Ex-Star Wars Galaxy Designer Talks NGE

By Kieron Gillen on June 15th, 2008 at 4:13 pm.

Who invented the phrase Om nom nom, anyway? Was it Ste? I'll be pissed off if it's Ste.

Ooh, this is interesting. I came across this mess when digging out links for the Sunday Papers. Dan Rubenfield is an Ex-Sony Designer, relevantly a veteran of Star Wars Galaxies. He’s gone into detail about the story behind the New Game Enhancements – the infamous NGE – and candidly explained what was going on, what went wrong and why it was necessary. The one on his site is considerably more measured than what was originally posted – stored by SWG fans - where he’s a little sharper, advocating that those who only want to rant that He Ruined Star Wars Galaxy should go and perform the act of fellatio upon a phallus. Om nom nom, indeed.

Here’s some key things he say, from the current edited version on his site. I suggest you read the whole thing, clearly…

So we were given the directive to make Galaxies better.

Not just make Galaxies better, but make it succesful. Not the 200k subs it had, but really succesful. The idea was that we had the most valuable IP in the entire world, and we fucked it up to the point of
having 200k subs.

So, when the NGE push came along, we were asked to reimagine the game.

Not just small changes, but rebuild it.

And it was needed. When we were asked, we were bleeding subscribers.

If I remember correctly, somewhere around 10k a month. LOSING 10,000
subs a month.

Note – We didn’t notify anyone about the change until 2 weeks before launch because until 2 weeks before launch we hadn’t made a decision. You basically found out when we found out.

It was still a huge fuckup.

Epoch grade fuckup.

I think it lost a lot of the Raphy goodness that makes MMOs work, and that was a profound loss.

That was a huge mistake.

But I think the control scheme changes were dead on.

The point, the fuckup, the mistake that we made, was answering an
unasked question.

“Can you change an MMO drastically after it launches?”

Categorically, NO.

If we were to do it again, and wanted to make those types of changes,
you have to make a new game.

Relaunch with a new title.

Or shut down Galaxies and relaunch for real.

You cannot change it at runtime.

Which is all fascinating stuff – the last point, especially. I only bounced off the surface of Star Wars galaxy, for pretty much the reasons described. That it was a game where the shopkeepers seemed to have the most fun struck me as an incredibly odd approach to an MMO.

(And I really do mean that I bounced off the surface. I didn’t even get past the original training sequence. The game crashed when I arrived in the first Cantina, and I figured “Fuck it – I don’t even like Star Wars that much anyway”.)

So, abstractly, the Star Wars MMO should have been a different beast entirely. The thing is, as Dan notes, it’s just too late. When you’ve created a community, there’s nowt you can do with it. It’s like Eve. If tomorrow CCP changed it for an awesome space shooting game, it wouldn’t matter if it was awesome. Those 200K Eve-people LIKED the game that was there, and to take it away engenders enormous hatred. You have to start again.

Some things from the deleted version which has been removed – and not just exciting cock-consuming advice to fanboys.

Firstly, there’s a caveat to that You Cannot Change After Launch comment: “BUT! And this is a HUGE but. Right as I left SOE, post NGE. Galaxies was subscriber positive. A few thousand, but it was a far cry from the 10k per month we were losing.”

Secondly, some details about the internal debate. Best bit: “We told them. “If you do this, you will lose all 200k subscribers. It is that significant.” It was explained that we would gain more due to the marketing push and relaunch. So, we pushed forward.”

I swear, there’s a fascinating book about this whole period of MMO development to be written.

Oh: As pointed out by Kareem in the Sunday Papers comments thread, Scott Jennings aka Lum, now of NCsoft, takes apart the original post over at his blog.

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34 Comments »

  1. Nimic says:

    I never really got around to playing Galaxies, and I guess I should be glad for it. He makes a very good observation on whether or not you can change the game after launch.

  2. Nick says:

    The combat system did need a change, the whole class removal/skill tree loss/making Jedi’s a playable class from the start did not.

  3. darkripper says:

    Kieron, one of your links is broken :)

  4. Zavaro says:

    The NGE was a poorly executed bad idea. Trying to make the game a copy clone of every other MMO meant that SWG lost it’s uniqueness. SOE developers spent too much time making buggy half-baked new content instead of crushing bugs that were game killers, for example: the smuggler class was impossible to complete for months and months.

    Also, Jedi shouldn’t be a starting class. Who’s idea was that?

