Flashback: 'Star Wars Galaxies' and the Disastrous

Flashback: 'Star Wars Galaxies' and the Disastrous "NGE" Game-Killing Update

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How LucasArts flubbed the Jedi class update for its 'Star Wars' MMO and lost its most precious players

How LucasArts flubbed the Jedi class update for its 'Star Wars' MMO and lost its most precious players

Everyone knows that Jedi kill stormtroopers. It’s the foundational premise of the Star Wars canon – a loose oligarchy of enigmatic space-monks are our only hope against the Empire. Jedi answer to destiny, spiritual fortitude, and oversimplified conceptions of good and evil. Stormtroopers, on the other hand, are mostly there to get blaster bolts bounced back into their chests. This is the natural order of things. A guy in plastic-white armor should be putty against someone who can move entire spaceships with their mind. We’ve been sold a fiction where Jedi are ultra-rare child prodigies harvested from backwater planets who commit to a lifetime of training in order to unlock the innate powers of righteousness lying latent in the universe. So, what happens when you try to adapt the tenets of Star Wars into a massively-multiplayer role-playing game, where equalized player balance demands that a dude with a blaster has a fighting chance against a lightsaber-wielding Jedi Guardian?

This is the question that ultimately doomed Star Wars Galaxies, the LucasArts MMO that died a sad, lonely death in 2011.

There were no Jedi when Galaxies launched. Players were offered a suite of mundane, entry-level occupations: medics, scouts, artisans, entertainers. You would spend your sessions grinding those skills through branching specialization trees, slowly unlocking new tiers and tech choices. Yes, this was a Star Wars game where you could dedicate your character to the art of the dance, performing on street corners across Naboo, Tatooine, and Talus. In a sense, Galaxies represented the spaces in between the Star Wars movies – the thousands of ordinary galactic citizens dealing with the harsh realities of life under the Empire. There were rumors of a mysterious questline that would allow you to spec your way into the Jedi Order, but for the vast majority of the player-base, those desires were put on the backburner.

"Nobody was a Jedi. Nobody cared. They were playing the professions they liked," writes Raph Koster, creative director of Star Wars Galaxies on his excellent blog. "They were doing what they wanted to do. The secret of Jedi was a secret still, and there were countless theories. Players thought they were being watched and only the deserving would be picked."

The process of becoming a Jedi in Galaxies was suitably arcane. The game assigned each player a secret checklist when they created their character. If you managed to complete it, you were covertly notified of your newfound Force-sensitive status, and the doors to your new powers would creak open before you. Originally, the path of the Jedi was intended to be a mythic, sightseeing experience – some of the tasks on the checklist were purely mechanical, like killing a specific creature, but others more spiritual and exploratory, like scaling the highest peak on a planet. There is something beautiful about an MMO that introduces you to the Force after you take in a really nice view on Yavin 4.

Unfortunately that system was altered before release. Instead of sightseeing and monster-hunting, players earned Jedi status by mastering an assortment of skills – like cooking or medicine - which again, were assigned randomly upon character creation. The requirements were not disclosed to the player, which means your best chance of becoming a Jedi was to inadvertently stumble into Force sensitivity. The goal was to create an MMO where the Force took on the same metaphysical overtones that it did in the movies. You grind away for years, and suddenly you can shoot lightning from your fingertips.

Under that system, Koster speculates that Galaxies wouldn’t have christened its first Jedi until 2012 – a solid nine years after release. But in 2003, after a rough launch dogged by technical issues and unfinished zones, LucasArts pressured the Galaxies team to make the Jedi-making process easier. It was the sort of splashy headline to boost Christmas sales numbers, "Star Wars Galaxies proves that Jedi do exist!" Koster and his team didn’t want to scrap their system entirely, so instead they added items called "Holocrons" into the game world. Once a Holocron was in your possession, it would tip you off towards one of the skills your character needed to master in order to unlock the Jedi class. According to Koster’s blog, this completely destroyed the game’s flavor. Galaxies used to be a bunch of bounty hunters, dancers, scoundrels, and merchants. Now it was just a universe full of people min-maxing their way into Force sensitivity.

