From the ancient lands of Ultima to a galaxy far, far away, the Game Archaeologist is always on the move, looking for the next treasure trove to uncover. Some say that covering Star Wars Galaxies is a moot point: that the true game as it was is dead, and that with The Old Republic on the horizon, SWG is all but passé. Yet through the steamy jungles of Kashyyyk to the dangerous dunes of Tatooine, there is evidence of passion, play and Imperial Stormtroopers shooting all willy-nilly.
It's weird to think that in early 2003, the MMO genre was almost an entirely different creature. World of Warcraft was still over a year away, and the most successful developer at the time (Sony Online Entertainment, along with Verant) had teamed up with LucasArts to create a Star Wars game above all other games. A killer IP, a beefy development team, and incredible fan-fueled hype made Star Wars Galaxies THE game to watch as it raced toward launch -- even IGN crowed in 2000 that SWG could become "one of the biggest games of all time."
Join us now as we hop back to the wild frontier of the early 2000s and peruse the first seven years of Star Wars Galaxies' run. It's had its highs, its lows, and a three-letter acronym that became one of the most infamous MMO events ever -- but no matter what your opinion, the Force has been strong with this title indeed.
I was going to Toshi Station to level up my power converter!
The parallels between pre-launch SWG and our current wait for BioWare's The Old Republic may seem uncanny, but it's important to remember that 2003 was a different time, in more ways than one. SOE was the Big Kahuna, MMOs skewed more toward "sandbox" gameplay than "theme park" structure, and any title boasting six-digit subscribers was a certifiable hit. Well over 400,000 Star Wars fans repeatedly checked the Star Wars Galaxies website as they waited for release, agonizing over delays and chewing on every scrap of released info.
SWG promised the stars -- literally, in this case. Set right after the events of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the game boasted that players could join the Rebels, the Imperials or forge their own path. It opted for the best of both design worlds: the core of SWG was a sandbox MMO, but it also contained structured "Theme Parks" (such as Jabba's Palace) with special missions, characters and events. There was even talk of a console version for the Xbox and PS2.
After seeing the launch date delayed for over two years after its initial 2001 projection, Star Wars Galaxies opened its doors on June 26, 2003. While well-reviewed, SWG's complex structure was a barrier to all but the devoted and hardcore who knuckled down to learn its secrets. At least a lack of choice wasn't an issue: players could dump points into a variety of professions (33 in all) to create a blend of their very own, exploring combat, crafting, buffing and entertaining roles as they wished. At the time, SWG instantly shot to the top of the charts, challenging fellow SOE alum EverQuest with well over 300,000 subscribers.
One of Star Wars Galaxies' biggest selling points (and perhaps biggest obstacle) was its emphasis on handing players tools to generate their own content. Much of the game's items were created by players who harvested and crafted them in a sub-game as big as the combat side. Entire towns were created on the dozen planets, each built from the ground up by players and guilds for the purpose of RP, crafting support, leveling non-combat professions, and guild unity.
Rise of the Jedi
Of course, even before SWG launched, people were hammering the devs constantly for news on playable Jedi -- a damned-if-they-did, damned-if-they-didn't decision on SOE's part. Crowds of Jedi running around didn't make sense for a time period when the Jedi had been hunted to near extinction, and if designed true to their nature, Jedi would become a radically overpowered profession and unbalance the game entirely. The solution was both unique and ham-handed: players could only play a Jedi by unlocking them through an obtuse and largely undocumented journey involving special holocrons and mastering specific professions. The difficulty of unlocking a Force-sensitive profession, coupled with the fact that a Jedi could be permanently killed after three deaths, was meant to keep Jedi rare.
However, it was only a few months after launch that the first Jedi -- Monika T'Sarn -- popped up on the servers in November of 2003. Players protesting the harsh penalty of permadeath convinced the devs to reduce the sentence to a mere skill loss by early 2004. By then, Jedi started to populate the game in ever-increasing numbers.
Doin' the Kessel Run
Even before the launch of SWG, the announcement was made of an upcoming space-based expansion which was eventually revealed to be 2004's Jump to Lightspeed. For the first time, players -- using the new "Pilot" sub-profession -- could jump into the cockpit of an X-Wing, TIE Fighter or a Freelance ship and battle it out among over ten space zones. Although popular, Jump to Lightspeed was more twitch-based than ground combat, signaling a new shift in the dev team's strategy.
A Game on the ropes: CU and NGE
March 2005 may well have been the high-water mark for SWG. Players were treated to the game's second expansion, Rage of the Wookies, which allowed them to explore Chewbacca's home planet and perhaps pick up a cybernetic limb or two. Unfortunately, later that spring came the first sign of a meltdown in the devs' approach to the title: the Combat Upgrade (or "CU" for short). By this time, World of Warcraft had taken the MMO world by storm, and the powers that be felt that SWG could use a little "WoW-ification." CU was supposed to make combat more dynamic and streamline some of the professions, but its changes were largely unwelcomed, as well as the bugs that accompanied the patch.
Then came the month that would live in infamy: November 2005. While players still smarted from the CU, they eagerly picked up yet another expansion, The Trials of Obi-Wan. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, SOE announced that SWG would be the recipient of an imminent, massive overhaul, entitled "New Game Enhancements" (or "NGE"). The NGE were the product of a hasty decision and a 2-3 month's worth of "solid crunch" by the devs.
If the CU was unliked, the NGE were downright reviled, as the game reduced professions from 34 to nine "iconic" classes, killed off the pet classes entirely, allowed everyone to roll Jedi right out of the gate, and broke several parts of the game. Over all of this was the palpable feeling of betrayal, especially considering that SOE first announced the changes a little over a week before they went into practice.
Gallons of words have been spilled about NGE, including by our own Massively team. Suffice to say, it became a nightmare for SOE as players revolted, screamed about it, left in droves, and even attracted the attention of big news outlets such as the New York Times. Even to this day, NGE is still considered by many to be the worst decision a MMO studio ever made.
"That boy was our last hope." "No, there is another..."
By most internet and personal accounts, SWG effectively ended in 2005 with the NGE. It certainly didn't look good: some estimated that the game lost as many as two-thirds of its subscribers by 2008, no further expansions released, and nobody could spin the closing of 12 servers in late 2009 (leaving 13 active) as great news.
Yet to ignore SWG post-NGE is to ignore the majority of its lifespan and the thousands of players who still love the game (many not even aware of how the pre-NGE game worked) and crave their Star Wars fix. The title's been boosted by its inclusion into the SOE Station Access package, as well as adding an online trading card game that synergizes with the MMO. It's also being updated faithfully: out of the 57 content and patch updates since launch, 31 of these have been post-NGE, including the beloved Battle of Echo Base. By all accounts, it's a much more polished and playable game than ever, and even with TOR on the way, SOE has been adamant in claiming that the title will continue to be supported and improved.
Interrogation droids are on the way to your house
Over the next couple of weeks, the Game Archaeologist will interview Star Wars Galaxies players to get their perspective. If you'd like to contribute to the discussion, send an email to justin [AT] massively [DOT] com with the subject line of "Star Wars Galaxies Interview." Please specify if you played primarily pre- or post-NGE.