Apr 27, 2015

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What Could Have Been, And What Might Never Be

Some days I miss the time when my friends and I would religiously play Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies. We had a lot of fun with this (at the time) brand new genre of video game, the massive multiplayer online role-playing game which was unlike anything we’d played before. Well, unlike the way we’d played anything before. I remember the days of BBS games like TradeWars and the per-hour games of ISPs like AOL and CompuServe, but there was nothing prior that compared to the experience of saving up money to buy a house in UO or finding a rich deposit of minerals on the Corellian plains in SWG. My friends and I would hash out our plans for character advancement and business opportunities, and review what went right and what went wrong during our last session whenever we could. We made websites for ourselves with grand ideas of starting far-reaching guilds, in the days before off-the-shelf, push-button website deployment was the norm.

I’ve tried to return to those games over the years. If you’re old enough (and far enough) to make the trek back to your childhood neighborhood, you’ll understand what it’s like to see those old sights that you remember, but which now…are not quite right. Buildings are razed and added, and nature has it’s own designs, of course. You’ll remember playing in a schoolyard (that’s now a bank) or hanging out at a friend’s house (whose family no longer lives there), so while everything looks similar, it’s just not the same. It’ll never be the same.

That’s why a series of posts of UO and SWG designer Raph Koster [1][2][3][4] really piqued my interest. He’s been recounting what went into creating SWG, both the good and the bad. All of the articles are a worthwhile read if you’re interested in MMO history or want a peek into the process behind making an MMO. I’m not so sure if it’s worthwhile for hardcore SWG fans, though, because while it’s plenty illuminating, certain parts are really heartbreaking.

For all of the systems that go right in these games, we never know what is tentatively hanging on by a thread, or what never even made it off the drawing board. For SWG, Koster admits that the combat system was horribly broken; worse than even the most cynical forum troll could imagine. He also talks about the music creation system that was abandoned because the music industry was concerned it could be used to violate copyrights. There were mentions of systems and events in these posts that I had forgotten about; I had jumped into SWG for a spell right before they pulled the plug on the game, but only in the capacity of a old man returning to the neighborhood of his youth. I didn’t really revisit the game in earnest, so Koster’s posts helped with some of those forgotten memories.

It’s a shame that many of the features that never made it into the game will probably never make it into any game. In a more technologically mature environment, it might be that some of those proposals that were limited by the technology of the time are now more feasible. The only thing that hasn’t changed, it seems, is the bureaucracy involved in taking the risks needed to put a system out there for consumer review. MMO publishers are notoriously risk-averse, and the result is less SWG-like games, and more World of Warcraft-like games. I’m sure someone would be happy to point me in the direction of Crowfall, which has Koster as a consultant and which claims to be breaking all kinds of molds, but we’ve heard those lines before, and decades of demand for WoW clones has crushed many of even the most promising of innovators. Maybe if Crowfall makes good on it’s hyperbolic promises it’ll show publishers that deviating from the accepted carrots of loot and achievement can be profitable; best case scenario, it’ll be wildly profitable and show others in the industry that it’s OK to look back beyond WoW for inspiration and bring back the innovation.

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