Books, culture, fishing, and other games

October 29, 2003

On Star Wars Galaxies

A post and discussion on Terra Nova started me going on a comment there, about half-way through I decided to expand a bit and move it over here. I haven't even read, yet, the linked essay/review that started the thread, this was mostly sparked by B. Smith's comment replying to the post. I'll probably post an addendum later.

Mr. Smith is overly harsh, and not entirely accurate. There is some pseudo-dynamic (at least) content in SWG (Star Wars Galaxies), for example, and it's a positive trend. ATITD (A Tale in the Desert) uses quite a bit more.

Dynamic content is nice, and more would be good, but in and of itself it is no solution. And it can be expensive, though isn't necessarily, depending on the type.

In SWG the handling of resources (including Ted's butterfly hides) is somewhat dynamic. It is managed on what appears to be a random factor, but with a relatively fixed schedule for changes. This adds a lot to the resource gathering section of the game. You can't take resources for granted. That superduper nice steel you're using to make swords may not be available at all, anywhere in two weeks. Sure, the system could be better, but it beats resource gathering in DAoC (Dark Ages of Camelot) or EQ (Everquest) by a lot. And the existence of harvesters helps a lot in that it does provide for doing boring stuff while the player is offline. There is a constant need for surveying, though, and moving harvesters (once a week or so), to come anywhere near optimal resource gathering. I doubt many achieve it.

And the generation of the random spawn lairs and their destruction by players is also dynamic content. Sure, they respawn, or something does, but isn't that the way nature works too? Programming of sorts controls both, with an element of chaos thrown in. What doesn't seem to happen is a gradual pushing back of wild into the most remote sections of the planets as players clear areas. That would be a step further. Thing would get even more boring, though, if players could completely settle a planet, wiping out all but very minor pockets of 'wild.'

Even so, SWG remains infected with grind disease. In some skill trees (or branches) it's nearly absent; in others it's a massive infection. But that old-time grind feeling also depends a lot on player personality and activity. I hear people complain constantly about how boring the entertainer skills are to practice. I had the opposite experience. I now have a master musician and though there were times when working her skills was a bit tedious, on the whole it was less so than with other skills. Why? Because she was mostly interacting constantly with other players. The skill development faded into the background. The most tedious times were when she played a crowded cantina where most of the other entertainers were AFK macroing. In this case it's the players' perception that advancing entertainer skills is boring that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they see it as boring, they are acting in a fashion (or not-acting, in this case) which makes it boring for others.

(Evil thought department) If players could eject anyone macroing with a time-based command (must be issued X times at intervals over Y period, without Z counter command), this sort of behavior could be controlled sensibly. The problem isn't the afk-macroing per se, it's that it's done in a very public space where it interferes (lag, annoyance when an apparently not-afk character will not respond, stupid macro spam) with 'normal' active game play by others. The afk-miners don't bother me because they're usually off in corners where the resources fall (or the minor bugs in stand/sit gradually migrate them to). The afk macroing entertainers often do. But even in this case there are exceptions. A dancer macroing all night while sleeping in a Yavin-4 cantina could be a real public service. I've worked those cantinas a little now. They are lonely places and need entertainers badly. The tips are darned good out there. But there is a lot of dead time between patron visits.

But then my musician is my most social character by a mile... and, oddly, the most fun to play though she has NO combat skills at all. (The 'oddly' is ironic, people...). She runs harvesters out in the wilds and works them solo. She's good at running from danger. She's turned into an equal-opportunity flirt. Mostly it's very low key stuff, with a racy bit or two thrown in at moments to wake up those around. It's a lot of fun to provoke reactions from people who are stuck in the grind. Have to be careful not to start bar fights though... not too many at least.

The architect tree is another that is rather low on grind in that the mouse/key-click ratio is low. I'd like to see more of this sort of movement, when the preparations for the skill activity take time, but there isn't a lot of sitting in one place repeatedly key-clicking to do the actions involved in actually acquiring the skill. Architects have other serious problems though, such as a rapidly diminishing market since structures don't decay sensibly. (Same for clothing, which is silly, no matter what that combat-oriented characters say. Clothes wear out and should wear out, or tailors suffer terribly in the long run.)

