Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Star Wars Galaxies: A Retrospective

So the other day I hooked up a hard drive that had been sitting in a drawer for years. It was from my old gaming computer, and on it I found a bunch of screenshots from the old MMO Star Wars Galaxies. That brought back a lot of memories. I played that game almost daily for round about eight years. So I thought I might try and do a post about it, and I beg your indulgence for my shocking display of geek-ness. Yes, I know what the TIE in TIE fighter stands for.

SWG stood out with its complexity. It was huge open-world sandbox where the entire economy was player-driven, and anything worth buying (apart from quest reward decorations and such) had to be made by crafters. If you wanted custom clothes, the best armor, houses and furniture, a new hair style, or a new spaceship engine or anything else, you had to buy it from another player. There were twelve planets and you could place a house almost anywhere on most of them. Organize enough houses together around a city hall and you'd get a player-constructed city which, as it grew based on population (outpost, town, city, metropolis, etc), could have its own shuttleport, cantina, gardens and so on. In the original game there something like 24 professions that you could mix and match to make your character pretty much however you wanted, though maxed out you could only master about two and a half at one time. About seven of those were crafting professions, and crafting wasn't a simple affair. Three professions were dedicated entertainers like dancers and musicians. It was this sort of customization and diversity that caught my attention, along with the setting.

I should also add that I have a soft spot for Star Wars. I remember lying on a blanket on the hood of the car, leaned back against the windshield with my cousins, watching the first Star Wars at the drive-in theater. I was probably around four at the time. I remember my dad taking me to see Darth Vader signing photographs at a bookstore when I was six. It was just a guy in a costume, but it was a really good costume. When I got to the front of the line I recall staring up with such total awe that I couldn't speak or even remember my name when he asked me for it. My dad had to lean in and give him my name. I remember lining up around the old Cinema City theater waiting to go in to see Return of the Jedi when I was eight. And, for all its shortcomings, I remember being so happy to go see Episode I with my dad back in '99. It was all a big part of my personal cultural heritage.

I wanted to give the game a shot. I first signed up for SWG a few months after it launched in 2003. This was after Everquest but before World of Warcraft. I had never played an MMO before, so it was a bit of a steep learning curve. I started out on the Ahazi server, on Tatooine, as a newbie Zabrak in pink hot pants with an ambition to become a master dancer. I would end up becoming a dancer and more. Caliope: Beast Master Extraordinaire! Also a master entertainer, a legendary hunter, an Imperial commando, and not too shabby of a pilot.

Cue Star Wars theme. Disco version, if you please.
All that was to come later, though. My character back story was that I was fresh off the farm, a beetle farm to be precise (there was a variety of large beetles on Tat), and moved to the big city to become a dancer. When I started out I spent most of my time in the crowded Mos Eisley cantina working on my dancing experience. You slowly unlocked new dances/songs/instruments as you went along. People would watch entertainers to cure mind wounds and battle fatigue, and would pay decent money for the buffs we could provide. There was much socializing. Early on I learned about the busy cantina at Anchorhead, an NPC city which was a popular pvp spot at the time. I had no money for a shuttle, and this was before animal mounts and vehicles were added, so I had to jog half-way across the planet to get there. On the way I aggro'd something mean and it killed me instantly. I never did see what it was.

Anyhow, I eventually got there and started leveling up in earnest. I also started experimenting with combat. I remember my first combat death... swarmed by death kreetles while trying to clear a kreetle lair for money. At this point in the game there was a hefty death penalty and your armor and weapons would decay rapidly. Around this time, animal mounts were implemented. Creature Handlers would tame and mature mountable animals and sell them. They made quite a profit, since people were sick of jogging everywhere. I was so happy to be able to afford my first carrion spat... sort of a vulture-ostrich... with a saddle. I'd also seen a lot of people coming into the cantina with their pets behind them, and I became interested in being a creature handler myself. After learning the basics of scouting and camp building, you could find baby versions of animals in the wild and train them to fight for you as they grew. I started out taming baby rills (a kind of lizard) and dwarf nunas (a kind of nuna). I was very proud when I tamed first rock beetle (a cow-sized beetle), which were popular pets at the time since they had heavy armor. I named him Crunchy.

