Returning to Star Wars Galaxies for the first time in five and a half years, I couldn’t help but think that all of us launch day veterans stayed in Galaxies for all the right reasons, and then left the game for all the wrong ones.

If we’re going to assign blame for who killed Galaxies, however, the people who fled the NGE in a mass fit of pique might have to accept their rightful share.

There’s nothing unfair in arguing that Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts didn’t understand what made Galaxies special when they released the New Game Enhancements in 2005 and pulled the rug out from under the 200,000 subscribers who had kept the game alive and vibrant. If we’re going to assign blame for who killed Galaxies, however, the people who fled the NGE in a mass fit of pique might have to accept their rightful share.

When Star Wars Galaxies was released in the summer of 2003, I was working a dead-end administrative job at a college in Boston, MA. Planning for the future wasn’t an immediate concern. Working through some serious medical issues was, and I desperately needed a distraction from that struggle. Galaxies fit the bill by providing the most engrossing and complex virtual reality I’d ever experienced.

When I heard the announcement that Sony Online Entertainment would be closing the Galaxies servers down on December 15th of this year, I had to go back. Imagine finding out that your home town, of which you had fond childhood memories, was going to be razed to the ground in six months, with nary a brick or foundation left standing. You might want to go back and take some pictures by which to remember the place. In this case, I wanted some screenshots.

Galaxies has been called a “sandbox” game by critics, but that doesn’t do the game justice. A sandbox is a place where we play; Galaxies was a world where people lived. It was all about community.

The cantinas were always packed because watching Dancers and listening to music provided by Entertainers provided healing and stat bonuses. Everyone needed something to do while the wounds faded and the buffs took effect, so they talked and shared and laughed like you’d expect to find in any popular bar or club out in the real world.

The best way to learn skills was training from other players. Major transportation hubs like starports weren’t a place to breeze through on your way to something better. Lag-inducing knots of characters were omnipresent, with scores of people /shouting out the skills they needed, and social butterflies flitting around the edges of the crowds while they roleplayed.

When player cities went live, they sprung up like weeds. Guilds couldn’t wait to build their private megalopolis, declare residence and start elections for Mayor. Merchants and Craftsmen moved into those player cities and set up shop, providing constant traffic and an endless stream of passers-by.

Out in the real world, I was powerless. Time was the only remedy for what I was going through. Galaxies provided a way to fight the crushing weight of that reality. It was a world where I could take on a new role, make a difference by helping other people, and engage in constant, dynamic changes that shaped an entire community. Where the real world made me feel helpless, Galaxies made me feel empowered. Perhaps my compulsion to go back was about showing respect for a game that had done so much for me.

If there had been dust and cobwebs in the abandoned City Halls and player houses, the experience would have been much less distressing.

The world of Galaxies that I left in late 2005 was not the world I found upon my return to the unofficial roleplaying server of Starsider in mid-2011. I had long since concluded from the news of character transfers and server shutdowns that the game was on life support, but I never expected to find such a shambling corpse of an MMO.

I had been an arch-roleplayer in my time on Starsider, playing the part of an Imperial Intelligence officer, and organizing all the major Imperial guilds for the Galactic Civil War metagame. I used to host events for hundreds of people, sometimes with official support from Sony Online Entertainment. Yet with all the hundreds of personal connections I made in Galaxies, I’ve only seen two people from my friends list online since my return.

The only place I consistently found groups of players was outside the Mos Eisley starport, their avatars more often than not marked as “away from keyboard” and using automated /shout commands to hock wares that won’t even exist in five months.

Going to visit player cities was like being on an archeological dig and finding perfectly preserved communities and wondering who used to live there and what kind of a people they were. If there had been dust and cobwebs in the abandoned City Halls and player houses, the experience would have been much less distressing.

I found my house, a mansion on the planet Naboo, shortly after I logged back on for the first time. Everything was precisely as I’d left it. There were paintings on every wall, an art museum in the main lobby, and a fully decorated bedroom filled with trophies and reminiscences of past adventures. I found the lounge on the second floor decorated with Empire banners and recruitment posters on the walls, where I’d met with countless Imperial guild leaders. That house had been my nerve center, and for a long time, the home that mattered most, and eventually I came to see this state of affairs as a serious problem.

I had taken advantage of the fury over the New Game Enhancements to yank myself out of Galaxies without feeling like I was abandoning it. The medical issues that had inspired losing myself so thoroughly in the game had been addressed, and stripped of any therapeutic justification, my relationship with Galaxies was beginning to feel unhealthy. When the veteran Galaxies players stormed away from the game in anger, I decided it was best to rip the bandage right off, and went with them. Slighted Galaxies players can still pop up and seethe over the NGE in the comments sections of articles dealing with Galaxies or Sony Online Entertainment, but Galaxies players had put up with years of instability prior to the New Game Enhancements.