SWG needs those player-built cities. Dynamic content is mostly provided by players, not developers. The environment in nature is constantly changing, yes, but humans change it orders of magnitude faster. How many millennia did it take nature to carve the Grand Canyon? How many years did it take man to dam it? (Okay, the scope isn't the same, but the principle is there and real or the Greens wouldn't be screaming...) Developers could and should do a bit more, either through coding or human intervention, but what they MUST do is enable players to change their environments more. Yes, it allows for more griefing. Any time you give someone power they are also given the opportunity to misuse that power. Spread it around as evenly as possible, though, and MAG (mutually-assured griefing) kicks in to moderate the problems. ATITD seemed to work pretty well that way from my experience there.

One of the coolest things about ATITD is the way what players did changed the way the economy worked and the way the world looked, gradually. SWG has a little of that, but it has a very different curve. SWG is more frontloaded, it all happens a lot faster. Both do a reasonable job of giving the little guy, the newb, a role even in a more advanced economy. In SWG you can go harvest organics from even small beasts that you can sell all day long (once you learn pricing) on the bazaar. And those hides are needed. In ATITD the basic raw materials are always in great demand, so a newb can participate in the greater economy from day one in a meaningful way. SWG even has opportunities for low-level artisans to make a cred or three on their output, if they're inventive (I've done it and do it.)

SWG does a lot with giving players choices in their roles, far more than EQ or DAoC. I think most players fail to see this because they are trapped in their own meme, seeing their "role" in one way. Most of them head out and start right up the combat trees. There's opportunity there too, but it still, by definition, is only one tree in a larger forest. And rubbing your hands on the bark of a paper birch is very different from crushing a pinecone in your hands (ouch!).

And there's the major issue that most of us still try to "win" these games rather than play, or live, in these virtual worlds. Thus we ramrod our characters up skill trees (guilty!) not so much to have the abilities as to have the bragging rights. Instead of thinking, "What can I do now with what my character has and is," we tend to spend all our time thinking "Wow, when I'm a master I'll be able to do everything!" That is, do everything except have a well-defined victory condition for my character. Once we get to master, or triple master, we haven't won anything except the ability to do what a master can do. Role-playing that isn't actually more fun than role-playing what a newb can do. In fact, a lot of the purists have more fun role-playing a bumbling apprentice. So, lacking a new, well-defined goal, we either quit or start over again. Back to the grind. (Can you say "self-destructive impulses?")

You know, isn't that the way we act in life too? Seems the flaw in design here is in our character as players rather than in our characters and their environments.

But from a market-theory perspective, I suppose games should be designed with our inherent character flaws in mind. Maybe we need externally imposed goals since we're such fools about creating our own. Maybe we really do need for game developers to be paternalistic gods. Maybe we're seeking in virtual worlds what we can't seem to find in the real world, even more so than we normally think when we see them as an escape from the real world.

The Addendum:

Okay, I went over and read Timothy Burke's essay on The Mystery of SWG. While in the first half he's too general in his statements for me to feel he's making any sort of compelling argument, in the second he gets more specific (not specific enough, in all cases though). I suspect he's preaching to the choir in the first half in that he's assuming the reader plays and knows SWG, and is involved in the meta-game sufficiently to follow the various forums where players comment and vent. That's acceptable in that context, not in a stand-alone essay.

That aside, I mostly agree with his points in the second half. While above I argue a lot of the problem stems from player attitudes and expectations, I end on the point that market demands are the issue from a business standpoint, not ideal game development in a purist sense. If all players fit the developers ideal, SWG would be more satisfying to those players. That is almost tautology.

The problem isn't just with the developers' ideas of what the players want, however, I think it's as much a problem that we the players don't know what we want. What we say we want often does not map onto our behavior. The only way for developers to improve their hit rate on our real wants is to throw us into virtual playgrounds, watch our behaviors (including listening to out chortles of joy and whines of complaint), and then adapt our surroundings to move the ratio of "works/doesn't" in the direction that pleases their target customers, on the whole, the most.

Burke's thrust is that this process is broken in SWG. I didn't start playing until after the game went live, maybe two months after (having been through many launches, I tend to avoid starting at the launch, before or after is better), so my timeline is shorter and my perspective more limited. I can't fault his statements in this area. I can say that they are not wildly off the norm for MMOGs, however. He can't explain SWGs "failure" (in his eyes) on something that is pretty much the rule in its industry, unless all the other games are similarly failing. He may believe that to be the case, it's not clear, or he may simply be saying (as seems to be the case) that SWG failed when compared to his expectations. If the latter is the case, as I believe, then we must also consider that his expectations may be at fault.

