You’d be hard-pressed to think of a fictional universe with better MMORPG potential than George Lucas’ Star Wars. LucasFilm were one of the genre’s early pioneers with their title Habitat debuting way back in 1986, and their partnering with Verant Interactive – the studio behind EverQuest – seemed like a dream match when Star Wars Online was announced in 2000. That same year Verant was acquired by SOE, with Ultima Online veterans Raph Koster and Rich Vogel heading up a new Austin-based studio to begin development on the game that would become Star Wars Galaxies.
Much of their vision for the game was built upon the same ethos which had guided Ultima Online’s development, as well as the MUDs which had in turn informed the development of that game. The decision to make SWG a player-driven sandbox rather than a more on-rails virtual world had a certain appeal to hardcore Star Wars fans who relished the prospect of co-inhabiting the worlds they had grown up watching on the silver screen.
At the same time, there was a growing concern that the game may struggle to entice a wider, mainstream audience, given the insistence by the developers that – in keeping with the franchise canon – players would take on a role more akin to Uncle Owen than Luke Skywalker. This sentiment was echoed in the game’s middling reviews when, following several delays, SWG finally hit store shelves on June 26, 2003.
Still, the game’s playerbase quickly grew to become the second largest in the genre. While its points-based skill system alienated those looking for more action-oriented gameplay, those who stuck around enjoyed the freedom that it offered in being able to build a unique character. As well as traditional MMO roles such as rifleman and medic, players could choose to add non-combat skills to their builds such as crafting, merchant, and entertainer skills.
Mounts, player cities, and droids were among the many aspects of the game which were either added or improved upon in the first year of the game’s release, with many fans remembering this as its golden era.
As subscriber numbers failed to climb however LucasArts’ focus turned to Jedi in the hope of reviving interest. Envisioned as an alpha class that few players would ever unlock, the producers instructed the development team to begin dropping hints on the forums to hasten the game’s first player Jedi. The first unlock happened on November 7, 2003, with many more joining them in the subsequent weeks and months.
In October 2004 the Jump to Lightspeed expansion was unanimously hailed as a triumph upon its release. In allowing players to build and fly their own starships, a second development team, which had been working on the expansion since before Galaxies had launched, effectively added a whole new twitch-combat space sim onto the original game. Just as some players chose to play the game entirely as non-combat entertainers or crafters, so did others elect to spend their time almost entirely in space, landing only to perform maintenance on their starship.
Two years after the game had launched however it was becoming apparent that the existing class system was unsustainable if the game was to continue growing both in content and subscriber numbers. The queue-based combat was turgid, and the developers were in a constant battle to balance the game’s 30+ skill trees.
In early 2005 an overhaul dubbed the Combat Upgrade (CU) was launched to a less than enthusiastic reception. Subscriber numbers dipped as a result, but a quick succession of patches began to fix the new system’s early woes and player numbers swiftly returned to their pre-CU levels.
While some maintained that the old combat system was better, swathes of the population were beginning to concede that the CU was an improvement – one that was not quite as radical as the kneejerk reaction had made it seem.
Internally however plans for an exponentially more ambitious overhaul were being drawn up between LucasArts and SOE as World of Warcraft’s behemoth subscriber base redefined the measure of success in the genre.
The New Game Enhancements (NGE) launched on November 15, 2005 – just a few short months after the Combat Upgrade. Promising an FPS-lite, twitch-based combat system and a more traditional levelling experience which did away with the skill points system and replaced it with just nine “iconic and Star Wars-y” professions, the game’s new mandate was to effectively abandon its sandbox roots and become a sci-fi clone of its leading competitor.
The backlash was both widespread and immediate, attracting attention from mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times as players angrily protested the changes and quit in droves. LucasArts and SOE’s mishandling of the situation cemented the debacle as an enduring example of how not to operate a live service game.
The negative reception to these changes overshadowed the two expansions which launched in 2005, and it would be another two years before the game began to see new content added in earnest as successive patches were dedicated to getting SWG back to a playable, if never truly polished, state.
Subscriber numbers eventually rose again but never exceeded the game’s early numbers, let alone approached WoW’s. Later updates improved the game dramatically and brought back many of the sandbox elements, but that didn’t stop LucasArts from sunsetting the game when it launched The Old Republic in 2011.
Since the launch of the CU in 2005, a group of players had been working on rebuilding an emulated version of the game as it was before the changes. As of 2022, the SWGEmu team have almost completely accomplished their goal, with public test servers having been in operation since 2011.
Other groups have used the SWGEmu code to establish their own rogue servers with custom content and rulesets, while more, including most prominently SWG Legends, have been built upon a later version of the live game’s source code, which was leaked onto the internet in 2015.
An Empire Remembered
A complete history of Star Wars Galaxies can be found in my book The MMO Folklorist’s Guide to Galaxies.
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