Time Ex­tend

The Star Wars MMOG that al­most changed the world

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS THURSTEN Pub­lisher Lu­casArts De­vel­oper Sony On­line En­ter­tain­ment For­mat PC Re­lease 2003

Am­bi­tion Force-choked by mis­di­rec­tion: the story of Star Wars Gal­ax­ies’ im­plo­sion

The game’s scope could be­long to an un­likely sound­ing Kick­starter pitch, so per­haps it’s lit­tle won­der that Sony On­line En­ter­tain­ment shut­tered its Star Wars MMOG in De­cem­ber 2011. In its fi­nal form, Star Wars Gal­ax­ies was a mess of con­tra­dic­tory cre­ative urges whose de­sign and tech­no­log­i­cal foun­da­tions had been stripped out from un­der it – but it was an am­bi­tious mess, the type of game that play­ers of­ten ask for but rarely get.

Gal­ax­ies’ cre­ative direc­tor, Raph Koster, had been a lead designer on Ul­tima On­line. In the view of Koster and his team, an MMOG was a per­sis­tent world driven by sys­tems that em­pha­sised player par­tic­i­pa­tion at ev­ery level. If the player wanted to be an ad­ven­turer, the logic went, then they should be an ad­ven­turer in an ecosys­tem that also in­cluded crafts­men, doc­tors, dancers, pi­lots and farm­ers. If an as­pir­ing Han Solo wanted a drink, then they should be able to buy one from a player who – for what­ever rea­son – as­pired to be that bar­tender from the Mos Eis­ley cantina.

It was a less strange fit for the Star Wars li­cence than you might think. The game’s devel­op­ment over­lapped with the early part of the pre­quel tril­ogy, and its de­vel­op­ers had cho­sen to set the game in the pe­riod be­tween A New Hope and The Em­pire Strikes Back. Star Wars Gal­ax­ies was, then, far more in­flu­enced by the work done in Star Wars’ ex­panded uni­verse through the ’80s and ’90s than it was by the new films be­ing pro­duced by Lu­cas­film. It has a place in a line of Star Wars work that be­gins with the orig­i­nal tril­ogy and extends through nov­els by au­thors such as Ti­mothy Zahn and Michael Stack­pole, the Dark Horse comics, and sim­u­la­tor-style games such as

X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter. The ex­panded uni­verse treated Star Wars as a world with depth upon which the orig­i­nal films had only touched. It was an ideal fit for the type of MMOG that Koster and the Gal­ax­ies team set out to make.

When the game launched in 2003, cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter meant en­ter­ing a com­plex sim­u­la­tion. Your choice of race, for ex­am­ple, determined which lan­guages your char­ac­ter could speak. The ma­jor­ity spoke Ba­sic (see also: English) plus one other lan­guage spe­cific to them, while Wook­iees could speak only Shyri­i­wook (see also: Chew­bacca). Each lan­guage con­sti­tuted two dif­fer­ent skills – lis­ten­ing and speak­ing – and play­ers could teach th­ese skills to one an­other. Lan­guage spread like a virus: wook­iees picked up an un­der­stand­ing of Ba­sic from hu­mans, who might in turn learn to speak Twi’lek or Huttese. Role­play, com­mu­nity and play merged in a sin­gle sys­tem – a good metaphor for Star Wars

Gal­ax­ies’ broader am­bi­tions. In­stead of classes, Star Wars Gal­ax­ies gave each char­ac­ter a bud­get of skill points to spend on pro­fes­sions that could be freely mixed and matched in whole or in part. In­ter­de­pen­dency be­tween play­ers was en­cour­aged. Light in­juries would heal over time, but more se­ri­ous wounds would not. Th­ese would re­quire the at­ten­tion of a player medic, of­ten found in med­i­cal cen­tres where they re­ceived a bonus for their work. Sim­i­larly, you might choose to buff your stat pools with food cre­ated by a chef or go to a cantina, where player mu­si­cians and dancers could of­fer buffs to ex­pe­ri­ence gain.