Still, his points on the use of the Star Wars IP are interesting and potentially important. The problem with using existing IP is that it limits creativity, it does not increase it. I am opposed to the us of IP in this fashion, on principle. One of the reasons I was slow to try SWG is that I did not like the idea that the game might be constrained by Star Wars as it exists in movies. Such pre-existing content has too much tendency to channel game play into certain veins.

But Burke appears to differ with me in this respect. It seems he wants more Star Wars, not less, in SWG. I don't like scripted outcomes. Every bit of additional scripting hardcoded into a virtual world will further pre-determine outcomes.

I'm differentiating between scripting and coding. Scripting, in my usage, implies "this is how it is because it's the way things are in this world," as opposed to coded dynamic events where "if the player(s) does this, then this other thing will result, which may influence yet other events in the future." In a scripted world (and I saw ATITD as having a lilttle too much of this mixed in with the dynamic content) the outcome is never in doubt: the good guys must win. The how may vary somewhat, but "the bad guys" are fighting a losing battle as well as they can. Can the Empire win in a Star Wars universe as it's set up so far? Or would that violate fan expectations too much to be forgivable? This point may well determine whether or not Star Wars endures as important in the long run. If the Rebellion wins in the long run, will the pain and cost be sufficient to justify the satisfaction of the expectations of its audience? If not Star Wars is lowered to the level of a moderately thrilling romance from its potential to become a 20th century King Lear. (Oh, I think it's already missed that mark, but I wanted an extreme reference on the high end.)

Posted by dan at October 29, 2003 02:30 PM | TrackBack

Here are some of the aspects of SWG that make it interesting for me:

1. Morphable characters- you can create a character that looks fairly real- and unique. I love the fact I am not always running into my clone in the game. While that is a possiblity the odds of that happening on any one sever have to be astronomical. This also helps with the immersion aspect of the game- when characters appear to be more real- you begin to feel like you are really there. This feature also helps with online socializing and cyber sex.

2. The chat features and IM features in the game- these really help when grouping or communicating with guild members or large groups. I tried EQ and FFXI- neither had chat features that were easy to use or provided the flexibility that SWG provides.

3. I am one of those people who do not power-game. I started with an ambition to become an Architect- I became one in about two months and that is still my character's profession today. I enjoy running and managing a business and building customer relationships. There is an extreme amount of work inside and outside the game that is involved, but that is the type of person I am. I do wish they would make it easier to survey for new resource locations when they shift.

Things I don't like:
1. Resource prices :) Honestly - it is very hard for an architect to make a living in this game (I am a millionaire, but only after a lot of saving and sales). Prices for architecture goods on Starsider are around 2-3 c/u of resource used. Resource prices are around 5-30 c/u. This means to make any money you have to harvest all your resources yourself. When I did my cost calculations I determined resources mined from a heavy harvestor on a 50% concentration can be sold at 1 c/u for about a 50% profit- this included purchase cost of the equipment, cost of power, cost of maintenance, and cost of re-deeding for resource shifts. This means resource profits on resource sales are huge. So who buys them? My guess is they are bought by weaponsmiths who make a lot of sales in the game and sell their items for way more than the resources requried to make them. One bonus they have is the fact that weapons degrade with use and death. I know this is all loosly based on an open market economy, but there needs to be something that helps those of us who sell items that do not degrade.

2. Bugs- I used to program for a start-up game company. One thing that took more time than anything else was updating the code once bugs were fixed. When you have a large group of programmers you have several versions of the code running around at the same time. So each week we would all get to gether and merge it into one piece of code that would be redistributed as the 'only' code you were allowed to continue working on. This prevented a lot of errors like- releasing something with bugs in it that had been fixed months ago. This happens with SWG all the time. When they send us an update many bugs that were fixed in previous patches are reintroduced. The only reason I can think is that they do not ensure that the code they send out the door has been merged with all past updates. They need to learn that it is better to spend the extra time than send out old code that reintroduces old bugs. This causes a lot of consumer grief- and mistrust in the ability of the developers to program.

3. Content- While I have little time to engage in the 'Acts' in the game- I do wish they would hold up their end of the promise and add new content each month. This has not been done. And I am losing a lot of friends because of it. When FFXI came out back in November half of our guild left to go see if it was better than SWG. Almost all returned after two weeks of testing it out. The simple reason behind this exodus was a lack of new content in SWG.

Well... I can't think of any more right now :)


Posted by: Adam at January 21, 2004 06:01 PM
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