Ask Mo: If Star Wars Galaxies is so smart, why ain’t it rich?

    
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Star Wars Galaxies would have been 12 years old this week, had it lived a day past Star Wars: The Old Republic. That makes this the perfect time to dig up and try to answer an old email from longtime Massively OP reader Hagu the Pally in this week’s Ask Mo.

Why did SWG have so little influence on games and developers? A recent comment was, “There is not a lot of evidence that SWG had significant impact on anything in MMOs. Is it even hyperbole to say Meridian 59 influenced MMOs more than SWG?”

As a crafter, I read so many people who loved the crafting. It’s famous. Yet “all” the subsequent developers and games have not even tried; not pale imitations, they just didn’t seem to go that way at all. Same for entertainers. etc.

One can say WoW does raiding and SWTOR does story better than other MMOs, but the other games do attempt them. If people listed their top SWG features, how many were copied by other games? I can think of the EQ, EQ2, WoW, GW2, RIFT, EVE (PLEX-like is an adjective for reviewers) features that seemed to have influenced other games.

Am I just ignorant of a lot of ways SWG changed the world? Why did such a seminal game that resonated so passionately with some people not have more downstream impact?

In the time since Hagu’s question landed in our inbox many moons ago, Raph Koster, the original lead designer on the game, posted a series of blog articles discussing the game’s design decisions, errors, and triumphs. The series makes for handy background reading:

So let’s tackle the question on our table. I don’t agree with the assertion that Star Wars Galaxies has had little influence on the genre. We see remnants of its flagging system in World of Warcraft, its housing systems in EverQuest II, its non-combat systems in The Repopulation, its space systems in Star Citizen, its city systems in Anarchy Online, its music system in Lord of the Rings Online, its trading systems in every MMO with an auction hall, and its crafting systems in every MMO that rises above insert-resource-and-click. The only MMO I turn to more than SWG when I have a “Simpsons did it” moment is Ultima Online, which is no coincidence. Those games had everything.

What we haven’t seen yet is a one-to-one cloning of the entire game on a massive scale the way we’ve seen WoW cloned repeatedly such that we consider it practically its own subgenre. You could argue that The Repopulation is having a go at it, but it’s not been done dozens of times to the point that it’s practically a meme.

That’s partly because World of Warcraft released hot on its heels with the perfect timing to capitalize on a globally recognizable IP and the skyrocketing popularity of online gaming, ensuring that the sandbox/sandpark trajectory of the genre shifted dramatically toward WoW-style themeparks — and away from more interesting and creative games like SWG, Dark Age of Camelot, and City of Heroes. As my colleague Jef put it, “this genre stopped being about virtual worlds some time ago.”

The demographics of online gaming have shifted too; the kids who grew up in the virtual worlds of the late ’90s and early aughts now have families and careers to contend with. While I would argue that SWG itself was the sort of sandbox that scaled extremely well whether you were an ultra-casual who played a few hours a week or a hardcore who logged in all day long on five accounts, most sandboxes are unkind to those without extreme amounts of playtime. Developers are chasing both the under-20 and the over-30 market with jump-in-jump-out, mobile-friendly titles and have been for years. You can’t clone a game as rich as SWG to mobile, so it isn’t being done.

And that brings me to monetization. Look, making games has always been about making money, but MMOs were just getting started when SWG was born. Virtual worlds were new, heady stuff, attracting and encouraging sharp-thinking designers and theorists rather than marketers. I’ll quote Jef again: Back then, the genre was “focused on pushing the limits of gameplay potential rather than pushing the limits of monetization design.” Studios were building whole games for a whole price, and they weren’t wasting time worrying about how they’d break down and monetize bits of the game. No game released in the last few years can escape that now, something frustrating the founders and academics of the genre.

The fundamental reason, though, is one Koster himself echoes in every blog post: Making a game as deep and detailed as SWG is extremely difficult and relatively expensive, then and now. An economy-driven, player-controlled, free-form game requires careful planning from day one. You can’t just take a favorite system from SWG and toss it into another game and expect it to work. SWG’s vast resource system and experiment-oriented crafting, for example, would make no sense in a PvE-driven themepark where gear is dropped from boss mobs. Entertainers likewise make no sense in a game bent on forcing everyone into a raiding endgame and shedding class interdependencies. Open-world housing and player vendors would be impossible in a tiny, railroaded, instanced setting. Here’s Koster:

“It’s not unusual for a company to come to me and say, ‘Can you put in crafting like SWG? Our players say it was the best ever!’ Usually, they have actually, you know, designed their game already, or even built it. And I have to tell them, ‘No. You build your game around it, not the other way around.'”

