Ever drink vanilla straight?

I feel the need to continue the discussion, started yesterday by Dan Rubenfield on the SWG: NGE expansion that many credit with decimating the player base. A few, I hope salient, thoughts …

The idea was that we had the most valuable IP in the entire world, and we fucked it up to the point of having 200k subs.

Could this be termed hubris? Sure, the original Star Wars trilogy was revolutionary for it’s day. It’s definitely true that every nerd, geek and dork alive in the 70’s wanted to be a Jedi. Certainly the extended universe of Star Wars is amazing. Some of the characters are powerfully iconic.

But is it really the most valuable IP in the world? And what does that mean anyway?

IP is only worth what you can do with it. WoW proved that you can take a relatively little known franchise (in comparison to Star Wars), wrap it around a great game and make billions. SWG proved you can take an amazing IP, wrap it around a mediocre game and do, well, mediocre.

By way of a food analogy … IP isn’t the flavour of the food (that’s game mechanics) … it’s more akin to a food’s smell. The smell (the IP) complements the taste (the game-play). A pleasant smell might entice us to try a bite (that first month). But that’s it … it can’t overcome problems with game-play in the long run. Bad food is bad food.

Have you ever tried drinking vanilla? Sure it smells great, but the taste!

My issue here is that IP was apparently put first. The IP was too good for the game-play and mere 200,000 subscribers. The IP deserved better. Hubris.

So we were given the directive to make Galaxies better. Not just make Galaxies better, but make it succesful. […] Not just small changes, but rebuild it. […] And it was needed. When we were asked, we were bleeding subscribers. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 10k a month. LOSING 10,000 subs a month. Note – I think our subs were closer to 160-180 than 200k. It was a bad financial situation no matter how you look at it. WOW was out. SWG was niche and clunky. […]

It’s a little hard to figure out the specifics of the ‘when’ in this quote. Later on in the article, it is revealed that the NGE was written in 2 or 3 months of crunch. I presume there was perhaps a bit of time prior to this for prototyping, thinking and discussion. So, maybe, the topic of radical change first came up 4 or 5 months prior to NGE launch: July-ish 2005???

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on SWG suggests that during the CU to NGE period, subscriptions were actually rising. Perhaps (heaven forbid) the Wikipedia is wrong.

Was there ANY game, other than WoW, that was growing at this point in time. WoW (released at the end of November 2004) had effectively just cleared launch hurdles and was starting it’s epic growth.

At a glance at MMOGCharts (yes, I know, the data is not necessarily perfect), the only other game generally growing during this period is Runescape. And I wonder if even that owes something to WoW … a game for all those that want to play WoW but for whom a credit card subscription was inaccessible. It’s hindsight, but faced with the juggernaught WoW … other games couldn’t help but to bleed.

More specific to SWG, there was the also-infamous CU (Combat Upgrade), released at the end of April, 2005, that radically changed the game. Even before the NGE, the CU had dashed the hopes and dreams of many players. Even without WoW, there was cause for existing players to abandon SWG.

The subscription drop that SOE perceived as impetus to change drastically … could have been (and should have been) interpreted as the collective plea of the player-base to stop revolutionizing shit. Even at the time, I can remember many fellow players wishing that SOE would fix the known bugs and address customer service complaints rather than changing core system drastically.

Those majority of those that were in (or entering) the market for a MMO wanted WoW. The NGE did not make SWG into a viable alternative to WoW in the eyes of the marketplace. Nor could it have. Nothing, not even exactly cloning WoW, would have given SWG the subscriber numbers that WoW had. After all, all the cool kids were already in WoW … why go anywhere else.

Unless of course, WoW was not what you wanted. There was a reasonable group (apparently around 200K) that wanted SWG. It was an epic mis-read of the marketplace.

The NGE did not and could not make SWG more attractive to WoW’ers. The best SOE could have hoped for was to make SWG more attractive to the kinds of people that wanted to play a game like SWG. The could have focused on making SWG more of what it already was.

You know … things like fixing bugs, tweaking, adding content and providing customer service.

Hubris blinded SOE to reality. (Of course, it’s easy to say that in retrospect).

We were told to imagine something new and unique. To push it to the next level.[…] We scrambled [Emphasis mine] to come up with something more impressive. […] We tested out a new combat system on a whim. I did a quick prototype and we discussed it internally. The difference was the control scheme, not the rules. You clicked, You shot. […] If I remember the dates correctly, we did our NGE conversion in 2-3 months of solid crunch. It was some of the heaviest crunch I’ve ever done.

Any software developer will tell you … NO GOOD EVER COMES FROM CRUNCH. Software produced in crunch is almost always buggy, incomplete and not really what you wanted in the first place. Time and personal balance is required to achieve quality and completeness.

And fun, especially in MMO’s, is more art-form than science. Not art as in “high-art” with moral purpose or deeper meaning … art as in “craft”. Sure, there are rules of thumb to follow. But fun is a house of cards built on sandy soil on back of a moving van driven erratically down a pot-holed country road at high speeds by a drunk twelve-year-old that’s too short to see over the dash board … get just one card out of place and the whole structure might come down.

I don’t know a lot about MMO development, but I’ll guess that there are two reasons why MMO take so long to build. The shear volume of artwork, animations and textures takes time. But that time is also useful, I’d imagine, in trying out various mechanics and assessing their impact on the game … to rework those bits that subtract from the experience until you arrive at something which is actually fun.

How could anyone possibly believe that a small team could produce produce something fun and entirely new under duress and in only 2 or 3 months, based on a single prototype.

Hubris, blindness and sheer folly too.

As always Lum has an excellent article in response to Dan’s post.

Jeff Freeman, I believe, succinctly summarized the discussion here.

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