Archive for June, 2011
* My apologies for this post being a little behind. The SWG closure announcement happened while I was on my way up north (literally sitting in my car opening a package of Crazy Bread when the news broke embargo) for a quick out of town vacation and I haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts to keyboard until now.
In my last blog post here on AoT (the one about the SOE lay offs) I expressed I had a pretty bad feeling about what laying off half of the Austin studio would mean for SWG. Sadly that bad feeling has now become a reality and I feel the genre will be the one that suffers.
The reason it will suffer is because some people will take the meaning of today wrong and see SWG as a failure. A AAA MMO being canned after only 8 years meets a simple criteria for failure but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The reason we are here today is not because of the NGE or the CU or the CU2 or the delay of JTL or any number of things. Those were all barriers to SWG reaching its full potential perhaps but that is not why the servers will go dark on December 15th. This has everything to do with SW:TOR coming out in the next few months and nothing to do with SWG’s success or lack of success (note it was SOE’s 2nd or 3rd most profitable game depending on what year you snap shot for the data).
I’ve read the 20+ pages of the discussion thread on the closure over on the official forums and many people are blaming SOE. I know its easy to blame SOE but please folks: This is 100% Lucas Arts. A lot of SWG’s darker days have come at the urging or flat out instructions of Lucas Arts and had very little to do with SOE.
I think if you go back to the earliest days SOE went out to make their sandbox (guys like Vogel and Koster being on the team making this pretty clear). This was their answer to what they saw in their biggest competition (UO) in those days. The problem with that is I’m not entirely convinced SWG was ever the game Lucas Arts wanted them to make. Later Lucas Arts would push SOE to make “a more iconic experience” and the result was the NGE. We all know how that went.
This is all my take based on conversations with the dev and community teams over the years as well as my experiences working as a project manager for a major media outlet. One thing I can tell you with almost absolute certainty the relationship between SOE and LA was workable but always seemed very tense to me. When I was working on SWG Stratics as a project manager we had to clear a lot of what we did with Lucas Arts and it was a terrible pain in the ass every step of the way. I’m not just talking during NDA and pre release times either. There were times we’d have to secure permission for something a thousand other fan sites were doing anyway. SOE was always its usual very approachable and brilliant self when it came to dealing with the media. The managing editor for SWG Stratics (Matt K!) spent many nights ripping his hair out as we’d have to ask LA for permission to breath (I won’t shout it out here but I’ll never forget the name of the rep we dealt with at LA in all my life – she’s on my “avoid this person professionally like the plague” list). If these were the conditions we were operating under what could it possibly have been like trying to develop for these guys?
Enough of the business stuff though (sorry – I can’t help myself). I have to get right down to the emotional core of this: I’m really sad to see the game go. I’m sad on two levels: As a fan in general of the genre (in particular sandbox MMOs) and as a fan of the game in particular.
From the genre point of view many people will tell you SWG was a failure. There are many ways to measure failure when it comes to MMOs and I think many of those methods of determining success or failure would tell you SWG had a rough ride. In my mind though the simple fact is SWG was a proof of concept that a major studio could release a sandbox game and could turn a profit doing so. Having the Star Wars IP helps, huge. No doubt. But the complex social and economic systems that were weaved in to the game play stand alone as a brilliant accomplishment (the housing and city system, the player based economy, the crafting – I could (and might in a future post) go on at great length on all the things SWG did right in the sandbox sense).
Repeat after me folks. SANDBOX MMOS CAN BE PROFITABLE AND ARE WORTHWHILE ENDEAVORS. I’m heartened by Smed’s SWG Closure Interview with Massively where he hinted that they are going to take another crack at building a sandbox and I really hope it becomes a pillar of what they do with EQ Next (I suspect we’ll find out at Fan Faire).
This is a dark day for sandboxes (a very very dark day) but hopefully the vacuum this creates will open the door to the next step on the sandbox journey.
On the personal front. I’m a little heart broken honestly. I haven’t played the game much since the NGE (that is to say I haven’t played at all in at least 2-3 years aside from a few random drop ins when SOE would do a free welcome back campaign) but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at all. Even if I wasn’t subscribed I knew my brother in law was taking care of my houses and that my player built town would be there. I had a home to go to and more importantly it WAS a home, just in another world. That I think is the core strength of SWG and other sandbox virtual worlds. The whole point it is it is another world, another place where you exist on some level. There is a connectedness there that transcends what a normal game offers you.
I have so many experiences and moments I want to share. But paramount is how SWG helped me build a relationship with Tammy when we were dating. After we got engaged Tammy and I got married in an in game ceremony that many of you attended, it just felt right that we’d celebrate our engagement using a platform that did so much to bring us together with people we had grown so close to over the course of a year playing the game. When we eventually got married in the real world Raph Koster was nice enough to dedicate a Developer Chat to us!
In the earlier stages of our relationship we would go on dates in the game. SWG was the platform where I fell in love with my wife because over the distance of 3500 kilometers we could have meaningful experiences with one and other. We had met and been talking for a year or so when SWG came out but our exploration trips and little side “date nights” in game really brought us together and strengthened our bond with one and other.
Another favorite story I have from SWG was the founding of our player town Mos Strahteks. Months before the game had even come out we had developed a plan for our town. We knew exactly where our guild hall was going to go and where Tammy’s armor shop was going to go. A town of 50 or so people completely planned out in a democratic and very fun fashion.
When launch day came (Tammy called my cell when our server came up a few hours late, I was out, I had to rush home!) we all came together and stockpiled resources and over the course of a few weeks built a city building by building, brick by brick. My adventures with MS are some of the best times I’ve had in my life. Could I have had those experiences in another game? Maybe. The fact is though that SWG was a platform that enabled these types of experiences. THIS was the content. Working collectively with friends.
As I read through the consolidated shut down thread over on the official forums I see the depth and impact of my experiences reflected by others. My experience wasn’t a one off. There were 100s and likely 1000s of people who found so much more than a game in SWG.
In the MMO space we’ve come to accept the adage “there will never be an MMO you love like your first MMO” and I realize as I sit here and type this that it is a shame that we’ve let it come to this. My first love was UO. My second MMO love was SWG. There were six years between the releases of the two games, maybe that should serve as a little reminder that greatness can’t be expected every year in every MMO that releases. It is a damn shame that it took the closure of this great game, this great virtual world for me to realize the cost of our cynicism as fans and the stagnation from the development and publishing communities (that we enable and even encourage in our spending patterns).
I’ll try and get a post up soon on what I feel should be the lessons learned from SWG for anyone who would want to make a sandbox in the future. I think there are many lessons worth learning from SWG and I hope whoever is the next studio to take a crack at a game this ambitious takes them to heart.
The game was far from perfect, but when we look back years from now I think we’ll remember SWG as one of the greats.