Most just macroed their way or grinded their way through it all as fast as possible, dazzled by the booby prize of Jedi

"The doctors who derived their pleasure from helping out people in a support role found themselves learning martial arts or machine guns and mowing down creatures. The combat specialists who were used to optimizing damage-per-second in taking down a krayt dragon were instead raising them from babies. The creature handlers who tended dewbacks had to learn to chop them up and cook them instead," he writes. “You get the idea. Everyone started playing everything they didn’t like. Oh, some players discovered new experiences they never would have otherwise. Many emerged from this with a new understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of a society. But most just macroed their way or grinded their way through it all as fast as possible, dazzled by the booby prize of Jedi."

Star Wars Galaxies welcomed its first Jedi on November 7, 2003. Two years later, as the subscriber count continued to dwindle, LucasArts went back to the drawing board with an expansion called Trials of Obi-Wan. The developers wanted to bring new players into Galaxies, so they cooked up a game-wide rework called the "New Game Enhancements," or NGE for short. To this day, it’s one of the most infamous patches in video game history. The NGE gutted the skill-grind structure of the original Galaxies, and moved it closer to a World of Warcraft-style level-based system. You could no longer create your own classes or diversify your skill-tree, and most infamously, the Jedi were recasted as a starting profession. Yes, no more cracking Holocrons, no more grinding random skills, instead you could spawn into Galaxies as a level one Padawan. It was great for new players, but absolutely devastating to anyone who had committed to countless hours making their characters Force sensitive. The Jedi Order was treated as the most hallowed parish in the community, but now saber-wielding warriors were just as mundane as anyone else in the galaxy.

Democratizing the Jedi wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea on paper, but it was implemented so brazenly – and without any significant warning to the community – that Galaxies erupted in one of the most bloodthirsty revolts in MMO history. There were stories of entire player-run towns disappearing overnight, as longtime players quit in protest. Gordon Walton was a designer on Galaxies who left in the midst of the NGE’s development. He feared the worst, and he was right.

"I fully expected it to be a disaster. My theorycrafting was that it was gonna be a big problem. I was hoping that I was wrong, because if we could’ve gotten away with that, we could’ve gotten away with a lot of things," says Walton. "All good MMOs go through change, that’s part of their value proposition. But as far as how fast you move, and how many changes you can make over time, every community is a little bit different. If you think about how sociology works for governments, they rarely do radical things over a short period of time."

The funny thing is that the NGE wasn’t hated by new players who jumped into Galaxies after the redesign. They had nothing to miss, no sense of betrayal. Starting your journey as a Jedi didn’t feel deceptive. But the base community never forgave LucasArts, and that was a condemnation the game never managed to overcome. "There's certainly elements of the NGE that would have worked in other games and didn't work in the context of Galaxies. There are also elements that were good design even in the context of Galaxies’ culture but which were poor fits for the technology that SWG was built on," says Koster, when I reached him over email. "There were many design choices in NGE that are not what I would have done even if I were onboard with the general premise."

Galaxies closed its servers in 2011, after Electronic Arts announced The Old Republic – a new, modern Star Wars MMO aiming to fix what LucasArts had broken. The Old Republic launched with eight classes, four of which are Force-users. There was no effort to protect the legacy of the Jedi Order. They are not remote. Their powers are defined by the number next to their name, not their mystique in the fiction.

You can’t blame The Old Republic for cringing at the Galaxies debacle. It might be a little anticlimactic that an elite Sith Warrior can be thwarted by a particularly savvy smuggler, but The Old Republic isn’t risking a flat-out culture war. It set out its rules and limitations from the start. The braintrust at EA looked long and hard at the Jedi conundrum, and decided the best course of action was to neuter their fabled prestige and build a game where a Jedi Counselor is just a fancy way to say “healer.” It’s not a perfect solution. There isn’t a perfect solution. But there’s only so much you can do when the whole world wants to be a Jedi.