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Friday, May 19, 2006

I AM Brain-Damaged.. SOE is OK?

I must be losing my mind.  You all have seen my posts here and you can tell that I am obviously no fan of Sony.  I own a lot of their products, true, and have subscribed to some of their services and will again.  As most of you know, SOE, the mutant child of Sony will be co-publishing my beloved Vanguard: Saga of Heroes when it ships.  Here is the weird part.  I’m OK with it.

Here’s why;  All of my problems with SOE as a company are related to game design issues.  While I have heard the hue and cry of others in the community that decry SOE’s “horrible customer service,” I have never experienced that myself.  What I have experienced are wholesale changes in game play, multiple times, to the same game.  Since it’s the most glaring example lets look at SWG.

Branyanu and I started SWG pretty much at launch.  We’d messed with it a little during beta, and there were a lot of things that we liked.  Let me start off by saying that the game was obviously broken at launch.  We didn’t start out doing a lot of adventuring but instead took to crafting at the outset.  The first time we went adventuring with our friends I could see that something was, to use a Texas phrase, bad wrong with the game.  Our friend had a character that was low-level.  In a level-based game he would have been the equivalent of a level 9 or so character.  He was a Creature Handler (CH) and when we went hunting, he ripped out his 2 or 3 (I don’t remember the details) Rancor pets.  These things were as big as my house and bad-ass.. and we tore through content with them.  Of course, SOE nerfed the CH.  This brought an outcry from the community (“I thought this game was supposed to be solo and casual friendly!” ”How can I survive without all my uber-pets?”)  I thought the complaining was ridiculous since it was the most obviously broken class I had ever seen in any game.  So good job, SOE, right?  Well not so fast.

SOE followed up the needed nerfage with unneeded meddling with the game.  Maybe the game was underachieving and they felt that they needed to do something.  I would have suggested adding content and new ways to interact with the existing world.  I would have suggested fixing bugs.  I would have suggested more aggressive marketing.  SOE gave us the combat “upgrade” (CU.)  

After the CU, I logged in one day to find my beloved Wookie being owned by a very low level bug in the grass. I tried to shoot him, but my weapon was not equipped.  When I tried to equip my pistol, which by the way was customized and had my name on it thanks to my favorite weapon smith, I was unceremoniously informed that I lacked the skill to wield that weapon.  Turns out everything I knew, combat-wise, was in the toilet.  OK, I always have my crafting to fall back on.  Now for a long time I was a Master Architect.  I made harvesters which required a massive amount of resources to build.  These were used, in turn, to gather more resources.  I spent tons of time and I forget how many credits getting them all built.  At the time I made them, there was no way that you could influence the quality of the harvesters so I made them with whatever resources were available.  SOE changed the rules and made quality of construction count on harvesters, rendering mine inferior and basically forcing me to start that part of my career over if I wanted to stay competitive.  This was a design decision that could have been foreseen and should have been made, in my opinion, pre-launch.  Worse, in my opinion, they made it so you could grind your way to Jedi status.  This broke the game further by breaking it into 2 classes; Jedi and non-Jedi.  The differences were glaring and if you didn’t want to do the “Jedi grind,” as it came to be known, you were further devalued in the game.  Regardless, I took advantage of my opportunity to respect my character and made a non-crafting Wookie out of him.  Then came the New Game Experience (NGE.)  

The NGE was purported to make the game more attractive to new players.  Evidently, the game had continued to under-perform, in spite of SOE’s “adjustments.” This made more changes necessary.  This time, all the classes in SWG were reduced to a few, and all of the “support” classes were eliminated.  This disenfranchised thousands of crafters and dancers and other classes that had enjoyed the game at a different level.  Tens of thousands reportedly left the game.

At any rate, I’ve begun to ramble but the point is that SOE as a game design company has demonstrated that they don’t “get”  MMO gamers.  We pour tons of hours and care into our characters and that has value to us. To rip those from us in the name of gaining new subscribers only alienates us, the people that HAVE been paying to play.  New players often come and go, and are more transitory in nature.  Now SOE has eroded their core base and subjected themselves to the whims of a much more transitory “twitch” gamer, who notoriously moves from game to game just looking for something new and hot.  I guess they forgot about how MMO gamers stick with games for years at a chunk instead of weeks.

So how does this relate to my being OK with SOE hosting the Vanguard servers?  Well, Brad has always been very honest with us, and he looked me in the eye and told me “never” when I asked him when SOE might have control over game play.  That is good enough for me.  Brad has occasionally stubbornly stuck to his guns when he needed to make a concession, but he has never lied or intentionally misdirected the community that I have ever seen.  

So as much as it will pain me to see that SOE logo on the Vanguard box, you can bet that I will be there when the doors open at Fry’s and I’ll be among the first to be on Vanguard Live.  Sometimes the devil is entertaining when you put him in a little box, anyway.  If nothing else, this should make for some interesting observation over the next few years.