Hippo Manchester
December 22, 2005

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Games: Star Wars Galaxies

Sony Online Entertainment, PC

C

Star Wars Galaxies is one of the most besmirched massive multi-player games available.

While launching to initial acclaim in June 2003, SWG has seen a steady series of bugs, exploits and revamps whittle its player base to abysmal levels. While competition from new games takes its toll on every MMO, SWG was hit particularly hard by the release of runaway hit World of Warcraft a few months after its launch. While WoW has grown to a staggering 4.5 million players SWG languishes at under 100k active players, a number that continues to decline with its badly received relaunch earlier this month.

From a business standpoint it must have made perfect sense. SWG growth had stagnated. While the game was certainly spotty, it was viewed by many as one of the most mature and intricate games available. Players choose from more than 30 professions, explore a vast yet immediately recognizable universe. You can customize your avatar to the Nth degree, build your own house, make a living as a cantina dancer, hunt down the rare player controlled Jedi for a fat bounty and participate in an epic conflict that is legend in the sci-fi lexicon. But, the money just wasnít coming in. While the game appealed to SW fanatics and the hardcore MMO gamer it was missing its target market. Casual players were left scratching their heads. The scope and sprawl of SWG was daunting and however cool it was to blow up TIE fighters, shuttle down to the Wookie home world and unlock the secrets of the Jedi, the interface and structure were too complex and the action was more Dragon Quest than Jedi Academy.

So a decision was made. Strip the game, distill the disparate professions into nine distinct classes (Smuggler, Trader, Commando, Officer, Entertainer, Jedi, Bounty Hunter, Spy and Medic) and up the cinematic ante. Combat would be more akin to a First- or Third-Person Shooter game like Star Wars Battlefront rather than the wildly unbalanced style that proceeded it. Players would immediately and repeatedly interact with canonical figures like Han Solo and Chewbacca (who now guide new players through their orientation missions). The developers dubbed this the New Game Enhancement and it would be the resurrection of what should have been one of the most wildly popular game experiences in the MMO market. This radical redesign (which many players felt dumbed the game down, and made it merely a space-born World of Warcraft) was supposed to save the venerable franchise from MMO extinction.

Take a gander at the forums at http://SWG.stratics.com or http://SWG.allakhazam.com and get a reading of how well itís been received. The gist? Nine out of 10 players detest it. And sales have not improved; in fact the bad press over the revamp has apparently driven sales of the new Star Wars Galaxies Starter Kit further down.

SWG still represents one of the best sci-fi massive multi-player games available (although in all honesty thatís a pretty small field). But, the over-simplification of what was once a robust though admittedly exclusionary game into a less experimental and more action-oriented quasi-shooter has not been taken well. Itís not that the game is worse than it was before the NGE, itís that a tremendous amount of developer distrust has been generated which has translated into massive abandonment of the game worsening one of the more depressing aspects of the title. The light server populations and barren expanse of galaxy has nearly eliminated the sense of virtual community that the best MMOs ladle on with gusto. Perhaps after the bad press subsides and the mutineers have jumped ship SWG will get the fresh start that such a notable franchise deserves. But, in the ultra-competitive arena of Multiplayer gaming, itís doubtful that SWG will get enough steam to bounce back. Feel free to download the ten day demo from http://starwarsgalaxies.station.sony.com/.

ó Glenn Given