Dumbing down virtual 'Star Wars' may backfire

Not particularly long ago, in a galaxy not so far away...

Actually, it was last weekend, and I was in my living room, reading the paper, when I stumbled upon something that nearly made me choke on my popcorn. (I had some extra left over from a movie I had seen the night before - I'm proud to say I recycle.) The Dec. 10 New York Times reported that Star Wars Galaxies, an interactive online video game operated by LucasArts and Sony, had recently undergone significant changes at the hands of the management, changes that had largely alienated its ardent player base. Apparently, the game had allowed players to wander around a virtual world based on the universe created by George Lucas in the Star Wars movies and do ... well, virtual equivalents of lots of different things that people do in the real world. Recently, the game had been radically simplified, transformed into a more straightforward shoot-'em-up sort of affair.

Nancy MacIntyre, the game's senior director at LucasArts, responded to the changes in the game and the angry objections by disgruntled players. I quote her remarks from the article at length, since, um, you have to see them to believe them.

Ms. MacIntyre: "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 option to be part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves."

Let us first pause, for just a moment, to mourn the collapse of Western civilization suggested in MacIntyre's words, which are, it seems to me, as close to a direct definition of philistinism as anything I have ever read. Let us not be led into the temptation of experimentation, of growth, or - heaven forfend - of learning; we must at all costs avoid personal identification with characters who deviate from the mainstream, who might provide an opportunity to demonstrate greater individuality. And - for goodness' sake - let's have as little reading as we possibly can. Instead, let's revert to a process that would have done the Visigoths proud: kill, get treasure, repeat.

Ms. McIntyre's other arguments also don't quite strike me as solid. She suggests that economics are behind the decision, that the game needs to be more accessible to more (by which she may mean younger) players, and that players want to be part of the "what they have seen in the movies," not "something they had created themselves." First things first: I'm a columnist, not a financier, but according to the Times, most gaming experts believe that the game had about two hundred thousand subscribers paying fifteen dollars a month. Now, my back of the envelope calculations suggest that this works out to $36 million a year, which, even in a multi-billion dollar gaming industry, isn't what I'd call small potatoes. And given the commitment that many of the players had to this game, LucasArts and Sony might have collected that $36 million year in and year out for years. It is alarming to think of what visions of moneybags must have danced in executives' heads to forgo that kind of practically guaranteed coin: and, since people are apparently leaving the game in droves, those dreams may well be turning to nightmares as I write this.

But what about the second argument, that players, especially younger players, want to replicate what they've seen in the movies, rather than branch out on their own?

Well, first of all, I hope it doesn't make me too much of a killjoy to point out that when the good folks at LucasArts have turned the Star Wars experience into a participatory video game they've already changed the movie substantially. But there's more to it than that.

I was pretty little when the first Star Wars movies came out. Little enough to make whooshing and zooming voices in the backyard with my neighbor's toy Millennium Falcon; little enough to spend more time than I care to remember speculating about who was better, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. But the main thing I remember was how much my friends and I loved to make up my own stories with the various action figures, toy spaceships, and random bits of backyard furniture that came to hand; how the results weren't only a George Lucas Production and weren't only the product of my imagination, but somewhere wonderfully in between. Star Wars Galaxies seems to have been, for many players and potentially for many more, a way of capturing that magical process, of taking a great myth and recreating it in their own image, which people do at any and every age. It would be a shame if the powers that be brought that to an end.

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