Some 15 years after it launched, the absence of Star Wars Galaxies has left a sizeable hole in my life that's never been replaced. From its bug-laden beginnings in summer of 2003, whatever anyone else said, my lightsaber-lit imagination was fired – and I was hooked.
As a game, SWG was far from perfect. The bugs were real and the entire 'Jump To Lightspeed' expansion (more on which later) hobbled everything. And the whole 'Jedi' dream was automated by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) to make more of them appear in-game than there were. The cheek! But when SWG worked and the playerbase was on-song, it was my MMOG of the noughties. A living, breathing, Star Wars universe where you could be anything, or do anything you wanted. Kinda.
The not-quite-finished beginning of a galaxy
At the launch in June 2003 SWG was something of an unfinished mess. Players had to run or walk through hostile terrain, usually being killed by a low-level NPC because Speeders weren’t available in the game. Bugs were rampant, with players losing money, armour or even characters themselves.
Gradually, the devs fixed the bugs and added updates including speeders, and quickly the servers began to buzz with a vast number of players. Powerful guilds were formed across the servers with huge player cities cropping up everywhere. The in-game economy was at its height with generous amounts of everything from armour, guns to speeders available.
Life in SWG was good.
Finding a place in the Star Wars universe
During these early days, the player population was quickly discovering SWG's hugely complex profession system. Allowing players to take on multiple skills, and then drop them to become something else entirely.
I mostly stuck to combat professions, Rifleman and Commando being my personal favourites. For those that didn’t want to fight though, SWG offered a large number of peaceful Entertainer professions as a Musician or a Dancer. Or if you wanted to get creative, you could become an Armoursmith, Weaponsmith or even a Droid Engineer.
But if you did want to get your hands dirty and spill some blood, SWG offered a wealth of combat orientated professions ranging from Bounty Hunter to Swordsman, Smuggler or even Pikeman and the holy grail – the Jedi.
The light and dark side of the Jedi ‘hologrind’
Early on, very few Jedi emerged as players struggled to crack their personal Jedi unlock. Those that succeeded were hunted with any death being permanent - making the Jedi unlock an extraordinary challenge. Those who succeeded tended to train far away from prying eyes.
To fix this, SOE introduced an ultra-rare item called a holocron. Once looted, a player would know what profession they needed to master to unlock a Jedi. Known as the ‘hologrind’, this saw mass grinding through many (or all) of the professions required to unlock a Jedi.
Some say the hologrind obsession was terrible for the game: players shifted focus, leaving their established businesses and guilds to rot. But this was overstated on forums and the like: as someone playing at the time, many other players continued to go along as normal, profitably plugging the gaps for those who were focusing elsewhere.
Fighting to the death on a daily basis
SWG boasted a unique faction-based Player vs Player system. Allowing players to overtly show their allegiance making them open to enemy attack. For those who didn’t want to fight, passive mode could be chosen, making NPCs your only enemy.
On a daily basis, large numbers of Rebel and Imperial faction foot soldiers would battle to the death defending their player city strongholds. These massive PvP battles would last for hours with everyone from a guild getting into the fight for the hell of it.
Expanding to some sort of speed
In a rare early low moment, SOE finally unveiled the game’s first expansion - SWG: Jump to Lightspeed. Finally, those of us that dreamed of being Han Solo could finally get hold of a YT-1300 and explore the murky depths of the galaxy.
Trouble was, JTL was a bit of a dirge with not a great deal to do. As for all of the ‘fastest in the galaxy’ guff, if you really wanted to get to a planet, piloting your own ship was the slowest way to travel, seeing most players quickly turning left at a shuttleport once again. There was a pattern here: high expectations, and a bit of a let-down.
Revenge of the update
In early 2005, the 'Rage of the Wookies' expansion was announced to coincide with the release of Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Just days before the release, something unexpected arrived – the 'Combat Upgrade'. This simplified and rejigged parts of the combat system much to the outcry of the players who were mostly irked they could no longer grind XP while away from their keyboards.
Despite the initial grumbling, the CU succeeded in balancing and simplifying the combat system without ruining it for most. But little did we know, something much worse was around the corner.
When the end comes, it’s going to hurt
The title’s third expansion, 'Trials of Obi-Wan', dropped on 1 November 2005. A week later, the New Game Enhancements were revealed, changing the game forever. Large numbers of professions were gone, along with the sophisticated skills system that drove them. The gameplay mechanics were simplified beyond recognition. And worst of all, Jedi was now a starter profession.
In trying to make SWG appeal to the masses, SOE tore it down entirely. This move even led to player protests against SOE that resulted in the developer offering refunds for anyone who shouted loud enough.
SWG as it was, however, was gone.
The player-base limped on for a few months, trying to settle into the so-called 'NGE' – but the damage was done. As such an early convert, and someone who always believed in this world, it pained me to see what we were left with: a Star Wars themed Warcraft clone with the years of hard work behind it abandoned. In the months that followed the NGE, I watched as players left in droves, and cities that were once alive went quiet, as the once-thriving (player-run) economy startled, then just stopped.
I couldn't quite take it in, such was my investment of time and I suppose even love. I carried on playing. no matter how intermittently, until the servers were finally switched off in December 2011. I'd walk around the decaying ghost towns and random empty shuttleports, thinking of how full they once were, and of what SWG could have been.