Designing a Living Society in SWG, part two
Last time, I talked about the basic skill and economic infrastructure that Star Wars Galaxies provided. Fundamentally, these were about equality. They made the different roles played by players have the same standing in the game. However, it’s still a game, after all — players are going to engage in radically different sorts of activities, probably some will be more fun than others, and nobody is going to just “work a job” for their leisure time.
There was every expectation that combat was still going to be at the heart of the game. Few social MMOs were out there at the time, though they were achieving impressive numbers. Second Life did not yet exist when we began (they actually came to visit me at the office during the early development of SWG, to talk social design and tech). The skills and actions available were dominated by fighting, and this was by and large what the market expected.
However, we could still try to reinvent what people thought fighting meant. In the classic Diku model that players were used to, you basically had classes that were alternate types of damage-dealers. Some dealt it fast, some slow. Some could take a lot of hits, some only a few. Today we think of these as tanks and nukers. The lone support class was the healer type, who basically replenished the combatants so that they could keep going: basically, an indirect damage-dealer more than someone who actually healed.
Given our emphasis on making a social web, we needed to think in terms of different kinds of support.
A knife in a gunfight
SWG combat was originally modeled after tactical combat using modern weaponry. The proto-SWG that had existed before we rebooted the project (described in “A Jedi Saga”) was an RPG, but with a “cone of fire” style FPS-like system, actually not that different in intent from what came much later in the NGE. At the time, Planetside was in early early development and its combat didn’t even work yet. Doing action-based combat fell out for two major reasons:
•First, it was unproven. Oh, there was Neocron, eventually in 2002, but it had real issues. The timeline was already insanely risky.
•Second, and more important given that we were taking on absurd risks in other areas, was the fact that FPSes had crappy retention.
This may seem insane in these days of massive FPS communities, e-sports, and the like. But games driven by skill, as opposed to RPGs, had always suffered greatly in the online games space. They tended to have a fraction as many users as the RPGs did, because the skill barrier, particularly in player-vs-player games, was very high and newbies were chased away. Stats showed that for the RTS and FPS genres, when online play was offered, only a fraction of users would actually engage in it on a regular basis. Not only was it much more latency-sensitive than an RPG combat system with phase-based combat, but if you had a bad spot, you lost.
So, for the sake of a larger audience, we made the counter-intuitive choice to go with RPG combat rather than action. Bear in mind that during this time period we had quite an active group playing Unreal Tournament in the office after hours, and two team members were veteran FPS people: Nick Newhard, designer from Monolith, and Justin Randall, programmer from Ion Storm. These two guys each reached the number one ranking on different worldwide leaderboards in UT during SWG’s development. We also had a bunch of Wing Commander veterans and we had, as a team, actually recently implemented network-based space combat on Privateer Online.
I spent a few weeks reading up on military tactics for snipers, for assault teams using semi-automatic weapons, and (since pistols were obviously important to the setting, even if somewhat obsolete in modern warfare). Worse than pistols, of course, we had to account for the license’s affection for swordfighting and martial arts, which extended well beyond Jedi and into things like vibroblades and Teras Kasi, a Star Wars martial art.
Based on those materials, I tried to set up as many rock-paper-scissors relationships as I could. Each of these things — melee, pistols, carbines, and rifles — got a different “optimal range” for their combat. Like, rifles were actually pretty useless at carbine range and below. Even pistols were useless when closed at by pistols. The deadliest thing a rifleman could or should expect was a vibroblade between the ribs, as a commando snuck up on him while he was in a sniper’s nest.
To help this along, there was an inverse relationship between mobility and optimal combat distance. Rifles were great at huge distances, but they were most effective if you couldn’t move. Melee or pistols needed to keep moving, chasing down enemies because their range wasn’t great.
To accomplish this, we added a system of “stances.” These would play into a set of attacks which were based around forcing the opponent into disadvantageous stances. Sniping was best when prone, for example.
Lastly, given that we had those three sorts of mana/hp, Health, Action, and Mind, I tried to push each of the combat professions towards one of them.
The result should have been not unlike a tactical card game: executing specials targeted at trying to undermine your opponent, pushing into stances, getting skills that allowed you to tumble from prone to standing quickly again, and so on. Riflemen standing well back, sniping carefully into the melee, with stealthed commandos sneaking around back to take them out. As you burned through your bars using your specials you made yourself briefly vulnerable, as your HAM bars bounced back up quickly, so an attacker looked to hit your weak spot right after you did something cool; basically, every attack you could make “lowered your shields.” And as you were hit, you’d gradually run out of ability to use specials, as your HAM bars’ maximum shrank from actual “wounds.” If someone hit zero, they were only temporarily stunned, and others could run in, drag them to safety or stim them back up with some quick field medicine before an opponent rushed in to give a killing blow.