When it worked, this cre­ated a won­der­ful sense of place. Play­ers came up with get-rich-quick schemes for them­selves or took up jobs to pay the bills on their way to some­thing else. You might start a min­ing com­pany just to save enough money for an ex­pen­sive off-world shut­tle, and once on that other world you might de­cide to set­tle down and never come back. If you were look­ing for a new blaster, you would scan list­ings for ad­ver­tise­ments from play­ers, jour­ney to their shops in player-built cities, and buy what you wanted from cus­tomised NPCs in build­ings that had been dec­o­rated through an elab­o­rate ob­ject ma­nip­u­la­tion sys­tem (with the help of player ar­chi­tects and in­te­rior de­sign­ers, nat­u­rally).

When it did not work, in those early days, it was be­cause of bal­ance prob­lems. A niche com­bat dis­ci­pline, Teräs Käsi, was dis­cov­ered to be much more pow­er­ful than any other way to play. It was a form of Star Wars kung fu in­vented for a fight­ing game on the orig­i­nal PlaySta­tion and, through de­vel­oper over­sight, it came to de­fine early

Star Wars Gal­ax­ies. Role­play­ers in­clined to play the game ‘as in­tended’ strug­gled in the new ecosys­tem, which was de­fined by

space karate. Doc­tors, re­al­is­ing their clien­tele were in a hurry, re­lo­cated to ar­eas out­side of star­ports on hub worlds. You have to un­der­stand Star Wars Gal­ax­ies both in terms of what it could be and what it fre­quently was. What it could be was a game where evoca­tive Star Wars nar­ra­tives were gen­er­ated on the fly by a com­plex set of so­cial sys­tems. What it fre­quently was was a game where play­ers in iden­ti­cal ar­mour hold­ing knuckle dusters queued for buffs from a man in a coat in the rain.

SOE should have learned from this that bal­ance was uniquely im­por­tant to Gal­ax­ies. It did not. Un­der pres­sure from both play­ers and Lu­casArts to give Jedi a more prom­i­nent place in the game, the stu­dio be­gan to take the lid off the game’s elu­sive Force Sen­si­tive sys­tem. The idea was, orig­i­nally, quite a good one. The game was set at a time when the Jedi were dead or gone, but when new Force sen­si­tives might nonethe­less be born. To sim­u­late that, ev­ery char­ac­ter was as­signed an in­vis­i­ble set of cri­te­ria in­volv­ing mul­ti­ple pro­fes­sion mas­ter­ies that ul­ti­mately un­locked a Jedi char­ac­ter slot. Jedi would be pow­er­ful but hunted by the Em­pire, and if they died, they’d die for­ever. On pa­per, this was a chal­leng­ing, ex­cit­ing sys­tem, one de­signed to cre­ate ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences both for the player that be­comes a Jedi and the ones who wit­ness or hunt them.

Al­most no Jedi emerged from the sys­tem in the early months. To ac­cel­er­ate the process, SOE added a rare item to the game called a holocron, which, once used, would tell you a pro­fes­sion you needed to mas­ter to earn your Jedi. Mas­ter that pro­fes­sion and use an­other holocron and it’d tell you the next one, and so on. The im­pact would sub­se­quently be known as the ‘holo­grind’, a so­cial cri­sis of such scope the game never re­cov­ered. SOE had breached one of the core tenets of Star Wars Gal­ax­ies’ orig­i­nal de­sign by plac­ing a sin­gu­lar goal on top of a sys­tem de­fined by lat­eral in­ter­de­pen­den­cies. The re­sult was chaos. The only items of any worth in the econ­omy be­came gear for fast lev­el­ling and holocrons them­selves. Shops were aban­doned as ar­mour­smiths rerolled as dancers, dancers rerolled as biotech­ni­cians, biotech­ni­cians rerolled as smug­glers. A small un­der­ground of holo­grind ob­jec­tors clung on, mak­ing money from the chaos in ser­vice economies and won­der­ing when the game would be­come about some­thing other than un­lock­ing Jedi.

