Force Ghost: Why Star Wars Galaxies Refuses to Die
A long time ago in a Galaxies far, far away.
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.
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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.
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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.
Professional reviews for the game varied wildly, with some proclaiming it to be every bit the revolutionary entry into the genre that the developers had been making the game out to be, whilst others mercilessly slammed it. Mutually agreed-upon positives were the lush (but resource-intensive) graphics, and (believe it or not) the helpful community. What divided critics was the game's slow pace, its shortage of quest content, and its wide variety of professions. Galaxies was such an odd beast that it was never going to appeal to everyone - and in its own way, that was also its greatest appeal. Whilst the negative reviewers were mystified by the game's notable lack of essential Star Wars ingredients (namely Jedi), those who enjoyed the feeling of being a regular citizen of the galaxy rather than 'The Chosen One' loved all those things that repelled its detractors.
The development team continued working furiously through the remainder of 2003, with half the team concentrating their efforts on the regular update cycle, whilst the other half began development on Galaxies first expansion, Jump to Lightspeed.
Much of the new content being added into the game was being eclipsed by one secret that had remained so far undiscovered - Jedi. Having exhausted the game's limited content, powergamers began to view unlocking the Jedi profession as a kind of endgame goal. Meanwhile, noticing disappointment at the lack of lightsaber wielding within the game, LucasArts saw that a player becoming Galaxies' first Jedi would be a newsworthy event which would hopefully ignite new interest in the game.
In contrast to their usual open nature, the developers had been very quiet in revealing what exactly players would have to do to be able to unlock the Jedi skill trees. Their intention as designers was to keep Jedi as rare, special, and powerful as they were in the films. Raph Koster's 2015 blog post A Jedi Saga detailed some of the concepts that the team had toyed with at this time, all of which were better than the actual, obviously rushed implementation. After much hint-dropping from the developers over on the game's official forums, Galaxies first Jedi character was finally unlocked on 7 November 2003. The news did indeed trend across many gaming and tech websites, but it didn't provide the massive surge in subscribers that LucasArts had hoped for. The effect the campaign had on the game ultimately became a negative one, as players became burnt out from all the grinding and unsubscribed from the game in a number disproportionate to that which joined. Jedi had brought a new level of elitism to the game - which was a turn off for many casual players - and there was hushed talk that playing as a Jedi wasn't even fun.
With the Jedi finally demystified, many remember 2004 as Galaxies' golden age. A massive number of updates brought long-promised content such as player cities to the game, whilst a well-received expansion added a complex flight system, making Galaxies finally start to feel like the game it should have been at launch. One thing players were still clamouring for however was a revamped, more balanced combat system. In April 2005 SOE delivered the notorious Combat Upgrade, fundamentally changing the way combat worked in the game. Players protested the changes both in-game and on the official forums, but rather than roll back the game to the old system, SOE set about remoulding the entire game with yet another new combat system. These New Game Enhancements were rushed out in November 2005, and well, it didn't turn out how many people wanted.
Players heavily protested the changes made to the game in the CU and NGE patches.
Sure, Galaxies failed to take a slice of that sweet World of Warcraft pie, but where many who quit the game in 2005 would tell you that the game died there and then, Galaxies, in fact, continued running for another six years. Things improved a lot over that time too. The small development team left in charge of the game repaired the damage done by the NGE and added a host of interesting new features such as city invasions, raid-style Heroic quests, and the build-a-quest Chronicler sub-profession. By the time 2011 rolled around, Galaxies was in better shape than it had ever been, embracing the best of both the sandbox and theme park gameplay styles. It was to some surprise, and great sadness then, that players greeted the announcement in June that Galaxies was to sunset later that year (conveniently just prior to the release of The Old Republic, a game which LucasArts had previously affirmed players would be able to run simultaneously alongside Galaxies).
Plenty of other online games have come and gone in the years before and since, and those which have shuttered have done so to relatively little fanfare (the only MMO to receive a comparably relentless resurrection campaign is Cryptic Studios City of Heroes, which shuttered in 2012 and currently has at least three unofficial spiritual successors in development). Star Wars Galaxies however remains the undead king of the MMO genre - to this day still regularly receiving impassioned write-ups on games journalism sites, constantly being reminisced about on gaming forums, and being the inspiration for just about every MMO to ever get funded on Kickstarter.
Before it was sold off and reborn as Daybreak Game Company in 2015, John Smedley incited borderline mass hysteria when he casually announced in a 2014 Reddit AMA that SOE's next game was to be dedicated to Galaxies players; "Once we launch it... you can come home" - the post read. When the game turned out to be the zombie survival MMO H1Z1, it wasn't exactly what hopeful Galaxies veterans had in mind.
Many of Galaxies developers are currently working on Crowfall - a fantasy MMORPG which was crowdfunded for $1,766,204 in early 2015. Whilst it features action combat, its crafting, economy and player housing system seem to be taking at least some inspiration from Galaxies. Its release still seems some way off, but Crowfall looks as though it will expand upon and modernise the ideas behind Galaxies in interesting ways.
Of course, Star Wars fans do have an officially licensed, big-budget MMO to play in The Old Republic. Whilst SWTOR continues to receive regular updates and maintains a sizeable player base, its failure to live up to the ridiculously overused mantle of WoW-killer effectively killed the theme park MMO genre (if a game with an estimated $200 million budget and the world's biggest IP behind it couldn't dethrone the king, then who could?). Even World of Warcraft itself seems to be trending downwards in recent years, with the emergence of similar, more accessible genres such as MOBAs and survival games capturing much of the MMORPG audience.
For former players, the most exciting prospect remains the various emulation projects hoping to revive the game by rebuilding it from the ground up. SWGEmu, which aims to recreate Galaxies exactly as it was just prior to the launch of the CU, is the closest to being finished with all but the Jump to Lightspeed expansion left to be completed before its 1.0 server - Suncrusher - launches. Other emulators such as ProjectSWG are hoping to revive the game as it was at the time it closed, whilst servers such as Empire in Flames run off the SWGEmu code but are already implementing new content. With SWGEmu edging ever nearer to completion it's exciting to speculate on what those who were once Galaxies players may be able to add to the game. More species, planets, items, and quests are a tantalising prospect, but the question remains whether the players will be there to support it. Galaxies was, after all, nothing without its community.
Unfortunately, much of the community which has been established within the emulator scene is unbearably toxic. Whether or not the culprits are the vocal minority, it remains that they must be a repellent to those wanting to jump back into playing Galaxies again, or indeed, for the first time. Those in charge of their own servers now hold the keys to the future of the game, and only time will tell if Galaxies' once-players can govern themselves and their communities professionally enough to see the worlds we all once cherished truly revived.
If this look back at the history of one the most important MMORPGs has whet your appetite for more, head this way to order your copy of Galaxies: An Empire Remembered by James Crosby.