Right about now, to any player of SWG, what I have described in tandem with the “bouncy” nature of HAM as I originally pictured it, is probably sounding completely unfamiliar to them. And that’s because combat in SWG was a disaster.
With the loss of long-range server updates (the result of a lack of CPU power on the deployment servers), the distinctions between the professions turned to mush. HAM never had any bounce, and timing attack made no sense. You could incapacitate yourself with a special.
We never paper gamed combat. We never prototyped it and built it up from first principles. Like so much in SWG, it was over-designed on paper, because we had to give a 500 page design bible to LucasArts (it was glossy and full color, very pretty). To be honest, I am not sure that any of the people who worked on combat actually liked the system and its ideas. We held testing sessions, and we limited ourselves mostly to seeing if stuff worked at all. Looking back, I feel ashamed and incompetent. The very first item in the vision document was, after all, exciting adventures and thrilling battles.
Players did find things in that messy muddle that they enjoyed, or that they even thought of as tactical. But it wasn’t long before any hint of combat challenge was destroyed anyway, when buffs got incredibly out of control.
SWG featured several professions that in part provided buffs to players. These were designed as the first stage in a social loop. We had noticed in UO that people reacted very differently to “downtime” aka “time not spent actually doing something” depending on when or where the downtime occurred. Players spoke fondly of the community that formed waiting in line to get your sword repaired at the blacksmith’s, and spoke rather harshly about the “bank scene.” Prep time versus after-action time seemed very different, and chores that made you feel powerful as opposed to chores that were just getting you back to where you were felt very different as well (this link goes to a post from the original SWG forums, explaining our thinking at the time).
World of Warcraft is very explicitly designed to move you forward, not to carry you back to older places. As you advance through a level, the mobs get tougher as you go in, and when you get to the end, the doorway to the next zone is on the other side. In SWG, we were designing in loops instead: sending players out into the wilderness, then bringing them back. We wanted people to bump into each other in “water cooler” areas, and we wanted there to be “third places” in the world, where you voluntarily went for your downtime because you liked to go there.
Because of this, our building list included things like bars, theaters, parks, areas fully intended to one day host player weddings or guild induction ceremonies, and so on. I read books like Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (recommended to me by Will Wright) and tried to learn the basics of urban planning and architecture so that we would provide the sorts of facilities and spaces that would encourage players to meet and talk.
Buffers in many cases had roles in these places. So did healers. Wounds, you see, were something that could only be healed in specific places: hospitals, and the camps that rangers could build (I had pictured camps behind the battle lines of major skirmishes, the last place you needed to defend, because with the loss of the camp, you’d lose all support).
More controversially, we modeled PTSD in the game. We used the old WWII name, “battle fatigue” (the WWI name, “shell shock,” didn’t seem to fit). After a while, taking wounds wore you down in a more permanent way, a way that mere medicine packs wouldn’t help. You would need to find an entertainer — a dancer or a musician — to get your mind off of the stresses of battle. And heck, the entertainer would need a venue, and musicians, and a barkeep — read, player vendor in a player-run cantina — with custom food provided by a player chef…
The idea was that battle fatigue would create a natural arc to a combat session. Start out, buff up, and head out, ideally with a ranger, maybe even the equivalent of a USO performer with you. Set up camp as a base of operations. Head out of it and engage in battles that were tactical and strategic, yet still pretty fast paced. Return to camp when hurt, to be fixed up and sent back out. And after a couple of hours of play, break camp, head back to the bar and swap stories while a role-player cracked jokes, sang Star Wars filk songs, and re-enacted scenes from Jabba’s Palace for you. Of course, we were never able to really make this cycle work — we couldn’t tell how long a session was. So battle fatigue didn’t really work out, I think.
The folks at PARC ended up writing a research paper on whether or third places in SWG really worked out. Their conclusion was that no, but that the game as a whole ended up serving that role, in a way. To this day, the fact that there was an entire dancing profession is still one of the things that draws ridicule. But it also draws a lot of affection, too, and dancing is now a staple in MMOs.
Some years later, when I met J. K. Rowling, she asked me whether in a new game, she’d be able to be a fat dancing Wookiee.
