Thursday, 13 April 2017

No match for a good blaster at your side kid: Digital Protest and Repression

Believe it or not, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away the word protest in relation to the video games industry had nothing to do with harassing women and stalking liberally inclined nerds. On the contrary there was once a time when game protests were considered a legitimate form of consumer activism and clashed directly with proprietorial rights.

That time was the early noughties and that place was Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). SWG was an online role playing game (RPG) set in the Star Wars universe, between A New Hope and the Empire Strikes Back. As you can imagine it was incredibly popular, until the company running the game Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) mismanaged its community and eventually killed the goose that laid the golden eggs on a monthly basis. The game was shut down in 2011 though I can tell you first hand it had been dead long before that.

Before I continue I should start making my excuses, SWG had a vibrant community in the game and offline, so news about and in the game was news outside of it. However much of the knowledge and trivia about SWG was hosted on fan sites, which understandably died out when the game withered. Proper video game journalist sites also covered the game in detail, but given that the peak was from 2003-2006 most of the news on the game wasn't carried over when these sites changed servers. So much of what follows will be from my own memory. I was however able to find just enough knowledge still hanging around(mostly in decades old forum threads) to fill in some gaps and prove I'm not making this up.

Moving on, SWG was an game that at first prioritised its player base, by which I mean the entire economy was dependent on its player population, nearly every weapon, armour, food, clothing or hairstyle had to be made by a player and players could teach others the skills they had learnt. And this codependency was crucial because unlike most games you're probably familiar with, SWG did not have a leveling up system. Instead of killing boars to earn Xp to get more health you killed boars to unlike combat skills, you cooked food and created recipes to get cooking experience and unlock more sophisticated dishes, you played music to get better at playing music etc. Every character had the potential to be anything they wanted, it depended on what you focussed your progression on, you could be a dancer whose quick with a pistol, a doctor whose a martial arts master, a chef who builds droids in their spare time and so on. But the activities were tied to other players, healing players gave you healing experience and built bounds with you patients, providing covering fire on a hunt netted you combat experience and the gratitude of close range players etc.

In addition to this Star Wars being Star Wars it attracted an incredibly fanatical fan base. Meaning that Role Playing was a very common and important part of the experience, (this will come up later) so the links and relationships between players were very close and the player base quickly developed a reputation for acting like a real albeit virtual community. Instead of just customers looking for a few hours to unwind. I could list dozens of examples from my own time playing the game, I once got swept up in not one but two factional struggles for control over the towns I lived in to just pick one.

Speaking of struggles, like every community it was vocal about things it liked and features it hated. SWG gained some notoriety for a series of protests over different issues. I'm going to focus on three, because they're the ones I am personally most familiar and were also the ones I was able to find the most corroboration on[1].

Phase One: We Shall Ovarrrrwaaahhh Come!


The first example is arguably the first virtual protest to gain widespread (well for the early internet age) attention. Players of SWG when creating characters choose from several species, human, Trandoshan (the lizard people), Wookies etc. However its not just cosmetic, different species have different abilities, strengths and unique traits. Trandoshans for example can't wear shoes but have a regeneration ability. Wookies being big and hairy were limited to a limited set of clothing and equipment. The problem was that the game devs had overlooked coding more Wookie based equipment into the game after it launched. This meant that the Wookie players were being left behind. In addition to skills the other way to improve your abilities is to use superior equipment, which left them at a disadvantage.

After months of being ignored during updates a group of Wookie players decided to take action. They formed protest lines at Space Ports,- in order to travel from planet to planet in the game you needed to use a Star Port so cities with Space Ports had the highest population density and were the most trafficked areas-  on several planets and servers, and started chanting protests and demands for better equipment. It got noticed both in game and out of it, and the response was very positive. While some of the chants were abusive most were fun. Unfortunately I've not been able to find an image of these protests and can't really remember any of the chants, but SOE did respond on its official forums and Wookie approved equipment did start appearing in subsequent updates.

This episode actually helped SOE's reputation as it helped reinforce the impression that they were a company that cared about their customers and were willing to acknowledge and deal constructively with issues when they cropped up.

