster’s stated beliefs in the rights of players and the obligations of developers and the day-to-day mismanagement of community relations within SWG. I think there have been occasional preventable mistakes that come from carelessness by the programmers doing the grunt work of implementation. But mostly I think these are people who care about the game, want to do right by it, and have invested years of their life in it. They aren’t Blue Meanies. I know they have the skills and even the vision, most particularly Koster, whose general thoughtfulness and creativity within the terms of the genre are extraordinary and distinctive.

The more complex version of the same general argument is a bit closer to the mark, that SWG suffers from some kind of complex organizational problem in its development process. It’s impossible for me as an outsider to guess at what this might be. There are many possibilities: too few people doing development work, or development work at certain important levels; inconsistent following of good code management procedures; ambiguous chains-of-command; internal divisions between two or more distinctive creative or technical factions; the divided corporate ownership of SWG (between Sony and LucasArts), and many other possibilities. I can only see the results, which is a development process that is visibly in disarray. Not once since the game went live has the development team been able to process and publish a comprehensive list of “Known Issues”, for example. Many patches or hotfixes have not fixed issues they were supposed to fix, but often no one on the development team seems aware of that. Other problems seem to come as total surprises to the developers even when players have discussed them for months. New features or game mechanics pull the game’s systems in profoundly contradictory directions. Some of this has to be the consequence of some kind of organizational or procedural disarray, and might be addressed through a managerial solution.

I think that there is also a very deep-rooted design problem that is the result of the game’s ambitious scope. It strikes me that SWG’s various game mechanical systems are much more heavily interdependent than is the norm in MMOGs, and it is also evident that they generate enormous numbers of records that need to be tracked by a database. Pull on one thread here and it may be literally impossible for the designers to tell what other game systems will be perturbed by that action. Some of the problems plaguing the game do strike me as predictable—as I said, I don’t think it takes an ace programmer to know what happens in a MMOG if you have only one type of creature or enemy producing an immensely valuable object—but many other problems in SWG seem to involve counterintuitive, hidden relationships between very disparate game mechanics and various interactions with databases. MMOGs in general suffer from overcomplexity of design and from the unpredictable, emergent effects that are produced by player behavior; SWG may have crossed a new threshold in this regard and be suffering for the hubris of its ambitions.

A few problems I think I have to lay at Raph Koster’s doorstep. One thing I’ve learned about Koster’s work through playing SWG is that some of the problems he is inclined to attribute to player behavior and player sociology, or to the effects of systemic complexity or emergent dynamics, are also attributable to his particular design fixations. His lack of interest in content and in narrative in general, and in the mythos or setting of a game in specific, are probably one of the reasons why SWG so thoroughly fails to invoke Star Wars. Ever since his work on UO, Koster’s prevailing assumption has been that players make content, not designers, which is only half true in general. Players make content but they make it persistent in a MMOG world only with the help of tools provided by developers—tools that SWG does not provide in sufficient profusion and flexibility. Moreover, in this specific MMOG, this may have been exactly the opposite of the working philosophy required, precisely because the appeal of SWG lay in part on its relationship to an established fictional universe. It’s fine to say that players have to make their own content in a game that is more or less a generic mish-mash of sword-and-sorcery cliches like Ultima Online or Everquest are, but Star Wars is another matter: at least some of your player base comes to you quite legitimately with a very specific mental model of the narratives and experiences they would like to have within that gameworld.

Equally, Koster’s long-established muleheadness about the importance of creating a sense of achievement in a persistent world entirely through barriers of time and repetition, that there is no other way to challenge players except making advancement have the cadences and feel of “work”, really screams out through SWG’s design. Players have complained that the game is too easy and too hard all at once, which Koster and Kevin O’Hara and other designers have chortled about and said, “See, they can’t even make up their minds, the silly people”. What they miss is that this is not a contradiction at all. It’s too easy in that if you play it with the intent of advancing and nothing but, you can advance quickly; it’s too hard in that the gameplay involved in advancing is with a couple of notable exceptions mind-bogglingly, horrifyingly boring. O’Hara writes, with irritating smugness, that “grind is a state of mind”, which is pretty well parroting Koster’s conviction on this point.

That’s flatly wrong in the case of SWG, particularly with the crafting professions. I’ve long since wearied of trying to get them to understand or care about this point, but it’s crucial. If you’re trying to be a weaponsmith, for example, you’ll find that the only items you can make for which there are meaningful markets among players require you to advance to being an end-stage character. In order to advance, you must make things that no one wants. You’ll have to make, in aggregate, tens of thousands of those objects and discard them all; at a minimum, each of those objects will require five mouseclicks to make and the labor of acquiring the resources to make them. When people are facing a steep, barren hill that they must climb in order to get to a desirable place, they usually try to climb it as fast as possible, since there is no joy or pleasure in the process of climbing. Setting up character advancement in this manner means that almost everyone is going to grind because there is no way to have fun “going slow” that has anything to do with character development. The only “slow” things that are fun to do for such a player are exploring the gameworld and socializing with other players, which are exactly the features which are NOT persistent, which leave no mark on the gameworld, which change nothing. The entire hallmark of the MMOG genre is its persistence: to shunt people into non-persistent activities when they want to have fun, and to insist on making them grind when they want to make a mark on the gameworld, when they want to matter within it, is to indulge in an ultimately self-destructive sense of the genre’s possibilities.

This comes out even more in the developers’ management of the potentially fascinating economy of SWG, which I’m going to write about separately—but I’ll say here that the degree to which Koster and the other developers misunderstand the incentive structure of their game, and blame the rational response of players in aggregate to those incentives on a “bad state of mind”, is part and parcel of this general stubborn tendency to attribute problems to players and not to design. Koster should know better: he even says a lot of these things in his own writings on MMOGs, and cites others like Richard Bartle who have identified similar problems. But he doesn’t seem able to apply those insights very well to his own designs, a forgiveable and common shortcoming, but one which has perceptibly affected SWG in some problematic ways.

There are other explanations for SWG’s flaws that are important, one of which clearly has to do with the game’s undeniably premature release. Here I think someone in upper management was not thinking clearly: a similarly premature release has clearly cost Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2) its future. It no longer matters whethere there is a good potential game lurking inside AC2: its horizons look short and dark now. Star Wars: Galaxies is not going to fail outright, but I do think it is already much less successful than it ought to be. The developers like to trumpet its subscription numbers (above 300,000) as a roaring success, but this is the MMOG that should have taken the genre beyond its current limited audience. It should have been steaming ahead towards 500,000 accounts or more by now. Someone somewhere in SWG’s development process decided to settle for the fixed audience of people who play MMOGs, and now increasingly they are aiming even lower, at powergamers and hardcore players—virtually everything that made the game friendly to casual players has been sabotaged or removed in the past four months. So there is a certain short-sightedness among the people responsible for marketing the game and managing its long-term business development.

Whatever the reasons—and I’m sure there are others beyond those I have listed—the fact is that Star Wars: Galaxies is a major disappointment. Combined with the failure of The Sims: Online, it more than justifies Mythic head Mark Jacobs’ characterization of this moment as a gloomy one for MMOGs. Even with my faith in the potentialities of the genre, it’s hard to look ahead with any anticipation: all I see in other games are small tweaks and adjustments in a general formula whose possibilities are demonstrably exhausted. For SWG itself, my early optimism about the development team’s capabilities is completely gone, and my account cancelled. If SWG is ever going to become a decent, enjoyable gaming experience, let alone something that confidently pushes the design envelope, it’s going to be a long, long time in the future---and maybe it never will feel as if it is a long, time ago in a galaxy far, far, away.