Dancing wasn’t original to SWG; a “dance emote” had been present in MUDs since near the beginning, and the club scene in Anarchy Online was regarded by many as one of its best features. However, what was new was attempting to actually represent the arts within the game.
Dancing wasn’t the only one. Originally, there were three. For dancing, and player animations in general, particularly facial expressions, I had originally hoped to leverage some more work by my friend Ken Perlin: his work on procedural facial animations and procedural walk cycles. In the days before large-scale IK calculations were plausible in a game, he was doing things like getting across emotional expression via animations that were generated on the fly (these ideas, as well as some of the social architecture work done on There.com by Amy Jo Kim, an old friend from the Ultima Online days, would prove to be profoundly influential anyway, as we’ll see). But it was way too hard to crack the animation problem for that for dances, and way out of scope considering what a small part of the game dancing was supposed to be. So it ended up being loops along with some special moves called flourishes.
Little did we know that when you ask motion capture actors to do a few dances, they would deliver an astonishing and goofy fun set of moves. I’m not kidding when I say that dancing grew in scope in large part because the motion capture came back with so much, well, fun stuff.
Music proved to be a much trickier problem. The spec was actually originally for a skill tree that was broken into performance and composition. Performers could take a score and perform it, on the instruments they had learned. Composers were sort of a crafting skill set: they would unlock keys and scales, and the ability to enter notes in themselves. They could perform these on the fly, or they could boil them down into scores, which could then be sold to performers. And on top of that, the composers would earn performance royalties when people played their music!
This all ran afoul of legal issues. I actually spent time while at a conference in New York City visiting the ASCAP offices trying to figure out how we could be legal about players entering in the music to hit songs and performing them in public places using MIDI notes. Both Sony and Lucasfilm were nervous about copyright issues and performance royalties, and it only got worse when ASCAP raised the possibility that making scores might also imply having to talk to the Harry Fox Agency about virtual sheet music, and that “fixing” the performance as a score might also means compulsory licenses as if we were doing a cover recording (!).
So instead, we went with a system more inspired by loop-based composition as seen in MOD music or loop music studio DAWs like ACID. The system came to life when it was realized that groups needed to coordinate what they were doing. We added in he ability for a concert master, more or less, to direct both dancers and musicians, with a common tempo shared across all the accounts. It took some slightly tricky network programming that has a lot in common with something like NINJAM, but it worked. Eventually, we would see touring bands with cover charges, large sets, dancing troupes, acrobats, light shows and stage shows.
Theater was another profession that I had hoped for early on but went away. Scripts would once again be craftables. Players would follow the stage directions, and of course, we had built actual theater stages into the handcrafted cities in the game. Yes, of course players could (and did) do this all themselves, but again, following the idea that “players do, and respect, what the game rewards” I wanted to provide infrastructure to the sort of things that had been done by hand by groups such as the Golden Brew Players in Ultima Online.
One of the professions I most regretted losing was that of Writer. Quite simply, I wanted to provide in-game feeds for the entire fansite community. I wanted the web fandom inside the game. If you were a prolific blogger writing about the game, it seemed to me that you were a truly material and significant addition to the game community, a massive driver of loyalty, and incredibly important. You should be earning XP for that. You should be earning money for that. Let each writer have a channel on the Galactic HoloNet; let them earn money by either setting a fee to read a piece (like Patreon!) or by letting them ask for a tip via a thumbs-up mechanism when the article was read. Popularity and readers would drive Writer XP.
I thought of this as “Lum the Mad’s profession,” created specifically for Scott Jennings, today a designer on Shroud of the Avatar, and those like him. I pictured the UO book system (a method whereby people could write books and they could get “published” into random books on shelves all over the game) writ large.
It turned out the copyright issues were a contributor to this one going away too. Plus, it was a lot of work that was rather oddball at the time (”can we even hook up an RSS feed into a game server?”). There are no visible writers nor theater troupes in the Star Wars Universe, whereas we definitely see music and dancing. So those stayed, and the others went. We never got to see Writer happen, and to my knowledge it never has been done by a game.
The intent behind all of these was , of course, to make players provide each other with entertainment, but more critically, to weave them together from disparate groups into an actual community. With the benefits of performance skills tied to locales, you’d have a neighborhood bar. But there were also other little things we did to make players interact on a regular basis.
For example, we allowed players to teach each other things. In fact, earning a certain amount of XP from mentoring another player was actually a required step in Mastery of skills. There had been forms of “learning by watching” in Ultima Online that didn’t pan out and were removed, but this was a more active choice. We even had a whole profession, subject of much derision (”the hairdresser profession”) that was about character customization.
