October 27, 2003
Four months ago I expressed interest in trying the new Star Wars Galaxies mmorpg. Although I’m not a fan of rpg’s, the idea of an online Star Wars universe has so much appeal that even a cynical non-gamer like me was ready to give it a try. I’ve been so busy lately that I hadn’t had a chance to try it yet — and now, unfortunately, it seems my delay may have been for the best. As of late there have been a few writeups about SWG‘s many problems, echoing what seem to be design problems with today’s mmorpgs in general. I think these critiques are very instructive not just for mmorpg design but as case studies of the challenges of interactive-experience genre innovation.
In reaction to a very useful analysis of SWG by Timothy Burke, Justin and commenters on game girl advance are discussing why they’ve stopped playing the game. Another essay called The Trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down by Nick McCrea goes into detail about what’s not fun about playing mmorpgs, and the ways he wishes they would change, resulting in a slew of reader comments. Further discussion continues on Slashdot Games.
I’m surprised and dismayed to hear this about SWG, like I was when I heard about the apparent commercial failure of The Sims Online, and Majestic (both from EA, by the way; SWG was developed by Sony). I hope these stumbling blocks are just growing pains for this new direction in interactive experiences, that won’t end up adversely crippling their evolution.
I sympathized with one of the speculations Burke makes about SWG‘s shortcomings: “I think that there is also a very deep-rooted design problem that is the result of the game’s ambitious scope. … MMOGs in general suffer from overcomplexity of design and from the unpredictable, emergent effects that are produced by player behavior; SWG may have crossed a new threshold in this regard and be suffering for the hubris of its ambitions.” (In a recent conversation, Michael and I were musing on what we perceive to be the failures of our own overly-ambitious interactive drama project, and realized there are both pluses and minuses of shooting too high. A good topic for a future blog post.)
(Like the Sims Online team, the designers of SWG have definitely thought about how interactive narratives could emerge in online worlds. Check out creative director Raph Koster’s series of essays, including Two Models for Narrative Worlds.)
I suppose all of this is just another reminder that the front lines of innovation is a battleground littered with corpses.