You can’t just rip off SWG piecemeal, and no one’s going to clone the entirety of a package deal like SWG when it could clone WoW for far less money and work and probably make more short-term money from the genre’s grind-and-cash-shop junkies. And it’s hard to blame them. The MMORPG genre is being squished on two fronts by MOBAs and online shooters. Major studios aren’t taking risks on virtual worlds in that environment. Would you?

That isn’t to say sandboxes aren’t being made, but most of those announced in the last few years borrow more from Ultima Online (new-wave “sandboxes” that are basically isometric gankboxes with few other systems or mandates beyond “go be a murderhobo,” which isn’t what UO was) or Minecraft (voxel-based building platforms with PvE tacked on, not virtual world simulations) than from Star Wars Galaxies. They can be fun, but they aren’t at all the same, and to call them sandboxes is to dilute the term.

Veterans still praise SWG, but not from blind nostalgia; serious fans know exactly where the game’s flaws lay and would be happy to tell you all about them ad nauseam (ahem). No, we praise it precisely because SWG has no single, concentrated successor to praise in its stead. We’re all still waiting for it. It was an epic design for an epic community in an epic period of gaming history. The fact that its official version was buried to make way for SWTOR is no black mark on its quality because survival in this genre isn’t a simple matter of “bad games fail, good games survive,” any more than it is in real life. Amazing, quality, brilliant things die every single day, and some of them leave no legacy at all. When you log into your favorite MMO this week, take a moment to reflect on SWG‘s birthday and remember that nothing gold can stay.

Are video games doomed? What do MMORPGs look like from space? Did free-to-play ruin everything? Will people ever stop talking about Star Wars Galaxies? Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and mascot Mo every month as they answer your letters to the editor right here in Ask Mo.

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hults2
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hults2

“”Studios were building whole games for a whole price, and they weren’t
wasting time worrying about how they’d break down and monetize bits of
the game. No game released in the last few years can escape that
now, something http://www.engadget.com/2014/10/30/richard-bartle-frustrated-with-modern-mmo-development/ and http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2014/09/making-it-official-rip-terra-nova.html.””
This right here… I only ever played a few online games. City of Heroes was the big one. Why? because my very stomach turns at the thought of being “marketed at” by the current generation of flat, boring, bog stupid cash-grabs that fail to excite me.  I’d rather replay Mass Effect or City of Heroes in a static mode a dozen times than make one run through a WOW clone that constantly drives me to either grind like a pepper mill or go drop real hard-won cash on virtual crapware just to progress because that insults e as a human being as well as a player. I get that ever day in reality, why would I want it in my leisure space as well?

JasonPersoff
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JasonPersoff

Caec I played it and still pine for it.  I ran a bioengineering shop before the combat upgrade.  It was the most enjoyable “careers” I’ve ever had in online gaming.  Ever.  It came at a time where no other third person 3D MMO ventured and it had an IP that appealed to me greatly.  And even though it was “Uncle Owen”, it was relaxing and fun.  

The time the game began to fall apart was the combat upgrade and then the jedi grind.  Bad calls both.  The NGE was okay, but a lot of the core game that I enjoyed had slipped a bit away (God, I hated the Restuss grind and how it zapped the player base away).

I miss the things Bree mentions and more…

Caec
Guest
Caec

Because it’s not as seminal as people claim it is. That’s all. 
I enjoyed SWG, but there weren’t many people who did, so when you hear people extolling its virtues, it’s like listening to the opinions of….Mormon libertarians, and assuming that opinion encompasses all of America, or something. 
You’ll especially hear about it a lot here, because Bree loved SWG. ;D
In the big picture, very few people loved it. Which, almost ironically-if it wasn’t so predictable-has made SWG the poster child for being the cool kid who has all those vinyls or something. 
I’m 99% certain the majority of people talking SWG up didn’t even play it, if only due to simple math. As anyone who actually played through the earlier days of MMOs should hopefully know, the audience has increased exponentially since then. And, to be fair, this observation isn’t SWG-specific. Quite a few internet conversations that start going into Ultimat Online (or, even semi-ironically, Vanilla WoW), have a far higher “participation” rate than you could really expect if you have any head for numbers, as the people around back then playing these games are a drop in the bucket of today’s MMO gaming population.

Bonnenuit
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Bonnenuit

Smiggins Check out The Repopulation if you haven’t. And if you’re serious, back it. The reason WoW clones are so prevalent, as @Breetoplay alludes to in her article (or was it explicitly stated?), are because people pay for them.