Practicing music on stage.
Shortly after I mastered dancing (hooray!) I was approached by the mayor of a nearby town called Twin Suns. It was located due west of Mos Eisley. They had just grown large enough to have a cantina, and only the master entertainer profs could place one. They offered me ownership of the cantina if I'd move into the city and place it. My own cantina! Hooray! I named it The Boozy Bantha. Twin Suns, along with the city guild SUNS, became my home for the remainder of the life of the game.

Boozy Bantha exterior.
Outside the city hall.
I spent many an in-game evening sitting on that porch, watching people pass by, and occasionally leading guildies inside for a quick buff.

I continued to improve my fighting and creature handling skills. Vehicles also came out, and I began to explore the planets and looking for interesting pets to tame, all the while making decent money by hunting meat and hides to sell to crafters. I was easily identified by my pink ensemble.

I got myself into trouble sometimes. Even while fleeing combat, your swoop bike could be shot out from under you. I died a lot.
You learned to buy your speeders by the pack.
Doing group stuff was fun, but I was at my happiest when hunting solo, wandering the wilds, just me and my pets camping on a remote mountaintop.

Watching the suns set with my gurreck, Puddinpaws.
And wherever I went, well...

Nothin' left for me to do but dance!
Off these bad times I'm going through just dance!
Got canned heat in my heels tonight, baby!

One of my greatest Creature Handling achievements was the finding and taming of a baby bull rancor. They were larger and more aggressive than your regular rancor, and possibly the toughest pet to acquire at the time. Just finding one was hard, but ever-so-slowly crawling prone towards a bull rancor nest next to the Dathomir Sarlacc to lure a baby right out from under its parents without your mask scent breaking was maddening. I can't recall the number of attempts I made before I was successful. I remember when it happened, I got up and ran away from its suddenly enraged parents shouting, "I got 'im! I got 'im!" I named him Cromwell. Not sure why.

It's hard to not feel a little bit bad-ass with a rancor backing you up.
I started to find my niche as a long range damage dealer while my pets went in to tank and do crowd control. Though I had initially mastered pistols, found I favored rifles (/dump; /headshot3; /scattershot2; /headshot3;). I was never good at pvp, it made me stressed out and I never lasted long since I was built for pve. In pve, I could hold my own pretty well. I had joined the Rebel faction when I started the game, but switched to Imperial before too long. Why? Because the stormtrooper outfits were awesome. And I always had a thing for Darth Vader.

Cue Imperial March. Oh, yeah, that's the stuff.
In 2004 the space expansion was released, adding spaceships and a space zone to each planet. It was pretty cool, with free-roaming space travel and full-on three axis dog fights. There were lots of ships and a whole lot of customizing them to your personal needs. You could even make like a houseboat and live in space if you wanted. I actually got really good at the space combat, gravitating towards small nimble ships like the Jedi Starfighter.

I fear nothing!  Yaaaaaa! ...Okay, I changed my mind.
At the same time I had started up a second account so I could have an alt. You could only have one character per account at the time, something kinda unheard of these days. I made a Mon Calamari bio-engineer/mad scientist/chef named Portabella. I wanted a bio-engineer to compliment my creature handling, since bio-engineers were crafters that sampled dna from animals, blended them together, and created pets with custom stats (and colors!). It was a bit random, so getting exactly what you wanted took a lot of time and luck. Her profile simply read "Back off. I'm a scientist."

I also made her a chef, because cooking is cool. And also extremely profitable if you do it well. She did it well. She was frikkin rich.

Sometimes cooking is sit-down kinda work.

Later on, when they allowed two characters per account, I also made Sugarplum, a Twilek entertainer who changed her skin color to match her outfits, and Chantarelles, an Ithorian droid engineer.

