Star Wars Galaxies Retrospective: A Community Far, Far Away

Have you ever wondered what a game would be like if the NPCs were players? Or what the city you’re standing in would be like if it were designed and run by players? What if there were someone looking to buy the bones of the dragon you just defeated to make you a blaster rifle twice as good as your own? How about a whole economy driven by players, who shout, advertise, and swindle their way through every port of call? There was once a time when you didn’t have to imagine; there was Star Wars Galaxies.

The average day revolved around getting groups together to run ‘lair missions’ for weapon experience and to gather some hides and meats from pesky critters on the outskirts of major cities. Corellia was the galactic hub where you could be sure of getting a group; you would arrive from your transport and navigate through the swathes of people yelling their heads off selling equipment, food, buffs, and even services as ‘slicers’ (a combination of lock picker and hacker), alongside automated droids or AFK players reminding you to visit the local cantina or store such as “Greedo’s Extra-fast Blaster Emporium.” It was like the chat-room equivalent of walking through a busy high street or shopping centre.

But all this was just the outer core of the bone marrow of this world – a player economy which had thirty-four ‘mix and match’ skill sets called professions. Weapons and armour decayed with use, and so eventually you would need new equipment even if you weren’t upgrading. It was rare for loot to be as good as something player-made, so you would always buy your equipment from other players. The greatest came from the master crafters, and the best ingredients and components came from the toughest animals.  Crafters and fighters needed each other. Even acquiring the simplest materials would often require a group of combat players to chase off critters from the crafter’s mineral farms, especially on the more dangerous planets.

Medics required the best meats and fauna (obtained by hunting and farming, respectively) to craft the optimum health packs and buffs. The best bio-engineers needed the toughest meats for the finest armour and clothing components, requiring in turn the most skilled tailors or armour smiths with premium hides. The most-skilled chefs created the most sought after food and drink out of the best produce, meat, and milk (yes, you milked animals). ‘The best’ also had a contextual meaning which depended on which attribute you wanted emphasised, which led to finding out whether you needed high decay resistance, shock resistance, unit toughness, or any other of the plethora of stats assigned to your ‘Yavonian vegetable tubers.’ Galaxies had a player economy of bewildering depth that offered a game in itself for crafters with a system of persistent-world crafting and trading that has not been matched since.

The inter-dependency didn’t stop there either. There were specific roles for the entertainer profession whose job it was to heal mind wounds and battle fatigue, using multiple instruments which had specially crafted music tracks with a selection of ‘flourishes’ that allowed for varied compositions. This lead to a real pride in bands and dance troupes with choreographed dance and particle-effect shows.  A skill line in this profession, known as ‘image designer’, also let players recreate characters with a simple haircut or full blown plastic surgery. “Do you need to disappear fast? Clear your face and your past! PST (Please send tell) your local image designer!” Alongside all the memorable moments I remember a jack-of-all-trades  type;  a Ranger-Rifleman-Musician who took his groups out, harvested his prey, set up a camp for healing wounds and provided music for the expedition, as well as providing a haircut or two – I can definitely say that I’ve not seen that in an MMO since.

This was the beauty of the game – people with such varied roles and interests would have to come together to get the best out of their character’s skills. This especially showed when player cities began to appear. Often located near major cities or raid hotspots, player cities became hubs of social activity, with player stores, malls, houses and even player-made cantinas cropping up. There were even design competitions, and ‘designers’ who became well known for their work. If you thought travelling through a theme park MMO with a tight-knit group from different corners of the real world was awesome, try building a whole city and economy together. Having your own little corner of the galaxy to show off your trophies, display your creative flair, or set up a dazzling shop was a proud moment for any Galaxies veteran.

Unfortunately Galaxies’ reputation has always been mixed. It had a terrible launch where most features were either non-existent or broken, and features were added piecemeal. The communication between the developers and players was, at times, non-existent for certain issues with vague descriptions of fixes often displaying beguiling ambiguity. Then, in one of Sony Online Entertainment’s more clear communications, Galaxies’ reputation was to be cemented in MMO history as the example of business mismanagement with the announcement of the ‘New Game Enhancements’ (NGE) in 2005.

Announced just two weeks after a new expansion, the NGE planned to trim the thirty-four ‘mix and match’ professions into nine rigid classes, completely removing the complex crafting elements, downgrading the combat to a simple twitch system, and expelling all the minutiae that made the galaxy feel authentic. The NGE really destroyed communities. The reason, according to President of Sony Online Entertainment John Smedly, was that Galaxies only delivered ‘the Uncle Owen experience as opposed to the Luke experience. We needed to deliver more of the Star Wars heroic and epic feeling to the game.’ This strategy amounted to telling subscribers that they didn’t want what they were actually playing.

It was this attitude that created a backlash to SOE and undoubtedly destroyed Galaxies along with SOE’s credibility for some time. What they created in its place was the unusual phenomenon of ‘Star Wars Galaxies refugees’ who could be found scattered across the MMO landscape; players whose MMO galaxy still existed but had been practically destroyed by a ruthless redesign. Many of the refugees found asylum in other MMOs but a handful of devoted pioneers created the SWG EMU project to emulate the pre-NGE version of Galaxies. Eight years after the NGE, and two years after the last of the official NGE servers shut down, the EMU continues in its long and partially successful quest to restore pre-NGE to players who fondly remember it. The EMU aims to restore Galaxies at patch 14.1 and currently has a test server as well as a beta-playable server operating several features of the original game, with a view to opening  a full play server, never to be wiped, ‘sometime in the future’. The current server has around 1,500 active players, more than some of the NGE servers in their dying days, and their latest bi-annual budget report claims that the project received over $16,000 of donations between January and October this year, with their budget surplus sitting stable at around $11,300.

Clearly, Galaxies is fondly remembered, and there is still a market for a sandbox MMO as social and complex. Looking at EVE Online’s continued subscriber growth a decade after its release is the yin to Galaxies’ yang of mismanagement and failure. World of Warcraft’s extreme popularity and customer loyalty comes from being the first to perfect the MMO formula with enough polish, marketing, and a fantastic launch, but once it is finally dead who will pick up the MMO crown? Players want to interact with each other and their world, Galaxies let players do this like no MMO has since. The new era of MMOs will have to tap into Galaxies’ legacy to return the genre to what those who experienced it still refer to as a golden age.

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One Comment

  1. Mark Mark S says:

    This article was a real walk down memory lane. Star Wars Galaxies was my first MMO and the one I remember the most fondly. Here was a world set firmly in the period of the three original movies, jedi were scarce and when you saw one you stopped what you were doing to watch the show.

    A great read and I long for the day when we have a Star Wars sandbox MMO again.

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