A Rebellion In A Galaxy Far, Far, Away

This article was originally posted on the earlier Post Nuke version of the site. It has been copied here verbatim, with the original timestamp, for the purposes of linking and tracking traffic.

This is going to be a bit off the normal subject matter for Houblog.  I'm going to discuss a hobby that many of you have never heard of or don't care if you have:  Massively Multiplayer o­nline Role-Playing Games, or MMORPG for, uh…. short.  I'm a geek.  I have played these for over four years now.  Most recently, I played Star Wars Galaxies, which is a cooperative venture between Sony o­nline Entertainment and LucasArts.

Hey–computers, Star Wars, you get to run around in the universe with lots of other fans, become or hunt down jedi, join the Empire or the Rebellion… it's a cinch to be huge, right?

Not so fast.  The game debuted two years ago to mediocre reviews.  “Content half a mile wide and half an inch deep” was o­ne slam against it.  “Should not have left beta for another two months” was another.   “Unbalanced” was a popular criticism. And so SOE said “Ok, this didn't work like we expected.  We're going back to the drawing board, and we're going to fix it. And this time, we're not releasing it until it's READY.”

Last week, SOE sprung the Combat Upgrade/Re-Balance (CURB or just CU) out of beta two weeks early.  It was probably just a coincidence that they did this the same weekend a new MMORPG, GuildWars, opened up.  It probably had more to do with the new expansion add-on coming out, Rage of the Wookies. Which isn't a coincidence at all, coming around the release of Episode III.

Unfortunately for Sony's bottom line, it might be said that this turkey is sinking faster than the Titanic.

This is more than the usual tempest in a teapot. Player disgruntlement and flaps are legendary in the MMORPG. There's o­ne every month. Earlier game changes prompted forum threads that ran for 100+ pages. This time, Sony has responded with bannings and deletion of entire threads. Despite that, the story is becoming too big for SOE to shrug off and sweep under the rug.

Several of the 30-odd Game Correspondents (Sony-appointed community volunteers) have resigned or even been fired for protesting too strongly.

An anti-CURB petition is now ranked #14 of all petitions at Petitiononline.com with 15,458 unique signatures.

And the real horror for SOE is that the news media is beginning to pick up o­n it– and not just the industry media either..





Sony is trying for damage control. A “puff piece” appeared o­n MMORPG.com  trying to stem the tide of negative publicity. Another showed up o­n SWVault, a player fansite.  The president of Sony o­nline Entertainment even stepped in with the following satement Tuesday:

Hello Everyone,

We realize that the recent Combat Upgrade has caused quite a stir. Yes, we've seen the petition. Yes, we're reading your emails very carefully.. in fact I've responded to many of you personally. From our perspective the Combat Upgrade was a crucial thing for us to do for the long term health of the game. In order to make the experience in SWG more diverse and to breathe new life into this game we felt it was important for us to entirely overhaul the current system and to make sure that it's balanced properly. Are we finished? Not by a longshot… by doing this what we've effectively done is to provide a new baseline to add a lot of new content into the game in a very short time, and to make sure that the professions really mean something in the game. We recognize there are problems that have arisen from this, and what I'd like to ask your help in doing is to target these problems so that we can knock them down very quickly. As you've seen in the last few days, the team is working tirelessly towards fixing any problems that have arisen.. and with your help we're confident we can get the rest of them taken care of as well.

Please understand that we love this game too.. our goal wasn't to upset the existing userbase.. but we do recognize that changing a game does inherently mean some people aren't going to like that change. What we're trying to do is to insure that we can accomplish a lot of what you've all been asking us to do (things like Galactic Civil War) in really cool and meaningul ways.. and frankly speaking, we just couldn't do that with the old combat system in place.

What would really help us is to give us ideas o­n how we can improve the new system and cool things you would like to see us do in the near term. We aren't going back to the old system, but with your help I'm confident in a few weeks you're going to feel this was the right call. Obviously you are our customers, and you pay the bills around here… we're trying to make changes that are going to make your experience better in the long run. Please bear with us while we make that effort, and give us a little time to respond and address your concerns.

Thanks a lot,

John Smedley
President, Sony Online Entertainment

There are now over eight hundred replies to the message (click the link above), overwhelmingly negative. Not “a lot of them are negative.” Not even “most of them are negative.” Overwhelming, as in 90% plus. An often-heard complaint is that “SOE has lied to us again and again and again. No more!” This is usually accompanied by a litany of examples from the past, where o­ne thing was said another done–if anything was done at all, according to the poster.

At a publicity breakfast held in Indianapolis just before the suprise release, players and developers were able to meet, but the dissent went unheard. o­ne player reporting back to others o­n a public forum posted that he'd been told by a developer that a decision had been made to ignore the negative feedback during the beta, because everyone said they hated different things. Since everyone couldn't agree o­n what was bad about it, it must not be bad. (Somehow, SOE seems to have overlooked if an overwhelming majority hate o­ne thing enough to give the whole project a negative rating, it doesn't matter much if they can't all agree o­n what it is they don't like. –ed.)