It's Life Day! Open your gifts! Heavily influenced by the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Life Day snow on Tat.
Meanwhile, back at the homestead, I had been appointed guild leader after the first one retired to leave the game. I didn't want that responsibility, but the welfare of the guild was entrusted to me, so I tried to do my best. I can't say I was ever a great guild leader, since I was never good at organizing guild hunts and the like, preferring to leave that up to others. I was more of a pink mascot, I think. But I did try to maintain SUNS as a trustworthy guild with integrity and a good reputation. At our peak we had one of the largest memberships on the server. I don't care to recount all the shit sandwiches I had to eat writing diplomatic messages to strangers and other guilds when one of my guildies purportedly behaved badly and I got complaints in my inbox, in order to keep up good relations. I don't think my guildies ever knew how much of that I had to do, because I never complained publicly. It was stressful. Sometimes I had to kick people out. Very rarely, though. I was quite proud of my guildies, though. Good people.

Twin Suns also became one of the largest cities on the server. It was one of the first cities, and so became one of the oldest surviving original cities. You'd head out of the Mos Eisley, hop in your vehicle, drive past the Eisley cantina and head out the western exit. First you'd pass through the no-build zone populated with low-level yard trash mobs and then through the wall of player houses encircling Eisley. Winding through those, down a slight slope and over some ditches, you'd find yourself in a broad, flat plain with mesas rising up on both sides. A long central boulevard made of gardens lead straight up to city hall. The boulevard was lined with houses, businesses, and merchant tents, along with my cantina and my diner. Home!

Hanging out with my rhoa kwi pack leader.
The wookiee planet Kashyyyk became available in 2005. You couldn't build on it and it wasn't as free-roaming as the other planets, it was more maze like. But Kash did provide some challenging content, some pretty places, and interesting loot! Unfortunately, some of the cooler new animals I wanted weren't available to tame, such as the walluga.

Then came the Combat Upgrade. In 2005, Sony decided to make a big combat re-balancing pass, resulting in some pretty big changes to combat mechanics. It reduced a lot of the complexity and strategy of combat. A lot of people didn't like that, being happy with the way it was. A lot of people left the game. But the rest of us simply adapted and got used to it.

Also, at some point along there, our third mayor retired and I was elected the new mayor of Twin Suns. It was a big honor, but it was even more responsibility than being a guild leader. Keeping the city treasury full, worrying about maintaining the population so that the city borders didn't shrink, granting zoning rights to let people build houses in the city in some kind of orderly fashion, organizing the city militia. I did my best.

City hall decorated for Halloween! That's my stuffed rancor doll in the big seat.
Patrolling the city outskirts - "Excuse me, sir, do you have a license for that bantha?"
Then came the expansion for the lava and volcano planet Mustafar in late 2005. It was pretty cool. Lots of places to explore and some really neat creatures I looked forward to taming. Tons of quests and loot, and a max level increase (up from 70 to 90, I think). Pre-orders got your a regular lava flea mount... but I was one of the first and only creature handlers on my server to level up fast enough to tame a giant lava flea mount!

I named him Fleabane.  Tee hee.
But there was a storm a-brewing. Developed in total secrecy, a complete game overhaul was in the works. It was the New Game Experience.

That about sums it up.
SWG had been competing for players with WOW since that came out in 2004. Well, they were very different games and appealed to a different audience, but a lot of disgruntled players left SWG for WOW after the whole combat upgrade thing. No big shakes. But I guess the Sony suits decided they wanted to try and broaden the audience and attempted to make SWG more like WOW, and had the entire game overhauled in secret... simplified. Shortly after the Mustafar expansion was released, Sony announced the New Game Experience that would be coming in a couple of weeks. Ever after, stories of SWG would be divided between pre-NGE and post-NGE.

In addition to an interface update, no big deal, they re-worked the professions and combat mechanics completely. They were taking out the mix-and-match skill trees and replacing them strictly profession-only skill sets that were all over-balanced. And they were reducing the number of professions from 24 to 10. Creature Handler didn't make the cut. As soon as the update took place, I would lose my pets, along with my entire play style.

