Apr 272015
 

 

This is the last post on SWG for, well, a while. I am sure there are plenty of other things to say and more questions that could be answered, but… it feels like a natural stopping point. I must say, the response to these essays has astonished me. Here’s hoping you’ll all care as deeply about the next game I make…

Why now?

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I’ve gotten a lot of questions as to why I am writing this series of posts about Star Wars Galaxies now. Do I have something to sell?

No, I don’t have anything to sell. This past week was the fifteenth anniversary of that small SWG team first forming in Austin, refugees from Origin. We were a bit over a half dozen. It’s also ten years since the NGE, and in the last few years, we have seen a lot of changes for a lot of parties involved. I was asked some questions by a former player, and for once, it just felt like the time to answer them.

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So, was it a failure?

Well yes, of course. And also, no. It depends how you ask the question. There are a lot of assumptions out there about how the game did, particularly in its original form. So, let’s start by tackling some of those:

Galaxies actually had the best one-month conversion of any game at SOE, by a double-digit percentage. More new players decided to stick it out past one month. Given the one-month period, you can’t attribute that just to the Star Wars license. (In addition, the newbie experience was redone many times, including four times just in the first two years; none of these changed the conversion at all).

SWG also had the shortest play session lengths of any RPG at SOE (action games, including Planetside, had shorter). This had very much been a design goal: mission terminals, offline crafting and harvesting, etc., were designed to provide exactly this result in order to make MMOs more accessible. Time sinks had historically been a huge barrier to adoption of MMOs by audiences beyond the core. It also had a lot of features designed to attract players beyond the core. These things seem to have worked as intended. These days, people think of SWG as grindy, but it actually had the fastest advancement of any MMO at the time it came out.

However, at the same time, it also had the highest total hours played per week. In other words, it was the least grindy per session, and the most sticky on a week or month basis. Note that lower session lengths naturally equals lower concurrency numbers. But the bottom line is that SWG had the highest percentage of its user base logging in every month out of any SOE game, again by double-digit percentages.

SWG did not sell a million units instantly, and then lose them all, as many claim. It took two years for it to hit a number that big (unlike WoW, which shot up incredibly fast). Early reviews and launch buzz were mixed at best. That said, it was picking up more new users a day than all other SOE games combined, even after the CU. It did have a churn problem, and exit surveys showed all the top answers for why people left were “lack of content.” This was largely attributable to things like the combat balance, the lack of quests, and so on.

WoW didn’t kill SWG. In fact, SWG lost less users to WoW than any other SOE game. (This makes sense — it was the least like WoW, after all). It did lose some of its conversion rate — probably something we can credit to WoW’s buttery smooth experience.

Lastly, SWG was a lot cheaper to make than what was about to be its competition. Like, 1/4 of the budget or less of a WoW.

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swgwookieeBut…

But there are expectations. In SWG’s case, they were damn high. We didn’t do anything to reduce them either.

Some of these expectations in hindsight can be seen as plain erroneous. For example, if you look at the power of licensed IP game genres outside of sports, it’s really not very clear that a license can or will imply a massive increase in game trials or purchases. Certainly the history of Star Wars games doesn’t suggest that just because a game is Star Wars, it will be a hit, or sell disproportionately solely on that basis. (you have to scroll pretty far down on the list of best-selling PC games before you find one that is an intellectual property from outside games).

Licensed IPs also imply revenue splits. This likely made all parties involved have to have a higher bar for success. The game made money; I don’t know whether it made enough.

There is, of course, the fact that the game delivered did not match many players’ expectations of what a Star Wars game is like.

Then there are oddities. For example, EverQuest, our benchmark at the time, didn’t have a vendor system. Players therefore ran second accounts as bots in order to have vendors. This meant that EQ’s sub numbers were pretty inflated. When EQ did add vendors, there was a mass cancellation event that was at first mysterious. I ran surveys on the user base to find out how many accounts a given player typically had, since a credit card database is too noisy (lots of CC numbers per individual) to determine uniques. I did the math, and comparing unique actual people, SWG may well have had about as any players as EQ did!

Really, though, the bulk of the problems over time resulted from Live operations.

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The error of good intentions

I think everyone had good intentions towards me in promoting me to Chief Creative Officer. I certainly was into the idea of a big promotion!

I think everyone had good intentions in trying to make the game more Star Warsy for that audience. They wanted to make the game more fun. This includes the Holocron drops, and the NGE, and CU too.

I think everyone had good intentions in adding an auction house, or reducing the group size, or trying to fix the fact that there was an egregious math error in the grouping XP bonus.

