Star Wars Galaxies – In Memoriam

Recently, Raph Koster decided to write a couple of post mortems about various components that made up Star Wars Galaxies. They are a fantastic read and if you’re interested in MMOs at all, even if you don’t care specifically about Star Wars Galaxies, I recommend you read them.

With this can of worm opened, I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about Star Wars Galaxies again. But what it comes down to, over and over again, is how good the game was before the controversial new game enhancements/combat updates and how terrible it was afterwards. It’s like that in general – the narrative stops at the NGE/CU. Before that, Star Wars Galaxies was the best thing ever. After, it was forever poison.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I feel very much for the people that saw their game ruined. The characters utterly destroyed by pushing a traditional DIKU system on to a skill based, level-free system. You guys were betrayed, no doubt about it. Whoever made the decision – Lucasarts, SOE or both – made a huge mistake, if not the biggest mistake in MMO history. Not even Incarna, CCP Games’ reviled expansion that had players rioting in-game, came close. I wasn’t there, I didn’t live through it, but I understand you.

That said, I still think that Star Wars Galaxies – at the time it was shut down – was the best MMO on the market. To this day, I think that SWG was the best MMO of all time. I started playing it as an experiment in 2009, to see if it actually was as bad as people said it was. I gave it thirty days. I stuck with it for two years, until they shut it down. I fell madly in love with it.

Here’s the thing – development didn’t stop just because of the NGE/CU. The developers didn’t just abondon the servers. They kept working on what they had. That part always seems to be forgotten when discussing SWG. Game updates kept being released. No, they weren’t fabulous expansions like Jump to Lightspeed, but the devs kept refining and building on the total trainwreck that was NGE/CU.

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Not that it ever got 100% refined, not at all. SWG, to the end, could be buggy and glitchy and act in weird ways. It could be incredibly clumsy, especially if you compare it to modern MMOs – or even MMOs released just after. But it did one thing extremely right – it created a virtual world for people to live in. Not just raid, PvP or whatever. To live in. And it kept doing that until the very end.

Housing, of course, was key to this – and sorry for the cliche – living, breathing world. But it wasn’t just that you could have your own house, many games do that. There’s the fact that the houses weren’t instanced, they were right there in the open world. Yes, it could create some weird urban sprawl near NPC cities, like the odd suburbs springing up outside of Mos Eisley, but I personally didn’t care. It was amazing to be on the way somewhere, racing across the (huge) desert of Tatooine, and happen across a bundle of buildings in the middle of nowhere. And you knew that they had been placed there, and decorated, by actual players. Same goes for player cities. Some small, some large, some chaotic, some ordered. It was all us. And we’d hang out in them, go shopping, decorate our houses and visit our neighbours.

Community, in Star Wars Galaxies, was incredibly important and a major player in this was the non-combat professions. The crafters and the entertainers. SWG’s crafting will forever be legendary, for a reason. It was complicated and far from perfect, but together with the housing system – that you could set up your own store – it’s still unparalleled in modern MMOs.I was terrible at crafting in many ways, but I still had my small munitions shop just off the main street of our guild city where I sold guns to new players. Logging in, seeing that you had moved some inventory in a shop you yourself set up and decorated… Nothing comes close to beating that yet.

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Depending on which server you were on, you’d find the entertainers in different places – usually Theed or the Mos Eisley cantina. It was mostly Mos Eisley on my server, and since their buffs were vital to combat classes, everyone went there all the time. It was an amazing sight, entertainers everywhere dancing, or playing music, together. We’d just hang out, chat with each other or the clients, for hours. Our characters might not even move from the same spot during all that time. Often, even combat characters would stay in the cantina for the evening, hanging out with us. I understand developers being afraid of potentially boring their players with classes that can’t fight the most basic of monsters, but in SWG’s case it was one form of glue that held the community together and focused it on one place.

After playing for a while, I even got a second account just so I could place my alt-entertainer in our guild city cantina while I was playing my combat character. I did that primarily as a service to the other members of the guild, as a part of our community. When I was bored killing things or whatever I was doing on my smuggler, I’d tab over to my entertainer, go to Mos Eisley and dance.

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No, you could no longer mix various skill trees to get whatever build you wanted after the NGE/CU hit. But one thing SWG did to at least semi-counter that was to add an incredibly powerful respec-option to the game. Whenever you wanted, you could respec – for a free – to a new class, but you’d retain your levels. So if you were a level 90 smuggler, and wanted to try out commando, you could go pay a guy to become a level 90 commando instead. As someone who hates leveling alts, it allowed my character to always stay fresh. The only things you had to level seperately were the non-combat classes, but you retained those levels even if you specced back to combat. Brilliant! Why that hasn’t been adopted by more game is beyond me.

PvP, while it could be quite buggy and killed your FPS if you had enough people around, was great as well. Whenever you wanted to you could flag yourself for PvP for your chosen side and go fight others. Great, that’s been done before. What was great was the city invasions, that happened at a regular schedule. A given time before the battle started, various stations spawned across the chosen city. Then crafters could use these, feeding them material, to make different units spawn once the battle started – from regular stormtroopers to AT-STs to AT-ATs. Seeing an AT-AT at the edge of town, raining laser death down on the town, was quite the sight.

Then you had a choice – want to fight or not? If you didn’t want to, fine. You can just watch, or go about your business. Want to fight? Flag up and prepare to either attack or defend. That choice was incredibly important, as PvP was always there but never forced upon you. It allowed SWG to create these giant set-pieces of city invasions without alienating large parts of their player base.

Then we had bounty hunting. If you killed someone in PvP, they could put a bounty on you. Enough bounty on your head and your name got added to the bounty hunter terminals only BH players could interact with. Then they could hunt you down, wherever you were, and kill you for the money. If you played a smuggler, and managed to grind your way through the smuggler missions, you could end up on those terminals too. It was incredibly exciting to deliver a smuggler package, knowing that a player bounty hunter was on your trail.

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And then we haven’t even talked about space. Jump to Lightspeed has been called one of the best epansions ever released for a MMO, and I can only agree. The space game was its whole own game, a space simulator that you could spend countless hours on. There’s also the fact that it was integrated so well into the main game – if you had room on your ship, you could bring your friends with you and they could run around on your ship and see the action of whatever you were doing from the view ports. When I realised that, I was blown away.

Towards the end, when the game was about to shut down, the developers at the time pushed an unfinished update to the live servers just so people could experience it – atmospheric flight. Your spaceships were no longer stuck in space, you could actually fly around in the skies of the planets. Come on, how cool is that? That’s the direction the game was going when it was decided that it was going to be shut down. I can’t help imagine what could have been. I’m sorry that I don’t have any good screenshots of this in action – the ones I’ve included in this posts are the few from my years in the game that I can find. Just to be clear though – that sandcrawler above is a player owned house.

This was all done way after the NGE/CU had laid waste to large parts of the game the players loved. As I said, I don’t want to wave away the pain people felt. Sometimes when I’ve praised SWG for what it became, some seem to have taken it that way. I really, really don’t. I can’t imagine what the game could potentially have been like if the old systems had been in place throughout its lifetime. I am with you all the way.

But I don’t want the narrative to end there. I want the game, that kept on going for years and years after the NGE/CU, to also be remembered for what it actually became. What it, for many of us that lost something very dear to us on December 15 2011, was.

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