I don’t particularly care for The Repopulation myself, but I like the idea of it, and thus I supported it and hop in from time to time. Here’s to hoping that these kind of games continue to improve AND attract a larger following. 

Who knows, it could all start with you…

milosanx
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milosanx

Oh dear god, another SWG post.
I don’t see it really as a great example of a virtual world. I see a virtual world as something that resembles a living and dynamic world. A place where things grow, Live and die. This is the essence of a true virtual sandbox.
Tbh, apart from life is feudal giving some middle ground on this concept, but lacking a true persistent world at this stage, which they are working on a Mmo angle, nothing touches……
Yes I’ll say it……Wurm Online.

NemuiByakko
Guest
NemuiByakko

Guys, guys! Well, I’d also wouold like to see SWG here now alive and with a lot of players, but let’s not go too far in ascribing it non-existing achievements. Housing in EQ2 because of SWG? Auction houses everywhere because of SWG??? Really??? In fact, everything mentioned in the post of Bree was NOT because of SWG. And even influence of SWG is very, very doubtful. SWG has really interesting innovations that were not followed. TS named very good: entertainers (shame! shame!); craft; housing where you can place anything from your inventory. Other really innovative things. Please don’t bury them under other commonplace things that were NOT copied from SWG. Because it will prevent remembering and continuing REAL SWG innovations.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

breetoplay jefreahard Peregrine_Falcon To be clear, I pretty much agree with Jef.  

I think SWG was an artistic success, I am glad it was made and I understand why people would want something similar to return. (I have a different view than many about the viability of that expectation.) In particular, I give him lots of credit that there is a salient point that Jef makes more often than most: it is the customers.   Whether it is the decline of the deep sandbox or themeparks or shallow or f2p, it is the customers. Fundamentally, the codeword “F2P” issues are not caused by Zynga or Trion or Blizzard or PWI or Nexxon.  They happen because the customers prefer them. It is not artistic integrity that is keeping Zynga from making SWG II, it is the fact that customers prefer to spend money on different things.

Re $, I would describe it as a profitable game that did not make enough money to stay in business. Which brings us to Brea’s admonition to not liscense IP for your MMO.

If you see it as an artistic endeavour, it was clearly a success. If you see it as a for-profit product from a for-profit company, not so much.

How did Raph address this

So, was it a failure? Well yes, of course. And also, no.

Chuki792
Guest
Chuki792

Oh I agree with you, jef to a degree too, but this is the gaming industry now, it’s now run by businesses and this is how businesses, and to a larger extent capitalism works… and it’s the only way we can have ‘AAA games’ these days, who else is going to stump up the millions required?
The point about swtor is great, and it’s what I was alluding to earlier, they’d make a he’ll of a lot more money and gain the sort of prestige LA feel their IP should be getting by jumping in bed with ea, and probably made themselves more attractive to Disney in the process. I can assure you all, fans’ feelings were never a part of the decision making process.

SallyBowls1
Guest
SallyBowls1

breetoplay Chuki792 I was in no way criticising CoH; I was trying to gently chide the people who posted on its closing and if I went too far I apologize. People certainly have the right to be sad, and there is considerable justification that NCSoft was at least tacky if not mean to not do a better job of trying to sell it.

If CoH were the only product NCSoft made, it would still be running.  But for public multinationals, revenue exceeding expenses is rarely enough.  Profitable products are shut down every day because they were not profitable enough.  When the time comes and NCSoft is making the decision when to euthanize their other MMOs, I doubt revenue exceeding expenses will save them for long. It is a common comment theme, the real expense of showing at E3 is not the direct $ costs, but the distraction of your people.  I assume the CoH decision was made due to distraction issues, not direct profit and loss. And yes, those distraction issues also go away if you sell the game to a separate company.

P.S.: shutdown is not required for tax breaks; over the last couple of years CCP wrote down tens of millions of DUST assets without closing DUST

SallyBowls1
Guest
SallyBowls1

jefreahard Peregrine_Falcon Example of “Economic Profits” and “Opportunity Costs”:  say LA gave SOE the rights to all toys for Episode VII and then SOE sold them to Jef for a million dollars a year for eight years. That is quite profitable, probably more than most MMOs.  And every business person would think these multi-million dollar profits were a horrible business failure. Certainly LA would not renew SOE’s license.

IMO, SWG was a huge artistic success. If it wasn’t due to financial shortcomings, then why did SOE not invest more in it? Why did SOE/LA not renew the license?