I think everyone had good intentions in trying to reduce deployment costs by reusing hardware. Or in choosing to make a more sandbox game rather than a linear adventure experience. Or in reducing development costs using cutting edge procedural techniques that didn’t fit our hardware scope quite well enough. Or in attempting to cater to a broader audience than what MMOs traditionally had.

But many choices had ripple effects far beyond everyone’s good intentions. Really, all of these are decisions that sound good from one angle, but maybe don’t take into account every variable.

My moving off the team resulted in a massive loss of institutional knowledge, and most importantly, left the team without a clear vision of what the game was. You can’t make changes faithful to the experience if you don’t know. This is my fault for failing to convey the vision adequately to everyone; I can only plead enormous scale, and yes, inexperience in working at that scale. I’ve often gotten the critique that I over-collaborate, for example, instead of providing firm direction. That can easily turn into a splintered image of the game. I was also given the normally excellent advice, “Don’t hover over your old team, they need to learn to lead themselves.” Under most circumstances, it’s utterly true. The fact that it wasn’t in this case can be attributed to the fact that I didn’t really train a replacement. It wasn’t until there was more team turnover and the developers were active players of the game who really loved it and therefore understood it, that we saw some things change.

atatAmong the pieces of institutional knowledge lost was how to run the right sorts of metrics queries. Choices like the change to the auction house (which caused one of the single largest single-week drops of subs in SWG’s history) were the result of asking the wrong question: “how many Master Merchants are there?” rather than “how many people run a shop?” There was an almost identical situation with Creature Handlers (how many Masters, versus how many had a pet). Reducing the group size helped combat balance but devastated Entertainers. And so on.

Something like the group XP change was almost certainly an attempt to fix the extreme overpower of players (I mean, sum this to buffs and the rest of the combat problems, and it’s a recipe for running out of content really fast, which was the top reason for exit…). But it went to test, was loudly objected to by players, then was propped live with very little notice, then reverted too late, after it had already caused an uproar. This single event doubled the churn rate of the game, and even after it was all put back, it stayed 50% higher than it had been ever after. In fact, it was worse, in percentage terms, than the NGE was.

CU and other changes each had similar issues. A change would be made on faulty data, would not help matters, and then would trigger more hasty action as people demanded that trend lines be reversed. You can’t fly a plane in the fog with bad instruments. Eventually, the team rediscovered the metrics system, and started to right the course, but it took a while.

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In short…

The game wasn’t doing as badly as people seem to think. It didn’t fail in the market. It did just fine, even by the standards pre-WoW. But there were huge expectations that we didn’t push against, it launched with serious problems, and the team wasn’t really equipped to fix them. This resulted in a series of errors that damaged the game’s ongoing viability, which resulted in more hurried changes.

Plenty of the choices made, or the omissions, were my decision; in that sense, SWG didn’t fail. I failed it. Certainly its impacts on me personally were that it drove me to explore both plain old “fun,” something that I felt I had failed at — I got a book out of that; and it drove me to keep looking at ways in which players could own their own spaces, which eventually became Metaplace. Oh, and it made me try to be way more practical, and also made me reluctant to just manage, something which actually hurt Metaplace badly because I spent too much time on raw implementation and getting my hands dirty.

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Another But!

And yet here you are, reading about it, fifteen years after we started. Twelve years after we launched it. Ten years since it was “ruined.” Four since it was shuttered. It has clearly had an impact; I get emails about it on a regular basis. Some elements within it have unquestionably helped shape the MMO landscape. Others have perhaps constrained MMOs, as people took away the wrong lessons from why it underperformed.

And in that sense, if it was a failure or a success, it was a glorious, ramshackle, bumbling stumbling mess of one. An improbability from start to finish that never should have worked, but somehow did, and perhaps suffered because that was hard to believe.

Happy anniversary, SOE Austin. I think we actually did make something great. Maybe just not quite great enough? But great nonetheless.

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Thanks, everyone, for reading this massive series, and for caring for all these years.

In memoriam: Ben Hanson, Jeff Freeman, John Roy.

 

  68 Responses to “Did Star Wars Galaxies Fail?”

  1. Wonderful series, Raph.

    Never thought you were trying to sell anything much less stimulate that loathsome form of undiagnosed mental illness called nostalgia where people misremember the past.

    Pity the industry seems to undervalue wisdom, believing the pace of perceived change renders it, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, dilatory. Yet the core of these games is human and timeless.

    Which is why we see replays of such events endlessly – one title that launched a little over a year ago comes to mind – and will continue to but with far less impressive results than SWG.

