Star Wars Galaxies: An Obituary

Gamers across the world are jointly mourning and celebrating today as Star Wars Galaxies finally closes its servers for good. As the sun sets on today the game which brought the Star Wars Universe to the Massively Multiplayer Online world will stack the chairs on the tables, give the bar one final wipe and switch off the lights on its way into the history books. It may seem odd to write an obituary for a computer game but as a site that frequently covers both games and Star Wars, it seems right to spend a bit of time looking back over the life of a game that has had such a profound impact on both.

Released in 2001, Star Wars Galaxies was a joint venture by LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment that aimed to allow people to live within the world of the Star Wars movies. Set in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the game let players create characters from many of the franchise’s popular races and then set them out into the galaxy to earn a living any way they saw fit. It saw great success early on but a series of unpopular decisions by the development team combined with the monolithic rise of games like World of Warcraft saw the games subscriber numbers gradually dwindle and the decision was finally made earlier this year to pull the plug.

Unlike modern MMOs, SWG was a true sandbox game which in many ways bore more resemblance to Skyrim than something like WoW. Rather than leading players by the hand from quest to quest or insisting on strict class choices, SWG simply allowed players to find their own path. If you wanted your character to be a smuggler, you picked up a pistol, spoke to a guy and started smuggling. If you wanted to be a tradesman and open a shop selling the finest weapons on the galaxy, you could do that too. Heck, you could even be a hairdresser if you wanted to. It was a level of freedom unheard of in today’s world of tanks, dps and healers.

I came to STW not long after launch after a house mate of mine gave me his copy to try and I can honestly say that it was like no gaming experience I’ve had before or since. I rolled a Wookie musician, scraped together the money to buy a flute from another player who was kind enough to discount it for me and started busking on the streets of Coronet City. Before long, passers by started stopping (I’m talking players here, not NPCs) and throwing change in my direction. We’d swap life stories, chat about the galactic civil war, at one point a Jedi even paid me a few extra coins so that I wouldn’t tell any passing Imperials that he’d come by (I sold him out first chance I got). It was a level of immersion and roleplaying that you simply don’t see in today’s world of “LFGs” and “ROFLCOPTERs” but at the same time it didn’t have the kind of scary nerdism that permeates many hardcore RP communities. This was just regular people, playing in the Star Wars universe and totally digging it.

This was all helped by SOE’s relentless focus on pushing community events. Players were encouraged to organise their own in game events and in return the company would advertise those events prominently on the game’s website. If you were stuck for something to do for an evening you could just log onto the SWG site, find that there was a Cantina crawl going down on Tatooine and head on over. Before long I found myself touring the galaxy, performing stand up comedy routines to groups of other players. I even performed at a couple’s in-game wedding (a regrettable incident which ended with me vomiting on the bride after ingesting too much “spice”). I spent days playing SWG.

But it wasn’t all roses. While the community in the game was second to none, the game itself was riddled with flaws from the start. Classes were unbalanced, bugs went unfixed and promised updates were delayed. While this didn’t matter to the roleplaying community, those who craved more action were left wanting. When Blizzard arrived on the scene with its near bug free World of Warcraft, those players began to migrate en-mass. SOE tried to stem the tide with the now infamous “Combat Upgrade” which served only to break the connection between the combat and non-combat classes, effectively splitting the community in half. When that didn’t work the developers went back to the drawing board and rolled out the even more controversial “New Game Experience.” The NGE gutted the sandbox elements from the game and turned it into a straight, class based MMO like WoW. The previously strict barriers to playing a Jedi were dropped and the ability to freely change professions vanished. When the dust settled the number of playable classes had dropped from 33 to a mere 9.

While many gaming communities like to moan about how things were better in the old days, the NGE is a widely recognised example of a cataclysmic failure by a gaming company to recognise what fans loved about their game. By attempting to emulate World of Warcraft, SOE succeeded only in creating a second rate clone. They couldn’t best the newer games on their turf and they had surrendered their own uniqueness in order to wage that war. It is perhaps telling that for a good couple of years post NGE, the phrase “SWG exile” mentioned in any other MMO would almost always reveal one other member of your group to have been a former player.

For the next few years SWG slowly lived out its retirement, sustained by a dwindling cabal of loyal fans. The announcement of Bioware’s  Star Wars: Old Republic in 2008 all but sealed SWG’s fate as LucasArts moved its support away from the old warhorse and on to the new star. When the final announcement came in July this year, fans past and present were expecting it. To SOE’s credit they continued putting out new content right up until the final weeks of the game and the players themselves will doubtlessly give their old playground a hell of a send off. One group of players even got together to create this tribute video to the world they wrote:

SWG will always be thought of with mixed emotions by the people who played it. Yes it was a mess in terms of gameplay and yes it was dogged by terrible management decisions at every level. But for the Rancor hunts on Dathomir, for the time spent sitting in a bar haggling with a shady trader over the price of a new speeder, for being the only game that’s ever let you truly LIVE in George Lucas’s universe, it deserves its place among the great games of our time.

Rest in Peace SWG. Thanks for all the stories.

D
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