Now that SOE is gone (long live Daybreak Games!) we should go ahead and have the Star Wars:Galaxies NGE discussion.
I'll start with the easy part: The NGE was my fault.
I'll also say that memory is an imperfect thing, particularly around emotional circumstances, so I won't say this is 100% accurate, but it's the way I remember it.
I was running SWG starting before the Jump to Lightspeed expansion was announced. This wouldn't have happened if SOE had been happy with the size and thus profitability of the game. Expectations had been that SWG would be as big, if not bigger than EQ which at the time was ~500k players. SWG had briefly gone over 400k but settled down into a 200-250k level. The Holicron addition and hints on how to get a Jedi ended up slowing net growth of the game and undermined the in-game community as people tried to macro their way to Jedi.
We had hoped that by adding the "Stars" in Star Wars (i.e. space vehicles and flight) that the game would grow significantly. But SWG had more fundamental issues around the combat system (which hadn't gotten nearly enough iteration before launch), and an overwhelming amount of bugs, balance tuning and missing features for the dozens of various professions was holding the game back. The team was constantly working against a giant backlog of these issues just to keep the players we had retained.
SWG was a real masterpiece in many ways. The team, led by Rich Vogel, John Donham and Raph Koster, built an amazing game, both in scope and AAA presentation. It had a character customization system that was the state of the art for the time (and still better than many we see today). An amazing diversity of professions and skill trees. Some extremely innovative design and gameplay roles were first seen in SWG. Having a player council was a SWG innovation. Rather than using the EQ technology, and entire new engine was created to match the requirement of SWG. And this was all done for <$18m in <3 years (2 years and 9 months), launching in June 2003. This was and remains unprecedented achievement in building a AAA MMO. And like so many MMOs, it was launched far too soon for financial reasons, so there were plenty of problems at launch and beyond.
After the Jump to Lightspeed expansion launched (Oct 2004), it was clear that our audience size was clearly <300k and that was not acceptable to SOE (or to LucasArts).
We were working hard to fix the bugs, missing features and trying to make the audience happier so we could grow. But that was a slow grind, even though SOE had added significantly more development resources in 2004 when I joined the team along with my team that had been working on an unannounced SOE project.
Elements of the SWG team had this idea that maybe we should build a second Star Wars game that was focused on the "War" in Star Wars. It would be large scale battle game for planetary conquest. That way we could have more people in bigger battles (the character customization in SWG was far too detailed to have lots of players on the screen without significant performance issues). We could have a game where people fought over planets and they'd be dominated by either the Rebels or the Empire until they switched hands again in a galactic strategy game. We could build a real twitch combat system that was less turn based and more visceral. It was a very exciting idea.
I championed an idea to SOE and LucasArts that we build this game with a new team, sell it as a separate product, but actually share the universe with SWG. No matter which game you initially joined, your subscription would give you access to both games. You'd have a battle game and a role playing game all together. The battles would take place on new worlds, but the outcomes would affect who owned the SWG worlds, such that the worlds in SWG would change who owned the government buildings and towns, empire and rebel banners swapping out, storm troopers patrolling where formerly the rebel soldiers would have been found. And an overall strategy game at the planetary level, bringing the "Wars" to Star Wars.
Management was excited about this concept until the cost of this new game was clear and neither company (SOE or LucasArts) wanted to (or were able) make that investment. But the thought remained that a Star Wars game with more "Wars" in it could be huge.
A prototype of the combat and faction switching in a town had been built. That and the launch World of Warcraft game influenced the development of the Combat Upgrade (Apr 2005) and following New Game Experience (Nov 2005).
The context at that time was that World of Warcraft had launched in November 2004, and so had Everquest 2. Everquest 2 clearly didn't meet expectations as WOW took off, even with their early shortages of product. Almost every other MMO in the market got less play and less acquisition as WOW took market share. So there were noticeable financial stresses on SOE and all the other MMO companies.
I participated in the early planning for the NGE, and I was told to execute it over my and many others on the SWG teams’ objections. I failed as an effective communicator in my attempts to change this course. In March of 2005 my boss came to Austin for a visit, and I told him I was going to refuse to move forward on the NGE development and launch. I had assessed that it would be a breach of my fiduciary duty to do so. I believed (and told him) that launching the planned NGE would alienate the customer base, cause at least half of them to quit and lose the company 10’s of millions of dollars. At the same time I told him he deserved to have people that worked for him do what he said, and I was sorry I was being intransigent. A week later I was terminated, and frankly I was never happier to be fired. I don't blame my management, as I basically made them do it. Being in conflict with your management is never fun, but doing something you don't believe in is worse.
I watched the launch and outcome of the NGE launch closely. I actually hoped that the NGE would work out, as that would have meant that I’d have to revisit my entire mental framework on working with MMO communities. But the customer losses were significant, and the blow to both the SWG and SOE brands was noticeable. Destroying player persistence, the professions they’d put months or years of work into, along with their identities, to make the game “better” for new customers wasn’t a win from my external assessment. Many of those alienated customers became activists against SOE due to their losses, and the bad feelings around this change to SWG continues with ex-customers to this day.
I want to stress that everyone that I knew who were involved with SWG at SOE and at LucasArts were trying to do the best thing as they saw it for their companies and for the long-term benefit of the game. I just didn’t believe then or now that it was right thing to do from a customer stewardship and fiduciary standpoint.
So I feel I am responsible for the NGE, because the impetus came from an idea I initially championed, which I as unable to deflect when it was being mis-applied (in my view) to SWG.
Again, the lesson of messing with the core of a game design in order to try and grow revenue being a likely recipe for disaster was demonstrated to me. And I had yet another Forest Gump-type moment in MMO history in my career.
It's OK to grieve a bit if appropriate for you. I don't want to see bashing of John Smedley or any of the other folks I know and respect at the former SOE. It's easy to demonize someone for doing something risky when the results turn out poorly. And we need risk takers to get innovation. What's more valuable is to figure out how to avoid making major mistakes in the first place, and coming up with more creative ways to solve these combination of game/community/business problems.
Please keep the discussion constructive and on-topic. I'll be asking the mods to remove and/or move posts which are off-topic.