Jedi in Galaxies had started off as a rare unlock, and could be permanently killed. This was meant to balance out how powerful a Jedi would be compared to all the other character classes. Due to the constant noise from a small but extremely vocal portion of the playerbase who wanted their Jedi, Sony Online Entertainment removed permadeath, and made it easier and easier to unlock Jedi characters, who soon completely dominated Player versus Player combat. They were like the nuclear weapons of Star Wars Galaxies. Whichever side had the most Jedi “won,” but in the end almost everybody lost, because PvP combat stopped being much fun for anyone who wasn’t a Jedi.

Returning to Galaxies renewed my appreciation of the game just enough to wonder if the NGE changes themselves or the mishandling of their implementation finally caused so many veterans to leave the game after years of it being mismanaged.

The changes to the Jedi system took place gradually over two years, but in April of 2005 the Combat Upgrade went live. Galaxies players hadn’t been ambushed by the CU; in fact they had been invited to preview the changes on the Galaxies test server. Even so, the Combat Upgrade was a major shock to the playerbase as it constituted not only a major overhaul to the entirety of the combat mechanics but also changed how armor and experience systems worked, and introduced an entirely new system for rating creature difficulty.

The New Game Enhancements may have felt like the last straw because not only did this patch arrive without fair warning, but was also instituted two weeks after the Trials of Obi-Wan expansion was released. Many players reacted like victims of a bait-and-switch, demanding refunds – which SOE provided – and then immediately cancelling their accounts. Had the NGE been released with warning and at a distance from the new expansion, the wave of anger over the New Game Enhancements might have been prevented, or certainly lessened.

Returning to Galaxies renewed my appreciation of the game just enough to wonder if the NGE changes themselves or the mishandling of their implementation finally caused so many veterans to leave the game after years of it being mismanaged. I wanted to know whether the changes were really worth leaving the game over, and the only way I could attempt to answer that question was to try the Star Wars Galaxies Emulator.

The Emulator is an attempt by a volunteer group of coders to recreate the pre-Combat Upgrade Galaxies by reverse-engineering Sony’s server-side software. It requires an original set of Star Wars Galaxies game discs, and the download and installation of the Emulator software, after which players can step into the past of Star Wars Galaxies.

The Emulator is far from complete. There are only basic vehicles, and no space expansion. There are no player cities, and all of the expansion worlds are missing. What the Emulator does have is tons of players in all the major cities. When I entered the Emulator, I found hordes of people harvesting resources for crafting. Dancers and Musicians were performing in packed-to-the-brim cantinas. Mobs of players were training each other outside major starports. I didn’t take much time to socialize, but rather focused on re-acquainting myself with the original combat and character class systems that had been egregiously altered in the minds of so many Galaxies veterans by the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements.

I still say that the unique skill system in Galaxies was superior to anything we’ve seen in an MMO since, but the original combat system is slow and plodding, predicated on stances and spamming special attacks in a combat queue window. It was assuredly horrible when the New Game Enhancements wiped out character classes that subscribers had spent two years building up, but I kind of see where the developers were going with making the combat more engaging and immediate.

Changes were made to what may have been, in hindsight, the least important aspects of the game.

Perhaps when the Emulator is closer to being finished I’ll spend more time there, but I’ve been more interested in getting to know all the changes to the retail version of Galaxies as it exists in the here and now. The character class Specialization system has brought much of the original variety and customization options back into the game. There’s a lot in the current build of Galaxies that we might have killed for back in the day, like the modern Galactic Civil War system. Launch day veterans complained for years that player-versus-player combat was meaningless, and nowadays Rebels and Imperials can fight over worlds at a granular level.

What’s really important is that even with Jedi proliferating and the Combat Upgrade and the NGE, there are aspects of Galaxies that were never touched by any of these changes to the game. Players can still be Crafters or Entertainers and socialize in cantinas. There’s no player skill training, but plenty of dungeons and instances to inspire groups to form up and stay together. Player cities are still there, and the economy is still fueled by human efforts. All of the pillars that fueled the unique community of Star Wars Galaxies are still there, abandoned like they never meant anything, and all because changes were made to what may have been, in hindsight, the least important aspects of the game.

Galaxies was about a place where everything was made by a human being, not looted off a monster or bought from a merchant. It was about being able to play an MMO without ever lifting a weapon and being just as valuable a member of the community as anyone else. It was about not just playing a game, but shaping a world, and when Sony Online Entertainment shuts down the Star Wars Galaxies servers on December 15, 2011, they’ll be destroying it. Touring the near-empty server of modern-day Starsider, however, I still feel its potential to be alive. While SOE may deliver the deathblow, the veterans who asked for refunds and canceled subscriptions are just as responsible for killing Galaxies. The world it represents didn’t go anywhere. We did.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. If you would like to blame him for killing Star Wars Galaxies, feel free to do so on Twitter @DennisScimeca. He also assigns blame for things on his weekly column First Person for Village Voice Media and blogs at punchingsnakes.com.

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