    Lots of folks are wanting what you delivered TWICE years ago. And so many are claiming to be heading there. But they’re not you.

  2. Regarding sales and subscription numbers…

    Is the relatively large number of people having more than one account taken into consideration? Due to the single character per server restriction, many many players maintained at least 2 accounts. I had between 2 and 6 accounts active at any given time. Most of my guild did the same, with one insane individual having around 20. I remember either Julio Torres or John Smedley mentioning this after the NGE that it was something they didn’t take into consideration when they finally relented and allowed for two characters per server – and when the NGE dropped, they really, REALLY felt it in terms of cancellations. It wasn’t just a one player cancelling, it was a player cancelling 2+ subscriptions they had maintained for however long.

    I’ve always thought that Galaxies sales and subscriber count was a bit inflated because no one really talks about one player having multiple paid accounts.

  3. Kauri, representing.
    /salute @raphkoster

  4. At the time I ran the numbers SWG had a lower incidence of individuals with multiple accounts than EQ did. I don’t know what it was like by the time of the NGE. IIRC I was investigating that either preCU or CU time period.

    Edit: I should add that I wouldn’t at ALL be surprised if as the game ran longer, that incidence of multiple account holders rose. Only makes sense for that to be the case.

  5. This series of articles was amazing for someone like myself who loved spending hours in this game world and I miss that community so much. Thank you for taking time to answer these questions and let myself (and others I’m sure) just take a trip down memory lane.

  6. Happy anniversary SWG and thank you to Raph and the countless others who brought us into their sometimes flawed, yet still amazing and always interesting vision. There hasn’t been an experience like it yet and I fear there never will be.

  7. As a player of both pre and post NGE, SWG did something that no other game has been able to do…pull me into the community. Often I would find myself just hanging out in our guild city just bs-ing with guildmates. For me, that marked a successful MMO experience,

  8. So, tomorrow’s post is going to be ‘but now we’re doing it again; keeping the stuff that worked; and correcting the stuff that didn’t,’ right? Right? 🙂

    Thank you for an amazing series of posts giving further insight to a game I fondly remember and wish had stuck around longer.

  9. Even as someone who’s never played SWG (and usually pushes against the incessantly nostalgic “best thing ever” crowd), I found these insightful, informative, and entertaining. I wish we could get more “insider” pieces like this from MMO veterans, but they’re almost always too hesitant to speak up because they’re trying to land their next job.

  10. Your blog inspired my friends and I to try SWG for the first time in the Emulated sense. We now look forward to your impact on Crowfall. Thank you Raph!

  11. Galaxies has always been the video game equivalent of a cult hit for me, even if it was a big name MMO. Sure it didn’t hit all the right notes, there were some quality issue in the creation, and later iterations failed to understand the underlying appeal, but it tried something different! It gave us things we weren’t used to seeing, and it did them with heart. I think the continued love for it is based on that, and the fact that the evolution of the MMO has only highlighted those differences over time.

    I also think that it’s no mistake that all my most powerful memories from video games have involved other players. The experience of beating a powerful player or making a lasting friend can’t be met by NPCs. After all, they exist solely for those connections with the player, which conversely makes those connections less valuable. The way Galaxies let players connect, while perhaps not meeting the original goals, can still be considered a resounding success in my book.

    Modern MMOs have been getting closer and closer to the goal of not requiring player interaction which seems to be increasing their userbase. However I feel like it has been at the expense of those memorable moments and connections.

  12. This blog made me regret not getting on bord while I could, it was so interesting to read about what happened behind the surface. Thank you for sharing this!

    I do hope to see Raph Koster leading a dev team to give starving sci fi fans a new top quality sci fi mmorpg, be it in a Star Wars, Star Trek or Mass Effect universe, with the capability to improve the new product with all the lessons learned you walked away with from your SWG journey. Start recruiting your team, Raph, and top Chris Roberts success (with Star Citizen) on your next journey, gogogogogo!!! 🙂

  13. I had 2 characters for most of my time in SWG, but I also only really played 1. I had a Master Armorsmith/Master Merchant who had just enough combat skill to go to Yavin if I was careful, but I wanted to be able to do more on the fighting front, so…. 2nd character. Intended to be Teras Kasi/Ranger so I could farm materials for the armorsmith, but…. never quite happened. Became Teras Kasi/Dancer instead and was in an entertainer’s guild as the odd duck that was actually able to win duels when we did our “duel a dancer” events. It also let me run the combat events with my IRL friends in the PA that had my Armor/Merchant in it. Best of both worlds…. except I never really did anything on the armorsmith except use him as a sales mule for my TKM instead. Such is life.