Oh and while I didn't find an image of Wookies chanting, I did find images from a later and different protest that shows how that actually worked in the game,


This will come up a bit later, but essentially the Wookie protests were much more numerous, like you couldn't see the screen for all the text boxes popping up
Things would soon take a turn for the worst however.

Phase Two: Moderators Strike Back

The second time SWG started making waves over internal dissent was over the issue of inflation and counterfeit coinage. No really, SWG was paid for on a monthly subscription (about four or five pounds a month I think) so in game goods and services were paid for by a virtual currency called credits. However during the updates which the monthly subscriptions paid for a bug occurred that allowed some players to clone extra money. They of course went on a spending spree but it wasn't long before the development team at SOE realise there was a problem and took action.

They didn't just remove the bug that allowed for cloning credits though, they decided to ban every account that had these cloned credits on them[2]. The problem was that this included a large number of players that had taken these credits in good faith, from trading or accepting gifts. These players were very angry, and so were all there friends.
 
 Now if you don't play online RPG's you may not get what the big deal is, so I'll briefly explain, players of these games do form very firm relationships with the other players, sometimes in the real world but also in the game itself. So by banning someone from the game for no reason SOE was actively damaging these connections. And imagine how incensed you would be if you were rounded up in a dragnet against counterfeiters in the real world because you accepted money from them in good faith, and then were given the same punishment as the ones who did the counterfeiting.

It did not go over well. Again the protesting at the Space Ports was attempted, but this time the response was much more draconian. The moderators of the game used their power to spawn protesting players into space. Yes that is what teleport them into space in the top image refers to[3].
Now doing this meant that the players were stuck there, potentially forever if the moderators didn't teleport them back.

I realise that this is a bit confusing, so try to imagine police rounding up protesters outside an embassy and then restraining them completely they can't move or do anything until the police let them out of the restraints. 

When this didn't work, more people kept protesting outside the space ports the moderation team threatened to shutdown the servers. And apparently they actually did this on at least one server[4]. Player characters are server linked, so if say my character "Rykian Kel" a Twilek Miner was created on Server Basilisk, I couldn't access that character when Server Basilisk is offline. So this action punished thousands of players who had nothing to do with the protests, assuming they even knew about them in the first place.

The protests eventually ran out of steam, but not before generating a lot of negative publicity and mockery. SOE seemed to learn its lesson, for a bout six months.

Oh and one minor tangent, one player did a lot to publicise the protests by role playing as a reporter, they broadcast news of protest at Theed Space Port on server channels, and got noticed by several gaming news sites. In order to shut the player up a mod teleport their character into a hostile area with very dangerous animals. I'm told Cuban dictators Machado and Batista used to throw dissidents to the sharks. However another moderator overrode them, and brought the character back, because they feared bad press. Yes really, this isn't a joke, that actually happened. Unfortunately corroboration is a bit light but I did find a copy of one of their reports[5].

This is Allehe reporting live from a staged protest outside Theed Starport. Just a few moments ago protesting cartoons went suddenly missing -- warped outside our great galaxy. Where have they landed? This we do not know. What we do know is people are angry...and showing their support in banning CREDIT Dupers...also known as cheaters. It appears the Great SOE GODS are favoring the cheaters over the fair and honest gameplayers. I will remain here until there is no news... This is Allehe
Reporting live from Theed Spaceport, Naboo, Intrepid.
Back to you Dan.
This is Allehe reporting live from a staged protest outside Theed Starport. Just a few moments ago protesting cartoons went suddenly missing -- warped outside our great galaxy. Where have they landed? This we do not know. What we do know is people are angry...and showing their support in banning CREDIT Dupers...also known as cheaters. It appears the Great SOE GODS are favoring the cheaters over the fair and honest gameplayers. I will remain here until there is no news... This is Allehe
Reporting live from Theed Spaceport, Naboo, Intrepid.
Back to you Dan.
Phase Three: Its Not Broke But We'll Fix It Anyway

The previous examples and the attention they gained established a precedent. Unlike most other player communities complaints against the way developers were handling the game was done mostly through in game protests. Usually the main way to express displeasure is complaints on the games official forums or an online petition, there was certainly a lot of that on SWG to, but the focus was planning and organising attention grabbing protests. And the development of SWG gave plenty of opportunities for grievances and smaller protests.

