July 22, 2006
So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?

I posted this yesterday at my blog and thought I would cross-post it here, considering its relevance to prior discussions we've had in the consortium:

Earlier this week, Next Generation published a short excerpt from my much longer discussion of Star Wars Galaxies and user-generated content in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The publication seems to have prompted game designer and theorist Raph Koster to blog about what he learned by adopting a more collaborationist approach to his fans. Here's some of what he had to say:

Some have since decided that it was listening to the players too much that caused some of the design problems with SWG. I am not sure I agree. If anything, I think that many subsequent problems came from not listening enough, or not asking questions in advance of changes. Walking a mile in the players' shoes is a difficult trick to pull off even if you have the best of intentions.

The tensest and most difficult moments in SWG's development -- and they came often -- were when we had to remove something that players really liked. Usually, it was against our own wishes, because of time constraints or (rarely) orders from on high. But we couldn't tell the players the real reasons sometimes. That sucked, frankly, because the open relationship really did matter. As often as we could, we laid everything bare.

These days, it's accepted wisdom that you don't reveal a feature until it's done, so as to guarantee that you never let the players down. Of course, even finished features sometimes fall out for one reason or another...

In any case, I think I don't agree with that philosophy. I'd rather have prospective players on a journey with the team, than have them be a passive group marketed to. Yes, they will suffer the ups and downs, and see the making of the sausage... but these days, that's getting to be an accepted thing in creative fields. There's not much to gain, to my mind, in having the creators sitting off on a pedestal somewhere -- people fall from pedestals, and pedestals certainly will not survive contact with Live operation of a virtual world. Instead, I'd rather the customers know the creators as people who make mistakes, so that when one happens, they are more likely to be forgiven or understood.

One of the challenges of academic publishing is that the world can move out from under year in that long, long period of time between when you finish a book and when it hits the shelves. In the case of Convergence Culture, one of the biggest shifts was the meltdown which has occured in the relations between the players and creators of Star Wars Galaxies, much of which really hit the fan last December. I still think what the book says about Star Wars Galaxies -- Raph Koster, as the comments above suggest, remains a leading advocate for a more collaborationist relationship between producers and consumers; his approach does contrast with at least some of the policies that Lucas has applied elsewhere in dealing with other aspects of Star Wars fandom and so Star Wars represents a rich case study of the uncertain and unstable relations between media franchises and their consumers. If anything, these contrasts are even easier to see when we see how shifts in company leadership impacted the community around this particular game.

I have not been on the inside of that meltdown. Most of what I know came from a close reading of news reports about what happened and conversations with other games researchers, such as USC's Doug Thomas or UW's Kurt Squire. I am sure there are readers who could tell us more about what happened than I can and I would welcome them to share their experiences here. I prepared some reflections about what happened for our Convergence Culture Consortium partners newsletter last January.


Shortly after Christmas, a friend and fellow researcher Doug Thomas sent me a link to a fascinating and moving fan-made video by Javier -- marking his decision to leave the massively multiplayer game world, Star Wars Galaxies, and commenting on the mass migration of hard core fans and players from this space.

Some background is needed to be able to appreciate this video and what it might suggest about the nature of fan investments in MMPORGS. In keeping with the cantina sequences which have been a favorite aspect of the Star Wars film series, the game provides opportunities for players to select the entertainer class as a possible role within its world. Javier helped to organize the Entertainer class players to create an extraordinary series of Cantina Musicals -- elaborate Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers which required the participation and cooperation of a cast of hundreds of players.

As you watch the video, keep in mind that each character is controlled by an individual player, hitting buttons in a choreographed manner,who may be separated from the other participants by thousands of miles of real world geography. The potential for such videos is built into the game -- through the capacity to move characters in certain ways,for players to share common spaces and experiences, and for players to record their own game play activities -- but no one in the game company imagined that the fans would have used them to create Lawrence Welk-inflected Christmas specials or to protest company policies. In short, the video expresses the power of the fan community both in terms of how it was made and in terms of what it has to say about the experience of playing the game....

Raph Koster saw the Star Wars fans as co-designers in the development of the game: actively courting them from the project's conception, sharing design docs and getting their feedback at every step of the way, designing a game which was highly dependent on fan creativity to provide much of its content and fan performance to create mutually rewarding experiences within the game.

Here are some of the things Koster did right in courting Star Wars fans:

1. He respected their expertise and emotional investments in the series.
2. He opened a channel of communications with fans early in the process.
3. He actively solicited advice from fans about design decisions and followed that advice where-ever possible.
4. He created resources which sustained multiple sets of interests in the series.
5. He designed forms of game play which allowed fans to play diverse roles which were mutually reinforcing.

Here's some of what he had to say about the importance of fans to the franchise's success:

"There's no denying it - the fans know Star Wars better than the developers do. They live and breathe it. They know it in an intimate way. On the other hand, with something as large and broad as the Star Wars universe, there's ample scope for divergent opinions about things. These are the things that lead to religious wars among fans and all of a sudden you have to take a side because you are going to be etablishing how it works in this game."

