The Soapbox: The Uncle Owen paradox

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

This week, the venerable Star Wars Galaxies celebrates its eighth year of existence. I was there in the beginning -- before the beginning, in fact. I did what a lot of you early SWG players probably did: I had a guild and a guild city, multiple accounts, a booming business as a chef, and a character who could entertain and fight. Even then, we realized how different SWG was from its immediate predecessors like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot. We'd returned to the earlier age of Ultima Online, of persistent worlds (as the term was used back then). It was more a world than a game, and in it we could roleplay whatever we liked, to a point. Nowadays, we'd call it a sandbox.

Old-school MMO gamers know well that the sandbox is under attack. Some will blame it on EverQuest, some on World of Warcraft, some on the free-to-play phenomenon. Among the Massively commenters, there's a large contingent of gamers who consider SWG's own NGE to be the beginning of the end of the classic sandbox. I can't say they're wrong when it comes to the philosophy governing new MMOs, but the sandbox isn't dead yet.

In 2005, Sony Online Entertainment, under the Force-grip of LucasArts, rolled out the New Game Enhancements to Star Wars Galaxies, just days after the launch of its third expansion. In its attempt to more closely resemble and compete with World of Warcraft, SOE believed it could gut what was essentially a free-form sandbox game and turn it into a quest-oriented, class-based level-grinder more like EverQuest. Players understandably revolted, fleeing the game in droves as much-beloved skill trees like Creature Handling and Bio-Engineering and systems like skill-by-use character development were ripped from the game. Overnight, the game had become something else entirely, something the existing playerbase didn't want and the potential playerbase was now afraid to sample.

Shortly after the NGE went live, SOE's John Smedley dropped the bomb that inspired this article.

Gamespot: What's the one lesson from your two years of seeing Star Wars Galaxies being played that you wish you knew sooner?

John Smedley: That straight sandbox games don't work. And that we needed to focus much more on the Star Wars experience. I think in the past, what we probably made was the Uncle Owen experience as opposed to the Luke experience. We needed to deliver more of the Star Wars heroic and epic feeling to the game. I think we missed there. That's what I think we really brought to the game [with the update].

And you know what? Smed was right. Pre-NGE SWG was the Uncle Owen experience. And that's exactly what its players wanted. By 2005, SWG's players knew what the game offered and what it didn't. Those who wanted something else had already left. People played SWG because SWG let them do whatever they wanted, including play the lowly Uncle Owen. This quote annoyed me more than the NGE itself. In fact, for many years I actually maintained my own moisture farm in addition to all my other harvesters. I placed a half-dozen moisture vaporators in semi-permanent positions and hauled in water to sell to other players, not because I needed the cash but because I'm spiteful and contrary. After all, who was John Smedley to tell me I wanted to play an epic hero when I was perfectly happy playing a feisty entrepreneur? Who was he to tell me that characters I designed myself weren't already epic? Isn't the point of an RPG -- MMO or otherwise -- to let me roleplay what I choose? Isn't a game more of an RPG if it offers the widest variety of roles?

John Smedley has since apologized repeatedly for the NGE, recognizing it as a bad business decision. But do other developers see the fiasco the same way? Count the sandbox or even sandpark games still around or newly launching. There aren't many, and they aren't big at all when stacked against the masses of level-grinding juggernauts. In fact, sandbox aficionados appear to be a dwindling minority, and as consumers we're not doing much to change that, to put our money where our mouths are.

Especially when we trash the NGE.

It's time to get over it, folks. We can't post a SWG article here on Massively without the corresponding thread becoming an anti-NGE bitchfest. The same tired old grumpkins come out of the woodwork to repeat for the thousandth time how the NGE done them wrong. Most of them haven't touched the game in years and no longer have any point of comparison, but they nevertheless consider it their duty to warn away newcomers and nostalgic vets alike. It frequently seems as if they are happier holding their grudges and basking in shared hatred of SOE than actually seeing improvement to the game. The game's progress since then is an inconvenient reality that is ignored.

The NGE happened a very long time ago. The game in 2011 bears little resemblance to the version of the game forced on players in 2005. For that matter, the game at launch bore very little little resemblance to the game most veterans have fabricated in their memories with the help of nostalgia and time. It had problems. Big problems. Catastrophically broken or useless professions and skills. Awkward combat. No vehicles or mounts, let alone starships. No player cities. No quests. Grind-based skilling. Lag. Empty non-capital cities. Long travel times. AFK botting.

Honestly, it was a terrible game. But the possibilities of the world kept us hooked. Cantinas. Non-combat Entertainer professions. Roleplay. Unequaled crafting and harvesting. Open-world housing. Communities designed around these things. It was a golden age in MMOs, but every golden age ends, NGE or not. And no amount of development can bring back those days exactly as they were.

Still, in the many years since the NGE, SOE has tried to do just that, albeit with limited resources. While the current game is still class- and level-based, most of the systems stripped away have returned, more robust than they were before, systems like Beast Mastery and pets, Ranger camps, creature harvesting and milking, bio-engineered food, and combat Entertainers. New crafting systems like reverse engineering were implemented, allowing players to make skill tapes and add them to gear. Cybernetics, new armor, new clothing palettes, new structures, new harvesters, and new furniture were added. Food and droids received massive overhauls. Several passes on PvP have been undertaken. Houses and vendors conveniently pack up to datapads. The TCG, like or loathe it, brought new gameplay and exclusive loot akin to what is sold in other P2P MMOs' cash shops. A legacy quest line and several themeparks bring actual combat content to the game. Roleplayers and quest-plotters can revel in the storyteller/chronicles system, one of the very few player-generated content systems in a major MMO.

If you can muster even a shred of objectivity, you have to admit it's a better game at eight years old than it ever was. SWG is ripening with age. Even the nuisance of class-based gameplay seems pretty minor next to the influx of and improvements to content. Of course I'd rather have back free-form character development. But it's not going to happen, and at this point it wouldn't improve the game significantly anyway except for those people who have vowed never to return, so why keep moaning about it? SOE knows that even if classes were abolished, you'd just find some other reason to complain and leave. At this stage, the company has to cater to its currently existing customers, not the ones who quit half a decade ago. You don't want the team to make the same mistake twice. Right?

I can understand why SWG veterans feel such crushing disappointment about the NGE. Our memories and our trust were violated. We can't ever go back home, not exactly the way it was. But every time we turn up on a forum or blog to grouse about how the NGE ruined everything and how nothing done since can ever make up for that one bad decision, we are reinforcing Smedley's assertion that "straight sandbox games don't work." We're telling all the other developers out there that sandboxes are dead and that sandbox fans aren't worth the trouble -- that all the grumpy Uncle Owens are a niche group not worth pandering to because they'll never be satisfied with anything the devs do anyway.

Bugger that. I want a blockbuster sandbox. I want to prove Smedley wrong.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!