To cur­tail the holo­grind, SOE in­tro­duced a new Force sen­si­tiv­ity sys­tem that hewed much closer to what other MMOGs were do­ing at the time. It was, func­tion­ally, an al­ter­nate ad­vance­ment sys­tem based on build­ing rep­u­ta­tion with a par­tic­u­lar fac­tion, un­locked by fol­low­ing a lin­ear quest­line. Force sen­si­tiv­ity be­came ac­ces­si­ble to the point of be­ing nor­mal and ex­pected. In fix­ing the holo­grind, some­thing in­te­gral about both the game’s de­sign and its fic­tion had been lost.

A high­light of this time was the launch of Jump To Light­speed, the game’s first ex­pan­sion. This in­tro­duced space travel – although at­mo­spheric flight was not added un­til later – and sur­pris­ingly adept space com­bat. It was at­mo­spheric and de­tailed, and were it not for the Jedi cri­sis, its re­lease would have marked the game’s peak. As it was, it was a wel­come di­ver­sion af­ter a long pe­riod of un­cer­tainty, and proof some of the am­bi­tion of the orig­i­nal de­sign re­mained.

Star Wars was chang­ing, how­ever, and so was the MMOG mar­ket. As the pre­quel tril­ogy pro­gressed, Lu­casArts came to per­ceive the se­ries in terms of iconic images and ar­che­typal sit­u­a­tions. Mean­while, World

Of War­craft proved play­ers wanted au­thored con­tent from MMOGs. Th­ese two ideas would later find each other more nat­u­rally in Star Wars: The Old Repub­lic. For Gal­ax­ies, they were a crip­pling im­po­si­tion.

The first ma­jor shift was the Com­bat Up­grade, which sim­pli­fied and re­bal­anced parts of the com­bat sys­tem. It was a suc­cess in sev­eral ways – karate was no longer pre­em­i­nent – but a shock to play­ers. Then, months later, the Com­bat Up­grade it­self was thrown out and re­placed by New Game En­hance­ments. Gal­ax­ies’ skill sys­tem was stripped out and re­placed by World Of

War­craft- style classes, cho­sen dur­ing a tu­to­rial mission where you met Han Solo. In a fi­nal, sad ad­mis­sion of the fail­ure of the game’s loftier ideas, Force Sen­si­tive was placed next to Commando and Bounty Hunter on the class se­lec­tion screen, com­plete with Luke Sky­walker mugshot.

Star Wars Gal­ax­ies strug­gled on for an­other six years af­ter the New Game En­hance­ments, but it was a dif­fer­ent game. What had started as a vi­tal but trou­bled MMOG of the older, more am­bi­tious kind had be­come a plain and un­sat­is­fy­ing ex­am­ple of the new way. A few things of value sur­vived. Play­ers could still dec­o­rate their houses, fly their ships, and visit in­creas­ingly empty cities. The spark was gone, how­ever, be­cause the in­ter­de­pen­dency that kin­dled it had been re­moved. When the plug was fi­nally pulled in De­cem­ber 2011 it wasn’t just new- Gal­ax­ies that died. The game that was died with it, too, as well as the game it might have been.

The ver­sa­til­ity of the skill sys­tem was ul­ti­mately cur­tailed by bal­ance is­sues, but this did not jus­tify the ag­gres­sive sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the game that fol­lowed

Dis­cov­er­ing land­marks meant, in many cases, ask­ing oth­ers for the co­or­di­nates.

The in­crease in Jedi con­tent was to the detri­ment of the game’s orig­i­nal vi­sion

Space travel was well im­ple­mented, ex­cit­ing and broad, rang­ing from sim­ple tra­ver­sal to group en­coun­ters with Star De­stroy­ers. Big ships were homes in their own right

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