  5. DigitalSignalX says:

    I still have my original SWG beta disks they mailed us with all the hush-hush factor, and have to agree that the game peaked at release and then sank. NGE wasn’t the only factor though.

    MMOGdata says they had a 4.64 market share as of Jan 2004 (about 300k subscribers), then 3.67 in Jan of 2005. Then in the next year in which WoW was released and NGE stepped in? 1.5 share for Jan of 2006. Down a great deal to be sure, but I think the trend was already set. 3 years of exposure to a fairly clunky GUI and game/class mechanics torpedoed the drawing potential of what has to be the #1 recognizable property for all of geekdom.

  6. Cruz says:

    I think the reason the game was bleeding subs, pre-NGE, wasnt because of any fault in the game design or lack of content. Most of the long time players up to that point had taken to creating their own content and playing the PvP game, that is, until hologrinding came along and, I hazard to say, ruined everything. Whereas I would regularly see a lot of foot traffic in my guild city, it soon became a ghost town after the hologrinding started. As a result, I do loath me some Jedi.
    @Zavaro: The Jedi shouldnt have been in the game at all. What happend to the game being set between New Hope and Empire?

  7. malkav11 says:

    I played it before the NGE and thought Galaxies was terrible – not as bad as Everquest, but close. I could tell when I heard about NGE that it was a bad idea, though. It was obviously going to antagonize the existing base and drive many of them away from the game, but there wasn’t much chance of anyone who’d tried and disliked the game previously (like me) going back for a do-over in the hopes that maybe they’d got their act together. And I really think that most of the people who would have been interested in a Star Wars MMO fell into one of those two camps.

  8. Zavaro says:

    @Cruz: Agreed.

    I played for a free week on an evening in June 2007, post-NGE, post-CU, post-population. The game was devoid of life on my server, Intrepid (on a side note, Intrepid was the first to unlock a Jedi, and one of th largest splinters.) Steering my avatar to Coronet, Theed, Bestine and Anchorhead I was surprised to find only three other people in these formerly flourishing places.

    The game is a harbor for ghost towns and accounts with no characters. It has been for years. Those 50K sub estimates they pull out are dead wrong.

  9. RC-1290'Dreadnought' says:

    It was a fun game for a while, but a star wars game in which you are better when you grind more, will always kind of suck. They did it wrong the first time. I’ll make a decent Galaxies some day, when I have the time to make it from the design I made. Unless someone makes a decent Galaxies before I do.

  10. Nick says:

    The game was absolutely awful, broken in so many ways, but I have a grudging admiration for the original vision.

  11. Blackhat says:

    So.. many.. sentence.. fragments…

    I like his straight-forward-ness, but Christ, form some paragraphs, man! Just cram those sentences together, or make them longer or something, heh.

    I never played Galaxies, and I can kind of see why. I never heard any really good things about it. Lots of bad news, however.

    I really feel sorry for that dev, as I’ve been around similar situations. And I’m currently working with Sony, so I am quite aware of their.. sometimes ‘difficult to understand’ demands.

  12. CitizenErazed says:

    I played Galaxies for a while, and was left with profound dissapointment. The entire game ended up a mess – they basically ended up trying to build WoW with a Star Wars license, and it failed. The NGE was where it really went all tits-up – most players were asking for less Jedi, not more, with the existing Jedi having incredible ability but very limited in number (you know, like the Jedi would’ve been in the universe at the time). They just never seemed to realise that a WoW-style game wouldn’t work because those who wanted that would be playing…well, WoW.

    The other thing I always think about when talking about MMOs is polish. All else being equal, what sets WoW apart from the rest of the pack? WoW has polish in spades. It’s set up to be easily accessable and has something for every level of gamer – personally I can’t stand it, but I can see how it’s so easy to get into. No other MMO has that polish.

  13. Vollgassen says:

    I feel like you’d be able to evolve an MMO gradually. Shift portions of it over time… Isn’t that almost the nature of MMOs? Shouldn’t they be under constant development? And not just content… Why just come up with one idea and stick with it assuming it’s still a good idea 5 years later. Refine and refine.

  14. Jigglybean says:

    I played Galaxies at launch and it was alot of fun. Lots of pvp action but the reason why the game was dying was simply because it’s a Star Wars game but no actual real SW content.

    Quests were broken as the game suffered from bugs that they never fixed. God, how I loved being a Bounty Hunter – hunting jedi – the thrill!