SWG pioneered the use of 3d morph targets for character customization. In UO, we had been one of the first 2d RPGs ever to actually show on your avatar what you really wearing, and in SWG we were determined to do the same. Everquest didn’t do it and indeed, WoW didn’t either. There.com did a little bit, maybe one of the Elder Scrolls games, and I was determined to go way past it.
We developed a system whereby there were a large group of sliders you could adjust. We let you be fat. We let you be malnourished. After much open discussion with the female playerbase on the forums, we implemented a slider for adjusting breast size, and we ensured that it allowed the full human range of cup sizes. (LucasArts was very nervous about calling it a “breast slider,” so I believe it went in under the name of “torso.”) We created hairstyles and skin tones for every ethnicity, and then we invented ethnicities within the various alien species present in Star Wars. We even got to largely settle the canonical appearance of Bothans, which were famously referenced in Episode IV, but had contradictory visuals in the comics.
We provided clothing from modest to the canonical ludicrous gold bikinis and dancing tights made out of ribbons and hope. We enabled players to make all of this stuff, and sell it and trade it and color it any color they wanted, because above all, we wanted you to find you. (The artists, just as on UO, were really not crazy about letting players do any color combo they chose). And for those times when you decided you weren’t you anymore, you could go to another player, and they could change your character customization permanently. There was even discussion of allowing changes in the avatar’s sex, but in the end I think that didn’t happen, which is a pity.
SWG’s character customization has since been trumped by games like City of Heroes, and the sliders and modifiability that we did are now found in games all over the place. But back then, man, it was magical. You could actually recognize someone’s in-game face.
We also tried to make those faces expressive. Back on LegendMUD, I had developed an elaborate system for chat which allowed players to attach moods to their words. In SWG we pretty much ripped off that system, and extended it to avatar body language. You could set yourself to have a hangdog look in SWG. It would affect how you looked. Your facial expression would change. Taking a cue from roundtable discussions we had had with developers of other virtual worlds of various sorts, I leveraged a small idea from Microsoft’s Comics Chat and turned it into a parser that detected a large array of keywords, punctuation, and other cues and used them to affect your avatar’s body language. Avatars had eye gaze, and we talked about doing what There was doing in terms of automatically positioning chatters into natural circles, with eye contact towards the most recent speaker, but this was a bridge too far.
We even tailored chat logging modes and text output in the game so that you could be an achiever number cruncher and log straight math for combat obsessives, or turn your chat into roleplayer-esque prose, with automatically punctuated speech and “Tom Swifties” throughout.
Roleplayers played this system like a piano.
It tied into the chat bubble system as well. We had noticed that the player behaviors in isometric and 2d overhead MMOs and first-person MMOs was pretty different, and that seeing your avatar or not had a psychological impact on the player. A decent number of potential players also suffered from motion sickness when in first person. We spent a fair amount of time on designing a camera that went seamlessly from first person to chase cam to overhead isometric, so that players could take the camera not only to the kind of camera they preferred, but so that different sorts of social situations could make use of them (for example, we made a point of allowing movement while panning the camera around you, so that screenshots and even player movies could get better visuals).
The chat box was a fairly unimmersive thing, clearly not in the world. It reminded you that you were playing a game. There was something intimate about the over-the-head text in a game like UO, On the other hand, we also knew from MUDs that basically recreating everything from IRC and allowing you to play from the keyboard only as also very powerful. So the chat system did both. I went through comics and websites and built up a reference of the standard chat bubble art techniques that conveyed different emotions, tones, and types of speech. These were also invokable via commands, or through automatic parsing. For a little while, a case was made that we should do our own styles, something that looked more science-fictional or Star Warsy… but in the end, thought balloons and the like carried the day because anyone who has ever read the funny papers knows how to parse them.
The social dimension of these things is hard to overstate. One example: combine the availability of venues plus tailoring to that scale plus performance skills, and players invented beauty pageants. I remember my shock and delight a year or two later when one of the main organizers of said beauty pageants actually perfectly performed the top-level exotic dance spontaneously on the show floor of E3. That player was now-famous cosplayer Becky Young, also known as Aktrez. (Unfortunately, she was working marketing at Mythic at the time, and her performance therefore took place in the booth for their game. I am not sure that helped her career there).