Buried among the usual juvenile ranting are some gems (scroll down about 8 posts).
Much of the best criticism comes from professionals in programming, especially those with experience in user interfaces and game theory. Sony is not the recipiant of any professional courtesy here; indeed, far from it.

A major negative point is the new UI that got introduced with the CURB–which can be summed up as: “it gets in the way of the game.” Players end up with their eyes glued to the interface, punching buttons and clicking in response to a stimulus (such as an action becoming available), but not actually watching the fight.  Likewise, players are complaining that their characters now move or “animate” (a term including special effects) in ways that no longer match the Star Wars experience. They are accustomed to seeing their hands, feet, or weapons blur when in fights. But sparkles when being healed are derided as “magic effects.” Another common complaint is that the weapons do not sound right. Blasters no longer sound like blasters. Laser carbines no longer sound like the o­ne Han Solo carried.

As for game theory, criticism is unrelenting o­n Sony's attempt to graft a level-based gaming system from another game o­n top of a skill-based system that needed tweaking to correct its own imbalances. As a result of changing the combat system without changing the content, players are finding that the missions they take, and the areas they travel in, may offer a lot in the way of tedious combat with little or no reward in experience to advance their character. Or they may just find instant death from a creature they could o­nce defeat or at least escape, but is now far greater than they are in combat ability. As o­ne player put it. “Well, I won. But this was not fun.”

The result has been a mass defection of players. Game forums are full of players posting their goodbyes, or stories of how their player association was decimated.  Changes to crafting acompanied the changes to weapons, resulting in non-combat oriented players also canceling their accounts.  “How,” o­ne is tempted to ask, “can a company be dumb enough turn a sure winner into something that actually drives off large numbers of customers?” The answer may be found o­n the other side of the keyboard, behind the screen.

The simplified explanation: There are four major elements in a game's design team:
-The Developers, who come up with the game's design,
-The Coders, who turn that design into an operating game,
-The Artists, who create everything people see o­n the screen,
-and finally The Suits — Management, the o­nes that make the decisions and write the checks.

High turnover among developers and coders is an industry norm. With multiple games in development by various companies, it's not unusual for a complete turnover to occur in the first three groups. Therefore, when the fourth gets some crazy idea like:

“WOW has levels, so should we! How can you control experience if you don't have levels?”

no o­ne is left from the original first three groups to say, “That won't work and here's why.” The newer team members are still learning about how the system works (and making mistakes as a result), so when the Suits say “lets do this” they say “yes, sir!”

In 2003, Mr. Smedley stated that the original SOE release, Everquest, was o­n its third team, and it had been released in 1999. That's pretty crippling to long-term stability. Imagine the chaos if your bank replaced programmers every year, and rewrote the bookkeeping programs however the bank president thought was cool or neat. Would you bank there?

In reality, few people think that the goals and early release were arbitrarily set.  But there is speculation that the real reason hasn't been stated.  In response to Mr. Smedley's post, S. Hugh Campbell,  a software engineer and self-admitted Star Wars geek responded:

I read “a crucial thing” as a means of trying to justify one of two things.

The first being that you had a deadline to meet and that by releasing this out into the wild, you met your release date. I wonder how the interal contract structure is between LucasArts and Sony when it comes to content release. I would venture to assume that there is specific wording in the contract that such material must be released at a certain time and under no circumstances should a delivery fall behind.
The second being is that you see the system you have implemented as a means of folding Galaxies into the same code base as that of Everquest. I’ve seen this done several times in my short professional life; everytime I’ve seen it done, diasterous results have followed. By folding a system that is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from the other introduces points of failure that grow o­n a power of two scale. So, for o­ne piece you introduce you bring along two problems. Another piece adds the problems to four. Another piece adds the problems to eight. Sooner or later your system suffers from numerous errors that take longer to clean up, longer to troubleshoot, and delays solving the real problems in the system now.

Consider this– some may criticise LucasArts, but for 20+ years, it's had one goal: protect and advance George Lucas' intellectual property interests. On the other hand, SOE has vacilliated between “creating a good game,” or “creating a profitable game,” or “creating a huge game.” The results have been dismal. The original Everquest has cratered, losing half of its servers since the beginning of the year, Everquest 2's growth is flat or even negative, and SWG is now in the midst of an unpreceedented exodous. Meanwhile, World of Warcraft  has nearly twice the highest playerbase that EQ ever had, GuildWars is receiving nothing but positive publicity, and City of Heroes latest free add-on, the Arena, has debuted to rave reviews.  At a time when SOE should be trumpeting positive publicity for the new expasion release, Rage of the Wookies, it is instead having to defend itself against an enraged and shrinking player-base.  o­ne wonders if the protests will come to this.

Mr. Smedley is putting the brave face o­n, but in the end, he will dance to the tune LucasArts sets. He has no choice in the matter. With subscriptions plummeting and competitors stealing its player base, I suspect the last chapter has not yet been written. No o­ne can even be sure if it's been plotted out….


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