That said, the policies Koster created were eroded over time, leading to increased player frustration and distrust. In another video, Javier traces a history of grievances and conflicts between the "Powers That Be" within the game company and the Entertainer class of characters. Some casual players felt the game was too dependent on player-generated content, while the more creative players felt that upgrades actually restricted their ability to express themselves through the game and marginalized the Entertainer class from the overall experience. At the same time, the game failed to meet the company's own revenue expectations, especially in the face of competition from the enormously successful World of Warcraft, a game which adopted a very different design philosophy.

Late last year, the company announced plans to radically revamp the game's rules and content, a decision that has led to the wholesale alienation of the existing player base and massive defections. It remains to be seen if the plans will draw in new consumers; it is clear that they have significantly destroyed the existing fan culture. Javier is not alone in seeing these decisions as the end of the road for his community.

The statements made by Nancy MacIntyre, the game's senior director, at LucasArts to the New York Times illustrates the huge shift in thinking from Koster's original philosophy to this "retooled" franchise:

We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base. There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves.

MacIntyre's comments represent a classic set of mistakes in thinking about how to build a fan community around a property:

1. Don't confuse "accessibility" with simplicity. As Steve Johnson notes in his best-selling book, Everything Bad is Good For You, or educator James Paul Gee argues in his new book, Video Games Are Good For the Soul, contemporary media audiences are searching for complexity, not simplicity. The video games that succeed in the market are the ones that demand the most of their players -- not those that require the least. The key to successful games is not dumb content, but complexity that is organized and managed so that users can handle it.

2. Don't underestimate the intelligence of your consumers. Gamers are not illiterate. They are not necessarily simply kids. Industry statistics suggest that the average gamer is in his/her late 20s or early 30s and all signs are that the game market is expanding as the initial generation of gamers ages. Star Wars Galaxies consumers skewed older and as such, they wanted something different from the game play experience than younger Star Wars fans. And if you do think your consumers are idiots, it is not bright to say so to New York Times reporters. The fans do read newspapers and as members of a collective intelligence community, they have an enormous network for circulating information that matters to the group. These comments have come back to haunt the corporate executives many times over and probably did as much as anything else in creating a mass exodus from the game.

3. In an age of transmedia storytelling, don't assume fans want the same experience from every installment of the same franchise. There are many films, books, comics, and games out there which focus on the experience of the central protagonists of the series. Koster wisely recognized that while individual players might want to BE Luke Skywalker or Hans Solo, a world where everyone was a Jedi would be boring for all involved. Instead, he created a game world where there were many different classes of players (including the Entertainer class) and where each of those roles interacted in a complicated ecology of experience.

4. Don't underestimate the diversity of fan cultures. Contrary to what is often claimed, successful media properties do not appeal to the lowest common denominator. Rather, they draw together a coalition of micro-publics, each with their own interests in the material, each expressing their emotional bonds with the content in their own ways. Accordingly, Star Wars has a large, diverse audience interested in everything from the flora and fauna to interrelationships among characters. Given such diversity, why would you assume that the core market only wants to blow things up? The real sweet spot would be to /tap into/ these diverse audiences and sell even more copies. Why, given the richness of fan creative expression around Star Wars, would you assume that Luke Skywalker is the only role people care about? The goal should have been to expand the range of experiences available in the game rather than dismantle what appealed to one audience in hopes of attracting another.

5. Don't underestimate the value of fan creative contributions to the success of contemporary media franchises. Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, the most successful game franchise of all time, has suggested that his success can be traced directly back to player contributions:

We see such benefit from interacting with our fans. They are not just people who buy our stuff. In a very real sense, they are people who helped to create our stuff...We are competing with other properties for these creative individuals. All of these different games are competing for communities, which in the long run are what will drive our sales.... Whichever game attracts the best community will enjoy the most success. What you can do to make the game more successful is not to make the game better but to make the community better. Conversely, when you alienate your most active and creative fans -- folks like Javier -- then you severely damage the franchise as a whole. These people play valuable roles as grassroots intermediaries helping to build up interest in your property and as performers helping to shape the experience of other players.

6. Don't Sacrifice your existing fan base in search of a totally different market. The kind of robust and creative fan cultures Wright and Koster describe in their comments above are hard to build and even harder to rebuild. To some degree, fans have to find media properties which meets their needs, even though companies can adopt policies of fan relations which will make them more receptive to fans and can help to sustain such communities once they emerge. Koster worked hard to win over Star Wars fans who were skeptical about his efforts given the history of fairly simplistic action-oriented solo-player titles within the Star Wars franchises. Koster, himself, was fully aware that you could not institute large scale changes in such a game world without damaging the kind of trust he had helped to establish. Here's what he told me when I interviewed him for my book: "Just like it is not a good idea for a government to make radical legal changes without a period of public comment, it is often not wise for an operator of an online world to do the same."

I have just scratched the surface here. I suspect the rise and fall of Star Wars Galaxies will be studied for years to come as a textbook example of good and bad ways to deal with fan communities. Certainly our member companies should draw on it as a reference in framing and evaluating their own fan relations policies.