    NGE was shocking. However, the game has seen alot of the old features return to the game but sorely lacks that sandbox skill tree – the best thing EVER in any MMO

  15. Snarf says:

    I loved SWG. Granted im a big SW geek, and it hit all the right buttons. Half-decent PVP objectives in the bases, the chance for random PVP for the factions. The fact that (for a while atleast) Jedi were rare and would hide from people so they wouldn’t get on the bounty lost. Then they did the Jedi update. It went from one lone Jedi out in the wilderness, to six siting in Coronet starport waving their sabers about. That broke any atmosphere for me. Then the lies. They said they would fix classes, quests and try and balance certain things. Then the week later they say thats all delayed as they are going to work on JTL. Most of us quit a week later.
    Even now alot of us talk about good times on SWG. The fun PVP, the brilliant crafting system and the general mentalism we did.

  16. Tashunka says:

    Jedi’s should never have been introduced.

    All that NGE energy should’ve been focused on adding new content. And fixing some on the long standing bugs. The NGE control scheme was horrible btw.

    I still hold out an insane hope that they’ll open a classic server.

  17. Arnulf says:

    MMO designers have the egos of rockstars.

  18. Sucram says:

    Went to a lecture by a Runecape developer shortly before the release of SW:Galaxies.

    He was desperately trying to convince us that his game still had a future post-Galaxies even though Galaxies was obviously going to unstoppably huge.

  19. Fernas says:

    Meh, none of that makes up for completely ignoring the playerbase for years on end.
    And after all these years, all the changes, Smugglers still can’t smuggle in SWG. Morons.

  20. chaos4u says:

    The real reason it failed..

    failure to understand the game mechanics and how they evolved by those in S.O.E. who was pushing for the radical changes.

    The quick reasons for those who don’t want read all the diatribe.

    S.O.E. Execs were oblivious that the game had a social system that thrived on the characters dependencies on one another this system aided in complex gaming dynamics that have yet to be fully reproduced in any MMO today.

    Yes SWG had its problems but also some of the glitches quirkiness and or clunkiness gave SWG a certain charm that gave the game a unique feel to those who played it. It also gave way to unique memories and moments that some players have yet been able to find elsewhere.

    The crafting system and its effect on the games economy, games mechanics and even the end users overall enjoyment.
    S.O.E. Either didn’t appreciate it or they didn’t have a clue on how valuable it was to the game as this system was a huge layer that made SWG unique

    Inter player dependencies the devs designed this in the game it was core to the game mechanics. Players needing players it was beautiful it was the core of the SWG experince.
    Who ever it was at S.O.E. That descided that this needed to go was so detached from the game that they had no bussiness making those kinds of decisions to begin with.

    Npc faction system and various degrees of animal interactions on the planets gave the games environments unique and interesting variations on game play while not a major game breaker it helped add atmosphere and lent its self to to making in game missions and events unique and at times memorable.

    When S.O.E. Ripped these things out of the game there is no reason to wonder why there was so much ill regard when it came to SWG .
    It was something special something unique and something that made players feel apart of an actual community..
    It was torn away destroyed and spat back in our face. Is there really any wonder at the angst ?

    Reading the post by the dev one thing really stuck out in his article ..
    The whole its a niche product it needed to be bigger ..
    Another sign that the heads of this whole project had no idea how to run a ip based game like this.
    First off as much as I a hate to admit it star wars is a niche product it has a huge following but it is still a niche product and with any niche product you cater to the fans it was apparent that the devs saw this as they would do lil events like collectible star wars art. Among other things that interested star wars fans. But time and time again it would seem the devs would do an about face and forget about the fans and try to broaden the appeal of the game to a wider audience.
    It don’t need to be done the curious thing about fandom is that it is infectious and has a tendency to grow. If you cater to that philosophy you grow right along with it. …

    Now for those who are interested about the back story on these opinions

    I started playing SWG at launch and yes i was disappointed by several things (I.e. No ships or vehicles ?? wtf this is star wars for crying out loud and while im ranting on this what the hell was the ATST doing as a pet ??) ok getting back on track..

    after getting over some of my disappointment i actually started playing the game .. chose my city and went out and started killing stuff .. and it was painful but yet fun as i could see progress occurring in my character abilities.

    after a while i decided to go to one of the bigger cities on the planet in hopes of quicker leveling and maybe more things to do..

    this is where SWG took off because i soon became involved in what made SWG great .

    i was out getting my ass kicked by butterflies and had to make way to the medical center to get healed up

    While waiting for heals you could listen in on conversations and a guy was talking about going out on a expedition and any of us who wanted to get good xp was welcome to come along..

