The Think Tank: Did Star Wars Galaxies' NGE poison the MMO development well?

Sad Stormtrooper

The MMO community's favorite hyperbole must surely be "that's such-and-such-a-game's NGE." Star Wars: The Old Republic redoes talent trees? SWTOR's NGE! Guild Wars 2 revamps its noob game? GW2's NGE! World of Warcraft adds a panda race? WoW's NGE!

This bugs me for several reasons. It distorts and devalues the very real impact the NGE had on Star Wars Galaxies, which if nothing else is annoying from a historical perspective. The NGE was a lot more than a talent tree revamp or goofy race, and it also changed over time. But more importantly, lazy use of the term might make MMO developers change-averse, even when changes are desperately needed.

Do people overuse the term? Has there ever been an MMO trainwreck as big as the NGE? And above all else, did NGE poison the well -- are developers afraid of making sweeping changes, however much they are needed, lest they be unfavorably compared to one of the worst disasters in MMO history? These are the questions I asked the Massively team in today's Think Tank.

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist

@ceruleangrey: I think "X is Y Game's NGE" is just one of at least a dozen comparative phrases that are equally useless in predicting the outcome of anything. At best it's usually a shallow comparison with little or no analysis of the circumstances in which the games involved differ; at worst it's a kind of snide wishful thinking that actually translates to, "I think this will affect Y Game the way the NGE affected Star Wars Galaxies, and nothing could make me happier." If you're going to say this kind of thing, at least back it up with the whys and hows and make a decent case for it. Unless, of course, you're trolling.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief

@nbrianna: I've been railing against the unfair characterization of the NGE for years. It was bad the first year or so after the NGE. It was a trainwreck of epic proportions, and it caused the game to positively bleed subs, though sadly not as many as some other games in so short a time as in recent memory. But SOE spent years undoing LucasArts' demands, and in its last few years of operation, Star Wars Galaxies, though technically still under the banner of the NGE, was actually a much deeper game with more and better systems than it had in 2003, full stop, and I say this as a die-hard fan of classic SWG too. So first and foremost, that mischaracterization of the NGE does annoy me, especially when it's being abused by people who don't really even understand what the NGE was and insist on melodramatically comparing every minute change to it.

But I do think the industry is change-averse, and I think the NGE is certainly one of many reasons. It was a serious lesson learned very publicly by one of the highest-population pre-WoW MMOs: Don't change so dramatically mid-stream that your core quits! To a lesser extent, it taught everyone a different lesson: WoW clones don't do very well as long as WoW is still offering WoW. I couldn't help but have WildStar in mind when writing this week's question; it seems to be in exactly that same place, trying to ape WoW, failing to convince the market, and being paralyzed by indecision over whether to doggedly stick by its small (dwindling?) core or change its dated design philosophy mid-stream for a larger slice of the proverbial MMO population pie.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor

@Eliot_Lefebvre: Throwing around the term "it's such-and-such game's NGE" is a really dumb way of saying "I don't like this change" while simultaneously missing out on all of the context. People are quick to throw out the NGE term, but how many of them remember what the three letters stand for? How many remember the Combat Upgrade? How many people go on to recall that the NGE was implemented in 2005 and the game went on to run for another six years after that, implementing a lot of the features that people remember fondly only after that change? It'd be wrong to argue that it was a high-water mark for the game, but using "NGE" as shorthand for "change that killed the game" is almost criminally inaccurate.

Fortunately and unfortunately alike, I don't think most designers are particularly deterred by it. Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it results in something like World of Warcraft's continued drive to fix problems like "classes are kind of different from one another." Change can be dangerous, but stagnation is even worse. Considering that my current main game got shut down and remade almost completely, resulting in a title that's still getting critical praise, I think the success stories of sweeping changes outweigh the times that they turned out to be bad ideas and far outweigh the times that keeping everything exactly the same forever turned out to be the right call.

Larry Everett, Columnist

@Shaddoe: I am seriously annoyed by gamers using the term NGE frivolously. There are two major faults with using the term NGE the way that most people us it. First, the NGE was a complete overhaul of not only the combat system but also the way characters progressed in the game itself. It took a game that was mostly a sandbox and added linear content to it as well as taking a turn-based combat system and changing it to a clunky, actiony system. Then to top it off, it took 32 professions and narrowed them down to nine. Pretty much the game that launched was completely different than the game that existed after the NGE. No other game has done that before or since.

However, my biggest complaint is people using "NGE" to represent failure. Although the NGE did cause a massive number of people to leave the game early on, the NGE version of the game lasted three or four times as long as any other version of the game. Ultimately, there were fewer bugs, better content, more solid systems, and an amazing playerbase after the NGE hit. As much as I disliked the NGE when it launched, I believe final product of SWG was better than it started.

So if by "NGE" people mean that it will ultimately be better off by the serious changes the game is making, then I will agree. But I highly doubt anyone means anything positive by stating that a change will be such-and-such game's NGE.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor

@MikedotFoster: I don't think MMO developers have shown any aversion to sweeping changes. Firefall has strayed super far from its original design. Final Fantasy XIV is a different game entirely. Major MMO updates continually change and rebalance established mechanics. The fact that we're talking about people shouting "NGE!" means that these changes are still occurring.

Developers and publishers are mostly driven by survival and will do whatever it takes to keep money coming in. It's the players that are usually the ones complaining; more specifically, it's usually a vocal minority of players who have grown accustomed to the current power balance and don't want to see it tinkered with. That's not to say all big changes are good or that games should change for change's sake (NGE seems to be the shining example of change gone wrong), but I think most readers would agree that the changes we often see aren't nearly the game-ending catastrophes forums make them out to be.

I would probably say that communication is the biggest lesson learned. Better communication makes for better changes and a better community. If nothing else, it softens the blow when changes are implemented.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.