The following article contains edited excerpts from Galaxies: An Empire Remembered, which you can find out more about here.
Were its official servers not shuttered in 2011, Star Wars Galaxies would be turning 15 years old this week. Despite joining the MMO graveyard over six years ago, there remains a large community who still hold the game close to their hearts. Thanks to the tireless hard work of a group of passionate ex-players the game has now almost finished being rebuilt entirely from the ground up, suggesting that against all odds, Star Wars Galaxies may have a future after all. To find out why the game continues to resonate let's retrace its history - and all the controversies that went along with it.
Allowing fans to immerse themselves in an online video game based on the Star Wars IP was not a new concept to LucasArts when Star Wars Galaxies was announced in March 2000. As far back as 1988, design concepts were drawn up for a 'million-player Star Wars game' which would likely have played similarly to many of the proto-MMORPGs of the time, such as Neverwinter Nights (1991) and Lucas's own Habitat.
Prior to Galaxies launching, online multiplayer experiences set in the Star Wars universe were slim on the ground, with only the latter games in the X-Wing series, the Jedi Knight games, and the RTS Galactic Battlegrounds offering over-the-internet multiplayer. Whilst these games were all highly acclaimed, they offered only short bursts of play. This made the immersive potential promised highly tantalising to the franchise's millions of fans.
Whilst the MMORPG genre was still in its relative infancy, games such as Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999) had laid the groundwork for the standard model of gameplay that would define the genre in ways which still stand today. With Sony Online Entertainment and Verant Interactive - the studios behind EverQuest - making the game alongside a team comprising many key Ultima Online creatives, Star Wars Online had all the potential to be a critical success; whilst the Star Wars license ensured a gigantic - and immediate - player base.
Leading the initial six-person team comprising the newly formed SOE Austin studio were Ultima Online veterans Rich Vogel and Raph Koster. With Vogel as Executive Producer and Koster as Creative Director, plans were made for a game which would combine the team's years of experience in the genre, with new, revolutionary concepts. A previous team at Verant had begun building a typical class-based, action-focused Star Wars MMORPG, but the Austin team wanted to create a living, breathing, free-roaming sandbox for players to explore.
Taking inspiration from the wealth of novels, comic books, and video games that comprised the Star Wars Expanded Universe, players would be free to mix and match from a host of different skills and explore numerous huge worlds, creating their own story along the way. Despite the constantly evolving, emergent nature of the genre, LucasArts insisted that the game stick rigidly to the established canon. Of course, being set between the fourth and fifth films in the series, this meant that the Jedi were meant to be all but extinct.
This posed a major problem to the development team and publishers, as for many potential players living out their fantasy of being a Jedi was the most appealing thing about playing a persistent online Star Wars game. In Star Wars Galaxies, as the game was officially monikered in November 2000, there would be no out-of-the-packet heroes; if you wanted to be a known name in the galaxy, then you would have to earn it. In Star Wars Galaxies players didn't have to be a soldier either, as they could make their living as an Entertainer, a Trader, or a Politician.
The concept of a real-world simulation also included several non-combat professions, including Dancer, Musician, Image Designer (virtual cosmetic surgeon), Politician, Merchant, and a host of crafting sub-professions. Other planned non-combat professions which didn't make it into the final game included miner - with a skill set focused on harvesting resources - and writer, which would let players create their own in-game blogs, earning XP based on their readership numbers.
No player was to be able to master all professions at once, and each profession would rely on others to be as effective as possible. This would encourage a world where players would have to socialise as much as possible to proceed in the game. Quests were purposefully scant and inconsequential, with the team instead choosing to utilise their short pre-launch development window and ~$20 million USD budget (relatively small considering the scope of the game) to create some of the largest worlds ever seen in a video game, inhabited by creatures and non-player characters with revolutionary AI.
Those who had partaken in Galaxies beta knew the game was far from finished when it finally hit store shelves on 26 June 2003. With hundreds of thousands of eager gamers all frantically trying to log on at once, SOE's servers came to a catastrophic standstill. Naturally, outrage was the common response to these crippling problems, with the forums and tech support becoming flooded with messages that ranged from barely civil to outright death threats. Many expected that with SOE's MMORPG experience and LucasArts' funding, there was no way that Galaxies wouldn't have a smooth launch. Still, even more than a decade on, launch day woes are taken for granted when it comes to online games.
Following a few days of developer and server technician overtime, the login problems had more or less been fixed. Once players got into the game, however, the forum posts regarding the server issues were replaced with posts about the game's myriad of bugs and absent promised content. As with all forums though, these problems seemed to be the opinions of the vocal minority, as most of the record-breaking 125,000 users who registered their copy of the game within the first week of its release were happy immersing themselves in their new home. This was enough for LucasArts to proclaim Galaxies as having had the "most successful MMO launch ever" following the game's release.