    Eventually dropper the dancer and picked up pistoleer, kept the unarmed line of the melee base class to allow me to have commando and went for the “Gun Fu” pistol build that had every pistol cert and special attack unlocked. That was quite fun too. And that’s where I was when I stopped playing.

  14. SWG was a typical case of “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” or alternatively “Never change a winning team”.
    SWG made way to the erosion of the tru sandbox some thing that only EVE only did truly successful in the meantime.

    To be honest I don’t know if I could look into the mirror with the knowledge to have poisoned and pretty much killed something as beautiful as SWG was.

  15. t was a failure, because it failed to impact the direction MMos went. Good MMOs, successes, impact what comes. Sorry if that sounds a bit Darwinistic, but almost *everything* that was good and beloved in SWG vanished with it. I call that a failure indeed. It failed to impress following games to do something like it. On the contrary, all MMOs after SWG used it as a textbook of what NOT to do. However justified that may be, that was the result we the MMO gamers had to live with: a Decade of themeparks and the death of “MMOs are worlds” idea. In that perspective SWG was the biggest possible failure in my book, because it took what I loved so much from MMOs.

  16. Thanks Raph, for a great series. Waiting for you to do it again while I pass on the newer generic themeparks and continue to play, everyday, your 15 year old creation.

  17. […] recent weeks, Raph Koster has been writing interesting post-mortem articles about Star Wars Galaxies. One point in particular caught my attention from a leadership point of view: the state in which […]

  18. Most interesting read, these articles and educating – which is rarely.

    I think SWG was success not as a game, but as an impact on everything MMORPGs are. To this day people want that experience again. I don’t buy into ‘that was good, let’s move on’, not because I am diehard fan, but simple because nowhere to move on to yet.

    And the ideas you describe, what you wanted to do – it is glorious. Heh, I wish that could be a game someday. Just for the sake of it (and because I made a mistake of thinking that SWG will always be there same as it is). I do not know about other games – maybe they have most intriguing stories behind themselves too – but looks like this one was way ahead of time.

    Your articles paint a picture of system that struggled to gain any semblance of balance, but eventually failed. Of a world that tried it’s best to survive, but couldn’t. I hope some day we’ll see the one that could.

    Also, all of it – glorious.

    Thank you.

  19. “Here’s hoping you’ll all care as deeply about the next game I make…”

    In my best Jim Carrey impression…. So you’re saying there’s a chance?

    You can’t drop a grenade into a blog post like that and not explain it….

  20. It wasn’t Crowfall? Or you just consulting there and ‘next game’ is not defined?

  21. Let me start by saying that i would like to thank you wholeheartedly for both this series of articles and the game of course.

    I started right at the Europe launch and stayed untill it was ruined;) SWG was different. I tried several other MMOs after SWG but none of them were a suitable replacement. The crafting / resource system was fantastic. SWG is the only MMO that i know that required actual thinking while crafting. Mastering my profession, setting up an awesome shop, hunting server best resources and experimentation tapes and being proud of producing top level items was all i needed for years of play.

    I got to say that i am a bit surprised about some of the findings you mention in the article. Especially the bazaar change. I for one very much welcomed that. In my opinion it gave the smaller crafters a chance. The ones with a shop in a crappy player city on Dantooine (or as we called it: “Lag planet”) nobody ever visited. If they had competitive products they were finally found by customers. A first row shop outside coronet wasn’t required anymore. And shopping for good items or resources was soooo much easier.

    The big problem in the early years was the lack of content. Full time crafting isn’t for everyone. Camping Krayts in the graveyard or Elders is not much fun either. And then why is a solo character whith the right template and a buff able to take down an Elder alone anyway?
    If we had a content update like the bunker or the corvette every 3 months or so I’m sure the game would still be running today (with myself as a subscriber). This together with some combat balancing and bug fixing would have done the trick.
    But instead all was ruined. I mean, CU, the Village … seriously?

    By the way, the person who decided to remove creature handler should be banned from using a computer for life. It was one of the best features in the game at all. I still remeber my first Kaadu mount, Famba fun in front of Coronet Starport or my bioengineered cats that were perfectly able to tank a Krayt. Steady….easy…don’t bite me….

    Player housing and player cities? Still blows my mind away. We had a fantastic city community on Naboo. Many gread shops including mine, actual people in the cantina and around the city. Totally awsome without drawing attention because of the location near a POI or whatever. Just the community.