The third and as it would turn out final phase of mass protest would occur roundabout the same time I started really playing the game. And revolved around major game overhauls. There were two sets of protests, but the grieveances were the same, as were the tactics used and the response from the developers so for the purposes of this I'm merging the two.

The two overhauls that proved so controversial were Combat Upgrade (CU) and then later New Game Enhancement (NGE). You don't have to know what they were, you just need to know that they changed a lot, and they pissed off a lot of players. And I mean a lot, we're talking tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of players, remember this game was incredibly popular.

CU came first and once again its implementation sparked protests, only these weren't peaceful protests anymore, no that bridge had been burned over the fake credits scandal. Now there was a violent minority who had months of experience and practice and they were angry. This was when the players unleashed a powerful weapon, sabotage.

A server has a finite (though vast) amount of resources, meaning that if the server uses up enough resource the game performance will degrade, and then eventually crash. A lot of players became, very good at finding ways to waste server resources. One tactic in particular was to summon a destroyed vehicle, when a vehicle degrades past a certain point it explodes very noisily. So if enough players were to summon enough degraded vehicles at the same time, well the server goes offline.

The Moderators were just as heavy handed as before. In addition to bans and teleportations they spawned high level stormtroopers in areas where protesters were summoning vehicles to kill their characters and delay them from spawning more vehicles and buy time for more bannings. Several servers were knocked offline for awhile and many others experienced extreme performance issues.

However, the company itself was working hard to stay on message, the President of SOE John Smedley appeared on the forums asking for patience and calm, the response were almost all negative and abusive but overall it seemed to work the protests fizzled out with the diehards leaving and the subscription numbers leveling off again.

Things settled down for a bit, but then less than six months later NGE arrived. NGE made CU look like a bug fix and logo redesign in comparison, it completely restructured the game from the bottom up. I remember the change from CU to NGE very clearly, they were completely different games. And once again we had another round of protests and sabotage and more crackdowns. We also had another attempt by Smedley of all people to play the same trick twice. This time the PR offensive didn't work, and why should it, the company had tried this trick less than six months ago.

Eventually the protests were broken, but this time they were met with a mass exodus of players. And I mean mass, within a month the servers were ghost towns. I stayed on for awhile because my friends did, but that was basically it, you could spend hours not running into another player and we soon drifted off ourselves. The game limped on until 2011, but it died long before that.

Conclusion

So what have we learned? I suppose a better question is why did I write about this? Well truth be told its been rattling around in my head for years now. Its a curious bit of virtual history and I think its interesting how in the space of four and a bit years a community matured from idealistic civil rightsish protests, to Seattle 99. And given how most of the sources on this topic are dead or on the verge of disappearing it was now or never.

I do think it's interesting to note that thousands of people from around the world could unite and tell a company to go fuck itself and that they're relationships and enjoyment is more important than a companies proprietorial rights. Even you don't understand the appeal of video games, their commitment and militancy alone would ensure acknowledgement and study if it happened out in the open air.

Appendix:

Here's an example of another form of protest, that didn't really fit anywhere else but as another example I think its worth including.
































This image is the start of a raid, I've grabbed to give an idea of what raids looked like. When the controversy was at its peak, several groups of players who had decided they'd had enough but wanted to make a statement beyond cancelling their subscriptions started a raid as a form of mass suicide protest. They would line up like the above and as one go into combat and then just take damage until they died. Usually they'd be a video uploaded accompanied with anti SOE messages. No, I'm not entirely sure what they hoped to accomplish by this as death in SWG was just a minor inconvenience. But I assure you the players who did stunts like this were not joking, they took this all very seriously.



Footnotes:

1: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/StarWarsGalaxies See entry under "Powder Keg Crowd
2:  https://forums.unknownworlds.com/discussion/78672/star-wars-galaxies-folk-get-banned
3: The full comic is here https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/08/25/this-is-an-allegory
4: http://www.busygamernation.com/2004/08/news_flash_star_wars_galaxies.html
5: http://boingboing.net/2004/08/25/gamespace-protestors.html

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