Another “glue” item that we never quite managed to get to pan out was the system allowing players to grant missions to one another. These were actually supposed to be binding contracts, allowing players to deliver goods for one another, etc. They had filters so you could allow ony friends to do the task, or only guildmates, or only faction members, etc. But we ran aground the difficult challenge of creating a decent reputation without simply encouraging griefing. What if you didn’t deliver something on purpose? Did we tag you negatively? You could in theory lose the item for legit reasons. What about trustworthiness? What if someone was trustworthy for his own guild, but not for others? Could we manage to have a personalize rep system that worked across social network graphs? The answer was a resounding no (social network graphing is still expensive). Player missions reluctantly fell out of the launch, pushed off to post-launch or never.
Of course, it was exactly that system that provided roles for Smugglers (get my item past opposing player associations or factions) and for Bounty Hunters (track down people who broke contracts because of some stupid excuse about Kessel Runs). Without player missions, smuggling was dependent on developers creating content, situations where you would get stopped by Imperials and the like. And a content-dependent profession is a terrible idea in an MMO. It’s why you don’t see lockpicking as a skill in these games, not since the MUD days. There were never enough doors.
Bragging rights therefore manifested in your outfits, your mastery of chat nuances, in the quality of your comedy routines, and, of course, in your house full of trophies. We had made all that space available for a reason: player housing, and eventually cities and territory control, on the surface of the world.
All the trends at that time were towards instancing, which was a concept from as far back as The Realm but had just begun to be really seriously explored in MMOs; and indeed Everquest II, with its handcrafted zones, ended up using that solution for its housing. But as far as what happened inside that house, that was most directly taken from what we had seen players do in SWG, which was itself based on the astonishing explosion of creativity present in UO.
Settings for shops. Museums. Schools. Guild halls. Meeting rooms. Alas, the biggest fail on these was that didn’t have a solution for players to live in the handcrafted cities. We tried for quite some time to solve the problems of access and waiting an real estate pricing and the rest for allowing players to have in-city apartments and the like, and ended up having to just shelve it.
The end game here was intended to be full-blown territory control. I had wanted player-run governments in Ultima Online andimages moved off the team before such a thing ever came to fruition. In SWG, we wanted a territory battle between the factions of the Galactic Civil War, so having territory control fell out very naturally from that. So we set up a skill tree just for city management, that unlocked the ability to gradually give your city all the capabilities one of the handcrafted cities had. We tried to go as far as letting them actually lay down roads and re-texture the terrain within their land, but that turned out to be too expensive for the dynamic terrain system.
Players did, of course, abuse player cities, such as by building them on the entrances of handcrafted dungeons so they could farm them with exclusivity. They would kill or demand money from players who ventured in. They also, however, grew with time into amazing communities.
Cities, as well as systems like harvesters, and of course, pets and droids, were intended as a way to tie you to the world. Ownership, says one of the Laws of Online World Design, is what keeps a player in the game. And characters are famously easy to move from game to game. Guilds, even, migrate with a decent flexibility. But build up a city, and you’ll likely stay.
Pets (and droids) were another such way. The work of designer Jeff Freeman, pets were based on the pet system in Ultima Online, which was itself a vast expansion over the typical pet systems seen in MUDs. Creatures were born as babies, and you had to approach them gently (AI in Galaxies was based on creature fear and aggression, so gentleness in movements was important) and talk to them while using the taming skill. Once you had them, they grew by your side — we literally made the babies be just shrunken versions of the standard meshes, and scaled them up with time. They learned their name because they tracked what word you kept repeating to them while giving them commands.
Droids were intended to have much the same emotional impact, but it never worked out that way; droids just never got the love and attention to detail pets did. Which is too bad, because it would have been a lot better to see a ton of pet Artoos around than a ton of pet Rancors.
A few years later, players would hold funerals for their pets, when the profession was removed. They logged in one last night, took them all out, and gave them one last walk, made them do a few tricks, and then watched them get locked away in their datapads. They stayed there, unable to be brought out: a gut punch every time you popped open that screen.
In the end
All of this social connectivity, all of this society building, was the glory of Star Wars Galaxies, in the end. Between these systems and the game system interdependence and our extremely open discussions on game features during the early design and alpha periods, the result was that players today still speak about how the community in Galaxies was qualitatively different. It’s probably why you are reading this post.
Most of these features were actually pretty cheap to implement, is the irony. Some were prioritized above combat, because they were so cheap (Image Design was actually our very first scripting testbed). Many have lambasted SWG for having many of these features when the core combat game didn’t work, and they are probably right. On the other hand, had combat been stellar and none of this in the game, it might still be running, but nobody would want to read a design postmortem of it. So… it cuts both ways.