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GDC 2021: Star Wars Galaxies was a complex game of corporate greed and fan love

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It was an MMO built in about three years, with a miserable launch, a depressing churn rate, and the most infamous patch in all gaming history… and also and MMO people loved so much they’ve kept it alive and thriving even in death. Yes, GDC 2021 has given us another Star Wars Galaxies postmortem from Raph Koster and Richard Vogel, and while players may be fairly aware of most of the game’s history, Koster and Vogel had a few stories that may enlighten those who watched from afar and comments for those watching the emulators.

So let’s go back in time, shortly after the Privateer MMO got canned and the SWG dev duo found themselves making a space-flight demo in a house when their new employers had no office for them.

Running out of time but not ideas

As anyone familiar with Koster can guess, one of the major themes of the postmortem was the team having tons of ideas but not quite enough time for everything. While its Wing vs Tie demo impressed the higher-ups enough to guarantee an expansion (which would become Jump to Lightspeed), the team would need to pull off more, and soon. The game was already a year behind its target launch date when Koster and Vogel joined, and they had been given some strict limitations.

For one, the game couldn’t cannibalize EverQuest, even though the team at that time had planned to use the same engine as the upcoming EverQuest II. Koster and Vogel didn’t think that would work well, so they’d have to go a different route. As the maps were several times larger than anything they’d previously worked on, the game used a new kind of procedural layering generation for terrain. Keep in mind, the game was developed in about three years, incredibly fast for MMOs even today, but especially so when you aren’t using recycled materials.

The servers, which were incredibly high-end for the era, couldn’t actually handle the whole map at once, so planets and their terrain were generated on the fly as players needed them. This is why you could occasionally shoot through terrain, as it technically hadn’t been fully built yet in some cases. Even with new tech, though, launch would not go well. This was even before the billions of crafting combinations the system would have to track years later, thanks to the game’s randomly generated resources. As the resources spawned for a limited time before disappearing forever, the system had to track not only those resources but all the variables that contributed to the objects they had crafted. Nothing was supposed to last, so clearly turning off item decay (which happened later) would eventually worsen the problem.

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SWG devs also had to deal with all the licensing issues and constant permissions. Everything needed approval. Remember, this was around the same time when the prequels were coming out. The team had to go through not only LucasArts but Lucasfilm, and sometimes George himself. As the schedule was tight, the devs would have to work on things even if they weren’t approved. For example, the mechanic for making lightsabers certain colors chosen by the player was initially OKed for months, but then Lucas shot it down as (aside from Mace Windu’s purple one) sabers would have color limitations so it would be visually easier to see who was a good guy or bad guy in big fights. However, a few weeks later, after the team was trying to work around the cancelation of the feature, the team once again got the green light.

This popped up again when players expressed interest in being stormtroopers. Lots of information was shared with SWG team members, on hand-delivered CDs with notes to understand the coded files. While Koster knew that cloned stormtroopers were a thing, the general public did not. To work around this, the team let players know that they would be able to wear stormtrooper armor and wield their weapons, just not actually be a stormtrooper.

Circling back to the Jedi, this was another area with strong limitations. The game was set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi when the Jedi were supposed to be incredibly rare. Originally the team was just going to leave Jedi out altogether, but it turns out that wasn’t allowed. Koster asked for the time period to be moved, before or back in time, and this too was denied. Then Koster suggested to depower the Jedi, and this was OK but they were told it didn’t seem very Star Wars then.

Due to the limited time, the team launched with players needing to gain a certain level of mastery with five randomized skills to unlock their Jedi. This came only after a forced launch and a demand from marketing that people could become a Jedi before Christmas the year of release. The problem was that suddenly everyone who wanted to play a Jedi also had to play with skills/styles they weren’t interested in, and this led to massive player losses.

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The time limitation, ultimately, was the worst limit placed on the team. Vogel had asked for six months to a year, hoping for the six months. One month was just not enough. The game launched with basically one questline. Other quests were given out from terminals to save time and money compared to working on NPCs and their dialogue. While he didn’t reveal full details, Koster showed us a graph of several MMOs that came out around this time, with SWG in blue. You’ll notice that while the game didn’t start the strongest, it actually held its playerbase longer and better than its unnamed, non-sandbox counterparts.

As Koster and Vogel mentioned, you only get one launch. That’s usually when you get your upward trend. But soon after, it’s all downhill. The game got a Coaster of the Year “award,” much like Ultima Online before it. SOE’s marketing pushed magazines to re-review the game after the eventually NGE, and while Computer Games Magazine did suggest people revisit it, they also ended up giving the game a second Coaster of the Year.

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Launching twice

Again, Koster and Vogel both argued the game launched too soon. It was disheartening for the team since although it did a lot in its three years of development, launching too soon kills the potential for the game to succeed in many ways. Obviously SWG has many fans even now, but as Koster noted, the combination of SOE being dead and Disney holding the rights to the Star Wars franchise means the possibility of officially bringing the game back to life are slim to none.

