I was forwarded an interesting article at work. It’s a blog post from Henry Jenkins discussing the evolution of the star wars galaxy community. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in MMO train wrecks or theories of collaborative content creation. I haven’t actually played SWG, but have been following it’s development since launch. For those who haven’t been following it, the wikipedia article is a good way to read about the history and some of the controversy. Galaxies is known for elaborate fan-created music videos, an originally crappy combat system, the first in-game protests and police crackdown, and a radical game design change that alienated their entire remaining player base.
Jenkins talks about the successes of the community strategy of Raph Koster and his team. Involving the community early and often did create a strong, collaborative relationship between developers and community members. This is a great relationship, and reaps many benefits. Players learn to see the developers as real people who make mistakes. It’s a great way to get feedback on changes and suggestions for the future. And, an active community is great at evangelizing your game. Solid word of mouth does way more for the success of an MMO than any crazily idiotic marketing scheme ever can, and should not be underestimated. However, relying too heavily on your community has drawbacks:
The first problem is when there’s trouble in paradise. Because the active community members of SWG had such a deep level of involvement with the game, any changes made became personal. A healthy relationship just makes the breakup more painful. When a CSR disaster like the protests or a dramatic and sudden change like the New Game Experience happens, the inexplicability of the betrayal makes it even worse. Once you establish that kind of connection with your players, you need to nourish it. Over the last year or so, SOE and Lucasarts have attempted the innovative strategy of attempting to nourish a relationship by force feeding it crap.
The second problem is what lead to all that trouble. If you listen exclusively to any group of players (such as forum posters), you start catering your game to them. Your casual players, who are less vocal and less involved, end up getting less attention, and their gameplay experience starts to worsen. Eventually, developers get so overwhelmed with the community feedback that they can’t separate the important feedback from the waves of bickering. Feedback that should be heard gets ignored, and the end result is that casual players quit. You end up with a user base that consists largely of creative content producers, active self-sustaining clans, and the addicted. You can certainly make money off this combination. Small, focused games can serve this audience, make a profit, and create something artistic and interesting. Compared to that, SWG can better be described as a living, amorphous blob the size of the universe, with really bad eye sight. And good dance moves.
By committing to a full exploration of a complicated universe, and depending on an expensive license, the designers sealed the game’s fate. In order to sustain the kind of development needed to realize their vision, they needed a large, diverse, player base. For a healthy community of that size, you need a large casual player base, a smaller group of involved community members, and a still smaller group of community leaders and content producers. They had this mix in the very beginning, but it wouldn’t last. With the exodus of the casual players due to the lame combat, the desertion of the involved community due to relationship problems, only the addicted remain.