    Writing this makes me kind of sad. I see myself starting out as a noob outside of Mos Espa shooting womb rats, building a spice empire, founding a city, maximize combat medic pac efficiency and quitting as a well respected armorsmith.
    Good times. Thank you for everything.

  22. Crowfall isn’t my game. It’s Todd Coleman’s and the team’s. I just help out. 🙂

    Hopefully, the “next game” is actually one of these eight boardgames, actually. After that we shall see. 🙂

  23. Heh. Then I got that right, it was told that you are consulting. As a backer of Crowfall I am glad you ‘helping out’.

    People still walk on hands and go supernova about ‘how good OMG go-go-good SWG crafting was’ (is – if take emus into consideration). Whatever you helping out with Crowfall will be beneficial to a considerable degree, I am sure.

    To think a lot of people know you for SWG crafting system, but these articles show that there are a lot of things you worked on beside that. And while it is obvious, people rarely mention it.

    Good luck with your next endeavor.

  24. The world might have been virtual, but my experiences there are real to me.

    In my mind the social and physical topography of Naboo around Keren is as clear to me as any real-world place I’ve lived. I can still easily and vividly move in memory from the crafting benches (which saw lots of use when SWG started and then stood as monuments) east of the Keren Starport west along the brick road that abruptly ended, then west again along the green banks of the river until stopping just south of the Gungan ruins.

    I remember the inside of my home there: the palm-like fronds I put in front of every column; the table with all my trophies; the NPC vendor with the welcoming barks; the rooms filled with crafting supplies; and the exact layout of my workshop.

    You don’t spend that much time in a game world unless you want to be there. SWG, for a long time, was a place I wanted to be. Its creators made a good world, in which a lot of people made good memories.

  25. Oh how much I loved this game. It was 10 years ago already. I work at Ubisoft today, and my consumption of games has never been this high. Still, SWG remains the BEST and most complete sandbox experience ever. I’ve never found another game that had me so engaged and emotionally committed to it.

  26. […] Koster ends his Star Wars Galaxies series afters commenting several design decisions and how they impacted the game at […]

  27. http://www.swgemu.com seem to actually pull through this or next year and always surprises me that after AC2 came back from the dead, SWG might also.

    So if you want to try relive SWG or just a nostalgic evening, give it a try.

  28. Great read, so much interesting stuff to read about. I have always been a sucker for knowing about unreleased content/design choices, having explored the .TRE files many times in the games’ existence (I think we based our minimum and maximum caps for resources at SWGCraft on those), so learning more about the various intended professions is so nice. Thanks for posting this, Raph!

  29. The comments on this article are a testament to SWG’s success. As weird as it is to say, I miss SWG like I miss a late friend. I feel that something is missing from my life. I’ve played my fair share of video games since, but nothing has captured my attention in quite the same way.

  30. I already had great respect for Raph and we had become friends from th UO days. When we had the opportunity to bring Raph to SOE I was very excited for two reasons: 1. So I could get to know him better and learn from him and 2. So he could design an MMO for us that was very different than EQ which would hopefully reach a new audience for us. In that sense SWG was absolutely a success. It felt different and played different and attracted different types of MMO players. Like Raph said though, the expectations because of the IP involved were huge. And while I had already left SoE before Raph became CCO, I know it’s hard to still lead a vision for a game from that position. I hardly fault him for giving CCO a shot though. Was SWG a financial success? I honestly don’t know — I know the deal between SOE and Lucasarts was complex. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is I got to work with Raph, SWG was definitely not another EQ, and it’s still brought up to this day whenever you run across an endless Sandbox vs Themepark thread. That’s success in my book.

  31. Bring it back! Sandbox mmo’s are getting big

  32. The reason SWG failed is the same reason Eve Online did not. If you want a real, living world, players must have choice. That includes the choice to be evil. That includes non-consensual PvP. That includes griefing. I said this exact thing during development. A world without real choice is a pop-up picture book. Everything is there, but it has no depth. It has no reality. You decided to cater to the casual. The casual doesn’t decide to play games for decades. CCP made a worthy sandbox game because they made decisions you were afraid to. Eve lives. SWG is dead. The lesson is clear.

  33. There isn’t any evidence of what you are saying, Pallos. All evidence points the other direction, actually.

  34. […] so complex it’s difficult to sum them up here. Raph Koster did a good summary on his blog, http://www.raphkoster.com/2015/04/27/did-star-wars-galaxies-fail/ This one links to the other posts explaining how the different systems […]

  35. […] Emulator. Names. Mods. Deals/Shopping. Game Specific. News. Guilds. Did Star Wars Galaxies Fail? […]

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