    (lil did i realize at this time that not only was he being nicebut he needed us to )

    So i join up with this group of people and we all go way way out in the boonies and we come across some really nice xp creatures and we start the battle after the battle the expedition leader set up this nice camp and had us all come in get heals we all talked and healed and some people danced and played tunes … after everyone was ready we repeated several times and it was truly fun and unique experience .

    not only did this help me out and the others but it helped the expedition leader out also as he was leveling up his ranger skill and needed us to help fulfill his xp needs in the ranger class…

    this lil aspect was a key gaming mechanic that i believe the SOE execs totally missed ..

    after that expedition i made a friend and we went out on our own and worked together to gain xp for our desired professions which happened to be combat/ rifle tree and for a short time our favorite thing to do was to set on the cliffs and shoot the npc’s on the beach to gain xp

    (due to the games pathing system the npc’s were rarely able to make it up the cliffs and thus allowed for us to grind out a few levels although there was always those unexpected warp moments where they would appear on top off you and it was off to the clone center)..

    another thing that SOEexecs totally missed the games quirkiness or cluckiness was also at times its charm..

    needless to say we finally progressed so we could get better guns…
    so it was off to the market and yes it was complex and unfriendly but it was player controlled and it let the player pick what was right for them at the time and also let the player do something that i know was unanticipated.

    Collecting of player created items. ( in my case guns …and lots of them)
    the more i learned about the market system in SWG the more crap i was collecting better and better guns food items and other junk it was a treasure trove for pack racks like my self..

    This wasn’t looked over for to long though as more and more collectible things started popping up
    this made SWG unique in that you could have 30 models of the same gun and they all be different ..
    and it made it fun for those of us who like to collect junk…

    After grinding out my combat tree and some other base skills i left and started exploring the different planets trying to get to know them and make the money to do it was a challenging mini game for awhile and after a small period of time i ended up on a small moon and started on my riflemen skills this is where i met another friend and we worked together on training skills
    Although my memories of that moon are not fond it was like a necessary training encampment i had to go to so i could further my career in my choosing profession..

    This is another thing sony execs totally missed that each planet / moon had a unique feel to it and this feel would lend itself into you changing your game play style.

    so after that excursion it was time to move on again and explore more of the game.. and i wound up on tatooine
    looking for something to do and came across some peeps in a med center healing up ..
    At this time i was also wanting to pursue ranger so figured i would do the same thing i was introduced to and offer a lil expedition for xp .. and we were off

    for some reason this group i was with took off and we became good game friends and went on many expeditions together each of us benefiting from the others unique skills..

    this is another thing that SOE execs missed the unique abilities in each character lent itself to inter player dependencies that helped formed strong in game bonds…

    this why you see such anger in the SWG community as cold and digital as games are.
    SWG manged to bring community friendship and bonding through to the gamer.
    something that few if any mmog has yet to do.

    The end game

    after many expeditions the group i was in had finally became pretty bad ass and i was now a fairly competent ranger.
    It came time for us to find more challenging expeditions …
    which is what led us to the moon Lok and the pursuit of “kimo’s”( a giant lizard)
    which were big xp items and also fun and changeling hunt.
    But what made it even more fun was the poor saps we would bring with us from the other planets
    they were seeking adventure but were not in any way shape or form ready for the challenges of lok..

    Im not sure how many times i laughed my head off as the peeps were just porting from the shuttle only to get blasted by the npc’s (due to negative faction) or if they were lucky to run of into the desert only to come back screaming for help!! as they were being chased by lizards and mynocs only to get killed by the npcs that they were running from… truly comical ill forever have the words of i hate this f*****G planet in grained in my head as i saw it so many times at that shuttle port..

    again the games quirkiness added charm to the game

    but the kimos is what bought us to lok and wound up being a our thing to do SWG became the big hunting game and I was one of the guides and it was fun..

    of course all good things come to an end but the game system mechanics kept me involved and useful during the whole grind a jedi a thon from tracking creatures to providing camps i was in the thick of it and it was fun..

    it was shortly after this time that swg started implementing the massive changes that broke many of the games systems and soon the game was not as fun as it used to be.
    Maybe I grew tired ? but the magic was lost and i was unable to attain it again
    after trying to get back in it several times i was never able to achieve what was there before and i watched it evolve into something else that no longer held my interest…and apparently i was not the only one

  21. Turin Turambar says:

    The first mistake was to think Star Wars was the most valuable IP in the world, so the MMO numbers should be uber high.
    No, Star Wars is loved by almost everyone, but because the characters and the story, not the setting.

