In "Blowing Up Galaxies" in this week's The Escapist, Allen Varney describes the aftermath of Sony Online Entertainment's disastrous "New Game Enhancements" for its Star Wars Galaxies MMOG. Now Allen recounts a tragicomic sidelight to the NGE, the story of how blame for the entire NGE fell on one hapless underling.
The "New Game Enhancements" in November 2005 demonstrated the SWG team's failure to communicate with, or listen to, its customers.
Instead of carefully soliciting feedback and cultivating player expectations over months - basically, selling the idea - SOE sprang the NGE on its players with barely two weeks' notice. (Some accuse Sony of stalling the announcement to maximize sales from its Trials of Obi-Wan expansion, which debuted mere weeks before the NGE rendered it useless.)
One consequence of this stonewalling was that the Betrayed, the bloodthirsty SWG players - and there were many - had no one to blame.
Even after the NGE announcement, individual developers, perhaps sensing the imminent train wreck, went mum. The silence was complete - almost.
Shortly before the NGE launched in November, 2005, SWG developer Jeff Freeman made one entry on his blog. Freeman was a recruit and disciple of SWG Creative Director Raph Koster. His title was "Lead Game Play Designer," which despite appearances is a relatively junior position in the many-layered SOE hierarchy. Unluckily for Freeman, this single post turned out to be the sole instance of any SOE employee - or, heaven knows, any LucasArts marketing executive - taking any responsibility whatever for any aspect of the NGE:
So don't get the crazy notion that I'm "in charge" here. "The Man" is a many-headed beast called Management. I just try to help it make good decisions. With regard to game mechanics, it even lets me decide, sometimes.
So a few months ago The Man comes along and says "What can we do to make this the most fun game it can possibly be?"
It was the lead designer who holed-up in his office for a few days and then said, "Hey, come look at this."
There's no way we can do that.
There's no way we should do that.
Man that's fun.
The Man will never let us get away with doing that.
We can't do it.
We shouldn't do it.
Oh man that is fun.
When an executive producer sees something that is impossible to do, but which is too fun not to do, he makes a noise like "Hoooooooooph."
My job was to be the guy to say, "Yes we can do that." I had to say this about forty times a day for two months.
When the NGE launched and the fiasco became apparent, Freeman deleted this post - but not before the Betrayed found it. A name! At last, a name for all their grief!
The Betrayed descended like maenads. On "refugee" forums like MMORPG.com's "SWG Veterans Refuge," dozens of bitter young males, unfamiliar with the collaborative design of MMOGs, heaped daily scorn upon this water-carrier, this flunky, as the unstoppable mastermind of the entire NGE. Here are three near-consecutive posts from a single topic in June 2006, seven months after the NGE launch:
- He [Freeman] wanted the changes, he was the one saying it was too fun not to do... that they could get away with it.
- Destroy everything and leave. What does he think SWG is, Iraq?
- He destroyed everything that worked with SWG and didn't fix anything that sucked about swg leaving the worst ever constructed mmo I have ever had the misfortune to play. That is Jeff Freeman's resume.
Worst MMO ever.
Though his original blog post was unclear, Freeman was in fact discussing just one aspect of the NGE: its "Fast Action Combat," the only part he designed. (He still believes it improved the game.) In late 2006, after he left SOE - he now has a design position at Spacetime Studios - Freeman ventured, perhaps unwisely, onto the MMORPG.com refugee forum to clarify this.
But no! No, this idea could not be allowed! The mastermind Freeman was solely responsible for this entire betrayal, and forevermore must his name be dirt!
- You could have told them: This sucks, watching paint dry is more fun, it will NEVER go over, and DONT DO IT. You didn't.
- Even if we accept that you didn't design the thing, you just looked at the plans and answered honestly 'yes it can' when you were asked if it *could* be built, you can't slopey shoulder the burden because you looked at the idea, you agreed to do the job and, in your own words, you were the guy whose job it was to say "yes we can do this." Really, you should have asked "SHOULD" we do this.
- He was PROUD of his little creation. Granted he didn't have the "original" idea. But that person went to him and he spent weeks, day after day after day (in his own words) trying to sell the idea of the NGE. He finally got his way and we lost our game. ... Jeff Freeman PERSONALLY screwed Raph, SWG and all of us.
Freeman posted the same clarifications repeatedly for weeks, to no avail. Somehow he managed to avoid looking embattled. Eventually someone asked him why he kept at it:
Because I spent almost six years working on SWG, and it kills me that the only people who liked it, hate me. Frequently for misinformed reasons.
To repeat, this Freeman foofaraw arose because of SOE's poor communication with the SWG audience. The SWG team - if not, so far, Sony Online or LucasArts execs - learned from this mistake. Sabrehawk, SWG site manager for The Escapist's sister site WarCry, says of the game's forums, "SWG veterans will see a level of developer involvement with the community that far exceeds anything in the past. In fact, in my experience, I haven't seen anything like this in any other MMO. Granted, some might call it rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but they're definitely moving in the right direction."
There are probably other lessons to be learned from Freeman's experience, but we'll leave them to him. Believe it or not, Jeff Freeman - clearly a man of iron nerve - is still blogging.