And that’s frustrating for MMO gamers, since while the lack of prefab content discouraged themepark fans and and the easy access to Jedi drove off folks with movie-centric fantasies, sandbox players really enjoyed the game. The team didn’t quite feel this part of its success, as players who left cited the lack of content, though 80% said they’d return if there were a big content update. While they may have gotten their wish with Jump to Lightspeed, especially with multi-manned ships including the the YT-1300 of Millennium Falcon fame, SOE was up against a developer who, in Koster’s words, brought a tank to a knife fight: Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.

Koster and Vogel noted they knew many of the devs at Blizzard. In fact, Erich and Max Schaefer (then) of Blizzard tried to get Koster to move from SWG to WoW before the former launched. While Koster wanted to see things through, he also told the Sony people what a success WoW would be, long before it even came out. Blizzard had outspent most other MMO dev teams by about four times, and only Sims Online at the time seemed to have a change to compete (and we all know how that turned out). Vogel said the combination of money, dedication to polishing mechanics, and international recognition of both Warcraft and Starcraft in Asia all meant WoW would be a major success.

While the SWG team had pulled off some amazing things with the JTL expansion, WoW was killing the competition all around. SWG was admittedly less affected due to its sandbox nature, but when the new expansion failed to make more than a small bump in player activity, company heads pushed for the NGE. At this point, Koster was promoted off the team and up to SOE’s Creative team and watched from afar. Vogel, still in the trenches, told the company that such drastic changes to the core gameplay loop would devastate the existing playerbase. SOE went ahead anyway, and Vogel ultimately left for BioWare.

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As veteran MMORPG players remember, the 2005 NGE – “new game enhancements” – was so bad that mainstream news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post wrote about it. Even The Christian Science Monitor had words about the failed patch, which came on the heels of a paid expansion on Mustafar that offered no hint about the coming design apocalypse. What hurt the most, however, wasn’t necessarily the bad press but finally realizing how much the loyal players had really adored the game. Despite people constantly razzing the game for having animal milking, fat Wookiees, hairstyles, player-created beauty pageants, simulated PTSD, and deep crafting, it turned out that the freedom to do all these weird things was something people truly loved.

Pets in particular were hit hard by the NGE. While the initial system was janky, the NGE locked creature pets into datapads where they were unusable, deleting the entire Creature Handler and Bio-Engineer professions from the game outright. Players held funerals for the pets they’d raised from babies in a way no other MMO at the time allowed them to.

While obviously major hits like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley show that players do enjoy a more peaceful universe, SOE wanted World of Warcraft’s playerbase. MMO players know that the studio eventually rallied, ran GM events, passed event tools to players, and even finished atmospheric flight, and indeed it ran another six years past the NGE, but the studio ultimately shut the game down at the end of 2011 – not coincidentally four days before BioWare launched MMORPG Star Wars The Old Republic with the Star Wars license.

There is still no replacement for it, as many systems, if you can find them in a game, don’t have all of the features from SWG, especially crafting. While SWG crafting is often cited among MMO players as the crafting system to emulate, Koster notes that other devs often see crafting as a “side thing,” not a core part of the game. One audience member asked whether an SWG type game could be made for mobile, and Koster said it could, though controls would be hard – it’s just that clearly no one has the guts to do it. Aside from Koster of course.

And the fans themselves.

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Fan devs, redeeming the game

Obviously, the game lives on in multiple emulators and rogue servers, some of which began long before the game sunsetted. Even non-players have most likely seen that one fan-run server, SWG Legends, has created not just additional art but an entire new planet in the form of Bespin from The Empire Strikes Back – and it’s far from alone, as it and other servers have new planets, races, houses, and even new tutorials too. Koster and Vogel were quite animated when discussing this, seeming proud that all their hard work clearly impacted fans in a big way. Not every twice-failed game with a troubled launch and infamously bad expansion gets a second lease on life, much less additional fan-lead development on dozens of servers.

The game clearly was home to players mainstream games were ignoring. When SWG went offline, player numbers in EVE Online, for example, went up. The procedural generation to allow for massive space exploration in SWG was more than a decade ahead of No Man’s Sky, and player politics as a formal character skill (along with fully realized player towns!) still hasn’t made a comeback the way SWG had them. Even the game’s PvP was unique: Both Koster and Vogel wanted to avoid the lessons of Ultima Online’s rampant player-killing, which tanked the playerbase, but the Star Wars name meant they couldn’t leave it out. So instead, when SWG launched in 2003, it pioneered the temporary-enemy flagging system, TEF, to keep worlds dynamic without being exactly dangerous. While only about 1% of the playerbase were “full-time PvPers,” 26% of the players flagged for PvP participation, which is huge.

In spite of its many flaws, Star Wars Galaxies always lands on the all-time greats lists for MMOs, and the hard work the team put in inspired fans to keep it alive and refreshed. Other titles may still be around, both officially and unofficially, but few have the kind of long-term reputation, good and bad, of SWG.

With thanks to David.

MOP’s Andrew Ross is reporting from GDC’s summer digital event in 2021! You can find more of his coverage right here:

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