    And a Star Wars MMO is Star Wars without characters and the story, the things which made SW great.

  22. Lu-Tze says:

    You know what was kickass? Sitting in my camp outside a Rebel town in full RIS armor next to my mate in Mandalorian, slaughtering Rebels who dared to cross the sands. We had money in the bank, lucrative enterprises and people sending us tells about deals to be made and opportunities to be had.

    Then they turned the game into lots of people spanking each other with lightsabres.

  23. Kieron Gillen says:

    Turin: Considering the majority of Star Wars game ever doesn’t allow you to play the characters who people loved in the film, and are enormously successful, I’m not sure I follow you there.

    KG

  24. Leelad says:

    Without knowing about it I rejoined galaxies the week after it hit….what a superbly awesome backlash i witnessed. Fuck the changes to the game. What happened to that community and the pure anger that spewed from the forum alone was incredible.

    I do remember everyone thinking that they where shaping it into a console MMO.

    It’s actually looking like being something decent now though. I pop back every year for a month to see how they are plodding along with it.

  25. Leelad says:

    Agree with KG, W,o and W 3 letters that prove that wrong.

    Unless Alanshearer the Belf Paladin was Thralls love child.

  26. Jonathan says:

    Great, now I can’t look a lolcat without thinking of punitive oral sex. That’s just dandy.

  27. grumpy says:

    That it was a game where the shopkeepers seemed to have the most fun struck me as an incredibly odd approach to an MMO.

    Hah, that’s pretty accurate.
    I used to play it quite a lot back in beta…. As a weaponsmith. I tried a combat, and went “meh, this is ok, guess I’ll go see if I can’t make myself a better gun though”.
    And found out that crafting was where the real fun was at.
    Never really looked back, until a year later when I played the free trial with a few friends, and then only because fighting is better suited for 3 people trying to play together.

  28. Sal says:

    I agree with chaos4u. I recently ended my sub…after 4 years of crap. When WOW went live, and NGE, SWG basiclly died.

  29. Turin Turambar says:

    Kieron, the point was: They shouldn’t have supposed so easy that SW Galaxy was going to be a hit. I think they thought:
    Star Wars + MMO = easy money!

    Lots of other games from the SW had been succesful, yes, but because they were good games, not because the brand. The brand is only a little push at the beginning of the shelf life of the product. There are also SW games that bombed horribly, so the brand can’t be a decisive factor.

  30. Kieron Gillen says:

    Turin: I’ll put aside the fact that the SW licence always ends up adding to a review score – which I hate, obviously – the best Star Wars games, which best capture something that’s brilliant about Star Wars, sell the most. Being the best Star Wars game and the best game aren’t actually opposing forces.

    KG

  31. Nick says:

    For example, TIE Fighter is one of the best games of its genre, reguardless of licence.

    And lets not forget Rebel Assault!

    Oh wait, actually, lets.

  32. Kieron Gillen says:

    But Freespace 2 was better game than X-Wing Alliance, for example, and scored worse.

    (Tie-Fighter wasn’t just a brilliant game though – it was also a brilliant Star Wars game specifically, capturing so much of the universe’s flavour. If it was an awesome game of high-sea combat on boats with the Star Wars licence over the top, people just would have blinked a lot. And it may have found an awesome high-seas fan audience, but you suspect the devs went “We are so not appealing to SW fans here”.)

    KG

  33. DaedalusV says:

    I am a long-term Pre-cu player, I quit the game 3 days into the CU (had renewed my sub for 6 months a month or so prior to that infamous date)
    I loved the Pre-cu experience, and haven’t really been able to find any other MMO that gives me quite what SWG gave me.
    Most MMOs are developed with the primary focus on combat and character progression (instead of development.) Looted drops controls player economy, simplistic crafting, poorly implemented, ressource gathering mainly through combat.
    SWG gave me the sandbox environment and player interdependency (sp?) I want in a MMO. Choices! not simplistic pseudo RPGs like WoW and the likes.

  34. Matzerath says:

    “Everyone has a big ‘but’. C’mon Simone, let’s talk about your big ‘but’.”