I was upset.

Real upset.
I spent that last day with my pets, taking pictures with some of them.

My wee war gronda.
Cromwell at the Dune Sea
My rare kinad Baz Nitch. How he loved to jump!

Fleabane's last ride.
Click your heels with a dancing gaping sider!
It was depressing. Lots more people left the game in droves. To this day the game has overall unfavorable reviews on Amazon as disgruntled players gave it bad reviews as a form of protest, since they weren't being heard by Sony. It was clear that many of the devs knew this was a bad mistake, but Sony stuck with the NGE, refusing to acknowledge any community uproar.

But I pressed on, hoping to adjust. I was used to being a rifleman, a long-distance damage dealer, but that was gone, too. So I went with the Commando class and learned to use area effect heavy weapons. I had an armorsmith make me some good Assault trooper armor to go with it. Wish I had some good pictures of that, I looked pretty cool. I also wish I had pictures of my carefully and meticulously decorated home and shops. Alas! They exist only my memory.

Anyhow, things eventually settled down, though the game population never really recovered. Some time later, they even brought creature handling back as Beast Mastery. Except it was a sub-class now and was never as strong as it used to be. It wasn't quite the same, with no more taming of babies in the wild and pets being made so generic they were almost identical, just with different skins. But at least I was able to have pets again. And I was able to get some previously unattainable pets with some rare dna given as achievement rewards, like this little baby xandank and a kubazza beetle.

There was still fun to be had, after all I stuck with it for five or six more years. Unfortunately I don't have many pictures left from that time. There were loads of events, a really fun trading card game, and I even got into pvp a little. There was Life Day for christmas, the Galactic Moon Festival for Halloween, and even Ewok Love Day for Valentines (Allay loo ta nuv, allay loo ta nuv!).

There were also tons of collections and badges that were introduced. My proudest achievement during that time, or at least the one that took the most effort, was the accumulation of all the beast hunting badges. There were something like over 40 of them, each of which requiring the finding and slaying of hundreds of specific critters, many of them very rare and some of them very hard to beat. Like the one requiring the hunting of 650 krayt dragons, including 75 ancients.

Hanging out with Lubuu, my best pal in the game in the latter years.
I know it's silly to work so hard at such a trivial thing, but this was what I was best at in the game. It was my expertise. I had spent years exploring and hunting by myself in the wilderness, and I knew where to where to look for all the mobs, and how to get the rares to appear. If you were the first person to achieve a badge you'd be registered in game for all to see. It took months, but I got about twelve server firsts for hunting to my name, and was the first one to complete them all. And the reward for completing them all? A vial of dna for the engineering of my long-coveted walluga.

I dyed him pink and named him Precious, because he was. Wish I could show him fully grown. He was cool! And I'm pretty sure he was the first, and one of only a few ever made. I never saw any others.

I played the game for nearly eight years. By 2011 I was burned out a little, most of my old friends had moved on, the game population was shrinking, and it was getting kinda lonely. I didn't log in as often that last year. Sony announced they'd be shutting down all the servers by the end of that year. I didn't log in for the big game ending party. It was just too sad.

The game was pretty buggy at times, and fraught with bad decision making at the top. Still, it was a pretty unique experience, with its complexity and sandboxiness. I've yet to find an MMO that satisfies. I tried the Old Republic MMO that came out right after SWG shut down. It was pretty and had voice acting, but it was a themepark MMO... complete one planet and move on to the next. No socialization, no true crafting, just level up and finish the game, basically. I also played Guild Wars 2 for a while, and it was beautiful, but again, it didn't satisfy for long. It had no place to call home.

I know that there are some SWG emulators that have sprung up, using the old software, and I may try them out some day just to see. I dunno, some things just can't be recaptured. I've also been eyeballing an upcoming sandbox game called The Repopulation that has some promise. We'll see what happens. In the meantime, I think I'll just wait here a spell and watch the twin suns set.

Cue Yoda's Theme.

* Twin Ion Engine  : P