12 November, 2005
Let me engage in a bit of "let's pretend" a moment. Let's say that something terrible on a biblical scale happened and it were up to me to re-work SWG. Okay, not likely, but we're pretending here. What would I do?
Now, let me say that this isn't to disparage the developers actually tasked with the job. I have the luxury of it not being my ass and professional reputation on the line in this change. I can spout insane gibberish on my blog and I won't lose my employer millions of dollars if things fail. I'm also not clued into the details of the restrictions. Likely my idea wouldn't work because of some detail of the agreement between the two companies or other detail in the realities of the game. Also, I don't currently play SWG, so I have nothing invested into the game on the player side, either.
So, why am I writing this? Well, because I have an opinion and this is my blog. ;) Well, also because I wanted to show a bit about what goes into design considerations on this level. I could talk about some similar stuff we did for Meridian 59, but most people would not understand since few people know the game as it is today. SWG is a bit higher profile, so it makes a good example.
Now, let's be brutally honest here: SWG is a relative failure. It has respectable numbers for a pre-WoW game, but it's Star Wars! If any game should have been a million-seller in North America, it should have been SWG. Hell, the most recent three movies did amazingly well and most people claim not to like them. I won't get into reasons here, but let's accept that SWG should have done better and that it's my job to do something about it. I'm sure this is the sentiment of the people controlling the pursestrings for SWG. So, our goal is to get people excited about playing (and of course, paying for) a Star Wars online game.
First of all, let's take a look at the most popular and critically acclaimed Star Wars themed games out there. The titles that leap to mind are: X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter (XvT), a space flight sim; Jedi Knight (JK), an FPS with lightsabers; and Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), a Bioware RPG. There are other popular games out there, but I think these are perhaps the three biggest and the ones that deserve most of our attention.
These three games are diverse in gaming genre: a flight sim, an FPS, and an RPG; hard to get a more diverse set of games on that regard. So, we can draw from this that fans of these games aren't hooked into a particular gaming genre. None of these games are strongly tied to any particular movie, either. In fact, KotOR's setting is far removed from any of the existing movies. So, I think the lesson here is that people don't really want to replay the movies. They want to be part of the world, more specifically: part of the action. They want to fly in spaceships dogfighting their enemies. They want to be a Jedi having Jedi adventures. They want smart-talking assassin droids calling them "meatbags".
In my opinion, this is one important area where SWG originally failed. The goal of the game as I understand it was to let you play the movies. Of course, not everyone could be Luke Skywalker (or Han Solo, etc.). Worse, not everyone could be the archetypes of the characters; Jedi were supposed to be exceedingly rare, and Smugglers really didn't have a place in the gameplay mechanics established. So, people had to settle for the more mundane tasks of making weapons and dancing in cantinas.
To be fair, though, I think the SWG developers are learning from these games. the "Jump to Lightspeed" expansion tried to capture the glory of XvT from most accounts I've heard. And the current revamp of the system seems to take cues from the Jedi Knight games with their fast action and more interesting combat. So, I can't really claim this is all my original idea.
Now, keep in mind that a lot of people enjoy SWG as it currently stands. Last I heard there were about 200,000 subscribers, which as I said is respectable for a pre-WoW online game. They like the game as it is, and changing it radically can lead to problems. I have first-hand experience with this: we've changed M59 to try to be more friendly to new players. The old game used to be brutal, and newbies would rarely survive their first day in M59, let alone the first week. So, we did things to make combat a bit easier on newbies and to restrict PvP in slight ways; you can still murder whomever you want once they lose their guardian angel, but there are more meaningful consequences now. Also, we changed it so that an experienced character can't just one-shot a newbie. Although these changes were necessary to keep the game balanced in the long run, many players were quite vocal in their dislike for these changes.
So, looking at the three games above it becomes apparent that we should divorce ourselves from the movies, yet remain true to the Star Wars universe. On the other hand, radically changing the game could upset the 200,000 players we already have. So, what's the solution?
If it were me, I would create a new game. Take a cute from KotOR and set the game in a time away from the movies. Focus on the bits of the Star Wars universe that are exciting and interesting: Jedi, Wookiees, Tatooine, etc. Now, we don't want to make the game from scratch, but we should take what we already have from SWG. Take the SWG server and client, and all the technology that goes along with that; a lot of time and money went into developing that, and it makes little sense to throw it away. You can re-use a lot of the art, perhaps with small modifications to some of it to fit in the new setting. One of the beautiful things about Star Wars is that the technology has been fairly static for a long time. Ship designs might change (so the ship models will have to be re-done), but a building on Tatooine is recognizable today as it was a few thousand years ago, according to KotOR.
What about gameplay? Well, the current revamp of SWG seems to be focusing on a class/level based system. It worked well for KotOR, so there's no reason to avoid it here. It may seem derivative, but it's what the audience for online games obviously enjoys. So, bring in classes and levels and focus the game around that. The great thing is that once you divorce the game from specific movies, you have a lot more freedom. One of the coolest things about KotOR is that they were able to create new locations and have original bits of history in the game. They were also able to explore some interesting areas of the Star Wars universe, explaining the origin of the Sandpeople on Tatooine, for example.
Of course, this new game won't be free, or even necessarily very cheap. You need developers and artists to create the new bits for the game. This is likely in addition to the original SWG team, because you want to keep that game alive and vibrant. You also have a lot of issues with having two very similar games like this: potential consumer confusion, rivalries between the games to get more developer attention and support, etc.
So, here's my list of some of the Pros and Cons of my suggestion to build a second game:
- Gives a true galaxy of adventure in the Star Wars universe.
- Allows for plenty of Jedi without breaking the setting.
- Allows for more freedom to develop the game by the developers.
- Keeps the existing game (and revenue stream) going without upsetting the core users of the original SWG.
- Will cost additional resources (time and money) to create the new game.
- Requires additional employees for a new development and live team.
- Potential consumer confusion between the two games. Which does grandma buy for her grandson for Christmas?
- Rivalry between the games: if one game gets something cool the other game will feel "left out" if they don't get it, too, even if it's not appropriate.
Again, let me reiterate that my goal here isn't to second-guess the developers pouring their hearts into the new revamp. I wish them every success and know how hard it can be to do something like what they are doing. As I said above, I'm sure there's probably some restriction on what they could or couldn't do which would make my suggestion invalid. But, I thought a glimpse at how high-level decisions are made would be interesting to some of the people reading my blog.
There's my thoughts. What are yours?